Since I will soon be starting a new MOOC from the University of Liverpool entitled “Superpowers of the Ancient World: the Near East”, and since Eric Cline’s 1177 B.C. is on the reading lists of people enrolled in the course and on the associated Facebook page, I decided I should reprint my review of this book. The original review appeared in 2014. This is an updated version from August of that year, so a year ago:
The Aegean and Near Eastern Mediterranean kingdoms collapsing at the end of the Bronze Age ushered in the Iron Age. Archaeologists debate exactly when and how this occurred. 1177 is one possible date, similar to the widely accepted date of 476 for the Fall of Rome. Neither date is universally accepted, but the arguments for the selection are at least as good as the alternatives.
In 1177 B.C. The Year Civilization Collapsed, Eric H. Cline provides the background against which the various “causes of the collapse” make sense. For instance, if we were not aware of how interconnected the civilizations were by trade networks, the idea that a break in this trade could spur on a collapse of civilization would seem irrelevant. So while surveying the period and main locations, Cline shows the complex web of relationships among the super power rulers.
In 1177, Egypt was a dominant power, but according to Egyptian records that was the year that the mysterious, trouble-causing sea people made their second sweep. It was Ramses III’s 8th regnal year and one in which he fought battles by land and sea.
Invading sea people and a break in trade would not be enough to cause a major collapse. Other elements include natural disasters like earthquakes, which occurred repeatedly in the area, and from which civilizations generally recovered, famine/drought/climate change, with the same arguments against it as a leading cause of the collapse, and military conflicts like rebellion/invasion. Some argue that these events, unlikely on their own, gained momentum in conjunction with each other, creating a domino or “multiplier effect.”
Another theory involves the idea of complexity and the increased interdependence of the units so that when one part failed, it took down the others (another domino).
Besides exploring the theories for the fall, Cline provides insight and lots of details about the interconnected kingdoms. Gift giving was the norm, but it’s not so clear about gift returning. Noteworthy is the fact that Hammurabi returned a gift from the king of Mari, a pair of leather shoes made in Crete. This shows that the Babylonians were in contact with the Minoans, but doesn’t explain the circumstances under which he refused the gift. Cline says that Minoans appeared on wall paintings in Egypt under Pharaoh/Queen Hatshepsut. He also describes Egyptian battles and mentions that during WWI, a general took a page out of Thutmose III’s Megiddo battle handbook and won a battle at Megiddo providing evidence that those who study history can repeat it, deliberately.
1177 is part of a book series called Turning Points in Ancient History that details trends in ancient world study. To bring the impact of his volume home to modern readers, Cline peppers the account with asides about the 20th-21st century, including the aforementioned bit about how repeating history may not always be bad, and that we today may be susceptible to the same types of complex forces.
In all, there are lots of tangential details and theories of the fall, as well as an overview of the history and archaeology of the Bronze Age in the Aegean and Near East, and so would be a very suitable read for those interested in early ancient history’s tangents.