The Year Civilization Collapsed

At The Brussels Journal, I review Eric H. Cline’s new book 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed. Cline’s topic is the “Catastrophe” that afflicted the Eastern Mediterranean at the end of the Bronze Age. Cline’s service is to have correlated the large monographic literature on the “Catastrophe” and to have organized it in complementary narrative and analysis.  The review is here:  http://www.brusselsjournal.com/node/5134

I offer an excerpt:

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.

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18 thoughts on “The Year Civilization Collapsed

  1. I’ve been reading Joseph Tainter’s “The Collapse of Complex Societies”. Have you had a look at that? Tainter too easily dismisses the usual reasons suggested for collapse, and offers a Grand Unifying Theory of his own. Most of those causes he dismisses seem to me to add to the complexity a society needs to deal with (for example, “barbarian invasions” aka immigration) or undermine the ability of a society to deal with complexity.

    • Tainter’s book, I confess, has eluded me although now I am provoked to examine it. My suspicion concerning Cline, who as I say in the full review has written an important book, is that he suffers from a PC-inspired fear to acknowledge certain factors as having contributed to the Catastrophe. Among these especially he insistently marginalizes migration.

  2. Pingback: The Year Civilization Collapsed | Reaction Times

  3. I am wondering why the Fall of Rome is put in quotes and termed specious. Misunderstood, perhaps, but to say that Rome didn’t suffer from a very long series of disastrous events leading to a very serious decline or collapse is not credible.

    • The phrase “Fall of Rome” implies the abrupt end of Roman civilization in the West after 476 AD. The Goths of the Fifth Century were not destroyers, but inheritors; what occurred was a partial replacement of the ruling elites although even under Gothic rule the Latin-speaking senatorial families largely retained their place in the hierarchy. I accept Henri Pirenne’s argument that a distinctly Roman-Christian civilization lasted in Western Europe until the beginning of the Seventh Century, when the Muslim domination of the Western Mediterranean cut off the supply of papyrus, on which a highly organized, mercantile society depended; at the same time Muslim raiding forced populations inland, whereupon the shift from Mediterranean to Atlantic Civilization had commenced.

      In addition to being impressed by Pirenne, I am inclined to reject rather roundly Edward Gibbon’s picture of the very early Middle Ages as a hopeless “Dark Age.”

      Adding a bit: The city of Rome declined from the Third Century on, but the Western Provinces cannot be reduced to Rome. Already by the Third Century, Milan was at least as important as Rome; on the Cote d’Azur, Nice and Marseilles remained economically vital, and so did numerous Spanish and North African cities. We should also recall that there was an Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) that endured until 1453. All of this is apropos of the Catastrophe because the Catastrophe represents a much more radical break in the civilized continuum than does the Gothic accession in Western Europe.

      • Bryan Ward-Perkins has rather conclusively demonstrated based on archeological evidence that living standards, trade, safe travel, comfort, and societal and economic complexity all fell disastrously in the West, the same sort of collapse that Cline describes. Note that Egypt in 1177 BC endured, but at a reduced level. To go from a vast and continuously expanding Empire where most cities didn’t need walls to a handful of viable walled cities is a collapse. For most people in the West, the Dark Ages had a decidedly somber cast. Rome in turn declined because the provinces weren’t feeding and supporting it.

      • We should also recall that there was an Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) that endured until 1453.

        Just as importantly, they seem to have thought of themselves as Romans until the day Consantinople fell, indicating that the discontinuity was never severe enough at any particular point, at least from the perspective of the East, to justify calling what happened in the West a “collapse.”

        Bryan Ward-Perkins has rather conclusively demonstrated based on archeological evidence that living standards, trade, safe travel, comfort, and societal and economic complexity all fell disastrously in the West, the same sort of collapse that Cline describes. Note that Egypt in 1177 BC endured, but at a reduced level. To go from a vast and continuously expanding Empire where most cities didn’t need walls to a handful of viable walled cities is a collapse. For most people in the West, the Dark Ages had a decidedly somber cast. Rome in turn declined because the provinces weren’t feeding and supporting it.

        “Collapse” doesn’t just have connotations of deterioration or degradation though, but of rapid, violent, uncoordinated deterioration, and what happened to Rome wasn’t exactly rapid. No one denies that the West deteriorated, but that it happened sufficiently quickly to justify calling it a collapse.

        I generally agree that the fall of Rome was a bad thing for European civilization. But would its continued survival in a dilapidated and corrupt and degenerate state have been much better? There is at least some evidence that areas of Europe improved after being freed from Roman rule, no longer having to squander their limited resources to support a bloated and ineffective imperial bureaucracy.

  4. Leo writes: “To go from a vast and continuously expanding Empire where most cities didn’t need walls to a handful of viable walled cities is a collapse. For most people in the West, the Dark Ages had a decidedly somber cast. Rome in turn declined because the provinces weren’t feeding and supporting it.”

    I am familiar with Ward-Perkins argument (I believe that I reviewed his book a few years ago, also at The Brussels Journal). Whatever Ward-Perkins has persuasively argued, others have persuasively counter-argued, including Emmett Scott in his recent revisitation of Pirenne. Pirenne’s argument is based, in part, on records, which, simply by existing, sustain the thesis of civilizational continuity whether or not such continuity occurs in a period of straitened conditions. This is the difference between the Western centuries after 400 or so and the Dark Age that followed the Catastrophe. The Catastrophe saw the complete abandonment of cities and the drastic depopulation of the countryside. The Catastrophe also saw the absolute termination of literacy in the Greek domains and its drastic interruption elsewhere. The early Medieval Dark Age suffered no termination of literacy even though it saw a contraction of literacy to the monasteries.

    While it is true that many people in the early Medieval Dark Age lived in comparative poverty, culturally and materially, I doubt that they lived in the squalor under which they are often depicted. It is also that case that, in 600 AD, say, there were functioning communities in Italy and France where people still thought of themselves as Romans and lived a recognizably Roman way of life.

    A point of fact: The Roman empire cannot, except during its formative phase, be described as “continuously expanding.” On the contrary, once it reached its maximum extent, adding Britain under Claudius, its frontiers did not change for two or three hundred years. It was never policy to expand the frontiers.

    • “It is also that case that, in 600 AD, say, there were functioning communities in Italy and France where people still thought of themselves as Romans and lived a recognizably Roman way of life.”

      I believe the last act of the Roman Senate was in 604 AD, if I remember correctly. So, it seems that something of being Roman in the original sense lasted at least that long. Not to mention, the ideal of Roman Empire hadn’t passed away when Charlemagne was crowned Emperor in the West. Yes, at that point, it has a lot discontinuity with the old Roman Empire, but it does show that a significant group of people still thought of there being such an ideal as a Roman Empire that was the legitimate authority in the West. Civilization hadn’t utterly died in the intervening 200 years in the West.

      BTW, nice review. I was considering getting this book after seeing it on a recent visit to the bookstore. I’ve now put it on the short list.

      • Thank you for the last. I’d also add that by 600 AD, there were burgeoning new societies in Denmark, Southern Sweden, and England; at the same time there was a Romano-Gothic society in the Iberian Peninsula. All of these, as you write, looked back to Rome as the model and ideal. In 800 BC, no one even remembered that the Hittite Empire had existed.

  5. This is nitpicking–I really enjoyed your review but I think I see where Leo is coming from. At least how I feel is, one doesn’t have to minimize Rome to make the Bronze Age interesting. You might be inclined to minimize it because you are vastly more familiar with it than I am (than the average person is). I think the average person needs to be told the Bronze Age is important, but doesn’t need to be told the fall of Rome is not a big deal. Seems to me it was. And maybe you’re not saying that, but the rhetoric (“specious”) comes across that way–thus Leo’s reaction, I’d guess.

    One big benefit of studying Rome it seems to me, is the vastness of information available compared to the more vague, half-prehistoric Bronze Age times. That has some counterweighing value against the greater spectacularness of Bronze Age failure. With Rome we have detail. That’s very important.

    I did find the BJ review and the subject matter-proper fascinating.

    • Thank you. I agree with you wholeheartedly: We should study Rome, in all its phases. High-school students should study Rome.

      Cline’s point and mine is simply that people concerned about the fragility of civilization should also study the Catastrophe.

      A misconception: The Late Bronze-Age civilizations were not “half-prehistoric.” They were sophisticated in architecture and other arts, in political organization, and navigation and in commerce; the people were not literate, but the elites employed scribal literacy in administering their polities. These societies seem to have thought of themselves as permanent. These facts make their sudden, total disappearance from history all the more poignant and deserving of contemplation.

      • This is fascinating stuff, but caution is warranted. From one reviewer:

        http://updegrove.wordpress.com/2014/05/11/book-review-1177-b-c-eric-h-cline-not-what-youd-expect/

        “…at the very end of the book does the author explicitly own up to the fact that the collapse really took, oh, let’s be candid, as much as 100 years, and that the relevance of the year 1177 is simply that this is agreed to be a somewhat arbitrary end date for the culmination of that process.”

        I would agree that the end of the late Bronze Age in the Levant was a collapse, whether it took a century or a shorter period, but it was not a global collapse, nor a total one, rather a regional one, and the Bronze Age was succeeded in due course not by the Stone Age, but by the Iron Age. The Exodus and the following events in Canaan might be dated somewhere in this chaotic period, though with much uncertainty.

        More intriguing are the questions of why the collapse occurred and how vulnerable is our civilization to a similar collapse, especially in an age when all the world’s major cities could be burned in one afternoon.

  6. The explanation for the confusion over the fall of Rome surely lies with Edward Gibbon being the premier and founding historian of the subject.

    The almost instantaneous and catastrophic collapse scenario was certainly the reality for Britain, and Britain was almost cut-off from the Capital of the Empire in Constantinople.

    Lots of people forget that Rome was not the capital of the Empire by the time Rome fell.

    • Bruce,

      Agreed. Very much a collapse from the point of view of Roman Britain. Ward-Perkins is at Oxford, but was born in Rome and spoke Italian from childhood. His book on the Fall of Rome won the Hessell-Tiltman Prize.

      The day one’s own city is sacked or burned is always a very bad day, whether we are talking about Troy, Rome, Dresden, or Hiroshima.

      Google “collapse of the X empire” where X = British, French, Russian, American, or whatever mighty empire, and you will see some interesting results. “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

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