The Hittite Army

Illustrations by Ángel García Pinto

Map of the Hittite Empire (c. 1300 BC)

Hittite diplomacy will be dealt with in another article. Here our concern must be with the army which played such a large part in Hittite history. This army, which on occasions numbered up to 30,000 men, consisted of two main arms, infantry and chariots. The infantry had a small core of permanent troops who acted as the king’s personal bodyguard and were responsible for frontier-patrols and the crushing of rebellions. Nothing is known of their recruitment, but they were at times supplemented by foreign mercenary troops. During the campaigning-seasons a larger infantry-force was raised from the local population and if necessary it was further enlarged by contingents from vassal-kingdoms. There were also pioneers for siege-work and messengers who may in some cases have been mounted. Apart from this, the horse was used only to draw the chariot – the principal offensive weapon of the Hittites, as of all other contemporary Near Eastern powers.

The supreme commander was the king himself, and it is clear that Hittite kings took a prominent personal part in any fighting in which their armies were involved. On occasion command could be delegated, if for instance the king were ill, or engaged in a campaign elsewhere, or if his presence were needed for cult-duties at home. In such cases the delegated commander would normally be a member of the royal family, and would bear some high-sounding court-title such as Chief Shepherd or Master of the Wine. In some areas (for instance the northern frontier and the Euphrates-line at Carchemish) special attention was necessary at all times. In such a case a royal prince could be given the title of ‘king’ of the area and granted a more-or-less independent command.

The system of ranks in the Hittite army is difficult to reconstruct, but it seems that minor commands were held by the lesser nobility, and that units were built up as a decimal system with officers in charge of ten, one hundred and one thousand men in a rising hierarchy of command.

Equally little is known about the payment of troops. In many cases military service was a feudal obligation and thus part of a wider system of which more will be said in another chapter. In addition, the Hittites believed in payment by results, and victory in the field was regularly followed by the distribution of booty. The dangers of this system can be seen at the Battle of Qadesh, where an easy Hittite victory was almost turned to defeat by the anxiety of the chariot-troops to plunder the enemy camp before ensuring that the field was fully theirs.

Troops in enemy territory doubtless lived off the land. The garrisons of border fortresses were presumably supported by the local population, and the same may be true of the large contingents which were frequently moved from one end to the other of the Hittite realms. But Hittite armies also had large baggage-trains of donkeys and bullock-carts which must have carried supplies as well as equipment. The principal problem both in Anatolia and in northern Syria must have been that of water-supply, and in many areas the number of routes which could have been used even by small forces is closely limited by the availability of this essential commodity.

Military equipment

In considering the equipment of Hittite armies we may well start from a recent definition of the art of warfare as an attempt ‘to achieve supremacy over the enemy in three fields: mobility, fire-power, security’. In the first field the principal weapon of the Hittites, as of the other powers of the time, was the light horse-drawn chariot. This vehicle was developed, probably in a Hurrian milieu, in the first half of the second millennium, and its use rapidly spread through the Middle East. A fragment of an Old Hittite relief-vessel from Bogazkoy, to be dated to the seventeenth or sixteenth century, shows that by that time it had already reached central Anatolia. The perfected chariot was a remarkably skilful piece of work, light in weight and extremely manoeuvrable at speed. The body consisted of a wooden frame covered with leather. This was mounted on a wide axle on which ran spoked wooden wheels. A pole ran forward from the underside of the body, on either side of which a horse was yoked. The superiority of the Hittites in chariot-warfare lay not in their possession of this weapon (all their enemies had it too) but in their variation of the basic pattern to suit their own purposes. The ultimate problem in chariot-design is to reconcile speed and manoeuvrability with firepower and security. For the former the designer must concentrate on lightness and such problems as the length and position of the axle; for the latter he must make his vehicle sufficiently steady for weapons to be used from it, and either give it a body which will afford some kind of protection or evolve some other means by which the warrior can protect himself. In other words, he must recognize that a charioteer has a triple function; he has simultaneously to control his chariot, fight an offensive battle, and defend himself. One answer to all this is the method adopted by Egyptian pharaohs. Rameses II at Qadesh, for instance, can be seen clad in a coat of mail for protection, and he has the reins tied round his waist to leave both hands free to operate his bow. A javelin-case is attached to the side of his chariot which, like all Egyptian chariots of the period, has its axle at the rear of the body, a position making for maximum manoeuvrability at speed. Lesser Egyptians did not share the pharaoh’s all-round skill, and the normal Egyptian battle-chariot had a crew of two, a driver and a warrior armed with a bow and javelins. Clearly the Egyptians regarded chariots as highly mobile firing- platforms from which long- and medium-range missiles could be dispatched in a manner which would cause the maximum of confusion in the enemy ranks. The Hittite conception of chariot-warfare was different from this. To them a chariot formation was a heavy-weight assault force which could sweep through and demolish infantry-lines in an organized charge. So we find that in Hittite chariots the principal weapon employed was the stabbing-spear for action at close range, and that the axle was attached to the middle of the body rather than the rear. This meant that their vehicles were more liable to overturn at speed, but the sacrifice in manoeuvrability was more than counterbalanced by the increase in firepower which resulted from it. For, because of the forward mounting of the wheels, the Hittite chariot could carry a crew of three – a driver, a warrior and a soldier who during the charge held a shield to protect the other two. Thus extra weight was given to the charge and extra man-power was available in the hand-to-hand fighting which followed it.

Other Anatolian powers, such as Arzawa, Ahhiyawa and even the Gasga-lands, had their chariot-forces too, but apart from references to them in Hittite texts nothing is known of their composition or armament. Indeed, much of Anatolia is such difficult country that chariots cannot have been of much assistance in battle, and they may have been used mainly for the rapid transport of kings and high- ranking officials – and for their rapid escape after a defeat, if we may judge by the number of Hittite enemies who ‘fled alone’, leaving their troops, and even their wives and children, to the tender mercies of the Great King.

Much less is known about the infantry divisions of the Hittite army. At the Battle of Qadesh they played a very minor part, being used mainly to protect the baggage and equipment against sudden enemy attack. But in the Anatolian hills the infantryman came into his own, and in this type of fighting too, if we can judge from the admittedly biased royal records, the Hittite army had the advantage of its opponents. This advantage seems to have been gained not so much by superior firepower as by better training and discipline, which enabled Hittite generals to move their troops over large distances making full use of the cover of natural features or of darkness, and so to achieve the element of surprise which could be so important in a successful attack. When the attack came, the marching column could quickly be turned into a battle-line which could sweep through an enemy army before it had time to organize itself. Some of the effect of the rapidly advancing Hittite line may be seen in the controlled and sinister movement of the warrior-gods in the sculpture-gallery at Yazihkaya.

The principal offensive weapon of the Hittite infantryman seems to have varied according to the nature of the terrain. In northern Syria, where set battles in open country were a possibility, he was armed with a long spear, the favourite weapon of the phalanx-formation in many periods and areas. In the earlier part of the second millennium the spearhead had been attached to the shaft by a combination of a bent tang (sometimes with a ‘button’ at the end) bound into the shaft, and slots in the blade through which the end of the shaft could be further lashed to the face of the blade. Similar tangs were used in attaching a metal spike to the other end of the spear. The primary function of this was to balance the weapon, but it could also be used in action to pierce an enemy, or it could be stuck into the ground during rest-periods while on the march. Later in the millennium the more efficient form of socketed spearhead was introduced. This was much less likely to come away from the shaft in action.

In the Anatolian hills the Hittite soldier carried the slashing-sword, a vicious-looking weapon shaped like a sickle but with the cutting-edge on the outside of the curved blade. It was not until almost the end of the second millennium that metallurgical techniques proved good enough to provide a long cutting-weapon with a straight blade. This development may have taken place in western Anatolia, if we accept that area as the original homeland of many of the ‘Peoples of the Sea’ who are illustrated with long-swords on Egyptian monuments. Hittite warriors also carried a short stabbing-sword or dagger which can often be seen on the sculptures. This had a hilt which was frequently crescent-shaped or (perhaps only for ceremonial use) elaborately decorated with animal heads. Often this weapon too seems to have been slightly curved, as can be seen both on sculptural reliefs and in actual examples from Bogazkoy and Troy. Straight blades with a wide central flange, a strengthening device much favoured by Anatolian metalsmiths, are also to be found. In the early part of the second millennium the handle was attached to the blade by means of rivets, but later a more advanced form became popular in which the blade and hilt were cast as one piece and an inlay of wood or bone was held in position on either side of the hilt by rivets and flanged edges. In western Anatolia there are naturally signs of Aegean and European influences, for instance in a dagger from Thermi with a leaf-shaped blade and a ‘horned’ hand-guard. The wide central flange of this weapon, however, suggests that it is locally made rather than an import. The eastward spread of similar influences can be seen in the shapes of swords on reliefs at Karabel, east of Izmir, Gavurkalesi near Ankara, and Yazihkaya, and by the early part of the first millennium they had penetrated as far south-east as Sinjerli. Many swords and daggers had pommels of stone, bone or metal, and often these have survived when the weapons themselves have disappeared.

Another weapon carried by the Hittite soldier was the axe. This took two main forms, one with a hole into which the shaft was fixed and the other a flat blade which was inserted into a split shaft and bound in position. The earliest shaft-hole axes in Anatolia are clearly linked to similar weapons in stone, but characteristically metal shapes were soon evolved. Signs of influence from widely separated areas in Anatolian examples serve to emphasize the highly international nature of metal- working in the second millennium, with smiths operating along trade- routes which were little affected by national frontiers. Axes found at Kiiltepe and dated to the earlier part of the millennium show a characteristically Assyrian raising of the blade above the level of the socket, and may well be linked to the presence of Assyrian trading- colonies at that site, but ribbing round the shaft-hole is a feature not only in eastern Anatolia but also in Syria, Iran and the northern Caucasus area, and cannot be directly linked with any particular element in the population. Perhaps the most famous Anatolian shaft- axe is that carried by the figure on the King’s Gate at Bogazkoy. In this sculpture the spikes at the rear of the shaft are really a development of the ribbing mentioned above, as can be seen in a Palestinian example of the fourteenth century from Beth-shan. The blade, however, is of a type which can be paralleled only in the Caucasus region. A curved wooden shaft and a tassel complete a weapon of which no archaeological example has yet been found.

The subject of flat axes without a socket is complicated by the fact that many examples may have been wood- or metalworking tools rather than weapons. However, it is clear that some at least were axes rather than broad chisels or adzes, and no doubt many were used in both peace and war. Such axes normally had projections or lugs on either side of the blade where it was fitted into the shaft, and were widely used in many parts of Anatolia. Towards the end of the Imperial period axes made of iron were beginning to come into use. The bow was also used by Anatolian armies. Sometimes it was carried on the Egyptian pattern by chariot-troops, and it was probably the weapon of the Hittite light infantry, as well as that of the Gasga and other powers.

The bow itself was of the composite type, constructed of a combination of wood and horn glued and bound to form an integrated body of great strength and power. This weapon may have been introduced to Anatolia from Mesopotamia in the Akkadian period, and it can be recognized in sculptures by its characteristic shape, which shows either ends that curve outwards or a triangular form with the bow-string forming its base. Arrowheads were of bronze, attached by a tang to a body made of wood or reed, and in a great many cases with barbs at the rear corners. The quiver was of leather or bark, and probably held twenty to thirty arrows.

For personal defence Hittite soldiers wore helmets, and some at least carried shields. The best representation of a helmet is that worn by the figure on the King’s Gate. It has a pointed top, flaps to cover the cheeks and neck, and a long plume which hangs down the warrior’s back.

Another representation of a helmeted warrior has been found incised into the inside surface of a bowl excavated at Bogazkoy and dated to c. 1400. In this case the helmet has, like that of the King’s Gate figure, cheek- and neck-flaps, but in other ways it is unique in the Hittite area. The horn, crest and flowing ribbons are all to some extent reminiscent of Aegean representations, 50 and it may be that we have here a Hittite picture (the bowl is certainly of local manufacture) of an Aegean or west Anatolian warrior. Perhaps his opponent, whose picture has not been recovered, conformed more to the conventional Hittite type.

In other respects too the picture provides details which cannot at the moment be paralleled. Body-protection is provided by what looks like a sleeveless jacket, perhaps of leather, decorated with patterns of concentric circles and worn over what may be a shirt of scale-armour, with arms finished in a fringe just below the elbow. Examples of bronze armour-scales have recently been excavated at Bogazkoy, and at Korucutepe two small pieces of iron may also be the remains of armour-scales. The King’s Gate figure appears to have a bare chest, although the markings assumed by most people to represent the hair on his chest have also been taken by some as being intended to convey the idea of a mail shirt. The figure also wears a short kilt-like garment, which, if it corresponds to any real battle-equipment, cannot have offered much protection to the wearer. Hittite infantry-troops who are represented in Egyptian pictures of the Battle of Qadesh wear an ankle- length garment which may be ‘tropical kit’ issued for use in the warm south-east, or a sort of ‘great-coat’ to be left with the baggage-train when swift action was intended. But in view of the lack of shields among the infantry it may be that in this case too the garment was in fact a long coat of mail. Hittite shields can be seen in the Egyptian pictures being carried by chariot-troops. They are of figure-of-eight shape, probably made of leather on a wooden frame, and presumably designed (despite their small size on the Egyptian reliefs) for whole- body protection. Towards the end of the millennium round shields were introduced by the Sea Peoples, and they became part of the normal equipment of Neo-Hittite military units.

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