How did the Aztecs treat prisoners of war?

The treatment of prisoners of war by the Aztecs is a complex subject, deeply embedded in their socio-political and religious contexts. The Aztec civilization, which flourished in central Mexico from the 14th to the 16th century before the Spanish conquest, treated war captives in ways that were profoundly influenced by their cosmology, rituals, and the needs of their empire.

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Socio-Political Context

The Aztec Empire, or Mexica Empire, was a militaristic and expansionist state. It was composed of a loose alliance of three dominant city-states – Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan – that controlled other city-states across Mexico through both direct military force and a tributary system.

War was a key component of Aztec politics, not only for expansion but also for maintaining control and asserting dominance over subjugated peoples.

The treatment of prisoners of war by the Aztecs was a multifaceted aspect of their civilization, deeply intertwined with their religious beliefs and imperial ambitions. Image: Aztec warriors.

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Religious Significance

The Aztec religion played a critical role in the treatment of prisoners of war. The Aztecs were polytheistic, worshipping numerous gods, the most central of whom was Huitzilopochtli, the god of the sun and war. They believed that the sun god needed nourishment in the form of human blood and hearts to rise each day, which established a theological basis for human sacrifice as a divine imperative.

Capture and Treatment

Prisoners of war were primarily taken during military campaigns known as “Flower Wars” or “Xochiyaoyotl.” These conflicts were somewhat ritualized and were often waged specifically to capture warriors for sacrifice. The captives taken during these and other military campaigns were treated with a dual approach of respect and ritual preparation for their ultimate fate.

Upon capture, prisoners were bound and led back to the capital, Tenochtitlan. Their treatment during this journey could vary. Some sources suggest that they were treated well, in a manner befitting their status as important sacrificial offerings. They were fed, housed, and sometimes even given certain honors in the period leading up to their sacrifices. This period could also serve as a psychological display of Aztec power, not only to the captives but to all subject peoples.

Image: An Aztec jaguar warrior.

Sacrifice and Ritual

The culmination of the treatment of war captives was their sacrifice, which was highly ritualized. The most common form of sacrifice involved the prisoner being taken to the top of a pyramid temple. Here, a ceremony was conducted in which the captive was laid on a stone slab by priests.

The captive’s heart would then be extracted while still beating, and offered to the gods, particularly Huitzilopochtli. Other methods of sacrifice included decapitation, arrow sacrifice, and gladiatorial combat.

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These sacrifices were public spectacles and served multiple functions: appeasing the gods, reaffirming the social and religious order, and demonstrating the power of the Aztec elite. The display of violence and the theatrical nature of the sacrifices were meant to instill fear and respect for the Aztec state, both among the subjects and enemies.

Political Tools

Prisoners of war were also used as political tools. In some cases, particularly with high-ranking captives, their treatment and eventual sacrifice could serve as a message to rival states. The use of captives in these rituals could be a form of psychological warfare, intended to demonstrate the futility of resisting Aztec power.

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Variability in Treatment

It is important to note that the treatment of prisoners could vary widely depending on their origin, the circumstances of their capture, their role in their own society, and the specific political needs of the Aztec state at the time. High-ranking officials or noble captives were sometimes kept alive longer for political reasons, used in negotiations, or in attempts to foster alliances or sow dissent among enemy ranks.

Impact of Spanish Conquest

The Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire, led by Hernán Cortés in the early 16th century, brought about a dramatic end to these practices. The Spanish were horrified by human sacrifice and used their repulsion as a moral justification for the conquest and conversion of the Aztec people to Christianity.

In a way, the manner in which the Aztecs treated captured prisoners and warriors helped sustain their empire until its dramatic end with the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors. Image: Hernán Cortés (December 1485 – December 1547).

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