I have been reading recently about “Hellenistic Civilization”–that is, the greater Greek cultural zone that began in Greece proper around 700 BC, then radiated to the rest of the Mediterranean and of course, due to Alexander the Great, all the way to India. Aside from the short-lived empire, Greek civilization was rarely unified under a single military or political entity, making it somewhat difficult to talk about. If I refer to the “Roman Empire” you won’t be terribly surprised to find out that I am talking about somewhere in Gaul rather than Rome proper, but if I refer to Archimedes as Greek, you may be surprised to learn that he lived in Sicily. Herodotus lived in what was then the Persian Empire, but is now Turkey. Euclid lived in Egypt, in Alexander’s famous city of Alexandria.
Here is a map that shows some of the important players in the Greek cultural world. Rome is in light blue and Carthage, which was Phoenician, is lavender. (Thewestern Med and Indo-Greek kingdom are not on this map.)
The Greeks first show up in the history books back in the Bronze Age/Homeric era as the marauding “sea peoples” who attacked Egypt/Israel/Troy/etc. They made a splash even then, but might have also helped trigger a dark age, so -1 for bronze age Greek culture.
Greece returned a few hundred years later with the founding of the Greek city states that we all know and love, like Athens and Sparta. The famous Pythagoras was born in 570 BC; by this point, Greek colonies spanned the Mediterranean, from Egypt to Spain. Plato was born a bit later, around 425 BC; his student Aristotle taught Alexander, and Alexander conquered much of the known world.
I think we hear more about Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle because Aristotle was Alexander’s teacher, and Alexander went around founding libraries (among other things). If Eratosthenes had been Alexander’s teacher, those libraries would have held more of Eratosthenes’s books and fewer of Aristotle’s.
I have yet to see any good explanation for why Greece basically exploded around 700-600 BC, burned like a beacon for hundreds of years, and then faded away around the year 600 AD. The soils in Greece proper are not, as far as I know, the greatest: not soils you’d expect to generate a sudden population explosion, though perhaps gradual degradation of the soils lead people to try their luck elsewhere. Nor do I believe anything so simple as “the sunlight is better in Greece.” The decline of the Greek cultural zone can’t be attributed to the Romans, really, since it survived their arrival by a few hundred years.
The first vending machine … when a coin was introduced via a slot on the top of the machine, a set amount of holy water was dispensed. This was included in his list of inventions in his book Mechanics and Optics. When the coin was deposited, it fell upon a pan attached to a lever. The lever opened up a valve which let some water flow out. The pan continued to tilt with the weight of the coin until it fell off, at which point a counter-weight would snap the lever back up and turn off the valve.
A wind-wheel operating an organ, marking the first instance in history of wind powering a machine.
Hero also invented many mechanisms for the Greek theater, including an entirely mechanical play almost ten minutes in length, powered by a binary-like system of ropes, knots, and simple machines operated by a rotating cylindrical cogwheel. The sound of thunder was produced by the mechanically-timed dropping of metal balls onto a hidden drum.
The force pump was widely used in the Roman world, and one application was in a fire-engine.
A syringe-like device was described by Hero to control the delivery of air or liquids.
In optics, Hero formulated the principle of the shortest path of light: If a ray of light propagates from point A to point B within the same medium, the path-length followed is the shortest possible. It was nearly 1000 years later that Alhacen expanded the principle to both reflection and refraction, and the principle was later stated in this form by Pierre de Fermat in 1662; the most modern form is that the optical path is stationary.
A standalone fountain that operates under self-contained hydro-static energy; now called Heron’s fountain.
A programmable cart that was powered by a falling weight. The “program” consisted of strings wrapped around the drive axle.
You are of course familiar with Greek art (particularly sculpture), mathematics, architecture, and philosophy.
The life of Hypatia shows, perhaps, some of the downfall of Greek culture. Hypatia was born around 360 and died in 415 AD. She was a mathematician and professor at the University of Alexandria. One day, she was set upon by an angry mob of Christians (she was a pagan), dragged from her carraige, stripped naked, and brutally murdered. It was a dark day for academic freedom.
On the other hand, Pythagoras and Archimedes were also murdered, and yet civilization continued unabated in those years.
At any rate, it remains a mystery. It’s late, so just go read about Hero of Alexandria. He’s an interesting guy.
Welcome back to our discussion of Legal Systems Very Different From Ours. Sorry for the slight delay; we’ve been recovering from Halloween. Today we’ll be discussing Athenian law.
Athens is famous for being the inspirational democracy, though the extent to which it was actually a democracy is a tad overstated by modern standards–we’re not sure exactly how many people lived in ancient Athens, but the majority of them, probably a supermajority, could not vote. Only male citizens could vote; the population also contained, (aside from women) a large number of “resident aliens” who were free, but not citizens, and plenty of slaves.
Only the child of two current citizens was a citizen, and it was rare for foreigners to be awarded citizenship. Men often had one regular wife, who was a citizen and whose children would therefore enjoy the rights of citizenship, and a concubine or two who were aliens or slaves and whose children, likewise, would be aliens or slaves.
The obvious issue with this system is that the non-citizen population is likely to grow faster than the citizen population, but citizenship carries with it too many benefits to be given away lightly.
The less obvious issue is that people often fell in love with people from other social castes and wanted them for primary spouses, not secondary spouses. This theme shows up a lot in Greek plays, in which star-crossed lovers from across social castes face doom until, at the climax, it’s revealed that there was a mix-up at one of their births and the beloved is actually an Athenian citizen and the marriage can go forward. (Or at least this is a major plot point in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, an American play of the 1960s.)
The benefits of being a male Athenian citizen included the right to marry another Athenian citizen, vote in the assembly (Athens was a direct democracy, not a representative one,) serve on a jury, (juries were huge, often 200 to 500 people,) serve as a magistrate, be a paid arbiter, and own property.
Resident aliens (called “metics”) were not slaves, but generally couldn’t participate in the government or own land They could prosecute some legal cases and had to have a citizen “sponsor.” Exceptions existed.
Slaves were, well, slaves. Slavery sucked.
Debt slavery was abolished as part of the reforms of Solon about two hundred years before the start of the period being discussed, so most slaves were either prisoners taken in war or the descendants of such. … A slave’s owner could sue to collect damages for an injury to his slave and could be sued for damages done by his slave. He was not free to kill his slave but was free to beat him.
One wonders who would bother to prosecute the case of a slave who died under mysterious circumstances whose owner claims he didn’t kill him.
Slaves worked the typical gamut of jobs, from servant to farm laborers to silver miners.
It occurs to me that we tend to read about ancient Athens through people who generally held it in high regard; we don’t have many of the original legal documents from the Athenian legal system (we have, however, various speeches that people gave arguing their court cases, which often contained descriptions of relevant laws,) or much in the way of records made by Athenian non-citizens; I can’t recall even having read anything written by a Spartan, who might offer a countering opinion on the quality of Athenian government. Imagine if we were in a similar position with respect to the US–the US fell, most of our texts were destroyed, a Dark Age ensued, and a thousand years later, people began digging up American artifacts and decided the US must have been a pretty happening place; people began learning Ancient English and reading American novels and philosophers in school. Now another thousand years pass, and you’re trying to piece together the American legal system from old Perry Mason episodes and a thousand years of scholarship… and we would have about the situation we now have with ancient Athens.
[This ends our customary disclaimer about the difficulties of understanding a two thousand+ year old legal system with very few surviving primary source documents.]
Jury trials must have taken up a lot of Athenian time:
Each year, 6,000 jurors were selected by lot from those who volunteered; the only qualification was being a male citizen and at least 30 years old. … If we accept an estimate of 30,000 for the total number of adult male citizens, at any one time about a fifth of them were on the jury panel.
These cases had between 200-500 jurors each; Athenians must have loved trials (which is probably why they went to the effort of getting professional speech writers to compose their legal orations, some of which were popular enough to be preserved down to the present day).
Witnesses gave their testimony in writing in advance; during the trial, their only contribution was to confirm that it was indeed theirs.
This implies that a lot of people were literate–or else there were scribes for the purpose. Either way, Athenian society clearly was pretty literate, which always prompts the question: why? We can’t credit the state of things at this point for having created themselves, so what did cause the flourishing of Athenian learning and culture?
The testimony of slaves, however, sounds pretty awful:
The evidence of slaves was admissible only if given under torture and only if the owner permitted it.
The Athenians had public and private cases; any male citizen could prosecute a private case, and for many cases the prosecutor received a large fraction of the resulting fine, providing an incentive for ordinary citizens to take on cases–but to protect against malicious prosecution, if a fifth of jurors failed to vote for him, he could be fined and barred from bringing future suits.
We worry about police planting drugs on a suspect in the process of search; the Athenians worried about a private party planting his own property on someone in order to accuse him of stealing it. They had a simple solution. The accuser was allowed to sear the house where he suspected his stolen property was hidden. But he had to do it naked.
The Athenians believed in a kind of contagious ritual pollution called miasma. The threat of contagion meant that murderers had to be exiled or kept out of the courts and temples:
In one case we know of, a defendant charged with murder claimed that the only reason for the charge was to keep him from showing up in another court to prosecute a different case.
Belief in miasma also resulted in the objects used in murders being ritually exiled.
So they destroyed the clacker balls because children could hit themselves with them.
There are then some rules of family life/inheritance which are pretty standard fare. Adoption was legal, but like becoming a citizen, seems a bit onerous. Only males could inherit property, but were required to support the surviving womenfolk of the family.
If a man died with a daughter but no male descendants she would be required to marry the nearest male relative, outside of the narrow limits of the incest rules, who would have her.
Okay, that seems kind of bad for the children, but not too awful…
If already married she was required to divorce her husband.
What? This makes marrying a gal who has no brothers an awfully bad deal!
Finally, the authors examine the production of “public goods”, which were simply assigned every so often to local rich people:
If you were one of the richest Athenians, every two years you were obliged to produce a public good. The relevant magistrate would tell you which one.
It seems like a system that, despite its obvious flaws, worked pretty well so long as the population of Athens stayed small enough.
What did you think? Thankfully ancient Greece is a very well-studied place, so hopefully some of you are experts on the era and have some great insights to share.
When I started researching Judaism, the first thing I learned was that I didn’t know anything about Judaism. It turns out that Judaism-in-the-Bible (the one I was familiar with) and modern Judaism are pretty different.
I discussed several ideas gleaned from this book in my prior post on Talmudism and the Constitution. Visotzky’s thesis is basically that Roman culture (really, Greco-Roman culture) was the dominant culture in the area when the Second Temple fell, and thus was uniquely influential on the development of early Rabbinic Judaism.
Just to recap: Prior to 70 AD, Judaism was located primarily in its homeland of Judea, a Roman province. It was primarily a temple cult–people periodically brought sacrifices to the priests, the priests sacrificed them, and the people went home. There were occasional prophets, but there were no rabbis (though there were pharisees, who were similar.) The people also practiced something we’ll call for simplicity’s sake folk Judaism, passed down culturally and not always explicitly laid out in the Mosaic Law. (This is a simplification; see the prior post for more details.)
Then there were some big rebellions, which the Romans crushed. They razed the Temple (save for the Western Wall) and eventually drove many of the Jews into exile.
It was in this Greco-Roman cultural environment, Visotzky argues, that then-unpracticeable Temple Judaism was transformed into Rabbinic Judaism.
Visotzky marshals his arguments: Jewish catacombs in Rome, Talmudic stories that reference Greek or Roman figures, Greek fables that show up in Jewish collections, Greek and Roman words that appear in Jewish texts, Greco-Roman style art in synagogues (including a mosaic of Zeus!), the model of the rabbi + his students as similar to the philosopher and his students (eg, Socrates and Plato,) Jewish education as modeled on Greek rhetorical education, and the Passover Seder as a Greek symposium.
Allow me to quote Visotzky on the latter:
The recipe for a successful symposium starts, of course, with wine. At least three cups, preferably more, and ideally you would need between three and five famous guests. Macrobius describes a symposium at which he imagined all the guests drinking together, even though some were already long dead. They eat hors d’oeuvers, which they dip into a briny sauce. Their appetite is whetted by sharp vegetables, radishes, or romaine lettuce. The Greek word for these veggies is karpos. Each food is used as a prompt to dig through one’s memory to find apposite bookish quotes about it. … Above all, guests at a symposium loved to quote Home, the divine Homer. …
To kick off a symposium, a libation was poured to Bacchus Then the dinner guests took their places reclining on pillows, leaning on their left arms, and using their right hands to eat. Of course, they washed their fingers before eating their Mediterranean flatbreads, scooping up meats and poultry–no forks back then.
Athenaeus records a debate about desert, a sweet paste of fruit, wine, and spices. Many think it a nice digestive, but Athenaeus quotes Heracleides of Tarentum, who argues that such a lovely dish ought to be the appetizer, eaten at the outside of the meal. After the sumptuous meal and the endless quotation of texts… the symposium diners sang their hymns of thanksgiving to the gods. …
All of this should seem suspiciously familiar to anyone who has ever attended a Passover Seder. The traditional Seder begins with a cup of wine, and blessings to God are intoned. Then hands are washed in preparation for eating the dipped vegetables, called karpos, the Greek word faithfully transliterated int Hebrew in the Passover Haggadah. Like the symposiasts, Jews dip in brine. The traditional Haggadah recalls who was there at the earliest Seders: Rabbi Eliezer … Rabbi Aqiba, and Rabbi Tarphon (a Hebraized version of the Greek name Tryphon). The converation is prompted by noting the foods that are served and by asking questions whose answers quote sacred scripture. …
Traditionally the Passover banquet is eaten leaning on the left side, on pillows. Appetites are whetted by bitter herbs and then sweetened by the paste-like Haroset (following the opinion of Heracleides of Tarentum?) Seder participants even scoop up food in flatbread. Following the Passover meal there are hymns to God.
Vigotzsky relates one major difference between the Greek and Jewish version: the Greeks ended their symposiums with a “descent into debauchery,” announced api komias–to the comedians! Jews did not:
Indeed, the Mishnah instructs, “We do not end the meal after eating the paschal lamb by departing api komias.” That final phrase, thanks to the Talmud of Jewish Babylonia, where they did not know Greek, has come to be Hebraized as “afi-komen,” the hidden piece of matzo eaten for desert.
The one really important piece of data that he leaves out–perhaps he hasn’t heard the news–is the finding that Ashkenazi Jews are genetically about half Italian. This Italian DNA is primarily on their maternal side–that is, Jewish men, expelled from Judea, ended up in Rome and took local wives. (Incidentally, Visotzky also claims that the tradition of tracing Jewish ancestry along the maternal line instead of the paternal was adopted from the Romans, as it isn’t found in the Bible, but is in Rome.) These Italian ladies didn’t leave behind many stories in the Talmud, but surely they had some effect on the religion.
On the other hand, what about Jews in areas later controlled by Islam, like Maimonides? Was Rome a major influence on him, too? What about the Babylonian Talmud, written more or less in what is now Iraq?
Modern Christianity owes a great deal to Greece and Rome. Should modern Judaism be understood in the Greco-Roman lens, as well?
“I went to one who had the reputation of wisdom … When I began to talk with him, I could not help thinking that he was not really wise, although he was thought wise by many, and wiser still by himself … So I left him, saying to myself, as I went away: Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is – for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know.”
Even a critic as skeptical as Edward Said, having succumbed to the temptation of university, academic employment, could not tear down the master’s house with the master’s tools: what hope have you?
At pater infelix, nec iam pater, “Icare,” dixit,
“Icare,” dixit “ubi es? qua te regione requiram?”
You may focus on the parts of antiquity that weren’t white men–
And I shall read Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Plato, Herodotus, Sophocles, Plutarch and Horace because they are spectacular
Because you think it despicable to inspire “the foundation of Western civilization and culture”–
Greek gods threw a party and forgot to invite the goddess of Discord.
Volcanic eruption => famines => migration.
Chariots, iron, and swords that hack.
I. Love and War
We are all familiar, of course, with the Homeric (and Vergilian) version of the Greek assault on Troy. Though Homer does not actually detail the war’s initial causes, nor its end, these parts of the tale are famous enough in their own right.
[Oh goodness, I just realized that I am assuming that everyone knows the story of the Trojan War. Let me know in the comments how much of the story you’re familiar with. :)]
By the time Homer composed his epics, the assault on Troy had fallen into the realm of legend; for the next 3,000 years, myths of the “golden age” of the late Greek Bronze Age dominated European art and culture.
In the twentieth century scholars have attempted to draw conclusions based on Hittite and Egyptian texts that date to the time of the Trojan War. … Hittite archives, like the Tawagalawa letter mention of a kingdom of Ahhiyawa (Achaea, or Greece) that lies beyond the sea (that would be the Aegean) and controls Milliwanda, which is identified with Miletus. Also mentioned in this and other letters is the Assuwa confederation made of 22 cities and countries which included the city of Wilusa (Ilios or Ilium). The Milawata letter implies this city lies on the north of the Assuwa confederation, beyond the Seha river. While the identification of Wilusa with Ilium (that is, Troy) is always controversial, in the 1990s it gained majority acceptance. In the Alaksandu treaty (ca. 1280 BC) the king of the city is named Alaksandu, and Paris’s name in the Iliad (among other works) is Alexander. The Tawagalawa letter (dated ca. 1250 BC) which is addressed to the king of Ahhiyawa actually says:
Now as we have come to an agreement on Wilusa over which we went to war…
Formerly under the Hittites, the Assuwa confederation defected after the battle of Kadesh between Egypt and the Hittites (ca. 1274 BC). In 1230 BC Hittite king Tudhaliya IV (ca. 1240–1210 BC) campaigned against this federation. Under Arnuwanda III (ca. 1210–1205 BC) the Hittites were forced to abandon the lands they controlled in the coast of the Aegean. It is possible that the Trojan War was a conflict between the king of Ahhiyawa and the Assuwa confederation. This view has been supported in that the entire war includes the landing in Mysia (and Telephus’ wounding), Achilles’s campaigns in the North Aegean and Telamonian Ajax’s campaigns in Thrace and Phrygia. Most of these regions were part of Assuwa. It has also been noted that there is great similarity between the names of the Sea Peoples, which at that time were raiding Egypt, as they are listed by Ramesses III and Merneptah, and of the allies of the Trojans.
Now someone needs to find a reference to Helen.
That said, the historical sack of Troy was a much smaller even than Homer recounts, and is certainly inadequate to explain the large-scale collapse that consumed the entire region (and possibly a good chunk of northern Europe, as well.
For that matter, the Greeks themselves were invaded and their own cities were sacked. Historians attribute this to the Dorians, a Greek-speaking tribe that invaded from somewhere up north. As Carl Blegen wrote:
“the telltale track of the Dorians must be recognized in the fire-scarred ruins of all the great palaces and the more important towns which … were blotted out at the end of Mycenaean IIIB.”
But archaeology isn’t always easy, and it isn’t totally clear that the Dorians actually existed:
“It has of late become an acknowledged scandal that the Dorians, archaeologically speaking, do not exist. That is, there is no cultural trait surviving in the material record for the two centuries or so after 1200 which can be regarded as a peculiarly Dorian hallmark. Robbed of their patents for Geometric pottery, cremation burial, iron-working and, the unkindest prick of all, the humble straight pin, the hapless Dorians stand naked before their creator – or, some would say, inventor.” — Cartledge
Somebody burned a bunch of Greek cities. We’re just not exactly sure who (or why.)
II. Farewell, Atlantis
One of the largest volcanic explosions in the past few thousand years happened round about 1500 BC on the island of Thera (aka Santorini) in the Mediterranean (potentially ejecting 4 times more material than Krakatoa.)
Unfortunately, we’re not sure exactly when Thera blew its top:
Archaeologists have traditionally placed it at approximately 1500 BCE. Radiocarbon dates, including analysis of an olive branch buried beneath a lava flow from the volcano which gave a date between 1627 BCE and 1600 BCE (95% confidence interval), suggest an eruption date more than a century earlier than suggested by archaeologists. …
In 2012 one of the proponents of an archaeological date, Felix Höflmayer, argued that archaeological evidence could be consistent with a date as early as 1590 BCE, reducing the discrepancy to around fifty years. …
At Tell el Dab’a in Egypt, pumice found at this location has been dated to 1540 BCE… . Tree-ring data has shown that a large event interfering with normal tree growth in North America occurred during 1629–1628 (+-65 years) BCE. Evidence of a climatic event around 1628 BCE has been found in studies of growth depression of European oaks in Ireland and of Scotch pines in Sweden. …
A volcanic winter from an eruption in the late 17th century BCE has been claimed by some researchers to correlate with entries in Chinese records documenting the collapse of the Xia dynasty in China. According to the Bamboo Annals, the collapse of the dynasty and the rise of the Shang dynasty, approximately dated to 1618 BCE, were accompanied by “yellow fog, a dim sun, then three suns, frost in July, famine, and the withering of all five cereals”.
The downside to the Thera Theory is that even if we use the latest dates, it’s still too early–by 2 or 300 years–to explain the Bronze Age Collapse. Widespread famines in some far-off place certainly could have triggered migrations that, three hundred years later, ended in the Mediterranean, but it seems more likely that widespread famines would have caused immediate collapse in the area right around the volcano.
Thera might have inspired Atlantis and certainly caused some destruction on Crete, but I think it’s a stretch to blame it for events some 2-400 years later. Unless someone comes up with a bunch of evidence for a more recent eruption, I think it’s an unlikely cause.
III. Faster, Cheaper, Better: a revolution in military technology
Three new military technologies “diffuse” through Europe right around the time of the Battle of Tollense and the Dorian Invasion: spoked-wheeled chariots, true swords, and cheap iron.
Chariots were invented out on the vast Eurasian plain around 2,000 BC, which sounds like a recipe for invasion if I ever heard one. They arrived in Anatolia and Egypt around 1500 BC, but didn’t make it to Greece and Germany until 1300 BC–just in time for an invading army to sweep through the Tollense valley or into Greece, driving a wave of displaced folks into the sea and across to Egypt.
Were any chariots found in conjunction with the Tollense battlefield, or in local burials of the time?
Swords, I was amazed to discover, were invented around 1600 BC in the Aegean. Before the Bronze Age, people just didn’t have materials suitable for making long blades and had to content themselves with daggers or clubs. (Sometimes clubs studded with daggers.) A new variety of sword, the Naue II, appears around 1200 BC and quickly spreads around the Mediterranean–just in time for the collapse.
Early iron was, ironically, inferior to bronze. Steel will hold an excellent age, but primitive iron working did not, and early iron swords were inferior to bronze ones. But iron had several advantages over bronze: it was cheaper, required less fuel to work, and didn’t have to be mixed with tin imported from hundreds or thousands of miles away.
Robert Drews argues that the appearance of massed infantry, using newly developed weapons and armor, such as cast rather than forged spearheads and long swords, a revolutionizing cut-and-thrust weapon, and javelins. The appearance of bronze foundries suggests “that mass production of bronze artifacts was suddenly important in the Aegean”. For example, Homer uses “spears” as a virtual synonym for “warriors”.
Such new weaponry, in the hands of large numbers of “running skirmishers” who could swarm and cut down a chariot army and would destabilize states based upon the use of chariots by the ruling class and precipitate an abrupt social collapse as raiders began to conquer, loot and burn cities.
In the days of Atys, the son of Manes, there was a great scarcity through the whole land of Lydia … So the king determined to divide the nation in half … the one to stay, the other to leave the land. … the emigrants should have his son Tyrrhenus for their leader … they went down to Smyrna, and built themselves ships … after sailing past many countries they came to Umbria … and called themselves … Tyrrhenians.
Connections to the Teresh of the Merneptah Stele, which also mentions shipments of grain to the Hittite Empire to relieve famine, are logically unavoidable. Many have made them, generally proposing a coalition of seagoing migrants from Anatolia and the islands seeking relief from scarcity. Tablet RS 18.38 from Ugarit also mentions grain to the Hittites, suggesting a long period of famine, connected further, in the full theory, to drought. Barry Weiss, using the Palmer Drought Index for 35 Greek, Turkish, and Middle Eastern weather stations, showed that a drought of the kinds that persisted from January 1972 would have affected all of the sites associated with the Late Bronze Age collapse.
Anatolia appears to have been fairly hard-hit by the collapse, with many cities completely abandoned and some regions not regaining their former levels of complexity for a thousand years.
Alternatively, (or relatedly,) I’ve seen it suggested (though I don’t remember where) that deforestation caused by burning trees to make charcoal in order to forge bronze weapons had advanced to a point where the locals just ran out of trees. (See: Easter Island.) No trees=no cooking, no building, no ships, no chariots, no forging, pretty much nothing. (This, in turn, could have spurred the adoption of inferior but easier to make iron weapons.)
Famine in Anatolia or deforestation in parts of the Middle East would be unlikely, however, to have much effect on Tollense. (Of course, the Tollense battle may be no more than a coincidence.)
Systems collapse is what it sounds like: the theory that the systems just got too big, too unwieldy, and could no longer respond adequately to stresses like broken trade routes, famines, invasions, massive military spending, social unrest, deforestation, migration, etc., and so the system crumbled. I admit that this is a kind of “all of the above” (except for maybe the volcano.)
At any rate, whatever caused the collapse, it happened. The Dark Ages reigned, then the world recovered. The Greeks and then the Romans ruled; then Rome collapsed and the Dark Ages returned.