As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I was a big fan of documentaries when I was in my teens; it was one of the quirks of growing up in the household that I did. But one that made a lasting impression on me that came after Cosmos and Connections and all the rest was a fascinating six-episode series by English historian Michael Wood, called In Search of the Trojan War. It was that documentary that in part led me to the decision to study history as an undergraduate. The companion book, which I convinced someone that I knew from school who worked in a bookstore to pick up for me with his employee discount, was the first history book that I ever read from cover to cover. My interest in the Classical world, it’s literature and culture and history, derives from the story of Heinrich Schliemann and his search for the real Troy of Homer’s Iliad. Despite Schliemann’s controversial archaeological methods, he opened the eyes of the West onto the reality of the existence of a pre-Classical past.
Almost 150 years later, Eric Cline has taken up that baton to give readers his version of the current state of understanding of that long-ago world, so recent in terms of geologic time, but so very remote from us. Readers would expect there to be some problems with trying to reconstruct the cultural landscape of the world of 3,000-plus years ago, and they would not be wrong. But what we learn from 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed, Cline’s slim volume (there are 55 pages of citations and notes and bibliography to 185 pages of text, a few illustrations, and maps, which my inner scholar is very pleased with), is a sometimes tantalising look at the world of some three-and-a-half millennia ago, from the 14th to the 12th centuries BCE (Before Common Era*) a time known to historians and archaeologists as the Late Bronze Age.
Many of the names featuring in this cast of players will be familiar to anyone moderately literate in ancient history. Apart from the Mycenaeans, the Minoans of Crete, and of course the Egyptians, other civilisations make their appearances, including the Hittites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Mitanni, Ugarites, Hyksos, and others. Cline’s story is largely weighted in favour of those cultures which left substantial archives of cuneiform-inscribed clay tablets, some of which were apparently fired inadvertently in the destruction of the cities in which they were made, and therefore preserved. The material culture of the era extended beyond clay tablets and the — literally — monumental records of the Egyptian Pharaohs, and it is evident that trade between these cultures thrived.
In fact, one thing which may be of the greatest surprise to some readers is the degree to which these cultures were interconnected around the basin of the Eastern Mediterranean. Not only were luxury goods traded by merchants using ships (two shipwrecks dating to this period have been excavated), but there are records of staples such as grain being shipped in times of of famine or shortage (about which more later). High-level connections between the kings of different cultures even meant a certain degree of inter-marriage, at least, at the royal level (apart from the merchants and the rulers, we understandably appear to know very little about the day-to-day life of the bulk of these people). The various archives of clay tablets attest to connections between any number of rulers and administrators and scribes, often addressing each other ritualistically as “father,” “brother,” “sister,” and the like, implying a somewhat cultish sense of kinship.
So far, rather fascinating. Unfortunately, to accentuate (or “sex up”) his survey, Cline has ascribed to a rather underwhelming notion which follows on from the title of his book: the “collapse” of the civilisation of the day. This notion, while proceeding (it appears to me) from an honest attempt to reconcile the various peculiar ends of a variety of civilisations around the region, including the collapse of the Minoan culture on Crete, the decline of most of the Mycenaean city-states, the destruction of Megiddo and Ugarit, and countless others. Some cities and empires appear to have fallen victim to food shortages and famines, others to a series of earthquakes (in what is optimistically but ultimately wrongly called an “earthquake storm” event), others still to invasion and war at the behest of the mysterious Sea Peoples.
The Sea Peoples (also called, among other things, the Shekelesh in Egyptian inscriptions) are mysterious invaders who struck all around the Levant, and are one of those mysteries of history which we may never be able to resolve. Cline chooses his date of 1177 BCE from the year in which Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses III defeated a fleet of the Sea Peoples and recorded his victory and enemies killed and captives taken. But, as Cline rightly points out, it’s hard to blame the Sea Peoples, who are alleged to have lived on their ships and only come ashore for pillage and supplies, for having struck as far inland as some of the cities which were destroyed at the end of the 13th and beginning of the 12th centuries BCE. Clearly, the Sea Peoples were not a “one collapse fits all” solution to the thesis. And those cities themselves, as Cline admits despite his own hypothetical leanings, appear to have fallen anywhere between roughly 1220 and 1130 BCE. So much for “1177 B.C.,” although it is certainly catchier than “sometime in the late 13th or early 12th century, for the most part.”
Another possible driver in the collapse of the Late Bronze Age is thought to have been a drought which cut off grain supplies to several of the kingdoms of the eastern Mediterranean. However, Cline here does not differentiate — seemingly in an effort to give his book a soupçon of modern-day relevance — between normal action within the overall range of the climate and the sharp, unprecedented rise in temperature that the world has experienced for fifteen of the first sixteen years of the 21st century (and counting). There is a clear difference between the latter, anthropogenic climate change caused by the sharp increase in greenhouse gas emissions since the beginning of the Industrial era, and the former, a natural — if unhelpful — part of the climatological cycle. The two notions are separate, and should not be used interchangably, as they are here.
Finally, Cline elects to suggest that the real “cause,” such as it was, was a combination of complex interactions of all of the cited factors. In this, by using the already hackneyed and over-used notion of a “perfect storm,” and resorting to a vagaries of “complexity theory” (which resembles notions of the complex interactions of particles in physics, but without the underlying mathematical rigor). Of course, all eras of history are the products of complex interactions — even the modern one — and this answer is therefore unsatisfactory, particularly given the billing of the book of “the year civilization collapsed.” As answers go, it is akin to answering a child’s questions of “why is the sky blue?” by answering “it’s complicated.” And the history is complex, yes, and we may never really know what happened… probably because no single thing happened. Entropy increases. Things, to borrow from Chinua Achebe borrowing from Lord Kelvin, fall apart.
Because it’s complicated, right?
Ultimately, 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed overreaches its target in attempting to give an answer to the question of what caused the decline at the end of the Late Bronze Age. There simply isn’t enough data yet, and unless there are some genuinely remarkable breakthroughs in a very volatile part of the world, it’s not terribly likely that there ever will be enough. That doesn’t stop the work of archaeologists and historians, who can continue attempting to understand and interpret the already-remarkable body of knowledge that we have so far amassed, and there’s no reason why such work should stop. But part of the wisdom of writing history is knowing when to give up. And books which promise otherwise should be treated with some caution. There’s enough material that is good in 1177 B.C. to make it a valuable survey… but take the broader conclusions with the proverbial grain of salt. Three-and-a-half stars.
Reviewed 17 June 2016.
* A note on chronology: Standard notation for historians discussing the eras before and after the “Year -1/1” marker has, for the past twenty years at least, been rendered in the Julian calendar using Before Common Era (BCE) for the period previously referred to as “B.C.,” and Common Era (CE) for what was previously referred to as “Anno Domini” or “A.D.” There are a host of good reasons for this, but chief among them is that the old scale, which bracketed itself around the presumed date of the birth of Christ, was off by between six and seven years, according to Roman census records (the correct date, although still not entirely clear, is somewhere in the 6/7 BCE range). The CE / BCE scale is clearer and more useful for historical accuracy. Case in point: if you don’t know that “Anno Domini” means “the year of our lord,” you sometimes hear it referred to as “after death” (this is what I remember learning as a child), which is hopelessly wrong. This makes an already difficult chronology almost hopelessly wonky, despite the fact that our records of the reigns of Augustus and Tiberius are really quite good. It was therefore odd to note that Cline (or his editors) chose the outdated “B.C.” convention for his book’s title. CE / BCE is clearly the better way for historians to go.