The Hittites Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Hittites ruled a powerful empire in Asia Minor and northern Syria during the seventeenth to twelfth centuriesb.c.e. One of their primary military achievements was in establishing a sphere of political influence in the Near East.

Military Achievement

The Hittites ruled a powerful empire in Asia Minor and northern Syria during the seventeenth to twelfth centuriesb.c.e. One of their primary military achievements was in establishing a sphere of political influence in the Near East. Another was their creation of a professional army, in conjunction with refinements in siege warfare and the training of horses for use with the lightweight, single-axle chariot.HittitesHittites

Weakened by royal family infighting, the Hittite Empire militarily secured by Mursilis Mursilis IMursilis I (Hittite king)[Mursilis 01]I (r. c. 1620-c. 1590b.c.e.) was in disarray two hundred years later when Suppiluliumas Suppiluliumas ISuppiluliumas I (Hittite king)I (r. c. 1380-1346 b.c.e.) ascended to the throne. Hittite domination of central Anatolia, Syria, and territory stretching as far as the Amorite capital of Babylon was no longer assured.

Toward the mid-fourteenth century b.c.e., the Hittite capital of Hattusas (modern Bogazk) was threatened, apparently with the assistance of the Hurrians of the Mitanni kingdom and of the Syrians at Aleppo. Around 1370 b.c.e., the Hittites under the leadership of Suppiluliumas I set out to reestablish their hold on Syria;HittitesSyria. The initial campaign against the Mitanni Mitanni kingdomkingdom, a 300-mile march and attack on the Syrian kingdom’s northwest corner, was unsuccessful. A second campaign (c. 1367 b.c.e.) took the Mitanni Nuhasse neighbor. A third (c. 1365b.c.e.) resulted in Hittite control of Isuwa in northeast Anatolia. The fourth campaign advanced to threaten the southern Mitanni capital of Wassukkani. In 1366 b.c.e., Suppiluliumas captured Kadesh, Battle of (1366 b.c.e.)Kadesh (Qadesh) in western Syria. Finally, in c. 1350 b.c.e., he succeeded in taking Carchemish, Battle of (1350 b.c.e.)Carchemish, an important and strategic trade route on the west bank of the Euphrates River.

Suppiluliumas’s military success reunited the Hittite Empire but introduced a third military power into the balance of the two dominant military forces in the Near East, Mesopotamia, and Egypt. Mursilis IIMursilis IIMursilis II (Hittite king)[Mursilis 02] (r. c. 1345-c. 1320 b.c.e.) the heir to Suppiluliumas’s expansionist policy, passed the Hittite Empire to his son, MuwatallisMuwatallis (Hittite king)Muwatallis (r. c. 1320-c. 1294 b.c.e.). Over time, a growing internal unrest, stimulated partly by allied Mitanni and Assyrian forces, caused uprisings but received little response from the Hittite leader. Consequently, the AssyriansAssyrians reconquered the region in a unified and formal manner. The Hittites, harassed by requests for defensive assistance from their allies, but irritated by the sporadic raids made by their nominal vassal states, set out to reestablish Suppiluliumas’s imperial holdings. The Hittites, rather than fight with their allies, the Assyrians, elected to engage the Egypt;vs. Hittites[Hittites]Egyptians in battle at Kadesh, Battle of (1274 b.c.e.)Kadesh in Syria.

After about 1190 b.c.e., the Hittites faded as a major political and military power in the Near East. As the Assyrian Empire continued to expand systematically, the Hittite Empire eventually collapsed.

Weapons, Uniforms, and Armor

The Armor;Hittiteprincipal weapons used by the Hittites in battle were the bow and arrow, ax, and spear. The Chariots;Hittiteschariot was also used defensively. Suppiluliumas’s strengths were his strategic tactics, his patience, and his ability to extract from defeat the seeds for future victory. His first defeat by the Mitanni illustrates his use of the chariot as a strategic weapon rather than a fighting wagon.

The Hittite Spears;Hittitespear, known from illustrations found at Egyptian ruins, consisted of a pointed metal blade attached to a wooden shaft with leather wrappings. Originally, the blade was made of copper, then bronze, and finally iron. The spear’s structure consisted of a socket for the blunt blade end reinforced with leather strips attached to the wooden shaft. The spear shaft, for cutting and slashing, was fitted to maximize damage to the enemy in hand-to-hand combat. Although the spear has its advantages as a thrown weapon, there are no illustrations of Hittites actually using a spear offensively in this way. Instead, the spear seems to have been used primarily for defensive purposes, such as to guard the driver and bowman in the three-man chariot crew.

A depiction of a relief on a wall at Giaur-Kala in modern Turkmenistan, showing two Hittite soldiers.

(Library of Congress)

The design of both the Axes;Hittiteax and the Battle-axes[Battle axes];Hittitebattle-ax forms the shape of a human arm attached to a shaft. The flanged hand-end of the ax is flared in long bronze fingerlike forms. In hand-to-hand combat, the sharp-edged wrist section could not be grasped without cutting through the enemy’s hand. The ax’s extended, clawlike frontal section made it possible to slice through the neck of the enemy. In addition, the thumblike portion of the ax, just before the shaft, functioned as a hook for gouging. The Daggers;Hittitedagger differs in design, with a shorter, double-edged blade for use in hand-to-hand combat.

Body armor worn by the Hittites consisted of 4.5-inch bronze plates bound together with linen or leather to form a small breast jacket. The jacket was made originally to protect the chariot driver and crew. A relief found in Luxor, Egypt, detailing the Battle of Kadesh (1274 b.c.e.) shows the Hittite infantry wearing ankle-length skirts made of leather without any metal plating. Because infantrymen required mobility, the metal plating may have been eliminated and the protective metal plates replaced with leather.

Hittite infantrymen were armed with Javelins;Hittitejavelins intended to be thrown either while on the run or from a stationary position. The Lances;Hittitelance was the traditional Hittite weapon for the chariot crew. Their use in battle is not recorded visually in the Luxor relief. Although Ramses Ramses IIRamses II (Egyptian Pharaoh)[Ramses 02]II made claim that the Hittites were unable to use either their bows or their javelins because his chariots charged through their lines, thereby preventing a frontal assault, it is questionable whether such a tactic was actually used. The statement suggests that the throwers may have been not in the chariots but rather on foot, in retreat, or unable to immobilize the Egyptian chariots. Such a thesis implies that the throwers either were separated from their chariot crew or were in disarray.

Although the physical evidence indicates that bows and Bows and arrows;Hittitearrows tipped in bronze were used as a major weapon in conjunction with the Hittite chariotry, there is little evidence that archers were used with chariots. Evidence for Hittite Archers and archery;Hittitebowmen in action is scarce. Only Muwatallis, the king of the Hittites, is depicted in the Luxor reliefs in a chariot with an archer and bowcase. These reliefs show the Hittites with a defensive force and the Egyptian army with offensive weapons. Ironically, the intended purpose of this work was to show the heroic and invincible Egyptian Pharaoh in the face of Hittite aggression. Contradictory information is contained in the Abydos inscriptions, where the Egyptian king records “killing horses, capturing chariots, bows, swords, all weapons of warfare.”

The simple but sturdy Hittite chariot provided the army with an effective battlefield vehicle. The chariot design enabled the Hittites to retain flexibility and mobility in battle and to carry a three-man crew, consisting of driver, archer, and spear bearer.

The typical offensive use of the chariot by the Hittites was to taunt and encircle the enemy at a distance. After the chariot’s forward advance toward the enemy, the infantry might advance using lances to inflict damage. The Hittite strategy suggests an emphasis on a defensive use of the chariot against an offensive line. Once the enemy line was broken by the chariotry, the Hittite infantry could strike effectively.

Military Organization

Upon his ascension to the Hittite throne in about 1380, Suppiluliumas I inherited an empire frayed by Hittite vassal-states. To restore the Hittite kingdom, he reinforced and restored the decaying fortifications of the Hittite capital, Hattusas, constructing a massive wall to encircle the city’s vulnerable Fortifications;Hittiteperimeter. Suppiluliumas also reorganized the professional Hittite army, which recruited and enlisted infantrymen. The Infantry;Hittiteinfantry provided the Hittites with a regular standing army that could be increased as needed by vassal treaty. The infantry did not contain the protectorate citizens or native Hittite populations. Supposedly, the use of vassal-state infantry eliminated the need for Mercenaries;Hittitesmercenaries, although Egyptian sources suggest otherwise, listing a great number of mercenaries in the Hittite ranks.

Instructional specifics about the training of Hittite soldiers are scarce. It is thought that special locales or training camps existed and that training consisted of drill practice. A Hittite king might bring several army divisions with him on a campaign, depending on the conflict. Hittite strategy originally focused on fast-attack troops but quickly shifted to siege Siege warfare;Hittitewarfare, in which support troops and supply lines for men and horses were more crucial than battlefield encounters to the success of the siege.

For strategic purposes, the basic military unit was a platoon of fifty infantrymen under the command of the king. These infantry units were reinforced with elite troops or chariot warriors. Decision making about battlefield tactics seems to have been left to the king alone. Acknowledged credit for battle success would lie respectively with the gods, the king, and then the king’s generals. The different locations of unit types within the camp demonstrate a similar hierarchical arrangement.

Two principles defined the organization of the king’s troops: chariotry and infantry. Within the reign of Suppiluliumas the leaders of each learned to work with the ten vassal-states. Although military professionals were incorporated into the Hittite army, they nonetheless remained identified with their individual vassal-states.

The Hittites had four types of troops: infantry, chariotry, outpost garrison, and elite guard. The sizes of the units are difficult to establish from existing descriptions, but evidence suggests that a division might have equaled about 5,000 men, a company about 250, a platoon approximately 50, and a squad as many as 10. In the Hittite military hierarchy, the king was the leader. Two generals represented the two protectorates, and they were followed in command by the generals of the vassal-states. Combat officers consisted of a platoon leader, garrison-troop leader, squad leaders, and the infantry and chariot soldiers.

The location of the Hittite capital shows the depth of Hittite defensive fears. The capital, Hattusas, was founded around 2000 b.c.e. within a natural defensive perimeter: a downward slope to the north, a dangerous gorge to the east, and a deep valley to the west.

The defensive fortifications of the upper city were located on the highest ground and designed of smooth rock to prevent an assault force from scaling the walls. Along the outer wall, there is another, inner wall. Parapets with round crenellations and high Towerstowers between them provided windows that allowed soldiers to survey the surroundings, guarding from attack. The massive walls were punctuated with several towers flanked by gateways. On the south, the outer wall was reached by a steep, sloping staircase defended from the ramparts. Between the outer and inner fortification walls, a ramp was built to inhibit free access. The main gateway was flanked with stone carved towers, double locking doors, and windows to decrease potential assaults.

Access to the city could be gained through an underground postern, or back gate, about 230 feet long. It served a defensive military purpose by preventing massed groups from assaulting the city from beneath. The postern also had an offensive use, allowing Hittite soldiers to enter and leave the city undetected during a siege.

Doctrine, Strategy, and Tactics

Hittite strategy consisted of two parts: a military strategy for battle and a diplomatic strategy for treaties. The strategic weakness of the Hittite Empire is demonstrated by their treaties, of which the Hittites made two types: a treaty of parity with their two protectorate allies and a treaty of vassal-states. The Hittite treaty made the Hittites vulnerable to the petty raids and complaints of vassal-states. The other two major powers, Mesopotamia and Egypt, could leverage their treaties, but the Hittite treaty with vassal-states necessitated immediate response to calls for help by the vassal-states. If the Hittite Empire did not respond, it would be considered disinterested or too weak.

Egypt’s sovereignty over the region during the second millennium b.c.e. reached from Canaan and the Levantine ports and the cities that bordered on the inland routes from Megiddo in modern Israel to the lands of the Hittite, Mitanni, and Babylonian kingdoms. Because control of the region was important to Egypt’s continued trade with Near Eastern partners, Egypt kept pressure on the cities of Palestine simultaneously with the Hittites. Complaints contained in ancient letters indicate one catalyst for renewed hostilities: the emergence of the Amurru kingdom as a power. The nineteenth Hittite Dynasty witnessed renewed military activity throughout the region, threatening Hittite national unity and international expansionist policies. The result for both the Egyptians and the Hittites was the loyalty of Canaan and control of the Orontes Valley for trade with Syrian ports. The Egyptian campaigns of Sety Sety ISety I[Sety 01]I (c. 1306-1290) attempted to restore Egyptian hegemony in Canaan and the Amurru kingdom, which stood on the Hittite boundary. However, Sety succeeded only in Palestine. After the Egyptian king Ramses Ramses IIRamses II (Egyptian Pharaoh)[Ramses 02]II (c. 1300-1213) ascended the throne, the provocation remained unresolved, and Ramses systematically began to retake control of Hittite territories along the Palestinian coastal plain to Byblos.

The Hittite strategy for the battle was designed to delude the Egyptians into thinking that the Hittite army was encamped beyond the city of Kadesh when they were hidden behind it, to the north. Ramses II, leading four divisions of his army–Amon, Re, Ptah, and Sutekh–made an unimaginable frontal attack for the city, leading the Amon division ahead of the other three divisions. The Hittite leader, Muwatallis, advanced around Kadesh on the west, while his chariots attacked the Re division from the south. Although the two armies were of virtually equal strength, Ramses was cut off from the rest of his army, with only one division.

In the Egyptian records, the Egyptians claim victory but it is possible that the Egyptians were prevented from recovering sufficient strength to oust the Hittites from Kadesh. The cunning strategy used

by the Hittites demonstrates a keen understanding of the chariot’s potential for subterfuge, coupled with speed and mobility.

Ancient Sources

Although many Cuneiform tablets;Hittitescuneiform tables survive from the Hittites, most of these are to do with the administration of their empire, and few have any bearing on their military strengths. Some archaeological work at BoghazköyBoghazköy has unearthed statuettes and bas-reliefs, but the vast majority of our information on the Hittite soldiers comes from bas-reliefs and carvings in Egypt, where they are shown battling the Egyptians. The best known of these is at Abu SimbelAbu Simbel, and there are also others at Luxor, Abydos, and the Ramesseum, the funerary temple of Ramses IIRamses II (Egyptian Pharaoh)[Ramses 02];funerary templtRamses II in western Thebes, which all record strategic details of the Battle of Kadesh.

The reliefs reveal the strategy of Ramses: to penetrate as far as possible into enemy territory and to set up his offensive position before the city. The reliefs at Luxor illustrate Ramses’ arrival and camp, and the Hittite ruse and subsequent surprise attack through the camp shield barriers. Ramses’ counterattack, depicted on the walls of the RamesseumRamesseum, illustrates his second strategy: to make a full-force, frontal attack into the enemy lines. The Hittite charioteers were more intent on plundering the Egyptian camp than on fighting, and the Hittite forces fell into disarray. They were then chased by the Egyptians into retreat.

None of the Egyptian reliefs, however, shows the capture of Kadesh or Hittite surrender. Ramses claimed victory less for Egypt than for himself. There is some validity to his claim. After his army had fled, it was Ramses’ leadership that sustained the Egyptian forces on the battlefield. Traditionally, historians interpret the outcome of the battle as a draw.

These ancient sources are significant in that they provide the names of ally groups, terminology for weapons, the organization and identification of types of soldier units and chariot warriors, and insight into strategies. The Hittites’ use of subterfuge reveals an awareness of the tactical offensive role of the chariot in warfare.Hittites

Books and Articles
  • Gurney, O. R. The Hittites. Rev. ed. London: Penguin, 1990.
  • Healy, Mark. Qadesh 1300 B.C. New York: Osprey, 1993.
  • Kitchen, K. A. Pharaoh Triumphant: The Life and Times of Ramesses II, King of Egypt. Warminster, England: Aris and Phillips, 1982.
  • Murname, W. The Road to Kadesh: A Historical Interpretation of the Battle Reliefs of King Sety I at Karnak. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.
  • Nossov, Konstantin. Hittite Fortifications c. 1659-700 B.C. New York: Osprey, 2008.
  • Wise, Terence. Ancient Armies of the Middle East. New York: Osprey, 1981.
  • Yadin, Y. The Art of Warfare in Biblical Lands. 2 vols. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1963.
Films and Other Media
  • Empire of the Hittites. Parts 5/6 of In Search of the Trojan War. Documentary. British Broadcasting Corporation, 1985.
  • The Hittites: A Civilization That Changed the World. Docudrama. Cinema Epoch, 2004.

Violence in the Precivilized World

The Assyrians

The Chaldeans

The Hebrews

The Egyptians

The Persians

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