BMCR 2003.11.22

Life and Society in the Hittite World

, Life and society in the Hittite world. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. 1 online resource (xii, 312 pages) : illustrations, maps. ISBN 1423767411 $72.00.

Trevor Bryce is the most successful — and responsible — popularizer of Anatolian studies active today. An authority on the Luwians of the second millennium1 and Lycia of the first,2 he has already produced a highly readable history of the Hittites3 and has now presented us with a survey of Hittite culture.

Bryce endeavors to see this ancient society through the eyes of a participant (p. 5). This is a difficult task, since the narrow focus of the Hittite archives on the activities of the royal administration4 means that many aspects of the daily life of the mass of the population are undocumented.5 Nonetheless, the author has produced interesting chapters on “King, Court, and Royal Officials,” “The People and the Law,” “The Scribe,” “The Farmer,” “The Merchant,” “Marriage,” “The Gods,” “The Curers of Diseases,” “Death, Burial and the Afterlife,” “Festivals and Rituals,” “Myth,” “The Capital,” and “Links across the Wine-Dark Sea,” this latter section treating relations with the Mycenaean Greeks.

As is to be expected from this insightful author, he proposes a number of intriguing new historical interpretations, some more convincing than others. For example, I find his comparison of the Hittite temple establishment in all of its socio-economic aspects to the medieval Christian monastery (p. 153) most apt. Similarly, the elucidation of the role of Tudhaliya IV’s massive reconstruction of Hattusa within his dynastic politics rings true. On the other hand, I sincerely doubt that literacy “almost certainly went beyond a purely scribal class” (p. 57),6 that copies of the so-called “Hittite Laws” were consulted by local authorities in the course of adjudication (p. 37),7 or that the Kumarbi Cycle of mythological narratives was publicly recited before large audiences (pp. 227-29).

Occasional lapses in the areas of ancient Near Eastern history,8 religion,9 and philology10 reveal that Bryce’s background is in Classics, not cuneiform studies. But these failings are minor and do not detract significantly from the value of this work.

All in all, this volume provides a comprehensive and highly readable introduction to the culture of the earliest attested state-level society employing an Indo-European language. As such it should be most useful for professional Classicists and ancient historians, as well as for the general reader. A future, more economically priced, paperback edition will doubtless find its way into many classrooms.


1. See his contribution, “History,” in The Luwians, ed. H. Craig Melchert (Leiden: Brill, 2003), 27-127.

2. As evidenced by The Lycians in Literary and Epigraphic Sources (Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 1986).

3. The Kingdom of the Hittites (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998). See my review, BMCR 1999.04.18.

4. This interpretation holds true even for the numerous rituals and other religious texts unearthed at the Hittite capital, which were written in support of the monarch’s responsibilities as chief priest of the state cult. See my “The Religion of the Hittites,” in Across the Anatolian Plateau, ed. D. C. Hopkins (Boston: ASOR, 2002), 133-43.

5. For the meager relevant information to be gleaned from the textual sources, see F. Imparati, “Private Life among the Hittites,” in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, ed. J. Sasson et al. (New York: Scribners, 1995), 571-86. Unlike the situation for various periods in Mesopotamia, no private economic records have been recovered among the cuneiform tablets from Hittite Anatolia. Most scholars find it hard to imagine that a complex society functioned in the absence of such documents and believe that these texts must have been written on another medium. Indeed, “wooden tablets” are mentioned on the clay tablets but have of course not survived.

6. I know of no evidence that the Hittite king, members of the royal family, or high officials ever inscribed their own tablets. Nor have we found any significant number of less expertly written texts that might testify to the activity of Bryce’s “part-time scribes.”

7. As is the case with all “law codes” of the ancient Near East, we never encounter a reference to the Hittite Laws in texts of any other genre. Thus it is quite likely that this legal compilation functioned entirely within the scribal community. Let me make it clear that I have no doubt that the Hittite Laws for the most part reflect actual legal practice. It is their character as a body of statutes to be enforced uniformly across the kingdom by local and royal authorities that is questionable.

8. There was no “Isin-Larsa dynasty” in Babylonia (p. 32). Rather, the Isin-Larsa period of Mesopotamian history was marked by sharp competition for hegemony between the two cities.

9. H. G. Gueterbock long ago corrected the common misinterpretation of Telipinu as a “vegetation god.” See Festschrift J. Friedrich zum 65. Geburtstag gewidmet (Heidelberg: Carl Winter), 207-11.

10. It is debatable whether Hittite para handandatar should be translated simply as “justice” and compared to Egyptian ma’at (p. 33). The term is a deverbal noun from para handai-, “to arrange in advance” — see J. Puhvel, Hittite Eytmological Dictionary, vol. 3 (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1991), 105-6 — and strictly speaking can be exercised only by divinities. Despite a slight semantic difference, we must often render it as “providence.” Note also the nonsensical claim that cuneiform is “economical in terms of space required on the writing surface” (p. 58). The validity of whatever comparison lies behind this statement is dubious.