- 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed by Eric H. Cline
The end of the Late Bronze Age, around the turn of the twelfth century bce, was a civilizational collapse similar to the much better known fall of the Roman Empire seventeen centuries later. Throughout the eastern Mediterranean, great empires such as the Hittites in Turkey, the Mycenaeans in mainland Greece — the supposed protagonists of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, written centuries later — and even the ancient and venerable Egyptians were shaken to the core, faced with invasions, unrest, and in many places the violent destruction of palaces and cities. In the aftermath of these upheavals, which were concentrated in a relatively short span of time, by nearly every measure civilization declined, not to re-emerge in most regions for centuries. The causes of this collapse have been among the enduring mysteries of ancient history and archaeology, a complicated detective story for which Eric Cline deftly serves as guide. Cline — a noted archaeologist and professor at George Washington University — presents for educated general readers a survey of the evidence and scholarship concerning the end of the Late Bronze Age. He also engagingly establishes the historical and geographical context of the collapse, complete with a motley and compelling cast of characters.
The hard date in the title of the book is taken from the Egyptian pharaoh Ramses III’s account of a battle against a group he called the Sea Peoples in 1177. For decades, the Sea Peoples, a poorly understood conglomeration of various migratory groups, were blamed for the destruction wreaked across the eastern Mediterranean. Cline immediately establishes several clear parallels between Ramses’ world and our own, and then suggests that the Sea Peoples have been unfairly blamed for a complicated and interconnected group of destabilizing factors of which they might have been more victim than cause. Given that the manuscript was completed in 2013, before the full emergence of the current refugee and migrant crisis facing Europe, Cline’s thoughts cautioning against blaming a single group for complex problems seems remarkably prescient. Cline makes a convincing case for the relevance of ancient history to the modern world. [End Page 350]
Before offering a full discussion of the twelfth century bce, Cline first goes back several hundred years to the fifteenth, at which point a complex international system began to emerge, complete with trade, gift-exchange, and even intermarriage. In individual chapters on the centuries between the fifteenth and twelfth, the kings, queens, and nations involved are many and intertwined, from the Egyptians to the Minoans, and from Hatti to Ugarit. The reader is directed to a helpful dramatis personae section in the appendix. In case anyone wonders whether there is anything new to be said about a world so ancient, in every chapter of the book one learns of new excavations, advances in dating techniques, and even the application of fossil pollen analysis, all of which has changed the scholarly picture of the Bronze Age immeasurably. At every step of the way, Cline details how and why we know what we know, or think we know, including several fascinating accounts of chance discoveries and the pioneers of underwater archaeology. As such, this book is particularly useful to the newcomer to the Late Bronze Age.
So, what did cause the Late Bronze Age collapse? Cline argues for a ‘‘perfect storm of calamities.’’ Over the decades, scholars have proposed single causes including earthquakes, climate change, internal unrest, collapse of trade networks, and yes, the Sea Peoples. While there is good evidence to suggest the importance of all of these factors, Cline argues that no one of them can account for everything. For example, the collapse of the Late Bronze Age world took several decades, as much as a century, and the experience was not the same for everyone. Some cities were violently destroyed, either by earthquakes or invaders, while others were simply abandoned. Some places, in fact, continued to be occupied and enjoy a measure of prosperity. Cline argues that we should consider...