What Were the Aztec ‘Flower Wars’?

Early Colonial Spanish Collage Depicting an Aztec Flower War

The Aztecs of Mexico built the largest and most powerful empire in the Pre-Columbian world. The Aztec Empire encompassed most of what is central and southern Mexico today and its influence spread beyond the Rio Grande River in the north and into the rain forests of central America to the south. In many ways, the structure of the Aztec Empire was not unlike that of old world pre-modern societies, especially those from the Bronze Age, but the fundamental difference was that it was driven by a unique combination of warfare and human sacrifice. The Aztecs were by far the best and most organized warriors of the region and the nearly constant wars they waged were not only to spread the geographic limits of their empire, but also to acquire more captives for human sacrifice, especially for the warrior god Huitzilopochtli.

Although the Aztecs did not leave behind a large corpus of written materials as the earlier Maya did, archaeological and art historical evidence, along with primary accounts from the last Aztecs in the Nahuatl language and the Spanish conquerors, paint a fairly accurate picture of most aspects of Aztec society. Of course there are still some major points of disagreement among modern scholars, one of which concerns the type of battle known as xochiyaotl or “Flower War.” For generations, scholars have believed that the Flower Wars were pre-arranged battles meant to acquire captives for human sacrifice instead of territory, but this view has been challenged in recent decades. There is no doubt that the Flower Wars were a different type of warfare, but the capture of sacrifice victims may have been only part of the reason these battles were fought.

The Aztec Empire

Pyramid Complex to the North of Modern Day Mexico City

At the beginning of the Common Era, the Central Mexican Valley, which is where the modern city of Mexico City is located, was home to some of the most advanced cultures in Pre-Columbian America. The city of Teotihuacan rose to prominence early in the era and dominated the region until the eight century AD. Teotihuacan’s power was eclipsed by the Toltec people, whose capital was in the Valley city of Tula. After the Toltec culture collapsed in the twelfth century, the people of the Valley retained the high-culture that was first established by Teotihuacan and the Toltecs, but the region was more politically fragmented and the cities often engaged in long wars for hegemony over the Valley. [1] Historians have collectively considered all of these different cultures and cities as different phases of the same civilization, of which the Aztecs would be the final, imperial phase.

The origins of the Aztecs are shrouded in mystery and legend, not unlike the ancient Romans’ belief that they were descended from the Trojans. According to the Aztec legends, they originated from a place they knew as Aztlán, somewhere north of the Rio Grande River, and began their southern migration in the early twelfth century AD. The Nahuatl speaking people assumed the name “Mexica” for their people during their migration, which is what the Spanish knew them as. The term “Aztec” did not become widely used until long after the collapse of their empire. [2]

The Aztecs arrived in the Central Valley of Mexico around the year 1300 and were immediately thought of as invaders and barbarians by the more civilized and refined inhabitants of the region. The inhabitants of the Valley violently dispersed the Aztecs, but the city of Culhuacan, seeing a potential use for the interlopers, agreed to cede them a small parcel of what was believed to have been worthless land. [3]

The industrious Aztecs built that worthless plot of land into one of the greatest cities of the Pre-Columbian world – Tenochtitlan – which according to Aztec legend took place after a priest had a vision of an eagle on a cactus at the location in 1325. [4]

Before too long, the martial minded Aztecs gained the respect of their neighbors through their bravery and cunning on the battlefield. The Aztecs were recruited by the more established cities, especially Culhuacan, to fight on their behalf. Eventually, though, the Aztecs made their own moves for a greater piece of the political pie. Under the tlatoani, or king, Itzcoatl, the Aztecs made an alliance during the 1420s with the other two great cities of the Valley, Tetzcoco and Tlocopan. These three cities collectively became the Aztec Empire, where Mexica was the dominant culture and Tenochtitlan was the largest and most important city. [5] The greatest geographic expansion of the Aztec Empire took place during the reign of Montezuma I (1440-1469), who often violated the rules of the so-called “Triple Alliance” by assassinating his political rivals among the nobility. [6] Violence was endemic to Aztec culture and those who knew how to effectively use it were rewarded with positions of privilege and power.

Aztec Warfare

Early Spanish Depiction of an Aztec Jaguar Warrior
Copy of an Aztec Mural Depicting a Human Sacrifice Ritual

An examination of the expansion of the Aztec Empire reveals that there were both standard reasons for the expansion as well as uniquely Aztec factors. The standard reason for any empire to expand, no matter the period or the people, is the control of resources. When the Triple Alliance expanded to control most of central and southern Mexico, precious luxury goods such as jade, obsidian, and bird feathers were brought to the cities of the Central Valley to be traded in the markets. The Aztec economy was essentially a market system and therefore needed a steady supply of exotic and precious goods coming to the markets in order to keep the economy moving. [7] The control of resources was a vital part of the Aztec Empire’s success and among those resources were human captives taken in war.

Perhaps the most unique reason for the expansion of the Aztec Empire was the need for more human sacrifice victims. The Aztecs believed that human blood was needed to ensure the planting cycle and the arrival of water in the form of rain. Human sacrifice was also a way to appease specific gods, such as the warrior god Huitzilopochtli, who specifically desired live hearts, and other deities associated with kingship and coronation festivals. Finally, the ever bellicose Aztecs also employed human sacrifice for practical reasons. The constant public spectacles of human sacrifice served to desensitize the Aztec people to violence in general and specifically toward their enemies, and on the other hand it demoralized and weakened the resolve of their enemies – those who opposed the Aztecs knew that they faced being the victims of mass sacrifice rituals on the top of their pyramids. [8] Because warfare played such an integral role in the Aztec Empire, the warriors were among the most exulted members of society.

The Aztec king was the chief warrior of the empire and was believed to have been descended from Huitzilopochtli, whom modern scholars believe was once a real person. [9] Warfare provided young commoner Aztec males with a way to escape their lowly status to some extent as they were able to attain all but the highest positions in the military. Commoners who performed twenty deeds of battlefield bravery could wear cotton and sandals in the royal palaces, drink the alcoholic beverage pulque in public, have concubines, dine in the royal palace, and most importantly they could become members of the elite jaguar and eagle corps. [10] The problem was that once the Aztecs conquered most of Mexico the opportunities for advancement became fewer and fewer. Modern scholars believe that the Aztecs found the answer to this problem through the creation of the “Flower Wars.”

The Flower Wars

Because the Flower Wars are mentioned in both the late Aztec and early Spanish sources, there is no doubt among modern scholars that they did exist, only the nature of the battles is in dispute. Most of the sources refer to the Flower Wars between the Aztec Triple Alliance and the cities of Huexotizinco, Tlaxcala, Choulula, and other towns in the Puebla Valley, which took place during the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, but the earliest reference to a Flower War was in 1376. In the years after the first known Flower War, the number of belligerents grew from only a few dozen to thousands. [11] The definition of the Flower Wars held by most scholars, at least until recently, is that they were ritual battles staged through a mutual agreement, with the goal being for Aztec warriors to increase their status by taking more captives during a period when there was less war. [12] Since the 1970s, many scholars of Pre-Columbian history have challenged this theory based on reexaminations of the available primary sources.

One interesting theory posits that the Flower Wars were employed in Machiavellian means by Aztec kings in the fifteenth century to dispose of their political rivals. In particular, Montezuma I is known to have had many of his rivals assassinated and one of the methods he used was by having them captured in Flower Wars. [13] Although this cynical theory holds that the reason for many of the later Flower Wars, although certainly not all of them, was more political in nature, the process and results were still the same – battles were fought and the losers were sacrificed atop pyramids.

Another theory holds that the Flower Wars are actually a misinterpretation of the data by modern scholars. Barry Isaac argues that although the early Flower Wars may have been conducted purely as staged events to produce sacrifice victims, the later ones against Tlaxcala and its allies were actual full-scale wars. Since Tlaxcala and its allies in the Puebla Valley were never conquered by the mighty Triple Alliance, modern scholars have argued that it was only because the Aztecs left them as such so that they could conduct repeated Flower Wars. Isaac points out that this theory ignores the Tlaxcalan viewpoint and that both Mexica and Spanish sources indicate that the people of the Puebla Valley were not willing participants as they are commonly portrayed. [14] Isaac points out that the Aztecs were defeated in a major battle by the city of Huexotzinco around the year 1503 and that battlefield deaths in the thousands were recorded, which would certainly not seem to suggest either a small-scale campaign merely for sacrifice victims nor an arranged battle of any type. [15] Issac ultimately argues that the Flower Wars of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries between the Aztecs and the Puebla Valley were only reported as such by the Aztecs to avoid being seen as weak and unable to conquer an enemy in their own backyard. [16]

A final theory that challenges the standard interpretation of the Flower Wars was presented by Frederic Hicks in the 1970s. Focusing on language used in texts pertaining to the earlier Flower Wars, Hicks argued that the Flower Wars differed from the cocoltic or “angry wars.” In an Aztec reference to the first Flower War in 1376 between Tenochtitlan and Chalco Atenco, it states that only some of the commoners were killed and that all of the nobles who were captured were released. It was not until later that the war between the two states evolved from a Flower War into a an “angry war.” [17] Hicks contended that the emphasis in these early Flower Wars was more on training for the young Aztec warriors than it was for collecting sacrifice victims and that the early battles were the only ones where it can be definitively said that there was an agreement between the leaders. [18] Sacrifice victims were taken, but their capture and subsequent sacrifice was secondary to the training the young warriors received.


The Aztec Empire has proved to be as enigmatic to modern scholars as it is intriguing. One of the mysteries that continues to surround Aztec history is the nature of the Flower Wars. Although there are differing theories among modern scholars concerning the details of the Flower Wars, namely what were the primary motivations on the Aztecs’ part, there is no debate that the wars were another source of the nearly constant stream of sacrifice victims who were being brought to Tenochtitlan.


  1. Townsend, Richard F. The Aztecs. Revised Edition. (London: Thames and Hudson, 2008), pgs. 44-47
  2. Townsend, p. 58
  3. Townsend, p. 63
  4. Townsend, p. 65
  5. Townsend, pgs, 73-78
  6. Offner, Jerome A. “Dueling Rulers and Strange Attractors: Some Patterns of Disorder and Killing in Aztec Society.” Political and Legal Anthropology Review 16 (1993) p. 68
  7. Townsend, pgs. 83-99
  8. Townsend, pgs. 74-77.
  9. Townsend, p, 201
  10. Townsend, p. 204
  11. Townsend, pgs. 208-210
  12. Townsned, pgs. 210
  13. Offner, p. 70
  14. Isaac, Barry L. “The Aztec ‘Flowery War’: A Geopolitical Explanation.” Journal of Anthropological Research 39 (1993) p. 418
  15. Isaac, pgs. 420-1
  16. Isaac, p. 428
  17. Hicks, Frederic. “‘Flowery War’ in Aztec History.” American Ethnologist 6 (1979) p. 88
  18. Hicks, pgs. 89-90