Aztec warriors with Spartan and Illyrian shields

One of the most popular drawings from the Florentine codex depicts three Aztec “eagle warriors”. In my previous articles on sea peoples (accessible here) I have already drawn some parallels between these “feathered costumes” of Americas, the ones of “sea peoples” as well as those of medieval hussars, whose origins can be traced to Balkans. But this time something else caught my eye – their shields. Their heraldry bears some striking resemblance to shields of ancient Illyria and Sparta.

Florentine_Codex_IX_Aztec_Warriors.jpgFlorentine Codex IX – Aztec Warriors

I will go straight to the facts. The shield that first caught my eye is the one in the middle, looking just like one of the most famous shields of the whole ancient world – Spartan shield with Lambda sign:

spartan shield.jpg

Spartan shield

Curious why would Aztec warrior carry a Spartan shield I decided to check the others as well. Pretty soon I discovered that the Aztec warrior on the right has something that looks like Illyrian shield:

Illyrian belt buckle from Selca c230 BC, Mus Tirana

Illyrian belt buckle from Selca c230 BC, Museum of Tirana, Albania

*Note also the typical Illyrian feathered helmet, compared with the feathers of the Aztec warriors.

As for the “two birds” motive on the first shield on the left, I was not so lucky when it comes to Illyrian shield heraldry, but I did manage to find another famous Illyrian artifact  – An iron age votive chariot from Glasinac near Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Even though this is not a shield, the two birds were obviously an important symbol for Illyrians, to be placed on such a votive chariot.

Votive chariot (Illyrian, probably Autariatae) in the form of two birds from Glasinac near Sarajevo in central Bosnia and Herzegovina - Iron Age..jpg

A coincidence? Maybe. Skeptics will say that this 16th century manuscript was composed by the first missionaries of the New world and therefore influenced with their own ideas. And they could be right, but the motives to do something like that would still remain unclear. Besides, chances are slim that they would be familiar with Illyrian heraldry. Wikipedia article on Florentine codex images states the following:

“Although many of the images show evidence of European influence, a careful analysis by one scholar posits that they were created by “members of the hereditary profession of tlacuilo or native scribe-painter.”

But if these are native designs, could they really come from ancient Illyria, were Illyrians capable of sea travel? We know for certain that they were, at least from the late 4th century BC when the first records of their piracy appear in ancient writings. They were in fact one of the dominant naval forces until Roman Republic decided to put an end to their piracy, in the events known as Illyrian wars. This is a drawing of their ship, from the same archaeological site that yielded the votive chariot with birds pictured above.


As for the Spartans, in distant times they had lived very close to Illyrian lands, as we know from writings of Herodotus: “And since, having been driven out from Istiaiotida by the Kadmeans, they lived in Pindos under the nation named Makednon…”

In conclusion, in forgotten times of bronze age, before Herodotus wrote the first history book, all three designs of the Aztec warrior shields may have existed on the east coast of Adriatic sea, on a stretch of just few hundred kilometers, in a nation of maritime people. These people had ruled Adriatic sea and large parts of Ionian sea without any doubts. They also had trade routes with whole of Mediterranean. But were their vessels sea-worthy enough to reach the lands of Aztecs is another question, the one that will surely not be solved just with this simple heraldry comparison. So, to make it clear, I am not claiming that there was a connection. But I still see this as a very interesting curiosity that deserves to be shared with my readers.