1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed

by Eric H. Cline

[ Historians no longer use the notations “BC” (Before Christ) and “AD” (Anno Domini) in dating; they now use “BCE” (Before Current Era) and “CE” (Current Era). However, the title of this book uses the old system as a concession to the public. ]

Sometime between 1225 BCE and 1125 BCE, civilization in the Near East collapsed. The Hittite Empire disappeared; the Canaanite civilization evaporated, to be replaced by the Israelite kingdoms. The Mycenaen civilization in Greece and Crete vanished; Cyprus was depopulated and the important trading city of Ugarit, located in the crook where the coastline of Turkey turns from east-west to north-south, was violently destroyed. Egypt was ferociously attacked by barbarians they called “The Sea Peoples” and just barely beat them back. In Mesopotamia, the Assyrian kingdom went into eclipse.

The cause of this catastrophe has been much debated. For a long time, blame was placed squarely on the Sea Peoples. The story was that the Sea Peoples came out of nowhere, devastated the Near East with their piratical attacks, destroyed everything, and then disappeared. In recent years, this story has been altered. Archaeological excavations showed that some of the cities were destroyed not by fire but by earthquakes. In other cities, the destruction was limited to the central palace and governmental buildings, suggesting revolt, not invasion, as the cause the upheaval. 

This book summarizes the results of all this research and presents the author’s conclusion that it was, basically, a confluence of disasters that led to the collapse of the Late Bronze Age. Earthquakes, invaders, revolts, and war all combined to trigger a collapse.

I reject the author’s “perfect storm” conclusion, for two reasons. First, it’s unnecessarily vague. He declines to pin down any primary cause; instead, he sees just a potpourri of coincidental factors. I think it’s possible to assemble a more causally-linked explanation.

My second objection to the book is its frequent invocation of system-wide factors in the collapse. Mr. Cline uses the word ‘globalization’ to describe trade relations in those times. He claims that the stressors on the various civilizations killed off trade, which in turn furthered the collapse. In this, I think he is wrong.

I agree that trade probably lessened considerably, but I question the notion that this had much effect on the economies of the time. In order for the loss of trade to have a negative impact, it must constitute a significant portion of overall GDP — and this was never the case in the Bronze Age. 

Right up until the Industrial Revolution, agriculture dominated every economy, comprising a large percentage of total economic output. For example, in 1790, 90% of all American labor was in farm work. Our history books are full of stories of kings, scholars, soldiers, and priests, but throughout history, such people were rare; the vast majority of people worked on farms. 

Yet agricultural products seldom traveled far; they were too bulky for long-distance commerce. Bronze Age ships were not large enough to carry economically significant amounts of grain; the typical ship in those days had cargo capacities measured in tens, not hundreds, of tons. Crew sizes were large to provide enough rowers for propulsion, and large crews required large amounts of food and water, cutting into cargo capacity. Grain was transported to relieve famines, but not as part of regular trade. 

Moreover, grain transport overland was horrendously inefficient. The poor roads and the primitive wagons imposed transport costs so high that long-distance transport of grain was impossible; all the grain would be required to feed the draft animals and drivers. 

Thus, transport of grain played little part in the international trading system; most international trade was confined to high-value items such as metals, cedar wood, spices, and other luxuries. The collapse of this trade system would not have had much effect on economic conditions in the various societies.

My interpretation of events is as follows: the primary cause of the collapse of the Late Bronze Age was a regional change toward a cooler, dryer climate. Prior to that, rain had been sufficient to support conventional agriculture in Greece, Anatolia, Crete, and Cyprus. When the rains dried up, agriculture in these northern areas collapsed and famine led to revolts, migrations, and wars. The Sea Peoples were likely climate change refugees. 

It took several centuries for the few survivors in the Aegean littoral to develop a new lifestyle based on trade in wine and olive oil — a development that led to the glory that was Greece.