- 1177 bc: The Year Civilization Collapsed: Turning Points in Ancient History by Eric H. Cline
The renewed interest in societal collapse—evidenced by this book, as well as by others, especially Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005)—is, no doubt, tied to recent developments: concerns over climate change, overpopulation, and economic instability.1 Can the study of past collapses prove instructive today? That is one of the questions posed by Eric Cline’s new book, which focuses on the disruptions to the Late Bronze Age civilizations of the eastern Mediterranean. As the title (and price) may suggest, this book is aimed at a wide audience. It is written in a lively and approachable style that makes it accessible to the general public, but it is equally useful to classicists and historians who would like to be brought up to date on the latest thinking in the field, for Cline’s discussion is balanced, knowledgeable, and contemporary, and unlike some books aimed at the public, it has extensive endnotes that point the reader to the most recent academic discussions.
Cline is the right person for the job. For the past 25 years, he has been one of the leading experts in the Late Bronze Age generally and in the study of international exchange within it specifically. Certainly, the end of the Late Bronze Age is an important turning point in the history of the Mediterranean and, indeed, of the ancient world and one that cannot be understood by looking only at, say, Egypt, or the Greek mainland. This is so because the world of the Late Bronze Age was highly interconnected and international. It was a sphere of sustained, complex interactions between the Aegean, [End Page 153] Anatolia, Mesopotamia, the Levantine coast, Cyprus, and Egypt. The study of the Late Bronze Age collapse also requires historical context, which Cline amply provides. Indeed, the reader must wait for the fourth of five chapters before Cline describes the collapse itself in any detail. However, the wait is hardly boring for in these pages Cline expertly and briskly takes the reader through the power politics of the fifteenth, fourteenth, and thirteenth centuries bc with excursuses on important archaeological discoveries and introductions for each of the major players. No reader with a pulse could fail to be captivated by the details: royal weddings, rebellions, invasions, and wrecks of ships loaded with precious cargoes. Cline then guides the reader through the archaeological evidence of the destruction at the beginning of the twelfth century bc from Anatolia and Greece to Mesopotamia, Cyprus, and the Levant, before diagnosing the causes of the collapse.
So what caused the collapse? No one thing, according to Cline. Although the so-called Sea Peoples are invoked early in the book as a potential primary factor for the collapse—it is their second invasion of Egypt in 1177 bc that gives the book its title—Cline rightly downplays the likelihood that the collapse can be solely, or even largely, attributed to them. There is mounting evidence, however, for natural disasters (earthquakes, drought, and climate change), external troubles (invaders), and the disruption of international trade, due to external or internal factors, all of which is surveyed by Cline. As he points out, however, none of these on its own can plausibly explain the collapse. He therefore concludes, reasonably, that a combination of these factors created a “perfect storm” that resulted in a complex cascading effect, culminating in a widespread collapse. There was no single causal chain of events (for example, drought engenders invaders, thereby provoking the disruption of trade, economic crises, and internal political collapse), but following the principles of complexity theory, Cline suggests that a variety of stressors interacted in intricate and unpredictable ways. The problem with the collapse of the Late Bronze Age world, as Cline knows well, is the fact that we have many different patients and many different symptoms. In the past, scholars have sought to identify a single cause at work, which...