General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 28 Feb 2021/5 Monkey
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The Aztec Army

ORIGINAL QUESTION received from - and thanks to - Class 9 (a Year 6 class, New Ford Primary School, Stoke-on-Trent): We would like to know...... how big was the Aztec Army? (Answered by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Aztec army officers, Codex Mendoza
Aztec army officers, Codex Mendoza (Click on image to enlarge)

Seriously big! Professor John Pohl, an expert on this subject, calls the Aztecs ‘the greatest military empire that the western hemisphere had ever known’, and the figures speak for themselves...

Aztec counting units based on 20, 20x20 and 20x20x20
Aztec counting units based on 20, 20x20 and 20x20x20 (Click on image to enlarge)

By the time of the Spanish Conquest, the Aztecs could maintain in the field - for months, even years on end if needs be - armies running to several hundred thousand soldiers, of whom at least 100,000 would be porters accompanying the troops, each carrying as much as 50 pounds in material. One figure that all experts agree on is that during the siege of Coixtlahuaca (southern state of Oaxaca) in 1458 a Triple Alliance army (led by the Aztecs) numbering 300,000 marched 500 miles south from the Valley of Mexico to defeat and kill Atonal, the lord of Coixtlahuaca, (who had earlier made the fatal mistake of executing a group of 160 Aztec merchants...) In 1506, just 15 years before the Conquest, a Triple Alliance army of 400,000 men attacked the Mixtec coastal kingdom of Tututepec and burnt the city.

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

The Aztec army was organised on the basis of units of 8,000 men, called ‘xiquipilli’, drawn from each of the 20 ‘calpulli’ (city neighbourhoods) of Tenochtitlan. Each xiquipilli could be broken down into 400-man units, or even 20-man squads if needed (the Aztecs counted in 20s!). Recruiting men for a particular xiquipilli from their local calpulli ensured that there was a spirit of unity, support and comradeship in the army - after all, you were likely not only to know many of the other soldiers you fought with but even to be related to them!

Novice (trainee) warrior acting as porter, Codex Mendoza, folio 63r
Novice (trainee) warrior acting as porter, Codex Mendoza, folio 63r (Click on image to enlarge)

Moving a squadron of 8,000 men out of the city was no easy job. The answer was to spread departure times over several days - to cause as little upheaval to the daily business of the city as possible. Once outside, the army probably managed to travel somewhere between 10 and 20 miles a day, depending on urgency. Remember, though, that the Mexica (Aztec) army often joined forces with other armies in the ‘Triple Alliance’ as part of its military campaigns - armies which could easily have been of the same size. So more than one route had to be taken to cope with the huge numbers of men involved.

In their first long-distance campaigns, the Aztec army and its allies relied on porters (called ‘tlamemeque’) to transport the bulk of the provisions and equipment. As the Aztec empire expanded, local kingdoms were forced to maintain permanent stores which could be used by the Triple Alliance army as it moved through their territory.

Info and further reading: ‘Aztec Warrior AD 1325-1521: Weapons, Armor, Tactics’ by John Pohl, Osprey Publishing, 2001; ‘Aztec, Mixtec and Zapotec Armies’ by John Pohl, Osprey Publishing, 1991.

• Aztec battleline illustration courtesy of Osprey Publishing; Codex Mendoza image scanned from our copy of the James Cooper Clark 1936 facsimile edition, London; the original codex is in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

Learn about the Aztec ‘maquahuitl’ (broadsword)

Learn about the Aztec ‘chimalli’ (shield)

Read Dr. Hassig’s answer on Aztec army tactics

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Here's what others have said:

Mexicolore replies: To a large extent it was of course disbanded by the Spanish, who marshalled warriors from other tribes (that had acted as their allies in the war against the Aztecs) in the ensuing campaigns to subdue the rest of Mesoamerica. The Spanish kept some Aztec institutions intact - such as the ‘calpulli’ or neighbourhood unit, which they maintained as a tribute-paying and labour-drafting unit, but which no longer operated as a military unit as it had done before the invasion.
Mexicolore replies: Essentially soldiers were seasonal state employees: in the rainy season commoners worked in the fields as farmers, and in the dry season they were conscripted, through their local calpulli, to fight in the army. Also bear in mind that the Aztecs often fought ‘flowery wars’ against neighbouring tribes - arranged by agreement in advance!