General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 20 Nov 2017/5 Eagle
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The Aztecs at war, Lienzo de Tlaxcala

‘A typical battle’

ORIGINAL QUESTION received from - and thanks to - Michelito Briggs: How did a typical Aztec battle play out? Did the Aztecs spend most of it skirmishing, or in hand to hand combat?

Pre-Columbian warfare - mural by Diego Rivera (detail), National Palace, Mexico City
Pre-Columbian warfare - mural by Diego Rivera (detail), National Palace, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Professor John Pohl, an Aztecs scholar and recognised expert on Aztec/Mexica warfare, has an excellent chapter on this, titled ‘Field Combat’, in his book Aztec Warrior AD1325-1521. We can’t do better than to quote (with small adaptations) from this book to answer your question...

Conch blower and drummer signal a fierce battle to come... Detail from a Diego Rivera mural, National Palace, Mexico City
Conch blower and drummer signal a fierce battle to come... Detail from a Diego Rivera mural, National Palace, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

‘The Aztecs were not usually concerned with positional war, or war for the possession of a defined battlefield area unless it served some particular purpose. Their goal was to maneuver the enemy into situations of entrapment and this demanded perfect coordination and timing. The first order of business was to raise a system of battlefield signals. This was achieved by establishing a command post on an adjacent hill with a direct sight line to the army. Signals were sent by relay. Runners were spaced out at two-and-a-half-mile (4km) intervals. Smoke was effective at communicating at longer distances between the xiquipilli [units of 8,000 men], as were “heliographs” made from polished iron pyrite mirrors. When engaging in actual combat, however, commanders relied on the enormous ornamental standards together with conch shell horns and drums.

Replicas of Aztec pottery whistles that army officers may well have used in battle, Roberto Velázquez collection
Replicas of Aztec pottery whistles that army officers may well have used in battle, Roberto Velázquez collection (Click on image to enlarge)

‘Lifting and waving was the principal means of getting the attention of the specific unit signified by a particular banner. Specific phrases of the musical instruments directed the unit into action. Field officers watched and listened for the messages. Once the battleline had extended itself, they then walked up and down the rear using whistles to get their men’s attention and barked out orders of attack or withdrawal depending on the progress of combat. Battles were generally opened with a good round of insults from both sides. For this reason the cuahchique [’Shorn Ones’ or élite warriors] were fond of wearing their hair in tufts much like professional clowns and even acted out skits mimicking the enemy’s weaknesses in their efforts to get him to break ranks. The most obscene gestures of all imaginable kinds were especially popular and frequently involved exposing private body parts. Even women and children were welcome to join in if the opportunity presented itself...

Aztec bowmen, Codex Mendoza folio 66 (detail)
Aztec bowmen, Codex Mendoza folio 66 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

‘Hostilities generally opened with a mutual barrage of arrows, darts and sling bullets at 50 yards in an effort to disrupt formations. The Aztecs employed bowmen and slingers from conquered provinces who could be deployed as mobile units either at the front of the line to trigger combat after which they retired to the rear, or directed to the flanks [sides] to lay down harassing fire. Frontline veterans were reliant on their superior armour and heavy, broad shields to withstand the rain of enemy missiles; but sufficient injuries were soon inflicted among the youngest and most lightly armoured troops, so that a charge would soon become a necessity. Aztec war was a running war. The vanguard [front line soldiers] depended on sheer inertia to try to smash through the enemy line, and downhill attacks were considered the most effective. The subsequent impact must have been horrific. Once troops on both sides had recovered, however, they would disperse widely into one-on-one engagements so that they could swing their deadly weapons unhindered.
Slashing and blocking blows with maquahuitl [broadsword] and shield demanded a tremendous expenditure of energy and so men were circulated every 15 minutes in order to keep the centre strong.
Officers kept a sharp eye out for any weaknesses in the enemy’s formation and directed “flying” reserves of veterans to fill gaps among their own men as needed.

The sign of surrender - being held by a tuft of hair; illustration by Adam Hook
The sign of surrender - being held by a tuft of hair; illustration by Adam Hook (Click on image to enlarge)

‘Ultimately, the Aztecs preferred to surround their enemies and entrap them by using pincer movements. This tactic could be dangerous as it necessitated extending the flanks at the expense of maintaining a strong centre. The Aztecs off-set the problem by insuring that they had always fought with superior numbers. A surrounded and frightened enemy would fight to the death if they thought their lives were at stake. Aztec commanders therefore tried to trigger controlled retreats along prescribed routes where panicked troops could be exposed to easy slaughter by reserves concealed in adjacent corn-fields, trenches, fox-holes, and even under piles of loose grass and leaves.’

Picture sources:-
• Main picture from the Lienzo de Tlaxcala, public domain
• Murals by Diego Rivera: photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Aztec whistles: photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Image from the Codex Mendoza (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford) scanned from our own copy of the James Cooper Clark facsimile edition, London, 1938
• Illustration of surrender by Adam Hook courtesy of Osprey Publishing

Learn more about Aztec army tactics from Dr. Ross Hassig

Learn more about the ‘maquahuitl’ or Aztec broadsword

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