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What is an Aztec Flower War?

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Aztecs fought flower wars, but don't let the name fool you; they weren't exactly peaceful. In this lesson, we'll explore this unique tradition and see what it meant to the people of the Aztec Empire.

Flowery Wars

What is the point of war? It's to defeat an opponent, right? Well…sometimes. War-based cultures need warfare; their values and social structures depend on it. This was certainly true of the culture of the Mexica, the people who lived in the capital city of the Aztec Empire. The Mexica even worshipped a god of war as their principal deity, named Huitzilopochtli.

Huitzilopochtli, Aztec god of war and the Sun
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To keep Huitzilopochtli appeased, the Aztec warriors had to keep fighting, and so war actually became ritualized. The ritual wars of the Aztec Empire were known as xochiyaoyotl, or flowery wars (often called flower wars). The Aztecs did fight traditional wars as well, but flowery wars were different. They weren't fought to conquer an enemy; they were fought simply to fight.

History of Aztec Flower Wars

The Mexica were warriors ever since they arrived in the Valley of Mexico. Coming from a mythical homeland far to the north, the Mexica people found the Valley of Mexico already filled with bustling cities. So, they sold their services as mercenaries until they became powerful enough to build their own city, Tenochtitlán. Over time, they grew even more powerful, finally forming the Triple Alliance with the cities of Texcoco and Tlacopan to create the Aztec Empire.

In the mid-15th century, a new ruler named Tlacaelel came to power in Tenochtitlán. As emperor, Tlacaelel built up the cult of the war/sun god Huitzilopochtli and insisted that the Aztecs were a chosen people, selected by the gods to provide human sacrifices.

The gods demanded sacrifices in the form of prisoners captured in war. If the Aztecs conquered everyone, there would be no more war, and therefore no more wartime prisoners. So, the Aztecs made a deal with the nearby city (and longtime rival of Tenochtitlán), Tlaxcala. The cities agreed to come together and fight a special kind of ritual battle that would not be fought for conquest or land. These battles would only be fought for prisoners, who each city could take back and sacrifice to the gods. While the Aztecs would go on to fight flowery wars against other cities as well, Tlaxcala was always their primary rival.

A tzompantli- a towering rack used to display the skulls of sacrificial victims
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The flowery wars became a very important tradition in the Aztec Empire. Rules were outlined, and the ritual became very standardized. In a flowery war, the two opposing armies would meet at a pre-selected location on a pre-selected date. They also agreed on the number of warriors to bring, so that each side had equal numbers (which is not something you often see in warfare). A fire of incense was lit, and the battle began. It's important to remember that the war was not fought to kill the enemy. The goal was to maim and capture them, but they had to be alive so they could be sacrificed at the temple. Once they had enough prisoners, the battle ended. Dying in battle or as a captured prisoner was extremely honorable in any war across Mesoamerica, but this was especially true of flowery wars. Captured prisoners went voluntarily to the temple to be sacrificed; in Mesoamerican religions this basically excused them from a hellish purgatory and sent them straight to the side of Huitzilopochtli.

Interpreting the Flowery Wars

Aztec flower wars are very unique; we really don't find anything like it anywhere else. So, how do we explain this? The traditional interpretation is what you've just read; it was a ritual war used to capture prisoners for human sacrifice. The Spanish once asked the emperor Moctezuma II why he had failed to capture Tlaxcala, and the emperor explained that he could, but then his people would lose their source of sacrificial victims.

Some historians have found different possible meanings in this ritual, however. Some believe that Moctezuma simply failed to conquer Tlaxcala, and was making excuses. Other historians think Moctezuma was being completely honest. It's a topic of debate.

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