Map of the Hittite Empire (c. 1300 BC)

The Hittites occupied the Anatolian peninsula from approximately 1900 to 1000 b. c. e. The origins of this rugged people skilled in mountain warfare remain obscure, but the evidence suggests that their settlement in Anatolia began with the tribal migrations of peoples whose origins lay in the area that stretches from the lower Danube along the north shore of the Black Sea to the northern foothills of the Caucasus Mountains. The date of migration is uncertain but may have been as early as 2500 b. c. e. By 1900 b. c. e., there was clear evidence of the beginnings of a separate society that can be identified as Hittite. The Hittite society lasted until circa 1100 b. c. e., when, like the other states of Syria, Lebanon, and the upper Euphrates, it was overrun and destroyed by the invasion of the Sea Peoples.

Hittite society was a feudal order based on land ownership and fiefdoms governed nationally by a council of great families, called the Pankus. This same pattern of social development is found in early Sumer, Egypt, and Rome. Gradually, a governing aristocracy was formed, with its capital at Hattusas in northeast Anatolia. Social organization centered on the “fiefholder,” who worked the land, and, as the need for defense and military power increased, on the “man of the weapon,” who was given land and income in return for full-time military service to the high king. As in medieval Europe, there was constant tension between the central governing authority and powerful local vassals, who often could not be controlled. Hittite central authority waxed and waned from one period to the next. Only rarely was it possible for the Hittite kings to unify and control their country, and then only for relatively short periods. One result was that to the end of the empire, Hatti remained essentially a feudal society, whose army comprised a core of loyal troops of the king augmented by feudal armies contributed by vassals and foreign client states.

The imperial period of Hittite power is dated from 1450 to 1180 b. c. e. In 1346 b. c. e. a young and vigorous king named Suppiluliumas brought the domestic situation under control and moved militarily against the city-states of the Syrian zone. He succeeded in gaining control of most of the major city-states of the area before moving against the Mitanni. With the power of the Mitanni brought to heel, he installed his own governors there and created a new state to act as a buffer against the growing power of Assyria. Suppiluliumas was succeeded by his youngest son, Mursilis, who continued to strengthen Hittite control in the Syrian zone while bringing the new Mitanni buffer state further within his control. Hatti encroached farther south into the Syrian zone while the Egyptians were paralyzed by domestic turmoil.

Mursilis passed the Hittite throne to his son Muwatallis (1308-1285 b. c. e.), who suppressed revolts in Arzawa and the Gasgan lands, making certain that domestic events did not interfere with the emerging conflict with Egypt. He achieved a temporary diplomatic settlement to blunt renewed Assyrian pressure in the Mitanni region. Egypt was at last ready to attempt to counter Hittite influence in the Syrian zone and began by fomenting unrest in some of the city-states. Muwatallis moved quickly to reduce the threat with armed intervention against Kadesh, Carchemesh, and Allepo, bringing them to heel and installing Hittite rulers and garrisons. This was a clear challenge to Egypt, and armed conflict was inevitable. The basis of Hittite national security strategy remained unchanged for almost five centuries. The goal was to secure the homeland by suppressing domestic revolts and increasing the power of the national authorities to deal with the constant threats on the border.

In 1279 b. c. e. Ramses II, one of Egypt’s great warrior pharoahs, came to the throne. Ramses understood that Egyptian influence in Lebanon and Palestine would never be secure as long as the Hittite threat hung over the Syrian zone. The passage of time would only work to the Hittite advantage as they strengthened their hold on the area. Egyptian strategic thinking held that a threat to Syria was a threat to Palestine, and a threat to Palestine was a threat to the Nile. The world’s first “domino theory” was born. In the fifth year of his rule, 1275 b. c. e., Ramses II set out to destroy Hittite influence in Syria and to drive it back behind the Taurus Mountains. As the room for maneuver narrowed, the clash between the two great powers became certain. When it came, it came at the city of Kadesh on the Orontes River.


The size of the armies that fought at Kadesh remains the subject of some dispute. The foremost experts on the Egyptian and Hittite armies of the period estimate the size of the Egyptian force at between 25,000 and 30,000 men comprised of four divisions of 6,000 each, plus some nim and allied Canaanite chariot contingents. The Hittite army appears to have been in the neighborhood of 17,000-20,000 men, which was probably the largest combat force ever deployed by the Hittites. The unusual size of the Hittite force is explainable by the fact that the Hittite king, Muwatallish, had been successful in uniting the various vassals of the country and in concluding a number of mutual assistance treaties with the city-states of Syria. Of the other great powers, only the Mitanni deployed forces comparable in size to the Hittite armies, and they, too, relied heavily on allied contingents for maximum national efforts. The full military manpower pool of Hatti was available to the king, as were military contingents from allied states.

The Hittite army was organized around the decimal system common to armies of the area at that time. Infantry, chariots, and archers shared the same organizational structure, with squads of ten, companies of ten squads, and battalions of ten companies. Infantry deployed for battle in companies 10 men wide and 10 men deep, with battalions standing with 100-man fronts 10 men deep. The basic weapons of the Hittite infantry were the medium-length spear, the axe, and the sickle sword. Hittite infantry was flexible in armament, equipment, and manner of deployment.

Hittite infantry had been developed in the rough terrain of Anatolia, where the land itself placed a premium on ground troops used in various ways. Hittite commanders commonly changed the mix of infantry weaponry and even clothing and armor, depending on the nature of the terrain and the type of battle that the infantry was expected to fight. In mountain terrain the infantry carried the sickle sword, dagger, axe, and no spear, a mix of weapons suited primarily to close combat. Mountain infantry were issued metal helmets, good boots, leather or scale armor, and a specially designed shield in the shape of a figure eight. The narrow waist of the shield made it lighter while still affording good, full-length body protection. The narrow waist improved the ability of the soldier to see his adversary and provided greater room for him to wield his sword when in close-order battle. Later, the Hittites adopted the small round shield, a piece of equipment specifically designed for close combat.

The infantrís weapons and equipment were changed whenever the Hittite army was required to fight in open terrain. Under these conditions, the primary weapon was the long stabbing spear, and the fighting formation was the packed heavy phalanx. An army that tailored its units, weapons, and combat formations so readily required a high degree of discipline and training from its soldiers. The Hittite army was constructed around a core professional force loyal to the king and augmented by forces provided by the king’s vassals. Hittite society provided for the “man of the weapon,” who was given the income from land in exchange for military service. The Anatolian terrain placed a premium on stealth, rapid movement, movement at night, and quick deployment from the line of march to fighting formation to avoid ambush. These abilities are the characteristics of a professional army, not an army of conscripts. The Hittite army comprised almost professional-quality soldiers similar in experience and ability to the feudal military classes of Europe during the Middle Ages.

The Hittite arm of decision was its chariotry. The chariot’s role was to close quickly with the enemy infantry, delivering maximum shock, then to dismount and fight as heavy infantry. The Hittite machine was heavier than the Egyptian chariot and had its axle positioned in the center of the carrying platform. This arrangement reduced speed and stability but made it possible for the machine to carry a crew of three. The crew was armed with the six-foot-long stabbing spear designed not to be thrown but to be used as a lance while mounted and as an infantry weapon when dismounted. The Hittites used their chariots as mounted heavy infantry, and they were the key to the success of the Hittite army fighting in open terrain.

One can understand the tactical role of Hittite chariotry by remembering that the Hittite art of war developed in the inhospitable terrain of the Anatolian plateau, which afforded few open plains where chariots could maneuver but offered numerous valleys and defiles from which a hidden army could suddenly strike at an unsuspecting enemy. Under these conditions of short distances to combat closure, even a heavy machine could move fast enough to inflict sudden and decisive shock. Whereas the open terrain of Egypt and Palestine encouraged an emphasis on speed of movement over expanses of open terrain, the Hittite experience emphasized tactical surprise. It was typical of Hittite strategy to attempt to catch the enemy on the march and ambush him with a sudden rush of infantry-carrying chariots and to be on him before he could deploy to meet the attack. This tactic was employed brilliantly at Kadesh and almost destroyed the Egyptian army.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.