Tenochtitlan was first among equals within the Aztec Triple Alliance[i]Power was held by a ruling class of nobles where talent and birth were taken into consideration when choosing the city’s ruler, the Tlatoani[ii]. The holder of the title was chosen by both nobles and priests. The ability to command armies was one of the requirements as ruler, as the Aztec nation was constantly at war.
The post of cihuacoatl[iii] was the second most senior post in the empire as the Tlatoani’s deputy and Tlacelael[iv] was holder of the post subordinate to four Tlatoani; Itzcoatl, Moctezuma I[v]Axayacatl and Tizoc. When the Tlatoani went to war the cihuacoatl was in charge of affairs at home. Tlacaelel strengthened the concept of the Aztecs as a chosen people, and elevated the god of war to head the pantheon of gods, and increased militarism. Tlacaelel is also alleged to have increased the propensity for human sacrifice in an attempt to stave off the natural disasters that became prevalent in Six Rabbit (1446)[vi].
‘I, Tlacaellel, would fain fire the brave-hearted warriors and also encourage the cowards by rewards which are bestowed on them for special deeds…..For after his return [from war], all will be given to him, according to his deserts [sic], in reward for his exertions.’[vii]
To emphasise the position of Aztec nobility within the structure of society Tlacelael helped design and enforce sumptuary laws, prohibiting commoners from wearing items like lip plugs, gold armbands, and cotton cloaks. He also instigated a policy of burning the books of conquered peoples in an attempt to erase memories of a pre-Aztec past.
The huge expansion in Aztec possessions under Moctezuma I required new officials from the nobility to rule their new lands. Tlacaelel suggested to the Tlatoani that he;
‘Invite second-grade warriors into your royal palace, who have merited reward on a lower scale. They must be granted the right, after they have been selected by the generals, to wear the insignia, the ornaments and the jewellery, which are the privileges of the highest nobility….a man must have distinguished himself in battle and to have taken prisoner some warriors.’[viii]
The hereditary principle became embedded in the system during the late 15th century. The calmecac schools were required to train more and more officials to take up the strain.
Ahuitzotl was born into the ruling class ofTenochtitlan, . He was the son of Princess Atotoztli II and her cousin Prince Tezozomac. Ahuitzotl was the youngest of three sons and both his brothers, Axayacatl and Tizocruled Tenochtitlan before him. Ahuitzotl also had a sister Chalchiuhnenetzin[ix]. The boys were grandsons of Itzcoatl Moctezuma I, both rulers of Tenochtitlan, and would have all attended the calmecac school in the Templo Mayor.
The sons of the nobility were called Pipiltin (the sons of Lords), the children of the Tlatoani inherited their parents lands and lived in the palace. They did not automatically inherit their father’s official position, but they had the edge on everyone else, based particularly on services rendered or their feats in battle.
As a young man Axayacatl’s military prowess brought him to the attention of influential figures such as Nezahualcoyotl[x] and Tlacaelel. It also placed him in pole position to be chosen as Tlatoani after the death of Moctezuma in Thirteen Flint Knife (1440). Axayacatl was nineteen at the time. His coronation war[xi] against the Isthmus of Tehuantepec was a great success.
Axayacatl’s coronation war was followed by campaigns in the Puebla valley, on the Gulf CoastIn Seven House (1473) long standing tensions led to Axayacatl being faced with a civil war on the island with Tenochtitlan’s sister city Tlateloco. The two cities had been rivals for decades.
Ahuitzotl and Axayactl’s sister Chalchiuhnenetzin was married to Moquihuix, ruler of Tlatelolco. The couple had one child Axayaca, but Moquihuix preferred the company of other women; according to the chronicles Chalchiuhnenetzin smelled terrible and was thin and ugly. Moquihuix exiled her to live in a separate palace while he amused himself with his concubines.
|Death of Moquihuix|
Axayacatl was angered by the public neglect of his sister and in Seven House (1473) declared war on his brother-in-law. The fight was short-lived and ended with Moquihuix being thrown from the highest pyramid in Tlateloco. An alternative version of the facts had Moquihiux and his favourite dwarf threw themselves off the pyramid in despair.
CalixtlahuacaA war against the inhabitants of the valley of TolucaMalinalcourther campaigns in the western marches in following years were successful but these brought the Aztecs into close contact with the Tarascans[xii] based to the west in what is now Michoacan.
The Tarascans were no pushovers and the Aztecs suffered as major defeat; out of an army of 32,000 only 200 made it back to Tenochtitlan. Axayacatl made no further attempt to attack the Tarascans remaining on the defensive in the west. Instead he turned his attention back to the coast where he reconquered rebellious towns. But it is clear that Axayacatl was embarrassed by this defeat; the power of the Tlatoani depended upon his martial success. He wrote a poem;
‘I your grandfather Axayacatl am ashamed, I have come to the end, I despise myself….
The true Mexica, my grandsons, hold fast and stay in rank and file.
Their drums sound and their shields remain firmly in their hand.’[xiii]
By the end of his reign Axayacatl was a spent force. His previous conquests and the support of Tlacaelel probably protected him from a violent death such as his successor was to suffer.
The Aztec’s holy mission was to capture sufficient prisoners to sacrifice to the ever-thirsty gods. Rewards for warriors were commensurate with the number of prisoners they captured. In times of relative peace, in order to ensure sufficient prisoners to satiate the gods’ appetite for blood ‘flower’[xiv] wars between friendly nations were sometimes resorted to, allowing each side to take away prisoners who were treated with great respect during their captivity before being sacrificed for the greater good.
The Aztecs were obsessed with ceremonies and the demands for luxuries employed therein became unlimited. Vast wealth was expended to honour the gods who incited their subjects to undertake further wars. The empire was ever-expanding[xv], trading as far as the distant coast. Wars were also essential to secure strategic trade routes for merchants or pochteca, so essential to provide the luxury goods such as precious stones and bird feathers demanded by Aztec ceremonial. The merchants also acted as spies and professional envoys.
|Warriors carrying macahuitls|
Death in combat was regarded as a means to ascend directly to sit at the side of god and was one way to climb the social ladder. The soldiers used a variety of weapons from slings and bows and arrows, lances and spears, stone knives, atlatl (spear) and macahuitls (a bladed obsidian sword)[xvi]. One Spanish chronicler claimed;
‘It is one of the most beautiful sights in the world to see them in their battle array because they keep formation wonderfully and are very handsome. Among them are extraordinary brave men who face death with absolute determination.’[xvii]
The Ancient Kingdoms of Mexico – Nigel Davies, Penguin 1985
The New World – Nicholas Hordern, Aldus Books/Jupiter Books 1971
The Ancient American Civilisations – Friedrich Katz, Phoenix Press 2000
Moctezuma and the Aztecs – Elisenda Vila Llonch, the British Museum Press 2009
The Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Aztecs and Maya – Charles Phillips, Hermes House 2010
The Aztecs – Richard F Townsend, Thames & Hudson Ltd 2010
Conquistadors – Michael Wood, BBC Worldwide Ltd 2001
[ii] ‘He who speaks, ruler’, or translated as Revered Speaker
[iii] Or She-Snake or Snake Woman; a post meant to embody the female opposite of the Tlatoani as the Aztecs believed that the world had been created from a male and female principle that was reflected in real life. All the gods had wives or sisters to echo this belief. The Tlatoani’s decisions had to receive the consent of the She-Snake
[v] Tlatoani of the Triple Alliance from 1440-69
[vii] Ancient American Civilisations - Katz
[ix] Little Precious Stone
[x] Tlatoani of Texcoco
[xi] All Aztec rulers had to prove their military capabilities after their coronation
[xii] Another empire built on a league between three cities
[xiii] Ancient American Civilisations - Katz
[xiv] ‘Friendly’ battles
[xv] And unsustainable in the long run
[xvi] The Aztecs did not have metal weapons never having developed a method of smelting iron, this, coupled with the lack of guns, put them at a disadvantage to the invaders from the old world when they arrived in the early 16th century