BMCR 1999.04.18

The Kingdom of the Hittites

, The kingdom of the Hittites. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998. xiv, 464 pages : maps ; 23 cm. ISBN 9780198140955 $60.00.

Of the many civilizations of the ancient Near East, the one which is perhaps of greatest interest for Classicists is the empire of the Hittites, which dominated central Asia Minor and much of northern Syria during the seventeenth through the twelfth centuries BCE. Not only was Hatti — as the Hittites referred to their realm — geographically the nearest ancient state to the Greek world, but its administrative language is the earliest-attested member of the Indo-European family, and thus akin to the Greek and Latin with which students of the Classics are themselves directly concerned.

Unlike the kingdoms of Babylon and Assyria, whose fame was preserved through the ages in Greek, Latin, Arabic, Armenian, Hebrew and other Semitic sources, Hatti disappeared from history after its destruction during the political upheavals which brought the Late Bronze Age to a close (c. 1180 BCE). A few minor polities in Syria which their neighbors referred to collectively as “Great Hatti” continued a number of Hittite traditions — particularly in art — into the eighth century BCE, and distant echoes of these “neo-Hittite” successors may be found in the Hebrew Bible (e.g., 2 Kings 7:6). But the memory of the second-millennium empire of the Hittites had so faded that Homer could populate the interior of Anatolia with Amazons ( Iliad 3:189, 6:186) and other monsters.

The recovery of the imperial Hittites and their history began only in 1905, when German archaeologists opened their excavations at the ancient capital of Hattusa (located at the modern village of Boghazkale c. 150 km east of Ankara), where they soon began turning up the central archives of the Great Kings of Hatti. The documents from these archives1 were inscribed on clay tablets in the cuneiform script and in several languages. Most of the texts were composed in the then-unintelligible Hittite2 and related Indo-European tongues (Luwian and Palaic), or in the Hurrian language still resistant to interpretation today.3 But a number were written in Akkadian, the Semitic language of Mesopotamia which served as a lingua franca for the diplomats of the Near East in the second millennium. Since by the early years of this century scholars had already achieved a good command of Akkadian, from the start it was possible to read and interpret many Hittite treaties and diplomatic letters.4 On the basis of this material Eduard Meyer wrote the first history of the Hittites in 1914.5

Over the years Hittitology has remained a predominantly germanophone science, in part because almost all of the inscriptional sources have been excavated and published by the German team whose excavations at Boghazkale have continued — albeit with interruptions caused by the world wars — until the present day.6 While specialized studies of Hittite subjects written in most modern European languages, including Turkish, regularly appear in scholarly journals, there are few general discussions of Hittite history and culture in English.7 This naturally presents a serious difficulty for the instructor planning an undergraduate course on the Hittites.8 The volume here under review, which hopefully will soon also be published in a lower-priced paperback format affordable for students, is to be welcomed as a partial corrective to this situation.

As might be expected from Trevor Bryce’s earlier work,9 The Kingdom of the Hittites concentrates almost exclusively on political and military history (see p. 3), paying scant attention to the religious texts which constitute the greater part of the Hittite textual corpus.10 Thus leaving Hatti’s intellectual life to other writers, the author has crafted a concise and readable narrative of the events which made up the kingdom’s five-hundred-year history. He illustrates his points and buttresses his arguments with well-chosen excerpts from the Hittite sources.11

Bryce begins his book with an outline of our patchy knowledge of Anatolian history in the third millennium (Chapter 1). Next he briefly discusses the Assyrian merchant colonies whose presence in the twentieth and nineteenth centuries seems to have acted as a spur to the political unification of the region under the Hittites (Chapter 2). Chapter 3 presents a précis of the geographical and ethnographic12 setting which gave rise to the state of Hatti. The author then devotes a section to the reign of each Hittite king — or group of kings when the available textual sources are meager (Chapters 4-13). The final chapter (14) considers the extent to which Homeric traditions of the Trojan War are dependent upon the Late Bronze Age history of Anatolia.13 The book concludes with Appendix I explaining the problems encountered in reconstructing the chronology of Hittite history — and indeed that of the ancient Near East in general14 — while Appendix II sketches the sources on which the scholar must rely in writing the history of Hatti.15

Beyond its full coverage of the course of events in second-millennium Anatolia, the real strength of The Kingdom of the Hittites is that Bryce looks at the world of the Hittites with the eye of a true historian. Consequently he puts forward interpretations of events and rationales for the decisions of Hittite monarchs which might not occur to a philologist immersed in the minutiae of the texts. For example, he analyzes the campaigns of the early Hittite rulers within Anatolia as a quest to establish “buffer zones” around the vulnerable heartland (pp. 49-50), while he sees the contemporary operations in Syria as intended to secure access to the strategic metal tin (p. 86). He suggests that the real reason for Mursili’s raid on Babylon, which primarily benefited the Kassites, to whom rule over the prostrate Babylonia soon fell, was the desire to secure the support of these tribesmen against the common Hurrian enemy in the north (p. 104).

Was king Urhi-Teshshub’s failure to deal effectively with the Assyrian menace to Hatti’s trans-Euphratean territories a factor in his overthrow (p. 284)? Was Tudhaliya IV elevated to the throne in place of his brother previously designated as heir because he enjoyed close relations with his cousin Kurunta, who also had a claim to the succession (p. 301)? Did the usurper Hattusili III come to his accommodation and famous treaty with Ramses II of Egypt primarily because of his desire for international recognition to bolster his weak position within Hatti (pp. 304-05)? Or did he perhaps act in order to stop the Syrian vassal states from playing the great powers off against one another (p. 320)? In the current state of our knowledge, Hittitologists cannot give definitive answers to these or many other of the intriguing questions posed by Professor Bryce in this work, but we can only be grateful for the stimulus to further research which such suggestions provide.

This book will be of great value to the Hittite specialist and to his/her students, as well as to the scholar of other regions and periods of the ancient world who wishes to become acquainted with the story of the first masters of Anatolia.


1. See O. Pedersén, Archives and Libraries in the Ancient Near East 1500-300 B.C. Bethesda, MD: CDL Press, 1998, 44-56.

2. On the surprisingly speedy unlocking of the mysteries of Hittite by B. Hrozny, see my “The Hittite Language and its Decipherment,” Bulletin of the Canadian Society for Mesopotamian Studies, 31 (1996): 23-30.

3. The study of Hurrian, whose only certain relative is the language of first-millennium Urartu, has received new impetus from the discovery of an extensive Hittite-Hurrian bilingual, recently edited by E. Neu, Das hurritische Epos der Freilassung I. Untersuchungen zu einem hurritisch-hethitischen Textensemble aus Hattusa. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1996.

4. I have translated many of these documents in Hittite Diplomatic Texts. Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1996.

5. Reich und Kultur der Chetiter. Berlin: Curtius, 1914.

6. An accessible, if somewhat dated, description of the course of this work is provided by K. Bittel, Hattusha. The Capital of the Hittites. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970.

7. Although O. R. Gurney’s classic The Hittites. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1952; second edition 1954, was somewhat revised for its reprintings in 1981 and 1990, it does not adequately reflect the advances of the past quarter century of Hittite research. J. G. Macqueen, The Hittites and their Contemporaries in Asia Minor. London: Thames and Hudson, 1975 (revised edition 1986), is also wanting in this regard. J. Lehmann, The Hittites. People of a Thousand Gods. New York: Viking, 1977, the translation of a German popular work of 1975, is confused and unreliable.

8. The two dozen essays on Anatolian topics in J. Sasson et al., eds., Civilizations of the Ancient Near East. New York: Scribners, 1995, make this encyclopedic work quite useful as a library resource, but the four-volume set can hardly be assigned as a text book.

9. These contributions are conveniently listed in the Bibliography, pp. 430-32.

10. See the exhaustive study by V. Haas, Geschichte der hethitischen Religion. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1994. I give a concise survey of this material in “The Religion of the Hittites,” Biblical Archaeologist 52/2-3 (1989): 98-108.

11. Most of the quoted material is borrowed or adapted from the work of other scholars. Bryce is himself not really at home in cuneiform philology, as revealed by errors in his transcription of Akkadian words (e.g., pp. 22, 23, 24, 27, 38). Note also that while many linguists believe that the shin -series of cuneiform signs used exclusively for unvoiced sibilants in Hittite-language texts actually represent simple /s/, the same signs employed in Akkadian or Hurrian contexts were definitely pronounced /sh/. Therefore transcriptions like Kanes (p. 9 and passim), Erisum (p. 23), Sarri-Kusuh (p. 53), etc. are incorrect. Other lapses are the use of the antiquated rendering “Zamama” for the divine name Zababa (p. 135), and the erroneous capitalization of the second element of the Assyrian royal name Adad-nirari (pp. 281ff.).

12. I concur fully with his opinion that self-conscious ethnic politics (pp. 15, 38) played no role in the Bronze Age history of Anatolia.

13. Bryce holds that level VIh at Troy is to be identified with the Homeric city (p. 398). See also his discussion of the country of Ahhiyawa (pp. 59-63), which he identifies as the realm of the Achaeans. It was the memory of Ahhiyawan interventions in western Anatolia, he believes, that constituted the kernel around which the stories concerning Troy crystallized.

14. Bryce does a reasonably good job of explaining just why the redating of a small group of texts has radical implications for the writing of Hittite history (pp. 414-15), but he should have made clear to the reader the factor which underlies all these difficulties: The Hittite scribes did not employ any system of dates in their own records. Note also that the latest research has concluded that the capture of Babylon by the forces of Mursili I, one of the few synchronisms on the basis of which we may construct an absolute chronology for Hatti, is to be dated to 1499. This is about a century later than the dating on which the Middle Chronology adopted by Bryce rests. On this see H. Gasche et al., Dating the Fall of Babylon. A Reappraisal of Second-Millennium Chronology. Ghent: Mesopotamian History and Environment, 1998.

15. A number of deficiencies mar this discussion. While the script of the Hittite archives was of course a variety of cuneiform, it was hardly “the same as that used in the letters of the Assyrian merchants” (p. 416). Rather, both the sign-shapes and many of the sign-values employed by the later Hittite scribes differed significantly from those of the Old Assyrian system. It is extremely unlikely that the first documents from Hatti were initially composed in Akkadian and only secondarily translated into Hittite (p. 421). On the contrary, the appearance of Hittite calques in Akkadian texts composed at Hattusa during the Old Hittite period suggests that even at this early time the Hittite-language versions were primary. See my review of I. Hoffmann, Der Erlass Telipinus, Journal of the American Oriental Society 106 (1986): 570-72. Finally, only one and not “many” (so p. 425) of the letters exchanged between the Hittite and Egyptian courts was found in the cache of tablets at Tell el-Amarna. In contrast, more than one hundred pieces of this correspondence have been recovered at the Hittite capital. This material has recently appeared in a definitive edition: E. Edel, Die ägyptisch-hethitische Korrespondenz aus Boghazköi in babylonischer und hethitischer Sprache. Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag, 1994.