Brian Cranston’s recitation of “Ozymandias” in last year’s memorable video clip for the final season of Breaking Bad may have elided some of the finer points of Shelley's poem. But it did the job it was meant to do -- evoking the swagger of a grandiose ego, as well as time’s shattering disregard for even the most awe-inspiring claim to fame, whether by an ancient emperor or meth kingpin of the American Southwest.
But time has, in a way, been generous to the figure Shelley calls Ozymandias, who was not a purely fictional character, like Walter White, but rather the pharaoh Ramses II, also called User-maat-re Setep-en-re. (The poet knew of him through a less exact, albeit more euphonious, transcription of the name.) He ruled about one generation before the period that Eric H. Cline, a professor of classics and archeology at George Washington University, recounts in 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed (Princeton University Press).
Today the average person is reasonably likely to know that Ramses was the name of an Egyptian ruler. But very few people will have the faintest idea that anything of interest happened in 1177 B.C. It wasn't one of the 5,000 “essential names, phrases, dates, and concepts” constituting the “shared knowledge of literate American culture” that E.D Hirsch identified in his best-seller Cultural Literacy (1988), nor did it make it onto the revised edition Hirsch issued in 2002. Just over 3,000 years ago, a series of catastrophic events demolished whole cities, destroying the commercial and diplomatic connections among distinct societies that had linked up to form an emerging world order. It seems like this would come up in conversation from time to time. I suspect it may do so more often in the future.
So what happened in 1177 B.C.? Well, if the account attributed to Ramses III is reliable, that was the date of a final, juggernaut-like offensive by what he called the Sea Peoples. By then, skirmishes between Egypt and the seafaring barbarians had been under way, off and on, for some 30 years. But 1177 was the climactic year when, in the pharaoh’s words, “They laid their hands upon the lands as far as the circuit of the earth, their hearts confident…. ” The six tribes of Sea Peoples came from what Ramses vaguely calls “the islands.” Cline indicates that one group, the Peleset, are "generally accepted” by contemporary scholars "as the Philistines, who are identified in the Bible as coming from Crete.” The origins of the other five remain in question. Their rampage did not literally take the Sea Peoples around “the circuit of the earth,” but it was an ambitious military campaign by any standard.
They attacked cities throughout the Mediterranean, in places now called Syria, Turkey, and Lebanon, among others. About one metropolis Ramses says the Sea Peoples “desolated” the population, Ramses says, “and its land was like that which has never come into being.”
Cline reproduces an inscription that shows the Sea Peoples invading Egypt by boat. You need a magnifying glass to see the details, but the battle scene is astounding even without one. Imagine D-Day depicted exclusively with two-dimensional figures. The images are flat, but they swarm with such density that the effect is claustrophobic. It evokes a sense of terrifying chaos, of mayhem pressing in on all sides, so thick that nobody can push through it. Some interpretations of the battle scene, Cline notes, contend that it shows an Egyptian ambush of the would-be occupiers.
Given that the Egyptians ultimately prevailed over the Sea Peoples, it seems plausible: they would have had reason to record and celebrate such a maneuver. Ramses himself boasts of leading combat so effectively that the Sea Peoples who weren't killed or enslaved went home wishing they’d never even heard of Egypt: “When they pronounce my name in their land, then they are burned up.”
Other societies were not so fortunate. One of them, the Hittite empire, at its peak covered much of Turkey and Syria. (If the name seems mildly familiar, that may be because the Hittites, like the Philistines, make a number of appearances in the Bible.) One zone under Hittite control was the harbor city of Ugariot, a mercantile center for the entire region. You name it, Ugarit had it, or at least someone there could order it for you: linen garments, alabaster jars, wine, wheat, olive oil, anything in metal…. In exchange for paying tribute, a vassal city like Ugarit enjoyed the protection of the Hittite armed forces. Four hundred years before the Sea Peoples came on the scene, the king of the Hittites could march troops into Mesopotamia, burn down the city, then march them back home — a thousand miles each way — without bothering to occupy the country, “thus,” writes Cline, “effectively conducting the longest drive-by shooting in history.”
But by the early 12th century, Ugarit had fallen. Archeologists have found, in Cline’s words, "that the city was burned, with a destruction level reaching two meters high in some places.” Buried in the ruins are “a number of hoards … [that] contained precious gold and bronze items, including figurines, weapons and tools, some of them inscribed.” They "appear to have been hidden just before the destruction took place,” but "their owners never returned to retrieve them.” Nor was Ugarit ever rebuilt, which raises the distinct possibility that there were no survivors.
Other Hittite populations survived the ordeal but declined in power, wealth, and security. One of the maps in The Year Civilization Collapsed marks the cities around the Mediterranean that were destroyed during the early decades of the 12th century B.C. — about 40 of them in all.
The overview of what happened in 1177 B.C. that we’ve just taken is streamlined and dramatic — and way too much so not to merit skepticism. It’s monocausal. The Sea Peoples storm the beaches, one city after another collapses, but Ramses III survives to tell the tale…. One value of making a serious study of history, as somebody once said, is that you learn how things don’t happen.
Exactly what did becomes a serious challenge to determine, after a millennium or three. Cline’s book is a detailed but accessible synthesis of the findings and hypotheses of researchers concerned with the societies that developed around the Mediterranean throughout the second millennium B.C., with a special focus on the late Bronze Age, which came to an end in the decades just before and after the high drama of 1177. The last 20 years or so have been an especially productive and exciting time in scholarship concerning that region and era, with important work being done in fields such as archeoseismology and Ugaritic studies. A number of landmark conferences have fostered exchanges across micro-specialist boundaries, and 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed offers students and the interested lay antiquarian a sense of the rich picture that is emerging from debates among the ruins.
Cline devotes more than half of the book to surveying the world that was lost in or around the year in his title — with particular emphasis on the exchanges of goods that brought the Egyptian and Hittite empires, and the Mycenean civilization over in what we now call Greece, into closer contact. Whole libraries of official documents show the kings exchanging goods and pleasantries, calling each “brother,” and marrying off their children to one another in the interest of diplomatic comity. When a ship conveying luxury items and correspondence from one sovereign to another pulled in to dock, it would also carry products for sale to people lower on the social scale. It then returned with whatever tokens of good will the second king was sending back to the first — and also, chances are, commercial goods from that king’s empire, for sale back home.
The author refers to this process as “globalization,” which seems a bit misleading given that the circuits of communication and exchange were regional, not worldwide. In any case, it had effects that can be traced in the layers of scattered archeological digs: commodities and artwork characteristic of one society catch on in another, and by the start of the 12th century a real cosmopolitanism is in effect. At the same time, the economic networks encouraged a market in foodstuffs as well as tin — the major precious resource of the day, something like petroleum became in the 20th century.
But evidence from the digs also shows two other developments during this period: a number of devastating earthquakes and droughts. Some of the cities that collapsed circa 1177 may have been destroyed by natural disaster, or so weakened that they succumbed far more quickly to the marauding Sea Peoples than they would have otherwise. For that matter, it is entirely possible that the Sea Peoples themselves were fleeing from such catastrophes. “In my opinion,” writes Cline, “… none of these individual factors would have been cataclysmic enough on their own to bring down even one of these civilizations, let alone all of them. However, they could have combined to produce a scenario in which the repercussions of each factor were magnified, in what some scholars have called a ‘multiplier effect.’ … The ensuing ‘systems collapse’ could have led to the disintegration of one society after another, in part because of the fragmentation of the global economy and the breakdown of the interconnections upon which each civilization was dependent."
Referring to 1177 B.C. will, at present, only get you blank looks, most of the time. But given how the 21st century is shaping up, it may yet become a common reference point -- and one of more than antiquarian relevance.