A comparative analysis of Aztec and Spanish military development during the conquest of Mexico.
The rapid growth of the Mexica dominion in Central Mexico lifted the region into an era of widespread war and violence. The Mexica worldview was heavily steeped in blood, probably a relic of the tribe’s brutal history as a band of migratory nomads. Although their zealous propensity for human sacrifice and martial culture probably shaped their military interactions with nearby kingdoms, local environmental factors and external influences certainly played their part. The introduction of the bow and arrow by the 12th century CE drastically enhanced the effectiveness of levied troops while, around the same time, the widespread adoption of the broadsword was complemented by the emergence of a well-trained, professional warrior class. The growing importance of military power in the region tipped the scales in favor of accomplished military leaders and ultimately diminished the role that religious figures played in governing the state. That being said, Mexica religious authorities reigned supreme among the general population and their efforts to radicalize them through grandiose displays of public human sacrifice were encouraged by the military elite and were, in many respects, controlled by them. The combination of these factors generated a period of unprecedented military expansion throughout Mexico and established a vast tributary superstructure centered in the city of Tenochtitlan. At the city’s disposal was an army of well trained, professional soldiers with years of locally sponsored military and ideological training. If necessary, the Mexica could levy several hundred thousand additional troops from their tributary subjects and allied kingdoms, creating a combined army that was likely more powerful than any in the whole of North America. But from the East came something new, a band of wayward soldiers, veterans, and sailors intent on becoming wealthy through trade, colonization, annexation, and conquest.
Hernan Cortes’ expedition numbered roughly 600 men, 100 of whom were sailors, along with sixteen horses, about thirty crossbows, a dozen muskets, four falconet cannons, and ten heavy copper guns. The conquistadors, fresh from wars in Iberia and battles in the Yucatan, landed a small expeditionary force of vessels off the coast of what is now Veracruz. Some among them were veteran soldiers, men who had fought long campaigns in Italy, France, and against the Ottoman Empire. Each man had crafted a cotton cuirasse for protection, a padded armor which Bernal Diaz called “the most efficient protection against Indian arrows, pikes, and slings”. Many of them had steel helmets and chest plates, but the wealthier soldiers could afford additional steel protections to the neck, groin, legs, and arms. Their armaments consisted of stabbing swords, polearms, cavalry lances, and heavy shields in addition to the support weapons listed above. The conquistadors were often heavily armed and armored, and created a combined arms force of well trained shock cavalry, rudimentary but highly effective artillery, light skirmishers with the ability to quickly and decisively despatch inadequately armored targets, and well trained, armored infantry capable of inflicting severe damage to enemy lines. Moreover, the conquistadors were often resupplied with fresh soldiers, ammunition, horses, and armaments from Cuba during the conquest of Mexico. Inspired by religious zealotry, these soldiers of Iberia sought to spread Christianity throughout the new world. To add to this, their disdain for human sacrifice, paganism, and unfamiliar American Indian customs was a frequent cause of conflict.
The advanced nature of Spanish military technology and tactics gave them a decisive edge in combat. First and foremost, Aztec weaponry was woefully ineffective against the Spaniards’ steel armor. Aztec spears, swords, javelins, and arrows were all tipped or lined with obsidian or flint blades and, although extremely sharp, they would have likely shattered on impact. On soft targets however, the blades cut extremely well, with a good example being the Aztec macuahuitl, or broadsword. The Anonymous Conqueror describes a now well-known incident where, in the midst of battle, he saw an Aztec warrior cut the entrails from a horse with the macuahuitl, instantly killing the beast. The same day, he witnessed the death of another horse after a single blow to the neck from an Aztec broadsword. When utilized against an armored opponent, the blunt force from a heavy sword or spear impact certainly would have been unpleasant, but this would have been mitigated by the padded cotton worn underneath. Crushing weapons such as clubs and cudgels would have been the most effective in melee against Spanish armor, but such clubs were often short and required considerable strength and stamina from the user. Crushers have the advantage of imparting more energy into the target upon impact, but Aztec war clubs were usually wooden, making their effectiveness against steel armor questionable. Aztec infantry completely lacked specialized weapons suited for penetrating Spanish armor, forcing them to rely on martial skill to stab or slash around the armor. Bernal Diaz wrote that volleys of slingstones were extremely damaging and ever-present throughout their campaign. Thrown by the thousands, these projectiles inflicted many wounds and a number of casualties among the conquistadors. Despite the relative effectiveness of such weapons, they simply were not enough to turn the war in favor of the Mexica.
By comparison, Spanish weapons were extremely effective against lightly armored Aztec soldiers. The conquistador footmen were often armed with rapiers (or a similar thrusting sword) and carried shields. Levied soldiers comprised most of the Aztec army and often went into battle with nothing more than a spear, a shield, and a maxtlatl loincloth. Because of this, Spanish swordsmen probably had relatively little trouble dispatching the levies in combat, with the foremost hindrance being how to quickly close the distance and deliver a lethal blow. Thrusting swords had a number of advantages over broadswords, something that is perhaps best illustrated by its effect on formation density. Because the weapon was primarily used in a forward stabbing motion, the user and the men around him could stand in a more tightly packed infantry formation. By comparison, the Aztec broadsword was large and heavy, and some elite infantry often wielded two-handed longsword variants. In order for the weapon to be effective, the wielder needed enough space to swing the weapon laterally. For the users of the longsword, they could not have effectively used a shield in combat, meaning they probably required even more space in order to maneuver properly and parry or dodge blows. Because of this, Spanish battle formations were likely to be more tightly grouped than those of the Aztec swordsmen, allowing a greater number of men to fight on the front line at any given time and giving the Spaniards yet another advantage in those engagements. The arquebus, or matchlock gun, was also a highly effective weapon utilized by the Spanish during the conquest of Mexico. Although slow to load and prone to misfires, the arquebus could shoot through Aztec armor and shields alike. In addition, the combination of the sound and smoke created from the weapon was probably a significant morale shock to the native warriors who had never experienced such tools of war. According to the Anonymous Conqueror, Aztec shields could also be thwarted with a “good crossbow” that, under the right circumstances, could effectively punch through the wood. Crossbows of the day were often specifically designed to penetrate heavy armor, thus they would have little trouble breaking through padded cotton. Furthermore, the Spaniards had over a dozen cannons at their disposal. Because of its killing potential, the cannon was one of the most important weapons in the conquistador arsenal. A well placed, heavy cannon shot could easily kill over a dozen targets if they are in line with the muzzle. Upon contact with the ground, cannonballs often bounce and could continue wreaking havoc among enemy lines. The resultant destruction and gruesome mutilation of soldiers would be very detrimental to morale and potentially cause a rout. Artillery is extremely valuable because, not only does it have the potential to kill many opposition soldiers, it deprives them of the opportunity to potentially wound or kill a comrade. The logistical efficiency of artillery lies in its ability to slowly chip away at the soldiers in an enemy army with the hope that fewer of your own men will be killed as a result.
Finally, the role that cavalry played in battles between Spanish and Aztec armies was often decisive. Although cavalry is not suited for urban or woodland combat, it can be used very effectively in an open environment. Many of the Spanish horses were bred for war and were trained for shock cavalry tactics, whereby a Spanish soldier (who was often well armored) would couch his lance under his armpit and charge into a group of enemy soldiers. According to Bernal Diaz, Cortes ordered his troops to, “hang bells around their horses’ necks,” and “not rush at the Indians with their lances before they had been dispersed, and then even to aim at their faces only”. The bells would have produced a loud and demoralizing sound while the horse was galloping, while the tactics that Cortes suggested were probably an attempt to minimize casualties among the cavalrymen. A running soldier is far easier to charge down than one who is actively attempting to defend himself and, by aiming only at the faces of enemy soldiers, the cavalrymen limited the chances of their lance becoming stuck or breaking upon impact with a target. Aztec warriors heavily relied on the spear, a weapon that was well suited for levies with little training or experience. Spears are extremely effective against a cavalry charge, where a warrior can simply hold their weapon steady with the hope that the charging horse impales itself. The weapon’s length allowed the user to attack his opponent from a distance, where the likelihood of being killed or injured in the confrontation was minimized. Although the Mexica empire commanded a significant number of professional soldiers, most of the army was comprised of drafted troops. In Otterbein’s view, the term “warrior” more adequately describes these men who were encouraged to act violently, but often lacked discipline. Because these warriors lacked any previous experience with cavalry and were generally susceptible to morale shock, Spanish cavalry dominated the battlefield. Enemy soldiers who were already engaged in melee would have provided an excellent target for a flanking charge, and such tactics were often used with great success.
All of this is not to say that technological and tactical differences were the sole reason that the Conquistadors were successful in their conquests. Disease, political calculations, and luck were often on the side of the Spaniards, and the combination of these factors and others ultimately led them to victory. The alliances that they made were no less important, and their allied kingdoms provided tens of thousands of additional warriors as auxiliaries. That being said, Spanish military developments gave them the advantages necessary to survive. Oftentimes, the conquerors found themselves completely surrounded and vastly outnumbered. Without their armor, weapons, and training, they would have surely been annihilated. The combined arms approach of the conquistador army allowed them to operate dynamically in battle and rapidly adapt to changing conditions. Spanish infantry was, generally speaking, superior to that of the Aztecs in melee combat, and the support that the footmen were afforded by the combination of guns, crossbows, and cannons allowed them to survive most battles regardless of whether they were drastically outnumbered. The Spaniards’ small contingent of cavalry was highly mobile and devastating to enemy lines, and its presence often proved decisive. Although cavalry played a vital role in the battles of the old world, the fact that it was totally unknown in the new world before the Spanish arrival meant that its effectiveness on the field was dramatically increased. In the end, the scales were tipped heavily in favor of the Spanish and their eagerness to capitalize on these advantages sealed the fate of the Aztecs and the rest of the Americas.
**This paper was written for my Myth and History in Colonial Encounters class**
1576 The True History of the Conquest of New Spain.
1988 Aztec Warfare: Imperial Expansion and Political Control. University of Oklahoma Press.
1997 Knights of Spain, Warriors of the Sun. University of Georgia Press.
2016 Tlacaelel Remembered, Mastermind of the Aztec Empire. University of Oklahoma Press.
1992 War and Society in Ancient Mesoamerica. University of California Press.
The Anonymous Conqueror
16th Century Narrative of Some Things of New Spain and of the Great City of Tenochtitlan. Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies.
Devries, Kelly & Smith, Robert
1992 Medieval Military Technology. University of Toronto Press.