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.
7/18/2014 06:36:56 am
These sorts of series are the newest ancient history trend, and there are a number of similar ones being produced. Before that were historical companions (like the Blackwell and Oxford series), edited volumes (collections of related articles), literary companions (like Oakley's Companion to Livy), encyclopedias (the Oxford Classical Dictionary being the big one), and of course the Cambridge Ancient History. It is an attempt to synthesize a very diverse field as well as part of the process to innovate and stay published. It helps younger scholars in particular, but can also flood things with too many articles and books that few will ever see. In a few years, such collections will become less common in favor of the newer thing.
7/18/2014 07:15:57 am
Jason, does Cline express any views about why the Assyrians did not experience anything like the collapse of the other great powers of the late Bronze Age?
7/18/2014 07:28:21 am
Sorry to jump in, but Assyria was most definitely affected just as much as the rest of the region. The kingdom contracted to the area around Assur, the royal dynasty barely survived, and it took about three centuries to recover. An Assyrian inscription says that “a famine (so severe) occurred (that) [peop]le ate one another’s flesh.”. Good times.
7/18/2014 07:36:58 am
Indeed. Cline actually discusses the collapse of Babylon and the contraction of Assyria and explains that some of the collapse is masked by the Neo-Babylonians and Neo-Assyrians who followed and preserved some of what came before.
7/24/2014 07:28:33 pm
Jason, in light of something sad + bad hitting the eastern
7/18/2014 07:56:22 am
I didn't say they weren't affected. Of course they were. The question is whether they can be said to have collapsed in the same sense in which the other major powers collapsed. If, as Jason seems to suggest, Cline's view is that that continuity is at least partly illusory, that's interesting...
7/18/2014 08:10:28 am
Assyria is rather peripheral to his book, frankly. Most of the attention is divided among Ugarit, the Hittites, Mycenaean Greece, and Egypt. Other cultures, including Cyprus, Crete, Assyria, and the western Mediterranean, are discussed much less. He is more detailed on the illusory nature of some of the continuity between the Hittites and the Neo-Hittites.
7/18/2014 07:48:56 am
The Ancient Dark Ages idea is just a myth to explains some of the massive hole sin Conventional Chronology. Follow my Homepage link to learn about my views on Ancient Chronology.
7/18/2014 08:55:09 am
When you're constantly agreeing with and supporting Velikovsky's ideas, then they're not really your views, are they?
7/18/2014 08:57:36 am
And all the cool kids these days are into Morozov's new chronology anyway. Velikovsky is so 1953 :)
7/18/2014 09:57:44 am
Hey, there's lot worse than Velikovsky (we all know that)
7/18/2014 10:17:56 am
I believe he made mistakes I'm attempting to correct, which come it in various articles there. However the basic Pillars I believe fit best with his model, especially Tuthmosis III as Shishak. However I do like Rohls' theories on Enmerkar and Eridu, which I've also talked about there.
7/18/2014 11:09:17 am
Morozov thinks Shishak was a Biblical dinosaur, of course! :)
7/19/2014 02:33:01 am
Tuthmosis III lived in the 15th century BCE. Shishak attacked Judah in the late 10th century BCE. How could they possibly be the same person?
7/18/2014 10:20:11 am
I'm with Mithrandir on this one. Some time back Jason refuted (justifiably, I believe) Heinsohn's "Phantom Time" hypothesis. But the so-called 'Dark Age of Greece' following a systemic collapse of civilization in the Bronze Age is almost as farcical, and something I'm extremely skeptical about. After 300 to 450 years of nothing -- writing forgotten, no signs of habitation -- suddenly everything starts again? All because no-one can otherwise explain the Greek pottery found in Akhetaten (el-Amarna)? I don't believe Velikovsky was correct in everything he wrote or surmised. For that matter, I don't agree with some of Mithrandir's ideas. But Velikovsky was correct: ancient chronology is a mess. And while there are those who mock him, probably because of his 'Worlds in Collision' hypotheses, it is likely that very few who do so these days have actually read his works on ancient history. I wish Jason would devote more time and space to this -- to me it would be far more rewarding than his shooting at lots of dumb fish crammed into a very small barrel -- but it's his blog, so he calls the tune.
7/18/2014 10:32:29 am
Way out, man...
7/18/2014 03:40:14 pm
I like a lot of material on SpeicaltyInterests, but they also have absurd theories that I can't endorse. So it's a mixed bag.
7/18/2014 11:21:57 am
"no-one can otherwise explain the Greek pottery found in Akhetaten"
7/18/2014 01:52:45 pm
I agree with EP's confusion. Akhetaten was abandoned in the late 14th century, a century before the Bronze Age collapse. How is it confusing that there is Mycenaean pottery found there? It is well established that the Egyptians traded with the Mycenaeans and Minoans.
7/18/2014 04:12:51 pm
My confusion mostly stems from not being able to identify which crackpot theory is being referred to....
7/18/2014 11:32:04 am
I fail to understand why the Greek Dark Age would be farcical. The Mycenaean palaces collapsed, and with them elite culture. Among the casualties wasn't just Linear B writing (used almost exclusively by the elite for business records), but also palace architecture, at least half the pantheon of gods, and international trade. In the case of Iolkos, the Mycenaean city was abandoned and a new city was founded nearby. The radiocarbon dating on this is very clear, and confirmed by pottery analysis, existing Hittite and Egyptian records, and dendrochronology.
7/18/2014 12:16:50 pm
The holes in the model remain ridiculous however, especially with plenty of ignored archeological evidence between Mycenaean and Classical element.
7/18/2014 01:03:13 pm
Who ignores early Archaic Greek archeology? I don't even want to remember those lectures on proto-Geometric pottery. There is a great deal of scholarly work on the period. Of course there are difficulties due to the lack of evidence; that's what happens when the political structure collapses combined with social upheaval.
7/18/2014 01:24:04 pm
This thread is very depressing.
7/18/2014 03:17:44 pm
"This thread is very depressing."
7/24/2014 08:40:29 pm
Jason, if Constantine the Great created feudalism and
7/18/2014 10:23:36 am
Glad to read your review. I have had this on my wish list for a few months.
7/21/2014 01:19:51 am
7/24/2014 06:36:23 pm
the PBS video link is near the . click on the green arrow...
. (small typo)
7/24/2014 07:07:59 pm
scholars = scholars
7/24/2014 07:12:54 pm
the Silver Pharaoh rules for almost 50 years
7/24/2014 07:41:15 pm
RAMSES THE GREAT HAD A SON...
7/24/2014 07:52:59 pm
the biggest CYPHER in Manetho's list after TUT + AY is the
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