Collapse of Bronze Age Civilization

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* Book: 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed by Eric H. Cline. (Princeton University Press)



Thomas Hall:

"Eric Cline’s new book, 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed, is a detailed account and discussion of how civilization, at least in the eastern Mediterranean, collapsed. The date, 1177 BC, is more or less the midpoint of a process that took many years and was the consequence of changes that occurred in the preceding four centuries. The eastern Mediterranean spans the west coast of modern Greece, to Mesopotamia on east, and just south of the Black Sea through upper Egypt—that is, the upstream portion of the Nile valley approximately parallel to and north of the southern end of the Red Sea. Even more than for the date, this is a variable area. Cline’s book discusses all of these areas, though at times the discussion focuses on only part of this area. Pages vi and vii provide a useful map with the major empires and territories indicated.

Cline’s punch line is that all monocausal explanations are wrong, or at best, incomplete. He concludes that the collapse was due to “A ‘Perfect Storm’ of Calamities?” (Chapter 5).


In a brief Preface, Cline describes the aim of the book: to explain how the Late Bronze Age ended. He also hopes to draw lessons from this study for contemporary times, noting the work of Jared Diamond (2005) and Justin Jennings (2011; but also see Kardulias 2014). A key parallel is that both Diamond’s and Jennings’s books are concerned with “globalized world systems with multiple civilizations” (p. xvi). He further notes that Carol Bell (2012),

Susan Sherratt (2003), and Fernand Braudel (2001) have made similar calls for such comparisons. However, Cline’s book is also a bit of detective story, trying to solve the mystery of the collapse of the Bronze Age. 1177 B.C. is directed toward an audience larger than scholars of the Bronze Age."


  • Citation: Hall, Thomas. 2015. A ‘Perfect Storm’ in the Collapse of Bronze Age Civilization? Useful Insights and Roads not Taken: A Review Essay on 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed by Eric H. Cline (Princeton University Press). Cliodynamics 5: 75–86.


Thomas Hall:


"this is an outstanding contribution to the history of the Late Bronze Age in the Eastern Mediterranean and to broader discussions of collapse. Cline’s copious notes allow scholars to pursue many different topics and revisit many of the key writings on various aspects of that history. For me at least, its greatest value is the ways in which it promotes thinking about issues of collapse."



"For scholars interested in collapse and massive changes in empires or world systems, Chapter 5, “A ‘Perfect Storm’ of Calamities?” is the key chapter. Here, Cline follows Sherlock Holmes in arguing that it is necessary to choose among probabilities to solve the mystery of the collapse. To start, there is no consensus among scholars on cause(s). Earthquakes may have contributed, but their timing often was wrong for causing the collapse. The timing of climate change, drought, and famine are similarly problematic; furthermore, evidence shows that the population decline was not very steep. There is evidence, however, that the Early Iron Age was dryer than the Late Bronze Age. To assert emigration begs the question: what caused migration(s)? Internal rebellions also seem too few and too weak to have initiated collapse.

What about invaders and/or rapid decline in international trade? Again, they may have been possible contributors but insufficient to be the entire cause. A sharp drop in trade may have made some cities more vulnerable to attack because resources became scarcer. The question remains, why were the destroyed cities not rebuilt by survivors. An increase in private merchants—as opposed to state-sponsored merchants—may have been part and parcel of increasing decentralization. Susan Sherratt (1998) argues that Sea Peoples may have been a final phase in the replacement of old, centralized systems, but why did decentralization occur at all? Ugarit was destroyed by external invaders; possibly smaller declines and partial collapses may have generated chaos which, in turn, may have opened new opportunities to private traders. What about the celebrated Sea Peoples? Where did they go? Some came by land as well as by sea, but coastal resettlers may not have caused widespread destruction. Others suggest that the incursions were far more gradual over fifty or more years. Still, questions remain. Why did Sea Peoples move? Were they opportunists or maybe refugees?

Finally, Cline raises the issue of systems collapse, that is, failures that carried both domino and multiplier consequences. He draws heavily on Colin Renfrew’s (1979) discussion of collapse. Although he finds this explanation intriguing, it still leaves open the “why?” There are many possibilities, dependence on bronze and other prestige goods among them. At best, central rulers could delay collapse, but not ultimately prevent it. Cline reviews these possibilities and turns to complexity theory, which might predict collapse, but not precisely. One condition is “hypercoherence” described by K. R. Dark (1998) under which interconnections in feedback loops are so dense that if any one is broken, it might cause collapse of the entire system. Collapse is nearly inevitable because the costs of stability are very high. In short, complicated systems can break down in a variety of ways. He concludes that monocausal explanations and linear explanations will not suffice.

Cline concludes with a brief Epilogue. He notes that collapse, although a disaster for current elites, can offer opportunities to others. He further acknowledges that 1177 BC is not a precise date for collapse any more than 476 AD is a precise date for the collapse of western Roman Empire. Rather, it is a convenient marker for a complex process that occurred over a number of years. He notes that rebuilding was a very slow process entailing decades and even centuries, citing some discussion of Dark Ages. He closes his account with an argument that new peoples and city-states replaced what had gone before: From them eventually came fresh developments and innovative ideas, such as the alphabet, monotheistic religion, and eventually democracy. Sometimes it takes a large-scale wildfire to help renew the ecosystem of an old-growth forest and allow it to thrive afresh (p. 176).


This kind of “perfect storm” is rooted in the concatenation of a variety of simultaneous processes. Glen Kuecker also describes a potential collapse in the twenty-first century as a result of a “perfect storm” and ways it might be survived (2007, 2014, Kuecker and Hall 2011). Underlying both is Joseph Tainter’s (1988) and later K. R. Dark’s (1998) analyses of the costs of complexity. Tainter discusses “declining marginal returns to complexity” (see figure in Tainter 1988, p. 119). Basically, he argues that increases in complexity cost more the higher the existing level of complexity. Finally, it hits and inflection point and complexity begins to decline despite further inputs. Soon this will lead to collapse of the system. Of course, this holds under relatively static technological and organizational conditions. Collapse leads to dissolution of the state. Elites are almost always damaged extensively, if not entirely wiped out. Commoners, however, occasionally may actually benefit from collapse, primarily because they no longer need to supply the capital resources to continue high levels of complexity. If, on the other hand, the state provided resources that facilitated commoner production, then they too will suffer decline.

Dark adds to this discussion by noting that a new state, often based on new technology and/or new forms of organization (i.e., complexity) sets a new curve of increasing technology until a new inflection point is reached (see figure in Dark 1998, p. 125). There is some similarity here to Carneiro’s (1970, 2000) argument that circumscription of expansion puts great pressure on social organizations. In cases where a new organizational form (e.g., the state) is not invented, collapse of the competing societies into a simpler form is not uncommon. In some cases, competition among those surviving may lead to circumscription. Again, if a new form of organization does not arise, there may be another simplification. Such cycling might continue for a long time (Anderson 1994, 1996; Hall 2001). Finally, Chase-Dunn and Hall (1997, Ch. 6; 2011, 2012; ChaseDunn and Lerro 2014; Chase-Dunn 2015) present an “iteration model” which diagrams how many of the factors raised in these discussions interact in complex feedback loops. Occasionally, the cyclical processes break down, and the worldsystem collapses. Occasionally, a new technology of production or organization is invented that solves the problem. The system then returns to a cyclic iteration process. Peter Turchin provides a complex model of rise and demise built from the logic of evolutionary biology (2003; Turchin and Nefedov 2009).

All of these approaches—Tainter, Dark, Carneiro, Chase-Dunn and Hall, Turchin—have at least one commonality. For all of them, the breakthrough to new technology or organization occurs as a bifurcation point (so-called in chaos theory); in short, a new evolutionary development occurs. It is important to note that this is a new process with a considerable random component to it, hence inherently unpredictable. Chase-Dunn and Hall’s iteration model attempts to show this diagrammatically. Further, these general models account for why states, empires, or world-systems typically seem to cycle or rise and fall, why many states and/or cities are rebuilt in same areas. Only rarely was their radical change. Thus, the Bronze Age collapse opened the way to development of the Iron Age and larger states, empires, or world systems"