One Ancient Tradition of Tactical Writing: The Hittite
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One Ancient Tradition of Tactical Writing: The Hittite

The orange cover with white lettering of a softcover book entitled "The Hittite Instruction for the Royal Bodyguard"

It occurred to me that recently I have been writing a lot about the last thousand years, but not so much about ancient Southwest Asia. I promised to write about the different ancient traditions of tactical writing. This is a topic known from Greek, Hebrew, Hittite, and Indian literature in the ancient world, and it may have been discussed in Latin texts as well. Of these, the Hittite is by far the oldest, being attested in the middle of the second millennium BCE.

The first tablet of a document called the Guards’ Rule was identified amongst the finds at Bogazköy in the early twentieth century. This text gives instructions for standing guard duty in the palace (ch. 1-11), making a formal procession when the king leaves the palace to judge cases (ch. 12-28), controlling the movement of different people during a trial (ch. 29-36, 40), returning to the palace (ch. 41-53), and getting food (ch. 54-59). It describes basic guard duty, then more complicated tasks which might fill a day. The first chapters include such delightful touches as rules for who should watch a guard’s spear when he has to enter the palace, and how a guard should ask permission before leaving his post to go to the toilet. Frustratingly, the scribe who made the only known copy ended it with a note that he was copying the first tablet of an incomplete document. We can only speculate what the following tablets might have told us, but we would certainly expect to read something about the guards’ duties when the king went on campaign.

The second quarter of this tablet describes how the guards and other attendants are to form up when the king drives out of the palace. It describes the attendants forming rows and standing one behind the other, an about-face, and what sounds very much like a countermarch when the procession has to turn around (ch. 42-44: “If he returns by cart, then one guard gives a sign with a spear to the guards and to the palace attendants and says the following in Hittite: ‘to the side!’ Then the guards and the palace attendants run past the rear, but the coachmen [reach] over the left mule, and they turn the cart back.”) While there seems to be a wide spacing between ranks and files, the editors emphasize that Hittite measures of distance are not understood. There is no detailed discussion of how the guard is organized, but half a dozen types of armed attendant are named. In its own way, this document supports the impression from the Stele of Vultures, the figurines in the tomb of Mesehti, and New Kingdom Egyptian reliefs that Bronze Age soldiers already practiced marching in ranks and files. Military practices like this are rarely documented, because in most literate societies martial culture is an oral culture. Technical works on everyday skills tend to be rare compared to basic texts used for elementary education, religious ritual, or pleasure, and when they become obsolete they are less likely to be preserved.

A handful of other Hittite technical works on military subjects have been identified, including instructions for building a fortress, regulations for the commander of a border outpost, and a letter discussing the progress of a siege and the different tactics which have been employed. All of these documents are difficult to understand, due to damage, words which are not attested elsewhere in Hittite literature, and units of measurement which are no longer understood. I very much hope that more copies or fragments of this Hittite text are found, and that more scholars with military expertise consider how to interpret it.

Further Reading: I have not had time to compile a proper bibliography, and have forgotten one article with strong statements about the Rule of the Bodyguards, but see:

  • Hans G. Güterbock and Theo P.J. Van den Hout, The Hittite Instruction for the Royal Bodyguard, Assyriological Studies No. 24 (Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago: Chicago, IL, 1991) now available for free,
  • Nigel Tallis, “The Achaemenid Army in a Near Eastern Context,” in J. Curtis and St John Simpson ed., The World of Achaemenid Persia (I.B. Tauris, London, 2010) pp. 309-314,
  • Itamar Singer, “On Siege Warfare in Hittite Texts,” in Mordechai Cogan and Dan’el Kahn eds., Treasures on Camel’s Humps (The Hebrew University Magnes Press: Jerusalem, 2008) pp. 250-265

Edit 2015/03/26: Added link to PDF edition of the text

Edit 2022-02-18: converted to block editor

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