Flower war

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The Flower War
Flower War Collage.jpg
Date 1446 - early 1500s
Location Central Mexico
Result Cholula and Atlixco incorporated into The Mexica Empire Tlaxcala and Huejotzingo lose trade routes
Mexica Empire Tlaxcala Cholula Huejotzingo Atlixco
Commanders and leaders


Moctezuma I

A flower war or flowery war (Nahuatl: xōchiyāōyōtl, Spanish: guerra florida) is the name given to the battles fought between the Aztec Triple Alliance and some of their enemies: most notably the city-states of Tlaxcala, Huejotzingo, Atlixco and Cholula.


In his Durán Codex, Diego Durán states that the Flower wars were instigated by the Aztec Cihuacoatl,[1] Tlacaelel, because of a great famine that occurred during the reign of Moctezuma I, which could only be assuaged through the means of human sacrifice. As a result, a treaty was signed between Tenochtitlan (the Aztec capital), Texcoco, Tlaxcala, and Huejotzingo, to engage in ritual battles which would provide fresh victims. However another source, noble historian Chimalpahin Quauhtlehuanitzin, mentions an earlier Flower War between the Mexica and the Chalca.

The sixteenth century chronicle a History of Tlaxcala, by Tlaxcalan Diego Muñoz Camargo contains a legend of a powerful Tlaxcalteca warrior called Tlalhuicole, who was captured, but because of his fame as a warrior he was freed and then fought with the Aztecs against the Tarascans in Michoacán. He received honors, but instead of returning to Tlaxcala he chose to die in sacrifice. There were eight days of celebrations in his honor, and then he killed the first eight warriors. Still insisting on being sacrificed, he fought and wounded 21 more warriors, before being defeated and sacrificed.


The exact nature of the Flower Wars is not well determined but a number of different interpretations of the concept exist. One popular idea of the Flower Wars is that it was a special institutionalized kind of warfare where two enemy states would plan battles through mutual arrangement in order to satisfy the religious needs of both combatants for war captives to use in sacrificial rituals, but also, possibly, to train young warriors and enable social mobility which for the lower classes was primarily possible through military service. This view is based on a number of quotes from early chroniclers and also from the letters of Hernán Cortés. However in recent years this interpretation has been doubted by scholars such as Nigel Davies[2] and Ross Hassig,[3] who argues that "the mutual arrangement" of the flower war institution is dubious, and suggest that the Flower War was in fact a low-intensity, sustained conflict with the Aztec side trying to wear down the Tlaxcalteca in order to later conquer them entirely.

In fact, the beginnings of the Flower Wars were not what we would consider a 'war' by today's standards at all. For example, very few combatants would actually be involved in the 'war'. The goal of these few combatants was to demonstrate their own individual military prowess and skills, and thereby intimidate the enemy. [4]

Though Hassig suggests that interpretations of the Flower Wars have been exaggerated, he accepts that captives of these wars were in fact sacrificed. Hassig believes that captives of the Flower Wars were not the only sacrificial victims, that such captives were involved in only some Aztec rites, and that they were not involved in the ostentatious 1487 ceremony dedicating the last form of the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan.

Aztec warriors were trained to prefer capturing their enemies in battle to killing them. This behaviour has been cited as a cause of the defeat of their civilization by the Europeans.[5] To the Aztecs' amazement, the Spanish conquistadores and their allies actually tried to kill their enemies in battle. But this idea has been largely dismissed by Matthew Restall,[6] who makes clear that the Aztec warriors quickly adapted their strategies to this kind of warfare and fiercely resisted the Spanish forces.

It has been suggested that the taking of prisoners during these military encounters may have been a function of institutionalized terror on the part of the Aztec state rather than the normal course of warfare.[7] Those who were captured served the interests of their captors much better when their deaths were removed from the battlefield and made into a civic and religious spectacle. This terrifying example supposedly served as a means by which a ruling Aztec dynasty demonstrated political power and coerced its citizenry toward certain social norms. Though religion played a major role, it may have been overemphasized as the sacrifices were also legal, state-sanctioned events.

The motives behind these conflicts is still in question. Much of the speculation over their cause stems from a belief that the Aztec military superiority was sufficient to have overcome their enemies had they only wished to do so. Why then, was the violence so protracted, if not for some purpose the Aztecs found in its longevity? However, this supposed Aztec martial supremacy is now also being questioned. Although the Tlaxcala-Pueblan Valley eventually fell to the Aztec Triple Alliance, it may have been that this region was simply too resilient for the Aztecs to pacify in the struggles prior to 1518-19.[8] In the Nahuatl language a difference is made between the so-called Flower War (xochi yaoyotl) and a real, or mortal “angry” war (cocoltic yaoyotl). Whether one may have evolved into the other is unclear.[9]


  1. ^ first advisor to the Tlatoani
  2. ^ See Davies (1968) for an advancement of this interpretation
  3. ^ Hassig (1988).
  4. ^ Hassig (1988).
  5. ^ Aztec Warfare, Western Warfare
  6. ^ Restall (2003).
  7. ^ Kurtz, Donald V. “Strategies of Legitimation and the Aztec State” Ethnology Vol 3 No 4 (1984) p. 310
  8. ^ Isaac, Barry L. “The Aztec "Flowery War": A Geopolitical Explanation” Journal of Anthropological Research Vol 39 No 4 (1983) p. 425
  9. ^ Hicks, Frederic. ““Flowery War” in Aztec History” American Ethnology Vol 6 No 1 (1979) p. 88


Davies, Nigel (1968). Los Señorios independientes del Imperio Azteca (in Spanish). Mexico D.F.: Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH). 
Hassig, Ross (1988). Aztec Warfare: Imperial Expansion and Political Control. Civilization of the American Indian series, no. 188. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 0-8061-2121-1. OCLC 17106411. 
Restall, Matthew (2003). Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-516077-0. OCLC 51022823. 
Salas de Léon, Elia (2001). Historiografía De Tlaxcala (in Spanish) (online edition ed.). San Luis Potosí: Departamento de Publicaciones de la Universidad Abierta. ISBN 968-5095-02-7.