War and Conquest in Aztec Controlled Mexico: an Examination of Sources and Research

An exploration of war, conquest, flower wars, historical documentation from the late Aztec period, and contemporary research efforts.


Page from the Codex Mendoza depicting the conquests of Emperor Ahuitzotl.

The writings of Inga Clendinnen in her books Aztecs: an Interpretation and The Cost of Courage in Aztec Society clarify a number of shaky and often unknown concepts about the internal workings of both the Aztec empire and the warrior cultures that existed within it. Although dense, Clendinnen’s works include a colorful vocabulary and a host of fascinating deductions and anecdotes. These books primarily rely upon historical texts as well as the work of other scholars. Clendinnen’s writings about the Xochiyaoyotl (or flowery war) offer a complex understanding of a truly fascinating cultural phenomenon that flourished under the rule of the Aztec empire. The “ritualistic” nature of the flower war enacts a quasi-theatrical performance of martial combat, whereby two enemy (or sometimes neutral or allied) states or parties engage in a predetermined battle with an equal number of combatants on each side. The soldiers on each side, typically veteran men-at-arms, are offered the chance to advance their own social standing by engaging in individual combat with one member of the opposing force and taking them captive (Clendinnen 23).

This mode of war stands in stark contrast to traditional conquest according to the writings of Isaac. In his paper Aztec Warfare: Goals and Battlefield Comportment, he argues that “ritual” and traditional modes of combat were separated in the Aztec world. Although relatively short, Isaac’s paper is extremely useful when attempting to understand conquest, and it sources a number of historical texts, as well as the works of other historians and anthropologists. This belief in the separation of conquest and ritual combat is further corroborated by the writings of Hassig, particularly in his books Aztec Warfare: Imperial Expansion and Political Control and War and Society in Ancient Mesoamerica. Hassig’s approach to the study of war in Mesoamerica relies heavily upon mathematical formulas, the writings of the Spanish conquistadors, and relevant archaeological and historical texts. In my personal experience, understanding Hassig’s work often requires a lengthy adaptation to his particular writing style, but his conclusions are solidly supported by thoughtful reasoning and a large host of sources.

The writings of the conquistador Bernal Diaz del Castillo are insightful and enthralling, but are also complicated by bias and the time at which it was written. The Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire began in February of 1519 and ended in August of 1521. Diaz del Castillo was undoubtedly a soldier in Hernan Cortes’ expedition, but he did not begin writing his book The True History of the Conquest of New Spain until the 1560s, several decades after the conquest was completed. Furthermore, some of the information in his book is considered suspicious by a number of anthropologists and historians. Regardless, Diaz del Castillo’s account remains the longest and most detailed to be produced by a soldier who fought the Aztecs in combat. The Anonymous Conqueror offers an additional voice in this regard and the information he provides is fascinating, but his anonymity is suspect and the account is relatively short.

Finally, the codices and writings produced by native peoples and chroniclers provide an informative view into the daily life of Aztec society and details of warfare. The Codex Mendoza lists each emperor of Tenochtitlan and which cities were conquered under their rule, in addition to a list of tributary goods such as luxury items, military uniforms, shields, and raw materials taken from conquered and subservient cities and towns. The Florentine Codex, created by the chronicler Bernardino de Sahagun, was written in a latinized Nahuatl script. This text primarily discusses daily life, mythology, and the rules of various kings, but also touches on war and conquest. The Badianus Manuscript displays pictures of a variety of herbs and includes descriptions for each, including the herbal remedies for wound treatment. The Codex Chimalpahin, first written by the chronicler Tezozomoc and later transcribed by Chimalpahin, describes conquests and dynastic lineages, and goes into some detail about the sacking of cities. All of these codices were written following the Spanish conquest, but all of them included testimonies and information from Mexica and Aztec sources.

Sources Cited:

Clendinnen, Inga. 2010.  “The Cost of Courage in Aztec Society: Essays on Mesoamerican Society and Culture.” Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Hassig, Ross. 1988. “Aztec Warfare: Imperial Expansion and Political Control.” Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.


***This paper was written for my class Reading and Writing Workshop 3980***

For the .pdf version of this paper with footnotes included, see here: War and Conquest in Aztec Controlled Mexico: an Examination of Sources and Research


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