General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 22 Sep 2017/11 Vulture
Text Size:

Search the Site (type in white box):

Dr. Ross Hassig

Question for July 2010

Did the Aztecs believe in going to war BEFORE they reached and settled in Tenochtitlan? Asked by St Andrew’s CE Primary School. Chosen and answered by Dr. Ross Hassig.

Pic 1: Folios 19-20 (detail) of the Codex Boturini show the defeated Mexica being taken prisoner and hauled before the king of Colhuacan (see below)
Pic 1: Folios 19-20 (detail) of the Codex Boturini show the defeated Mexica being taken prisoner and hauled before the king of Colhuacan (see below) (Click on image to enlarge)

The question of whether the Aztecs believed in war before they settled in Tenochtitlan is interesting and goes back before there is much recorded history for them. Although one linguist argues that the Aztecs were in the Valley of Mexico long before it is generally thought they were, I do not find the argument convincing and like most specialists, I believe they migrated in a couple of centuries before they settled at Tenochtitlan, as they claim. They were part of a general migration that had been going on for centuries and even millennia from the north. The reason for this is that the land to the north, which is now desert, was much wetter in the past but as it began drying out, it forced a lot of groups who had large settlements to move south because the land became drier and they could not grow enough food to support themselves.

Pic 2: The Aztecs must have clashed several times with neighbouring tribes around Lake Texcoco
Pic 2: The Aztecs must have clashed several times with neighbouring tribes around Lake Texcoco (Click on image to enlarge)

But one of the problems with migration is that you are going through the land of other people, sometimes pushing them out, sometimes just trying to pass through, but it often caused conflicts. These may not have been actual wars, as nomads generally do not fight pitched battles, but merely have clashes, but you can bet they had some real fights. Once they reached the Valley of Mexico, they settled in a number of different places, sometimes for as much as 50 or 60 years before moving on. When they arrived, the Valley was already well occupied, and cities filled much of the land, especially toward the wetter southern half of the valley, so the Aztecs had to settle where they could.

Pic 3: Chapultepec Castle from below
Pic 3: Chapultepec Castle from below (Click on image to enlarge)

Eventually, they reached Chapoltepec, which is now Chapultepec park where the anthropology museum, the history museum, some art museums, and the zoo are. Chapoltepec (which means the hill of the grasshopper) is a very large rock outcrop and is now where Chapultepec castle is located. It is a poor place to be for agriculture and you have to come down to farm the flat land around it, but it is a very strong place that would be easy to defend. And while the Aztecs were there, they fought a war with their neighbors. Of course the Aztecs record it as an attack on them (they always justified their wars) and it may have been since they were relative barbarians and might have posed a threat to everyone else. But they may as easily have been the aggressors too. Anyway, they were forced to leave, and they settled near the town of Colhuacan and became subordinates to that city. Typically, subordinate towns fought the wars of their overlords as auxilliaries, and the Aztecs undoubtedly did that.

Pic 4: Folio 29r (detail) of the Codex Telleriano-Remensis shows the destruction of Colhuacan (though the dates may be wrong), when the Aztecs fought on the side of the Tepanecs
Pic 4: Folio 29r (detail) of the Codex Telleriano-Remensis shows the destruction of Colhuacan (though the dates may be wrong), when the Aztecs fought on the side of the Tepanecs (Click on image to enlarge)

When they finally settled Tenochtitlan (which is centered on the center or zócalo of modern-day Mexico City) in 1325, they were not actually independent. They claim they were, but they did not have their own king until 1372, which is 47 years after they founded their own city. Before that, they were still subordinate to Colhuacan and undoubtedly took part in any of their wars. During the reigns of their first three kings (Acamapichtli, Huitzilihuitl, and Chimalpopoca), they were still dependent, first on Colhuacan and then on Azcapotzalco, the capital of the Tepanec empire on the western side of the Valley which was the rising power.

Pic 5: Painting showing the great city of Tenochtitlan, Lake Texcoco and the dyke constructed to control flooding
Pic 5: Painting showing the great city of Tenochtitlan, Lake Texcoco and the dyke constructed to control flooding (Click on image to enlarge)

They did fight a number of wars, but they were not really Aztec wars. They were mostly still fighting on behalf of the cities to which they owed allegiance. It was only in 1428, when they and their allies overthrew the Tepanecs that their subsequent wars can really be considered Aztec wars. When the Aztecs first came into the Valley, though, they were relatively uncivilized and probably fought in a more hit-and-run way, in part because their arms were those of the north, and it requires some training to wield the weapons they used later, and with the tactics of Mesoamerican armies, so the time they spent in the Valley as subordinates did not go to waste.

Pic 6: Artist’s impression of Aztec warrior equipment
Pic 6: Artist’s impression of Aztec warrior equipment (Click on image to enlarge)

While they helped their superior cities, they were also learning to use the swords and thrusting spears they would use later, and the tactics needed. So they probably always fought wars, at least since their migrations began, and their weapons and tactics would have changed considerably over that time.

Picture sources:-
• Pic 1: Scanned from our copy of a hand-drawn facsimile edition of the Codex Boturini
• Pic 2: Photo of painting of Aztec society at the National Anthropology Museum, Mexico City by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 3: Photo from Wikipedia (Chapultepec Castle)
• Pic 4: Image scanned from our copy of the 1995 University of Texas Press facsimile edition of the Codex Telleriano-Remensis by Eloise Quiñones Keber
• Pic 5: Photo of painting by Miguel Covarrubias of the Valley of Mexico at the National Anthropology Museum, Mexico City, by Sean Sprague/Mexicolore
• Pic 6: Illustration by Adam Hook, courtesy of Osprey Publishing

Dr. Ross Hassig has answered 4 questions altogether:

When the Aztecs went to war, did they use any [special] tactics?

Did the Aztecs believe in going to war BEFORE they reached and settled in Tenochtitlan?

Why did Aztec shields have patterns on them?

How did a warrior put on the skin of an eagle if the bird was smaller than he was?

Comment button