The Maya and Aztecs Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Warfare in Mesoamerica can be reconstructed only from the cultural remains that have been left behind in the portable art, sculpture, architecture, and documents of the ancient Maya and Aztecs.

Political Considerations

Warfare in Mesoamerica can be reconstructed only from the cultural remains that have been left behind in the portable art, sculpture, architecture, and documents of the ancient Maya and Aztecs. Although this incomplete record allows only a partial glimpse of the politics, military achievements, weapons, and strategies of these early people, archaeologists and historians have been able to reconstruct much of their ancient military and warfare history. The cultures and chronologies of the ancient Maya and Aztecs differed greatly, but many parallels can be drawn between their politics and warfare strategies.AztecsMayaMesoamericaAztecsMayaMesoamerica

The Maya

The ancient Maya were once thought to have been gentle stargazers; however, discoveries such as that in 1946 of the murals at Bonampak in Chiapas, southern Mexico, depict violent and bloody scenes of warfare and sacrifice. Because the Maya are a much older culture, there is less abundant information about their methods of warfare than those of the Aztecs. The ancient history of the Maya region is typically divided into three periods: the Formative (c. 1500 b.c.e.-300 c.e.), the Classic (250-900), and the Postclassic (900-1500). Whereas much of the contemporary knowledge of Aztec society stems from contact-period documents, the Maya population had already gone into severe decline by the time the Spanish conquistadores arrived in the Americas in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Nonetheless, it is known that the Maya engaged in extensive civil war, often capturing the kings and other elite officials of competing city-states. It has been said that militarism and conquest were instrumental in creating and perpetuating a ruling elite and political centers. The success of an individual ruler was measured by his successful taking of captives, as depicted in much of the art and sculpture of the ancient Maya. Hieroglyphic texts often refer to the conquests of kings, and naked and defeated captives are frequently depicted below the feet of triumphant captors. Early conflicts were generally not waged over long distances; instead, small-scale warfare was limited to local polities. As conflict grew over limited resources, warfare remained localized but became endemic. Captives became a necessary element in the inauguration of a new king, at the dedication of a new building, or for other sacred events; this need continued to motivate the Maya to invade neighboring polities. The intent of Mayan warfare was not to expand territory but to increase the prestige and power of the successful raiders.

The Aztecs

The Aztecs, wandering barbarians, arrived late in Mesoamerica, settling at the site of Tenochtitlán>Tenochtitlán in 1345 c.e. Over the next century, they assembled inexhaustible armies that marched hundreds of miles from the Valley of Mexico to confront and defeat rival cultures. Although they were a dominant power for only slightly more than one hundred years (1400-1521 c.e.), they were able to create an empire, maintain extensive economic trade routes, and appropriate the military organization, arts, and cultures of their subjects, incorporating them into their own civilization.

Religious fervor drove the Aztecs into constant war to capture political prisoners for sacrifice to their gods. Gory images of war captives with their hearts gouged out have been inextricably tied to the Aztecs.

Military AchievementThe Maya

Ancient Mesoamerica

The greatest military achievement for the ancient Maya was the successful capture and sacrifice of a king from a neighboring and competing polity. Although this was a relatively rare event, it was depicted with both hieroglyphic text and images on the monuments of the victorious king. This visual and textual propaganda legitimized the power of the ruling king and often had profound effects on the cities of both the victor and loser. For example, in the first millennium c.e., when the king of the less powerful center of Quiriguá captured the ruler of the dominant center of Copán[Copan]QuiriguáCopán, Quiriguá was able to catapult itself into a more powerful position, while Copán went into a minor decline in authority and influence. The defeat of a ruler was an exacting blow to any city, and it placed the losing city in a state of flux. According to tradition, a new ruler could not be put in place until the preceding ruler had died, and in some cases, captured rulers were kept alive in order to weaken the power of the competing polity.

The Aztecs

Military achievement for the ancient Aztecs was measured by the expansion of territory through intimidation of enemies in battle or simply the threat of battle. After the Aztecs had successfully moved into a new area, they became reliant on local leaders to successfully maintain their domains. Rather than install their own leaders in newly conquered areas, at the expense of their own human resources, the Aztecs would allow local leaders to remain in their positions under Aztec power. The Aztecs allowed the vanquished to maintain their traditional systems of trade and markets, while at the same time extracting some of the local resources as tribute. This system of loose military alliances allowed the Aztecs to spread their forces across a much broader region. The Spanish noted at the time of contact that the Aztecs were a fierce people, with a skilled military that lacked a fear of battle. Although there are few monuments dedicated to the successful military achievements of individuals, extensive records of tribute were documented, indicating the territory that was maintained and the resources that were extracted. Successful soldiers were highly valued and were rewarded for their valor with the special recognition of promotions and distinctive uniforms.

Weapons and ArmorWeapons

Due to the fragmentary archaeological record, it is unlikely that a conclusive inventory of the weapons, uniforms, and armor of the ancient Maya and Aztecs will ever be cataloged. However, depictions in art and documents from the pre- and postcontact periods do give insight into the more common and important weapons of warfare employed by these cultures.

An Aztec warrior, carrying a wooden sword with stone blades and a decorated shield and dressed in cotton armor and an animal-head helmet.

(North Wind Picture Archives via AP Images)

Projectile Projectiles;Mesoamericanweapons, used at a distance to strike at an enemy, include the bow and arrow, the sling, the dart, and the all-important atlatl. The Atlatlsatlatl, or spear-thrower, allowed the user to launch darts at greater distances than hand-thrown darts could be thrown. Depictions of the atlatl indicate that it had been used since the Classic period (250-900 c.e.). Atlatls were often ornately decorated with low-relief carving and even gold. The few existing examples are about 2 feet long, with a hook at one end where the barbed darts were attached. In some cases, loops were affixed to the other end of the weapon and used as finger grips. Many of the more extravagant atlatls were probably used only in ceremonies but were nonetheless extremely effective weapons in war. Spanish accounts attest to this potency, asserting that the darts could penetrate any armor and deliver a fatal wound. Experimental archaeology has confirmed that an experienced atlatl thrower could hurl a dart up to a distance of 243 feet and that atlatls allowed up to 60 percent more accuracy than did an unaided spear.

The bow and Bows and arrows;Mesoamericanarrow was another commonly used weapon in Mesoamerica. Bows measured up to 5 feet in length, and bowstrings were often made of animal sinew or deerskin. Arrows used in war had heads made of obsidian or fishbone and included barbed, blunt, and pointed styles. There is no indication that either the Maya or the Aztecs put poison on their arrow Poison;arrowstips, but apparently both used Fire-arrows[Fire arrows]fire-arrows to shoot at buildings. Experiments indicate that traditional arrows could be shot to ranges between 300 and 600 feet and that skilled archers could easily penetrate quilted cotton armor.

Slings Slings;Mesoamericanmade of maguey fibers, from agave plants, were used to catapult rounded, hand-shaped stones at adversaries. Stones were often collected in advance and apparently could be thrown more than 1,300 feet. Slings were often used with bows and arrows and could be extremely effective for penetrating the heavy Spanish armor.

Weapons used in close combat included the thrusting Spears;Mesoamericanspear, which was actually most productive for slashing and parrying. Depictions from contact-period drawings indicate that the weapon was approximately 6 to 7 feet in length, with a roughly triangular head that was laced with closely set stone blades forming an unbroken cutting edge. The Swords;AztecAztecs also had one-handed and two-handed wooden swords, with obsidian or flint blades adhered into grooves along the edge of the weapon. According to the Spanish, these blades were more effective than Spanish swords. Other weapons included wooden clubs, sometimes with a circular ball on the end that was most forceful on downward blows. Axes, blowguns, and knives were also known in Mesoamerica but were more likely used in hunting than in warfare.

Defensive Armor

Shields, Shields;MesoamericanHelmets;MesoamericanArmor;Mesoamericanhelmets, and armor were used in Mesoamerica as defensive weapons. Shields were usually made of hide, wood, palm leaves, or woven cane with cotton backing. They were decorated with feathers, paint, gold, silver, and copper foils and were round, square, or rectangular in shape. A shield’s decorations were often reflective of the status and caliber of its user. The shield’s primary use was as protection from projectiles; it probably was not very effective against clubs and swords.

Armor was made of a quilted cotton consisting of unspun cotton placed between two layers of cloth and stitched to a leather border. The thickness of the armor protected wearers from darts and arrows and was better suited than metal to the heat and humidity of Mesoamerica. Soldiers wore various styles of jackets and pullovers, which protected their upper bodies and thighs. Lower legs were protected with cotton leggings, although few weapons targeted this area of the body. War suits of feathers and fabric, or feathered tunics, were worn by higher-ranking warriors over their cotton armor. Some helmets were made of wood and bone and decorated with feathers, whereas others were made out of the heads of wild animals, such as wolves, jaguars, and pumas, placed over a wooden frame. The soldier’s face could be seen in the gaping mouth of the animal’s open jaw.

Military OrganizationThe Maya

The Maya’s military organization appears to have been much less formalized than that of the Aztecs. However, those involved in conquest appear to have been afforded high status in society. Warriors, with their ability to seize captives, played a critical role in bringing power to a king and his city. Considered members of the elite class, they wore elaborate regalia and participated in rich ceremonies when they brought captives back to their king. Warriors also participated as ballplayers in the ball game that reenacted the ritual capture and eventual sacrifice of important rulers and elites from other sites. Although ballplayers and warriors were frequently depicted on portable art, they are almost never identified as individuals in texts. Kings, however, were recognized and regularly depicted as warriors, and the military prowess of their warriors was broadcast as their own success. Battles were generally short, limited in geographic scope, and usually timed around significant historical events. This system of warfare, unlike that of the Aztecs, afforded the Maya the luxury of not needing to maintain a huge standing army.

The Aztecs

Aztec society was highly stratified, and military ranking was intimately tied to this overall social organization. The ruling nobles were placed in positions of higher rank, based on their birthright and social status, whereas the commoners often earned their military status through their skills in warfare. Most commoners paid their dues to society through the production of goods for tribute and labor, and many of them served in the Aztec military. All those who assisted the military were given extensive training in the use of weapons and the taking of captives, although those of higher status were provided with more thorough instruction. Soldiers who successfully took multiple captives were rewarded with promotions and uniforms signifying their accomplishments. Appropriate jewelry, hairstyles, body paint, and other insignia were also indicative of a soldier’s status, and higher-ranking individuals were given privileges such as the rights to consume human flesh in public, to have mistresses, and to feast in the royal palaces.

Doctrine, Strategy, and Tactics

All Mesoamerican cultures were limited by the lack of efficient transportation beyond human foot traffic. Although Mesoamerican cultures did have knowledge of the Wheels;Mesoamericawheel, the harsh environment limited their ability to use it effectively. Draft animals were not introduced to the area until after the contact period. Transportation difficulties limited the cultures’ abilities to control regions and their resources from long distances. The Maya and the Aztecs each developed different systems to maintain their political control over competing cities.

The Maya

The most effective method through which the Maya gained control over a competing city was either that of a royal marriage or that of a conquest, which was often the preferred choice. Ancient monuments at several Mayan cities depict both such events. Many sites, including the major city of TikalTikal, exhibited earthen Walls;Mayanwalls along their boundaries as a form of protection from these battling neighbors, although they often proved ineffective. Numerous depictions in both text and art indicate that kings would send elite soldiers to raid smaller, less powerful polities and to capture and bring back important personages as prisoners. Low-ranking captives were often put into slavery or other service, while higher-ranking officials were displayed to the public and eventually sacrificed. These raids were important to validate the power of new polities and were frequently reenacted in the ritual ball Ball game, Mayangame, an event held in elaborately built ball courts. The triumphant city would host the ball game as a ritual competition, after which the losers would be sacrificed. The Maya, believing in the cyclical nature of time, often planned their raids and reenactments to coincide with meaningful anniversaries of past events.

The Aztecs

The Aztecs instituted a system in which local rulers of conquered areas were allowed to remain as heads of these areas, which were then required to produce and transport goods as a form of tribute to their conquerors. The Aztecs decided that, rather than leave behind their own garrisons to maintain controlled areas and extract large amounts of resources, they would instead lower the costs of administration and leave the control of conquered areas in the hands of local officials. Although this policy meant that Aztecs could not extract the maximum amount of goods from these conquered areas, it freed up soldiers and officials to continue their expansion into more distant areas. Campaigns were often scheduled around practical factors, including agricultural and seasonal cycles, such as the rainy season. This schedule often limited the ability of the Aztecs to run year-round crusades, and they had to depend on the local politicians to maintain their power.

Hernán Cortés and his troops ended an indigenous rebellion in Cholula just prior to the Spaniards’ sacking of Tenochtitlán and the fall of the Aztec Empire.

(R. S. Peale and J. A. Hill)

The rulers of the Aztec Empire kept the local rulers of their loose alliance in line by continually intimidating them and engaging in warfare. Those who did not comply were harshly punished, and members of neighboring cities were often used to aid in these raids. Aztecs often pitted traditional adversaries against one another, and the threat of impending attack often allowed them to coerce loyalties without ever having to do battle. The Aztecs often used spies to gain military intelligence. Individuals were sent into rivals’ territories dressed in their clothing and speaking their language. Espionage;AztecSpies were useful for obtaining strategic information about their foe’s fortifi-

cations and preparations but were often caught or turned against their own. Although the overall military strategy of the Aztecs was fraught with problems, their system allowed them to maintain the largest political domain in all of Mesoamerica.

Contemporary SourcesMaya

Although the Maya codices do not deal with the topic of Mayan warfare and the contact-period documents deal with a culture in severe decline, some recent volumes have begun using the Maya’s own texts and documents to look at aspects of elite society, including war and conquest. In Linda Schele and Peter Mathews’s The Code of Kings: The Language of Seven Sacred Maya Temples and Tombs (1998), the authors decipher the ancient hieroglyphs on the monuments and buildings of seven Classic-period sites to reveal what the ancient Maya had to say about themselves. In it, there are numerous discussions of warfare between major cities, including war tactics, sacrifice, the ballgame, and war imagery. Matthew Restall’s Maya Conquistador (1998) retells the Spanish encounter with the Maya from the Maya point of view. Using documents written by the Maya at the contact period, Restall allows the Maya to retell what the conquest was like. This book allows the reader to see that these brutal interactions with the Spanish fit into the Maya’s cyclical worldview, and that they continued to deal with outsiders the way they had for hundreds of years. Both of the volumes offer an innovative and inside view of the native perspective of warfare and conquest. For a more traditional look at the contact period, a classic document is the 1941 translation by Alfred M. Tozzer of the original Relación de las cosas de Yucatán (1566; English translation, 1941); also known as Yucatan Before and After the Conquest (1937) by Bishop Diego de Landa, available in the papers of the Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University. This significant document provides great insight into the contact period from the perspective of a Spanish bishop attempting to save the souls of the Mayan natives. In it, he describes the expeditions of the conquistadores in Yucatán, as well as Mayan culture and warfare, with information obtained from native informants and his own observations.


When the Spanish encountered the Aztecs in 1519, they discovered an empire that covered much of Mexico. Numerous contact-period documents describe the process of the Spanish Spain;invasion of Mesoamericaconquest: the individual battles and the eventual taking over of Aztec society and its empire’s tribute. Various chronicles, including Historia de las Indias de Nueva-España y Islas de Tierra Firme: Mexico (1579-1581; The Aztecs: The History of the Indies of New Spain, 1964), by Diego Durán; Obras Historicas (1891-1892), by Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxóchitl; Crónica Mexicana (1598), by Fernando Alvarado Tezozómoc; and Relaciónes Originales de Chalco Amequemecán (c. 1620), by Domingo Chimanlpahín, describe Aztec military campaigns, dynastic relationships, and political and military strategies of assassination, bribery, and manipulation. These documents also reveal that Aztecs were more concerned in warfare with acquiring goods and services from a region than with occupying the territory themselves. Historía Verdadera de la Conquista de la Nueva España (1568; The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico, 1517-1521, 1844), considered the classic volume on the Spanish conquest, was written by Bernal Díaz del Díaz del Castillo, BernálDíaz del Castillo, Bernál[Diaz del Castillo, Bernal] Castillo (1496-1584), a conquistador under Hernán Cortés who witnessed and documented wartime events, including more than one hundred battles, and the imprisonment of the Aztec king Montezuma Montezuma IIMontezuma II[Montezuma 02] II (c. 1480-1520).AztecsMayaMesoamerica

Books and Articles
  • Aguilar-Moreno, Manuel. “Warfare.” In Handbook to Life in the Aztec World. New York: Facts On File, 2006.
  • Clendinnen, Inga. “Aztecs.” In The Book of War, edited by John Keega. New York: Viking, 1999.
  • Culbert, T. Patrick, ed. Classic Maya Political History: Hieroglyphic and Archaeological Evidence. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
  • Fash, William L. Scribes, Warriors, and Kings: The City of Copán and the Ancient Maya. Rev. ed. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2001.
  • Foster, Lynn V. “Warfare.” In Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World. New York: Facts On File, 2002.
  • Hassig, Ross. Aztec Warfare: Imperial Expansion and Political Control. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995.
  • _______. “Peace, Reconciliation, and Alliance in Aztec Mexico.” In War and Peace in the Ancient World, edited by Kurt A. Raaflaub. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2007.
  • Pohl, John. Aztec, Mixtec, and Zapotec Armies. Illustrated by Angus McBride. Botley, Oxford, England: Osprey, 1991.
  • _______. Aztec Warrior, A.D. 1325-1521. Illustrated by Adam Hook. Botley, Oxford, England: Osprey, 2001.
  • Pohl, John, and Charles M. Robinson III. Aztecs and Conquistadores: The Spanish Invasion and the Collapse of the Aztec Empire. Botley, Oxford, England: Osprey, 2005.
  • Sharer, Robert. The Ancient Maya. 6th ed. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1994.
  • Townsend, Richard. The Aztecs. London: Thames and Hudson, 2000.
  • Wise, Terence. The Conquistadores. Illustrated by Angus McBride. Botley, Oxford, England: Osprey, 1980.
Films and Other Media
  • Apocalypto. Feature film. Icon Entertainment, 2006.
  • In Search of History: The Aztec Empire. Documentary. History Channel, 1997.
  • In Search of History: The Maya. Documentary. History Channel, 1997.
  • Lost Kingdoms of the Maya. Documentary. National Geographic, 1993.

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