Thursday, February 24, 2011

Review: The Hittite by Ben Bova

The HittiteThe Hittite capital of Hattusa was a smoldering ruin by the time Lukka and his squad of Hatti soldiers arrived  to rescue their families.  Lukka found his dying father in the ruins of his ancestral home but could not find his wife or two young sons.  His father gasps that Lukka's wife has taken his sons and fled the city and makes Lukka promise him that he will find his  grandsons so they will not end their days as slaves.

Lukka learns that the king has been killed and civil war has broken out between the two heirs to the throne and the empire that has dominated Asia Minor since the 18th century BCE is in its last death throes.  He gathers his men, pointing out to them that they stand a better chance of survival if they stay together, then strikes out on the trail of his wife and sons.

The Lion Gate at Hattusa, Turkey. This was one...Image via Wikipedia
Lukka discovers, however, that his family has been captured by slavers who seem to be headed toward the great city of Troy, near the fabled Hellespont.  So, he and his men press on until they find themselves standing on the plain before Troy and discover that it is beseiged by a rather disorganized rabble of Greeks still armed with soft bronze weapons while  Lukka's Hatti soldiers have the latest iron swords, helmets and studded armor.

The Hatti are also skilled in fighting in disciplined formations and soon draw the attention of both King Agamemnon and the legendary Odysseus when they bravely face down a chariot charge by Hector himself. Lukka and his men are invited to join the household of Odysseus and soon Lukka learns that his wife and sons are indeed in the Greek camp but have been sold to King Agamemnon.  Odysseus tells Lukka that Agamemnon won't give up his slaves willingly and relates the latest dispute between Agamemnon and Achilles.  He advises Lukka to be patient and Odysseus will help him secure the return of his family when the opportunity presents itself.

Trojans and Greeks from the Vergilius RomanusImage via Wikipedia
He then asks Lukka if he will serve as an envoy to the Trojans to carry the latest peace offering from the Greeks.  Lukka agrees and is taken into the city of Troy where he meets King Priam, Prince Hector, Prince Paris and, of course, the beautiful Helen.  He presents the Greek's offer to withdraw if Helen is returned to Menelaus and the Trojans are surprised that the Greeks are no longer demanding the return of Helen's dowry that she brought with her from Sparta.

Lukka is asked to remain in a guest room while the new offer is considered by the council and while there he is summoned into a private audience chamber where he finds Helen alone except for her servant, her nurse since early childhood.  Helen is impressed with his forthright integrity and questions him about the Greeks' true motivations.  Lukka fights to control his attraction to her and discovers she is both thoughtful and practiced in
statecraft herself.

Ultimately, the Trojans reject the peace treaty, though, and Lukka returns to the Greek encampment.  The events of the Iliad unfold before Lukka's eyes - the death of Patroclus, the death of Hector and finally the death of Achilles, though a suicide and not because of any mythical vulnerability near his heel.
Lukka meets with Odysseus and explains that his men are skilled in the construction of siege towers that they have used many times in sieges prosecuted by the Hatti.  So Odysseus convinces Agamemnon to authorize the construction of one of the Hatti siege towers that they will cover with wet horsehides to protect the men inside from flaming missiles.
An early seige tower used by King Sennacherib against
the walls of Lachish.  Image courtesy of Archaeology of the Bible.

Using the siege tower, Lukka and his men scale the walls of Troy and open the gates to let in Odysseus' waiting men and the rest, as they say, is history (or myth?).

But when Lukka returns he learns that the high king has ordered a celebratory sacrifice of not only prisoners but slaves that have served the Greeks but are no longer needed now that the Greeks are readying their ships to return home.  Lukka races to find Odysseus to ask him to plead for the return of Lukka's family before it's too late.

Author Ben Bova recounts the hellish scene as prisoners and slaves are lashed towards a waiting cadre of priests, bloodied up to their elbows before gore-covered altar stones.

Will Lukka rescue his family?  And what of Helen's fate?

Award winning science fiction writer, Ben Bova has written more than 120 science fiction and non fiction texts over the course of a career than spans six decades.  I was unaware of his background in science fiction when I ordered The Hittite on, which was listed under historical fiction.

So, as an historical fiction enthusiast who enjoys learning about ancient cultures through characters in a fictional narrative, were my expectations met?  Surprisingly, I found Bova's novel as pragmatic as any other historical drama I have read.  I found it carefully researched, unfolding without any fantasy elements, despite the fact that it was a retelling of Homer's Iliad through the eyes of a Hittite officer.

Greeks and Trojans alike referred to their beliefs in gods and goddesses but no dieties actually made any physical appearances in human or even non-human form, much like Peterson's film version, "Troy".

I also learned more about the Hittite civilization, my original purpose for selecting this book.
Although I have studied the battle of Kadesh between the Hittites and the Egyptians and have listened to Professor Kenneth Harl's course, Great Ancient Civilizations of Asia Minor some years ago , I knew relatively little about the Hatti (the real name of these people) except that they were fierce warriors from Asia Minor and the northern Levant who used heavily armored chariots in battle.
The Hittites with their iron weapons and swift chariots were a lethal
combination in the late Bronze Age.  Image courtesy of
World History to 1500 Blog

I was surprised to learn in Bova's book that, although the time period was technically the end of the Bronze Age, the Hatti had already developed iron weapons even though the Greeks and Trojans were still fighting with bronze weapons.  Their use of iron as early as the 14th century BCE was discovered after royal archives containing cuneiform tablets were recovered and later translated during the 19th century.

Relief of Suppiluliuma II, last known king of ...Image via Wikipedia
Relief depicting the last known king of Hatti, Suppiluliuma II 

"The script on a monument at Boğazköy by a "People of Hattusas" discovered by William Wright in 1884 was found to match peculiar hieroglyphic scripts from Aleppo and Hamath in Northern Syria. In 1887, excavations at Tell El-Amarna in Egypt uncovered the diplomatic correspondence of Pharaoh Amenhotep III and his son Akhenaton. Two of the letters from a "kingdom of Kheta" -- apparently located in the same
general region as the Mesopotamian references to "land of Hatti" -- were written in standard Akkadian cuneiform script, but in an unknown language; although scholars could read it, no one could understand it. Shortly after this, Archibald Sayce proposed that Hatti or Khatti in Anatolia was identical with the "kingdom of Kheta" mentioned in these Egyptian texts, as well as with the biblical Hittites. Others such as Max Müller agreed that Khatti was probably Kheta, but proposed connecting it with Biblical Kittim, rather than with the 'Children of Heth'." - Wikipedia 

The Hittite capital of Hattusa was destroyed about 1178 BCE and this would have placed its destruction in the period scholars place the Trojan War, just as put forward in Bova's book, The empire's collapse was brought about by a civil war with Hittite vassals, the Kaskas, a mountain people from the Pontic region of Anatolia, and the Bryges, predecessors to the Phrygians who lived in western Anatolia.   Simultaneously, the fabled "Sea Peoples" attacked Hittite holdings in Cyprus requiring the last Hittite king, Suppiluliuma II,  to engage in one of the earliest naval battles recorded in history off the coast of Cyprus.  Then the Assyrians took advantage of this distraction by further encroaching Hittite lands in the east.  This period of history was obviously a dangerous and brutal environment as the "Dark Age" began to descend over the Mediterranean basin and I could easily envision marauding bands of former soldiers, slavers and thieves ravaging the countryside as depicted in the novel.
Cast of a relief depicting the Sea Peoples at the British Museum
Photographed by Ferrell Jenkins

The stark difference in military discipline and strategies known to the Hittites but unknown to the Greeks is also confirmed in the historical record.

"The Hittites perfected chariot warfare in what one might call the Golden Age of Chariotry. The chariot of the Late Bronze Age was a very lightweight vehicle pulled by two small horses, useful for it's rapid mobility as an archery, javelin, and spear platform. They fought in large formations, leaving to the archers and infantry masses the tasks of assaulting city walls and occupying territory once it was captured." - Introduction to the Hittites by Steve Thurston. 2001.  

A Hittite officer like Lukka would have been appalled to see the Greek chariots dashing haphazardly around the battlefield as Greek nobleman sought individual glory rather than overall victory in the engagement.

I also appreciated Bova's obvious research into the historical fortifications of Troy. Archaeologists who have examined the remains of Troy VIIa , thought to be the Homeric level of occupation at the site of Hisarlik, observe,

" In the area of the east gate (VI S) between Sections 2 and 3, a southern extension added to Section 2 made the approach to this gate more difficult for attackers. The masonry of this addition, much less regular than that characteristic of the fortifications of Troy VI, utilized many of the fallen blocks from the walls of Troy VI. Repair of the main south gate (VI T) involved paving the entrance passage here and installing a drain under the paving. Extensive repairs to the south and southeast portion of the wall (Sections 3-4) were also undertaken." - Troy VII and the historicity of the Trojan War

Bova's Hittite protagonist observes these Trojan efforts to reinforce the south and east defensive walls and recommends that the Greeks use a siege tower to surmount the west wall, a natural barrier, which is lower and has not been artificially reinforced .

Iloupersis (the fall of Troy), detail. Side A ...Image via Wikipedia
Bova's description of the sack of Troy also reflected the brutality often endured by conquered cities in t
he ancient world although some readers may take issue with the scenes in the novel describing wholesale human sacrifice by the so-called "noble" Greeks after the victory, even though the sacrifice of captives and dogs at the funeral of Patroclus was related by Homer in the Iliad (23.173-6).

Archaeological excavations of Mycenean chamber tombs have yielded human remains mixed with animal bones, including dogs, at a number of sites although archaeologists of the period, particularly those working in the late 19th and early 20th century have been reluctant to attribute these findings to the practice of human sacrifice.

"In 1887 and 1888 [Christos] Tsountas excavated fifty-two chamber tombs in the vicinity of Mycenae and reported that human bones were often found in the dromoi.  In the dromos of Tomb 15 Tsountas found six skeletons buried one over the other, at different depths, in the stone fill before the triangle above the door.  With the skeletons were some undecorated potsherds and some animal bones." - Human sacrifice in ancient Greece by Dennis D. Hughes.  Routledge.  1991

Although researchers have attempted to attribute these findings to displacement by tomb robbers or subsequent multiple burials, evidence on Cyprus, including the discovery of bound skeletal victims, points directly to the introduction of ritual killing by Greek-speaking colonists in the mid-eleventh century BCE.
Hector's Body depicted on Roman Sarcophagus with Scenes from the Life of Achilles made in Attica Greece 180-220 CE Marble (3)
Hector's Body depicted on Roman Sarcophagus made in Greece 180-220 CE.  Photographed
at the Getty Villa by Mary Harrsch.
One such example was found in tomb 422 of the Necropolis of Kastros, Lapithos.

"The uppermost skeleton was covered with two stone slabs, with a third smaller slab placed over its neck.  Of this uppermost skeleton 'the shoulder-blades were on top of the ribs, the processes of the spinal column were turned up, the hands were tied to each other and the feet were crossed'.  It was concluded that the body had been laid face down, bound hand and foot, in the dromos.  Beneath it were the skull and scattered bones of a second skeleton ('from the position of the bones it seems that the body had been placed there in a mutilated condition'), and on the bottom a damaged skeleton lay in outstretched position with the head towards the entrace of the dromos (and in a direction opposite to that of the topmost skeleton).  Next to the lowermost burial were an amphora and a jug.  Also found in the dromos were two rectangular blocks of poros stone, each with a rectangular hole cut in its middle.  Cuttings in the rock edge of the dromos suggest that the larger of the blocks had originally lain across the dromos.  Gjerstad, who discussed only the larger block, interpreted it as a sacrificial table upon which the three persons whose remains were found in the dromos were immolated, whereupon 'their blood poured down in the hole to satisfy the spirit of the deceased, buried in the tomb'."  - Human sacrifice in ancient Greece by Dennis D. Hughes.  Routledge.  1991

This description is chillingly similar to the horrific scene Bova describes in the hours following the fall of Troy.

So, I think Ben Bova should be welcomed into the genre of historical fiction with open arms and hope he will continue the story of Lukka and his unlikely troupe, especially since The Hittite was written with a conclusion portending a sequel.

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