Ancient Warfare In Mexico
By Ralph Graves
The ancient Aztecs made many enemies both during and after the long migration from their original homeland to the founding of the capital city, Mexico Tenochtitlan. They waged war to train warriors to defend the newly-won empire, to gain reputation and wealth, and to assure their slain warriors a place in paradise. As in all heroic societies it was the destiny of the warrior to die in battle.
For the Aztec it could also mean death upon the stone of sacrifice. But the slain Warriors of the Sun became humming birds and lived in the house of the sun forever. About 1450 they developed a ceremonial military campaign called Xochivaovotl (“Flower War”), the sole purpose of which was to obtain captives for sacrificial victims to ensure the continued existence of the sun, giver of all life.
A military society, the Aztecs molded their ideals of war and bravery after the semi-legendary Toltecs, an earlier, more highly-advanced society. At first the Aztecs went into battle behind their own leaders, later as part of a vast military organization. Discipline was severe. Attacking without orders or plundering the booty or prisoners of another warrior met with the death penalty. At one time Tenochtitlan could field 8,000 warriors in units of 300 to 400. Medical care and special hospitals were provided for wounded warriors. The Aztec (Nahuatl) metaphor for war was Atl, Tlachinolli (“water and fire”). Military training was part of daily life.
Most noblemen were dedicated to war from birth. Like the Spartan mother who handed a shield to her son saying, “Return with this shield or on it,” Aztec boys were given toy shields and bows and arrows in their early infant ceremonies. The patron deity of young warriors was Tezcatlipoca (“Smoking Mirror”), also known as Yaotl (“enemy”), a universal and generally malevolent deity.
Aztec (Mexica) warriors were members of military religious orders. The military headquarters of the “Order of Eagle and Jaguar Warriors,” also a religious center, was located at Malinalco, south of modern Toluca. There, carved out of the living rock, may still be seen representations of sacrifices, religious rituals, the capture of warriors and other symbols dating back to the earliest Mesoamerican times.
Aztec weapons were primitive by European standards but more than adequate against similarly armed warriors. Fashioned of perishable material, most have disappeared, except for hard projectile points. In defensive actions the Aztecs used round or oval shields (chimalli) of bamboo, leather, and copper. Ornaments of gold, silver, and precious stones showed the rank of the bearer. Padded cotton shirts (ichcahuipilli) provided good protection against native weapons but were no defense against the advanced weapons of the Spaniards. Knee-length tunics, padded suits with feather decorations, and greaves of leather and gold to protect the lower legs completed their defensive equipment.
Aztec warriors attacked with long wooden spears and a short spear with an atlatl, a spear throwing device. Both were tipped with stone, obsidian, or copper points. Bows and fire-hardened arrows were also used. Favorite weapons were the macana, a flat piece of wood with obsidian knives set in both edges, and the tematlatl, a sling. With these, warriors could fight at closer range and take more captives, which was the primary purpose of battle.
Aztec battle insignia was among the most elaborate and magnificent ever devised for military purposes. Highly elaborate feather headdresses decorated with gold, silver, and shells were strapped to the warrior´s back. Helmets made of bamboo or wooden frames and decked with many-colored feathers represented the heads of animals. Their fearsome aspect was intended to strike terror into the enemy, a basic battle technique of primitive warfare.
Aztec warriors went into battle to the accompaniment of songs, loud war cries, the wail of conch shells, and the shrilling of clay whistles. Military standards of variously-colored feathers with gold and silver ornaments all swaying in the wind and glittering in the sun must have struck terror into the hearts of many foes (“In all history probably no more gorgeous army has ever gone to war,”) T. Sulliva.
Enter Tlacaelel upon the scene (ca. A.D. 1475/ 80). This famous Aztec was the “power behind the throne.” As high priest, he was known as Cihuacoatl (Woman Snake”). As counselor to the Emperor Itzcoatl (1427), he was the initiator of a mystical-warrior vision of Aztec destiny. During the reign of Montecuhzoma 1 (1440) - 68 ) Tlacaelel instituted the Xochivaovotl (“Flower War”) which set the future course of the Aztec empire. Almost imediately Tenochtitlan entered into the Triple Alliance with the city-state of Texcoco and Tlacopan against Tlaxcala, Cholula, and Huexotzinco.
There after the Aztecs carried out these highly ritualized campaigns against their neighbors, especially the Tlaxcalans. Curiously, they refrained from conquering Tlaxcala because it provided a training ground for young Aztec warriors and a source of sacrificial victims. The Aztecs considered the flesh of other peoples, such as the Tarascans or Huastecs, as too hard and tasteless for their gods. Only the Tlaxcalans and their neighbors were fit to eat.
Cortes and his Conquistadors are usually given great credit for their “conquest” of Mexico. How could a mere handful of men defeat such a mighty empire on its own ground? Simple. The Spaniards did not play fair. The Aztecs fought the “Flower Wars” not to kill but to take prisoners; the Spaniards, with their vastly superior weapons, fought to kill. They had other overwhelming advantages as well. The harassed Tlaxcalans were only too glad to join the Spaniards and defeat the traditional enemy. The outcome was inevitable.
It is interesting to speculate what might have happened had Cortes and his men arrived during the time of Tlacaelel, some 40 years earlier. The face of the Americas might look much different today.