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.

by | Permalink | Comments (4) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (4)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • 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.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.