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Bewildering Stories

Eric H. Cline, 1177 B.C.
The Year Civilization Collapsed

reviewed by Donald Webb


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1177 B.C., The Year Civilization Collapsed
Author: Eric H. Cline
Publisher: Princeton University Press
March 2014
Series: Turning Points in Ancient History
Hardcover: 264 pages
ISBN: 0691140898;  978-0691140896

Do these news headlines look familiar?

Greek economy in shambles
Rebellions in North Africa and Middle East
Iraq in turmoil
Jordan crowded with refugees
Turkey and Israel fear involvement
Iranian government makes new threats
Terrorist attacks leave death and destruction
— (adapted from pp. xv, 1)

Those are last year’s headlines, and most of them might be this year’s, as well. They would also have been the headlines — if there had been headlines — in 1177 B.C.

What?! Nothing has changed in three thousand one hundred and ninety years?

Well, yes. The names. Change the names, and that’s about it.

What were the names, by the way? The Myceneans, on mainland Greece; the Minoans, on Crete; the Hittites, in Anatolia (now Turkey); the Assyrians and Babylonians in Mesopotamia; the inhabitants of Cyprus; the city state of Ugarit (on the coast of what is now Syria); and the Egyptians — to mention several but not all.

Of course there’s more to the story, but the author’s point is well taken. Today, in the Post-Industrial era, much of the world is living in a kind of Golden Age. The eastern Mediterranean was living in a Golden Age of its own three millennia ago, in the Late Bronze Age.

And in a short span of time, that age ended. How did it end? What was lost? And what replaced it? What lessons does that epochal event hold for us? Professor Cline’s book tells us.

The author is a professor of Classics and Anthropology at George Washington University, where he is also the director of the Archeological Institute. His work has included many “digs” in the lands of the eastern Mediterranean. His 1177 B.C. summarizes the findings of Bronze Age archeology for general readers as well as for students of history.

Professor Cline takes to heart historian Fernand Braudel’s idea that Bronze Age history is best written as a grand drama of war and peace (p. xvii). As a result, the narrative is deliberately structured as a kind of detective story. It tells us what the Bronze Age civilizations accomplished, and it amasses clues systematically to determine who — or what — caused what might be called the first Dark Age in history. In the process, the story becomes very readable indeed.

There is no polemic. The author explains conflicting interpretations of evidence, and if causes can’t be determined, he says so, carefully refraining from any rush to judgment. Likewise, where the opinions of other scholars — or “detectives” — differ from his, he maintains his own viewpoint while remaining scrupulously fair to all.

When we talk of “collapse,” we’re liable to take the term literally. We may form a mental cartoon picture of people waking up one morning to find that their houses have all fallen down around them. In some cases, that picture is almost literally true. But it’s only a part of the big picture.

To draw that picture, Professor Cline takes the reader through four “acts” in constructing the “mystery.” The fifth chapter proposes a solution. The chapter titles alone speak volumes:

  1. Of Arms and the Man: the 15th Century BC
  2. An (Aegean) Affair to Remember: the 14th Century BC
  3. Fighting for Gods and Country: the 13th Century BC
  4. The End of an Era: the 12th Century BC
  5. A “Perfect Storm” of Calamities?

The Bronze Age lasted almost 2,000 years, from about 3000 B.C. to the early 12th century B.C. It ends with a monumental mystery that has no parallel in our own time: the Sea Peoples. The term “Sea Peoples” is a modern one; the Egyptians referred to them by six different names. And questions abound:

The Sea Peoples alone, Professor Cline argues, would not have sufficed to bring so many civilizations to an end. But they apparently disrupted the international trade that was vital to those civilizations. The newcomers might as well have been — in modern terms — invaders from outer space, and in the light of environmental and other calamities, they may well have been just one disaster too many.

If I may venture an interpretation, future scholars may reach conclusions about our time that are unsettlingly similar to the way we see the Late Bronze Age. I’ll take cues from Professor Cline and, in my turn, imagine what a 50th-century historian may write:

The 21st century was the apogee of development that had extended over more than three hundred years, from the Enlightenment of the 18th century through the Industrial Revolution and, finally, to the Post-Industrial Age (cf. p. xviii). In that time, living standards and public health improved markedly.

Like the Bronze Age, the Post-Industrial Age thrived on globalized trade, not only in luxury items but especially in foodstuffs, clothing, housewares, and the like. As commerce became increasingly interdependent, political stability ceased to be an ideal; it became a practical necessity.

There were downsides, of course. Trade included armaments, which not only encouraged wars and threatened mass destruction but deprived the world of capital needed to improve global living standards. Armaments fell into the hands of the fanatical, desperate, and unscrupulous. Localized violence became endemic around the world. Like the Sea Peoples of the 12th century B.C., small groups wreaked enormous havoc.

The world economy was entirely dependent on petroleum. And it has a parallel in the Bronze Age (cf. pp. xvi, 149). Copper was conveniently accessible on Cyprus and elsewhere, but tin could be imported in quantity only from far Afghanistan; only in later centuries did the Phoenicians bring tin from the west and north. Likewise, the Post-Industrial Age was beholden to countries rich in easily accessible oil. However, it eventually became too expensive to extract, often from kilometers deep within the earth’s crust.

The command economies in some countries of the 20th century — like the “palace” economies of the Bronze age — proved inflexible and, ultimately, ruinous. The purported alternative, laissez-faire, was no better; commissars were replaced by oligarchs and cartels, which sucked capital out of the world economy. The middle class, which had been growing for centuries, dwindled away under corporate feudalism.

The early 21st century heard warning signals of the oncoming dark age. Self-correcting democratic and scientific institutions became irrelevant when they were captured by dictatorships or bought out by oligarchs and cartels. Political consensus could not form, and discourse degenerated into sectarian hostility. Democracy itself could no longer legitimize government: those who had the means became rulers, and the professions, corrupted, became their servants. Centuries later, starving peasants would scrabble for roots in the shadow of ruins (cf. Jane Jacobs, Dark Age Ahead).

The Late Bronze Age had its share of environmental disasters: a 50-year long “earthquake storm” (p. 141) and a 300-year drought (pp. 142-3, 146). With luck, the Bronze Age could have survived either or both of them. The Post-Industrial Age did not stand a chance.

The Greenland and Antarctic ice caps melted and drowned entire countries. The refugees from the civil wars of the early 21st century were but a trickle compared to the masses fleeing rising ocean tides and storms. Some 40 percent of the world’s population was displaced. Desertification and extreme weather forced other populations to seek greener lands elsewhere. The migrations — like those of 30 centuries earlier — did not always proceed peacefully.

The perfect storm of dysfunctional institutions, violence, and environmental disaster caused the Post-Industrial Age to collapse within the span of a century. Now, in the 50th century, most of the nation states of that far-off time are a dim memory. And some are only now being rediscovered, as the Hittites and the city of Ugarit were, in the 19th and 20th centuries.

As the Bronze Age was followed by the Iron Age, the “Carbon” Age was followed by the Solar Age. Energy from the sun, wind, tides and geothermal sources has allowed the 50 million people remaining on Earth to live in loosely interdependent, adaptive, and resilient societies. And as the excess carbon dioxide slowly leaches out of the atmosphere, land will eventually return from the sea.

Returning to the present:

I reiterate that the analogy is mine, not necessarily Professor Cline’s. And, of course, my “future history” can’t parallel exactly what happened in the Bronze Age. It’s also more apocalyptic, though not by much. Judge for yourself whether Professor Cline’s book doesn’t come a little too close for comfort.

The Late Bronze age begs for alternate history. To achieve stability, the Mediterranean world had to await the Roman Empire, which was not only a European Union but also a kind of Mediterranean Union of its day.

Resilient political and economic institutions — perhaps an international trading union with military protection and durable peace treaties — might have allowed the Bronze Age civilizations to deal with the “perfect storm” of piracy, migrations, economic emergencies, tectonic shifts and even climate change.

But that solution would have required realizing, as a famous modern author once put it, that “War is a wicked waste of customers.” The solution was hopelessly beyond the means and world view of the Late Bronze Age.

We can hardly blame those civilizations for not surviving their catastrophes; it seems equally unlikely that we can survive our own.



Reference

Lionel Casson, The Ancient Mariners, Princeton University Press, 1991.

Cassandra's Voices

Cassandra’s Voices
Warnings to the Modern Age

Karen Armstrong, The Battle for God
Eric H. Cline, 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed
Jane Jacobs, Dark Age Ahead
James J. O’Donnell, The Ruin of the Roman Empire
Don Webb, Cassandra’s Voices in 2016

Copyright © 2014 by Donald Webb

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