Earlier this year Princeton University Press launched its new line of books called “Turning Points in Ancient History.” These volumes are written by leading scholars for a general audience, with the dual purpose of being both accessibly readable and possessed of scholarly rigor. The first book in the series is 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed by Eric H. Cline of George Washington University. I’ve been eager to read the book since it came out earlier this year, but it took me a while to get around to it. I’m glad I read the book, but I’m not sure that it entirely succeeded in making the case that 1177 BCE (I’ll use the more neutral dating system) was the specific year civilization collapsed. Even the author seems to think it is a bit of an exaggeration.
Cline’s subject is the collapse of the Bronze Age palace cultures, and he has written extensively on Bronze Age civilization, including some books I have previously read. Many readers will recall his Sailing the Wine Dark Sea (1994/2009) and The Trojan War: A Very Short Introduction (2013), in addition to his numerous scholarly books on the era.
The title of the book comes from the second battle that the Egyptians (under pharaoh Ramses III) fought against the Sea Peoples, which occurred in that year. (The first was in 1207 BCE.) This battle was a “Pyrrhic victory” that Cline says symbolized the end of the power of Bronze Age cultures.
Cline is obviously a deeply read expert whose command of a vast array of material related to the failure of Bronze Age cultures shows through on every page. His account of the Late Bronze Age Aegean world is one of the clearest and most lucid I have ever read. It can be overwhelming to try to keep straight the connections between Mycenaean Greece, Crete, Cyprus, Egypt, Canaan, Ugarit, Assyria, and the Hittite Empire, but Cline makes these ancient cultures’ relationships as transparent as the evidence will allow. He presents well-chosen excerpts from the diplomatic correspondence of the various states’ many rulers, most recovered from Amarna in Egypt, the Pylos and Knossos Linear B tablets in Greece, and the Ugarit texts. This, in turn, goes to support his analysis that the Bronze Age Aegean was a deeply integrated, economically interdependent region that can be compared to the globalization of today. He explains the strengths and weaknesses of relying on any given text (including some early scholars’ errors of interpretation and fact), and he also offers an admirably succinct survey of the archaeological evidence for the end of the Bronze Age across the region.
Earlier generations of scholars attempted to find a single source for the collapse of Bronze Age civilization, often laying blame at the hands of the Sea Peoples, a roving group of raiders whose exact origin and ethnic composition are still not known with any certainty. For Cline, these people were most likely a multi-ethnic group of opportunists taking advantage of an international system that entered into a terminal spiral of decline. Cline reads the collapse a system-wide failure where a combination of natural disasters (earthquakes and drought), external pressures (migration and invasion), internal unrest (possible rebellions), and disruptions to international trade each amplified the effects of the others until the elites could no longer exercise effective control over their kingdoms. The result was a loss of the elites, the collapse of palace culture, and a broad decentralization that led to the abandonment and destruction of former elite centers.
In short, Cline says that while the Sea People may have had a hand in the destruction, “it is much more likely that a concatenation of events, both human and natural – including climate change and drought, seismic disasters known as earthquake storms, internal rebellions, and ‘systems collapse’ – coalesced to create a ‘perfect storm’ that brought this age to an end.”
I agree that this is the most plausible reading for the Bronze Age collapse, but I am not entirely convinced that saving that argument for the last few pages of the book was the most effective way of building a case that civilization collapsed in 1177 BCE. In fact, Cline himself doesn’t seem to believe much in the date at all. He says that he hopes that 1177 BCE will stand alongside 476 CE—the year the Roman Empire supposedly “fell”—as “shorthand” for the end of the age, recognizing that neither date actually marked the literal end of anything, though after 1177, there are no more surviving diplomatic letters between the great powers of the age.
Instead, Cline’s actual evidence points to a relatively quick but still prolonged collapse. The collapse begins around 1250-1225 BCE, picks up steam between 1200-1177 BCE, and goes on as late at 1130 BCE in some regions. It is a short window on a historical time scale, with most of the disaster clustering in a few decades on either side of 1190 BCE, but it isn’t clear that for the people on the ground anything particularly special changed in 1177 that hadn’t been the case when Pylos burned around 1180, or when Ugarit was obliterated a decade earlier. Similarly, almost no Roman alive in 476 CE would have assumed that anything truly significant had changed from 475.
So much for the facts of the book.
In terms of style, Cline is perhaps overly cautious. His book, while extremely clear, is rather bloodless. If you didn’t go into the book with a good idea of the shape and color of each Bronze Age culture, you won’t find it here. There are few evocations of the exotic grandeur of Egypt, or of the cold stony crags of Mycenaean Greece, or of the multiethnic patchwork pantheon of the Hittites. Although dozens upon dozens of individuals are name-checked, almost nothing of their lives or personalities comes through. More space is given to explaining why Percy Shelley used the Greek name “Ozymandias” in his famous poem (because it’s Diodorus’ transliteration of Ramses II’s throne name in Library of History 1.47) than to explaining the concept of the wanax (the supreme overlord of Mycenaean Greeks), whose disappearance is mentioned as a sign of collapse. We aren’t even told that the term survives in Homer, a fossilized piece of the Bronze Age.
More to the point, Cline does little to paint a picture of the fall of individual cities or even whole cultures in what was essentially an apocalypse. The descriptions are clinical rather than evocative, loaded down with qualifications to the point that there is little story. What did it mean for Pylos to burn? How did it affect the people? When Ugarit fell, what does it mean that there were bodies buried in the street? We are exposed to many competing interpretations, but the end result is a bit abstract.
Part of the trouble comes from the dual purpose of the “Turning Points” series: Volumes in it are written with scholarly rigor but meant to be an accessible read for a popular audience. This split purpose keeps Cline from going beyond the most conservative interpretation of the evidence, even at the risk of losing some coherence in the story. In the last chapter particularly—the only one dealing with the actual collapse—the entire chapter is written in the form of a literature review, describing and critiquing earlier scholars’ views rather than telling the story of the collapse from the evidence thus assembled. I can’t imagine that popular readers will know much or anything about the 20, 30, or 50 year old arguments Cline evaluates, or who the scholars proposing them were.
In my eBook copy of 1177 B.C. fully 50% of the book is given over to end notes, which is astonishing by any standard, but also suggests that there was much that could have gone into strengthening and enriching the narrative of the all-too-brief five-chapter main text. The book only took me a few hours to read, and that’s too bad because Cline’s writing is sharp and his subject fascinating; I could easily have read twice as much on the subject.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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