When I wrote up The Inheritance of Rome, I talked about how I might have wanted a somewhat more popular history. When I read the introduction to Eric H. Cline’s 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed I was afraid that I might get my wish thrown back in my face, with some really obnoxious “perhaps there are lessons for the modern world” stuff, which always comes off as condescending to me. But fortunately, this too-popular tone didn’t last past the introduction, and the rest of the book stays at an appropriate level, neither too academic nor too popular.
Cline’s book is talking about the late Bronze Age through the lens of, as the title alludes to, its collapse. He frames the book as a mystery, opening with a scene (as seen through contemporary accounts) from 1177 BCE, with invaders attacking Egypt; from there, he backs off a few centuries to set the context of the late Bronze Age at its height. He talks about the Hittites, the Minoans, the Mycenaeans, Egyptians, Assyrians, and other civilizations of the era, what we know about them and their interactions with each other, and then traces forward to the era of their collapse, trying to identify the causes that could have led to the near-simultaneous downfall of such sophisticated and powerful nation-states.
But if the cause of the collapse is introduced as a mystery, what’s particularly fascinating is the degree to which it remains one after you’ve finished Cline’s book. Because it turns out that we honestly don’t know a lot about this era. My biggest takeaway from the book was how, almost paradoxically, our knowledge of this ancient time is nearly entirely recent. The big archaeological expeditions that first found a lot of these cities only started about a 100-150 years ago, and tons of archaeological knowledge comes from the second half of the 20th century, and even into this century—in particular, more scientific techniques like archaeoseismology or pollen analysis from carbon-dated lake cores have given us new information about the climate and the physical world of the period just in the last decade. A very real virtue of this book is that it was published in 2014, so fully up to date on all the latest findings and analyses.
There’s something very exciting about the idea that these millennia-old civilizations remain mysterious in many ways, and that we’re finding new information regularly; I hope I can read a new book on the subject in another few decades that will give more definitive answers, but in the meantime, if you want to know more about this time period, 1177 BC gets a solid recommendation from me.