Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.06.14 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.06.14

Trevor Bryce, The World of the Neo-Hittite Kingdoms: A Political and Military History.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2012.  Pp. xiii, 356.  ISBN 9780199218721.  $135.00.  

Reviewed by Lorenzo d’Alfonso, Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, New York University (


In 2012, thirty years after the chapter by John David Hawkins for the Cambridge Ancient History, Trevor Bryce has published a monograph in English on the history of the Neo-Hittite kingdoms. Within the last two decades Hawkins published the Corpus of Hieroglyphic Luwian Inscriptions of the Iron Age,1 and archaeological excavations in Turkey and Syria have produced such new and significant results, that the book represents a much needed novel synthesis of this period. In general, this book has the potential for a very wide impact on the study of pre-classical Anatolia than that of previous studies. A closer look at Neo-Hittite polities is of major interest to researchers in ancient Near Eastern studies who have long been waiting for a reference work on this important and not easily accessible portion of the Eastern Mediterranean history. Furthermore, researchers of archaic Greece and Biblical studies will benefit immensely from a deeper historical picture of the Neo-Hittite world and the ever more evident interconnections with Neo-Hittite polities.

The book is based on the Hieroglyphic Luwian inscriptions published in the Corpus and on the inscriptions published between 2000 and 2010. Part I serves as an introduction and focuses on the Late Bronze Age foundations of the Neo- Hittite kingdoms, sketching a political outline of the Hittite empire with specific attention to its fall and aftermath. Bryce then analyzes the Hieroglyphic Luwian sources in their geographic context, first from the Neo-Hittite internal perspective (Part II), and then sets them in a broader historical context mainly defined by interaction with the growing Assyrian Empire (Part III). Appendices, bibliography and indices close the monograph.

The book will serve as an essential reference for all scholars dealing with the Neo- Hittite kingdoms. It suffices to say that the indices and Appendix 2 alone, detailing the Neo-Hittite dynasties and providing references to textual sources for each ruler, are much awaited, previously unavailable tools. The same holds true for Bryce’s emphasis on the historical developments through time and space in Anatolia. His reconstruction is indebted to the introductions Hawkins wrote to each chapter of his Corpus (p.3), but the coherent treatment of all written sources on the political history in Part II, “intended as a reference source, for consultation by readers as the need arises” (p.79) is very well conceived and easy to use. In this sense the monograph differs from Bryce’s previous works on Ancient Anatolian history, and in particular from his masterpiece, The Kingdom of the Hittites.2 Rather, the book’s organization compares to Klengel’s handbooks on Syria and Hittite Anatolia,3 with the list of sources relevant to each polity, followed by a historical sketch of the political events. Part II is, in my view, the best and most innovative section of the book.

In serving a broader audience, however, Bryce’s monograph is more problematic. Two main issues stand out: 1) the decision not to include the archaeological record as part of the historical reconstruction; and 2) the approach to the content of the written sources.

A political history of pre-classical western Asia that does not take into account the archaeological record is unusual, but it becomes even more problematic when the investigation centers on the post-palatial period. This period, roughly 1200-900 BCE, is characterized by a dearth of epigraphic material; consequently its history necessarily depends on the results of archaeological research. Recent excavations have added important clues for the reconstruction of basic aspects of socio-political organization during this period.4 Bryce correctly mentions the need for “a comprehensive account of the Neo-Hittite artistic achievement”, and raises the wish that his “book will provide a useful historical background for such a work’ (pp. 5-6). This means, however, that the monograph is not providing a comprehensive historical picture based on all available sources – written and archaeological. The recent monograph of Alessandra Gilibert5 shows how synthesizing the archaeological and written sources of the Syro- Hittite polities can provide a novel understanding of the dynamics of power of this period. Beyond art history and architecture, however, elements such as the change seen in settlement patterns, site occupation and material culture are crucial in reconstructing political dynamics, particularly for the understudied Early Iron Age.

The second criticism concerns Bryce’s traditional approach to the written sources. He accepts the historicity of the texts at face value and does not engage at all with larger scholarly debates concerning the interpretation of ancient sources. This type of analysis is less problematic for the little studied Hieroglyphic Luwian sources, but his approach to the texts becomes questionable when the picture provided for the Neo-Hittite polities intersects with other historical trajectories. This concern is illustrated, for example, by his treatment of the colonization of the western Anatolian coast by Greeks tribes in the post-Mycenaean period. The account offered by Bryce follows the one provided by Herodotus and Strabo, and does not consider the entire debate of the deconstruction of the first colonization. 6 The same is evident also for Bryce’s approach to the Assyrian royal inscriptions, where other more interpretative approaches to the sources are not considered.7 The approach to chronology and historicity of the early phases of the Biblical account is more careful and nuanced; nonetheless, Bryce finally chooses the scenario that better fits his reconstruction without explaining the reason for his choice. In support of his approach, one should mention that a historiographic tendency of adhering more to the content of the sources characterizes recent research in ancient Near Eastern Studies.; see, for example, the monograph of David Schloen, or the contribution by Itamar Singer on the revision of the postmodernist thought on Near Eastern historiography.8 The issue is not whether Bryce’s approach is functional or provides too shallow an understanding of the history of this period, rather that nowhere in the book does he contextualize his method against the scholarship of others. This lack of discussion on historiographic method is a major problem in the attempt to insert the Neo-Hittite polities into the bigger historiographic debate on the whole Eastern Mediterranean.

With regards to specific content issues, the picture of the migration of Luwians into southern Anatolia and northern Syria (defined as ‘Luwian speakers’, ‘populations from Central and Western Anatolia’, ‘an extremely elusive people’, thus showing some uncertainty with the concepts of ethnicity vs. language: p. 17ff.; 57f.) is not thoroughly discussed. Bryce often refers to a wide group of scholars supporting this mass migration (pp. 1, 31, 80), but he then mentions only Singer and Collins (p.58). He presents the thesis of the abandonment of Hattusa by Suppiluliuma II along with his court and army, and in some passages he suggests that they moved to the southeastern regions of the former empire (p.12, 17); elsewhere he looks however more skeptical (p.57), cautious (p. 63), or instead speculates that the kings of Kummuh are seen as possible descendants of the Hittite Great Kings (p. 111). Elsewhere he suggests that a large population movement to Syria could have taken place earlier, after the conquest of Suppiluliuma I (p. 59-60). This reconstruction is not supported by onomastic and other evidence in the sources from Emar and Ugarit; there, few individuals from Anatolia are attested, though those present are very powerful and have ties with the Hittite administration. Elsewhere in the book, Bryce refutes the vision of a large Neo-Hittite (?) population in Syria, supporting the view of a restricted ruling class (p.134). But at the same time he suggests contacts and conflicts between Neo-Hittite and Aramean states (p.48), thus acknowledging a concrete ethnic boundary. The whole question of ethnicity is better addressed in those specific contexts where boundaries emerge and identities are claimed. The settlement of Zincirli is a context in which this approach can be fruitful (p.169), but its adoption into the whole historical scenario is risky. Dividing Neo-Hittite polities from other Syrian polities on the basis of the presence of Hieroglyphic Luwian inscriptions is also problematic, as it reconstructs the presence of Anatolian elites based only upon the use of Hieroglyphic Luwian script.

The short section on the Phrygian kingdom (pp. 39-43) requires a more nuanced treatment. The formation of a kingdom based in Gordion during the Early Iron Age is presented as the sum of two migrations, one from the west (Phrygians), and one from the east (Muski). Bryce seems unaware of the debate on the reality and mode of the Phrygian migration from Thrace,9 but also the connection between this already problematic first wave of people and the development of the kingdom of Gordius/Kurtis and Midas. These rulers bear local Anatolian names and can therefore be linked to local, post-Hittite milieus; a possibility that should be better kept open. Moreover, Bryce holds to the traditional dating of the death of Midas and the fall of Gordion at the end of the 8th century, and bases the political scenario of central Anatolia on it. The archaeologists excavating Gordion, have abandoned this dating10 and the issue is strongly debated today, but nothing of this debate is echoed in the book. As stated previously, this failure to acknowledge recent archaeological research creates major flaws in his overall historical model.

The role of Karkamiš for the continuity of Hittite traditions into the Iron Age is carefully presented. He writes that Kuzi- Teššub proclaimed ‘himself the heir of the last Great King of Hatti’ (p.83). While it is true that, after the fall of Hattusa, Karkamiš was ruled by a Hittite dynasty established by a son of Suppiluliuma I, Kuzi- Teššub and Ura Tarhunzas, bear the title of Great King of Karkamiš, not of Hatti, and in no inscriptions do we see a clear intent of appropriating the Hittite imperial past. Moreover, the reconstruction of the Early Iron Age history of the city, with Ir- Teššub as successor of Kuzi-Teššub (p.196), is possible, but not supported by any evidence.

The meaning of official titles in Hieroglyphic Luwian inscriptions of the Iron Age also needs reconsideration. *handawatis, REGIO.DOMINUS, and tarwanis, have long been considered synonyms for monarchs in different city-states, often depending on local developments (see in particular pp. 89-90; 148). In fact, the set of the offerings to the temple of the Storm-god of Aleppo in the newly published ALEPPO 6 inscription shows that a defined hierarchy of titles and offices still existed and was respected in the eleventh century BCE Syria,11 but it is possible that these titles lost their specific meaning in a later phase (8th century).

To conclude, Trevor Bryce has produced a well-conceived, thorough handbook for the political history of the Neo-Hittite kingdoms based on analysis of written records. The book is a basic tool for research in the eastern Mediterranean of the Iron Age. Bryce also provides a scholarly foundation for embedding post-Hittite developments within the more complex scenario of Western Asia between 1200 and 700 BCE. However, in order to fully join the political discourse in ancient history and engage with contemporary socio-political phenomena such as the imperial program of Assyria, the rise of the poleis in the Aegean, and the ‘ethnic state’ and ‘limited kingship’ of the southern Levant, archaeological data and the discussion of the historiographic method need to be added to this work.


1.   J. David Hawkins, Corpus of Hieroglyphic Luwian Inscriptions of the Iron Age, Berlin-New York 2000.
2.   Trevor Bryce, The Kingdom of the Hittites, Oxford 1998 (2005).
3.   Horst Klengel, Geschichte Syriens im 2. Jahrtausend. Berlin 1965; idem, Syria 3000-300 B.C., Berlin 1992; idem, Geschichte des hethitischen Reiches, Leiden-Boston-Köln 1999.
4.   Among others: Hermann Genz, "The Early Iron Age in Central Anatolia", in B. Fischer et al. (eds.), Identifying Changes: the Transition from Bronze to Iron Ages in Anatolia and its Neighboring Regions, Istanbul 2003, 179- 191; Fabrizio Venturi, La Siria nell’età delle trasformazioni (XIII-X sec. a.C.) , Bologna 2007; Timothy Harrison, "Lifting the Veil on a “Dark Age”: Ta‛yınat and the North Orontes Valley During the Early Iron Age", in D. Schloen (ed.), Exploring the Longue Durée: Essays in Honor of L.E. Stager, Winona Lake 2009, 171- 184.
5.   Alessandra Gilibert, Syro-Hittite Monumental Art and the Archaeology of Performance, Berlin-New York 2011.
6.   Among others: Jonathan Hall, Ethnic Identity in Greek Antiquity, Cambridge- New York 2000; C. Brian Rose, Separating Fact from Fiction in the Aiolian Migration, Hesperia 77 (2008), 399-430; T. Derks, N. Roymans (eds.) Ethnic Constructs in Antiquity : The Role of Power and Tradition, Amsterdam 2008 (contributions by Morgan and Crielard).
7.   Among others: F.Mario Fales (ed.), Assyrian Royal Inscriptions: New Horizons in Literary, Ideological, and Historical Analysis, Rome 1991 (in particular the contributions by Liverani and Tadmor).
8.   Respectively: Daniel Schloen, The House of the Father as Fact and Symbol. Patrimonialism in Ugarit and the Ancient Near East, Winona Lake 2001; I. Singer, , "Between Scepticism and Credulity: In defense of Hittite Historiography ", in idem, The Calm before the Storm: Selected studies of Itamar Singer on the Late Bronze Age in Anatolia and the Levant Atlanta 2011, 731-766.
9.   Among others: Mary M. Voigt, Robert C. Henrickson, "Formation of the Phrygian state: the Early Iron Age at Gordion", in Anatolian Studies, 50, 37-54; Rose 2008 (see note 8).
10.   C. Brian Rose, Gareth Darbyshire (eds.), The New Chronology of Iron Age Gordion, Philadelphia 2011.
11.   ALEPPO 6, ll. 5-9: see J. David Hawkins, "The Inscriptions of the Aleppo Temple", Anatolian Studies 61 (2011), 35-54. ​

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010