I just mentioned Jabba the Hutt in the academic book I’m writing. At first it was a bit of a joke, something that would never make it through the first edit, but actually, the more I think about it, the more I think it’s helpful. I’m going to drop one of those terrible academic clichés now, so forgive me, but when it comes to the Late Bronze Age Mediterranean, Jabba might actually be Good To Think With. Let me explain.
The Late Bronze Age Mediterranean and Near East were very interconnected. I recently wrote for the CREWS blog about the Amarna letters, one of our finest archives of diplomatic correspondence between courts all over the region and the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten. It’s often entertaining stuff, but it’s also pretty formulaic. There’s a very defined way of doing things. If you’re writing to a fellow king, the first thing you need to know is where you stand in the pecking order. In the Late Bronze Age, there were kings and there were Kings. Your ordinary run-of-the-mill king might run a city-state or a small territory. Above them was another class of superpowers: Egypt, the Hittite Empire, Babylon and a few others. They’re sometimes distinguished as Great Kings, and they often made the other rulers their vassals, puppets or proxies in their ancient game of thrones. Depending on whether you were writing to a ruler of the same station or superior to you, you’d address him as either ‘brother’ or ‘father’. If he was inferior, you’d call him ‘son’. Of course, there was a lot of prestige and cachet attached to these terms of address. Being called ‘brother’ by a great king was a great marker of your own success and international standing. These days, we’re above such things, of course.
Anyway, once you’d addressed your letter, you’d start with a few formalised bits of flattery: seven times and seven times I fall at your feet, that sort of thing; you’d ask how things were going in the other person’s domain, using the opportunity to list all their wealth. How are things with all your wives, all your horses, all your armies (your big, big armies), your chariots? Then you might finally get to the point, which often would be a form of trade. At the level of kings and states, international trade in the Bronze Age took the form of gifts. You’d send your fellow-ruler a ‘greeting-gift’ and either drop some subtle hints, or (often) just outright say what you would like in return. In letters to Egypt, it was usually gold: ‘send me gold, the best quality gold, because everyone knows it’s like dust in your country’. But it could also be people: sometimes wives, sometimes specialist workers under the control of the palace: doctors, sculptors, scribes and so on.
So how does all this relate to Jabba?
In my research at the moment, I’m thinking about the kingdom of Alašiya, which is probably Cyprus or somewhere on it. It’s an odd case in the international scene for several reasons. Firstly, it’s a bit of an outlier both geographically and culturally: while not too far from the Levantine and Anatolian coasts, it’s still off in the sea and, more importantly, wasn’t really part of the Mesopotamian cuneiform world. All these letter-writing conventions came from Mesopotamia and the letters themselves were almost all written in Akkadian cuneiform. Even Egypt, never usually one to make allowances for foreigners, conducted its diplomacy in Akkadian. Cyprus had its own writing tradition – Cypro-Minoan – and apart from its diplomatic letters it doesn’t seem to have used Akkadian, or any of its associated traditions. Cyprus also doesn’t really conform to the palatial template we expect from this region. Sure, the letters talk about a king, but we don’t know where his capital was; there’s no clear ‘capital city’ in Bronze Age Cyprus, and no architectural remains that look much like traditional palaces of the kind seen elsewhere in the region. There’s no sign of central control of trade or craft production – which is such a feature of the Mycenaean palaces. In fact, everything looks rather decentralised, both politically and economically. Scholars sometimes talk about private entrepreneurs or commercial trade in connection with Cyprus in this period, the idea being that Cyprus was a hotbed of a new kind of trade that was bypassing and undermining the old state-controlled trade and diplomatic networks. The reality might be a bit more complex than that, but broadly, I think there’s something in it. But as ever, the boundary between entrepreneurialism and banditry was porous. One of the big questions of the end of the Late Bronze Age is the so-called ‘Sea Peoples’. They’re far too big a topic to get into in detail now, but various texts allude to seaborne raiders and possibly invaders marauding around the East Mediterranean. There are destruction layers and the associated material culture seems to have much in common with that of Cyprus. Traditionally the Sea Peoples have been seen as Aegean invaders and immigrants who took in Cyprus on their way to settle the east, but a more attractive theory is that this might be the flip-side of the kind of trade that Cyprus was all about: freebooting, individualistic, dangerous and perhaps not entirely above-board.
Everyone deals with Alašiya like it’s just another international power, but the rest of the evidence doesn’t really support that. And not just any power, either: Alašiya’s king is a Great King, on the same level as the Pharaoh or the king of the Hittite Empire. How does a small, peripheral, decentralised kingdom count as a world superpower? Because it had something everyone else wanted: the crude oil of its day, that drove the technological and military engines of everyone else. Copper. Copper, combined with tin, makes bronze. Both those metals are rare in the Mediterranean. As the main source of copper for the region, Alašiya was a kingdom punching above its weight.
It’s probably becoming obvious where Jabba fits in.
We use terms like ‘king’ and ‘palace’ which homogenise the ancient world, give it an air of political legitimacy and regal authority. But these terms were probably diplomatic niceties: what counted as a king or a palace likely varied a great deal from place to place, and even the most long-established and legalistic of them were also authoritarian, arbitrary, fundamentally based on cronyism, and without any clear concept of distinction between the ‘state’ and the ruler’s personal property.
There’s a letter from the king of Alašiya that was found at Ugarit. On the back, the scribe – evidently an Ugaritian – adds a personal note asking for some decent furniture to be sent out to him. This seems to be just one of those diplomatic transfers of specialist staff I mentioned earlier: Cyprus had no tradition of Akkadian diplomatic writing so they’d asked for, or been gifted, a scribe from the Syrian city of Ugarit, for whom it wouuld have been a fundamental part of his education.
Thinking about what the ‘court’ of Alašiya might have looked like, what that scribe might have been expecting when he was given to its ‘king’ and how the reality measured up, my mind first went to the line ‘a wretched hive of scum and villainy’, and then to Jabba’s palace. The idea of a ‘legitimate businessman’ and his cronies, ruling not according to the traditional norms of Near Eastern trade and diplomacy but by more decentralised, take-what-you-can-get, possibly piratical code of trade-and-violence fits rather nicely with what we see of Jabba’s dodgy empire. More than that, his home on the outer rim might be a nice analogue for how the core Near Eastern world might have seen Cyprus and the Mediterranean: distant, lawless, barbarian and dangerous (a nice inversion given how the portrayal of Jabba and Tatooine draws on old Orientalist tropes).
So I added an allusion to Jabba to my chapter. A nice bit of colour. Probably won’t make it to the final version, but it’ll make me smile when I find it again in a few months.
Then I watched the scene where C3PO and R2D2 enter Jabba’s palace and I was struck by just how very Bronze Age it all felt. They’re messengers, sent by a noble master. They present a message in which their master presents his titles and drops some fawning flattery to Jabba. He adopts a reasonable tone, addressing this jumped-up gangster as an equal or even a superior to get what he wants, but to sweeten the deal he offers a greeting-gift of two droids. As has often been remarked (and was basically made canon by the recent Solo movie), droids are essentially slaves in the Star Wars universe. As a protocol droid formerly owned by royalty and expert in languages, C3PO is possibly the closest sci-fi analogue to a Bronze Age palace scribe you’re ever likely to meet.
Am I saying the correspondence is exact or that we should watch Return of the Jedi for insights into the Bronze Age East Mediterranean? Of course not. But I do think Jabba’s palace is a good analogy that can help us break through the homogenising effect of terms like ‘king’ and ‘palace’ to think more about what these places might have actually been like and how they might have felt for the people in them. The role of fear, prejudice, similarity and difference, concepts of what legitimate power should be and the experience of being a messenger in someone else’s power-games.
In short, Jabba’s palace is good to think with, and further evidence of how things like science-fiction can give helpful perspectives on well-worn historical discussions. I can’t promise the Jabba reference will stay in the book, but I hope it will. Bronze Age archaeology can always do with a little bit more sci-fi.