The origins of the Aztecs are obscure, but they wandered through central America for many years before finally settling in the Valley of Mexico in the early 14th century, where they founded their great city of Tenochtitlán. They steadily built up their strength, and a century later they created a Triple Alliance with Texcoco and Tlacopán. This alliance was to dominate the region for almost a century, with many neighbouring states conquered or reduced to vassal status, but the Aztecs were the major partner, and thus their ‘empire’ was formed. As with any empire it was built and maintained with violence, so there were many wars with neighbours over the decades, but in the end it was destroyed in much the same way, by an alliance of resentful client states and the newly arrived Spanish Conquistadores.
About twenty years before this set from Caesar appeared, Revell made their own set of Aztecs, which at the time was a truly remarkable move as it seemed to signal the development of the hobby from the mainstream conflicts into more exotic and unusual subjects. These days we are used to seeing such subjects covered, but the Aztecs must still be one of the most colourful, so this new set from Caesar is certainly welcome. The Revell set was pretty good, so the question is, does the Caesar set provide anything new, or just expand what has already been made?
The appearance of an Aztec warrior was determined not by the unit he belonged to but by his personal status. The primary purpose of their warfare was to take captives, who could then be sacrificed to appease and fuel the gods. A novice warrior who had yet to take a prisoner would join the ranks in just his normal breech clout (maxtlatl) and generally some padded armour called ichcahuipilli, which was a basic tunic that took many forms but was surprisingly good at protecting from blows and even arrows, while much lighter and more comfortable than the full metal armour of the Europeans. The first two figures pictured above wear this simple costume, which leaves 10 poses for the more experienced and successful fighters. Once a man had captured two enemies he was entitled to wear a war suit, tlahuiztli, which came in one of many bright colours, with a similarly colourful conical headdress, and such a man is the third in our top row. Three captures entitled the warrior to wear a long ichcahuipilli with suitable decoration, and our fourth and fifth figures show this type. The sixth figure is also likely to be such a man, although he wears an ornate headdress which was also an important part of identifying rank.
Once further captives had been taken then rewards included ever more splendid banners and uniforms based on animals, particular jaguar, coyote and crocodile, all of which are represented here. The first man in the bottom row wears a helmet in the tzitzimitl or 'demon of vengeance' style, which marks him out as a ruler or a senior commander, and beside the jaguar-warrior we finish with two eagle-warriors. Eagle warriors belonged to a very prestigious military order that was only open to nobles, so these are something of an elite.
Having exhaustively identified each figure here, we have to say that the set as a whole smacks of too many chiefs and not enough Indians, by which we mean there is a very large proportion of experienced and decorated warriors compared to the novices. It is unclear what proportion of an Aztec army each type of warrior constituted, and doubtless this varied greatly on different occasions (one 'army' was made up entirely of youths, so virtually no war-suits there), but while the various suits are very appealing and great to paint, we felt that a properly balanced army would have had more of the ordinary sort of infantry, without the prestigious adornment most have here.
The principal weapon of the time was the macauhuitl, a length of wood with very sharp obsidian blades down both sides, which basically served as a sword. Only four of these poses have this, which means it is under-represented, although this allows room for a host of other weapons. The first figure carries nothing more than a simple club, while his neighbour uses a bow and another man has a sling; all were seen as peasant weapons, and all are fine here. Two more have the tepoztopilli, a sort of spear or halberd, which could be used to injure the enemy when standing behind your own line. Next there are two poses carrying an axe, which are rather large but quite simple and look like the copper axes often carried. Finally, although not visible in our picture, the penultimate figure carries a weapon which seems to be a sort of club or axe. This seems to be based on a drawing by Hoffman, but is inappropriate for Aztecs during the conquest.
Apart from that last axe, all the weaponry here is authentic. However the Revell set omitted a number of weapons which are also missing here, which is a shame. Firstly, the Aztecs used a device called an atlatl, which allowed a spear or dart to be thrown with much greater force, although how common this was is unclear. Also missing are the darts or javelins many warriors carried, and even a figure holding the very late lance (used to combat Spanish cavalry) would have been useful. However with only 12 poses there are of course limits on what can be provided, and we are not complaining about the array of weapons on offer here.
Most of these figures carry a shield, which is fine, but unlike the Revell set all these are plain, allowing the painter to add their own design as required. All also have a lower fringe (tentlapilollo) that was made of feathers, cloth or leather strips and offered some slight protection for the legs. Only something like half or less of the shields probably actually had this, yet all in this set have them, so some trimming might be in order. The other obvious element on these figures is the banner some have strapped to their back. These came in a wide variety of designs and it seems likely many were entirely down to the whim of their creator, so while this implies that anything might be appropriate all those in this set look authentic.
There can be no complaints about the standard of sculpting for these figures, for while they are highly detailed and often complex, the sculptor has made a very good job of them. Where the detail would be too fine, such as the feathers decorating the war suits, the sculptor has wisely provided a suitable texture which works very well at this scale. Two of the three men with banners have them cast as part of the figure, while the third has a choice of separate ones, as can be seen in our top row. Other than this there is no assembly, so all the weapons are one with the figure. Despite this the usual Caesar mould makes for some very full and realistic figures with not a hint of flatness anywhere, and the poses are lively and very well poised. Figures armed with edged weapons and shields are almost impossible to make convincing in one piece with a two-piece steel mould, but the more sophisticated Caesar mould means these are excellent figures with no trace of flash or excess plastic either.
When reviewing any set it is always a good sign if we say the set is excellent apart from a small number of blemishes, and this is just such a set. Blemishes are the fanciful axe on one man and the overall balance of the collection being severely weighted towards the experienced and even the elite warriors. Given their impressive appearance it is hardly surprising that a manufacturer would concentrate on such men, and the Revell set was the same, but for absolute historical accuracy there should have been more peasant infantry here. However each figure taken individually is fine, so there is no denying this is a great set, although to answer our earlier question this largely repeats what we find in the Revell set rather than expands its scope.