Friday, August 28, 2015


Eric H. Cline, 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed. Turning Points in Ancient History 1. Princeton; Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2014. Pp. xx, 237. ISBN 9780691140896. $29.95.

Reviewed by Steven Karacic, Bryn Mawr College (

Version at BMCR home site


This book by Eric Cline is the first in the series Turning Points in Ancient History edited by Barry Strauss. In the words of Strauss, this series "looks at a crucial event or key moment in the ancient world",1 and the series seems targeted—judging from this first book—at a broad audience of both students and experts in the field. Cline's book takes as its crucial event the battle between Ramses III of Egypt and the so-called Sea Peoples in 1177 B.C., a point in history that marked the end of the Late Bronze Age in the Eastern Mediterranean. Cline is careful not to suggest that this battle alone was responsible for the wave of destructions dated to the beginning of the twelfth-century; rather, he treats this battle as a point of departure for addressing a variety of calamities—both natural and anthropogenic—that affected much of the Eastern Mediterranean and brought an end to the Late Bronze Age.

The preface begins by dramatically juxtaposing the end of the Late Bronze Age with modern day upheaval such as the Arab Spring and the financial crisis in Greece. Cline establishes as the focus of his book the collapse of the Late Bronze Age civilizations throughout the Eastern Mediterranean and he warns that there are lessons to learn for today's global society.

The prologue introduces the Sea Peoples and the circumstances surrounding their clash with Ramses III in 1177 B.C. As one of the foremost scholars on the Sea Peoples, Cline's knowledge of the sources—both primary and secondary—is exceptional and he distills decades of his research into a concisely written summary of the major points. Reliefs from Medinet Habu accompany the discussion, placing faces with names.

The first three chapters establish that the various civilizations of the Near East and Aegean were economically and politically interconnected beginning as early as the fifteenth-century. The fourth chapter then argues that at the start of the twelfth-century—roughly contemporary with the battle between Ramses III and the Sea Peoples—this interconnected system fell apart and the various participating civilizations collapsed. This builds to chapter 5, where Cline suggests possible explanations for this collapse.

The main aim of chapter 1 is to establish that the major civilizations of the Eastern Mediterranean belonged to an interconnected system by the start of the Late Bronze Age in the fifteenth-century and that this system originated in the preceding Middle Bronze Age. Cline illustrates these points through a number of examples: exchange between Crete and Mesopotamia in the Middle Bronze Age; the appearance of envoys from Crete in the tombs of New Kingdom Egypt; political tensions between New Kingdom Egypt and the Mitanni of Syria; and interactions between the Mycenaeans and Hittites along the western coast of Turkey. Each case is a well-documented and widely accepted example of political interactions between different states in the Eastern Mediterranean.2 In a provocative aside, Cline suggests that Hittite-Myceanean conflicts of the fifteenth-century may have been the basis for the legend of Heracles attacking the city of Troy a generation before Achilles and Agamemnon; this is an argument more fully developed by Cline in another publication and seems out of place.3

The following chapter asserts that this interconnectivity continued, and even grew, during the fourteenth-century, an observation agreed upon by the larger scholarly community. The Amarna letters are the strongest illustration of this interconnectivity. Cline interprets the gift exchange recorded in the letters as "probably the tip of the iceberg of commercial interaction" throughout the Eastern Mediterranean (p. 58). This is a well-accepted stance and, in fact, Liverani even uses similar language, calling gifts "the tip of the iceberg of a much larger commercial activity".4 The Amarna letters serve as a point of departure for brining into the discussion the historical evidence for Alashiya and Assyria, two latecomers to the world politics of the Late Bronze Age. The remainder of the chapter then addresses the Hittites and their dealings in Syria, the Aegean and Egypt. Cline suggests that the conflict between the Hittites and the Mycenaeans may have resulted in a Hittite embargo against Mycenaean goods, an argument he made in an earlier publication.5 This assertion is difficult to prove as there are a number of possible reasons for the absence of Mycenaean object in Hittite Anatolia.

Chapter 3 opens with an excellent thirteenth-century example of the interconnectedness of the Eastern Mediterranean, the Uluburun shipwreck off the coast of southern Turkey. Cline uses the contents of the ship to illustrate the great extent of trade that joined the various civilizations of the Near East and Aegean, a point he further supports with texts from the archive of a thirteenth-century merchant from Ugarit. Next, he summarizes the historical battle of Qadesh, fought between the Hittite king Muwattalli II and the Egyptian king Ramses II, before turning to the question of the historical authenticity of the Trojan War. For Cline, the so-called Ahhiyawa Texts found in the Hittite capital of Hattusa record conflicts in western Anatolia between the Hittites and the Mycenaeans.6 He argues that these conflicts were the basis for Homer's account of the Trojan War. Next, he turns to another legend: the Israelite exodus from Egypt and conquest of the Levant. After dealing critically with the texts and archaeology, Cline concludes (1) that the evidence cannot substantiate the exodus legend and (2) that the Israelites were settled in the Levant by the end of the thirteenth century. Both arguments are more fully developed in one of his earlier works and engage with a long scholarly debate.7 The chapter concludes where it began, with shipwrecks—this time from Cape Gelidonya and Point Ira, respectively off the coasts of southern Turkey and mainland Greece. These two wrecks, both dating to the last decade of the thirteenth-century, are evidence of the continuation of the interconnectedness of the civilizations of the Near East and the Aegean at the end of the century.

The last body chapter addresses the pivotal twelfth-century, when the Late Bronze Age came to an end and the Early Iron Age began. The discussion starts in Ugarit, where tablets dating to the first decade of the twelfth-century suggest that trade and diplomatic correspondence continued until the destruction of the city around 1185 B.C. Besides Ugarit, a number of other cities in northern Syria and the Levant have destruction levels dating to the beginning of the twelfth-century, and these destructions are often ascribed to the migration of the Sea Peoples. Cline reviews the evidence from several of these destructions in order to determine if they can in fact be linked to an invading force of Sea Peoples. Ultimately, he questions associating the destruction levels with a single historical event. The geographic scope then expands to include sites in Mesopotamia, Anatolia, Greece, and Cyprus. He argues that the Elamites destroyed Babylon and the Kashka burned Hattusa, but that no single cause, either anthropogenic or otherwise, can be determined for the other destructions. A map of the Eastern Mediterranean shows many of the sites destroyed around 1200 B.C. and illustrates the geographic extent of the disruptions (fig. 10).

The final chapter considers how civilizations that had been thriving since the fifteenth-century collapsed. Cline dedicates sections to the following possible causes of collapse: earthquakes, climate change, internal rebellion, invaders and the collapse of international trade, decentralization and the rise of the private merchant, and the Sea Peoples. He reviews the sites and scholarship relevant to each possible cause and he concludes that no one explanation could be solely responsible for the widespread destructions. What Cline argues for is a "perfect storm of calamities"—including all of the possible explanations listed earlier in the chapter—that brought to an end the various civilizations of the Late Bronze Age (p. 139). Individually, each of these events may have been surmountable for the civilizations of the Late Bronze Age, but together their impacts were magnified and led to collapse.

The epilogue briefly explores the extent of the collapse by comparing the beginning of the Early Iron Age to both the peak of the Late Bronze Age and to the period following the fall of the western Roman Empire in A.D. 476. For Cline, the Early Iron Age was a set-back in the progress of civilization akin to Gibbon's famous and long-lived evaluation of the late Roman and early Byzantine empire. The final pages of the book include an appendix of historical figures, notes, a bibliography, and an index.

Cline builds a persuasive argument for the destructions at the end of the Late Bronze Age having been the result of multiple events, some of which may have been interrelated. A more developed and critical discussion of the term "collapse" would have been welcome. At times it seems that Cline envisions collapse affecting only the highest levels of society while at others the entire populace was plunged into darkness (pp. 136-7 and 173). The preface notes that collapse is a common focus of scholarship; this may have been an appropriate point to further define a term so key to the book. Nevertheless, the larger argument is well supported by the available evidence.

The organization and presentation of the information contributes to the accessibility of the argument. In particular, the appendix of historical figures and the index allow for easy cross-referencing. Many of the footnotes cite Cline's earlier work—no surprise given the extent of his publications—but this makes it difficult at times to track down corroborating scholarship. Several minor typographical errors can also be found (most significantly, Howard Carter discovered King Tutankhamen's tomb in 1992, p. 63). Additional images of commonly discussed artifacts such as the Mycenaean IIIC pottery or an illustration of a cuneiform tablet would have further enhanced the book, but their absence does not detract from the overall argument.

Many of the arguments presented in 1177 B.C. have appeared in other publications. Cline's primary contribution is to pull these arguments together from a variety of specialized archaeological and historical sources and make this information readily accessible to both students of the Ancient Near East and scholars who may lack the expertise in one of the many disciplines that have contributed to understanding the Eastern Mediterranean in the Late Bronze Age. As such, this book will serve as an important introduction and a reference for years to come.


1.   B. Strauss, "Series Editor's Foreword", Cline 1177 B.C., xiii.
2.   see for example J. Aruz, K. Benzel, and J.M. Evans, eds. Beyond Babylon: Art, Trade, and Diplomacy in the Second Millennium B.C. (New York: Yale University Press, 2008).
3.   E.H. Cline, "Achilles in Anatolia: Myth, History, and the Aššuwa Rebellion", Crossing Boundaries and Linking Horizons: Studies in Honor of Michael Astour on His 80th Birthday, edited by G.D. Young, M.W. Chavalas, and R.E. Averbeck (Bethesda: CDL Press, 1997), 189-210.
4.   M. Liverani, "The Last Bronze Age: Materials and Mechanisms of Trade and Cultural Exchange" in Aruz, Benzel, and Evans Beyond Babylon, 165.
5.   E.H. Cline, "Amenhotep III, the Aegean and Anatolia", Amenhotep III: Perspectives on His Reign, edited by D. O'Connor and E.H. Cline (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1998), 236-50.
6.   G.M. Beckman, T.R. Bryce, and E.H. Cline, eds. The Ahhiyawa Texts (Boston: Brill, 2012).
7.   E.H. Cline From Eden to Exile: Unraveling Mysteries of the Bible (Washington D.C.: National Geographic Books, 2007). For an alternative perspective see W.G. Dever Who Were the Early Israelites, And Where Did They Come from? (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2003).

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