His dark glasses are heavy and impenetrable. His hat lies low on his brow. The long peak leaves the rest of his face in shadow, deepened against the background of glaring sunshine and sand. Whose identity lurks behind the picture, purportedly of the author, on the dust jacket of 1177 BC? To judge from his language and style, the real writer might be the haplessly muddled Grand Inquisitor from The Gondoliers. After his attempt to explain the disappearance of many palaces, cities, states and literate cultures around the Aegean and in southwest Asia in the early 12th century BC, Eric Cline – surely an unconvincing alias for Gilbert and Sullivan’s character – concludes by proclaiming, ‘we undoubtedly do not know’. Of that there can be no possible doubt whatever.
Yet this ‘collapse’ is one of the best-documented episodes of the era, thanks to the survival of archives, especially from the Hittite Empire, the most spectacular of the vanishing polities and one long vulnerable to famine and disease. Around 1300 BC, King Mursili II reproached the gods for a plague: