The Hunt for the Hittites | Iron Age Beginnings | Military Exploits | Resources | Chronology
A Theory | Seven Nations | Governments and Empires | Geological Past

The Hittites - Resources of Ancient Anatolia

Making the stones speak...

The Hittite language remained a mystery for over 70 years. The Hamath stones recovered in 1872 would not be fully deciphered until the 1946 discovery of the bilingual texts at Karatepe.  If the language was difficult to understand, at least there was a written record of ancient events.  In many cases the Hittites either had not written anything down or what had been recorded was simply lost.  What is known of the battle of Kadesh is the Egyptian version, in which Ramses heroics are featured prominently.  His opponent, Muwatalli, left no record of the Hittite side.

Deciphering the Hittite economy is not so much a question of making the stones speak, since there are no stone inscriptions to read, rather it is a process of inferring what might have been written, if the Hittites had bothered to compile the statistics. There are, in fact, records which provide details about some of the economic activities taking place.  An Assyrian karum, or merchant colony, at Kanesh had records of loans and contracts made with people from the land of Hatti, dating from 1950 B.C..  In fact, Kanesh merchants even had business partners living in Hattusa.  Business activity was enough to support a karum, which  would be established on the north side of Hattusa itself, by around 1800 B.C..  What is known about the basic economic structure can be inferred, ironically, from the government price-control decrees which regulated the economy.  There were regulations relating to contracts, property rights, and prices.  Individuals who damaged their neighbor's property were required to pay restitution in silver.  Farmers who rented out their animals could only charge what the government allowed.  Agriculture was the mainstay of the local economy at Hatussa, with animal husbandry and grain production serving as the principal activities. 

The Hittites would have included metals in their inventory of resources.  Mining activities at Göltepe, provide evidence of a market for tin.  The extensive network of tunnels, the deaths of children in mining accidents, and the ability to support a village of between 500 and 1,000 people from 3290 B.C. to 1840 B.C. is an indication of just how strong the market was for the metal.  The occasional requests for iron from various foreign rulers indicate another resource.  However, the market was so limited that iron was not a major resource category. Silver production was sufficient to allow for its use as the basic medium of exchange. Lead was a secondary medium.

The military represented a resource, almost in the category of agriculture or trade, because of the access it provided to other traditional resources.  The resource value of military success could be measured by calculating the amount of tribute which came in or the value of booty captured.  (The cost of maintaining an army, a net decrease in resources, of course,  had to be taken into account in any calculation.)  The copper mines of Isuwa represented one such resource prize.  Hittite military resources had added the value of the mines to the actual resource base of the Hittite economy when Isuwa was conquered.  The Hittite military, at a later time, was unable to prevent the Assyrian army from conquering Isuwa (c. 1265-1240), an indication that military resources had declined.

Trade appears to have been another major source of economic activity. Trade is not really resource, just a description of economic activity.  However, trade rarely develops in the absence of resources, and the volume of trade often provides a rough measure of the amount and value of existing resources.  Trade can also generate additional resources.  As goods travel through a region, those who transport or deal in the goods can add value and obtain revenue as a result.  The resources generated by trading activities may have been one of the more important economic foundations of the Hittite Empire.  There was a perception among the Hittites that the economic power of their trade was sufficient to provide some regional clout.  When the Assyrian King Tukulti-Ninurta carried off 28,000 Hittites in a border raid in 1242 B.C., the Hittite response was a trade embargo rather than a military expedition.  One theory holds that the loss of first, the northwestern trade route around the Bosporus and the Aegean coast, and then the southeastern trade route, as a result of migration, essentially destroyed the economic base which powered the Empire.

The agricultural system of Hatti provided a wide variety of  products, from meats, butter and cheeses, to cereals, fruits, honey, beer, and wine.  Despite that capability, it did not gain a reputation as a major commercial producer of any particular product, such as Egypt would attain with its grain exports.  Agricultural resources are critical to all societies, even if production is considered only "adequate" for basic needs, (as opposed to commercial levels).  Given the difficulty of measuring the commercial capabilities of agriculture, the important comparison may not be between agricultural export production and that for ordinary societal needs, rather it may be the difference between production which was adequate and production at the point of total collapse.  At one time Hatussa had been able to support itself; at another time, it was dependent on grain imports.

Merneptah (Merenptah), Ramses' son, succeeded him on his death, around 1224 B.C..  Apparently the Hittite kingdom was struggling, since Merneptah would send grain there to relieve famine during the latter years of his reign.  A clay tablet found at Ugarit, a Syrian city on the Mediterranean coast, talks about how the kingdom was suffering from a "great famine."   Such problems may have been short-term, or they may provide evidence that climatic change had severely impacted the region.  The climate of Anatolia is believed to have become warmer and drier around the time of the collapse.  The level of agricultural resources, which had been adequate to at least feed the population, fell off, making Hatti dependent on outside help for its existence.

Running out of resources...

About 125 miles east of Boghazkäle lies the site of the Hittite city of  Kusakli.  Like Hatussa and other cities destroyed in 1200 B.C., fire had accompanied or followed the destruction.  Whether the Hittite inhabitants were massacred or simply driven out, the perpetrators seemed to reserve a special hatred for everything symbolized by the cities themselves.  At Hattusa they had broken stone statues and masonry.  All the buildings were demolished.  The fire which completed the destruction had been so hot that what remained of buildings took on a ceramic glaze from the heat.

The perpetrators of these acts are not known, although there are plenty of suspects.  There may have been a large migration of peoples from outside the region, caused either by increasing population pressures or by the climatic changes which caused the famine in Hatti.  The Kaskan (Gasgan) peoples, on the Black Sea, had sacked Hattusa around 1300 B.C..  An earlier invasion, around 1400 B.C., had seen the conquest of Hittite lands.  (The fact that King Arnuwanda recorded a complaint to the Sun-goddess of Arinna, that the Kaskan invaders destroyed temples and smashed statues of the gods, places them high on the list of suspects.)  Assyria, a rising power, was another possibility, along with the kingdom of Ahhiyawa, which may have ruled on  Crete, Rhodes, or Cyprus, and was accused of aiding vassal Hittite kingdoms rebel around 1200 B.C..  The Egyptians believed that the Sea Peoples were the real villains.  Ramses III listed Hatti as the first kingdom to fall victim to their onslaught, followed by Kode,  Carchemish, Arzawa, and Alasiya. There are suggestions that the Hittites had to deal with a rebellion within.

The Hittites, in the end, were simply overwhelmed, whether the cause was a foreign invasion or a combination of famine, military conflict, and internal revolt. In resource terms, their defeat is a clear indication that the level of military resources fell short of what was needed.  However, the Hittite collapse was not a case of the gradual exhaustion of resources, whether it was military or agricultural resources.  There was instead, a spike, or sudden surge in resource demand.  Resources, which had proved adequate in the past, suddenly became scarce, at least in the context of a major expansion of overall demand.  In that sense, it was a shortage of resources which led to the fall of the Hittite Empire.

A more intriguing question than the level of resources at the time of the collapse, is the relationship between resource availability, internal conflict, and political repression over the course of the Empire's existence.

Allowing dissent while preventing rebellion...

The Hittite kingdom could sometimes send out conflicting signals, when it came to political events. Successes could be followed almost immediately by abysmal failure.  In 1595 B.C. Marsilis I marched an army to Babylon and sacked the city.  He did not remain there long.  Whether he was fearful of a revolt at home, or a revolt had already broken out, he quickly returned to Hattusa.  On his return he was assassinated by his brother-in-law Hantili.  As Hantili I he himself escaped any murder plots, but many close family members did not.  His wife, Harapsili, along with her sons, was murdered.  Hantili's son, and other members of the royal family, was murdered by Zidanta who would, in turn, be murdered by his own son, Ammuna.  Ammuna ascended the throne around 1550.  Huzziya, king of Hatti after 1530, tried to eliminate his brother-in-law, Telepinu.  However, Telepinu instead deposed Huzziya, and exiled him.

Internal unrest led to a decline in power.  The Hurrians to the east began to have successes against the Hittite forces.  Hantili had to construct fortresses to deal with an invasion by the Kaskans.  During Ammuna's reign Hatti lost further territory.

Marsilis I was not the first king to experience opposition.  His grandfather, Tabarna Hattusili I, (Labarna II), (c. 1650 - 1620 B.C.) who had led a successful military expedition into Syria, discovered on his return, that his nephew was plotting to overthrow him.  The resulting exile of his nephew led to civil war. Hattusili III, the brother of Muwatalli, would depose the king Marsilis III, and exile him to Syria. (c. 1275 B.C.)

There is little in these examples of unrest to suggest a connection between political unrest and resource scarcity.  The ability to conduct military operations away from home suggests the opposite.  A society forced to endure conditions of scarcity would seem to have few resources to spare for foreign campaigns.  The only evidence suggesting such a relationship comes from the final days of the Empire, when it may have been suffering through a famine.  A scribe commented, in one of the last records filed at Hattusa: " The inhabitants of Hatti sinned against His Majesty."

The one governmental institution suggestive of democracy, the pankus, or council of nobles, cannot be tied definitively to periods of resource abundance or scarcity. Hattusili I spoke of it as an established institution in his farewell address (c. 1620 B.C.)  It was not a popularly elected legislative body, but it did have some control over the actions of the king. While it was officially charged to "advise" the king, it did have the power to execute him, if he defied the law.  Telepinu decreed that it was to judge people accused in assassination cases.  The problem with the pankus, as an indicator of early democratic development, is that seems to have lost power as the empire grew in importance.

In their relations with defeated peoples, Hittite policies were fairly liberal. Subjugated cities which became vassal states of Hatti normally had to pay tribute and could not conduct their own foreign policy, but otherwise were given a large amount of autonomy. Suppiluliuma made an exception to the vassal policy at Carchemish. Captured in 1353 B.C., its inhabitants were deported and it was resettled by Hittites.  Suppiluliuma's son, Piyasili, was installed on the throne.

The legal system proved a more effective curb on the king's power than the pankus. It survived where the pankus may not have. Hittite kings at least acknowledged the authority of the law.  They may have been willing to accept limitations on their power in exchange for the physical expansion of their authority.  With a uniform system of laws, they could avoid personal involvement in the everyday administration of different cities.  Regional administrators could be supervised more efficiently.  Rather than physically controlling a new region with troops, they could rely on the law to extend their power. The fact that the provisional garrison commander was involved in judicial decisions made by local elders was a reminder that Hittite authority could be enforced with military power.

The growth and diversity of the economy may have necessitated a uniform legal system at home.  There were at least 200 statutes enacted by the government, in addition to the interpretations of cases which became part of the legal code.  Early kings may have gained some satisfaction from personally deciding individual disputes, particularly where these involved major questions or challenges to their power.  They would have quickly tired of the repetitive, even petty, nature of disagreements between neighbors or small businesses.  A legal system would have been welcomed, if for no other reason than the freedom it provided from the details of administration.

The Hittite kingdom experienced periods of prosperity and resource abundance as well as periods of scarcity.  It also endured political unrest and even rebellion.  The lack of specific details about economic conditions during periods of unrest, unfortunately makes it difficult to draw any definitive conclusions about the relationship between scarcity and political repression.  An extensive legal system, particularly when compared to the power which might have remained in the hands of a monarch, may suggest an overall democratic tendency.  The fact that the legal system gave so much attention to commercial agreements and disputes may also suggest that democracy owed its existence to an expansion of trade.  The increase in resources which would have resulted from increased trade would be an additional circumstance supporting a relationship between resource abundance and democracy.  Unfortunately, evidence about specific repressive policies is lacking, as is evidence of the economic conditions at the time it might have occurred.  A relationship between resource abundance and democracy is thus suggested, however a relationship between resource scarcity and dictatorship is not easily established with the evidence available.

Suggestions for further reading.

S. G. F. Brandon, ed., "Milestones of History: Ancient Empires," Newsweek Books, (New York, NY 1973)

Roberta Conlan, Managing ed., "Lost Civilizations: Anatolia: Cauldron of Culture. " Time-Life Books, (Alexandria, VA 1995)

Glenn D. Considine, ed., "Van Nostrand's Scientific Encyclopedia, Ninth Edition." Wiley-Interscience, (New York, NY 2002)

Thomas H. Flaherty, Managing ed., "Lost Civilizations: Egypt: Land of the Pharaohs. " Time-Life Books, (Alexandria, VA 1992)

Janet Serlin Garber, ed. "The Concise Encyclopedia of Ancient Civilizations." Franklin Watts (New York, NY 1978)

Gilbert M. Grosvenor, ed. "Ancient Egypt: Discovering Its Splendors." National Geographic Society (Washington, D.C. 1978)

Jim Hicks, "The Emergence of Man: The Empire Builders." Time, Inc., (New York, NY 1974)

Harry A. Hoffner, Jr., "Hittites." Alfred J. Hoerth, Gerald L. Mattingly & Edwin M. Yamauchi, editors, "Peoples of the Old Testament World." Baker Books, (Grand Rapids, MI 1994)

George P. Hunt, Managing ed., "The Epic of Man. " Time, Incorporated, (New York, NY 1961)

Johannes Lehmann, "The Hittites: People of a Thousand Gods." The Viking Press, (New York, NY 1977)

"Reader's Digest History of Man: The Last Two Million Years." The Reader's Digest Association, (New York, NY 1974)

"The World Book Encyclopedia, 2003 Edition." World Book, Inc, (Chicago, IL 2003)