I had looked forward to reading 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed by Eric H. Cline, as it came to me from a friend with whom I share a fascination of Bronze Age history and the mystery of its abrupt collapse somewhat coterminous with the era of the legendary Trojan War. This is a fuzzy historical period for most people, even many historians, but not for those who, like myself, are enraptured with the roots of ancient Greek civilization. Adding to the book’s luster is its 2014 publication launching a new series – Turning Points in Ancient History – edited by noted historian Barry Strauss.
In the latter part of the nineteenth century it was Heinrich Schliemann who – after famously discovering the ruins of ancient Troy on the northwest coast of present day Turkey – later uncovered the forgotten Mycenaean civilization of Bronze Age Greece. Once among the great powers of the mid-to-late second millennium BCE engaged in international trade and swaggering with the likes of Egyptians, Hittites, Mitanni and Kassite Babylonians, the Mycenaean’s seem to have gone down in flames with the abrupt breakdown of Bronze Age civilization in the Mediterranean and Near East circa the twelfth century BCE, spawning a dark age lasting several hundred years where the Greeks seem to have actually lost literacy.
The Bronze Age collapse has received much scholarly attention but has never found satisfactory explanation. Part of the challenge in unravelling the mystery is that not all states were affected equally: the Hittites almost entirely disappeared from history; Egypt lost its empire but otherwise endured; some states saw decline and rebirth, others extinction. Various theories have been advanced over the years – including climate change, earthquakes, plague and more – but no one explanation seems to fit all circumstances and all geographies. Perhaps the most famous focuses upon the mysterious “Sea Peoples,” unknown invaders described in various sources who brought sudden fierce attacks to the region and undermined multiple states. While assaults by the “Sea Peoples” seem to have been an actual historical phenomenon, it is not clear whether their appearance represented a cause or effect of widespread destabilization that sparked a mass movement of populations. It is now commonly accepted, for instance, that the Biblical Philistines had their origins in Mycenaean Greeks who settled in Canaan. Upon arrival, they were no doubt “Sea Peoples,” as well.
That Cline, an archaeologist and eminent historian at George Washington University, seeks to take on such a fascinating time-honored mystery from an academic perspective only adds to the appeal of this volume. Unfortunately, the reader will be annoyed almost at once to discover that the book’s sensationalized title is wildly misleading: this work is a survey of life and trade and war and interdependence in the “globalized” world of the Bronze Age Mediterranean and Near East — not its fall, as implied. In a book comprised of 176 pages (not including notes, bibliography, etc.), Cline does not even address generalized collapse until the final chapter that begins on page 139. It turns out that even the year 1177 enshrined in his title is rather arbitrary, since there was no single year of systematic multi-state cataclysm, as Cline explains in the book’s final pages that “. . . the eighth year of the reign of the Egyptian pharaoh Ramses III – 1177 BC, to be specific … stands out and is representative of the entire collapse.” Even more disappointing is that the final chapter, entitled “A ‘Perfect Storm’ of Calamities?” is little more than a reasoned discussion of all of the various theories of what might have brought on a multi-regional catastrophe. Cline suggests that a concatenation of nearly simultaneous calamities might have pushed the entire civilizational structure to a kind of unrecoverable tipping point. While that may indeed have been the case, in my overall frustration I could not help but find myself reminded of Robert Mayer’s novel I, JFK, which concludes by whimsically trumping all conspiracy theories to reveal who was really behind Kennedy’s assassination, which turned out to be absolutely everyone: Cuba, Russia, the Mafia, the CIA and the FBI!
Cline should be credited with assembling the latest scholarship about Bronze Age civilization into a single volume with supporting citations to serve as an excellent source to a reader seeking to steep him or herself in what we know – as well as what we have yet to learn – about this fascinating period of ancient history. There is a wealth of data supplemented by solid maps, tables and a biographical list of key figures. On the other hand, while Cline places a great deal of his emphasis on the interdependence of the states and cultures of that era, he manages to do a rather poor job of weaving this into a coherent narrative, which instead tends to jump around from one place or theme or notion to another. Possibly a better editor was called for; Cline, after all, does not strike me as a bad writer, just a highly disorganized one. Perhaps he was put off course by being assigned to write to the book’s title, rather than what he had really hoped to communicate. If you want to learn more about the Bronze Age and can overlook a somewhat uneven narrative, then read the Cline book, but if you are seeking groundbreaking revelations of what may have led to its collapse, be sure to look elsewhere.