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1177 B.C., the Year Civilization Did Not Collapse

k10185 Recently I read Eric Cline’s 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed. It’s a short book. If you are looking to familiarize yourself with the history and culture of the Bronze Age Near East in a format which isn’t a scholarly monograph, this is a good book for that, best read in complement with Robert Drews’ End of the Bronze Age (also see The Coming of the Greeks). If you are looking to understand why the complex of Near Eastern societies, spanning Mycenaean Greece to Babylon and Egypt, went into severe regress in the 12th century, this is not the book. Cline is good at stringing you along, but at the end of the day he doesn’t come to a definitive conclusion.

Which is fine, as it seems unlikely that there is a definitive answer at this point. But the set up leads you to some disappointment, as there is the standard discussion about the enigmatic Sea Peoples. Cline suggests that there isn’t one reason (e.g., drought, new techniques of warfare, economic shifts brought about by the rise of iron), but a complex set of interlocking contingencies which set forth a chain reaction which brought the globalized world of the 1st millennium down. In some ways this is complementary to Brian Fagan’s thesis that sophisticated civilizations develop ways to buffer themselves against the natural fluctuations which might result in population decrease in small-scale societies, only to squeeze themselves so tightly against the Malthusian limit that they are brought down by a mild perturbation which fractures a fragile system. In contrast in The Human Web William McNeill argues that various innovations, both material and culture, produced increased social complexity which entailed a robustness of “civilization” against a Dark Age.

The “Dark Age” between the 12th and 8th centuries BC is one of McNeill’s examples of a relatively loose network of societies which were not well enough integrated to prevent a extreme regression. This is most evident in Greece, where writing disappeared, and the world of the Mycenaneans was a legendary one to the Classical Greeks. In some ways the lived world of 5th century Athens is more alive to us, through the great works of philosophy and literature of specific individuals such as Plato and Euripedes, than the world of 12th century Athens was to the citizens of Pericles’ world. In 1177 B.C. Cline observes that certain techniques of architecture normal in the Mycenanean period were assumed by their Iron Age descendants to have been performed by giants, while the idea of a king, wannax, disappeared as the norm among the city-states of the Classical period. We know that elements of Greek identity persisted through the barbaric interregnum, because the Linear B script of the Mycenaneans has been translated, but to a great extent the Classical Hellenes suffered from culture amnesia. In some very deep ways they lost their sense of self and were reborn, rather than reformed, after the Dark Age.

And yet civilization did not collapse. It maintained genuine continuity in places such as Egypt and Assyria across the Bronze to Iron Age, and eventually these societies played critical roles in the cultural efflorescence which gave rise to the Axial Age. Arguably 1177 was notable because civilization did not collapse. It seems likely that proto-civilizations did die earlier, lost to history.* But by the late Bronze Age the network of societies around the eastern Mediterranean and out toward Mesopotamia were thick enough that they served as redundant informational nodes. Eventually the Greeks rediscovered their cultural genius, thanks to outside stimuli such as the alphabetic system, which persisted in the Levant despite the depredations of the Sea Peoples’ and the collapse of the protective umbrella of erstwhile hegemonic powers such as the Hittites and Egyptians.

* There seems to have been an expansion of Mesopotamian influence in Anatolia in 4th millennium which ceased because of a collapse. We will never know the details of this because this civilization likely never left descendants.

• Category: History 
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  1. “There seems to have been an expansion of Mesopotamian influence in Anatolian in 4th millennium which ceased because of a collapse.”

    Can you give any references, any reading recommendations on that?

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  2. What do you make of David Rohl’s New Chronology, which dates the Trojan War to the 9th century BC and thus reduces the centuries long “dark ages” to only a hundred years or so? That is, the dark ages of Greece never really happened, and is only an artifact of improper dating and archaeological chronology.

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  3. Glossy,

    That is, the dark ages of Greece never really happened, and is only an artifact of improper dating and archaeological chronology.

    this is a common fashion in some domains of archaeology. my prior is to be skeptical. you can define away a dark age, but even to a non-specialist like me it seems clear that the greeks of the 7th century were far different from those of the 12th. as for the dating of the trojan war i find cline’s thesis that the war was a compound of different recollections and influences which are hard to pin on one event in the troad persuasive. for example he points out that some military technologies referred to in the Iliad were out of date even by the 1200 BC, and seem to point to events from centuries earlier within the bronze age. on the other hand there are also plenty of cases where the poem refers to societies that are more redolent of the barbaric age right before homer than the mycenaneans.

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  4. The Greeks themselves always dated the war to c. 1200 B.C. I believe some Greek James Ussher type calculated 1194-1184 B.C. So the original date comes from them, not archaeologists. Which doesn’t mean they weren’t wrong – indeed, many still hold the view that while Schliemann undoubtedly did find a city on the right spot, there never was a real war (or it was a composite, as Razib notes).

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  5. I had the same thought as History Buff regarding Rohl. His book discussing the Greek Dark Age in some detail is “The Lords of Avaris,” and it’s worthwhile acquainting yourself with his arguments–which (from a knowledgeable layman’s perspective) are compelling. Rohl deals explicitly with Razib’s point about the weird “anachronisms” in the Iliad, and also with the origin of the classical Greeks’ calculated date of the Trojan War.

    Whether you buy Rohl’s thesis or not, the whole question of the Greek Dark Age is extremely perplexing, and no one–not even its best presenters, like Drews–has delivered a truly satisfying explanation for the bizarre continuities and discontinuities seen in the archaeological / historiographical record.

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