was rigid, stratified class system in which each class (or caste)
had a roll designed to support the Aztec warriors. Warfare was thus
the main driving force of both the Aztec economy and religion. The
Aztec Empire was organized with a strong central government headed
by the emperor. The priests and a warriors castes came next, they
were made up of nobles who enjoyed a high status in Aztec society.
These warriors formed a professional core in Aztec armies and were
ranked according to their achievements on the battlefield. The bulk
of Aztec armies were made up of levies, commoners required to serve
time in compulsory military service. Every Aztec male was a warrior
and received basic military training from a young age, whether trader,
craftsman or farmer. In fact, military achievement, particularly the
taking of prisoners, was the only vehicle for upward social movement
available for commoners. The Aztec and Mesoamerican militaries evolved
on a very different, and incredibly interesting, trajectory than those
of the old world resulting in many unique, effective and gruesome
weapons and tactics.
Aztec Regular Units
The Aztec army was well organized and with a well organized command
structure. The common warriors were formed up into companies called
Calpulli. Each Calpulli was further divided into fourths and led
by nobles from the region were the troops were recruited. The exact
size of a Calpulli most likely varied, but they were certainly impressive
given the size of the Aztec armies. Twenty Calpultin (plural for
Calpulli) were stationed in the Aztec capitol, Tenochtitlan, and
led by the emperor’s family. Other smaller units of the Aztec
army had strengths of 800, 400 or 200 warriors and were also led
by noble officers. The leadership of the army, particularly the
generals, would designate a successor before each battle so that
if they were killed they could immediately be replaced. Aztec armies
were also a companied by priests who carried effigies of their gods
alongside the armies. Boys also accompanied the army as porters,
carrying weapons and supplies. However the most feared aspect of
the Aztec force was their specialized elite units of battle hardened
Elite Aztec Warriors
The noble warrior class also formed special military elite units,
formed from warrior societies such as the eagle and Jaguar or the
dreaded Shorn Ones. Sons of nobles were expected to enter into one
of the societies and to progressed through there ranks. Commoners
who excelled in warfare would also be allowed to join one of these
orders. Each society had different styles of dress, tactics and
equipment as well as styles of body paint and adornments. Generally,
higher ranking warriors received the right to wear finer and more
spectacular attire. Warriors could shift from one society and into
another when they became sufficiently proficient in the martial
abilities of one group; however, it is not known exactly how this
Eagle and Jaguar Warrior Societies
The largest warrior societies were that of the Eagles and the Jaguars.
They dressed like their name sake animals and wear headquartered
in the Quauhcalli "the Eagle House" located in the ceremonial
precinct in Tenochtitlan. Eagles were adorned in eagle feathers
and wore headgear with an eagle head on it, their faces looking
out from an open beak. Jaguars wore suits made from the pelts of
pumas (jaguars) and associated themselves with their god of night.
Regalia became more splendid and refined as Eagles and Jaguars increased
in honors and rank. To be eligible to join the Eagles and Jaguars
a man must capture four prisoners in battle. These visually spectacular
warriors were often depicted as statues and in codices. Aztec poetry
used the term Eagles and Jaguars to refer to nobles in war.
The Otomies were another warrior society, they are named after the
Otomi people who were known for being fierce warriors and allies
of the Aztecs. It is often difficult to determine if the historical
sources are referring to the people or the Aztec warrior society.
The Otomi people often fought as allies and mercenaries for the
Aztecs adding to the confusion. The Aztec warrior society had the
honor of being the first ones to join battle, along with the Shorn
Ones, and only those of noble rank could join their society. The
Otomi people were one of the early complex cultures of Mesoamerica,
and were the likely the original inhabitants of the central Mexico
before the arrival of Nahuatl speakers around ca. 1000 AD, after
which they were gradually replaced and marginalized by Nahua speaking
peoples. The Nahua people included the Aztecs and three hundred
years after their arrival they came to dominate the region, however
they seemed to have held the earlier Otomi people in high regard
The Shorn Ones
The "Shorn Ones" or Cuachicqueh was the most prestigious
warrior society and the tlacateccatl, a very high ranking general,
was always a member. The Shorn Ones are so named because their heads
were shaved accept for a long braid over the left ear. They painted
their bald heads blue on one side and red or yellow on the other.
The Shorn Ones took an oath not to take a step backwards during
a battle on pain of death at the hands of their fellow warriors.
The officers were recognizable in the battle by their particularly
remarkable finery and unusually long wood poles (Pamitl) with the
feathers and banners flying from them. They fastened this banner
to their back, so that they did not become hindered in battle.
Aztec Armor and Protection
The Aztec warriors wore Ichcahuipilli, a quilted cotton armor. These
vests were one or two fingers thick, and the material was resistant
to obsidian swords, arrows and atlatl darts. The light armor worked
well in the hot climate of central Mexico. They also employed small
round shields, called Chimalli, made of wood and twisted fibers.
These shields featured painted designs and could be decorated with
feathers hanging from them. Other shields were made of very thick
cotton and could be rolled up while on the march. If a warrior captured
six prisoners they could be awarded a carved hardwood helmet. These
helmets could have different animals carved into them.
The Aztec didn’t know how to forge mettle so they constructed
weapons out of wood, stone and Obsidian. The Macuahuitl, a word
meaning "hungry-wood", was the standard armament of the
elite cadres. It was essentially a wooden sword with sharp obsidian
blades embedded into its sides. The razor sharp obsidian blades
were placed in groves that ran the length of the blade and held
in place by a form of plant resin adhesive. The Macuahuitl could
deliver a horrific gash. It certainly could have decapitated a man
and was reported to have even decapitated a conquistadors horse.
They were made to be either one-handed or two-handed weapons. The
two-handed macuahuitl has been described “as tall as a man”.
They came in rectangular, ovoid, or pointed forms. The macuahuitl
had some serious drawbacks however. The obsidian blades were fragile
and could shatter after a single strike. The weapons were also cumbersome
and required a lot of space to swing which tended to make it hard
for users to stay in formation. The macuahuitl is also known in
Spanish by the Taino word "macana".
Another ancient weapon commonly used
by front lines was the Tepoztopilli. The tepoztopilli was a pole-arm,
roughly the height of a man, with a broad spear shaped, wooden head
about 6”-8” wide, edged with obsidian blades which were
deeply set in grooves like the blades of a macuahuitl. The weapon
could be used for slashing or stabbing, it also offered some protection
due its superior reach. Aztec warriors also employed clubs with
round wooden balls at the ends, clubs with inlaid obsidian blades
For long range weapons the Aztecs employed bows and slings. There
slings were made out of maguey fiber and hurled rocks. However for
midrange the Aztecs used one of their signature weapons, the Atlatl.
The Atlatl, also called the spear thrower or dart thrower, was developed
to a sophisticated level in Mesoamerica. Using the thrower a great
amount of force could be generated, both from the exaggerated throwing
motion the thrower allowed and flexing and releasing of the dart.
Atlatls achieved greater penetration than bows or slings and the
Aztec’s deployed them in mass.