“The Lamanites Came with Their Thousands”

Brant Gardner

Mormon succinctly summarizes the military situation. It has moved beyond a rebellion at Antionum to become a major Lamanite military offensive. Combining forces with those of other city-states was common in Mesoamerican warfare. Indeed, much of a politically dominant city’s success was its ability to muster armies from the much larger land of its polity. For instance, the larger the Aztec empire became, the more difficult it was to overthrow, because it could muster and provision large armies at distant locations.

Mormon’s description of the Lamanites in “their thousands” may be less reliable. Numbers behave suspiciously, even symbolically, in the Book of Mormon, particularly in a military context. (See Helaman, Chapter 4, “The Meaning of Numbers: Counts and Estimates in the Book of Mormon.”)

The fact that these troops are mobilizing in Antionum underscores how thoroughly Lamanite the former Nephites in Antionum have become. The Zoramites certainly raised troops of their own, but being able to call on Lamanite military might welds the alliance. A Lamanite presence in Antionum is the fear that led Alma to begin preaching to the Zoramites in the first place:

Now the Zoramites had gathered themselves together in a land which they called Antionum, which was east of the land of Zarahemla, which lay nearly bordering upon the seashore, which was south of the land of Jershon, which also bordered upon the wilderness south, which wilderness was full of the Lamanites.
Now the Nephites greatly feared that the Zoramites would enter into a correspondence with the Lamanites, and that it would be the means of great loss on the part of the Nephites.
And now, as the preaching of the word had a great tendency to lead the people to do that which was just—yea, it had had more powerful effect upon the minds of the people than the sword, or anything else, which had happened unto them—therefore Alma thought it was expedient that they should try the virtue of the word of God. (Alma 31:3–5)

Antionum’s position on the eastern flank of the land of Zarahemla had obvious strategic value. Its defection opened a major breach in Zarahemla’s geographic defenses.

Up to this point in the Book of Mormon, Mormon has rarely identified Lamanite commanders, but he now records them with much greater frequency, beginning with Zerahemnah. A rare, earlier case is Amlici, who opposed Alma and was eventually defeated in hand-to-hand combat with him (Alma 2:29). A military leader in Mesoamerica was frequently either the king or a man who was close to the king. For instance, according to Martin and Grube, K’inich B’aaknal Chaak of Tonina “inherit[ed] the services of the two aj k’uhuun [a phonetic reading of a glyph, currently without translation] who served Ruler 2, but soon [were] joined by another called Aj Ch’anaah. This character would later use the yajaw k’ak’ ‘Lord of Fire’ title, probably denoting a key military position.”

No doubt the commanders’ names are part of the increasing detail about the campaigns. Rulers are de facto representatives, not only of their polity, but also of their polity’s ideology. With named individuals, Mormon can focus on issues above and beyond the particular objective of each campaign.

Second Witness: Analytical & Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 4