Aztec warfare concerns the aspects associated with the militaristic conventions, forces, weaponry and strategic expansions conducted by the Late Postclassic Aztec civilizations of Mesoamerica, including particularly the military historyof the Aztec Triple Alliance involving the city-states of Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, Tlacopan and other allied polities of the central Mexican region.
The Aztec armed forces were typically composed of a large number of commoners (yāōquīzqueh) who possessed only basic military training, and a smaller but still considerable number of professional warriors belonging to the nobility (pīpiltin) and who were organized into warrior societies and ranked according to their achievements. The Aztec state was centered around political expansion and dominance of and exaction of tribute from other city states, and warfare was the basic dynamic force in Aztec politics. Aztec society was also centered around warfare: every Aztec male received basic military training from an early age and the only possibility of upwards social mobility for commoners (mācehualtin) was through military achievement — especially the taking of captives (māltin). The sacrifice of war captives was an important part of many of the Aztec religious festivals. Warfare was thus the main driving force of both the Aztec economy and religion.
Stratification and ranks
The commoners composed the bulk of the army, the lowest were porters (tlamemeh) who carried weapons and supplies, next came the youths of the telpochcalli led by their sergeants (thetēlpochyahqueh) Next were the commoners yaoquizqueh. And finally there were commoners who had taken captives, the so-called tlamanih.
Ranking above these came the nobles of the "warrior societies". These were ranked according to the number of captives they had taken in previous battles; the number of captives determined which of the different suits of honor (called tlahuiztli) they were allowed to wear. These tlahuiztli became gradually more spectacular as the ranks progressed, allowing the most excellent warriors who had taken many captives to stand out on the battlefield. The higher ranked warriors were also called "Pipiltin".
Commoners excelling in warfare could be promoted to the noble class and could enter some of the warrior societies (at least the Eagles and Jaguars). Sons of nobles trained at the Calmecac however were expected to enter into one of the societies as they progressed through the ranks. Warriors could shift from one society and into another when they became sufficiently proficient; exactly how this happened is uncertain. Each society had different styles of dress and equipment as well as styles of body paint and adornments.
Eagle and Jaguar warriors
Those Aztec warriors who demonstrated the most bravery and who fought well became either jaguar or eagle warriors. Of all of the Aztec warriors, they were the most feared. Both the jaguar and eagle Aztec warriors wore distinguishing helmets and uniforms. The jaguars were identifiable by the jaguar skins they wore over their entire body, with only their faces showing from within the jaguar head. The eagle Aztec warriors, on the other hand, wore feathered helmets including an open beak.
Ranged weaponsTlahuitolli: A bow.
Atlatl: The Aztec dart thrower was a weapon used to hurl small darts called "tlacochtli" with greater force and from greater range than they could be thrown by hand. Murals at Teotihuacan show warriors using this effective weapon and it is characteristic of the Mesoamerican cultures of central Mexico. The atlatl could also throw spears as its name implies "spear thrower".
Micomitl: Aztec arrow quiver.
Yaomitl: War arrows with barbed obsidian, chert, flint, or bone points.
Tematlatl: A sling made from maguey fiber. The Aztecs used oval shaped rocks or hand molded clay balls filled with obsidian flakes or pebbles as projectiles for this weapon.
Tlacalhuazcuahuitl: A blowgun consisting of a hollow reed using poison darts for ammunition. This was used primarily for hunting rather than warfare.
Macuahuitl: "Hungry-wood", essentially a wooden sword with sharp obsidian blades embedded into its sides. This was the standard armament of the elite cadres. Also known in Spanish by the Taino word "macana". A blow from such a weapon was reputedly capable of decapitating a horse.
Tepoztopilli: Wooden spear with sharp obsidian blades in the top.
Quauhololli: A mace like weapon, the handle was made out of wood topped with a wooden, rock, or copper ball at the end.
Huitzauhqui: A wooden club, somewhat resembling a baseball bat. This weapon was used as a melee weapon just as it was made, but other designs were studded with flint or obsidian cutting elements on its sides.
Tepoztli: Basically an ax, comparable to a tomahawk, the head of which was made of either stone or copper and had a two side design, one side had a sharp bladed edge while the other one a hammer like protrusion.
Tecpatl: A dagger with a double sided blade made out of flint or obsidian with an elaborate stone or wooden handle, seven to nine inches overall in length. Although this would have been an effective side arm, this weapon was more commonly used in Aztec sacrifice ceremonies which may point to this weapon being wielded mostly by Aztec warrior priests.
Tripatlzachital: A copper club used only by the Aztecs. This was new to the world and worked very effectively on enemies
Bernal Diaz also refers to a lengthy scythe-like weapon - apparently so large that a number of warriors had to operate it. This was embedded with obsidian blades for up to 3 meters, and used to slice through ranks.
Chimalli: Shields made with different materials such as the wooden shield "cuauhchimalli" or maize cane "otlachimalli". There were also ornamental shields decorated with motifs made in featherwork, these were called māhuizzoh chimalli.
Ehuatl: The tunic that some noble warriors wore over their cotton armour or tlahuiztli.
Tlahuiztli: The distinctively decorated suits of prestigious warriors and members of warrior societies. These suits served as a way to identify warriors according to their achievements in battle as well as rank, alliance, and social status like priesthood. Usually made of a single piece of material with an opening in the back they covered most of the body and extremities, and offered added protection to the wearer. Made with elements of animal hide, leather, and cotton these suits also included protection for the head in the form of hats or helmets made out of wood with bone elements, most noteworthy example of these are the helmets worn by Jaguar and Eagle knights.