Why Civilization Collapsed in 1177 BC: Watch Classicist Eric Cline’s Lecture That Has Already Garnered 5.5 Million Views

Eric Cline is a man of the Bronze Age. “If I could be reincarnated backwards,” he says in the lecture above, “I would choose to live back then. I’m sure I would not live more than about 48 hours, but it’d be a good 48 hours.” He may give himself too little credit: as he goes on to demonstrate in the hour that follows, he has as thorough an all-around knowledge of life in the Bronze Age as anyone alive in the 21st century. But of course, his prospects for survival in that era — or indeed anyone’s — depend on which part of it we’re talking about. The Bronze Age lasted a long time, from roughly 3300 to 1200 BC — at the end of which, ancient-history specialists agree, civilization collapsed.

What the specialists don’t quite agree on is how it happened. Cline makes his own case in the book 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed. The title, which seems to have been the result of the publishing industry’s invincible enthusiasm for naming books after years, may soon need an update: as Cline admits, it reflects a convention among scholars about how to label the titular event that has just been revised, and has since been revised back. And in any case, the collapse of civilization among the distinct but interconnected Egyptians, Hittites, Canaanites, Cypriots, Minoans, Mycenaeans, Assyrians, and Babylonians of the Bronze Age took not a year, he explains, but more like a century.

This complicated process has no one explanation — and more to the point, no one cause. Many flourishing cities of Bronze Age civilization were indeed destroyed by 1177 BC or soon thereafter. The “old, simple explanation” for this was that “a drought caused famine, which eventually caused the Sea Peoples to start moving and creating havoc, which caused the collapse.” Cline opts to include these factors and others, including earthquakes and rebellions, whose effects spread to afflict all parts of this early “globalized” part of the world. The result was a “systems collapse,” involving the breakdown of “central administrative organization,” the “disappearance of the traditional elite class,” the “collapse of the centralized economy,” as well as “settlement shifts and population decline.”

Systems collapses have also happened in other places and at other times. Given the enormous intensification of globalization since the Bronze Age and the continued threats issued by the natural world, could another happen here and now? Pointing to the climate change, famines and droughts, earthquakes, rebellions, acts of bellicosity, and economic troubles in evidence today, Cline adds that “the only thing missing are the Sea Peoples” — and even then suggests that ISIS and refugees from Syria could be playing a similarly disruptive role. Given that this talk has racked up more than five and a half million views so far, it seems he makes a convincing case, though the appeal could owe as much to his jokes. Not all of us, he acknowledges, will accept the relevance of the subject: “It’s history,” as we reassure ourselves. “It never repeats itself.”

Related Content:

The Lifespan of Ancient Civilizations Detailed in a Handy Infographic: Are We Headed Towards Our Own Collapse?

The Fall of Civilizations Podcast Engagingly Explores the Collapse of Civilizations & Empires Throughout History

The History of Civilization Mapped in 13 Minutes: 5000 BC to 2014 AD

Get the History of the World in 46 Lectures: A Free Online Course from Columbia University

M.I.T. Computer Program Alarmingly Predicts in 1973 That Civilization Will End by 2040

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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  • Charles Whitaker says:

    I’m sorry, but that title is massively ethnocentric. There were other civilizations in other parts of the world that were in existence and continued in existence during this time period. “Civilization” as such did not end. “Civilization in the Fertile Crescent” did.

    Your title treats civilization in the Fertile Crescent as the be all and end all of civilization in that era. Well, maybe to persons of European descent who trace their history to that area. But not everyone in the world is of European descent.

  • EB says:

    @Charles Whitaker:

    The history of these peoples is relevant to anyone alive in the world today –– why do you imply that anyone not of European descent would be any less interested? These civilizations represent the immediate heritage of those from the Middle East and Northern Africa, not to mention, in a broader cultural sense, almost all human beings on Earth, other than perhaps the uncontacted tribes in South America. It’s a crime to hoard the Fertile Crescent’s history only for the cultural heritage of ethnic Europeans.

    But even if this history were not the direct antecedent to our global cultural world, these were the most populated, the most organized, and the most technologically advanced civilizations in the world during the Bronze Age. The zeitgeist moves as time flows, but at the time, these locations represented what we would in general call “civilization.” If Sumer had been located in South America and Egypt in Indonesia, or if their history had been lost to the mists of time altogether until after the establishment of contemporary European culture, we would call them no different and they would be worthy of no less a title.

  • Charles Whitaker says:

    “The history of these peoples is relevant to anyone alive in the world today –– why do you imply that anyone not of European descent would be any less interested?”

    > What you have imputed to my comment is the exact opposite of what I am stating. I am stating that by using the term “civilization”, without a qualifying adjective to denote its region, implies that there was only one civilization in the world at that time. It was not “civilization” that collapsed, it was a specific civilization that collapsed at that era. By conflating the Fertile Crescent’s civilization with all civilization extant at that time, Open Culture is implying that there was no other civilization in that era that matters to anyone — of whatever descent. Certainly people of all ethnicities should be interested in the civilization of the Fertile Crescent, just as people of all ethnicities should be interested in civilizations outside of the Fertile Crescent at that time period.

    “but at the time, these locations represented what we would in general call “civilization.”
    > You might want to double check your pre-history on that.

  • Yody Dee says:

    The book is excellent like all books by Mr Cline. He’s a raconteur as well as a world-class historian and archaeologist. He also has a fantastic lecture series on The Great Courses about archaeology.

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