Over three thousand years ago, before iron had been tamed, before Rome had risen, before the ashes from which Classical Greece would emerge had even been scattered, the world was forged in bronze. It was an age when Great Kings ruled, when vast armies clashed for glory, riches and the favour of their strange gods. In the south there was Egypt; in the east, Assyria; in the west, Ahhiyawa (Homer’s Greece); and in the north... the Hittites.
The Hittites held sway for nearly five hundred years, spanning roughly 1650 BC - 1200 BC, ruling from the high, rugged plateau at the heart of modern-day Turkey, commanding a ring of vassal states (most notably Troy) and boasting a dauntless army that struck fear into the hearts of their rivals.
This article dives into the dark and mysterious world of the Hittite Army...
The Hittite King, also known as The Sun or Labarna, was venerated as the deputy of the Storm God, Tarhunda and the Sun Goddess, Arinnitti. Much of his time was spent in his secondary role as High Priest of the realm, attending the many religious festivals all across the Hittite realm, draped in blue robes. But he also served as commander-in-chief of the Hittite army, and in this guise he would wear bronze and leather.
The Royal Guard
The King enjoyed the protection of two elite units:
The Mesedi were his bodyguards. A detachment of them would be ever-present at home or abroad, on the march, in battle, in camp (and maybe even in the latrine - who knows?) They would have been a small unit - perhaps a few hundred strong. Their leader, the Gal Mesedi, not only commanded these soldiers, but also served as a deputy to the king - organising affairs of state security and such matters. Most often, the Gal Mesedi was a trusted relative of the king.
The Golden Spearmen - named after their gilt lances - were a small (maybe as few as fifty) guard unit tasked with watching over the acropolis of Hattusa. When the king went on campaign, the Golden Spearmen would remain in the city.
At their peak, the Hittites could muster around 20,000 soldiers from their barracks, cities and farms. Based on this figure, and the evidence that they seemed to have four senior generals, I suspect that they would have organised these men into four infantry 'divisions'. There would also have been a chariot wing - the equivalent of a Bronze Age tank division! - and the aforementioned royal guard units.
The Infantry Divisions
The king would choose his divisional generals carefully, usually selecting those he trusted implicitly and often they were blood-relatives. King Muwatalli II (Muwa) clearly rated his younger brother, Prince Hattusili (Hattu). By the time of Dawn of War Hattu had been a leading figure in military campaigns since his mid-teens.
Each division of footsoldiers would have been sub-divided into smaller units, probably 1,000-strong regiments. A standing regiment would remain in active service at all times, while the rest would tend to their crops and herds as needed.
Each regiment would be further sub-divided into 100-strong companies. The soldiers tended to be archers or spearmen.
The spearmen were the spine of the army though. Each was armed with a short, curved sword, a spear, a wood and leather shield and a battle-axe. Whether they wore armour or not, we cannot be sure. They would certainly have worn bronze or leather helmets, and padded tunics/robes, possibly with baked leather armour vests. The more senior soldiers and commanders might have worn bronze scale - although some sources claim the mark of an officer was to go bare chested! And all soldiers would have worn leather boots, upturned at the toes in true Hittite style.
Archers would have been dressed much like their spearmen comrades, but probably with minimal or no armour and likely without a shield too. They employed composite bows made of laminated ash, birch or cherry, with ibex horn glued to the inside of the bow.
Whether spearman or archer, a soldier could fall into one of three classes:
While the Hittite army was mostly composed of native Hittites (although they were not a genetically 'pure' people by any means), they often recruited from foreign climes. Kaskans from the northern mountains, Westerners, Assyrians, captured Egyptians even - were all at times formed into fresh companies and treated as an equal part of the army. They were barracked together and even allowed to retain their dress, weapons and customs, so long as they obeyed their Hittite commanders.
This must have been a delicate matter to handle, but they did it with aplomb, it seems. Indeed, the esprit de corps in the Hittite army as a whole seems to have been first class. In excavated tablets, we read of their enlistment ritual, where they are forced to choose between a frock and a mirror, or a sword; or of their oath of the army, where each man holds their fat-smeared hand over a fire until the fat runs off to show their strength and willingness to endure pain for one another.
The (lack of) Cavalry
Easy one this - there were no cavalry. Well, not in the way we would think of cavalry now (i.e. armed men fighting on horseback). Horses of the Bronze Age were smaller and had not yet been bred to produce the likes of medieval destriers or modern racehorses. They could not be expected to walk with armoured soldiers on their backs for any great distance, let alone charge with such a burden during battle. Horses were ridden, but only by light scouts or messengers. In the main, they were employed in chariotry...
The chariots were the elite wing of the Hittite army - each 'war car' a trophy of skill and craftsmanship. The construction of each chariot required expertise in metallurgy (bronze bits for the horses, copper nails to keep the 'tyres' on the wheels), woodworking, tanning and leatherwork, glue-production, boneworking and more.
Crewed by a warrior and driver (until the Battle of Kadesh, when things changed) and pulled by two steeds, these thundering war-cars were blunt and brutal. A shock weapon if ever there was one. While the Egyptian chariots were all about speed and spryness, the Hittite chariots were about brute force - for carving into enemy infantry ranks like a scalpel.
Tablets record a Hurrian by the name of Kikkuli living with the Hittites and schooling them in the art of chariotry and horse breeding. Indeed, it seems he even went swimming with the herds and experimented with grinding salt into their fodder in order to trigger growth hormones (and thus bigger horses).
The Hittites were not a seafaring people, mainly due to their heartlands being landlocked and the rivers of that regions being shallow and unsuitable even for serious river boating. But as they spread as a power and claimed coastal territories, it became vital to establish some sort of naval presence. It seems they did so by way of making alliances with and vassals of kingdoms which already possessed a fleet.
One such kingdom was Ugarit (on the coast of modern Syria). The wealth of Ugarit was based on trade - their capital city being something of an international market hub - and so they maintained a strong flotilla of transport and war ships. Through Ugarit and other such arrangements, the Hittites could control the seas as they did the land.
So there's an overview of the Hittite Army. Hope you enjoyed the read. Any questions? Leave a comment below or get in touch - I'd be delighted to hear from you.
Gordon Doherty: writer, history fan, explorer.
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