July 23, 2015

1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed

By the 12th century BC, late Bronze-Age civilization had climbed many technological summits. People had cities, trading fleets, and caravans. People had built tall towers, elaborate palaces, complex bureaucracies and smoke-filled taverns. People had pickles, onions – our word “shallot” comes from the Canaanite city Ashkelon – and sesame-seed buns: “sesame” in English is a loan-word from Akkadian.

But in 1177, give or take a few years, everything fell apart. Egypt, Mycenae, Knossos, Babylon, Hattusa, Ugarit, Troy: – just about everywhere you look, there are fires and wars and devastation and disaster. Centuries would pass with people telling stories about the age of heroes, the age before the end of Western civilization.

The cause of the disaster has been extensively discussed in recent decades, and Cline nicely summarizes what we know. A rash of earthquakes didn’t help at all. A shadowy group of warrior-migrants called the Sea Peoples caused plenty of havoc; it’s odd that we know so little about them, but then, we know shockingly little about the Huns and the Huns are 1,600 years closer to us. Ideology may well have played a role: people everywhere may have been getting tired of the whole business of palace culture, or merchant-adventurers (or pirates) may have cut into the profit margins that kept those palaces running. Climate change may have been a factor. Commodity shocks may have wrecked the economy; the entire word depended on one mine for weapons grade tin. There are signs of fiscal turmoil in Greece, where Mycenae played a pivotal role in international trade. The Sea Peoples might have been Greek or Italian. Perhaps the first Grexit brought down a multinational economy already weakened by climate change, ecological mistakes, financial shenanigans and social upheaval.