Youths just out of school – both calmecac and telpochcalli yet mostly from the prestigious calmecac – used to be picked by veterans as yaotelpochtli or shield-bearers. Their duty was to carry their veteran’s military equipment, spare weaponry and clothes, keep an eye on his war prisoners if he managed to capture such and other gained enemy possessions; and learn.
In return, the veteran was to put an eye on the youth he agreed to take along on the campaign while his charge went into his first battle, supervise his actual progress and practical learning. It was imperative to enjoy such real-time training after years of theoretical study in school or upon training grounds back home. Not every student of common origins could hope for such assistance in starting his military life.
Those parents who could afford it would approach veteran warriors on their sons’ behalf, offering food, drink and various gifts while asking to keep an eye on the young warrior, to help him along and teach. Thus youths of the richer families received better chances to succeed; or even to survive.
It was an accepted practice when on campaign for veterans to take care of the youths in general, not only the shield-bearers they agreed to accept, to teach them every practical aspect of warfare, including how to take a captive. If lucky, the young man would manage to capture his first war prisoner unaided. When it happened, one was safe to assume that his military career began with a smooth ascend, manifested in the permission to cut his school-style ear-long hair that would signify his elevation into the rank of telpochyahqui – ‘leading youth’ and tlamani – ‘captor’.
If the youth was assisted, his hairstyle upon his return would be altered only partly, with his ear-long hair shortened on his left side, but remained untouched on the right side – not a full honor of a true captor, but not a shameful manifestation either.
The youth who had failed to take a captive after going to war three or four times, would be called cuexpalchicacpol – ‘a youth with a baby lock’ – a shameful distinction. The young man who failed to take captives after that, assisted or unassisted, would have his head shaved and would be declared unsuitable for possible military promotion.
Of course, this was true of only those who aspired to lead or belong to one of the most prominent military orders. The bulk of the army was consisted of simple warriors who were not required or expected to achieve anything of the sort, having been drafted upon a need but not guided properly as noble youths were. Those who did it in spite of such lack of advantage were promoted accordingly, even helped to climb military ladder. The military leaders were always on the lookout for talented warriors, and for a commoner man the battlefield was the best of avenues to try and better one’s life.
As mentioned before, rank was achieved primary by taking captives and it reflected in a person’s dress as well as in his hairstyle. Valor on the battlefield was rewarded readily – with honors, insignia, armor, valuables and finally – land and a permanent minor nobility status.
When a youth took a captive without assistance, he would begin his ascendance up the military ladder. As mentioned before, one captive warranted the youth’s elevation into a rank of telpochyahqui – the leading youth and tlamani – the captor, and in exceptional cases, he might be even brought before Tenochtitlan ruler, the tlatoani himself. His face would be painted red ochre, while his temples would be anointed with yellow ochre and the tlatoani would present him with war garb to wear even in peaceful times. Sahagun says that this garb would consists of “…orange cap with a stripped border and scorpion design and two breechcloths, one carmine colored long edges, and the other of many colors…”. Codex Mendoza says that the garb consisted of “… mantle with flower design, called tiyahcauhtlatquitl – brave man’s equipment…”.
Upon taking his second captive, the warrior might be again admitted into the tlatoani’s presence, this time to be presented with a red-rimmed mantle.
For the third captive, a brave warrior would receive richly worked garment called ehecailacatzcozcatl – ‘jewel twisted by wind’ and tlepapalotlahuiztli – ‘fire butterfly device’, accompanied with a red-and-white feather tunic. At this point, the young warrior would become tiachcauh – ‘leader of youths’, and would be invited to reside in telpochcalli as an instructor, if he wished to do so, his status elevated.
For taking four captives, the warrior would be given arms device and ocelototec war garment – a mantle of two strips of black and orange with a border. His hair would be allowed to be cut like this of tequihuah – ‘veteran warrior’, and he would assume the title of a veteran as well. Such tequihuahqueh (plural for tequihuah) were those who were presented with honors, weapons and special insignia.
After the fourth captive the conditions for further advancement would change. From there, it depended on the quality of the captured enemy. Which would, of course, be different for different time periods. For example, in the later-day empire, the people called Huasteca and other coastal regions’ dwellers were held to be in a low esteem. Of those, one could capture ten more after his first four captive achievements and nothing would change, besides a few more insignificant honors and more solid status of yaotequihuah – ‘veteran warrior’.
However, if such veteran captured an enemy from places such as Huexotzinco beyond the eastern highlands, he would earn more promotions for his new feat of courage and daring, and would become cuauhyahcatl – ‘leader of a unit’. Tlatoani would present him with many gifts, a turquoise jewel for lip piercing, a headband with two turfs of eagle feathers and ornamented with silver flint knives, leather earplugs, bright-red netting cape, diagonally divided two colored cape and a leather cape – true reaches. In addition, such hero might be rewarded with land, promoted into the status of minor nobility, a hereditary title.
Taking another captive from difficult highlands regions was considered an awesome achievement, ensuring further promotions and lavish gifts. In Tenochtitlan it was paying off to be brave and daring, eager to do fits of courage on the battlefield, the surest way to ensure one’s statues and family’s future wellbeing.
The next article on the subject of organized warfare, will address the actual Mexica battle practices, tactics, strategies, sieges and more.
An excerpt from “Warrior Beast”, The Aztec Chronicles, book #4.
He ran his free hand through his somewhat ruffled lock of hair.
“Look, Fire Girl. I’ll tell our glorious commoner that you’ve been looking for him, yes, but…” His nostrils widened as he blew the air through them. “You know, you really shouldn’t run around and flaunt your interest in him that openly. What they are saying about you now is nothing compared to what they’ll be saying if you’ve been caught doing inappropriate things with him. And even if you don’t, your name can be slandered so easily now. Think about it.” His shoulders lifted lightly, as though reluctantly. “Good girls do not sneak into main parts of our calmecac in search of boys. Let alone commoners whose right to be here is questionable in the best of cases. Your nobility out there in the Palace would be appalled, and your noble fellow other student girls will have a field day spreading your bad name everywhere. Don’t you see it? It’s so obvious.”
He was looking at her sincerely, not admonishing or even patronizing. Still, his words hurt.
“He’ll be allowed to take me to be his woman after he is through with school.”
His laughter shook the air. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
“I’m not!” Unable not to, she stomped her foot, incensed with them all, this well-meaning youth included. “The Emperor gives him important missions even now when he is so young and still in school. When he is a warrior, he will be rewarded. He will become nobility like your friend’s father. Necalli told me about his father! He was not always a nobleman, not until he was rewarded for his bravery on the battlefield.”
“Yes, I know about Necalli’s father. He was never a villager from gods-forsaken fields, a peasant who couldn’t even read or write. Necalli’s father came from a respectable family of this city before he was rewarded with lands and noble titles.”
“So what?” She stomped her foot once again. “Miztli will be rewarded anyway. He is the bravest and the Emperor knows it. You just wait and see!”
To storm away felt childish, but she couldn’t help it. How dared they, her sister and this youth, and the others? How dared they berate him and say that he would never be a noble of this city, never would be allowed to claim her for himself. It was simply not true, it wasn’t! They didn’t understand or appreciate him, but she knew who he was. And the Tenochtitlan Emperor knew it too. And he wouldn’t be too snobbish or uptight to give a reward where a reward was due. Even the highest of rewards, yes. There must be plenty of lands to offer to the promising new leaders, plenty of titles to attach to those. But could she wait until it happened? What if it took him many summers and rainy seasons to achieve that imperial favor, the highest of rewards?