1177 B.C., A Review

The inaugural book in the The Turning Points in Ancient History series bears the subtitle: “The Year Civilization Collapsed.” The title is misleading since, as Cline repeatedly points out, there is no single year in which “civilization collapsed,” but this is representative of the problems endemic with studying the ancient world at large and the bronze age in general. Instead, Cline takes 1177, a year in which the Egyptian King Rameses III won a great battle against the Sea Peoples, as representative of the large-scale changes that were taking place in the twelfth century BCE and the beginning of the end of the networks that bound together the peoples of the Eastern Mediterranean. Rameses III was victorious, but the world that he knew gave way to something new and more isolated in the decades that followed. 1177 B.C. is dedicated to explaining this collapse, but, in order to get there, Cline has to spend most of the book building up the bronze age civilizations. Along the way, he intersperses the narrative with descriptions of the scholars, archeologists, treasure-hunters, and accidents (happy and unhappy) that facilitate the understanding of these connections.

The bulk of Cline’s narrative explains the international commercial and political networks that bound together Egypt, Anatolia, the Aegean, Babylon, and the (petty) kingdoms of the Levantine coast. He does not shy away from using cultural prejudices to explain political representation, but Cline emphasizes that all the actors in this environment relied on one another to create a relatively stable international community that lasted for multiple centuries. Unlike many traditional accounts, largely absent are gods and cultural clashes. This narrative is fundamentally one of royal politics, but he argues that the market in royal gifts as it circulated is representative of deeper commercial networks that our sparse evidence simply does not attest to. The resulting picture is one of vibrant commercial activity, royal communication, and general cultural understanding–wars happen, but for the usual reasons of land and resources.

So why did this civilization collapse sometime after the year 1177? Cline treats each proposed cause in turn, examining the evidence for earthquakes, famine, social revolution, external invasion, and the collapse of dynasties. Fundamentally, he argues that each one is inadequate as an overarching explanation, but that each could explain an individual collapse. Thus, in an ultimate act of synthesis, Cline posits that the stability of the system required the networks between the different locations, so, as each individual node was weakened by famine/war/invasion/earthquake/aliens/social revolution (I might have added one), the commercial ties themselves fell apart and were unable to buttress the nodes until they toppled one by one.

1177 B.C. is clearly influenced by the modern discussions of world-systems theory and the climate of globalism currently popular, but this doesn’t invalidate the point. I am sympathetic to Cline’s approach for many reasons, including that I think that bombastic literature of all ages tends to exaggerate the differences between peoples. Further, the ancient world did not comprise of Great Civilizations that sprang up in isolation, but was already engage in what might be termed proto-globalism, since globalism is technically impossible until the entire globe is included. As hokey as it may seem, this is also a useful way to approach the issues of “relevance” for the ancient world, since it makes the underlying relationships seem less alien to a modern audience. It is possible to quibble in that Cline does a better job of integrating Egyptian culture into his narrative than, for instance, Ugarit culture, but in a book of fewer than two hundred pages, that is more a problem for an instructor hoping to use this approach into a Western Civilization or Ancient Mediterranean course than it is for him. One is also led to ponder what the peoples of the Aegean, truly on the fringe of the network of civilization, thought about the relationships, but here the evidence is particularly weak.

One last thing that Cline does is to incorporate accounts of modern archeology. Initially I found the vignettes somewhat distracting, but they are not overly cumbersome or frequent and in sum I think it is important to recognize how little evidence there is and how that evidence was found because this, in and of itself, shapes how we understand the period.

I picked up 1177 B.C. as a productive fun non-fiction book to read (i.e. something I shouldn’t be spending time on, but that could come in handy later on) and it exceeded my expectations. I cannot vouch for its utility as a scholarly text, as it is written for an intelligent, non-specialist audience, but I highly recommend that anyone teaching this early period of world history pick it up. For anyone else who wants a different take on early early Mediterranean history that defies the usual solipsism of histories of Egypt, Mycenaeans, etc, look no further.

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