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5-08-2015, 20:54

Fierce Warriors

Warfare brought more than just newly conquered lands into the empire—it also brought additional tribute and captives, many of whom were doomed for sacrifice. The military was essential to meeting the many needs of Aztec society, and being a warrior was considered a sacred duty. In fact, new rulers proved their strength with a war. Before being confirmed, a new ruler had to lead a coronation war to bring new lands, tribute, and sacrificial captives for the empire. Their triumphs were carved in stone to mark their coronation.

All newborn boys, whether they were commoners or nobles, were treated as warriors during the newborn ritual. Boys’ military training began during school. They learned different maneuvers, military drills, and how to handle weapons. And they began gaining real experience by carrying loads for warriors during military campaigns. Eventually the trainees worked their way up to becoming true warriors.

A young Aztec apprentice warrior, in traditional battle gear, holds a spear-thrower, shield, and stone-point darts.


The Aztecs’ military structure conformed to a strict hierarchy of power. Success on the battlefield meant warriors moved higher up in rank and status. Although a warrior who was a commoner could not become a noble, he could reach a quasi-noble status with certain rights and privileges and wealth.

At the highest level, the tlatoani and a supreme council decided when to go to war. The council was composed of four noblemen, and in Tenochtitlan these council members were either brothers or close relatives of the tlatoani.

Eagle warrior statues, found near Templo Mayor, once guarded the doors to a chamber where the warriors met.

Noblemen or commoners who had achieved military success held lower positions of office.

The Aztec military was divided into ranks based on achievements on the battlefield, such as the number of captives a warrior caught during battle. The highest military ranks were the jaguar and eagle societies, and the warriors who belonged to these societies were the best warriors in the Aztec military. To be accepted into the jaguar and eagle societies, a warrior had to have captured four enemy warriors and performed 20 deeds showing

Warrior Costumes

A warrior’s costume had to be earned. Aztecs knew a warrior’s accomplishments simply by looking at his attire. The length and color of one’s lip plug showed the number of distinguished captives taken on the battlefield. Feather headdresses, cloaks, and leather sandals showed a warrior’s rank and could only be worn by those awarded permission by the tlatoani.

In the Codex Mendoza, different costumes are described for warriors who had captured a certain

number of captives. A warrior who had captured two enemies could wear an orange cloak with a red border. A warrior who had captured three enemies wore a cloak with a distinctive design and a special border. He also carried a blue-bordered shield and a war club. The jaguar warrior’s costume consisted of a spotted suit with a helmet shaped like a jaguar’s head. Eagle warriors wore eagle-shaped helmets and suits that were covered with feathers.


Warriors used several kinds of deadly weapons during battles. A throwing spear used an atlatl—a special grooved tool that gave warriors better accuracy and power. The spears and darts used in an atlatl were made from wood with sharp points tipped with obsidian, metal, or fishbone. Bows and arrows and slings were also important weapons used by the Aztecs. Leather-covered round shields protected warriors from enemy blows.

One of the more deadly weapons used was the macuahuitl.

This Aztec warrior of the jaguar society wears the traditional battle costume.

Obsidian Blades

The Aztecs didn’t use much metal in their weaponry. Some ax blades were made from copper, but none were iron or bronze as it was not readily available. Instead, the Aztecs used obsidian, a natural black glass. This glass is stronger than steel and easily breaks into sharp blades. Mesoamerica had abundant sources of obsidian, which the Aztecs used in many types of weapons and tools.


This was a wooden war club edged with obsidian blades. Most were approximately 3.5 feet (1.1 m) long, but some were so big a warrior had to use the club with both hands.2

There was no standing army in the Aztec Empire. Instead, when the tlatoani and council decided to wage war, warriors from the calpullis were called up for service. Calpullis in Tenochtitlan had to contribute 400 warriors each. Combined, a basic unit of the army had 8,000 warriors.3 Many units were called up for a battle, along with porters to carry supplies. The tlatoani also gave orders to towns to provide the army with battle supplies. Towns sent maize cakes, beans, chilies, pumpkin seeds, and other food items to the capital.

The army set out by foot to approach the enemy town. Small winding trails crossed the rural countryside. Warriors traveled in single file, with a basic unit stretching for approximately 15 to 20 miles (24 to 32 km) along the trails.4 As they approached the battlefield, the army was an impressive

sight. Warriors dressed in full costume spread out across the battlefields. The Aztec battle strategy was basic man-to-man combat, charging upon the enemy and fighting duels between experienced warriors. Thousands of men raised their voices in war cries, whistles, and howls. Aztec warriors set fire to the roof of the main pyramid temple in the conquered town—a true symbol of defeat. The warriors then pillaged the town, taking what they could and securing their captives. To secure peace, town leaders had to agree to pay a tribute to the empire.

Flower War

Another form of battle was a military ritual called a Flower War, a staged war performed to capture warriors for sacrificial purposes and to train warriors in the art of battle. Leaders from both sides agreed to these ritual wars before they occurred. These rituals were regularly held between certain cities in the empire. The wars showed the strength of the Aztec army and intimidated enemy warriors. Sometimes these flower wars were all that was needed for the Aztecs to capture a city.