Book Review: "1177 B.C. The Year that Civilization Collapsed" by Eric H. Cline

Updated on January 26, 2018

Perhaps it is the title which indicates the problems with the book. 1177 B.C. : The Year that Civilization Collapsed, by Eric H. Cline, is about the collapse of Bronze Age civilizations, which roughly happened in the 13th and 12th century BC, in a process which took an extensive period of time and which did not occur in 1177 BC. If anything, 1177 might be the year that civilization survived, when the Egyptians fought off an invasion of the mysterious and uwknown Sea Peoples, while most other civilizations in the region perished. 1177 is at most a year which the author chose to make a title which would perform better upon book selling lists. There's nothing wrong with making money off your work, but the accuracy problem rears its head here. Regardless, the book claims to aim to analyze the societies which existed before this civilizational collapse around 1177, what the causes were, how this collapse occurred, and what then resulted from it. Unfortunately, this book doesn't do much of this, except for telling the causes behind the collapse, but even there it doesn't present anything beyond it being an amalgamation of everything in general and precious little that provides solid evidence. Problems in the historical record from 3,000+ years present themselves of course, but the author makes references to archaeological explorations at lost shipwrecks or discoveries of goods at former cities. Surely some sort of reference to quantitative information on the economy of the period could have been from this drawn?

The book does note that we should take such clearly defined migration charts with a fair degree of doubt...
The book does note that we should take such clearly defined migration charts with a fair degree of doubt...

At the beginning, the book relates the Sea People, with some speculation upon who they were, and their movement into the Bronze Age civilizations (in particular Egypt, the only one which survived, albeit heavily damaged), and their effects there. It then attempts to go back in time to the flourishing of Bronze Age civilization, going into discussing Egypt, with the conquest by the Hyskos who were semites from the Levant, followed by briefer topics on Mesopotmania under the Babylonians, Minoans, Egyptians again, Mittani, Hittites, and the Mycennaens, and the trade and diplomatic affairs conducted between them. Chapter 4 moves onto the destruction of the socities that it had previously discussed. Chapter 5 deals with what might have been these destructions, including earthquakes, climate change, internal revolt, invaders such as the Sea People, the collapse of international trade routes, changes in the economic structure which led to the obsolesence of the former centralized royal economies, and finally that the increasing complexity of the bronze age society meant that it was more vulnerable to disruptive shocks. The author seems to suggest a synthesis of all of these, although he warns about the dangers of complexity theory for a complete grasp of the period. In the end, he concludes with an epilogue about the transition to societies afterwards.

I did like the ship illustration.
I did like the ship illustration.

The book sheds little light on the societies present during the period; how life actually was. Centralized the societies were, it mentions that, but "centralization" has so many different meanings and examples that alone it is not of much use as a definition. While it mentions trade routes during the era, it does not give much in the way of information about how important these routes were, other than the trade in tin. Of course, as with everything else, this information is doubtless hard to find, but surely more could have been done than a short list of trade goods and some of the routes they took? It doesn't even go into maritime technology and some of the commercial technology of the time : in an era before currency, is there any knowledge of how exchange worked? Was it all bartering? Who was receiving these goods and who were sending them? Presumably Egypt exported wheat, famous throughout history, but from where came and went the other goods? The only other one mentioned specifically as an Egyptian export is gold. Who imported, who exported? Ugarit receives more attention, a north Syrian civilization which exported dyed wool, linen garments, oil (presumably of the olive kind), lead, copper, and bronze objectives, with wine, olive oil, wheat, ships, weapons, and alabaster. Does the export of these goods indicate that it was some sort of nexus of trade in the era, an advanced economy for the time which exported mfanufactured goods and imported foodstuffs? It is something the author never makes clear. And furthermore, this is something which is vital to his point. Merely the existence of trade links is not enough : his thesis is that there was a deeply interconnected civilization in the Mediterranean/Middle Eastern world of the 12th century, and that it was because of this deeply interconnected structure that it was vulnerable to collapse. The author does do, for once, a good job of relating diplomatic agreements which transpired between the states of the region, but intermarriage alone is not enough to testify for a complex enough regional system that disruptions in one sector would cause its collapse.

While the diplomatic chart is impressive, imagine trying to draw conclusions off of European society in the 18th century based purely upon the royal marriages between dynasties... Beyond the broadest sense, little would be revealed.
While the diplomatic chart is impressive, imagine trying to draw conclusions off of European society in the 18th century based purely upon the royal marriages between dynasties... Beyond the broadest sense, little would be revealed.

Furthermore, the author's writing style is scattered. Instead of talking about a subject, he provides a brief amount of information on it - such as Mediterranean trade - then comes back later, and provides more iupon Egyptian gold, in a disjointed fashion. While this improves later on in the book, when he actually delves into the themes of collapse, the initial part of the book is disjointed and uncollected. This makes a curious contrast to his thesis that socities were growing more and more complex and ultimately this very complexity led to system weakness, although I suppose that there should be attention paid between drawing parallels between a literay style and historical analysis... The author does a reasonable list of events, and of courses, but the evidence that he presents is so scattered and so incomplete that it is hard to take his thesis with any feeling of certainty, especially since it is contradicted at times - something he admits, such as regarding international trade expanding up until the very collapse of the Mediterranean/Middle Eastern regional system, but just admitting it doesn't make it go away.

Overall, this book reads as a popular history book. This isn't inherently bad, but it lacks greatly in detail. It makes constant tripe references, generally to the British Empire or about the need to study the past - something which hardly needs to be printed in a history book, since after all, one is doing exactly that! No, being a popular history book is well forgivable, providing that it is well written, makes a point, and is interesting to read. This book unfortunately, does not. It wanders throughout various unrelated facts, never fully expounding upon one with sufficient details. It doesn't provide enough detail for an audience with an interest in the specifics of the era, other than some of the diplomatic relations between the rulers of the time, and while it is relatively short and not difficult to read, as a brief outline to explain the generalities of the era, it goes into too much detail and irrelevances. This book seems to have found a great degree of popularity, but frankly, I cannot understand why. Perhaps comments and advice from others will enlighten me why this book deserves something more than the brief summary sentence of "Complex and deeply interconnected societies of the Bronze Age encountered earthquakes, droughts, famines, military invasion, peasant revolt and over-specialization, and collapsed into city-states in the resultant Iron Age." Essentailly, that is the useful information that the book tenders.

1 star for The Year that Civilization Collapsed

© 2018 Ryan Thomas


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