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1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed

July 2016 (120.3)

Book Review

1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed

By Eric H. Cline (Turning Points in Ancient History). Pp. xxii + 237, figs. 12, tables 2. Princeton University Press, Princeton 2014. $29.95. ISBN 978-0-691-14089-6 (cloth).

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Cline’s book is something special in ancient history writing—a popular best seller with academic credentials. This may be surprising, given that its subject is the history of the eastern Mediterranean in the Late Bronze Age (LBA) and, in particular, the collapse of kingdoms and empires therein around the end of the 13th and the early 12th centuries B.C.E.—not, one might think, evidently mistakenly, a popular subject. The book was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and has been translated into numerous languages; its popularity owes much to its author’s engaging style of storytelling and clear presentation of evidence. It reassures us that the archaeology and history of the LBA eastern Mediterranean can have wide appeal outside academic circles.

The book has five chapters plus a prologue and an epilogue. The prologue provides a dramatic introduction in which the now “traditional” story of the Sea Peoples is told, in which they are the major cause of the widespread destructions and collapses. However, Cline asserts that there is much more to the story—“a perfect storm” of human and natural factors that “coalesced” and brought about the end of the LBA (11). This is refreshing, and is surely correct. The Sea Peoples have been a convenient “explanation” for too long, and Cline points out the difficulties with the evidence and with assigning to them responsibility for the many destructions. We do not know who was responsible for them (though in the case of Hattusa, Cline discusses the possibility that it was the Kaska rather than the Sea Peoples, which seems more likely [125–26]).

The first four chapters are a successful and interesting overview of the history of the eastern Mediterranean in the LBA, each dealing with broadly a century. The reader is treated to accounts of the Egyptians, various Mesopotamian and Levantine states such as Mitanni and Ugarit, the Minoans, the Hittites, the Mycenaeans, Alashiya, and, in chapter 4, an overview of the destructions, region by region, of the early 12th century B.C.E. Unsurprisingly, given his previous research, Cline emphasizes the interconnections that grew up between these states. This is demonstrated through a discussion of the archaeology, including the Uluburun, Point Iria, and Cape Gelidonya shipwrecks as well as texts such as the Amarna letters, the Hittite texts (including the Ahhiyawa texts), and others. There are excursuses on the discoveries and archaeological backgrounds of various states, as well as treatments of the Ahhiyawa question, the Trojan War, the Battle of Qadesh, and more. The book compares well with and is a good addition to Collins’ From Egypt to Babylon: The International Age 1550–500 BC (London 2008), Podany’s Brotherhood of Kings: How International Relations Shaped the Ancient Near East (Oxford 2010), and Van de Mieroop’s The Eastern Mediterranean in the Age of Ramesses II (Oxford 2010).

The prologue anticipates the aptly named chapter 5, “A ‘Perfect’ Storm of Calamities,” in which Cline critically discusses a variety of proposed causes for the collapses: earthquakes (140–42); climate change, drought, and famine (142–47); internal rebellion (147–48); invaders and the collapse of international trade (148–52); decentralization and the rise of the private merchant (152–54); the Sea Peoples (154–60); and systems collapse (160–63). He also introduces complexity theory (166–68) and assesses its applicability to the LBA collapse (169), a useful approach but perhaps obvious. The chapter ends with an emphasis on the origins of the collapse being complex (170). Particularly appropriate is the author’s (Rumsfeldian) comment that “we do know that many possible variables may have had a contributing role in the collapse, but we are not even certain that we know all of the variables, and we undoubtedly do not know which ones were critical” (170). Rather than coming up with a straightforward “silver bullet” answer of his own, a new grand theory, Cline suggests that many or all the “explanations” could have been stress factors that caused a range of reactions with unpredictable outcomes, ending in collapse and transformation. Many could find this lack of an answer disappointing, but it is praiseworthy that Cline leaves the question open.

One factor that is not mentioned is the possible role of epidemics, which is surprising given that Cline discusses the Plague Prayers of the Hittite king Mursili II (66, 68, 70). Williams (“The End of an Epoch,” GaR 9(2) [1962] 109–25) and Walløe (“Was the Disruption of the Mycenaean World Caused by Repeated Epidemics of Bubonic Plague?” OpAth 24 [1999] 121–26) have both proposed a role for plague in the Mycenaean collapse, and we know that plagues also affected LBA Cyprus and Egypt. Plague killed a number of Hittite royals in the late 14th century and affected the general population and the functioning of society. Although in those cases it did not cause collapse, plague could have played a role in weakening states in several ways, through general depopulation and economic and psychological effects, as well as debilitating and weakening armed forces and creating instability at the top. Could the general depopulation of Messenia be accounted for in this way?

In his epilogue, Cline deals with the aftermath of collapse. The early pages continue the discussion of causes along with thoughts about how we characterize the period and the collapse. Do we imagine an instantaneous collapse or a decades-long process (172–74)? Cline, along with others, support the latter view. He then briefly discusses continuities and the rise of new and different societies (174–75). Cline rightly observes that “there was a certain amount of continuity” (174), but more time could perhaps have been spent here on the Postpalatial period in Greece, where we see the city of Tiryns expand in size, new building in the Lower Citadel, and Building T constructed over the earlier palace megaron, which suggests a continuation, on some level, of a ruling elite, perhaps even a wanax, or at least some use of the palatial ideological or symbolic heritage in modified form. Some nonpalatial areas such as the northwest Peloponnese also saw continuity and even expansion. The continuity in some areas of Hittite culture and ideology, and even of rule by scions of the Hattusa branch of the royal family, some of whom called themselves Great Kings, could also have been addressed more fully. However, this was not the subject of the book, and to give full treatment of these would have necessitated a longer text.

Cline is well placed to write a book of this kind, with a first-hand knowledge of many of the areas discussed; he has also written widely on many of the themes he discusses here. Although written in a popular style, the book is up to date in its research, covers a lot of ground, is careful in its conclusions, and will be referred to and cited by students of Aegean and eastern Mediterranean prehistory, discussed by the scholarly community, as well as read by the interested public. Cline has done a good job of bringing the Late Bronze Age eastern Mediterranean to a very wide audience.

Guy D. Middleton
School of History, Classics and Archaeology
Newcastle University

Book Review of 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed, by Eric H. Cline

Reviewed by Guy D. Middleton

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 120, No. 3 (July 2016)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1203.Middleton

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