System Failure: Eric H. Cline on 1177 B.C. – The Year Civilization Collapsed


Archeological investigation of the Eastern-Mediterranean Bronze-Age civilizations began in the late Nineteenth Century with Heinrich Schliemann’s work at Troy and Mycenae and with Sir Arthur Evans’ investigations on the island of Crete, principally at Knossos.  Language owes the label “Bronze Age” to the Greek poet Hesiod (Eighth Century BC) whose prototypical georgic poem Works and Days includes a discussion of the Five Ages of Man.  As Eric Voegelin long ago pointed out, Hesiod’s five ages are actually three, in parallel with his three generations of gods.  In Hesiod’s telling a primitive period comprising the Golden and Silver Ages gave way to socially complex and robust period comprising the Bronze and Heroic Ages; and the latter period, finding its conclusion in destructive internecine strife, gave way to Hesiod’s own degenerate period, what he calls the Iron Age.  Would that he had been born in some other, less wretched age, Hesiod laments; but well he postponed his birth – for the Bronze Age ended in a paroxysm of urban destruction, famine, piracy, and disruptive migrations of peoples that might be both unprecedented and unparalleled.  Since the 1960s, scholarship has referred to this epoch as “The Catastrophe.”

German scholars, blunter than their Gallic and Anglo-Saxon counterparts, refer to it as the “Brandkatastrof,” because it entailed the incendiary obliteration of hundreds of populous settlements from Greece to Egypt and after it whole regions descended into a demographically much-reduced and materially restricted interregnum.

In his new book The Year Civilization Collapsed Eric H. Cline undertakes the helpful errand of organizing the by-now quite large monographic literature on all aspects of the Bronze-Age cataclysm, synthesizing and summarizing the knowledge thereof, and putting it in the form of a historical narrative written for non-specialists.  Unlike the legendary “Fall of Rome,” which has proved itself in recent decades a largely imaginative construction, the fact of it being a slow decline right through to the middle of the Seventh Century, the Catastrophe (I omit the quotation marks now and hereafter) appears really to have conformed to the model of an event, from which Cline plausibly derives his not entirely rhetorical calendar-year of 1177 BC.  The date functions in Cline’s narrative as the terminus ad quem of a swift unravelment.  Thus, “The cultures of the Near East, Egypt, and Greece seem to have been so intertwined and interdependent by 1177 BC that the fall of one ultimately brought down the others, as, one after another, the flourishing civilizations were destroyed by acts of man or nature, or a lethal combination of both.”

After the galloping disaster, vestiges of the Late Bronze Age economy remained, but the system that had sustained that economy was no longer functional.  An entirely new system now had slowly to conjure itself into existence based on city-states rather than kingdoms or empires.

The concept of systemic breakdown plays an important role in Cline’s analysis of the Catastrophe, and so too quite naturally does the concept of a system or an economy.   Establishing that the Eastern Mediterranean world in the Late Bronze Age was a unified system or economy is one of the admirable goals of Cline’s exposition.  Modernity, believing its own myth, styles itself as the unprecedented result of a long and arduous historical progressus from the troglodyte dawn of humanity to the present lustrous global technocracy.  Cline argues that modernity is not unique in its intimate network of communications, commerce, and diplomacy, but that the Late Bronze Age also in precedence qualified as “a complex international world.”

Tin, for example, so essential to the production of bronze, came largely from today’s Afghanistan through Anatolia, the geographical preserve of the Hittite Empire, and the Levant to Egypt, Cyprus, Crete, the islands, and the Greek mainland.  Olive oil, preserved fish, linen, and ceramics went from the Mycenaean kingdoms like Mycenae itself, Pylos, and Thebes to Troy, Ephesus, Miletus, Sidon, and Tyre, as well as to Egypt.  Slaves went from Anatolia to Greece.  The Talleyrands and Kissingers of the day acted on behalf of the Great Kings to keep political order among nations and when necessary to minimize the disruption of war. The date 1177 BC is non-arbitrary in particular because it marks the break-off in the clay-tablet documentation of diplomatic and commercial activity, often in a dramatic way.


Cline, perhaps contrary to his purpose, tends on occasion to minimize the drama.  Compare his account of the epigraphy of an early, Mainland-Greece episode of the Catastrophe, the demise of the Kingdom of Pylos, around 1180 BC, with that of Leonard Palmer in Mycenaeans and Minoans: Aegean Prehistory in Light of the Linear B Tablets (1962).  Normally, the Mycenaean scribes incised their script on clay tablets, which could be smoothed over and reused.  The violence that destroyed Pylos created a fire in the scriptorium that accidentally baked the latest tablets fortuitously preserving them to be unearthed by Carl Blegen in the 1930s.  Palmer built on Michael Ventris’ discovery that Linear B recorded an archaic variety of Greek.  In Palmer’s reading, the remnants of the Pylian archive attest frantic efforts by the general staff to stem a surprise invasion by both land and sea from the north.  Soldiers and “rowers” are ordered to defensive stations post haste.  Bronze statuettes from the temples are ordered to be melted down for weapons.  Palmer writes, “The overall picture of emergency… is unmistakable.”  It did no good.  “Pylos was blotted from the face of the earth and its site was never again occupied by human habitations.”

Cline brings a somewhat different tone to the same topic.  In a reference, certainly, to Palmer he writes that “earlier scholars occasionally pointed to mentions in the Linear B tablets found at the site which suggest that there were ‘watchers of the sea’ in place during the final year(s) of the site’s occupation.”  Under a qualifying “however,” Cline adds that “it is not clear what these tablets are documenting, and, even if the inhabitants of Pylos were watching the sea, we do not know why or for what they were watching.”  Cline declares himself, concerning the destruction of Pylos, “uncertain as to whether it was human perpetrators or an act of nature.”  Given Palmer’s detailed exposition, this hesitancy strikes the reader as extraordinarily cautious.  A consideration motivating Cline to such caution might be his determination to debunk the earliest explanation of the Catastrophe, a large-scale invasion of the civilized world by unified barbarous people out of the Balkans, some of whom became the “Sea People” mentioned by Egyptian chroniclers. The idea of le primitif has acquired a stigma under political correctness; contemporary historical narrative is therefore directed not to attribute pillaging, piracy, or arson to the ressentiment of savages.  Yet elsewhere in The Year Civilization Collapsed, Cline acknowledges that pillaging, piracy, and arson belonged to the general upheaval of peoples during the period that he studies.

As Cline recounts, the term “Sea Peoples” or “Peoples of the Sea” occurs, in the Egyptian records already mentioned, precisely in the year 1177 BC, or, by Cline’s own chronology, a mere three years after the destruction at Pylos.  The Egyptian scribes could even name the species of invaders – Sherden, Shekelesh, Peleset, Weshesh from the Islands, the first two names indicating Western Mediterranean origins in Sardinia and Sicily, the third a Levantine origin, and the fourth a Cretan or archipelagic or even Mainland-Greece origin.  Concerning the “Sea Peoples” Cline accepts that they “may well have been responsible for some of the destruction that occurred at the end of the Late Bronze Age, but it is much more likely that a concatenation of events, both human and natural – including climate change and drought, seismic disasters known as earthquake storms, internal rebellions, and ‘systems collapse’ – coalesced to create a ‘perfect storm’ that brought this age to an end.”  Other recent writers on the Catastrophe give a larger role to acquisitive or resentment-driven violence in the making of the event than does Cline.

In The Collapse of the Bronze Age (2001), Manuel Robbins sees the “Sea Peoples” as analogous to the Cilician pirates who, during the lifetime of Julius Caesar “effectively took control of the Mediterranean Sea away from Rome.”  In The End of the Bronze Age (1993), Robert Drews makes his point forthrightly: “The Catastrophe can most easily be explained, I believe, as a result of a radical innovation in warfare, which suddenly gave to ‘barbarians’ the military advantage over the long established and civilized kingdoms of the Eastern Mediterranean.”

Scholarly divergences of judgment aside, Cline’s book remains essential.  Its prologue, five chapters, and epilogue explore the Catastrophe itself, the numerous plausible causes of it including those involving human agency, and the regenerative aftermath, once the flames, having run their course, died down and the survivors could begin to reorganize socially and rebuild.  Cline emphasizes the near-simultaneity of the sudden pressing crises in Greece, Anatolia, the islands, and the Levant; he also insists on the continuous functioning of the kingdoms and empires themselves and of the political and mercantile complexes in which they participated right up to the climacteric year.  In Ugarit, a thriving mercantile city-kingdom at today’s Ras Shamra in Syria, for example, tablets from the diplomatic archive attest an emergency.  Royal Ugarit writes to his guarantor, the king of Alasiya or Cyprus, “Ships of the enemy have come.”  The men who come with them, the besieged king writes, “have been setting fire to my cities and have done harm to the land.”

It did no good.  As Cline puts it, “Ugarit was destroyed, apparently quite violently, during the reign of King Ammurapi, most likely between 1190 and 1185 BC.”

Cline reports remarkable discoveries from Ugarit’s final decade, in particular a cache of letters written by an Ugaritic merchant Urtenu.  This businessman had contacts all over the Eastern Mediterranean which appear to have been active right up to the end.  According to Cline, two of Urtenu’s recovered letters make reference to merchants of “Hiyawa.”  Cline identifies the Ugaritic Hiyawa with the Hittite Ahhiyawa, now generally taken as identical with Achaiwoi (Achaean), the Mycenaean self-denomination.  These fortuitous divulgences support Cline’s overall thesis of the suddenness of the Catastrophe.  Consciousness of encroaching destruction arrived belatedly.  People seem not to have noticed that the world was out of joint and went on serenely in their daily lives as those the pattern of existence might extend through indefinite tomorrows.  Cline observes the same pattern in Hittite Anatolia as in the Levant: The empire functions normally up to the terminal date and then manages to disappear almost overnight.  At Hattusas, the imperial capital, some signs of violent destruction exist, but Cline proposes a different scenario: “The city was attacked only after it had been abandoned for some time.”  Why abandon a city?  Cline cites “drought, famine, and the interruption of international trade routes,” for which archeology can provide evidence.

It stands to reason that, in an intimately interconnected economy, where specialization characterizes the pattern of commerce, almost any anomaly anywhere in the system will have repercussions elsewhere, perhaps swiftly.  A breakdown in the schedule of tin from Central Asia, for example, or a crop failure in the lands of an exporter, or piracy, or the destruction of important harbor might well instigate a general crisis, much as a widespread power-outage would in a modern, electronic economy.  A class-war or peasant uprising, such as some scholars suspect in the Mycenaean kingdom, might as it were take a piece off the board so as to entail immediate deformation elsewhere.  Indeed, an Athenian legend tells how, in the aftermath of the Trojan War, refugees came to Athens from Pylos.  At Tiryns, archeology has discovered a refugee shanty-town that dates to just before the abandonment of the site.  Tiryns had been a trading city, but what happens to traders when commerce breaks down?  They turn to piracy.  In his book on The Trojan War (1985), historian Michael Wood suggested that Tiryns was one source of the “Sea peoples.”

In the ultimate chapter of The Year Civilization Collapsed, Cline, for his part, surveys the range of suggested causes of the Catstrophe and assesses their likelihood.  In doing so he makes the case for his theory of a perfect storm of calamities.

Cline finds plausible evidence of an “earthquake storm” in the Eastern Mediterranean just before the Catastrophe: “It is now clear that Greece, as well as much of the rest of the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean, was struck by a series of earthquakes, beginning about 1225 BC and lasting for as long as fifty years, until 1175BC.”  Earthquakes upset the walls at Mycenae and Tiryns much of the scathing went unrepaired.  Cline judges nevertheless that “although the earthquakes undoubtedly caused severe damage, it is unlikely that they alone were sufficient to cause a complete collapse of society.”  Cline finds many signs of “climate change, drought, and famine” in the Eastern Mediterranean just before the Catastrophe.  “Scholars,” he writes, “have long pointed to written texts that speak plainly of famines and the need for grain in the Hittite Empire and elsewhere… at the end of the Bronze Age.”  Cline makes reference to a letter of complaint from Suppiluliuma II, the last Hittite king, to his vassal, Royal Ugarit “concerned specifically with a shipment of two thousand units of barley (or simply grain).”  One cause of famine is drought.

Pollen-counts in the relevant archeological strata and other forensic data strongly suggest a “300-year drought event 3200 years ago,” which “caused crop-failure, dearth, and famine [and] forced regional human migrations at the end of the [Late Bronze Age] in the Eastern Mediterranean and Southwest Asia.”

Dearth can provoke revolt.  Cline cites Russia in 1917.  Cline never excludes this possibility as a contributing factor to the overall breakdown of society and culture, but he mitigates the hypothesis: “Although there is no doubting the destruction observable at the various Mycenaean palatial centers and Canaanite cities, there is, quite frankly, no way to tell whether revolting peasants were responsible.”  The detritus of a violent rebellion might be identical to that left by a hostile invader, a fact that necessitates Cline to revisit what one might call the organized-marauder hypothesis.  As we have seen, in Greece and the Levant, archeology can supply epigraphic accounts of raiders.  At Pylos, to confine the discussion to Greece, the general staff acted to send reinforcements to the northern marches.  The Greeks of the Archaic and Classical Periods retained a folk-memory of the Bronze-Age destruction, which they attributed to “The Sons of Hercules” or the “Dorians.”  Cline dismisses the “Dorians”: “In recent decades, it has become clear that there was no invasion from the north at this time… Despite the traditions of yh later… Greeks, it is clear that the Dorians had nothing to do with the collapse at the end of the Bronze Age.”

Yet someone threatened Pylos.  If the invaders were not “Dorians” they presumably called themselves by some other name.  The attackers of Ugarit have no name in the tablets, but Cline never doubts their existence.

The most likely cause of the Catstrophe, as Cline sees it, is no single cause by itself but rather what he calls “Systems Collapse.”  The idea of the Catastrophe as a “systems collapse” came forward in the 1980s in articles and books by Nancy Sandars and Colin Renfrew.  Cline cites Renfrew on “the general features of systems collapse.”  These are: “(1) The collapse of central administrative organization; (2) the disappearance of the traditional elite class; (3) the collapse of the centralized economy; and (4) a settlement shift and population decline.”  The Late Bronze Age polities give the powerful impression of bureaucratic centralization based on the craft-literacy of the scribes.  If only the training of replacement scribes broke down, the effect on the system would likely be far-ranging.  The cutting-off of the papyrus trade affected Post-Imperial Western European society in exactly this way towards the end of the Seventh Century.  Record-keeping needs a medium and when the medium disappears with nothing to replace it, the event makes a cultural epoch.  “As we have seen,” Cline writes, “soon after 1200 BC, the Bronze Age civilizations collapsed in the Aegean, Eastern Mediterranean, and Near East, exhibiting all of the classic features outlined by Renfrew.”

Cline quotes Christopher Monroe’s contention that one further cause of the Catstrophe was “limited foresight” in the leadership, while adding his own qualification.  “An unanticipated systems collapse” seems to Cline “much more likely” than universal bungling on the part of the bureaucracy.  Even so, he writes, “Monroe’s words might serve as something of a warning for us today, for his description of the Late Bronze Age, especially in terms of its economy and interactions, could well apply to our current globalized society, which is also feeling the effects of climate change.”  The Catastrophe occurred, Cline asserts, messily, like a complex engine breaking down, in which “one malfunctioning cog in an otherwise well-oiled machine might turn the entire apparatus into a pile of junk.”

Cline follows Carol Bell in endorsing the principle that, in a general systems collapse, the existing large polities decompose into smaller polities.  This is the pattern in Greece and the Levant.  In the Bronze Age, a handful of kingdoms divided Mainland Greek territory among themselves; after the Bronze Age, the independent city-state or polis emerged, of which there were hundreds.  The coeval Phoenician cities of the Levant also operated more or less as independent city-states.

Just before reading The Year Civilization Collapsed I read Gregory R. Copley’s Un-Civilization: Urban Geo-Politics in a Time of Chaos (2013).  Copley sees the existing global economy as a distorted, unstable system already embarked down the slope of collapse.  The malaise of the contemporary system in Copley’s analysis stems from many of the distortions that Cline cites as contributing to the end of the Bronze Age: Centralized bureaucratization of the societies; overspecialization within the total mercantile network such that a disruption anywhere must spread its effects like ripples everywhere else; vulnerable infrastructure, such as, in the modern instance, the electrical grid; unregulated, massive migrations of peoples; and the development of enmitous social factions within societies, in some cases massively immigration-driven.  Copley predicts a crisis, one effect of which will be plummeting depopulation leading to the desertification of the distended World Cities.

The parallelisms between Copley’s assessment of the contemporary situation and Cline’s hypothesis about the causes and character of the Catastrophe are quite obvious and quite disconcerting.  Copley differs from Cline in his willingness to include moral failures as playing a role in the impending (as he sees it) debacle.  Cline explicitly disavows any gesture of “laying blame,” as when he criticizes invoking the “Sea Peoples” as agents of a general destruction in the concluding phase of the Catastrophe.  Nevertheless, The Year Civilization Collapsed is extremely valuable.  The Catastrophe is little-known – unlike the specious “Fall of Rome,” so often celebrated in novels and cinema.  It ought to be better-known, as it would serve as a useful reference in getting people to understand the terrible fragility of the civilized accomplishment.  One ingredient of total social calamity at which Cline hints but which he nowhere fully develops is the complacency of the people, their dumb belief that nothing can change in the way of life.  The psychological inertia of complacency plays a large role in the stultification of the existing “global order,” which more and more resembles ambient disorder.


That I didn't read the Brussels Journal since a long time. I even had to renew my password, forgot the old one.

This essay reminds me again why I have to return here frequently.

Thank you professor, a very interesting essay, I learned a lot from it.