War itself was viewed by the Aztecs as a part of the natural rhythms. These rhythms were felt to permeate every level of existence and only by keeping in step to them could an individual and (more importantly) a tribe or city survive and prosper. Each day was seen as a battle between the sun and the earth. The sun losing every sunset and gladly sacrificing himself to the earth, so that men could prosper. Many of the workings of nature were viewed as being reflections of the rhythm of the war between the opposing natural and spiritual forces. War then took on a religious and ritual nature that both limited it in extent and made it part of the spiritual life of the community with strong metaphysical overtones. Rituals arose around the conducting of wars and to vary from them would have caused the war to lose its very reason for existing. On the more mundane level wars were fought for Revenge, Defense, or Economic reasons. A common cause for the formal declaration of war was that a city’s merchants were being discriminated against or attacked. (These merchants normally doubled as each city’s intelligence force and so were often harassed in times of high tensions.) Behind all political and economic justifications was always the strong force of the religious nature of war, and a never ending need for captives to sacrifice.
A common proximate cause for war was the failure of a vassal state to pay the tribute demanded. It is surprising to discover, but true, that in a system where tribute was one of the key ingredients, no system (such as hostages) was ever devised to guarantee the payment of tribute from a previously conquered area. If tribute was refused the only alternative was to go to war again.
The process of declaring war was long and elaborate. Followed in most cases, it left no room for the deviousness common in Aztec wars. The procedure to be followed was set in a series of real, but ritually required, actions. The actual declaration of war involved three State visits, often by three allied cities planning to attack. The first delegation called on the chief and nobles of the city. They boasted of their strength and warned that they would demand some of the nobles as sacrifices if the war ensued. The group would then retire outside the city gate and camp for one Aztec month (20 days) awaiting a reply. This was normally given on the last day and if the city or coalition did not accept their terms, token weapons were distributed to the nobles. (This was so that no one could say they defeated an unarmed foe.)
The second delegation would then approach the city’s leading merchants. This second delegation would describe the economic “horrors” of a defeat, comparing them badly to the terms offered, and generally trying to persuade the merchants to get the chiefs to surrender. This delegation then also retired for a month to await a reply. Should this also be negative a third and final delegation would arrive. This group was to talk to the warriors themselves. They would harangue a mass meeting with reasons why they should not fight and tales of the horrors of battle. Once more they would ask for the city to meet their terms (normally a virtual surrender or the loss of some territory) and then retire to a camp for the ritual one month wait. Finally, after all of this, the armies (having had plenty of time to assemble) would meet in a battle. Here any deception was acceptable and a cunning general as valuable as a courageous one.
The leadership of the Aztecs was the same in times of peace and war. Between wars the officers served as the administration, judiciary, and civil service of the city. Heading this organization was the Supreme War chief or Tlacatecuhtli. This was the position held by the unfortunate Montezuma in Tenochtitlan when Cortes arrived. Each clan was assigned to one of four phratries each having its own leader called a Tlaxcola who served as their divisional commander in wartime, and on a council with the other three that ran the actual administration of the city in times of peace. The head of each clan served as a regimental commander and was known as a Tlochcautin. In peace he would serve in a role similar to the English Sheriff. Below the clan level was a unit of approximately 200 to 400 men. This was the equivalent of our company and was really the largest unit over which any tactical control could be held once a battle began. The smallest regular unit was the platoon of 20 men. This organization was rigidly observed by the major cities and was such an integral part of Aztec culture that the symbol for ’20’ was a flag such as each platoon had.
The military techniques of the Aztecs were inferior to those of Europe or China at that time. This is probably due primarily to the fact that while ritually involved and religiously important, war was less developed as a social solution in pre-conquest Mexico. This was caused by several factors, the major one being that the population density of the area was much less than in other parts of the world. In the period immediately preceding the Spanish only one area had really felt the pinch of overpopulation. This was the area around Lake Titicocca occupied today by Mexico city. Here is where the powerful and most warlike cities developed. Even then their tradition of war (as opposed to individual combat) was only a few hundred years old as opposed to thousands in other lands. The result was that while having a warrior attitude and with war deeply ritually ingrained in their culture, the techniques of battle were still quite unsophisticated and basic.
One reflection, of the undeveloped nature of Aztec wars was the absence of any sort of drills. Units acted as a group only during civil duties, or during the several religious ceremonies that they assembled for each year. The tactics of a battle then most often resembled the mass or swarm tactics of biblical times.
Another factor mitigated in favor of only limited military activities. This was the fact that it was extremely difficult for an army to engage in an extended campaign. Since the army was also the work force, a campaign during the planting and harvest seasons was prohibited. This is especially true since the agriculture was not so efficient as to be able to support the massive priests hierarchy and a standing army of any size. Nor could an army live off of the country, since it was likely that the area they would travel through would be inhabited by several city states that were not involved in the war and were independent of those involved. This meant that it was necessary not only to set up supply depots along any proposed route, but also to negotiate permission to trespass on other cities’ lands.
The marginal nature of the agriculture was also such, that sieges that lasted any length of time were virtually impossible. The besieging army would as likely starve as the besiegers. The result of this was that formal walls and other fortifications were rare. In their place canals (useful in trade also) were often used with portable bridges. Many cities were also located in easily defensible terrain such as on a mountainside or on the end of a narrow isthmus. There has also been no evidence that siege weapons of any sort were developed or used to any extent. Despite all of the problems listed the Aztecs were able to wage campaigns over a wide area of Mexico. Most often these were fought with armies made up chiefly of local allies with a contingent of Aztecs to stiffen them. In some cases it is recorded that the Aztecs were forced to engage in the laborious technique of having to subdue each of the towns and cities on their route.
The weapons and tools of the Aztecs were basic and simple in nature. Rather than developing new variations of weapons the efforts of the Aztecs went into elaborate decorations on them. There were four main weapons used by the Aztec warrior. A wooden club with sharp obsidian blades was used. Javelins were common and often used with a throwing stick called an atl-atl. The bow and arrow was also found in most armies as was a heavy javelin or lance for in-fighting. Occasionally a clan would have a tradition that caused some of them to employ the sling or spears. Axes were used as tools, but do not seem to have been a regularly used weapon.
The bulk of the weapons in a city was kept in an arsenal called the Tlacochcalco or roughly the “house of darts.” One of these was found in each quarter of a city and held the weapons for five clans (one phratrie). These arsenals were always located near the chief temples and were designed with sloping walls that enabled them to serve as a fort. The Tlacochcalcos served as the headquarters, assembly points and rallying points for the defenders of a city. Religious ceremonies were also held there by the military leaders and “Knights.”
The shields of the Aztecs were wickerwork covered with hide. Most were circular and elaborately painted and decorated. Skins and feathers were also often attached to augment their beauty. The warriors who used the clubs carried shields, but those using the large javelin or lance were unable to as they needed both hands to employ their weapon. Body armor was made of quilted cotton hardened in brine. This was quite successful against the weapons used by other Aztecs, (and useless against crossbows and steel swords). This cotton armor was in fact quickly adopted by the conquistedores as being effective enough and much cooler than their own metal armor. The quilted armor was often dyed bright colors, brocaded and embroidered with intricate designs and symbols.
Wooden helmets were worn by some warriors and the chiefs, (who rose to chief by being outstanding warriors). These quickly became elaborate and bulky. It was often necessary for them to be supported by shoulder harnesses. Most headdresses or helmets were stylized animals or protecting deities. The more elaborate the helmet the more renown the warrior in battle. There is mention of copper helmets in a few codexs, but none have been found and in any case would have been extremely rare. Metal working for tools and weapons was not advanced and obsidian was the basic (and effective) material.
As during comparable periods on other continents the Aztecs wore no uniforms. Each side would identify itself with a prominently worn badge or insignia. This often would be elaborated to show also the rank of the wearer. With the myriad of colors in the cotton armor and the elaborate helmets an Aztec battle was a kaleidoscope of swirling colors. A young warrior was taught the use of weapons as part of his schooling. (All males were soldiers.) All boys were required to either be tutored or to attend the Telpuchcalli or public school. Later, in lieu of unit training and drills, a new warrior was attached to veteran for his first battles. This program was actually quite similar to the apprenticeship or squire systems developed for the same purpose in medieval Europe.
The tactics and weapons of the Aztecs were greatly influenced by the goal of their wars, captives and whatever tribute or land demanded. It was the ultimate sign of ability in a warrior to bring back from a battle a live enemy suitable for sacrifice. Warriors then often strived not to kill their enemy, but to knock him out or deliver a non-fatal, but disabling wound. A victory was valued then by the number of enemies captured, not killed. To this end warriors were trained rigorously in individual combat, with little emphasis on formations or teamwork. The best warriors were admitted to select societies of “knights.” Only the most skillful (as judged purely by the number of captives taken) were allowed to enter. These were known as the Knights of the Eagle, the Knights of the Ocelot (Tiger), and a less common group the Knights of the Arrow. Helmets depicting their namesakes were often worn and ceremonial costumes that copied their coloration were worn in ceremonies and into battle. These orders performed dances and participated in rituals at the Tlacochcalco. They also participated in the mock battles of sacrifice. These Knights received large shares of land when conquered territories were divided between the warriors. (This practice gave an occupation force a way to support itself.)
A warrior who was slain in battle or sacrificed after a defeat was guaranteed entry into a special warriors heaven. This was to be found in the East and a special heaven for women who died in childbirth was in the West (they were felt to have sacrificed themselves for a potential new warrior). To die in these ways was the greatest honor a defeated warrior could receive. (Non-warriors and cowards were sold into slavery.) To some it was the culmination rather than the ruin of the lives. There is recorded the story of Tlahuicol who was a Tlaxclan chief. Having been captured in battle he was given the honor of the mockgladitorial sacrificial combat. This meant that he was chained to a large round stone representing the sun and given wooden weapons, (no obsidian points or edges), and attacked one at a time by members of the Knights of the Eagle. In single combat he managed to kill a few and wound several more. The combat was stopped and Tlahuicol was offered the choice of the generalship of the Tlaxclan army or to be the sacrifice in their highest ritual. He choose to be the sacrifice, viewing it probably as the greater honor.
These sacrifices were viewed then not as a punishment (criminals were killed or enslaved, but never sacrificed), but as an opportunity to give their final great contribution to their communities. It was believed that the sacrifices were needed to prevent the wrath of the gods and bring anything needed such as the rain or spring. Perhaps the only close honor was to obtain a prisoner in battle.
A typical Aztec battle consisted of both sides coming upon each other, quickly forming up to charge and then rushing at each other amid fierce cries. Quickly this would break down into many combats between individuals and small groups. Both sides would contend, until one seemed to be gaining an advantage. The other would then break and run, avoiding capture to minimize their enemy’s victory. Often the defeat and capture of a major chief was enough to cause the morale of one side to break.
Many stratagems were used. Feints and deception were common, especially in the battles between the major cities. It was a common maneuver for one side to fake a route and then lead their pursuers past a second force in hiding. This force would then fall on the rear of their pursuers while the routing force rallied. A cunning war chief was considered as valuable as a courageous one. Whoever won, sacrifices were assured and the gods appeased.
If there was no war occurring, then an artificial war was instituted to assure sacrifices and give the warriors an opportunity to prove their skills. This was incongruously named the “War of Flowers.” Though it was an artificial war those participating in it fought a very real battle. Many died and many more were captured for sacrifice before one group would concede defeat.
Invited to participate were the best Knights and warriors of two or more rival states. The best warriors contended to be able to participate. If he won, a warrior would gain in renown throughout the cities. If he was killed, the warrior was given the honor of cremation. Reserved only for warriors, cremation guaranteed entrance to the special warriors’ heaven. Finally, if defeated and captured a warrior was given the supreme honor of being sacrificed. So popular were these Wars of Flowers that some were repeated annually for years.
The institution of war among the Aztecs evolved into something quite different from that which we perceive. It was foremost a means by which an individual could serve the all important tribe or city. It was an inherently ritualized and mystic event of deep-meaning and necessity. It was the only means by which captives needed to appease their bloodthirsty gods (actually it was the hearts they tore out and offered still throbbing). In a truly collective, military society it was the one area where an individual could gain renown and prestige.