The Aztecs: Part II

In the first part of this series, Michael Curl has introduced us to the Aztecs before the coming of the Spanish conquistadores, covering imperial organization and the concept of ritualized Flower Wars. In this second article, he takes us through other aspect of Aztec society. 


“Four hundred Indian porters, who, in this district, are termed tamenes, were sent to accompany us. Each of these porters is capable of carrying a weight of fifty pounds to a distance of twenty miles. We were all highly delighted that each of us had a man a piece to carry our baggage; for previously every one had to carry his own knapsack, the five or six Cuba Indians we had with us being of little use. Doña Marina and Aguilar said that according to the custom of this country the caziqueswere bound in times of peace to lend their porters to any one who required them. From this moment we always demanded them wherever we came.” (The Memoirs of the Conquistador Bernal Diaz, p. 106).

The Aztec Empire was organized so that the most area possible could be controlled with the fewest possible troops, at the least expense. Without this strategy, the Aztec Empire as we know it would be impossible. This becomes apparent when one considers another Mesoamerican nation, the Zapotecs. The Zapotecs ran a more conventional empire (direct rule of conquered territories through garrisons) and as a result never rose above the level of regional power (Hassig,War and Society in Mesoamerica). Due to the complete absence of pack animals or wheeled vehicles in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, overland movement was limited to either walking or being carried by porters. Thus the cost of supporting a garrison rose exponentially as distance from the capital increased. Porters, hereafter referred to as tlamemes, were a Mesoamerican institution (Hassig, Aztec Warfare: Imperial Expanison and Political Control, p. 28-31). Unless a navigable waterway was available, tlamemes were the only way to move anything. Food, trade goods, and even people (either by means of a litter, or piggyback) were all transported by tlamemes (Hassig, Aztec Warfare: Imperial Expanison and Political Control, p. 34). Porters were a very inefficient means of transport, especially when compared to contemporary Europe: carts, wagons, sleds, horses, and oxen were all much more efficent. A tlameme typically carried around 50lbs a distance of five leagues before handing off their load to another tlameme in a relay system (Hassig, Aztec Warfare: Imperial Expanison and Political Control, p. 32-33). The relay system was organized by city, with the tlamemes carrying freight to and from their city (Hassig, Aztec Warfare: Imperial Expanison and Political Control, p. 35). 

This system of portage severely limited military expeditions. Compared to draft animals, human portage has three significant draw backs. 1) Humans simply cannot carry as much as a draft animal, meaning that many more tlamemes were required to carry the same amount of goods, thus less cargo could be carried on any campaign in Mesoamerica than could be in the Old World. 2) Humans, unlike horses or oxen, usually require payment for their services. While the wages of a tlameme were very poor (only the very desperate choose to become tlamemes), they still required more payment than any animal. 3) Tlamemes, being humans, ate the same foods that soldiers ate. Unlike horses or oxen, which could graze on pasture or be feed with non-foodstuffs, every tlameme used up some of the very food that they were carrying for the soldiers. Thus every tlameme had to carry food for himself in addition to what he carried for the soldiers, meaning that even less food for the soldiers could be carried. Since one tlameme was required for every two soldiers, an army of 6,000 would need at least 3,000 tlamemes and food enough for 9,000 men!

The Aztecs were able to ameliorate some of these problems by using the relay system. By requiring tlamemes from the local area to carry only until the next major city, often no more than one day apart, the Aztecs could move an army without having to feed their tlamemes (since the tlamemeswere only moving a short distance not much food was needed for them).  However utilizing locals was only possible in allied or subjugated regions. If an area was hostile (which was always the case in invasions) no local transport would be available, and thus the aforementioned problems remained an issue throughout pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. This is why a large empire based upon occupational armies was impossible in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. Viewed in this light, the Aztec strategy of leaving conquered regions to govern themselves was the only option available.


“They next rushed furiously forward and attacked us man to man: some with their lances, others with their swords and arrows, and all this with such terrible fury that we were compelled also to show them earnest. We dealt many a good thrust and blow amongst them, keeping up at the same time an incessant fire with our muskets and crossbows; for while some loaded others fired. At last, by dint of heavy blows and thrusts we forced them to give way; but they did not retreat further than was necessary, in order that they might still continue to hem us in in all safety; constantly crying out in their language, ‘Al calachoni, al calachoni’; which signifies, ‘kill the chief! And sure enough our captain was wounded in no less than twelve different places by their arrows. I myself had three; one of which was in my left side and very dangerous, the arrow having pierced to the very bone. Others of our men were wounded by the enemy’s lances, and two were carried off alive (…).” (The Memoirs of the Conquistador Bernal Diaz, p. 10).  

The Aztec military was the most powerful in all of Mesoamerican history. While not a technically professional army (when not at war the Aztec warriors went home), the Aztec army was full of skilled warriors. No doubt the importance attached to fighting helped provide the Aztecs with skilled fighters. Since sacrificial victims were essential to Aztec religious ceremonies, as the gods always needed to be replenished with blood so that the world could keep working, the capturing of sacrificial victims was a very important job that only warriors could perform. Other than volunteers (and sometimes slaves), most sacrificial victims were captured in warfare. This made warfare into an indispensable part of the religion. Therefore it is not surprising that warfare was one of the three ways that one could climb the social ladder, and out of the three (imperial merchants and priests being the other two) warfare was by far the most meritocratic. Only as a warrior could a commoner hope to leave his station. Commoners who performed well in battle could even become nobles (known as cuauhpipiltin) (Hassig, Aztec Warfare, p. 29). In order to advance in rank, one had to take captives, and this was true of both nobles and commoners. One’s rank was clearly visible to all, as there were strict sumptuary laws regulating who was allowed to wear what, both in war and in peace. Even the wearing of sandals was restricted based upon social rank (Hassig, Aztec Warfare, p. 40). Martial success was therefore both extremely evident, and extremely prestigious. All would thus immediately knew who was a warrior, how experienced he was, and what honors had been conferred upon him.

The significance of dress to the Aztec warriors becomes obvious when one considers the warriors societies. A warriors clothing and decorations set him apart from his fellows much like the heraldry of a medieval knight. The warrior societies were composed of the Aztec warrior elite and, as has already been shown, they were set apart from their less distinguished fellows by their dress. While there were several different societies, the three most famous were the Eagles, the Jaguars, and theCuachicqueh. The Eagles and Jaguars were two separate warrior societies composed of nobles (though honorary nobles may have been admitted as well) who had captured at least four men in battle. Theý wore costumes into battle that made them look like an Eagle or Jaguar, respectively. The Cuachicqueh, meaning shorn ones, were the most elite warriors. Only after capturing six warriors could a warrior become a Cuachicqueh. They were so named because they shaved their heads, leaving only a sole braid over their left ear. Their faces were painted, with one half blue and the other half red or yellow. In battle they wore bright yellow suits and flags on their backs (see folio 64r in The Codex Mendoza. The Codex Mendoza is an Aztec codex created for the Emperor Charles V twenty years after the conquest of Mexico. It uses pictograms to show Aztec daily live, show the tribute that was paid to the Emperor, and a history of the Aztec Empire). With such garish decoration any member of a warrior society would be immediately recognizable to both friend and foe on the battlefield.

Besides the specific warrior societies, the Aztec army could be divided into two main groups, the nobility and the commoners. There were separate educations systems for the two groups. The commoners were educated in the telpochcalli, and the nobles were trained in the calmecac (Hassig, Aztec Warfare, pp. 30-31). Commoners were called up for military service by their district, and thus all Aztec males had to be trained by the state in something akin to a military public school: thetelpochcalli. The telpochcalli were responsible for educating all the youth of their district (though not all of these youth became warriors, they were expected to have some military skills in case of an emergency). These youths would start training by the age of 15 and would be apprenticed to veteran warriors. When those veteran warriors went to war, the youth went too. The youth would be responsible for carrying weapons, cooking meals, and generally acting like a European squire (Hassig, Aztec Warfare, pp. 31). 

The nobles went to the calmecac, where priests and noble warriors were trained (Hassig, Aztec Warfare, pp. 34). Nobles entered the calmecac at much earlier ages, ranging from six to thirteen. Youths in the calmecac received much more individualized training which, coupled with the earlier entry age, led to generally higher caliber warriors. The calmecac taught much more than just fighting. Discourse, singing, reading, writing, the calendar, the Book of Dreams, and the Book of Years were also taught to calmecac youths (Hassig, Aztec Warfare, pp. 35).

While nobles and warriors from the warrior societies formed the vanguard of the Aztec army, the majority of the Aztec army was made up of commoners for whom war was a part time profession. For this reason large Aztec armies could only be between August and Spring, as the rest of the year was when crops needed tending and therefore took up much of the Aztec manpower (Hassig, Aztec Warfare, pp. 53-54). Only nobles and warrior elites, being independently wealthy, could go to war at any time of the year.

The importance of war as a means of social advancement, the sheer prestige awarded to successful warriors, and the military public education given to every Aztec male were the foundation of Aztec military dominance. For all of the above reasons Aztecs could usually expect military superiority in both quantity and quality.


The Aztec Empire was the most powerful empire to ever come out of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. Its whole empire was built upon a hegemonic system, in which coercion and terror were used by the Aztecs to manipulate and bully the many weaker polities of Mesoamerica. Due to the complete absence of pack animals or wheeled vehicles in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, overland movement was often prohibitively expensive. The Aztec system was therefore the best way for an empire in Mesoamerica to work. Without the arrival of the Spanish the Aztec Empire would likely have continued growing.

Yet in the space of a few years the Spanish were able to completely topple the once great empire. How was such a small force able to dismantle the greatest empire in New World history? How could an empire which took over 200 years to rise take only three years to fall? What strategies and weapons made all this possible? All these questions and more will be answered in the next part of this series.

Michael Curl has a B.A. in History and Religious Studies from Humboldt State University. Having previously written about the ‘European Armour Industry in The Industry of Defence’ for  Medieval Warfare, he now writes about the weapons and warfare of non-European peoples. With an upcoming trip to the country of Georgia, he hopes to broaden his horizons and learn more about the military history of western Asia.

Works cited (in series) 

  • The Codex Mendoza. Sourced from: “The Public Domain Review.”
  • The Memoirs of the Conquistador Bernal Diaz del Castillo, Vol 1 (of 2) Written by Himself Containing a True and Full Account of the Discovery and Conquest of Mexico and New Spain. Translated by John Ingram Lockhart. London 1844.

Further reading

  • R. Hassig, Aztec Warfare: Imperial Expanison and Political Control. Norman 1988.
  • R. Hassig, Mexico and the Spanish Conquest. Norman 2006 (2nd ed.).
  • R. Hassig, Trade, Tribute, and Transportaion: The Sixteenth-Century Political Economy of the Valley of Mexico. Norman 1985.
  • R. Hassig, War and Society in Ancient Mesoamerica. Berkeley 1992.

Pictures via Wikimedia Commons.

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