Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Some Hittite Legal Cases

In the thirteenth century BCE, the town of Emar, in what is now Syria, was governed by the Hittite empire via the king of the city of Carchemish.  The empire was centred on Hattusa, a fortified city in central Anatolia, modern day Turkey, and was ruled by a king with the help of a large administration and codified laws.  The Hittites spoke an Indo-European language, but they were strongly influenced by the local non-Indo-European-speaking Hattians in almost every respect; the name 'Hittite' is an Anglicised version of the Hebrew word for Hatti, the word the Hittites used for their kingdom, which came from the Hattians.  They were people of diverse origins and they governed in the same way: a key principle of Hittite governance was the use, wherever possible, of established local law and convention, such that the Syrian cities' laws were not overturned by the imposition of law from Hattusa.
File:Map Hittite rule en.svg
The Hittite empire, Hatti, at its greatest extent.  Emar is the city on the Euphrates southeast of Aleppo.  h/t Wiki, User: Ikonact.

The reason for this was simple: the empire was threatened by rebellion and by the turning of vassals from Hittite rule to that of New Kingdom Egypt, and allowing local legal precedent to continue was largely a pragmatic decision, akin to the Hittite religious policy of not only allowing local gods to continue to be worshipped, but of actively including them in the Hittite pantheon.  The pantheon was consequently enormous and the legal mechanisms consequently complicated.  Perhaps the overriding principle of Hittite law was that disobeying a legal judgement without appealling it first - any legal judgement, on any issue -  would result in death or, if the judgement came from the king himself, the destruction of the transgressor's entire family.

Some remarkable cases shed light on the way Hittite law worked in practice.  A notable example from Emar shows the presence of a sort of system of checks and balances, although it was certainly not conceptualised in this way and the system was certainly not formalised as such.  A priest from Emar had a decision made against him by the local garrison commander over tax.  He didn't think the ruling was just and so he appealed.  In fact, he appealed by letter to the Hittite emperor in Hattusa, something remarkable in itself.  More remarkable still, the emperor decided the case in favour of the priest and against the administration put in place by the Hittites themselves.  This was made possible by the power of the Hittite state and strength of its laws: no one could or would disobey the king, especially on such a small matter.

Trevor Bryce gives an example of another case, from Ugarit, also in Syria:
...the merchant Mashanda laid before Ini-Teshub, the viceroy at Carchemish, a complaint against the king of Ugarit for taking from his caravan 400 donkeys, worth 4,000 shekels of silver.  His anger and frustration at this appropriation were all the greater since a decision had already been given in his favour by the former Hittite king Urhi-Teshub [Mursili III], who had imposed a substantial fine [...] on the Ugaritic king. (2002:45)
The ruins of Ugarit at Ras Shamra, Syria.  h/t Wiki, User: LorisRomito.
It's quite common to say that early states were horrible - see, e.g., the anthropologist Alex Golub, aka Rex:
...frankly, it sucked to live in an early state.
And it did, in most cases, especially if you were a woman, of unorthodox religious belief, and so on.  Laws aren't immune to abuse, and part of the raison d'être of early states was the enriching of the rulers, which is hardly commensurate with good government when there are no checks and balances in place.  But there are at least some examples of justice (or, in Hittite, handantatar) in early states, where the little guy was protected from the big guy by the collective force of all the little guys propping up an even bigger guy.  Look in Hittite law and you will occasionally see glimpses of the sensible and just imposition of state power to protect what we would now call the rights of the citizens of the empire.

Of course, this seems to have been the privilege of literate men with money - merchants and priests - but you have to start somewhere.  Naturally, I'd be opposed to the total destruction of anyone's family for their having disobeyed a trivial ruling, as anyone would be.  But it's important to recognise that appeal to a higher authority for the abuse of a lower one was the privilege of literally nobody who didn't live in a state.  To whom can they appeal?

As Bryce continues, after the Mashanda case:
Merchant travel in the region [of Syria and Canaan] was a hazardous occupation, to judge from the various cases of murder, robbery, [and] hijacking which came before the courts with all the accompanying demands for justice and claims for compensation.
The area was on the border between the Hittites and New Kingdom Egypt, and it was, like many border regions in pre-modern times, rather violent.  State power, whether Egyptian or Hittite, was inherently weak, as the state in Hattusa or Pi-Ramesses could hardly impose itself too strongly lest the locals shift their allegiance to the other side.  This is one of several reasons why the Old Testament is so brutal and genocidal, and why appealling to a single all-powerful deity must have seemed so vital and important.  In the absence of a well-funded government, courts, appeals, and the power of a diverse state needing to ameliorate its demands in order to avoid upset, the only recourse was and is to supernatural intervention.  And that is, of course, much less reliable than even a Bronze Age king.

For the specifics of the Emar case see:

Bryce, T.  2002.  Life and society in the Hittite world.  Oxford: OUP.  43-44.

Singer, I.  1999.  A new Hittite letter from Emar.  In: Milano, L., De Martino, S., Fales, F. M., Lanfranchi, G. B. (eds).  Landscapes. territories, frontiers and horizons in the ancient Near East. Padua. 65-72.

van Exel, V. J.  2010.  Social change at Emar: the influence of the Hittite occupation on local traditions.  Revue d'Assyriologie et d'archéologie orientale.  104:65-86.

I'm a big fan of the Hittites, by the way.  I've ended up collecting more books and articles on them than on any other Near Eastern civilization, and I'm not entirely clear on how that happened.


  1. Very interesting! I find the Hittites fascinating also. This region was strongly influenced Egypt over different periods. In fact, Hat is associated with Egyptian rulers. An example is Hat·shep·sut (or Hat·shep·set), an Egyptian queen who died around 1482 BC. Hat-hor was the mythical mother of Hor, the son of Ra, the Creator. Her name is her royal title. and among the devotees of Horus (the Horites) "hat" was used to designate rulers.

  2. I doubt those are related to the name of the Hattians, which certainly antedates strong Egyptian interest in the Levant (let alone Anatolia). And 'hat', as part of Hatshepsut, doesn't have anything to do with ruling or kingship, as far as I'm aware, and it's also isolated - not a common epithet.


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