So you’ve seen “Wonder Woman 1984” and so you know that the Dreamstone is a seriously dangerous magical artifact that has destroyed at least 5 major civilizations throughout human history.
If you’re not clear how it works you can catch up here but briefly: Created by the “god of lies,” the Dreamstone grants wishes, but at a tremendous personal cost to the person making the wish. This has far-ranging consequences. It could be personal: Say someone wishes for $1,000; they get it, but it turns out to be a severance package after their job has been eliminated. Or it could affect other people: Ask for a new car, and someone else might lose theirs.
The big problem is that the effect is cumulative, meaning the more wishes the Dreamstone grants, the more powerful its negative impacts become, until it can destroy whole societies. And according to the film, the Dreamstone did just that to the Indus River valley civilization, the kingdom of Kush, Carthage, Ancient Rome and the Mayans.
All of these civilizations did actually exist and given the circumstances under which you’re reading this, you know they eventually came to an end. Though, obviously in real life these civilizations weren’t destroyed by magic. So let’s take a look at what really happened to each of them.
Civilization: Indus River Valley
Date of destruction, according to “Wonder Woman 1984”: “4,000 Years Ago”
Established sometime around 3300 BCE — making them contemporaneous with ancient Egypt and Sumerian cultures — the Indus River valley people created the earliest documented civilization in what is now known as South Asia.
Though less embedded in Western popular culture than their contemporaries, the Indus River people established an extremely advanced society marked by complex urban planning, with grid city design, extensive sanitation, public baths, large buildings and flood management systems, just to name a few innovations. There is also evidence of a large number of specialist occupations, an extensive trading network reaching as far away as Egypt and the Levant, a developed business economy and greatly accurate units of measurement, plus long periods of relative peace. They were educated, prosperous and for the time highly urbanized, basically about as good as it got during the bronze age.
The civilization really hit its stride around 2600 BCE and kept going strong for another 900 years, at its peak encompassing vast territory stretching from modern day Afghanistan through Pakistan and into west and northwestern India. But according to archaeologists, it began to decline around 1900 BCE. It’s impossible to know for certain why, but it’s now believed that a dramatic change in climate affecting multiple regions around the world began around this time. In the Indus River valley, this appears to have caused a rise in the spread of disease and interruptions to agriculture, limiting the ability of cities to support their residents, and disrupting trade networks. This, predictably, would have ruined the economy, likely contributed to a spike in violence, and further weakened societal ties.
Whatever the cause, within 200 years the major cities were abandoned and the region began to split up into several independent successor societies.
“Wonder Woman 1984” says that the Indus Valley culture ended 4,000 years ago, or roughly 1980 BCE, so, it was at least in the ballpark. Though in real life it wasn’t a sudden end so much as a long decline — perhaps with a sudden beginning.
If you want to know more, check out: The Archaeology of South Asia: From the Indus to Asoka, c.6500 BCE-200 CE (Cambridge World Archaeology) We also recommend “1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed” by Eric Cline, for an overview of a possibly related series of calamities that happened a few hundred years later.
Date of destruction, according to “Wonder Woman 1984”: 146 BC
Located in what is now Tunisia, the city state of Carthage was one of the most powerful states in the Mediterranean region for hundreds of years. But things changed after Rome started to expand out of Italy and into areas the Carthaginians considered theirs.
In 264 the two empires got into a dispute over control of Sicily, sparking a war that lasted for 23 years. In the end, Rome won basically because it was slightly less bankrupted by it than Carthage. In the peace agreement, Carthage paid a ton of money to Rome and things otherwise went back to how they were before, but Rome started acting in an increasingly arrogant and flagrantly bad faith manner toward Carthage.
23 years later, in 218, Carthage finally had enough of that and its general Hannibal kicked off a second war by sacking a Roman city in what is now Spain. That war lasted for 17 years, most of which saw Rome get its ass kicked again and again, but Rome ultimately prevailed and imposed a brutal peace on Carthage. Among other things Rome took over almost all of Carthage’s territory and required Carthage to request permission even to defend itself within its own borders.
Carthage never posed a threat to Rome again, but it remained the boogeyman in Roman politics and hawkish elements in the Roman Senate spent decades agitating for a new war to settle things once and for all. They got their wish in 149 BCE, when Rome accused Carthage of violating the peace treaty under a laughably thin pretext. After just three years Roman forces prevailed, burned Carthage to the ground and enslaved the survivors, ending Carthagian power forever.
“Wonder Woman 1984” doesn’t say precisely what the Carthaginians wished for in 146 BC but if we had to guess, they wished that Rome, which would have at the time meant The Republic, would fall.
And well, in real life, after destroying Carthage Rome entered a period of rapid expansion, sending a huge amount of money and slaves flowing into Italy from its new overseas empire. This completely wrecked the Roman economy, as rich people amassed more and more money and land, while the middle classes and poor were rendered homeless and, thanks to all the slaves, jobless. Meanwhile Rome’s conservative faction resisted even minor reforms to solve these growing problems and over the next century they conspired to murder pretty much every single reformer who tried. The increasing bitterness caused several civil wars until finally the Republic itself was destroyed by the one following Julius Caesar’s assassination, and replaced by the imperial monarchy.
Which is to say, Carthage got its wish!
If you want to know more, a good place to start is “The Punic Wars: Rome, Carthage and the Struggle for the Mediterranean” by Nigel Bagnall. We’re also fans of “Caesar and Christ: The Story of Civilization, Volume III” by Will Durant.
Date of destruction, according to “Wonder Woman 1984”: 4 AD
This one’s a bit weirder. Kush was a historic kingdom centered in Nubia, a region in what is now northern Sudan and southern Egypt. It was founded sometime in the 11th century BCE and survived for the next 1500 years, even if a lot of that time was spent as a client kingdom, first to Egypt and then to Rome.
They definitely were not destroyed in 4 AD. It’s true that, according to the Roman-era historians, a war between Kush and Rome broke out in the early 1st century CE — apparently over heavy taxes imposed by Rome — but it was eventually resolved to the satisfaction of both sides.
In fact, Kush apparently powered along until the mid-300s CE when it started a war with the neighboring Kingdom of Aksum, lost badly, and entered a long decline until finally being formally dissolved 200 years later. So yeah, no sudden end for Kush.
For more, a good place to start is “The Kingdom of Kush: Handbook of the Napatan-Meroitic Civilization” by Laszlo Torok.
Civilization: Roman Empire
Date of destruction, according to “Wonder Woman 1984”: 476 AD
The film mentions that Romulus Augustus, “the last emperor of Rome,” had the Dreamstone in 476 AD, implying that in the “Wonder Woman 1984” version of history, the Roman Empire fell because of the Dreamstone.
In real life things are way more complicated, so we need to clear up a few misconceptions.
To start, Romulus Augustus wasn’t the last Roman Emperor, he was the last emperor of the Western Roman Empire. See, almost 200 years earlier Rome’s territory had been split, east and west, into two large administrative divisions in order to make it easier to manage. The situation was fluid but basically, a primary emperor ran things from Constantinople, cultural and economic center of the east, while assistant emperors managed things from Italy.
In 395 AD, the two halves of the empire became de facto independent political entities with ostensibly coequal emperors. Constantinople remained the Eastern capital while Western emperors ran things from Ravenna in northern Italy. (By this point Rome itself was an irrelevant backwater even if the Senate still pretended otherwise.)
But starting in the early 400s, wave after wave of invasions by nomadic peoples from the east, most notably the Huns but also Germans, chipped off huge chunks of Roman territory. By the 470s the “Western” empire had been reduced to the approximate borders of modern day Italy, plus some territory in the Balkans and northern France, and otherwise was surrounded by various German kingdoms. And Western emperors were basically figureheads subordinate to their counterpart in Constantinople, while real authority was wielded by military commanders.
In 475 a general named Orestes overthrew the current emperor, then put his 14-year-old son, Romulus Augustus, on the throne. Just over a year later, a coalition of German tribes led by the warlord Odocer defeated Orestes in battle and then almost as an afterthought removed Romulus from the throne — traditionally his life was spared and he lived out his days in luxury as a ward of Odocer. Odocer was subsequently named protector of Italy under the ostensible authority of the Eastern Roman Emperor, until he declared himself the king of Italy.
However the Roman empire very much continued uninterrupted in Constantinople with drastically fluctuating territory — it even briefly reconquered Italy in the mid-500s AD — for the next 1,000 years. The actual last Roman emperor was Constantine XI Palaeologus, who died in 1453 when Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Turks, who made the city the new capital of their empire.
So to recap, in real life Rome wasn’t destroyed in 476 AD, and Romulus Augustus wasn’t the last emperor. Presumably things are different in the “Wonder Woman” version of history.
There has been so much written about the fall of Rome, but you could always start with “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” by Edward Gibbon, which helped popularize the idea that 476 is a particularly significant year for the Roman empire.
Date of destruction, according to “Wonder Woman 1984”: Unclear
So mid-way through the film, when Wonder Woman, Steve and Barbara meet up to learn more about the Dreamstone, they talk to a dreadlocked guy of Mayan descent who tells them the Dreamstone eventually found its way to his ancestors “and destroyed them in a matter of months.” The survivors, he said, buried it and left behind a dire warning for future generations to avoid it at all costs.
No date is given for this event, so we don’t know when the DC Comics movieverse version of Mayan civilization is supposed to have been destroyed. In the real world, surprise surprise, it’s way more complicated.
Everyone knows the Mayan peoples created an advanced civilization in what it now Central America and southern Mexico, that lasted for centuries and is renowned for highly developed math, architecture, art, astronomy and of course their famous, highly accurate calendar. But brief note: “Maya” is the word used by modern people to describe this civilization collectively. They didn’t refer to themselves as Mayans and in fact were never a centralized empire. What we call Mayans were a group of city states with distinct cultures who spoke related languages and often formed confederations with one another.
The earliest evidence of Mayan culture appears approximately 4,000 years ago, but their “classical” period, which saw the highest amount of urbanization and monument building, lasted from approximately 250-900 CE. Beginning in the late 800s however, something happened that made them stop building huge monuments and abandon their largest cities. It’s unclear what caused it, though the current theory is that a global warming trend during the middle ages caused droughts in the region, which in turn made Mayan cities unsustainable. This led to societal destabilization, with internecine fighting and declining trade finishing things off.
However, while is often referred to as the “collapse” of Mayan classical civilization, that’s not entirely accurate. Mayan civilization actually continued for hundreds of years, with the major power center shifting from what is now Guatemala to the Yucatan. Mayan peoples continued to dominate the region through the 1500s until, one by one, their cities were conquered by the Spanish. But fun fact: The last independent Mayan city fell in 1697.
Long story short, IRL there isn’t actually a single collapse event, so far as we know, that happened “in a matter of months.” Though perhaps in the “Wonder Woman” version of history, the Dreamstone caused that drought.
For more, a good start is “Water and Ritual: The Rise and Fall of Classic Maya Rulers” by Lisa J. Lucero.