The Hittites—The First Ancient Empire

From the lecture series: Ancient Empires before Alexander

By Robert L. Dise, Jr., Ph.D., University of Northern Iowa

The Hittites, rulers of the land they called Hatti, created the first Near Eastern empire to emerge outside the great river valleys of Mesopotamia and the Nile. For half a millennium, from their homeland in central Anatolia, the Hittites played a role in Near Eastern politics equal to the traditional great powers of Mesopotamia and Egypt.

Aerial view of The Hattusa
Aerial view of The Hattusa, the capital city of Hittite Empire (Image: Stylone/Shutterstock)

The Hittites’ Origins

The Hittites’ origins are shrouded in the mists of early 2nd-millennium B.C.E. Anatolia. The empire’s real rise to power began with the so-called Old Kingdom. The founder of the Old Kingdom and the first great Hittite ruler was Hattusilis I, who came to the throne around 1650 and ruled for about 30 years.

Map of Hittite and Egyptian empires around 1300 BC
A map showing the extent of the Hittite Empire (salmon color) and the Egyptian neighbors to the South around 1300 BC (green) (Image: By Crates/Public Domain)

This is a transcript from the video series Ancient Empires before Alexander. Watch it now, on The Great Courses.

Like Anitta, the founder of the Hittite kingdom, he was prince of the city of Kussara, and he had ambitions—so he conquered Hattusas and moved his capital there. Hattusas had attractions: It was located on a well-defended hilltop and was strategically sited within the great bend of the Halys River, in north-central Anatolia.

The Warrior-King’s Campaigns

Image of rock relief of Hattusili III
Rock relief of Hattusili III the warrior-king (Image: By Krähenstein/Public Domain)

Hattusilis was a warrior-king. He left us an account of his exploits in the so-called “Political Testament of Hattusilis.” He says that he launched his very first campaign to the north, destroying the coastal town of Zalpa and planting garrisons, providing the troops with lands and sheep for their subsistence.

He aimed his second campaign against northern Syria. There he destroyed the important town of Alalah, as well as a number of other places, hauling away mountains of booty. The way he puts it was, “I filled my house to the top with their goods.”

Learn more about the economic, social, and religious life of the Sumerians

In his third campaign, he raided the land of Arzawa in southwest Anatolia, plundering it of cattle and sheep, but while he was engaged there, he says: “Behind my back the enemy came from Mitanni into my country. Then all the lands became hostile to me, and the city of Hattusas alone remained.” But his patron deity came to the rescue:

The sun-goddess of Arina set me upon her lap and she took me by the hand and went before me in the battle. I went to do battle with Nenassa, and when the people of Nenassa beheld me they opened their gates. But after that I went to do battle in the country of Ulma, and the people of Ulma opposed me twice in battle and twice I fought against them, and I destroyed Ulma and in its place I sowed cress, and its seven gods I brought to the temple of the sun-goddess of Arina.

In subsequent campaigns, he reports ravaging northern Syria several more times, fighting against the Prince of Aleppo and even leading a Hittite army across the Euphrates. He meticulously catalogs the loads of plunder he brought back from Syria to Hattusas, including silver stags, tables made of gold and of silver, and a ship with a silver-covered bow. He boasts that he carried away the population of slaves from northern Syria and dedicated them to his patron, the sun-goddess, along with rich gifts that he had made of the precious metals he had seized.

Learn more about the earliest civilizations which emerge c. 3500–3000 B.C. from Neolithic villages

“Attack, Destroy, Withdraw”

In a moment that speaks volumes about the way in which conquerors like Hattusilis saw themselves standing in the shadow of those who had gone before them, he says:

I, the Great King Labarna, crossed the Euphrates with my own feet. Only Sargon had crossed it before me. Against the troops of the city of Hahha he had fought, but he had not done anything to the city of Hahha, had not burnt it down with fire and had not shown its smoke to the weather-god of heaven. I, the Great King Labarna, destroyed Hahha and gave it over totally to fire, and its smoke I showed to the weather-god of heaven.

He then yoked the King of Hahha to a wagon loaded with the goods looted from his city and forced him to drag the wagon through the gates into Hattusas. The tablet bears the simple title: “The Manly Deeds of Hattusilis.” The purpose behind Hattusilis’s manly deeds isn’t clear. The principalities of northern Syria posed no direct military threat to Anatolia, and he seems to have made no effort to annex the area.

“Attack, destroy, withdraw” is the way one scholar has characterized Hattusilis’s campaigns. In a strategic sense, the campaigns may even have been counterproductive, for two reasons: First, taking the army so far afield risked making the Hittite heartland vulnerable to attack from enemies closer by. Second, although the principalities of northern Syria had posed no threat to Hatti or its possessions before, in the wake of Hattusilis’s campaigns they were likely to view Hatti as a hostile neighbor and unlikely to favor its interests in the future, except under compulsion.

Some scholars have suggested an economic motive—that Hattusilis sought access to and control over the important trade routes that ran through northern Syria, linking Mesopotamia with the port cities of the Levant. They speculate that the tin necessary for making bronze came from Elam in southwestern Iran, and that the end of the Assyrian merchant colonies and their network had crippled bronze production in Hatti—so Hattusilis’s aim, therefore, was to restore the tin routes between Anatolia and Elam.

Learn more: Hammurabi’s Babylon

Hatti’s Heroic Values

But it’s also worth remembering that this was a society that placed a high premium on what we today call “heroic values.” We see that in the fact that royal ideologies throughout the ancient Near East emphasize above all else the king as warrior. A successful warrior-king provides for his people by bringing home and distributing booty. So what does Hattusilis say—and what does he not say—in his account of his expeditions?

Learn more about three classes of people—kings, scribes, and soldiers in ancient Mesopotamia

He doesn’t boast of strengthening Hatti’s frontiers in Anatolia—he boasts of the mountains of booty that he brought back from his campaigns along those frontiers. When he turns to his Syrian forays, he doesn’t talk about restoring access to tin—he talks about his achievements being even greater than those of Sargon himself and then boasts about how he had vanquished kings haul wagons laden with plunder through the gates of his capital. In other words, what Hattusilis was doing was being a warrior-king—and a pretty good one at that.

Do we really need to look any further for a motive?

Common Questions About the Hittites

Q: Are there Hittites today?

It is largely unknown who the descendents of the Hittites are today as they were eradicated.

Q: Why are the Hittites historically famous?

The Hittites formed a strong culture around 1700 BCE which grew into the first massive ancient empire that even threatened Egypt’s established nationhood.

Q: Were the Hittites slave-owners?

The Hittites did have slaves as their society was feudal and agrarian, which meant most were peasants working the farms.

Q: Were the Hittites religious?

The Hittites worshiped many gods including Arinnitti, the sun goddess, who was at the apex of their religious structure.

This article was updated on 12/20/2019

Keep Reading
Cuneiform: The Invention of Writing
Learn How To Write Your Name In Hieroglyphics
What Did the Ancient Greek Language Sound Like?