Modern Western society is fascinated with the idea of collapse, particularly in the United States. People watch Doomsday Preppers, follow blogs on Peak Oil, and think about what their world would look like if banks failed. Even before the Club of Rome’s report in the 1970s, many scholars have long warned about modern civilization’s over-reliance on non-renewable resources, minerals and fuels. There is a faction within the environmental movement now that warns of collapse with such intensity that its members almost appear to desire it. When people talk about the collapse of a great civilization, they typically reach back to ancient Rome. In my class “Foundations of Global Studies Theory” course I use a blog post by Ugo Bardi called “Peak Civilization: the Fall of the Roman Empire,” which always sparks interesting conversations about energy in our modern world. While Rome is one possible comparator, one can perhaps make an even better connection between modern civilization and an even earlier period of globalization. There was a time when the key commodity was tin, and most of the mines lay in one particular region of Afghanistan. Without tin, there was no bronze, which meant that ancient armies relied on a commodity chain every bit as long and complex as those for the rare earths in modern smart phones. In 1177, The Year Civilization Collapsed, Eric Cline focuses on the Ancient Near East and its international system.
This period may appear remote from Global Studies, but globalization has deep roots. Before Columbus
sailed, the Arab world had its own period of globalization that saw travelers such as Ibn Battuta voyage from North Africa to Central Asia. Perhaps the first great period of globalization, however, came even earlier in the epoch around 1400-1200 BC. This was a world of diverse major powers -Assyrians, Egyptians, Hittites, and others- who engaged in diplomacy, intermarriage and trade. And then in a stunningly short period, this entire world collapsed. Why?
Traditionally, scholars have focused on a mysterious group called the Sea People, who overran one ancient civilization after another with the sole exception of ancient Egypt. Cline’s work seeks to examine this collapse of civilizations in a historical context, to better understand why many states failed at the same moment. Cline begins the work by making a direct comparison between the ancient Near East and the contemporary Middle East, which he says holds lessons for our globalized world today. Indeed, he says that this collapse is a better model for the present than ancient Rome precisely because it involved multiple civilizations.
Cline’s strength is his deep knowledge of the literature, and broad understanding of the history of multiple states
during this period. He begins his study in 1477, and details the complex interactions between ancient cultures that have been preserved on papyrus and clay tablets. This section of his work discusses topics as wide ranging as ancient shipwrecks to marriage between neighboring dynasties. The wonderful graphics by D.H. Cline document this web of connections in a visual manner, and add greatly to the text.
While this historical background is a strength, it also becomes a weakness too, because this discussion the background comes to overshadow the collapse itself, which is the key topic of the book. Does the reader really need to know the details of the Battle of Megiddo or the archaeological evidence (and lack thereof) for the Biblical Exodus? Much of this material seems tangential to his thesis, so that he at times seems to be as interested in documenting a world as in making an argument. In part, the challenge may be that so much regarding this period remains a mystery, so that Cline spends a great deal of time describing what scholars don’t know. Who were the Sea People? Where did they come from? Which sites did they sack? Which cities may have been destroyed by internal rebellions? Why weren’t cities rebuilt? We know that various states and cities collapsed, but much less about why this breakdown took place.
In the end, Cline argues that the ancient world was overthrown by a “perfect storm,” which involved external invasion, an earthquake storm, drought and other factors. He also refers to chaos theory, in a brief final section. This material is intriguing, but the book still feels unbalanced, because it spends more time on the background to the collapse than the catastrophe itself. This section might have benefited from more explicit discussion of the theorists of collapse, such as Joseph Tainter. In my Global Studies theory class Tainter’s concept regarding the marginal utility of increasing complexity always leads to an interesting discussion about global energy supplies. It would also have been interesting to compare 1177 with 410/476 in Rome, in more than a passing way. In the end, with so much unknown, the reader is left uncertain what the lessons for the modern era were. This is unfortunate, because Cline is convincing that there are many parallels between this ancient international system and today’s world. Ultimately, his book is a richly researched and detailed overview of a lost period of globalization, which provides a new perspective on how civilizations may collapse.
Interested in international mysteries? Click here.
Shawn Smallman, Portland State University