This week marks the traditional reckoning date for the fall of Troy, in 1183 B.C. The ancient Greeks calculated the date centuries later, but they probably weren’t far off. Whatever the timing, Troy offers a frightening warning for our world in 2020.
We know about the Trojan War because of a Greek poet who lived hundreds of years after the city fell. Homer told the tale in his great poems The Iliad and The Odyssey. Modern readers long considered Homer’s tales fiction, but during the 1870s (A.D.), a treasure hunter dug up ruins in Turkey that match Homer’s Troy. Fire destroyed the buried city during the 1250’s B.C., not long before the traditional date for Troy’s fall. And many of the ruins match the features Homer described in The Iliad.
To Homer and his listeners and readers, Troy’s fall seems an isolated event. But the Trojan city was just first in a long line of kingdoms to fall during the years surrounding 1200 B.C. In fact, every major civilization of the Mediterranean world fell — the Hittites, Babylonia, Syria, Canaan, the Mycenaean Greeks who’d conquered Troy, etc. — except Egypt. And Egypt almost fell and never recovered its power and glory. This wave of disaster ended Bronze Age civilization and launched a dark age. Scholars have offered many explanations, including invasions — e.g., the famous “Sea Peoples” — as well as climate change, volcanic eruption, and disease. But the most likely explanation is that the rich, sophisticated civilizations of the Bronze Age had become too fragile. Each great kingdom depended on extended trade networks for survival. When the troubles above disrupted the trade routes, they triggered a cascade of additional disruptions, leading to network collapse and disaster.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because the modern world is also a civilization surviving on a web of trade networks. And we’re facing a massive disruption to our network, COVID-19, with others looming, like climate change. Let’s hope we do better than the Bronze Age kingdoms, particularly the first to fall: Troy.