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From the fourteenth- to the sixteenth-century, the Aztecs built one of the most impressive empires in world history. From their capital, Tenochtitlan, built from reclaimed land in Lake Texcoco in central Mexico, the Aztecs methodically conquered most of the surrounding kingdoms and city-states. One reason for this great success was, no doubt, the quality of their military and skill of their warriors. 

These warriors fought in plenty of battles for outright conquest. Known as cocoltic yaoytl (angry war) in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, these are types of wars from most people are familiar with: an empire wants some else’s land or tax revenue, so they invade, kill and capture enemy combatants, and impose their rule.

But in the Mesoamerican world, another type of warfare existed.

The trouble with defining flower wars

Called xochiyaouyotl, or flower wars, by the Aztecs, this type of conflict had a long tradition in Mesoamerica. In essence, flower wars were a ritualized battle, where two opposing states arranged for their armies to meet on a certain day, at a certain location. During these battles, nobody was killed, but warriors did take prisoners.

This, however, is where modern day consensus on the nature of flower wars ends. For one, there are multiple theories as to why the Aztecs called these conflicts flower wars. One historian writes that this term referred “to the battlefield where finely attired warriors would fall like a rain of flowers.” (Richard F. Townsend, The Aztecs (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2009): 218) Another writer has claimed the name comes from “defeated warriors who were trussed up, and with their splendid feather war costumes, looked like flowers as they were unceremoniously transported back to Tenochtitlan.”

But it’s not just why the Aztecs called this type of battle a flower war that’s up for debate – why the Aztecs engaged in them at all is still contested!

There are two theories that dominate current thinking on why the Aztecs carried out flower wars. The older of these two is that the Aztecs initiated these ritualized conflicts in order to capture prisoners that they could then sacrifice to their chief gods. The second theory tells us that flower wars were used as a way to train Aztec warriors and remind neighboring states of their imperial might.

Human sacrifice in the Aztec Empire

Before we dive into whether sacrificial victims were key components of flower wars, let’s get a general understanding of the role of human sacrifice in the Aztec empire.

Human sacrifice was certainly a part of Aztec religion and society. The sacrifices made to their patron deities, the war god Huitzilopochtli and the rain god Tlaloc, atop the Grand Pyramid in the middle of Tenochtitlan are well documented. While the numbers of sacrificed people that Spanish chroniclers reported is most certainly inflated, there was indeed some level of human sacrifice going on.

In fact, relatively recently, archaeologists have found a tower made of human skulls underneath Mexico City, which was built on the ruins of the Aztec’s sacked capital. Known as the “tower of skulls,” in English or Huey Tzompantli in Nahuatl, the structure has a lot to tell us about human sacrifice in the Aztec Empire. The Aztec believed these sacrifices kept the gods, and thus the universe, alive. According to researchers from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History, “Human sacrifice in Mesoamerica was a commitment that was established daily between human beings and their gods, as a way that influenced the renewal of nature and ensured the continuity of life itself.”

Flower wars for sacrificial victims

Clearly, human sacrifice was an important part of Aztec society. But was the only driver of the flower wars?

While plenty of archaeological and textual evidence exists for human sacrifice in the Aztec empire, the evidence that flower wars were used to capture these victims comes from Spanish chronicles collected during the conquest of Mexico. Though these sources can be a great way of learning about the Aztec empire, they are also filled with misunderstandings about the government, religion, and culture of the peoples the Spanish interacted with in these years.

According to one Spanish account from this era, labeled the Cronica X by historians, a captain in Hernan Cortés’s retinue asked Montezuma why they had on-and-off wars with their biggest rival, Tlaxacala, rather than conquering them once and for all. Montezuma responded: “we could do it, but then there would be no place where our youth could train themselves, except far away, and also, we desire that there should always be people to sacrifice to our gods.”

Putting aside Montezuma’s bravado, we see evidence for both sides of the flower wars argument. Based on this piece of the Cronica X, historians have argued that the Aztec empire launched flower wars when they needed more captives to sacrifice. Historians have also cited the Aztec general Tlacaelel who told Spanish chroniclers that flower war battlefields were like markets where warriors, like tortillas, could be readily plucked up and taken away.

Assuming the Spanish correctly interpreted what these high-ranking Aztec officials were telling them, this would mean that xochiyaouyotl could have been used to capture warriors for sacrifice.

Flower wars for military training and intimidation

Over the last few decades, historians have begun to reinterpret why the Aztecs conducted flower wars. If we return to the above quote from Montezuma for a moment, we can get a glimpse into why. The Aztec ruler told conquistadors that if he conquered too many of his neighbors, “there would be no place where our youth could train themselves, except far away…” In recent decades, experts have noted that this part of Montezuma’s quote was ignored for too long in favor of focusing on the now more foreign concept of human sacrifice.

By shifting their focus, historians have noted that no existing texts discuss going to war just to capture enemy combatants for sacrifice. What texts do reveal, however, is that capturing opposing warriors in battle when the opportunity arose was a standard practice in Aztec warfare. To add to that, Aztec warriors could work their way up the ranks based on how many captives they took in battle. Once a warrior had risen as high up in the ranks as possible, the incentive to capture (rather than kill) opposing fighters went down.

Finally, some have said that the numbers just don’t add up. While we can’t know the exact number of people sacrificed in the Aztec Empire each year, we do know that the numbers reported by conquistadors is very inflated. For example, Fray Diego de Durán reported that 80,400 people were sacrificed when the Templo Mayor, the largest temple in Tenochtitlan, was finished – an event that happened at least 10 years before the Spanish arrived in Mexico! Given the exaggerated nature of this evidence, experts have had to rely on archaeology to discern what happened. And, while this has confirmed that the Aztecs practiced ritual sacrifice, it also tells us that they didn’t sacrifice nearly enough people to have constantly launched wars that had the sole purpose of capturing sacrificial victims.

So, where do you stand on the flower wars?

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