The Hittite Army

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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.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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