Review of Ross Hassig, Aztec Warfare: Imperial Expansion & Political Control
C. Chase-Dunn - May 1990 Sociology
Johns Hopkins University Baltimore, MD 21218
Review of Ross Hassig, Aztec Warfare: Imperial Expansion and Political Control, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988.
Hassig's book is an excellent presentation of the history of
the Aztec conquest of central Mexico, an amazing story of
rags to riches. It equals in drama the rise of Rome from an
insignificant rural town and the rise of the United States from a
dependent set of colonies to world-system hegemony. The Aztecs were
nomadic foragers who migrated into the valley of Mexico, a state-based
world-system which had already seen the rise and decline of empires.
Occupying an island in a shallow lake surrounded by competing
city-states, the Aztecs began their career as mercenary allies of
the Tepanec empire. Their reputation as warriors grew with their
successful conquests of adjacent city-states in alliance with the
Tepanecs. Eventually they conquered their erstwhile allies and went
on to create an empire which spanned the continent and extended
far north and south of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec island capital.
The Aztecan rise to power took place in the following context.
The valley of Mexico already contained a relatively high
population density and an intensified horticultural form of
production. Politically it was organized as a number of competing
city-states that formed alliances in wars against one another and
extracted tribute from dependencies. Earlier regional empires had
dissolved into a decentralized "interstate system" that was
structurally somewhat similar to the contemporary global polity
except that it was composed of competing city-states rather than
nation-states. The mode of production at the family and village
level was primarily based on reciprocal kinship obligations, although
some market exchange was also present. The overarching political
economy was based primarily on the extraction of tribute (both
prestige goods and basic goods) from dependencies through the use
of political-military force, although there was also an important
amount of market exchange of prestige goods among the separate
Within this context the Aztecs combined cultural and
organizational features of the older core societies with
elements of their own formerly peripheral society to create a new
combination which gave them a comparative advantage in the valley
of Mexico. When they began their career the Aztecs were a relatively
unstratified group governed by a loose association of lineage heads.
They soon created a nobility by intermarraige with the king of a
nearby allied city-state who was allegedly descended from the
Toltecs, an earlier imperial dynasty. As with other semiperipheral
marcher states, the somewhat less stratified nature of Aztec society
was an advantage in warfare (Chase-Dunn, 1988). Citizen soldiers
who believe they have a stake in the collectivity are better warriors
than conscripted peasants or paid mercenaries, and such a belief
is easier to sustain when the differences between nobles and
commoners are less extreme. Of course, the Aztecs, again like other
successful conquerors, became more stratified within as their empire
expanded. The acquisition of tribute made possible the expansion
of the wealth of the nobility, and success in battle was an important
means of upward mobility for commoners.
While the Aztecs rewrote their own history to provide a past
linked with earlier empires, their version of Mesoamerican
religious ideology also capitalized to some extent on their barbarian
origins. In a system in which the perception of power was based
largely on military prowess and fear of extreme punishment, it is
an advantage to have a reputation for brutality.
Hassig's study focuses mainly on military organization,
strategy and logistics. He is arguing against a number of
recent interpretations of warfare in Mesoamerica which focus heavily
on its connections with religious institutions (e.g.Conrad and
Demarest 1984). War captives were the main source of human sacrifices,
which, according to Aztec ideology, were necessary to appease the
gods and to keep the universe functioning. Conrad and Demarest
argue that the conversion of the existing Mesoamerican ideology of
human sacrifice into a "national" justification for continuous
conquest and expansion represents the key innovation which made
the Aztec success possible. For Hassig the Aztec intensification
of sacrifice is was merely part of the strategy of rule by
Hassig does not, however, argue that other innovations were
more important for explaining the rapid rise of Aztec hegemony.
He argues that the military weapons and strategies used by the
Aztecs were not significantly different from those of their opponents.
Hassig emphasizes the "rationality" and the cost-benefit logic of
the Aztec strategies in terms of the goal of extracting tribute
through the maintenance of the perception of superior military
power. The Aztecan strategy of tribute extraction without direct
control is compared with the more direct form of territorial
domination theorized by Clausewitz. Hassig utilizes insights about
the perception of power developed by Edward Luttwak (1976) in his
study of Roman imperial strategy. He stresses the similarities of
the underlying logic of the Aztecan strategy of imperial rule with
other cases of successful empire expansion and maintenance. He
argues that, once differences in the nature of imperial goals are
taken into account, the logic of empire is much the same.
Hassig shows that the Aztec strategy was mainly one of
demonstrating superior military power in order to extract
tribute payments from local elites. The Aztecs did not usually
attempt to reorganize the societies they conquered, but preferred
a "hegemonic" form of indirect rule. Thus the maintenance of tribute
payments depended on the "perception of power" as much as on direct
coercion. This is very unlike the form of imperialism utilized by
the Inkan empire, which was ideologically similar in some respects,
but which used direct control over state lands and labor to mobilize
"staple finance" (Johnson and Earle 1987 pp. 256-68).
The Aztecs used the "duck shoot" strategy to isolate strong
foes before conquering them. This involves picking off weaker
potential adversaries one at a time until more challenging opponents
are isolated. Their empire was still expanding when it was conquered
by the Spaniards, although it had already reached the size at which
additional victories were becoming more costly. The limits of the
expansion would have probably been reached by the end of the l6th
century. Since maintenance of centralized control in such a system
is based on the ability to keep providing additional spoils of
conquest, collapse back into a decentralized interstate system
would undoubtedly have followed the limits of expansion. The Spanish
intervention, however, changed the nature and scale of the game,
providing new means of extracting surplus and integrating Mesoamerica
into a peripheral location within the Europe-centered world-system.
The Aztec empire emerged within a world-system in which
state-based accumulation had become predominant and in which
exploitation of peripheral regions by core states was a crucial
aspect of the reproduction of political structures. This system
differed from other somewhat similar systems in important ways,
however. Other early state-based systems were also heavily dependent
on hierarchical religions to legitimate state power, but the Aztec
form of tributary accumulation through political/military terror
placed extra emphasis on the importance of the state religion. It
is notable that complex chiefdoms and primary states engage in
human sacrifice to an extent not shared by either less stratified
or larger and more complex societies (Davies 1984 p.213). The
psychology of sacrifice is important in all moral orders, and human
sacrifice on some scale is known to almost all societies including
our own. I am thinking not only of warfare, but of capital punishment.
The Aztecs, however, intensified this aspect of Mesoamerican culture
to a scale difficult to comprehend. Most scholars accept the estimate
of 80,000 war captives sacrificed for a single temple dedication
(Hassig 1988 p.121).
This kind of ritual was not simply a reflection of a system
out of control, or the rational consumption of human flesh
as a source of protein, as Marvin Harris's (1977) interpretation
of sacrifices suggests. Rather such a religious hierarchy is an
expanded instance of the symbolic demonstration of the power of
the state to appropriate human life (rather than human labor time)
in a situation in which the logic of "the perception of power" is
based on terror and intimidation. Later states are just as objectively
hierarchical but they do not rely so exclusively on hierarchical
symbolic means to legitimate and enforce power relations. It is
somewhat ironic that moral order in the form of an extremely
hierarchical state religion is more important for these early states
than it is for more complex societies in which commodity economy,
bureaucratic organization, and legal structures are the institutional
forms which support inequality.
Hassig's book is an excellent contribution to the sociology
of military organization and strategy. His explanation of
the course and results of the Spanish conquest is a convincing
application of his theoretical approach. The book would have
benefited from a somewhat more consciously comparative perspective,
not only with other early state-based world-systems and empires,
but also with Hassig's own earlier work on the nature of the
Mesoamerican economy (Hassig 1985). It would be helpful to understand
the interconnections between the strategy of tribute gathering and
the activities of the pochteca (long distance merchants). Hassig
details the military services of the pochteca as spies, but he does
not tell us how their trade-based accumulation activities were
linked to the Aztec state, or what role such linkages may have
played in this apparently most tributary of modes of production.
His other book (Hassig 1985) makes it clear that such linkages were
important. What is missing here is an analysis of the way in which
returns from trade and tribute were combined in the financing of
the Aztec state, and the role that trade and unequal exchange may
have played in the logic of imperial expansion and accumulation.
These are important questions not only because we need to
sort out the general relationships between world-systems and
modes of production but because it is likely that the earlier
empires in the valley of Mexico were based much more on control of
trade routes through the establishment of settler-colonial outposts
rather than on the direct extraction of tribute. Was the Aztec
empire different in the extent to which it relied on extraction of
tribute in comparison with the empires of Teotihuacan or the Toltecs?
If this is the case does the reason for this shift have something
in common with the sequence which occurred in Lower Mesopotamia,
in which the early Uruk expansion was based primarily on trade with
relatively unstratified societies (Algaze 1989), whereas the later
Akkadian empire was much more based on the extraction of tributes?
And might the explanations for these sequences be similar? It is
unfair to fault Hassig for failing to address questions which are
admittedly beyond the theoretical perspective within which he is
working. His book is fascinating reading for students of imperialism
and military organization, and is fertile matter for those who want
to compare earlier, smaller world-systems to our own.
Algaze, Guillermo 1989 "The Uruk Expansion: cross-cultural exchange
as a factor in early Mesopotamian civilization," Current
Chase-Dunn, Christopher 1988 "Comparing world-systems: toward a
theory of semiperipheral development," Comparative Civilizations
Review 19:29-66 (Fall).
Conrad, Geoffrey W. and Arthur Demarest 1984 Religion and Empire:
The Dynamics of Aztec and Inca Expansionism. Cambridge: Cambridge
Davies, Nigel 1984 "Human sacrifice in the Old World and the New,"
Pp.211-26 in Elizabeth P. Benson and Elizabeth H. Boone (eds.) Ritual Human
Sacrifice in Mesoamerica. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research
Library and Collection.
Harris, Marvin 1977. Cannibals and Kings: The Origins of Cultures.
New York: Random House.
Hassig, Ross 1985 Trade, Tribute, and Transportation: The Sixteenth
Century Political Economy of the Valley of Mexico. Norman: University
of Oklahoma Press.
Johnson, Allen W. and Timothy Earle 1987 The Evolution of Human
Societies: From Foraging Groups to Agrarian State. Stanford: Stanford
Luttwak, Edward 1976 The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire.
Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.