General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 20 Nov 2017/5 Eagle
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Dr. Ross Hassig

Question for April 2009

When the Aztecs went to war, did they use any [special] tactics? Asked by Claygate Primary School. Chosen and answered by Dr. Ross Hassig.

Conch trumpet player, Codex Zouche-Nuttall (original in the British Museum)
Conch trumpet player, Codex Zouche-Nuttall (original in the British Museum) (Click on image to enlarge)

Aztec tactics in war depended on the situation. The standard attack was for the king or general to signal the start of a battle with a drum or conch-shell trumpet. Then the elite military orders (like knight) advanced first, followed by the other military orders, then the veterans and other warriors, including the novices. The battle itself usually started with a barrage of arrow and slingstones, and the soldiers on both sides advanced, probably running, over the 60 yards or so, until they met. As they ran, the frontmost soldiers used their atlatls to fling darts at the enemy, but once the two sides met, the barrages stopped, to avoid hitting their own men, and the battle became hand to hand, using oak broadswords edged with obsidian blades, or thrusting spears. Apparently those in front would fight for about 15 or 20 minutes, and were then rotated out of battle to rest, recuperate, and repair their arms.

Aztec battleline - illustration by Adam Hook
Aztec battleline - illustration by Adam Hook (Click on image to enlarge)

Battles usually began at daybreak and continued until one side of the other surrendered, or until night. Then it would resume the next day. A major goal was to break through the opposing formation so your own troops could pour through and attack the enemy from the sides and rear, but that was very difficult to do since both sides had basically the same weapons and tactics. However, since the Aztecs usually had the larger army, they would extend their front until they could go around the ends of their enemies, and then attack from the rear or sides.

Elite Aztec eagle and jaguar warriors brandishing broadswords, Florentine Codex Book 2
Elite Aztec eagle and jaguar warriors brandishing broadswords, Florentine Codex Book 2 (Click on image to enlarge)

That is a pretty standard description, but the goal was victory, so there are many cases where the Aztecs tried to find traitors in the cities they were targetting to show them ways around and then they would engage the enemy army from the front while they sent other soldiers around the back to attack and take the city. Once they did, they usually burned the main temple, probably because the main armory was located by it, and once the smoke was seen on the battlefield, it was all over, because the enemy had no place to retreat to and no new weapons for resupply. In other cases, the Aztecs were known to attack, fight, then pretend to run away, and the enemy would usually follow them....right past an ambush where other Aztecs were hidden, who would jump out and attack them in the sides and rear.

Aztec warriors take part in the destruction of Culhuacan: torching the thatched roof of a temple was a traditional gesture of conquest. Codex Telleriano-Remensis, folio 29r
Aztec warriors take part in the destruction of Culhuacan: torching the thatched roof of a temple was a traditional gesture of conquest. Codex Telleriano-Remensis, folio 29r (Click on image to enlarge)

In fact, there were probably as many tactics and ploys as there were targets.

Image sources:-
• Codex Zouche-Nuttall: image scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, 1987
• Aztec battleline illustration courtesy of Osprey Publishing
• Florentine Codex (original in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence): image scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994
• Codex Telleriano-Remensis: image scanned from our copy of the facsimile edition by Eloise Quiñones Keber, University of Texas Press, 1995)

Learn more about the Aztec army

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?

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Here's what others have said:

Mexicolore replies: They did both. In fact there were at least two types of ‘war’ for the Aztecs: normal, territorial wars (attempts to conquer lands and people) and ‘flower’ wars, when the aim (on both sides) was simply to capture warriors alive, to be taken back to base and later sacrificed in public festivals.