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Book Review: 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed (Eric Cline)

“1177 B.C.” is a worthwhile book, but it fails to deliver on its promises. It is an uncomfortable blend of academic treatise and popular history, and it suffers from this split personality. And it suffers from aiming high, promising to explain how Mediterranean Bronze Age societies collapsed together in short order and how that relates to today, and striking low, concluding that we don’t know why, admitting that they may not have collapsed in short order or together (and definitely not in 1177 B.C. altogether) and failing to convince the reader that there is any relevancy for today, though straining to do so. On the other hand, for those interested in the period, there are many fascinating facts—so long as you aren’t really looking for a coherent overarching narrative, this book will be very welcome.

Almost all of Cline’s discussion is informed by archaeology, mostly modern archaeology. Typically he is very detailed, in a way much more academic than popular. Names of places and rulers fly by, complete with translations into different languages and many, many attempts to evaluate whether we know to what a particular name or phrase really refers. This can be fascinating, but if you’re looking for an easy overview of the late Bronze Age, you won’t find it here. Stop paying attention for a paragraph and you’ll lose the thread entirely. But that’s not the author’s fault—there is a thread to be found, you just have to focus.

So, if you want to know all about “Suppiluliuma and the Zannanza Affair,” in which a Hittite king, in Anatolia, seized power from his brother two hundred years before the title year, whereupon he did things like “sack and plunder the Mittani capital Washukanni.” The Zannanza Affair involved a possibly inauthentic request from the queen of Egypt to marry her son to a son of Suppiluliuma, leading to the death of the son sent, and subsequent war. This is all fascinating, to me at least. But I’m not sure it reinforces the author’s narrative, beyond the obvious and uncontroversial fact that Bronze Age kingdoms contiguous in territory (the war was in Syria) interacted with each other.

Cline begins by discussing the Sea Peoples, focusing on their attacks on Egypt in 1177 B.C., in which the Egyptians (again) defeated the Sea Peoples. Cline then jumps back in time and sideways in space, first discussing the Hyksos and Egypt, then Minoan civilization, then back to Egypt as it related to Minoan civilization, then Egypt in its broader relations with neighboring civilizations, then other civilizations as they related to each other (though the focus tends to stay on Egypt). This can seem like too much hopping around, but Cline is actually trying to convey the inter-related nature of the Mediterranean Bronze Age civilizations. He keeps hopping around, until the last chapter of the book attempts a (failed) synthesis. There is much discussion of trade and trade goods, relying on archaeology. There is talk of the Trojan War and the Book of Exodus, and the archaeological evidence for both. As I say, all fascinating, but not obviously coherent in the service of any particular thesis.

Cline then tries to bring these threads together, focusing on many bad things happening in the Mediterranean. He cites earthquakes, climate change resulting in famine, migrating warlike peoples about whom nearly nothing is known, and internal revolts of uncertain origin. All of these have fragmentary and contradictory evidence that makes it very difficult to judge their scope and impact, or even the precise time frames involved. Cline himself notes that “Although it is clear that there were massive destructions in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean . . . it is far from clear who—or what—was responsible.”

Despite this admission, Cline then tries to synthesize multiple factors into a “systems collapse”—basically saying “it was complex, multiple bad things happened, so it all fell apart. Also, climate change!” (The repeated attempts to emphasize climate change in an explicit bid for modern relevancy are particularly jarring.) Maybe. But this is what my high school math teacher called the “Broad Point Theorem”—drawing a big enough point with your pencil to cover up the fact that the lines don’t actually intersect. This last chapter, alleging “A ‘Perfect Storm’ of Calamities,” is by far the weakest in the book, and it’s at this point it becomes clear that the perceived thesis of the book, that there was a collapse in 1177 B.C. and a reason for it, is completely unsupported. There is talk of “multiplier effects” and “complexity theory,” and an admission that “rather than envisioning an apocalyptic ending overall . . . we might better imagine that the end of the Late Bronze Age was more a matter of a chaotic although gradual disintegration of areas and places that had once been major and in contact with each other, but were now diminished and isolated . . . .”

Well, yes. But that’s like saying that now the sun has gone down, it’s dark outside. The question of civilizational collapse has exercised writers for millennia. Concluding that yes, civilizations decay, is not insightful. Arnold Toynbee, in the modern era, attempted to create a universal template of civilizational rise and decay, not relying on specific events, or on cop-outs like “multiplier effects” and “complexity theory.” Cline does not mention Toynbee, and perhaps he cannot see the forest for the trees—he has so much specific archaeological knowledge, he is unable to step back into the realm of social theory as buttressed by that knowledge. But in a book whose title and opening chapter implies that the author will at least try to show us how and why civilization collapsed, failing to do so in any meaningful way is a real disappointment.

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