The Hittites ruled vast tracts of the Ancient Near East for over four hundred years (roughly 1650 BC - 1200 BC). Their army was feared far and wide. Their mighty infantry and thundering chariots were the dread of the battlefield. At times they could muster as many as fifty thousand men. They won many, many battles for their king and their gods. What was the secret of their success? Well, popular conception has it that the Hittites possessed an extra edge over their rivals... an edge of iron.
Well, that's how the story goes: the Hittites were ahead of their time and bore 'superior' iron weapons. The Hittites' super-hard iron swords could chop through the soft-as-butter bronze swords of the Egyptians and Assyrians. They were effectively 'Bronze Age lightsabers', making the Hittites nigh-on invincible on the battlefield.
Wait a minute... invincible? The Hittites were good, but not that good. They won many battles and wars but they lost several too. And this notion that having iron weapons meant instant superiority over bronze-armoured foes doesn't quite sound right. Metallurgy isn't as black and white as that - good bronze is actually harder than many grades of iron.
But back to the original question: did the Hittites have iron weapons or not? Oh, if only it was a yes or no answer :-)
Steel yourself for what follows (including a few more terrible puns)...
*I hesitate to initialise this term as BALs :-)
The irony of the Iron Age
Firstly, we must dispense with the perception that the Bronze Age was a time when everyone was using bronze for everything because iron hadn't been discovered yet, and that on the day someone did discover it, everyone threw down their bronze tools and took up the superior iron ones instead.
Indeed, while our modern classification of the Bronze Age (3300 BC - 1200 BC) and the Iron Age (1200 BC - 500 BC) as two distinct and contiguous epochs serves as a tidy way to organise history, it is a huge simplification. In fact, iron was ‘known’ to the world all throughout the Bronze Age - i.e. before, during and after the time of the Hittites - a fact underpinned by plenty of epigraphic evidence. For example, Prof. Klaas Veenhof's translation of Assyrian merchant texts from 1800 BC describe the existence of an ancient iron trade ongoing alongside that of copper and tin (the ingredients for bronze).
Prof. Veenhof's work also allows us to infer that iron was rare - extremely so and, as a result, hugely expensive. Indeed, evidence suggests that iron commanded a price upwards of forty times that of silver!
The Iron of Heaven
Why was iron so expensive? Well, the only real source of pure iron was meteorites (well, almost-pure iron - meteorites are commonly composed of iron-nickel). To the Bronze Age kings, this was known as 'Iron of Heaven' because it fell from the skies in streaks of light. It must have seemed magical to the ancients - because of the way it descended from the skies and for its magnetic properties.
Bronze Age kings preferred their thrones to be decorated with this heavenly iron. Indeed, any objects crafted from this divine material were highly sought-after - as evidenced by this letter from the Hittite King Hattusilis III r. 1267 BC - 1237 BC (our hero Hattu in Empires of Bronze) in response to a plea from an Assyrian King seeking an iron gift:
"In the matter of the good iron about which you wrote, good iron is not at present available in my storehouse in Kizzuwadna. I have already told you that this is a bad time for producing iron. They will be producing good iron, but they won't have finished yet. I shall send it to you when they have finished. At present I am sending you an iron dagger-blade."
An interesting exchange, especially the part about iron daggers. From this we know that the blacksmiths of the Bronze Age - individuals revered and respected like high priests for their skills in this strange craft - were capable of working pure iron to fashion weapons. But given the scarcity of meteorites, a Bronze Age king would have been lucky to possess just a few such weapons - not quite enough to arm the fifty thousand Hittite soldiers!
Also, as mentioned above, iron weapons are not automatically 'superior' to bronze ones. They can be, if produced well, but they can just as easily be softer than bronze or too brittle to use in combat - not at all the Bronze Age lightsabers of myth.
How can iron be rare? It's everywhere!
But hold on, how can iron be rare? Yes, meteorites are rare, but iron comes in another far more abundant form - ore. Iron ore is everywhere. Roughly 35% of the earth's mass is iron. You can walk through any field or dig any garden and find chunks of iron ore or ironstone. Many of our hills and mountains are lined with ore too.
And it was the same back in the Bronze Age: 99.99% of the Earth's surface iron was held captive inside rocky ore. Bronze Age texts don't use the word 'ore', but they sometimes talk of a 'White Iron' - looking at the photo, below, I can't help but wonder if this was their name for ore?
So why didn't the Hitittes use ore to furnish their armies with iron weapons and armour? Well, they very probaby did work or at least experiment with ore. Of the many tablets found in excavations of Hittite sites, a number detail the whereabouts of ore-rich hills near their cities, so they clearly considered it of value.
But working with ore would have been tricky. The problem with ore is separating the pure iron from the rock and minerals. To extract the iron, it needs to be smelted out. This involves heating up the ore until the metal softens and the chemical compounds around it begin to break apart. So how might the Bronze Age blacksmiths have achieved this?
The charcoal bloomery
The dominant metallurgical device of the Bronze Age was the charcoal fire pit, or 'bloomery'. This consisted of a cupola-shaped pit, filled with charcoal and wood. Pits such as these were more than adequate for achieving temperatures high enough to fully smelt copper and tin - the components of bronze. But to smelt iron? Not so easy.
A bloomery could only reach temperatures high enough to turn iron ore into 'bloom' - a porous, spongey chunk of slag (the waste matter of stone and other impurities) and iron. A skilful Bronze Age smith might well have worked out that by repeatedly reheating this bloom to gradually melt away the slag, and laboriously hammering the product in-between heatings in order to drive out the impurities, a close-to-pure iron known as 'wrought iron' could result - broadly comparable with bronze in terms of hardness, but again, not the 'lightsabers' of legend.
The starting point for producing higher quality iron, stronger than bronze, is to fully smelt the iron from the ore. To do this, much more heat is required...
The blast furnace
The 'blast' in 'blast furnace' refers to the combustion air being 'forced' or supplied above atmospheric pressure.
At the dawn of iron-working, the earliest of these blast furnaces would have been unrecognisable compared to the modern-day behemoths, although the principles would have been the same: a blast furnace would have utilised bellows and chimneys to achieve much higher temperatures than charcoal bloomeries - hot enough to truly smelt iron and release it from ore.
Scholars are extremely doubtful that furnace technology was discovered during the time of the Hittites. The argument goes that if the secret of ore-smelting had been 'cracked' by the Hittites, why is there no artifactual evidence? No Bronze-Age era smelting furnace has been found in the ancient Near East (the oldest surviving iron-smelting furnace dates from around 500 BC and was found in the Austrian Alps) and there is an absence even of the indelible, telltale environmental markers which one would expect to find nearby any long-lost blast complex - such as slag heaps.
But as the saying goes: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Why would the Hittites have taken the trouble to catalogue the location of the ore-rich hills near their cities if ore was not of some interest to them?
And let's glance again at the ancient letter from the Hittite king:
"In the matter of the good iron about which you wrote, good iron is not at present available in my storehouse in Kizzuwadna. I have already told you that this is a bad time for producing iron. They will be producing good iron, but they won't have finished yet. I shall send it to you when they have finished. At present I am sending you an iron dagger-blade."
What was this 'Good Iron'? It sounds like it was of a higher standard than the interim-offered dagger blade, but in what respects?
Well here's the theory: could this 'Good Iron' have been the earliest outputs of Iron Age technological breakthroughs? Ultra-pure iron properly smelted from plentiful ore? Worked to be harder than bronze yet not brittle? The very first instances of steel production, even?
So... Bronze Age lightsabers?
So can we answer the original question about the Hittites - did they have these 'Bronze Age lightsabers' or not?
There is only one thing we can say with any certainty: the Hittites certainly never had an army equipped throughout with iron weapons that were of some magical strength.
But the likelihood is that:
Even if they did achieve some form of proto-steel, it all happened too late to equip their regiments against the storm that was to come: a storm that blew the Hittite Empire and many other great powers into the dusts of history in a calamitous period known as the Bronze Age Collapse.
From the ashes - post 1200 BC - new civilisations gradually arose and iron-working with them. Were the Hittites responsible for triggering this shift before their demise? Well, just as many believe that the Renaissance was catalysed by the westwards flight of scholars from Constantinople (when they realised it was doomed to fall to the Ottoman Turks) in 1453, perhaps when the Hittite blacksmiths fled their old Anatolian cities during the death throes of the Bronze Age, they may just have taken the recently-discovered secrets of their craft with them into the wider world...
Hope you enjoyed the read! Let me know what you think - leave a comment below or get in touch, I'd be delighted to hear from you. And if you fancy a good read set in the Bronze Age, why not grab a copy of Empires of Bronze: Son of Ishtar?
The Hittite Empire dominated ancient Anatolia for over five centuries. If a neighbouring kingdom attacked, the Hittites crushed the offending state and made them vassals. When the great contemporary empires of Egypt or Assyria encroached, the Hittites called upon their mighty army and the subjugated vassals and marched to war - usually sending Pharaoh or the Kings of Ashur home, humbled. But there was one danger that came not in the form of a rival empire or a plucky kingdom. This threat was constant and simply could not be crushed or envassalled.
The Kaskans - also known as the Kaska, Gagsa and Kaskia - were a Bronze Age people indigenous to northern Turkey. Hardy and ferocious, they lived in the Pontic Mountains (or 'The Soaring Mountains' in Empires of Bronze), a long and rocky sierra overlooking the Hittite heartlands. They had no king as such, but they were populous and grouped in twelve tribes (possibly more), each living in a ramshackle wooden settlement where they alternated between farming pigs and descending into the Hittite lands to rob, raze and loot. Whenever the Hittite Labarna tried to tackle them, they would melt away into their mountain retreats again. Then, when the Labarna and his imperial armies were absent on campaigns far from the heartlands, they would raid across Hittite lands all over again.
Around 1400 BC, the Kaskans descended from their mountain homes and overran the Hittite territories lying north of the range, all the way to the Upper Sea (modern Black Sea) coast, toppling the sacred Hittite cities of Nerik, Zalpa and Hakmis along the way. With that northern land lost, the Hittite Kings built a chain of forts and towers along the mountain range's southern edge to contain this Kaskan uprising. Yet it was only partially effective - Kaskan raiding parties broke through the defences multiple times, bringing fire and fury upon the Hittite heartlands.
Small-medium scale raids were doubtless costly and troubling, but on the rare occasions when the many Kaskan tribes set aside their rivalries and united against the Hittites - along with
support from nearby Hayasa-Azzi and Isuwa peoples - the threat became critical. Indeed, on more than one occasion, these northern hordes swept southwards, all the way to the Hittite capital of Hattusa, burning the city to the ground. More than once the Hittite throne had to be relocated further the south for fear of the Kaskan threat.
Over the years of constant struggle, the Hittites learned that the Kaskans would never be conquered. However, around 1300 BC, Hattusilis III (our Prince Hattu in Empires of Bronze) did manage to reclaim the 'lost north', and also pioneered the enlistment of Kaskan troops into the Hittite Army - something that must have helped relations between the two peoples.
Still, it must have been a truly tense co-existence, I'm sure you'll agree!
Thanks for reading! You can find out much more about the Kaskans and the Hitittes in Empires of Bronze: Son of Ishtar
An Ancient Monument...
In the 5th century BC, the Greek historian Herodotus - known as "The Father of history" - travelled to western Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) and ventured into an old rocky canyon known as the Karabel Pass. Here, he set eyes upon an ancient relief carved into the rock high up on pass-side. It depicted a male warrior with a bow, spear and curved sword, crowned with a peaked helm.
‘With my own shoulders, I won this land,’ reads the inscription below the relief. Herodotus was perplexed for a time: the strange warrior did not look familiar to his well-travelled eye. Eventually, he came to the unsatisfying conclusion that this was an Egyptian creation – carved by a conquering Pharaoh who had marched from the Nile, around the Levant, across Anatolia and all the way to the Aegean coast. Now there were probably plenty of Pharaohs who would have been rather chuffed to have won such far-flung lands... but here's the thing: now we know for sure that it was not Egyptian. It was crafted by a people lost to history for some seven hundred years by Herodotus' time; a people who would remain forgotten for another two millennia afterwards - the Hittites.
Until the early 20th century, we thought of the Hittites as nothing more than a peripheral and insignificant hill tribe living near the biblical Israelites of Canaan. Nobody realised that before this, during the late Bronze Age, they had in fact once been a colossal state, ruling all Anatolia and northern Syria as one of the ancient world's superpowers.
How could such knowledge be lost? Well, the Bronze Age Collapse, as it is known, is thought to have been catastrophic, and only fragmentary evidence remains from that long-ago era. This cataclysm tore down the Hittite Empire amongst several other great powers, and changed the world forever. It is under the dust and rubble of this collapse that memories of the Hittites were buried, evidently lost to Herodotus and men of his era. In more recent history, the Ottoman Sultans sadly chose to ignore the rich history of Anatolia which pre-dated their reign. Thus, the wonders that had gone before were left buried, and the land itself was largely closed to curious archaeologists.
It was only in the later days of the Ottoman regime that Turkey was opened up to the world. The French archaeologist-adventurer Charles Texier was one of the earliest modern explorers to take advantage of this by venturing across Anatolia’s central plateau. He was searching for the Roman city of Tavium, and so he began to ask the rural folk if there were any ruins nearby that had not been investigated. But the locals instead insisted on telling him about some mysterious ruins in the high, rugged lands east of Ankara - ruins that were not Roman or Greek... but much, much older. Intrigued, he set off at once.
Upon his arrival, he stopped, confounded, enchanted, his eyes transfixed upon the foundations of a colossal stone city in that bleak, lonely wilderness. The ancient ruins were decorated with more carvings of strange gods and people in that same odd-looking garb from the Karabel Pass relief. But he realised that this was not Egyptian, nor Assyrian, certainly not Roman or Greek. Within the ruins, he found fragments of a hitherto unknown style of cuneiform writing. Little did he know it at the time, but he had just stumbled upon one of the greatest discoveries of his time, for this was Hattusa, capital of the lost Hittite Empire.
Unearthing the Truth...
Texier's 'discovery' was ground-breaking, but there was still a long way to go before these ruins and the wonders buried underneath could be investigated, interpreted and understood. Here's how it all played out:
Thanks to men like Texier, Sayce, Winckler, Hrozny and their modern counterparts Blasweiler, Bryce and many more, the Hittites are forgotten no more!
Want to know more about the Hittites? Read all about them in Empires of Bronze: Son of Ishtar
The Hittites (pronounced hit-tights): a civilization forgotten to history for so long. So who were they?
Where do I begin - in their Bronze Age heyday, perhaps? Or... how's about 1986 and in my living room...
I was eight years old and watching ‘Ghostbusters’ - a firm childhood favourite of mine - on VHS. During the movie, Dan Aykroyd claims that the Hittites lived six thousand years ago and worshipped a god named Zuul. I now know that every word of this is utter cobblers. Needless to say, I hope Mr. Aykroyd feels suitably ashamed, both for being historically inaccurate and for wrecking my childhood.
A few years later in Religious Education classes at school I was taught that the Hittites were a small, insignificant Canaanite tribal people that had lived in the hills of biblical-era Palestine around 900 BC. These days I know that while there were highland tribes known as 'The Hittites' in that region at that time, they were but a thin diaspora - the last whispers of a great lion’s roar that had gone before...
Because, from 1600 BC all the way through to the catastrophic collapse of the Bronze Age around 1200 BC, the Hittites were not a petty hill tribe but a mighty superpower. They dominated most of modern Turkey and northern Syria, possessed a feared military and controlled a ring of vassal states - most notably Troy. They were the rivals of Egypt and Assyria, and a towering presence from whose shade Homer's Greeks must have looked on enviously.
Now I must admit that I first began to grasp the sheer scale of the Hittite civilisation via the most nonacademic of mediums: in my late teens (when I should have been studying for university exams), I played the game, ‘Age of Empires’, to death. In it I controlled the Hittite civilisation in its pomp, raging across the Ancient Near East and obliterating Assyrian and Egyptian armies. Not sure why I felt the need to confess this - I just think the game deserves an honourable mention :)
Watching Ghostbusters hundreds of times, trying not to fall asleep in RE classes and playing computer games probably wasn’t the way to study history, and so the Hittite question remained largely unanswered. Yes, by my uni days I had come to understand that they had been a world superpower. But what did that world of their look like? Their cities, their road, their armies? The lives of individuals - the fears and hopes of the common and the high-born? What did they eat? How did they celebrate? And my usual favourite - what was their most vulgar swear word?
Following university, I trundled through several 'day job' years with not a lot of time for reading history. It was only when I made the transition from day job to writer, I realised that - at last - I had the opportunity to don my time traveller's hat and explore the Hittites and their Bronze Age world in full!
The expedition began in earnest on an atypical, sweltering Scottish June afternoon. I packed a bag with a newly acquired book – Trevor Bryce’s ‘The Kingdom of the Hittites’ – a sandwich and a bottle of cold juice, then took leave of my writing study and set off to the green banks of Tamfourhill (an old Roman site on the Antonine Wall, overlooking the modern Forth & Clyde Canal). I parked myself in the shade under a spreading oak, checked there were no evil spiders hovering about above or behind me, then began to read...
“The Near East in the Late Bronze Age is a complex picture of constantly shifting balances of power amongst the major kingdoms of the region, or expanding and contracting spheres of influence, of rapidly changing allegiances and alliances as Great Kings vied with one another for supremacy over their neighbours. Within this context the kingdom of the Hittites emerged, struggled for survival, triumphed, and fell. ”
The hooks were in! Shivers raced across my skin and hours passed as this long lost world came alive in my mind's eye. I was falling back through the centuries as I read. Forgotten ruins were thrown up, broken walls towering once more. Long dead oracles and priests rose from the mists of eternity to drone strange chants. Colossal armies emerged from the dust to march again. Great Kings shed their tombs to take seat upon their iron* thrones once more. I could smell the barley beer they drank, taste the baked bread, hear the songs rising from the temples, feel the heat of the Anatolian sun and see the glow of the bronzesmith's crucible. Every sense was engaged, at last.
That initial question ‘Who were the Hittites?’ spawned a thousand more (as all good questions do), and so on I went, collecting more texts and papers, scouring the Web, making friends with helpful scholars across the world. Now the Hittite world is not one of shadow. It is golden, enchanting, strange and severe.
*Iron thrones, in the Bronze Age? What?! Yes, it's true: Bronze Age civilizations had not yet worked out how to smelt iron from abundant ore. But they did have precious amounts of it in the form of meteorites, or 'Iron of Heaven' as they called it. What little meteorite iron they did have was used for ceremonial purposes, including the decoration of thrones. But... some say the Hittites were the first to crack the secrets of ore smelting, unlocking a wealth of iron with which they could equip their armies! This opens a delicious and different can of tangential worms, which I will delve into more deeply in a future article.
Tangents aside, here are the key things you need to know about the Hittites (and I'm only scratching the surface here):
Where was the Hittite Empire?
In the Bronze Age, the Near East was the hub of the world. Four great powers held sway in this region: Egypt, Assyria, Ahhiyawa (Homer’s Achaean Greece)… and the Hittites!
The Hittite Empire centred on the heartlands of mid-Anatolia (modern Turkey). Their choice of this terrain drew sneers from their rivals - for in comparison to the fertile lands of the Nile and Assyrian Mesopotamia, it was a rocky, barren and windswept upland, far from the trade roads. Outwith the heartlands lay a ring of vassal states – Wilusa (with its capital, Troy), Arzawa, Lukka, Pala, Tarhuntassa, the Seha River Land and more. In Syria, the Hittites also held sway with a pair of crucial bulwark viceroyalties, Gargamis and Halpa (Aleppo), and more loyal vassal kingdoms such as the trade-capital of Ugarit, Amurru and the desert lands of Nuhashi.
The city of Hattusa was the Hittite capital, situated around one hundred miles east of modern Turkey's capital, Ankara. It was built upon a rocky mountainside some 1,200 meters (nearly 4,000 feet) above sea level. Reconstructions and remains show that the Hittites were fine architects and that they understood thoroughly the art of fortification.
When did the Hittites rule?
The Hittite Empire spanned the Middle and Late Bronze Age. It rose sometime in the 17th century BC and crumbled as the Bronze Age itself came to a catastrophic end in the late 13th and 12th centuries BC (in other words, 1600-ish-1200-ish). Historians now recognise three distinct periods within this timespan: an embryonic Hittite ‘Old Kingdom’, a period of decline known as the ‘Middle Kingdom’ and an era of resurgence, apogee and the abrupt end known as the ‘New Kingdom’.
What does 'Hittite' mean?
This is a tricky one to answer - so bear with me! Essentially, it is something of an etymological anachronism - similar to the way we refer to the 'Byzantine Empire', when in fact the people of 'Byzantium' considered themselves Romans and part of the Roman Empire.
With the Hittites, it all stems from the Christian Bible and the Hebrew Tanakh. The Tanakh refers to the aforementioned biblical hill tribes of the 9th century B.C. as the enemies of the Israelites and of God. The Book of Genesis, Chapter 10, described these same people as the descendants of Noah, through Ham, then Canaan, and then Heth (so 'Hethites', or 'Hittites'). This post-hoc label has stuck, even though the 'Hittites' themselves - of biblical times and the earlier imperial age, would not have called themselves this. We suspect they might have identified themselves as 'The People of the Land of Hatti', or 'The Nesili' (the people who speak the Nesite language).
Of course, for the purposes of sharp storytelling and accessible research, I and almost every single other author of fiction and fact stick to the concise term 'Hittites'.
The Hittites were an ethnically diverse people. It was the Hatti – the native inhabitants of central Anatolia – who inhabited the heartlands initially. Then, sometime in the 3rd or early 2nd millenium BC, Indo-Europeans migrated there and supplanted the Hatti as the ruling class. Added to that there were others of native Anatolian stock (Hurrians and other nearby tribes) and Assyrians (thanks to years of trading and collaboration between Assyrian and proto-Hittite peoples). It was the personality-cult of the Hittite King and the ethos of religious inclusiveness which helped bind these people together to forge a common Hittite identity and culture.
Culture & Religion
This was the era of the temple-culture, where civilizations sprung up around great monuments and divine sanctuaries near which they farmed and herded and within which they paid tribute to their gods. The word of their gods and kings was absolute. The Hittite Empire epitomised this in its own peculiar, ascetic way. Every Hittite city across the heartlands sported several temples dedicated to their gods and the Great Storm Temple at Hattusa was the religious centre of the empire. They celebrated harvests and spring rains feverishly with dancers, acrobats and wrestlers leaping to and fro, priests and oracles singing and soldiers performing parade drills. Men and women would carry a bright train of cloth fashioned to look like Illuyanka the evil mythical serpent in a re-enactment of his battle with Tarhunda the Storm God. All while the people watched on, singing and clapping, feasting and drinking foaming pots of barley beer.
The Hittite Empire was known as ‘The Land of a Thousand Gods’, and it’s easy to see why (in fact, the title is probably an understatement!). Their system of deities is perplexing, non-linear and unfamiliar to the modern theological eye. It seems that their chief deities were Tarhunda the Storm God and his spouse Arinniti, Goddess of the Sun. That said, each major city had a storm god, a sun goddess or some specific deity of its own, rapidly expanding the godly ranks. More, the Hittites were not just polytheistic but pantheistic too: they worshipped the ether around them, believing every spring, tree, rock and meadow possessed a spirit. They not only observed absolute religious tolerance but also practiced syncretisation, the custom of integrating foreign gods into their own pantheon. So no schisms and no theological in-fighting (can you imagine!). As mentioned above, this harmony and inclusiveness was surely one reason why the diverse peoples of the Hittite realm shared a common identity.
As well as many priests and priestesses, the Hittites also employed diviners, snake and bird-watching oracles, and ‘Old Women’ – aged females who would perform religious and semi-‘magical’ rituals, such as:
Rule, Government & Law
The Hittite empire was ruled by the 'Labarna' - the high king, who would be addressed by his subjects as 'My Sun', and was considered as the direct appointee of the Gods. He also served as high priest of the empire and each year he would travel extensively to preside at festivals in the outlying cities. These personal appearances also helped forge a degree of imperial identity and belonging amongst his diverse subjects.
The Labarna's word was absolute, and he was protected at all times by the Mesedi, an elite corps of royal bodyguards. However, many times throughout the centuries the Labarna was challenged and overthrown - usually murdered - by rivals.
In terms of territorial government, the Hittite Empire employed a tight control over its 'heartlands' and a loose hegemonic system of control over the neighbouring vassal regions. These vassals weren't subject to Hittite taxes as such, but they were required to visit the Labarna once a year to deliver a tribute of sorts (horses, crop, treasures, ingots of metal or the like). This served to renew their oath of fealty to the Hittite throne. In return, the vassals were granted military protection and favourable trading status. At regular intervals throughout the rest of the year, the Labarna and his Panku - a council of nobles - would sit in session to discuss matters of supply, state and war.
Regarding law, we know from the tablets excavated at Hattusa that the Hittites favoured financial penalty over death or mutilation. Also, slaves had rights and could work their way to freedom (not just rely on a benevolent master to free them). In general, they tried to build a self-policing society and they had a legal code, largely built on precedent, e.g.:
They also had some rather wacky and quite upsetting laws: bestiality was punishable by death... unless it was with a horse. And if you served up unclean food for the king or the gods, you’d be forced to eat an unclean meal as punishment – a heaped plate of steaming human excrement and a pint of pee to wash it down. Sorry if this is a lunchtime read for you...
The Hittite King most-likely controlled 10,000-20,000 'native' troops. In times of major conflict, the Labarna could also levy armies from his network of vassals to supplement his core regiments. When gathered en-masse, the Labarna's forces would have been a match for any of the contemporary powers.
The infantry were armed with spears, axes, curved short swords, powerful recurve bows and bronze-tipped arrows. They used rectangular or hourglass shields and wore bronze or leather conical helmets. The infantry were likely most useful in rugged ground or in forested regions, where they could rove towards and pin down bandits or invading armies. But when it came to flat, open ground, they would most likely serve more as a pivot for the chariots - the tanks of the Bronze Age!
It seems that there was a military academy somewhere close to Hattusa, where young Hittite men were drilled mercilessly to become soldiers, and where horses brought in from the plains of Troy and Lukka were broken and trained to tow the war chariots. In Son of Ishtar I name this military school 'The Fields of Bronze'.
So much more
There is so much more I could go into: The land - a diverse geography of expansive grassy plains, mountains, coastal regions, river valleys, and desert. The economy - based mainly on grain, textiles, shepherding, and their expertise in metalworking. The language: they spoke Nesite, an Indo-European language, but communicated with foreign powers using Akkadian - the Bronze Age ambassador's language of choice. And when Hittite words were committed to clay tablets, it was in Cuneiform A Script – a writing system of wedges and dashes. But I think that's enough for now.
Oh, actually - one more thing: their most vulgar swear word? Easy, it's hurkeler - meaning 'one who indulges in deviant sexual practices with animals'. Sorry! :-)
Fancy hurtling back through time and having an adventure in the Hittite era? Well funnily enough, you can, with the first book of my Bronze Age series Empires of Bronze: Son of Ishtar
Here's the back cover text to whet your appetite:
"Four sons. One throne. A world on the precipice.
Sounds good? Why not grab a copy? Empires of Bronze: Son of Ishtar is available in eBook, paperback and audiobook formats.
I'm delighted to host Nick Brown - top author, and easily one of the most helpful and pleasant guys I've met in literary circles - onto my blog today. I was intrigued to hear that he has branched out from his acclaimed historical fiction roots to launch a brand new fantasy novel Marik's Way. So I invited him to do a Q&A session here to find out a little bit more about his new work and his views on writing fiction in general. There's some potentially stellar (pun fully intended) news in here too. Enjoy!
For those who don't know his background: Nick grew up in Norfolk and later studied history at the University of Sussex. In 2000 he embarked on PGCE course at the University of Exeter and began a career as a teacher of humanities and English. After ten years of teaching in England and Poland, he became a full-time writer in 2011 with the publication of The Siege. Since then five more Agent of Rome novels have followed. Nick is married and lives in the fine city of Norwich.
Now, on with the Q&A...
Gordon: When did you know that you wanted to be an author?
Nick: I had dabbled since childhood but didn’t really take it seriously until after university and in fact I began with screenwriting. My first novel was science fiction and – if I’m honest – probably not very good. In fact, I seem to remember a couple of literary agents telling me exactly that! But it did get me hooked and I eventually focused on historical fiction with what would eventually become Agent of Rome.
Gordon: What inspired you to write Marik’s Way?
Nick: I hadn’t actually read any fantasy for a few years but then a good friend of mine introduced me to current authors like Joe Abercrombie and Patrick Rothfuss. I suppose it opened my eyes again to the infinite possibilities of fantasy and I liked the idea of writing without the limitations of history or contemporary reality. As with Agent of Rome, I wanted to set up a character with a lot of potential for adventures of various kinds and I eventually settled on the concept of ‘Jack Reacher with a sword’! Marik is a quite conventional hero in some ways but he has a troubled past that drives him on to try and do good.
Gordon: You are best known for your works of pacy and gripping historical fiction, so how did you find this switch into the fantasy genre?
Nick: The most obvious difference is the freedom I mentioned earlier; the flip side of which is the lack of existing material for the story. It really is a blank slate and of course there is the additional challenge of creating an entirely new environment. Having now worked on dozens of different projects as a freelance writer, I felt reasonably confident in my ‘world-building’ skills so I really just started writing and later ensured that all the detail was integrated and coherent. Having said that, I definitely used some of what I’ve learned about ancient societies to describe an ostensibly fantastical world. It’s actually a fairly gritty, realistic type of fantasy with no dwarves or magic – yet.
Gordon: If you could sell this book in one sentence what would it be?
Nick: At the risk of repeating myself – ‘Jack Reacher with a sword.’
Gordon: What are you up to next? Will we see any more sci-fi from you?
Nick: No immediate plans for any futuristic shorts or novels though I have recently had a script optioned by some Canadian producers and that is very much sci-fi. It’s early days but watch this space. As ever, I’m working on various freelance projects to pay the bills and then there is the small matter of the seventh – and last – Agent of Rome book to finish.
Gordon: Who is your biggest inspiration?
Nick: In the fantasy genre, it still has to be J.R.R. Tolkien. In terms of really transporting the reader and conjuring a fully-realised world, he remains the master. Authors like Patrick Rothfuss possess a similar skill but Tolkien was also so brilliant at crafting compelling plots. In terms of writing style, I am a huge fan of Michael Connelly and Robert Harris – both are so dynamic and precise.
Gordon: Why should readers try Marik’s Way?
Nick: Although it’s a different genre, I believe it features the same elements of action, adventure, mystery and humour that some may know from Agent of Rome. Hopefully, I’ve also managed to create an exciting, convincing new setting for the story to unfold.
Gordon: Thanks, Nick. It's always really interesting to understand the psyche of a fellow writer - sometimes reassuringly familiar and sometimes horizon-expandingly different. Some really interesting stuff in there!
Marik's Way is available now! And you can find out more about Nick at his author website or on Twitter.
When writing, I aim to provoke within myself the kind of emotions I want my readers to feel. Terror and horror have to be two of the most powerful emotions, and there was one scene in Legionary: The Blood Road that had cold shivers racing across my skin as I typed. Pavo and Sura are on the run, hiding out in the wilds with their Claudian comrades. They think they have given their darkest enemy the slip, and then, one night, this happens...
"Pavo peered through the blackness towards the nightmarish scene at the treeline: one of the Claudia sentries watching the dell’s edge now lay on his back, the snow around him black with blood. A nightmarish shape hovered over him on all fours, jerking and shuddering, pulling sinews from his belly. He remembered stories he had been told as a child: of forest demons, of creatures that lived in darkness and feasted on the flesh of men. For a moment, he felt like a helpless boy. He took a half-step forward to see better, to be sure… then stepped on a twig somewhere beneath the snow.
The Molossian hounds only play a small part in the story, but I thought they merited a little attention here - not least to show that they are more than just the demonic creatures from the scene above. They are actually noble animals with a long and distinguished history.
This ancient and now extinct breed of hound was once bred in southern Europe. Described as having a wide, short muzzle and a heavy dewlap (skin around the neck), they were employed by man long before the days of the Roman Empire - by the Greeks, the Assyrians and probably even by the Bronze Age Sumerians. It was the Molossi - a Greek kingdom founded by King Molossus, allegedly the grandchild of Achilles - who gave the dogs their name. Molossi lands stretched from north of Mount Pindus to the headwaters of the Thyamis river, on the Greek mainland, opposite Corfu. They adopted and trained the hounds for herding and for fending off cattle thieves or bandits.
Writing during the Roman Republic era, Polybius writes of generals tying pots of Greek fire to the backs of dogs and sending them running - ablaze - at enemy cavalry. They would run under the horses, causing the riders to be thrown. Cunning and extremely cruel in equal measures.
It was probably Marcus Aurelius who first formally employed the breed (known to the Romans as Canis Molossus) in legionary warfare, often equipping them in protective spiked metal collars and mail armour, and training them to run in attack formations. The Molossus was used to fight tigers, lions, elephants, and men in battle. They were a common participant in the gladiatorial arena too.
*Update* - it seems the Marcus Aurelius link is disputed. Some claim it is perpetuated myth, others are not so sure dogs were ever used by the Romans as anything more than camp watchhounds.
So, I had a hunt around for some source evidence. The ancient texts do not explicitly detail Marcus Aurelius' use of 'War Dogs', but I did find this very interesting section of the Marcus Aurelius column in Rome, a fantastic monument that depicts his Danubian campaigns:
Anyway, moving on...
"Never, with them on guard," says Virgil, "need you fear for your stalls a midnight thief, or onslaught of wolves, or Iberian brigands at your back."
Aristotle mentions them in The History of Animals, praising their bravery and physical superiority.
Later breeding saw the arrival of the Alaunt - so called because they were favoured by the Alani people (who originated on the Eurasian Steppe, but moved westwards into Europe during the Great Migration). Modern mastiffs are probably descended from these large and formidable creatures.
Now, some visual tidbits:
***Warning*** If you haven't yet read Legionary: The Blood Road, there are spoilers ahead (so perhaps bookmark this page to read later if you have still to read the book)
On the 3rd October 382 AD, after nearly six years of battle, treachery and broken oaths, the Eastern Roman Empire and the Goths met - for once with swords sheathed - in a parley tent somewhere in Thracia. At long, long last, peace talks began...
The nature of this peace deal is hotly-debated right to this day, and rightly so - because the end of the Gothic War was effectively the catalyst for many torrid events that would shake Europe for centuries afterwards - the rise of the Visigoths, Alaric, the sack of Rome in 410 AD… the Fall of the West in 476 AD can even be attributed to the seminal talks in 382 AD. So let's look a little more closely at what exactly happened that fateful day...
How did the peace talks come about?
Did it follow a Gothic capitulation in battle, or was it a pragmatic end to the war agreed by two exhausted sides well-aware that they were locked in an unwinnable struggle? What evidence we have suggests that the empire was now desperate for the war to end by any means necessary. This is evident in the changing tone of the orator Themistius' speeches: in the earlier years of the war he boomed ‘The Goths will quake. Our mighty soldier-emperor will draw every able man together, our miners will bring iron for them and we will slaughter the barbarian!’, only to change tack in 381, preaching instead that ‘It is an emperor’s job to govern, not to fight...' in an effort to manage the expectations of the imperial populace who had witnessed many reverses against the horde. After the talks, Themistius did the classic 'waving fist angrily after the bad man has vanished round the corner' routine, by claiming that during the peace talks, the Goths wept and clung to Emperor Theodosius’ knees, begging for mercy. In truth the Goths were still very potent at the time of the parley, and in any case, Emperor Theodosius was faraway in Constantinople at the time of the meeting, so it is highly unlikely that they were hugging his knees from (unless they had unfeasibly long arms).
Who oversaw these crucial discussions?
We have only sketchy details of those present. It seems that General Saturninus and Richomeres were there on the Roman side. There is no record of a named leader speaking for the Goths. Indeed, the title ‘Iudex’ (judge or dictator) was never again used by any Gothic force. However, we know of two prominent Goths, present in the horde at that time, who would go on to become rather famous in future years: Alaric and Fravitta. Given Alaric’s tender years (he would only have been a young teenager at the time), it is unlikely to have been him. Fravitta would go on to display a very pro-Roman attitude in the years to follow, so it seems more plausible that he could have been the man negotiating for the Goths.
Were all of the Goths represented at the talks, or just some?
We also do not know how far-reaching the deal was: did it encompass every Gothic tribe roaming in imperial territory, or was it a minor treaty agreed with mere splinters of the Gothic number? The fact that the war did not resume afterwards leads me to believe that it covered most of – or at a least a critical mass of – the Goths in Thracia. Of course, we must remember that great numbers of Goths remained north of the Danube, under the Hunnic yoke (and these subjugated tribes would later become the Ostrogoths).
Where did the talks take place?
What exactly did the Romans and the Goths agree to that day?
The exact nature of the peace deal is a highly-contentious matter. There are two broad camps in the debate:
Some historians, such as Halsall and Wyman, claim that the peace deal came in the form of a ‘coloni’ arrangement – i.e. a full surrender of the Goths, who went on to become fully integrated Roman citizens, paying taxes and serving in the legions as regular soldiers. Other historians such as Gibbon, Heather, MacDowall and Friel, argue that the peace deal took the form of a ‘foedus’ – i.e. more like a treaty between equals. In this arrangement, the Goths were not full imperial subjects, and were exempt from taxes. Their only obligation was to muster for war when the Roman Emperor called upon them, but not as legions: instead, they would march with their own tribal generals, retaining their own military traditions. More, they were granted Roman lands to farm as their own. Here are Gibbon's words on the matter of what the Goths got out of the deal:
If true, this was a watershed moment – the first time in the empire’s history that it had settled an entire people within its borders and allowed them almost complete autonomy.
This second theory is certainly more compelling from the storyteller’s point of view, but that alone is not what guides me to favour this option. Surely the empire – having suffered defeat after defeat to the horde since the Battle of Adrianople – would have been under huge pressure to agree peace, even at a high cost? The 4th century AD Bishop Synesius writes that the post-382 AD Goths settled in Thracia were 'brought up differently, in an un-Roman fashion'. Pacatus, the Latin panegyrist, describes how the Goths of fighting age were mobilised en-masse as opposed to being stationed in barracks like regular legions. Heather explains how Gothic bands were attested as serving in subsequent campaigns, but were not listed in the Notitia Dignitatum (a collection of sources detailing the imperial regiments of the later 4th century AD), which further suggests they were mustered and disbanded as and when needed when the emperor called upon them. Halsall – firmly in the ‘coloni’ camp – even concedes that there were irregularities about the Gothic terms and that they might not have been required to pay taxes 'in the normal way'.
In the Legionary series, I firmly plump for the foedus theory.
Whether you agree with my take on this matter or not, it is indisputable that the Goths settled under this peace deal retained enough of their identity and culture to become, over time, the Visigoths. The rest, as they say, is history...
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The Gothic War - a brutal struggle between the Eastern Roman Empire and an entire people fighting for their very existence. The timeline below charts the key 'beats' to this historic war: the rise and fall of emperors, the chaos of battle and the journey of the XI Claudia through it all...
***Warning: series spoilers ahead***
Late 376 AD: The Huns surged across the great steppe towards Europe, in what we now call the Great Migration. The Gothic tribes lay directly in the path of these warlike horsemen. So, united under the banner of a Iudex (a judge or dictator) named Fritigern, most of the Gothic groupings travelled to the banks of the Danube, seeking peaceful entry into the Eastern Roman Empire. They probably numbered at least one hundred thousand people.
Early 377 AD: The Romans settled the Goths in a temporary camp somewhere in northern Thracia… then proceeded to make an absolute mess of matters. The odious officer, Lupicinus, oversaw severe maltreatment of what was effectively a refugee population. Tales of his soldiers offering the starving Goths only rotting dog meat, in exchange for their children to sell as slaves, have stained the history books ever since. Inevitably, the refugees broke out in revolt, and the Gothic War began.
Spring 377 AD: The Goths now moved around Thracia as a horde - self-sufficient and with a colossal army that dwarfed the legions present in Thracia. Emperor Valens, engaged on the Persian front, despatched to Thracia what legions he could spare.
Early summer 377 AD: The Gothic horde rebuffed the empire's first attempt to meet them in battle at Ad Salices (the 'town by the willows'). The result was technically a draw, and this left the Goths penned into the northern part of Thracia, behind the Haemus Mountains, while the bruised legions held Thracia's southern tracts.
Autumn 377 AD: A peace was concluded between Rome and Persia, rendering the eastern frontier stable for now. Emperor Valens set about rounding up the rest of his Persian frontier forces - elite legions and crack palace cavalry - in order to personally lead them to Thracia to end the Gothic War. But this would take time, and in the interim, he despatched one of his best generals, Saturninus, to the troubled land to make sure the Goths stayed penned beyond the Haemus range.
Late 377 AD: Saturninus established stony forts and redoubts in the five key Haemus Mountain passes. He managed to marshal his scant forces and hold these passes for a time… but eventually the Goths overran the blockades and spilled into central and southern Thracia. The legions and the Roman people were forced to take refuge in southern Thracia's high-walled cities.
Early 378 AD: With the Romans holed-up behind their city walls, A Western General, Sebastianus, ventured out into the Goth-ridden countryside to try to curtail the destruction. He lead a tiny crack force of legionaries in a new-style guerrilla warfare - striking at Gothic camps in the night, executing hit-and-run raids on their supplies.
Late Summer 378 AD: Emperor Valens arrives in Thracia at last, with his finest regiments in tow. They march to a site north of the city of Adrianople and meet the horde on a baking hot summer's day. The Battle of Adrianople turned the golden fields red, and the result has echoed through history as one of the worst defeats ever suffered by the empire. Emperor Valens died in the fray, along with two-thirds of the Eastern Army.
Early 379 AD: A new emperor rose to the Eastern Throne. Theodosius I took control of a realm in turmoil. Thracia was virtually a Gothic land, and the Romans were now the refugees, with just the well-walled cities of the empire serving as islands of sanctuary. Theodosius set about reforming and rejuvenating the broken eastern legions, recruiting slaves and criminals and recalling broken old veterans. He did achieve some success thanks to General Modares and his small band of hand-picked forces, who defeated a significant wing of the horde.
Summer 380 AD: However, the first major meeting of the Eastern legions and the horde (and Theodosius' first chance to prove his mettle as a warrior-emperor) took place somewhere in Macedonia, probably near Scupi. Fritigern's forces routed Theodosius' army, and all the rejuvenation efforts were undone.
Autumn 380 AD: A major split occured in the leadership of the horde. One half left the East behind, heading West in search of fresh spoils there. But Emperor Gratian's Western legions stood against them near the city of Sirmium on the east-west border, and achieved a long-needed victory.
381 AD: Gratian's forces roved east, in search of the remaining half of the horde. A game of manoeuvring and skirmishing ensued - a struggle that lasted all year and stretched across Thracia and Macedonica. During this period, Iudex Fritigern died.
382 AD: The legions gained the upper hand and forced the Goths into a retreat, driving them into northern Thracia. Cornered, the Goths had no option but to sue for peace. The nature of the peace deal would define all of Europe for centuries to come…
The storyline of the novel is an absolute rip-roaring adventure, and while I don't want to give too much away, here's the official teaser:
"Greece, 5th century BCE. Kassandra is a mercenary of Spartan blood, sentenced to death by her family, cast out into exile. Now she will embark on an epic journey to become a legendary hero - and uncover the truth about her mysterious lineage.