This is perhaps the most disappointing book I’ve read in the past five years. Moreover, I say that based not only on my original assumption about what the author was setting out to achieve, but also on my adjusted assumption, after reading a few chapters. The charitable conclusion is that this a book by an academic who has tried – unsuccessfully (in my view) to write for a mass audience.
Let’s start with my original assumption when I bought the book, based on the way the book has been presented to the customer – that this would be a well-crafted book exploring external stresses on some interesting societies and the unfortunate results, along the lines of a work by Jared Diamond. Why would I jump to that conclusion? Well, for starters, let’s look at the title and subtitle: “1177 B.C. The Year Civilization Collapsed.” Does that sound like a scholarly title, or one shooting for the best seller list? Oh, and by the way, only 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.
Nor does the book provide the type of narrative that would deliver a book of that type, or the measured use of detail to support, rather than overwhelm, that narrative. On the other hand, he makes much of other forces where there are almost no solid facts to rely on at all. For example, while Cline makes provocative references to invasions by the “Sea Peoples” that may have accelerated the process of societal collapse, he necessarily then admits that there is virtually no evidence of any kind to say who they were, or where they came from – only assumptions. Even more puzzling, the only detailed description he provides about any of the actual events involving these mysterious invaders relates to the *successful* efforts of the Egyptians to turn back the Sea Peoples, thereby avoiding societal collapse – a rather puzzling introduction to the assumed story line.
Nor does Cline try to provide much of a picture of daily life for the civilizations involved, which brings me to my adjusted assumptions after making my way through the first two chapters. That’s because what Cline goes on to do is to cite virtually all of the sources of information for various theories, making some effort to qualify which are more likely to be reliable. Indeed, the endnotes, bibliography and index of the book take up an incredible 56 pages out of the 237 in total.
All of this could have been bearable if the actual text was tighter, more disciplined, and less repetitive. But Cline makes the same points over and over and over again without any need or productive result. He also skips around through time, selecting aspects of this society or another to cite, but in ways that do not always add up to a coherent purpose. And throughout, we are treated to ongoing exposures to the author’s conjectures. This isn’t to say that theories aren’t fine, but when they are uncomfortably lacking in supporting evidence, there’s little incentive to learn what one author believes “probably” occurred.
In summary, I think that this is at best a questionably packaged and marketed book, and a failed compromise between a work of popular history and serious scholarship. In short, if you enjoy popular historical works, this is a book to be avoided. If you’re looking for a serious scholarly work, then this one suffers from a serious lack of editorial review.
That said, judging by the many reviews that are more favorable than mine, there is clearly a type of reader for whom Cline’s approach is satisfactory. If you are an avid fan of historical detail about a period where your preexisting knowledge is slim, then you will certainly find ample detail here about clay tablet letters sent from King A to King B, indicating the existence of trade ties between their kingdoms, and which goods were found in which amphorae in this wreck or that indicating which regions engaged in trade with those regions.
That’s all perfectly valid, and indeed, I’ve read scores of books on archaeology that include exactly the same level of detail. You don’t expect that type of work to get into the big picture. But in my view, at least, what we find here is an author that has tried to sell to two very different audiences, and under delivered to both.