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 any of 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 Purépecha 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 beginning of the Flower Wars was not what we would consider a 'war' by today's standards. For example, very few combatants would actually be involved in the 'war'.[2] Each side had to have the same number, and the “conflicts took place on a preset date at a preselected place.” [3] The goal was to gain sacrificial victims, not kill. There was a series of famines from 1450 to 1454 that devastated Central Mexico, which led people to believe that the gods were angry with them. They thought it was because they hadn’t made enough sacrifices, so the lords of Tlaxcala, Huexotzinco, Cholula, and Atlixco and the Triple Alliance agreed to gather sacrifices for the gods. The men tried to kill as few people as possible, so they would have prisoners for the sacrifices.[4]

These wars had three main purposes. The first was to show that retaliation against Aztec troops was useless. They needed to show off their superior ability, not their superior numbers because they did not have success in those type of struggles. Another purpose of these wars was attrition. By requiring an equal number of forces on each side, the battle seemed equal at first; however, the side with a lesser number of total troops suffered because the losses were a greater percentage of their total forces. Through this, the Aztec used the Flower Wars (xochiyaoyotl) to weaken their opponents. “But propaganda was perhaps the most significant purpose of flower wars." [5] By engaging their opponents in the xochiyaoyotl, they were able to continuously showcase their force, which warned other city-states about their power. When the enemy did not yield, the conflict “became increasingly mortal.” Through these wars, the Aztecs were able to “encircle and undercut their opponents, to chip away at enemy territory and cut off allied support, to use their numerical superiority to reduce the strength of their opponents, and to continue their military exploits elsewhere in the empire.” [6]

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. 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[7] and Ross Hassig,[8] who argues that "the mutual arrangement" of the flower war institution is dubious, and suggests that the Flower War was in fact a low-intensity, sustained conflict with the Aztec trying to wear down the Tlaxcalteca to later conquer them entirely. He refers to the wars as “an effective means of continuing a conflict that was too costly to conclude immediately.” The goal was to obtain sacrificial victims, not the enemy’s territory. They did want, however, to obliterate anyone that opposed the Aztec rule and incorporate that territory as a tribute-paying region.

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.[9] 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.[10] 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.[11]


  1. ^ first advisor to the Tlatoani
  2. ^ Hassig (1988).
  3. ^ Tuerenhout 2005, p. 172.
  4. ^ Aguilar-Moreno 2006.
  5. ^ Hassig 1988, p. 255.
  6. ^ Hassig 1988, p. 255.
  7. ^ See Davies (1968) for an advancement of this interpretation
  8. ^ Hassig (1988).
  9. ^ Kurtz, Donald V. “Strategies of Legitimation and the Aztec State” Ethnology Vol 3 No 4 (1984) p. 310
  10. ^ Isaac, Barry L. “The Aztec "Flowery War": A Geopolitical Explanation” Journal of Anthropological Research Vol 39 No 4 (1983) p. 425
  11. ^ Hicks, Frederic. ““Flowery War” in Aztec History” American Ethnology Vol 6 No 1 (1979) p. 88


Aguilar-Moreno, Manuel (2006). Handbook to Life in the Aztec World. New York: Facts on File. ISBN 978-0195330830. 
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. 
Salas de Léon, Elia (2001). Historiografía De Tlaxcala (in Spanish) (online ed.). San Luis Potosí: Departamento de Publicaciones de la Universidad Abierta. ISBN 968-5095-02-7. 
Van Tuerenhout, Dirk R. (2005). The Aztecs: New Perspectives. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO. ISBN 978-1-57607-921-8. 
"The Aztec Wars of Flowers". 2006.