In 1516, the Byzantine General Belisarios Konikas began a ten year war against the formidable local power, the Aztec Empire. The war ended in victory for the Byzantines and the almost total destruction of the Nahuatl culture and race.
The Seeds of the Conflict
In 1491, Byzantine explorers made first contact with the Aztecs. At first they believed them to be another primitive and disparate tribe of Indians, but soon they recognised them to be an advanced culture of their own. A visit to their capital, Tenochtitlan, in 1493 confirmed that this was a mighty civilisation. The leader of the expedition believed the city he saw to be second only to Constantinople in size and beauty.
Something else that interested the explorers was the vast amounts of gold that the Aztecs had. It was so common that they used it for ornaments even in some of the poorest dwellings. The President of the Royal Company of New Crete, Michaelos Paolaegios, maintained peaceful, trading relations with the Aztecs, but in 1512 the Viceroy of New Crete had him transferred to Constantinople and replaced him with Belisarios Konikas, a soldier and known gold-seeker. He immediately sailed for Mexico to begin stirring up trouble. In 1513 he established a permanent Byzantine settlement on the coast in Totonac, something banned by previous trade agreements with the Aztecs. In 1515 he staged a raid on Byzantine traders returning from Tenochtitlan using local Totonacs. Blaming it on the Aztecs, Belisarios applied for a royal command from the Viceroy, which was duly granted, and in 1516, with a crack force of 500 gunmen and 300 cavalry, he marched inland.
The First Campaign
Belisarios' march went unopposed until he reached the mountain city of Cholula. There he found 2500 Aztec soldiers waiting in the streets of the city for him. A fierce and bloody battle ensued in which the attackers were beaten off, but with the loss of around 300 Byzantine lives. From the locals in Cholula, Belisarios recruited some 3000 soldiers and armed them as best he could. They were willing to fight, as they were not Aztec themselves, rather they were a conquered city state under Tenochtitlan's control. Belisarios continued his march and finally he reached Lake Texcoco in late October after two months marching overland.
However, when he arrived, he found that the causeways were removed and all the Aztec's people and soldiers withdrawn into the island city. He attempted to besiege the city but he was in need of many more men if he was to block off all five causeways and prevent a landing by boat. Frustrated, he burnt the cities of Texcoco and Tlacopan, which bordered the lake, to the ground and returned to the coast.
The Second Campaign
The following year, now with some 1500 infantry and 500 cavalry, Belisarios marched once more on Tenochtitlan. Wanting to recruit locals to his army, as he had done the previous year, he strung it out to make it seem more impressive. At Cholula he found several thousands of locals gathered, all willing to join his forces. This time confident of a successful siege and the capture of Tenochtitlan, he walked boldly into the area around the lake.
The campaign ended in disaster when his column was attacked in a patch of dense rain forest. His forces were strung out and heavily outnumbered. Many were slain and other managed to fight their way back to Belisarios' standard. Calling on the locals to fight, he found that they had largely defected to the Aztecs or fled the fight. Enraged he led a charge attempting to break out and make it back to Cholula. We know that in that charge he was slain, but how, we are not sure of. Some accounts say that he was shot down by many arrows, others say he was brought down after a fierce struggle by many armed opponents, but the most common account says that he was faced with an Aztec Skull Warrior who swept his head clean off with a single blow from his obsidian sword.
The Third Campaign
Two years after the disaster of 1517, a Byzantine army was once more assembled on the coast of Mexico. It was led by Belisarios' brother Theodosios and numbered around 2500 musket infantry and 500 cavalry. It was the entire standing forces of New Crete come to wreak vengeance upon the Aztec Empire.
In late August it set off, this time taking a new route through the long independent state of Tlaxcala. The people there had long resisted Aztec conquest and they were a numerous source of local auxilaries. The King of Tlaxcala agreed to support Theodosios and lent him 20,000 warriors. Theodosios tried to arm some of them with guns, but found them more willing to fight with their natural weapons. The Tlaxcala also built him boats on his specification that were then dismantled and transported down to Lake Texcoco.
On January 21st, 1520, the assault began. It lasted three weeks and the Aztecs fought him street by street, but eventualy Theodosios triumphed, albeit with the loss of 1800 of his Byzantine soldiers. He then proclaimed himself the Viceroy of New Byzantium, something which was later accepted by the Emperor in Constantinople.
Rebellion and the Final Fall of the Aztecs
The fall of Tenochtitlan and the death of Moctezuma, the Aztec Emperor, did not end hostilities. A large number of Aztec warriors joined with another who was proclaiming himself Emperor, Cunacpa. He made existence very difficult for Theodosios' new state until re-inforcements arrived from the rest of the empire. Using these new troops and some Tlaxcalan allies, Theodosios attacked Cunacpa's mountain retreat and slaughtered everyone inside, including Cunacpa.
The defeat of Cunacpa did not quite end Aztec defiance. Inspired by his apparent martyrdom, various cells of Aztec rebels appeared in remote rain forests and mountain valleys. With the help of turncoat locals, Theodosios had the last ones wiped out by 1526, finally ending the war.
Troop Numbers and Casualties
- Byzantines - 800 men (300 killed), 3000 allies (250 killed)
- Aztecs - 2500 men (1000 killed)
- Byzantines - 2000 men (1000 killed), 5000 allies (1000 killed)
- Aztecs - 30,000-50,000 men (3000-6000 killed)
- Byzantines - 3000 men (1800 killed), 20,000 allies (8000 killed)
- Aztecs - 60,000-80,000 men (50,000 killed)
- Byzantines - 2000 men (300 killed), 10,000 allies (1000 killed)
- Aztecs - 5000 men (5000 killed)
- Byzantines - 3000 men (250 killed), 10,000 allies (500 killed)
- Aztecs - 15,000 men (12,000 killed)