1177 BC: THE YEAR CIVILISATION COLLAPSED

by Eric H. Cline

Princeton (2014) h/b 237pp £19.95 (ISBN 9780691140986)

In 1177 BC, according to Egyptian records on the walls of the mortuary temple of Ramses III near the Valley of the Kings, a collective that we (not Egyptians) call ‘Sea peoples’ moved down from Syria to attack the Nile Delta, and were duly thrashed. It is this date that C., a distinguished American archaeologist, has chosen to stand for a whole period, around 1200 BC, when the Late Bronze Age world collapsed—a world that from c. 1500 BC had linked Minoans, Mycenaeans, Hittites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Mitannians (northern Mesopotamia and Syria), Canaanites, Cypriots and Egyptians in what C. calls a ‘globalized, international, vibrant, intersocietal network’.

That surely requires some explanation of what one means by a ‘society’. Even for the palace world of those states, with their extensive diplomatic reach and demand for luxury goods, that seems slightly over-cooked; it must have little meaning for the remaining (say) 95% of the population scraping a living from the earth, unless they were all centrally administered in the cause of a centralized economy. Despite Linear B, surely not. On the other hand, if all farm tools were made of bronze and bronze-working died out, that would be very serious. But this is not an issue with which C. engages.

What he does engage with, in serious and stimulating detail, is the question of how this collapse came about. ‘Sea-peoples’ used to be the answer. C. dismisses that, as he does every other monocausal explanation. Deploying to the full the latest archaeological work, he toys with various modifications of the concepts of ‘systems failure’ and ‘complexity theory’, but prefers to settle for a ‘perfect storm’ of calamities, or ‘stressors’, over many years, all contributing one way and another to weakening these powerful palace cultures: earthquake, famine, invasion, perhaps internal rebellion and a degree of interruption of trade routes.

C. opens with a historical survey from 1500-1200 BC, a chapter devoted to each century. There is much of great interest here. For example, the famous letter thought to be from the Hittite king to the king of Ahhiyawa may be the other way round: from the Greek king to the Hittite. It may also show Greek involvement on the side of Assuwa (the origin of our ‘Asia’), the region around Troy, against the Hittites, c. 1430 BC—possibly reflecting the Homeric tradition of events prior to the Trojan War. That may be all of a piece with what looks like an economic embargo against Mycenaean Greeks announced in a Hittite document dated to 1225 BC.

The conclusion of this detailed historical survey in the final two chapters is that the collapse was not a linear but a messier interaction of variables that ultimately did for the Late Bronze Age. True, there was some continuity in some areas, but overall it left the way open for new powers to arise in a new world. It is tempting to picture all those farming communities in the Greek world, left behind by the collapse, deciding they had had enough of all this ‘toffs in palaces’ stuff, rather fancying the idea of running the show themselves and inventing the polis system as a response. It is probably a temptation that should be resisted.

C. admits he has not solved the problem; but what he has done is to clarify the nature of the problem and bring any interested reader right up to date with the latest, extensive scholarly work on it. Well-written, very fairly argued and excellent value, it will set the agenda for Late Bronze Age studies for some time to come.

Peter Jones

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