12 May 2015

Turkey, History & Remembrance—& the Hittite Law of Adultery

Much of the world recently marked the 100th anniversary of the forced removal, loss of property and eventual slaughter of almost all Armenians in Turkey. The Turkish government objects to the use of the word genocide when referring to this tragedy.
Ottoman Empire population census document 1893-1897
Turkish textbooks and politicians use phrases like “the fog of war” to explain how a million and a half Armenians lost their lives (also they downplay the numbers). They subsume the plans perpetrated against Armenians in particular under the suffering WWI caused for so many in Turkey and thus hide the Armenian plight from memory. It’s good and proper to sympathize with the universal suffering that occurred, but that does not require selective amnesia. Historians, including a couple well-regarded Turkish historians, have culled the primary source materials and conducted interviews on this subject. These historians do not agree with the official Turkish government version. So we’ll see how things go over time with this issue of lost history in Turkey.

Meanwhile, I’m struck by the irony. The last few decades in Turkey have seen extensive—even extraordinary—efforts to use archaeology to uncover history that was for millennia quite literally buried in the sands of time. In the process, the empire I find utterly fascinating has come to light in ever greater detail: the Hittites. So in honor of Turkey’s laudable efforts to reclaim its Bronze Age history (1600-1100 BCE), even if it is still confused about its modern history, I bring you one interesting detail that we now understand about an empire that rivaled Egypt, the Assyrians, the Babylonians and the Mycenaeans.

Hittite Cuneiform Tablet
Fortunately the Hittites were a literate culture and we have found and translated many of their records and literary pieces. These libraries of clay tablets were written in the Near Eastern cuneiform script although Hittite is an Indo-European language related to Greek. From all the hard work of archaeologists, scholars and translators, I bring you two Hittite laws regarding rape and adultery, translated by Harry Hoffner, Jr. Notice what these laws say about women, men, fairness, and other intriguing issues.

Law 197
If a man seizes a woman in the mountain(s) (and rapes her), it is the man’s offence, and he shall be put to death, but if he seizes her in (her) house, it is the woman’s offence: the woman shall be put to death. If the (woman’s) husband (lit. the man) finds them (in the act) and kills them, he has committed no offence.

Law 198
If [the husband] brings them [his wife and accused lover] to the palace gate (i.e. the royal court) and says: “let my wife not be put to death” and spares his wife, he must also spare the lover. Then he may veil her (i.e. his wife). But if he says, “Let both of them be put to death” and they ‘roll the wheel’ the king may have them killed or spare them.

I enjoyed this precise window into the human mind and values in about 1300 BCE.

First, I notice that if a man rapes a woman, the penalty is extreme and this speaks of value placed on a woman. Hittite law avoids the death penalty, so it’s pretty dramatic here and may not have been the actual course of action.

We are struggling in modern society with date rape and defining when to prosecute. I wouldn’t want to adopt the Hittite measure of rape, but I am intrigued to find the traces of a similar struggle. If you are “at home” you invited it, by Hittite standards—this presumes the family’s ability to protect its women in the usual course of events, I suspect. Far from home, where a woman is vulnerable, it is indisputably rape.

Gates of Hattusa, the King's Court
As has often been the case in history, a man can, with impunity, kill his wife and her lover if he catches them in the act. But notice he cannot kill only the man. And if he turns it over to the authorities (the King’s court held at the gates of the city), he must accept the same punishment for both wife and her accused lover. And if he accepts her back, he must publicly restore her respect and reputation by veiling her—that is restoring her as his bride.

We would love to know exactly what “roll the wheel” meant, but we don’t. In the Hittite murder mystery I’m working on, the relevant historical records that I used as background contain this same tantalizing phrase. It refers to a divination of some sort. Hittites loved divination. They put great effort toward discerning the will of the gods. Murder, divination and applied tidbits from this system of laws—all present and accounted for in my fiction!

My source for the translation and interpretation of these Hittite laws is:
The Laws of the Hittites A Critical Edition, Harry Hoffner Jr. Brill 1997
Documenta et Monumenta Orientis Antiqui (DMOA) Studies in Near Eastern Archaeology and Civilisation Volume XXIII


Judith Starkston writes historical fiction and mysteries set in Troy and the Hittite Empire. She is a classicist (B.A. University of California, Santa Cruz, M.A. Cornell University) who taught high school English, Latin and humanities. She and her husband have two grown children and live in Arizona with their golden retriever Socrates. Her debut novel is Hand of Fire.
Find an excerpt, book reviews, historical background, as well as on-going information about the historical fiction community on www.JudithStarkston.com
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