"The Mighty Tlaxcalans of Mexico"
by Ronald Barnett
February 1997

     The origins of the Tlaxcalans go back to the timeof Teotihuacan. Later, Cholula (site of the massive pyramid) became an important political and mercantile power. First came the Olmeca-Xicalenca, later the Teo-Chichimeca finally the Tlaxcalans. The Valley of Puebla was thus influenced both by Cholula and Teotihuacan. The real beginning of Tlaxcala came ca.A.D 1350. The original inhabitants were driven out. A warrior claiming to be a descendent of the Aztec emperor Acamapichtli defeated all enemies, moved into the Cholula region, and set up the autonomous Tlaxcalan state. The Tlaxcalans then proceeded to make for themselves the most important center in Puebla. They defeated Huexotzinco, which in turn conquered Cholula around A.D. 1359, and maintained this position until the reign of Moctezuma Ilhuicamina (A.D. 1440-1469). Refugees from Chalco in the Valley of Mexico further strengthened the Tlaxcala-Huexotzinco area. In its heyday Tlaxcala comprised four main regions, each with a ruling lord and its own merchants, judges, and other officials. Protected by defensive walls around their territory, the Tlaxcalans were sufficiently independent not only to have their own judicial system and economic administration but also to collect taxes and even tribute. Under attack all regions came together in the common cause so that they were able to withstand attack even by the powerful Aztecs. Tlaxcala became a tradicional enemy of the Aztecs. The “Flowery War,” initiated by Tlacaelel under Motecuzoma Ilhuicamina, was fought between Tlaxcala and Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital. The purpose was to obtain captives for sacrifice to the Aztec gods to ensure the survival of the sun and hence the Aztec universe. Tlaxcala survived despite the odds. Evidence indicates that about the time of the arrival of Cortes the Aztecs were about to make a strong effort to subdue Tlaxcala. But there are several possible reasons why the Tlaxcalans had retained their independence until that time. First, they had well-fortified walls of defence and strong allies, inciuding Otomies and the refugees from the Valley of Mexico. Tlaxcala itself was reportedly a very poor area economically, especially after the Aztecs spread their influence to the coast, thereby effectively hindering the economic development of Tlaxcala. But the Tlaxcalans had all the means they needed to detend themselves and so did not need great economic power to maintain a strong army. It is also possible that the Aztecs did not have Tlaxcala completely surrounded. Besides, there was really very little economic advantage in conquering such a poor area. One controversial explanation for the long survival of the Tlaxcalans is that the Aztecs purposely refrained from con- quering them because they wanted them as a constant source of captives for sacrifice to the Aztec gods. Some authorities, however, argue that the Tlaxcalans and the Aztecs did not in fact maintain a ritual war simply to obtain sacrificial victims. What do we really know about relations between Tlaxcala and Tenochtitlan? First, they were deadly enemies long before the arrival of Cortes and his men. Secondly, the “Flowery War” was waged between the two. Thirdly, the Tlaxcalans were only too ready to join the Spaniards in order to defeat the Aztecs. The story of the Aztecs is a semi-legendary, semi-historical account in which the Aztecs especially sought to glorify their own achievements, which were not inconsiderable. lt is therefore not impossible that the Aztecs, with their particular bent of mind, might well have considered the taking of sacrificial captives more important than subduing a territory. Whichever way you look at it, Tlaxcala played an important role in this part of Mesoamerica before the arrival of the Spaniards and in the Conquest of Mexico itself.