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Aztec warfare concerns the aspects associated with the militaristic conventions, forces, weaponry and strategic expansions conducted by the Late Postclassic Aztec civilizations of Mesoamerica, including particularly the military history of the Aztec Triple Alliance involving the city-states of Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, Tlacopan and other allied polities of the central Mexican region.
The Aztec armed forces were typically composed of a large number of commoners (yāōquīzqueh [jaː.oːˈkiːskeʔ], "those who have gone to war") who possessed only basic military training, and a smaller but still considerable number of professional warriors belonging to the nobility (pīpiltin [piːˈpiɬtin]) and who were organized into warrior societies and ranked according to their achievements. The Aztec state was centered around political expansion and dominance of and exaction of tribute from other city states, and warfare was the basic dynamic force in Aztec politics. Aztec society was also centered around warfare: every Aztec male received basic military training from an early age and the only possibility of upwards social mobility for commoners (mācehualtin [maːseˈwaɬtin]) was through military achievement — especially the taking of captives (māltin [ˈmaːɬtin], singular malli). The sacrifice of war captives was an important part of many of the Aztec religious festivals. Warfare was thus the main driving force of both the Aztec economy and religion.
There were two main objectives in Aztec warfare. The first objective was political: the subjugation of enemy city states in order to exact tribute and expand Aztec political hegemony. The second objective was religious and socioeconomic: the taking of captives to be sacrificed in religious ceremonies. Captives lived in a house called a malcalli [maɬ'kalːi]. These dual objectives also influenced the kind of warfare practiced by the Aztecs. Most warfare was primarily political and was driven by the expectations of the Aztec nobility for the Tlahtoāni [t͡ɬaʔtoˈaːni] to provide economic growth through expansion and the expectation of the commoners to have a chance of moving up in society through successful warfare. The first action of a ruler elect was always to stage a military campaign which served the dual purpose of showing his ability as a warrior and thus make it clear to subject polities that his rule would be as tough on any rebellious conduct as that of his predecessor, and to provide abundant captives for his coronation ceremony. A failed coronation campaign was seen as an extremely bad omen for the rule of a Tlatoani and could lead to rebellions of city states subjected by earlier rulers and to the Aztec nobility distrusting his ability to rule — this was the case for Tizoc who was poisoned by the Aztec nobles after several failed military campaigns.
The Aztecs didn't normally maintain tight territorial control within their empire but nonetheless there are examples of fortifications built by the Aztecs. Prominent examples are the strongholds at Oztuma (Oztōmān [osˈtoːmaːn]) where the Aztecs built a garrison to keep the rebellious Chontales in line, in Quauhquechollan (modern day Huauquechula) near Atlixco where the Aztecs built a garrison in order to always have forces close to their traditional enemies the Tlaxcalteca, Chololteca and Huexotzinca, and in Malinalco near Toluca. The latter is where Ahuitzotl built garrisons and fortifications to keep watch over the Matlatzinca, Mazahua and Otomies and to always have troops close to the enemy Tarascan state - the borders with which were also guarded and at least partly fortified on both sides.
A second kind warfare practiced by the Aztecs was referred to as Flower war (xōchiyāōyōtl [ʃoːt͡ʃijaːˈoːjoːt͡ɬ]). This kind of warfare was fought by smaller armies after previous arrangement between the parties involved. It was not aimed directly at conquering the enemy city state, but served a number of other purposes. One often cited purpose is the taking of sacrificial captives and this was certainly an important part of most Aztec warfare. Friar Diego Durán and the chronicles based on the Crónica X states that the Xochiyayoyotl was instigated by Tlacaelel during the great Mesoamerican famine of 1450-1454 under the reign of Moctezuma I. These sources state that Tlacaelel arranged with the leaders of Tlaxcala, Cholula, and Huexotzinco, and Tliliuhquitepec to engage in ritual battles that would provide all parties with enough sacrificial victims to appease the gods. Ross Hassig (1988) however poses four main political purposes of xochiyaoyotl: 1.) this kind of warfare gave the Aztecs a chance to demonstrate their military might. Since the Aztec army was larger than their adversaries that were normally smaller city states and since the number of combatants on each side were fixed, the Aztec army were sending a much smaller percentage of their total forces than their opponents. Losing a Flower War would then be less damaging for the Aztec army than for its opponents. 2.) This also meant that an objective was attrition — the large Aztec army could afford to engage in small scale warfare much more frequently than their opponents who would then gradually tire until they were ripe for actual conquest. 3.) It also allowed a ruler to maintain hostilities, at low intensity, while occupied by other matters. 4.) Mainly Xochiyaoyotl served as propaganda both towards other city states and to the Aztec people allowing the Aztec rulers to continuously demonstrate their might with a constant influx of war captives to Tenochtitlan.
The Aztec army was organized into two layers. The commoners were organized into "wards" (calpōlli) [kaɬˈpoːlːi] that were under the leadership of tiachcahuan [tiat͡ʃ'kawa:n] ("leaders") and calpoleque [kalpo:leʔkeʔ] ("calpulli owners"). The nobles were organized into professional warrior societies. Apart from the Tlatoani the war leaders of the Aztecs were the High General, the Tlacochcalcatl [t͡ɬakot͡ʃˈkaɬkat͡ɬ] ("The man from the house of darts") and the General the Tlācateccatl [t͡ɬaːkaˈtek.kat͡ɬ] "Cutter of men"). The Tlacochcalcatl and Tlacateccatl also had to name successors prior to any battle so that if they died they could be immediately replaced. Priests also took part in warfare, carrying the effigies of deities into battle alongside the armies.The army also had little boys about the age of twelve along with them serving as porters and messengers, this was mainly for training measures. The image below shows the Tlacateccatl and the Tlacochcalcatl and two other officers (probably priests) known as Huitznahuatl and Ticocyahuacatl, all dressed in their tlahuiztli suits:
Sons of nobles were trained at the calmecac [kalˈmekak] ("lineage house") and received sophisticated training in warfare as well as in general courtly subjects such as astronomy, calendrics, rhetorics, poetry and religion.
The sons of commoners were trained in the Tēlpochcalli [teːɬpot͡ʃˈkalːi] "house of youth" where they received basic military training and sometimes learned a trade.
The commoners composed the bulk of the army, the lowest were porters (tlamemeh [t͡ɬaˈmemeʔ]) who carried weapons and supplies, next came the youths of the telpochcalli led by their sergeants (the tēlpochyahqueh [teːɬpot͡ʃˈjaʔkeʔ] "youth leaders"). Next were the commoners yaoquizqueh. And finally there were commoners who had taken captives, the so-called tlamanih. [t͡ɬaˈmaniʔ] "captors".
Ranking above these came the nobles of the "warrior societies". These were ranked according to the number of captives they had taken in previous battles; the number of captives determined which of the different suits of honor (called tlahuiztli [t͡ɬaˈwist͡ɬi]) they were allowed to wear. These tlahuiztli became gradually more spectacular as the ranks progressed, allowing the most excellent warriors who had taken many captives to stand out on the battlefield. The higher ranked warriors were also called "Pipiltin".
Commoners excelling in warfare could be promoted to the noble class and could enter some of the warrior societies (at least the Eagles and Jaguars). Sons of nobles trained at the Calmecac however were expected to enter into one of the societies as they progressed through the ranks. Warriors could shift from one society and into another when they became sufficiently proficient; exactly how this happened is uncertain. Each society had different styles of dress and equipment as well as styles of body paint and adornments.
Aztec warriors were called a cuāuhocēlōtl [kʷaːwo'seːloːt͡ɬ]. The word cuāuhocēlōtl derives from the Eagle warrior cuāuhtli [kʷaːwt͡ɬi] and the Jaguar Warrior ocēlōtl [o'seːloːt͡ɬ]. Those Aztec warriors who demonstrated the most bravery and who fought well became either jaguar or eagle warriors. Of all of the Aztec warriors, they were the most feared. Both the jaguar and eagle Aztec warriors wore distinguishing helmets and uniforms. The jaguars were identifiable by the jaguar skins they wore over their entire body, with only their faces showing from within the jaguar head. The eagle Aztec warriors, on the other hand, wore feathered helmets including an open beak.
The Otomies (Otōntin) [oˈtoːntin]) were another warrior society who took their name after the Otomi people who were renowned for their fierce fighting. In the historical sources it is often difficult to discern whether the word otomitl "Otomi" refers to members of the Aztec warrior society, or members of the ethnic group who also often joined the Aztec armies as mercenaries or allies.
The "Shorn Ones" (Cuachicqueh [kʷaˈt͡ʃikkeʔ]) was the most prestigious warrior society — their heads were shaved apart from a long braid over the left ear. Their bald heads and faces were painted one half blue and another half red or yellow. They had sworn not to take a step backwards during a battle on pain of death at the hands of their comrades.
|Types of Aztec Weapon||1st Component||2nd Component|
|barbed dart||tlatzontectli||[t͡ɬat͡son'tekt͡ɬi]||object prefix||tla-||[t͡ɬa]||judgement or sentence||tzontectli||[t͡son'tekt͡ɬi]|
|poisoned arrow||tencualac mītl||[ten'kʷalak miːt͡ɬ]||a lie or drool||tencualactli||[ten'kʷa'lakt͡ɬi]||arrow||mītl||[miːt͡ɬ]|
Ahtlatl: The Aztec dart thrower was a weapon used to hurl small darts called "tlacochtli" with greater force and from greater range than they could be thrown by hand. Murals at Teotihuacan show warriors using this effective weapon and it is characteristic of the Mesoamerican cultures of central Mexico. The ahtlatl could also throw spears as its name implies "spear thrower".
Yāōmītl: War arrows with barbed obsidian, chert, flint, or bone points.
Tēmātlatl: A sling made from maguey fiber. The Aztecs used oval shaped rocks or hand molded clay balls filled with obsidian flakes or pebbles as projectiles for this weapon.
Tlacalhuazcuahuitl: A blowgun consisting of a hollow reed using poisoned darts for ammunition. This was used primarily for hunting rather than warfare.
|Types of Aztec Weapon||1st Component||2nd Component|
|sword||macuahuitl||[maː'kʷawit͡ɬ]||prefix "with the hand"||ma-||[ma]||wood stick||cuahuitl||['kʷawit͡ɬ]|
|metal spear||tepoztōpīlli||[te'postoː'piːlːi]||workable metal||tepoztli||[te'post͡ɬi]||staff||tōpīlli||[toː'piːlːi]|
|ball-end wooden mace||cuauholōlli||[kʷawo'loːlːi]||wood||cuahuitl||['kʷawit͡ɬ]||ball||olōlli||[o'loːlːi]|
|special mace (read below)||mācuāhuitzōctli||[maː'kʷaːwit͡s'oːkt͡ɬi]||to bite another's hand||mācuā||[maː'kʷaː]||sharp pole|
Macuahuitl:(Hungry wood), essentially a wooden sword with sharp obsidian blades embedded into its sides (similar in appearance an build to a modern cricket bat). This was the standard armament of the elite cadres. Also known in Spanish by the Taino word "macana". A blow from such a weapon was reputedly capable of decapitating a horse.
Tepoztopilli: Wooden spear with sharp obsidian blades in the top.
ītztōpīlli: Bascically an axe, comparable to a tomahawk, the head of which was made out of either stone or copper and had a two side design, one side had a sharp bladed edge while the other one a blunt protrusion.
Macuahuitzoctli: a club with a knob on each of its four sides and a pointed tip.
Huitzauhqui: A wooden club, somewhat resembling a baseball bat. This weapon was used for melee attacks just as it was made, but other designs were studded with flint or obsidian cutting elements on its sides.
Tecpatl: A dagger with a double sided blade made out of flint or obsidian with an elaborate stone or wooden handle, seven to nine inches overall in length. Although this would have been an effective side arm, this weapon was more commonly used in Aztec sacrifice ceremonies which may point to it being wielded mostly by Aztec warrior priests.
Tripatlzachital: A copper club used only by the Aztecs. This was new to the world and worked very effectively on enemies
Bernal Diaz also refers to a lengthy scythe-like weapon - apparently so large that a number of warriors had to operate it. This was embedded with obsidian blades for up to 3 meters, and used to slice through ranks.
|Types of Aztec Armor ||1st Component||2nd Component|
literally "shield boat"
|maize cane shield||otlachīmalli||[ot͡ɬat͡ʃiː'malːi]||cane stalk||otlatl||['ot͡ɬat͡ɬ]||shield||chīmalli||[t͡ʃiː'malːi]|
|cotton or wool armor||ichcahuīpīlli||[it͡ʃkawiː'piːlːi]||cotton||ichcatl||['it͡ʃkat͡ɬ]||blouse (huipil)||huīpīlli||[wiː'piːlːi]|
Chimalli: Shields made with different materials such as the wooden shield "cuauhchimalli" or maize cane "otlachimalli". There were also ornamental shields decorated with motifs made in featherwork, these were called māhuizzoh chimalli.
Ichcahuipilli: Quilted cotton armor which was soaked in salt water brine and then hung to dry in shade so that the salt would crystallize inside of it. One or two fingers thick, this material was resistant to obsidian swords and atlatl darts.
Ēhuatl: (literally "skin") The tunic that some noble warriors wore over their cotton armour or tlahuiztli.
Tlahuiztli: The distinctively decorated suits of prestigious warriors and members of warrior societies. These suits served as a way to identify warriors according to their achievements in battle as well as rank, alliance, and social status like priesthood. Usually made of a single piece of material with an opening in the back they covered most of the body and extremities, and offered added protection to the wearer. Made with elements of animal hide, leather, and cotton these suits also included protection for the head in the form of hats or helmets made out of wood with bone elements, most noteworthy example of these are the helmets worn by Jaguar and Eagle knights.
Pāmitl: The identifying emblems that officers and famous warriors wore on their backs. Like the Japanese uma-jirushi, these were frequently unique to their wearers, and were not necessarily shaped like flags.
Once the decision of going to war was made the news were proclaimed in the plazas calling for mobilization of the army for several days or weeks in advance. When the troops were ready and any allied cities had been alerted and had given their consent to partake in the campaign the march began. Usually the first to march were the priests carrying the effigies, the next day the nobles marched led by the Tlacochcalcatl and Tlacateccatl. And on the third day the main bulk of the army set out with the Tenochca marching first followed by the warriors from the other cities in the alliance (Tepanecas and Texcocas) and lastly the allied forces from other cities, some of these subject cities would also join in gradually during the march as the army passed by their cities. Thanks to the efficient system of roads maintained throughout central Mexico the army marched an estimated average of 19-32 kilometers per day. The size of the Aztec army varied considerably from small contingents of a few thousand warriors to large armies with tens to hundreds of thousands of warriors. In the war against Coixtlahuacan the Aztec army numbered 200,000 warriors and 100,000 porters. Other sources mention Aztec armies of up to 700,000 men.
Battles (sometimes called in Nahuatl by the metaphorical diphrasism ātl tlachinolli [aːt͡ɬ t͡ɬat͡ʃi'nolːi] (literally "water fire") usually started at dawn but sometimes during the middle of the day — smoke signals were used to show that a battle was beginning and to coordinate attacks between different divisions of the army. The signal to attack was given by the drums and the conch shell trumpet quiquiztli [kikist͡ɬi] blown by the trumpeter. Usually the battle began with projectile fire — the bulk of the army was composed of commoners often armed with bows or slings. Then the warriors advanced into melee combat and during this phase, the atlatl was used — this missile weapon was more effective over shorter distances than slings and bows, and much more lethal. The first warriors to enter into melee were the most distinguished warriors of the Cuachicque and the Otontin societies; then came the Eagles and Jaguars; and lastly the commoners and unpracticed youths. Until entering into melee order rank was maintained and the Aztecs would try to surround or outflank the enemy, but once the melee began the ranks dissolved into a fray of individual hand-to-hand fighting. Youths participating in battle for the first time would usually not be allowed to fight before the Aztec victory was ensured, after which they would try to capture prisoners from the fleeing enemy. It is said that, particularly during flower wars, Aztec warriors would try to capture rather than kill their foes, sometimes striving to cut a hamstring or otherwise incapacitate their opponents. This has been used as an argument to explain the defeat of the Aztecs by the Spanish but but this argument has been rejected by many historians — since sources clearly state that Aztecs did kill their Spanish opponents whenever they had the chance, and quickly adapted their combat strategies to their new opponents. Other Aztec tactical maneuvers included feigned retreats and ambushes where small portions of Aztec forces would attack and then fall back and lure the enemy into a trap where many more warriors were hidden in the terrain. If a defending enemy retreated into their city the battle was continued there — but normally the objective was to conquer a city not destroy it. Once the city was conquered the main temple would be set on fire signaling far and wide, to all concerned, the Aztec victory. If enemies still refused to surrender the rest of the city could be burned as well, but this was uncommon.