Warrior and servant

Aztec Warrior AD 1325-1521 provides rich insights into the life of a boy who becomes a warrior in the great imperial army of Moctezuma


Aztec Warrior: AD 1325-1521
John Pohl; Illustrated by Adam Hook
2001, Osprey Publishing, London
64 pages

Reviewed by Isabel O’Toole

IMAGINE YOU are a fit and able young man living in 14th-century Mexico. From early childhood you will have been learning the complex rules of Aztec tradition in order to become a fearsome and ruthless warrior. It will be a difficult and at times painful journey, but being an Aztec warrior is an honourable vocation which will ensure that you and your family are highly respected. You will have to train long and hard as battle may be around the corner. You may succeed and kill or capture many foes; but you may be slain in brutal hand-to-hand combat on the battlefield, or captured and sacrificed in public to the gods. Sounds good?

The Aztec civilisation lasted approximately 196 years until its armies were overwhelmed in battle in 1521 by the Spaniards employing then modern military methods and their Tlaxcallan allies. The Spaniards believed the Aztecs were savages, but their civilisation and military culture was sophisticated, involving gods, games and battle procedures which the Spaniards did not notice because they were too busy killing them. In the final analysis, the Aztecs were defeated because they were too ruthless in the way they had treated their enemies: sacrificing them in their thousands to the gods.

Prepared from birth

This fascinating book by John Pohl graced with beautiful illustrations by Adam Hook conveys valuable information about Aztec battle tactics and the way of life of the warrior. It tells the story of how an Aztec boy, Cuauhtli, was prepared from birth for his military life. Much of his childhood would be spent toiling for his family and undertaking hard labour to strengthen him for the life as a warrior that had been determined for him by soothsayers and his parents. At 15 he entered a military academy and began contributing to the municipal labour teams responsible for public works in the Mexican city sitting on Lake Texcoco. Everything he did was, in some way, to prepare him for war. Students of the telpochcalli, or academy, would be introduced to the violence of battle by watching gladiatorial combat fought between high-ranking enemies captured during the previous campaign season and heavily-armed opponents. Veteran warriors taught them how to use all manner of weapons, and they developed agility, speed and endurance by playing the celebrated ball game of the Mesoamerican civilisations which evoked the fanaticism and gambling of contemporary soccer.

Pohl tells us how, once he had proved himself ready, physically and mentally, Cuauhtli was recommended by his school masters for recruitment. He was assigned as a porter to an older boy and, during a ceremonial “Flower War”, saw combat for the first time, taking as a prized captive a fiery Tlaxcallan. Pohl then steers us through Cuauhtli’s military career in the many campaigns and hostilities that distinguished the expansion of Aztec control. By his valiant acts he achieves the rank of cuauhpipiltin, a high status that not only freed him from tribute obligations to the state but even assured his son a place in the ranks of the Aztec nobility. Along the way, the author brings to bear his extensive knowledge of Mesoamerican military culture, society and religion.

The book is a treasure trove of meticulously researched sources and dates. The illustrations and photographs of weapons and artefacts add to its appeal. It has all you need to know about Aztec warrior history, weapons and clothing. While it is suitable for most ages, it could have been slightly shorter and tended to stray at times. But you look at the Aztec warrior in a different light after reading it: the warrior becomes more of a devoted servant to his culture than an aggressive killing machine.

Isabel O’Toole is a student