The following is a review of Eric H. Cline’s 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed, originally published at Inertia Wins. Despite covering events in the ancient past, Cline’s analysis is especially relevant to the present-day coronavirus response and the importance of supply chain diversity. See also the main post for the Retro Reviews series for more content.
The Late Bronze Age in the Mediterranean, roughly 1500-1200 B.C., is an understudied period of history. Egyptians, Minoans, Myceneans, Phoenician, Hittites, Akkadians, Babylonians, Canaanites, Assyrians, Cypriots, and more all had thriving civilizations and a complex web of regional interconnectedness. It was up to that point the most prosperous period in all of human history. Some of their interactions were peaceful, such as in the spread of trade, language, and writing. Other interactions, less so. The first battles with written eyewitness accounts date from this period. Ramses II of Egypt had his epic Battle of Kadesh against Muwatalli II of the Hittites around 1250 B.C., of which interested readers can find a dramatic retelling in Norman Mailer’s novel Ancient Evenings. The Trojan War happened sometime around 1200 BC.
Most of Cline’s book is a narrative regional history of roughly a 300-year period ending around the time of the book’s title, 1177 B.C. Around this time, most of those civilizations collapsed. Archaeological records show most major cities were burned, and surviving written sources tell of invasions by Sea Peoples, about whom little is known beyond their ferocity and foreignness. Cline chose 1177 B.C. as a landmark date because in that year, the Egyptian pharaoh Ramses III fought the Sea Peoples’ second invasion, and lost. Just as historians use the sack of Rome in 476 A.D. as shorthand for a longer-term process of collapse, Cline doesn’t literally mean the Late Bronze Age ended in 1177 B.C. That invasion was simply the most visible event in a multi-generation process.
Historians have long thought these Sea Peoples were the main culprit of the rapid region-wide collapse. Cline is not so sure, and many modern scholars agree. Cline also explains recent attempts to figure out just who they were. At present, the best guess is they were not a unified civilization. They likely came from the Northern Mediterranean. One such people are the Shekelesh, who were from Sicily, and likely gave the island its name.
It takes Cline until almost the end of the book to get to the freaking point, but his thesis is essentially a “systems collapse” argument. One thing didn’t go wrong around 1177; everything did. The Late Bronze Age civilizations endured long-term drought, famine, foreign invasions, political changes that lopped off an elite class, wars with each other, and even some earthquakes, all around the same time. None of these factors on their own would have been enough to topple civilizations. Taken together, the cascade effect was fatal.
Cline also argues that the region’s cosmopolitan interconnectedness was a factor in their undoing. When one fell, the others were weakened, and on it went, in a domino effect. Here, I disagree, for much the same reason that investors diversify their portfolios.
Suppose a famine strikes one city-state. At any given time, it is unlikely that the entire region is simultaneously having poor harvests. The stricken city can reach out to others for help. By the Late Bronze Age, agriculture was already five or six millennia old. If, say, every fifth year or so would be a bad year in a given place, then every place knew to plan on growing about a fifth more than what it needs for itself. During good years, it would trade this surplus to needy neighbors. During their own bad years, neighbors in better shape would have their own surplus available for trade. This interconnectedness smooths out year-to-year volatility, making each part of the whole stronger.
The troubles of 1177 or thereabouts happened because drought and other disasters hit region-wide, instead of in select local spots. Even a diversified trading network couldn’t overcome that shock.
If anything, the limits of interconnectedness played a role. Transportation was slow and costly back then. Even though there was likely some long-distance trade with the breadbasket regions of Eastern and Northern Europe and with India, it would have been limited to durable goods such as wood and metals. Wheat and other crops would not have survived the trip—or might not have arrived in time to help. There is a reason why today’s only famines are politically created. Global interconnectedness today is stronger than even the forces of nature.
Wars and skirmishes among Bronze Age kings did not affect the vast majority of people, who were busy in the fields. The biggest battles and sieges of cities were one-time events involving tens of thousands of people. This is out of a population of millions, or perhaps tens of millions. These rare catastrophes dominate the written sources, hence why historians focus on them so heavily. But proportionally, they were often unimportant for the region’s standard of living. Written records can only be made by people who know how to write, and in the Bronze Age that was only a select few people, mostly state functionaries and merchants. This availability bias in the sources means that historians who single out war or invasion as a primary culprit for the 1177 B.C. collapse are likely overselling their case.
Cline’s wider system collapse argument has merit. But his argument that interconnectedness was a source of weakness is almost certainly in error.