Not long ago scholars knew nothing of the Hittites save a few curious mentions in the Old Testament. Even after their rediscovery in the early 20th century, they are today among the least known of the great nations of the ancient Near East.
In their heyday in the mid-2nd millennium BC, the Hittites dominated Anatolia and northern Syria from their capital Hattusa, east of Ankara. The exercise of their military and political might for a time brought them into regular contact, by turns friendly and hostile, with the other great powers of the time - Egypt, Assyria and Babylonia. Yet they are the subject of far less scholarship than the peoples of the Nile valley and Mesopotamia. As a consequence, there are very few books to inform a non-specialist readership of the Hittites and their world.
Trevor Bryce's new volume is just such a book. It is a companion to his previous work, The Kingdom of the Hittites . That book presented a political and military history of the Hittite state. This one examines economic and social history, giving an account of daily life as it was experienced by all classes of men going about their different business.
Successive chapters deal with the king, the law, scribes, farming, trade, military life, marriage, religious belief, medicine, death, festivals and religious rituals, mythology, and the capital city. Art and architecture are not treated to a chapter of their own but are discussed at appropriate points. A final chapter examines links with Greece, particularly the question of the transmission of ancient near-eastern culture to the Aegean and the role of the Hittites in that.
For lack of hard evidence, this is a contentious topic. Scholarly opinion fluctuates from blinkered Hellenism, which seeks to count eastern influence on Greek culture as insignificant, to the position of those who postulate a very pervasive and direct influence. In discussing the common ground shared by Homer and the epic of Gilgamesh, twin masterpieces of west and east, Bryce takes a view between the two extremes. For him, Homer "adapted, moulded, and transformed a vast range of disparate material into a coherent, compelling narrative". Gilgamesh had become a "coherent, compelling narrative" 1,000 years before Homer, but Bryce's phrase accurately describes the many and various literary traditions of ancient western Asia taken as a whole.
Bryce's principal source is the Hittites' written legacy. Since the broken remains of the royal archives were first discovered in 1906, many thousands of clay tablets have been excavated in Hattusa and other Hittite settlements. These sources led within two decades to the decipherment of Hittite as the oldest Indo-European language. They are supplemented by monumental inscriptions carved on rock and stone in locally invented hieroglyphs, the medium that Hittite kings and princes used for writing Luwian, a language related to Hittite but more obscure.
A proper understanding of these hieroglyphs has developed only in the past two decades. The Hittites clearly presided over a polyglot society.
Intellectual activity, in particular, was multilingual, with some literary texts in Sumerian and Akkadian (including the Babylonian Gilgamesh) imported from Babylonia and Assyria, and others in Hurrian from north Mesopotamia. Much was then also translated into Hittite. Like all great near-eastern cities, Hattusa was a melting pot. Western Asia already displayed astonishing cultural and ethnic diversity.
Bryce's focus occasionally shifts from the Hittites to their neighbours in both time and space. As elsewhere, many of the geopolitical tensions that afflict modern times were already present. Relations with Alashiya (Cyprus), Syria and the Aegean area were often strained. In revealing comparisons with what came after, Bryce frequently steps back to view the wider historical picture. He deploys an especially wide knowledge of Mycenaean and classical Greek Asia Minor and even brings Byzantium into the frame. At the same time he brings Greek wisdom to bear on his subject. A particularly timely quotation is Thucydides' observation on war:
"Considerations of justice have never yet diverted anyone from establishing his superiority by the exercise of force, whenever the opportunity has offered."
Like all great powers, the Hittites claimed to fight just wars. Their claim was supported by an ideology already conventional in those days, that their gods required them to combat evil wherever they found it.
Combining lucidity with scholarly rigour and displaying an informed and thoughtful response to the topic, this well-written book will be of particular value to university students and ancient historians. It deserves also to find a place in the wider market.
Andrew George is professor of Babylonian, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.
Life and Society in the Hittite World
Author - Trevor Bryce
ISBN - 0 19 924170 8
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £45.00
Pages - 312