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Of all the indigenous civilisations and cultures of the Americas, there are three that stand above the rest within modern popular culture: The Mayans, the Inca, and the Aztecs.
However, even among the Big Three, the Aztecs seem to loom larger than the rest, possibly because of the undeniable glory of their civilization, the wonder of the great city of Tenochtitlan, the fact they were still at their peak when they made contact with the Spanish and finally because of the dramatic and tragic story of their fall.
The so-called Aztec Empire, or the Triple Alliance as we should really call it, was the largest polity in the history of Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. However, when looking at Triple Alliance territory as it stood 1519 on a map, one thing immediately stands out.
What is that island in the middle of an Aztec sea?
Well, this region is now known as the Puebla Valley and was, amongst others, the home of the confederation of Tlaxcallan, whose people are perhaps most famous for providing decisive military support for the Spanish during the Conquest.
From our modern perspective, it is incredibly difficult to imagine how a territory that was literally surrounded by the largest empire in Mesoamerican history could possibly resist for any length of time, something that is made all the more baffling by the fact that the Puebla Valley is essentially right next door to the Valley of Mexico, the very heartland of the empire.
Well, for centuries the answer to the question of why the Triple Alliance did not conquer the Puebla Valley lay in a cultural practice that has fascinated historians and scholars for generations: In the native nahuatl language it is known as xōchiyāōyōtl, which translates as Flowery War or sometimes just Flower War or even Garland War.
The exact character and form of the Flower Wars is a matter of significant debate. However, it is almost always framed as a smaller, less intense conflict than a full-scale war of conquest and almost always fought between the Triple Alliance and the states of the Puebla Valley, though there are a few notable exceptions.
Beginning around 1450, the Flower Wars supposedly represented a decades-long intermittent conflict that was still ongoing when the Spanish arrived in 1519.
The first to offer a rationale for this strange practice was the Huey Tlatoani or emperor of Tenochtitlan, Moteczuma II himself. We are lucky from a historical record point of view that many of the Spanish soldiers who took part in the Conquest wrote accounts of what they saw and luckier still that we also have several indigenous sources written in the decades after the Conquest.
One Spanish soldier, Andres de Tapia, directly asked Moteczuma why the Triple Alliance had not conquered Tlaxcallan and recorded his response.
According to Tapia, Moteczuma answered that “we could easily do so, but then there would be nowhere for our young men to train, except far from here, and also we wanted there to always be nearby people to sacrifice to our gods.”
While this explanation went virtually unquestioned for centuries after the Conquest, it has some significant issues, perhaps the most obvious being that not all of the post-Conquest native chroniclers actually record these Flower Wars as they are traditionally understood or explained by Moteczuma himself.
The earliest known events explicitly referred to as Flower Wars, and the only such occasions that were not part of the intervalley conflicts, come from the extensive works of the Chalca annalist Chimalpahin, writing in the early 17th Century. Chimalpahin uses the term to describe a series of incidents in 1324, 1376, and 1381. Given that one of these battles was little more than an unusually violent neighbourhood feud in his home city of Chalco, it appears he uses the term Flower War to describe any battle where the aim was not explicitly to kill the enemy.
In terms of the more famous Flower Wars from around 1450 to 1519, the Tetzcoca chronicler Ixtlilxochitl gives a fully fleshed-out explanation for the origin of the conflicts, asserting that they were a response to a terrible famine in 1454 caused by several years of severe drought.
“The priests of the Mexica said that the gods were angry at the empire and to placate them it was necessary to sacrifice many men, and this had to be done regularly.
Xicotencatl, one of the lords of Tlaxcallan, was of the opinion that from this time forward they should begin to have frequent wars between the señoria of Tlaxcallan and that of Tetzcoco and their allies and that they should designate a battlefield on which to have frequent battles and that those who were made captive in them should be sacrificed to the gods.”Fernando de Alva Cortés Ixtlilxochitl, Codex Chichimeca
Ixtlilxochitl goes on to give even greater detail about these battles, including the monthly date they were to be fought and a rotating roster of combatants. It is also worth noting that Ixtlilxochitl records that not only was Tlaxcallan a willing party to this scheme, but the whole thing was their idea in the first place.
However, most of the details provided by Ixtlilxochitl appear in only one other ethnographic source, the writings of Juan Pomar, who was also from Tetzcoco. The famine of 1454 is not mentioned by any of the other contemporary native sources as the original impetus for the Flower Wars. Additionally, Ixtlilxochitl does not use the term ‘flower war’, nor does he record the practice he described continuing once the drought crisis had subsided.
In contrast, Moteczuma’s grandson, the noted chronicler Tezozomoc, actually records a conversation between his ancestor Moteczuma I and his senior advisor Tlacaelel in the 1450s in which the latter proposes that they “make cruel war upon them [Huexotzinco and Tlaxcallan] to render vassalage from them and to have something to sacrifice to our gods.” He goes on to list all of the spoils that would be gained from such a conquest.
Regardless of the actual historicity of this conversation, which is seriously dubious at best, it is nonetheless noteworthy that Moteczuma II’s own grandson records a far more imperialistic rationale for the Puebla Valley campaigns than the answer Moteczuma himself supposedly gave to Andres de Tapia.
For their part, the Tlaxcalteca – that is, the people of Tlaxcallan – clearly felt that they were fighting not to acquire sacrifices, but for their very independence. Camargo, a 16th-century Tlaxcaltec chronicler, goes out of his way to explicitly dismiss the claims made by his Mexica and Acolhua counterparts and it is worth reading the passage in full.
“Some thinkers are of the opinion that, if Moteczuma had wanted to destroy the Tlaxcallans he would have done so, but rather he kept them like quail in a cage in order to not lack training for war and because he had to occupy the sons of the lords and also to have people with whom to sacrifice and serve their idols, which I am not able to bring myself to believe for many reasons; because if it were so, the lords of this province would not have accepted so earnestly the Spanish request to go against the Mexicans.”Diego Muñoz Camargo, Historia de Tlaxcala
The conflicting accounts from the post-conquest ethnographic sources have led historians to offer a range of different interpretations and hypotheses as to the exact nature and purpose of the Flower Wars.
Perhaps the most common, and the one typically cited in popular culture, is that the Flower Wars were a means of capturing prisoners for the purposes of religious sacrifice. On the surface, this might suggest that the Flower Wars were the only means of acquiring sacrificial victims, which was categorically not the case. Taking captives was an important part of every military campaign the Triple Alliance ever conducted. Indeed, the status and rank of warriors, and thus what they were allowed to wear into battle, was, in large part, dictated by the number of captives they had taken on the battlefield.
However, many proponents of this theory have argued that the Puebla valley, by virtue of its geographic proximity, was merely a more convenient source of captives than the distant frontiers, with one scholar going so far as to describe the Puebla Valley as a “human stockyard.”
This explanation seems to be based almost entirely on the writing of Ixtlilxochitl. But, of course, this particular theory rests heavily on the idea that the goal of the battles was to capture, not kill the enemy, a deeply problematic assertion as we will soon see, and also requires one to ignore other equally credible ethnographic sources that contradict this explanation, not to mention the glaring omissions on the topic within the Tetzcoca chronicler’s own writings.
Despite the Flower Wars’ popular perception as pseudo-wars to generate sacrificial victims, there are many historians who dismiss the idea that taking captives was the primary purpose at all. Instead, various, more militaristic motivators are offered, such as the idea that the primary goal was to season young warriors or that the Triple Alliance was actually using the Flower Wars as means of subjecting Tlaxcallan to low-level, grinding attrition to slowly deplete its strength in anticipation of a true war of conquest in the future, with a secondary benefit of being an opportunity to display the military power and prestige of the Triple Alliance.
The common thread through all of these explanations is that the Flower Wars are distinct from full-scale war, that the intensity and the stakes are lower. This is the fundamental premise of the Flower Wars, regardless of which rationale one subscribes to.
However, all of these explanations are deeply flawed in their own way. What’s more, an analysis of the Triple Alliance’s military activities in the Puebla Valley brings the entire notion of the Flower Wars into doubt.
For starters, while Tlaxcallan was the dominant power in the valley when the Spanish arrived in 1519, and is thus the subject of their inquiry, this was actually only a relatively recent development. In reality, for the vast majority of the decades of Triple Alliance military operations in the valley, the focus was instead on the city of Huexotzinco.
Huexotzinco had a long history as a major regional player. It was, according to tradition, one of the cities that provided crucial military support in the war against Tepanec rule in the early 15th century. As it happened, this was the conflict that paved the way for the creation of the Triple Alliance between Tenochtitlan, Tetzcoco, and Tlacopan in the Valley of Mexico.
In terms of its own territorial backyard in the neighbouring Puebla Valley, Huexotzinco was of sufficient strength that it was the senior partner in a three-way alliance of its own, with both Tlaxcallan and Chollolan.
Traditionally, the Flowery War supposedly began around 1450. Unfortunately, there are almost no surviving details about what happened for the next 30 years. The first concrete record comes from Chimalpahin, who records that Nezahuapilli of Tetzcoco “put his hand upon Huexotzinco” in 1484 and then again in 1490. This has generally been interpreted as Nezahuapilli acting independently as ruler of Tetzcoco to subjugate Huexotzinco twice only for the city to reassert its independence both times.
In 1503, the Triple Alliance itself went on the offensive, launching a massive attack on Huexotzinco. The Huexotzinca and their Tlaxcaltec and Cholloltec allies met the invaders at the huge Battle of Atlixco, which likely involved over 100,000 combatants, though the 16th century Spanish chronicler Friar Diego Duran gives an improbably high 200,000 men in total.
In any case, this was a truly titanic clash and it ended in a crushing defeat for the Triple Alliance. Two of Moteczuma’s own brothers were among the fallen.
The battle of Atlixco was described by Duran as “a great slaughter” and he recounts that upon receiving field reports from the battlefront, Moteczuma himself “began to weep bitterly at the loss of his brothers and the other warriors.”
The chronicler Tezozomoc, Moteczuma’s grandson, wrote that “the bodies of the dead impeded the living” and that the combined casualties of the battle were over 40,000 dead, with both sides suffering roughly equal losses. Even if this figure is an exaggeration, which it probably is, it nonetheless makes it clear that this was a particularly bloody battle that cost many thousands of lives on both sides.
Not to be deterred, the Triple Alliance launched another assault on Huexotzinco three years later in 1506. This time the invaders emerged victorious but it came at great cost, with various accounts recording battlefield deaths of between 8,000 and 18,000 for the Triple Alliance alone. This figure does not include those lost to disease or captivity. And even though this bloody defeat left Huexotzinco severely weakened, the city itself remained unconquered, rendering the entire campaign indecisive.
However, like a shark sensing blood in the water, Tlaxcallan turned on its ally in 1507 and attacked the vulnerable Huexotzinco, overwhelming the kingdom, ravaging its land, and ultimately taking its place as the dominant power in the valley. Many Huexotzinca took refuge in the foothills of the nearby mountains. In response to ongoing Tlaxcaltec attacks and the famine they left in their wake, Huexotzinco turned to the very enemy that it had resisted so fiercely for so long: the Triple Alliance.
There is some doubt about the exact year, but it seems most historians agree that in 1512, a Huexotzinca petition to actually join the Triple Alliance was granted and Huexotzinca refugees poured into the Valley of Mexico. With the support of its new ally, the Triple Alliance went on the offensive once again, meeting the Tlaxcaltec host somewhere in the region of Atlixco.
The subsequent battle was recorded by Duran and the Mexica annalists as a Triple Alliance victory, but other sources suggest the result was indecisive. Whatever the real outcome was, it nonetheless came at a terrible price, with Ixtlilxochitl writing that “there was so much blood that the battlefield looked like a flowing river.”
The campaign apparently consisted of 20 days of hard fighting and the exhausted Triple Alliance army was only saved by the arrival of emergency reinforcements. Nonetheless, the Triple Alliance had been fought to a standstill and was forced to abandon the campaign.
Four years later, Huexotzinco reasserted its independence from the Triple Alliance, prompting yet another invasion. This campaign was an utter disaster, in which all of the senior Triple Alliance officers present were captured and fully half of the contingent from Tenochtitlan was killed and most of the remaining Tenochta warriors were taken prisoner.
The disgrace of this defeat was only redeemed by a subsequent, more successful campaign the following year in 1517 that nonetheless failed to bring Tlaxcallan or Huexotzinco to heel, though Chollolan did realign itself with the Triple Alliance around this time.
As it happened, this was the last Triple Alliance campaign in the Puebla Valley prior to the arrival of the Spanish.
So upon analysing the details of the Triple Alliance campaigns in the Puebla Valley, it is abundantly clear that these were major military operations on a huge scale and that the overall battlefield losses suffered by the Alliance in the space of about 15 years ran into the tens of thousands, not to mention the many thousands more who were almost certainly captured, later died from their wounds or succumbed to disease. Certainly, the frequently espoused claim that the warriors were trying to avoid actually killing each other seems almost comical in its inaccuracy.
The seemingly massive casualty rate the Triple Alliance suffered during its operations in the valley would seem to preclude a policy of or even a preference for taking prisoners over killing the enemy, as would the fact that the alliance actually accepted Huexotzinco into the fold in 1512, no matter how temporary that arrangement turned out to be.
If the city was only allowed to preserve its independence because it was either an important source of sacrificial victims or a means of seasoning young warriors, why would the Triple Alliance then decide to deprive themselves of that resource by allowing Huexotzinco to join its ranks?
The realignment of Chollolan to a welcoming Triple Alliance in 1518, further reducing the supposed pool of potential sacrifice victims, only reinforces this point.
Furthermore, the perception of the Flower Wars as smaller-scale, less intense, more ritualistic, more restrained, and less costly than full-scale war stands in stark contrast with the colossal bloodbath that was the Battle of Atlixco in 1503, and indeed all of the Triple Alliance campaigns in the Puebla valley, which were shown to be extremely bloody affairs without exception.
Given that all of the various hypotheses regarding their purpose are inherently tied to the idea that these conflicts were distinct from regular, full-scale war, the fact that, based on surviving records, the intervalley wars actually had all the characteristics of full-scale war and very few of those often pointed to as unique features of the Flower Wars would suggest that no such distinction existed at all. This, in turn, essentially calls into question the very idea of the Flower Wars in general.
So, with all this in mind, it is worth returning to Moteczuma’s original response to Andres de Tapia.
Why hasn’t the Triple Alliance conquered Tlaxcallan?
“We could easily do so, but then there would be nowhere for our young men to train, except far from here, and also we wanted there to always be nearby people to sacrifice to our gods.”Moteczuma II
Given the Triple Alliance’s military record in the valley is…spotty to say the least, it is easy to see this statement for what it really is: propaganda.
In reality, it is apparent that the reason the Triple Alliance did not conquer the Puebla Valley is not because they chose not to, but because they couldn’t, and certainly not for lack of trying.
And, in fairness, it is not particularly surprising that Moteczuma would respond as he did to Tapia. He was hardly going to admit any kind of military weakness to these strange newcomers from across the sea, especially since they appeared to have an uncomfortably close relationship with the very people in question, the Tlaxcalteca.
ISo between conflicting ethnographic sources that offer a range of explanations of the origins of the Flower Wars, with some that are clearly propagandistic in nature, the fact that the interpretations and rationales offered by historians over the centuries do not reflect surviving records of the intervalley wars and finally that the wars have all the hallmarks of full-scale warfare…it seems clear that the Xōchiyāōyōtl, the famous Flower Wars, were little more than propaganda spread by the Aztecs themselves to explain away the awkward reality of an unconquered Puebla Valley right next door.
- Hassig, Ross. Aztec Warfare: Imperial Expansion and Political Control, University of Oklahoma Press, 1988.
- Hassig, Ross. War and society in ancient Mesoamerica, University of California Press, 1992.
- Isaac, Barry L. “The Aztec ‘Flowery War’: A Geopolitical Explanation.” Journal of Anthropological Research 39, no. 4 (1983): 415–32. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3629865.
- Hicks, Frederic. “‘Flowery War’ in Aztec History.” American Ethnologist 6, no. 1 (1979): 87–92. http://www.jstor.org/stable/643386.
- Smith, Michael E. The Aztecs, Wiley-Blackwell, 2012
- Davies, Nigel. The Aztecs: A History, University of Oklahoma Press, 1973