It is well known that Tenochtitlan’s influence, not to say outright domination, encompassed Central Mexico and after the time of its eight Tlatoani Ahuitzotl reached almost from coast to coast. However, in order to carve out such an empire one must have substantial warriors’ forces available and ready, easy to gather, to move around and send marching considerable distances, supplied with provisions and other necessities to arrive at their destination coordinated, well fed and ready to fight.
Not an easy feat at the times when no radio communication was available, and no vehicles to supplies food and other war necessities of the marching forces. In fact, even the customary beasts of burden that ancient armies of other continents used to enjoy were not available to the expanding Mesoamericans. And yet, the Mexicas and their allies did not seem to complain or feel disadvantaged. Anything but!
To organize armies of many thousands one needed a meticulous coordination, strict hierarchy of leadership and well maintained line of supplies. Not a challenge when it came to Tenochtitlan armies.
The largest unit in the Mexica and its allies’ forces was called xiquipilli, an eight thousand strong division that could move and operate independently or in coordination with another such unit. Composed from twenty smaller units of four hundred warriors each, it was an impressive force when on the march or in battle.
In Tenochtitlan, each such smaller unit of four hundred was said to be recruited from a different city district – twenty districts, twenty units of four hundred, one xiquipilli of eight thousand. However, Tenochtitlan districts’ ability to yield four hundred readily available warriors upon a request may be questioned. Let alone twice or trice this amount, because in later times, the Mexica armies were reported to move in forces that exceeded twenty thousand warriors. In this case, we may be excused for assuming that other altepetl/city-states, members of The Triple Alliance for one, contributed an additional unit of eight thousand each, with the provinces adding more warriors to the marching out forces.
And yet, even if only one xiquipilli was enlisted for each new campaign out of Tenochtitlan itself, eight thousand warriors was a large amount of people to move out without paralyzing the city’s regular life and activities. To avoid that, each campaign was organized meticulously and ahead of time, gathering, supplying and moving each unit of four hundred out of its original place of recruitment in their own districts at different times and throughout more than one day. This way, no large altepetl’s traffic and regular life got disrupted, no avenues or canals jammed, no regular activities interrupted; not to a damaging degree.
Once outside, those same smaller units could be reassembled back into their original formations. Or, in some cases, they could be ordered to move on separately upon the decision of the higher leaders – tlatoani, the ruler himself or his warlords, tlacochcalcatl and tlacateccatl – depending on different factors, from projected strategy to something as simple as distance toward the site of the prospected battle, or the location of supplies and the towns who were expected to provide those.
In every province, permanent stores for the army on the move were required to be maintained as a part of the tribute system. Which enabled the Triple Alliance’s armies enjoy supplies without dragging hundreds or even thousands porters along. Such lands were called milchimalli or cacalomilli, and they were set aside especially for war related production, usually close to Tenochtitlan but not always.
However, the first most immediate food-kits for the warriors to carry along were prepared in advance by their own neighborhoods-calpulli the moment the official recruitment was heralded from every plaza and square. Maize cakes, maize flour, toasted maize, beans, salt, chilli, pumpkin seeds and pinolli – everything that could be carried easily and eaten with no need to cook was tucked inside warriors’ bags. In Tenochtitlan itself the obligation to supply such parcels fell on the marketplace vendors as a part of their own private tax payment.
From the moment the ruler declared war preparations to be on, repeated by special heralds on every plaza or square of each district, the army was out of the city and ready to march in approximately five days if the prospected campaign was to be conducted relatively nearby; eight days for more distant, less familiar sites. The allies were called to arms or invited to join by special runners carrying appropriate documentation on behalf of Tenochtitlan Tlatoani.
When the ruler left on campaigns – a customary occurrence – his right hand and head adviser cihuacoatl would stay and govern the city in his absence. Out of the highest governmental body consisted of Council of Four – two highest military leaders and two secondary advisers – both warlords, tlacochcalcatl and tlacateccatl would join the ruler on the projected war expedition, taking responsibility or simply assisting with the organization of supplies, picking marching roads, devising battlefield strategy and taking care of other details connected to the initiated attack. Tlatoani was the supreme leader on the battlefield as much as in the city he ruled.
Re-training, preparations of supplies, distribution of arms and relevant items of wear before every campaign was placed on cuauhhuehuetqueh, old veteran leaders. The smallest divisions of twenty warriors, the most basic units reported in the Mexica forces, were incorporated or dispersed among larger units of four hundred once outside the city; however as whole, none of those were divided, keeping their structure and their low-rank leaders in the march as much as upon the battlefield. And so was the case with the reinforcements arriving from other cities and towns. Each marched with its own town’s unit, under its own banner and in the command of their immediate leaders that were accountable to higher leaders of the entire campaign.
In each unit veterans were spread evenly, placed between younger, less experienced warriors – a veteran per about five novices – expected to keep an eye on them and their learning. This way, the casualties expected among ‘green’ recruitments were lessened, to a degree.
On average, marching warriors were expected to move ten to twenty miles a day. Allied troops might be conducted separately toward the same destination. The assumption was that each unit of four hundred, let alone xiquipilli of eight thousand, was strong and organized enough to defend itself if surprised until other units could be alerted by professional runner-messengers.
Each xiquipilli has a standard – cuachpantli – to carry on the road and into the battle. Codex Mendoza lists four types of standards, even though there were probably additional banners for lesser divisions that were worn by the leaders of those smaller units. Such leaders were called yaotequihuaque, and they wore extra layer of colorful insignia over the customary cotton shirt armor in addition to ornaments constructed from bark paper, feathers and cloths attached to their backs by leather straps in the manner that would not interfere with their ability to war and maneuver. Those cuachpantli banners or standards served to indicate the position of each unit while helping coordinate its movements on the battlefield.
Like in any organized army, the hierarchy was the one to dictate each warrior’s clothing and decorations, or rather his right to wear such. The most basic cotton armor was called ichcahuipilli. Made of unspun cotton soaked in salt water and sewed between two layers of cloth or stitched to a leather border, it created material thick enough no prevent most arrows or darts from penetrating through such quilted barrier. The armor was sleeveless and either tied in the back or the front, or worn in a sort of a pullover that hugged the body and covered it all the way to the thigh.
Almost every warrior could afford such basic means of protection, some of which might have been supplied by their local caplullis together with customary weaponry of a simpler sort. A club or a simple spear completed by undecorated wooden shield seemed to be the most affordable weaponry among regular warriors. Those were stored in special armories – tlacochcalco – that were spread throughout the city. According to the account of one of the conquistadors (Andres de Tapia) each armory held up to 500 cartloads of weaponry each.
Two armories in the royal precinct located in the palace itself hosted permanent workshops of most skillful craftsmen, producing intricate new weaponry in considerable amounts. Those catered to the elite military orders such as Jaguar and Eagle Warriors. The various districts’ armories supplied the rest, often filled from the tribute payments brought from various provinces (according to Codex Mendoza).
Elite warriors, in addition to the basic protection the sleeveless ichcahuipilli provided, wore tlahuiztli, a war costume consisted of long sleeves and leggings to be worn over the cotton shirt armor. It was closed in the back and often decorated with animal skins and feathers sewn to the material. Besides decorative purposes, cloth with feathers was reported to provide additional means of protection.
Another decorated tunic called ehuatl was used by the warriors of the highest leading rank. Made of cloth with feathers set in rows that resembled a skirt, it also assisted in deflecting lances, arrows and even swords. It has no sleeves and no leggings, and therefore seemed to be slightly inferior to tlahuiztli.
To earn the right of wearing necklace-cozcapetlatl, armbands matemecatl and calf-bands cotzehuatl made from very thin gold, copper or bark, both covered with leather and feathers, and wristlets called matzopetztli one has to capture several enemies and distinguish himself in plenty of battles.
Helmets were also worn by elite warriors and leaders alone. Made of wood and bone and decorated with feathers, those served a purpose of additional protection as much as means to proclaim one’s rank. Some were made in a shape of a wild animal’s head – jaguar, wolf or puma – stretched over a frame of wood or quilted cotton. Its owner would gaze out from the animal’s open jaw.
Never being a symbolic figure but a true leading warrior and usually in the thickest of it, tlatoani wore customary ichcahuipilli with decorated ehuatl thrown over it, his loincloth adorned with quetzal feathers in a sort of a skirt – an additional protection in deflecting certain blows – with bracelets and anklets made of gold and a spectacular headdress called copilli encrusted with turquoise.
Tlacateccatl, his chief warlord and second-in-command, typically wore a banner – the insignia of the highest war leader – on his back, with his face and shield painted in pronounced deadly patterns. A long-sleeved ehuatl would usually complete the picture, decorated with a painted leather skirt and quetzalteopamitl made of gold and quetzal feathers, a national Mexica standard.
Elite units and warriors were easy to recognize by their special attire and insignia. Ocelopilli or Jaguar Warriors, who must have captured at least four warriors, wore tlahuiztli over ichcahuipilli with the knot of the loincloth-maxtlatl coming in a certain way out of the front opening. Helmets with jaguar markings, obsidian swords-maquahuitl and shields-yaochimalli decorated with feathers and gold completed their outfit. In similar fashion, Eagle Warriors wore a helmet made of bark and inlaid with feathers.
In addition to these two, another elite combat unit called cuauhchicque was used in order to provoke attacks, complete difficult missions and provide strategic assistance during battles. There was no hierarchy in such unit as its members were honored as front-line combatants each and every one of them. Their heads were typically shaved aside from the crest down the middle and two side tufts. They wore glaringly yellow tlahuiztli and a paper emblem attached to their backs, carrying special shields and of course, customary obsidian swords.
Not to leave warriors and leaders without moral or rather spiritual support, tlamacaztequihua or warrior-priests were present on every battlefield or campaign. Their duties varied between conduct of proper ceremonies prior to each battle and after it ended, responsibility of seeing fallen warriors into their new beginnings and attendance to other spiritual matters. Such servants of gods wore tlahuiztli colored in black and white in imitation of the night sky with stars, and conical hat of design that may appear somewhat foreign to the region of Central Mexico. Often they fought alongside other leaders as full-pledged warriors, sometimes capturing an occasional enemy.
The bulk of the army, of course, was comprised of simple warriors, novices and veterans who didn’t distinguished themselves into special promotions. Urban commoners and farmers from the countryside, those warriors wore ichcahuipilli and maxtlatl and were reportedly permitted to carry obsidian swords if they could afford such expense. Typically they used clubs and other sorts of simpler offensive weaponry, besides shooting devices such as atlatls and slings.
Next article on the subject of organized warfare, will address the actual Mexica battle practices, tactics, strategies, sieges and more.
An excerpt from “Morning Star”, The Aztec Chronicles, book #5.
The imperial voice rolled pleasantly, making Elotl wish to hear more. Not enough to tempt him into slowing his step of course once they were in the relative safety of the outside. It was his companion who did this, clearly wishing to listen, undeterred by their dubious right to be here at all.
“He is going to tell them to start the recruiting, I’m telling you. You just wait and see.”
Elotl rolled his eyes, trying to lead them down the stairs as directed. Or better yet, somewhere out and away from here. “What does that mean? Weren’t you all preparing for war anyway?”
“Yes, we were.” The youth waved his hand impatiently, leaning toward the carved opening they had just managed to leave as though intending to try and sneak back in against every logic or reason. “We were preparing for war, yes. Making arrangements. You don’t go to war just like that, do you?” His words poured out absently, in a quiet flow, his attention clearly still on the happenings inside the luxurious hall. “But when the Emperor declares an actual recruitment, then it’s official and in less than five dawns we are all out and on our way. Eight dawns, if it’s a far away campaign,” he added as though after a thought. “But no more than that, never more than that.”
Who cares? wondered Elotl, but was wiser than to say it aloud this time, wishing to hear their emperor as well. Eight dawns to organize all those hundreds upon hundreds of warriors, then move them out, all the way to the south? No, the west. Tollocan and that other enemy altepetl of the valley spread to the west of the mighty island-capital, weren’t they? Eight dawns to do the impossible, but these islanders were not to be measured by regular standards, that much he had learn with certainty so far.
“How many warriors will they lead out?” he asked, unable to hear the orating ruler properly, bored and afraid that his companion will try to mount the stairs once again. He certainly looked this way.
“At least two xiquipilli,” was the off-handed answer. “Three or more, if Texcoco and Tlacopan are interested to participate for real.” A shrug. “Texcoco certainly is.”
This time the youth’s gaze deigned to leave the desired doorway. “You don’t know that?” The widening eyes made Elotl’s embarrassment soar.
“Why should I know that?”
“If you want to be a warrior like your brother…” The twist of his companion’s lips held unmistakable contempt now.
“My brother is not a warrior. He is spying for your emperor. It’s a different thing.”
“He will be warring for our Emperor sooner than you think.” This time the eyes flashed in familiar fashion. “While you will be carrying food provisions in the best of cases, unless you learn like he does and not just go around talking stupid and picking fights.”
Elotl clenched his fists and said nothing, the effort of controlling his anger making his hands tremble like back in the walled gardens. What an arrogant filthy piece of rotten meat this Miztli’s friend was!