There were two groupings of elite warriors; the cuauhchique[i] and the otontin or Otomies to which the feared Eagle Warrior and the Jaguar Warrior belonged. The tlacochcalcatl[ii]along with the other four members of the military council[iii], the tlaccatecatl, the etzhuanhuanco and the tillancalqui were all members of one or the other order.
To be admitted within the ranks of these two orders a warrior must have committed twenty or more deeds of valour and captured a number of prisoners for sacrifice. The elite were permitted to wear feather jewellery and cotton clothing as marks of their standing in society as well as drink pulque[iv] in public, keep courtesans and dine in the palace. One chronicle relates that announcements of yet another war was an event greeted by pleasure; by the warriors
‘Everyone was glad to go to war, that no more warriors remained in the cities, for all wanted to go to war since they fared so well in it.’[v]
The Aztecs did not have a standing army but each calpulli was required to contribute 400 men. The unit marched under its own standard commanded by community leaders. The army’s basic unit was 8,000 men and long distance expeditions would include porters for supplies and equipment contributed by subordinate towns.
The Short Reign of Tlatoani Tizoc
Tizoc had been tlacochcalcatl to Axayacotl and he now came to power in the year Two House1481)[vi] following his brother’s death. He made his brother Ahuitzotl his tlacochcalcatl coronation war was a dismal failure, producing very little in the way of prisoners for sacrifice.
Metztitlan was the chosen objective, 125 miles away from the heart of the empire. The resultant battle was saved by a formation of teenage warriors who took 40 prisoners. Tizoc’s coronation went ahead but the meagre display of sacrifices was viewed as an unfavourable omen. Tizoc’s future wars were not ones of conquest but repressing rebellions against Aztec rule. As his reign continued the empire faced increasing sedition, aggression and rebellion.
Tizoc started the extensive rebuilding of the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan[vii], the rebuilding was to be finished during the reign of his younger brother. There are rumours that Tizoc was poisoned which was not unusual for a highly contested position, particularly that of Tlatoani of the Triple Alliance. It is possible that Ahuitzotl was involved in bringing his brother’s reign to an end. Four days after Tizoc’s death the elective council met and chose the ambitious Ahuitzotl as the next Tlatoani of the Aztecs.
The Coronation of Ahuitzotl
Ahuitzotl became Tlatoani in year Seven Rabbit (1486). He was relatively young to become Tlatoani, being barely out of his teens. He took the name Ahuitzotl[viii] and was to prove himself a warrior par excellence, living and fighting with his men. He inspired his soldiers with his own personal valour.
After his election and a four day period of retreat of fasting and penitence, Ahuitzotl was taken before the Great Pyramid where, in front of a silent crowd, he was stripped down to his loincloth, he was led up the pyramid by the Tlatoani of Texcoco and Tlacopan. At the summit, in the shrine to Huitzilopochtli, Ahuitzotl was dressed in a dark green robe decorated with skulls. He then burned incense in the god’s honour and descended the pyramid.
Ahuitzotl led the crowd to one of the palaces where the Tlatoani of Texcoco, Nezhualpilli, dressed him;
‘In a robe of shining fabric with a glistening waistband, solemnly placed a greenstone crown on his head and adorned him with fabulous jewellery including emerald earrings and nosepiece, gold armbands and anklets, and jaguar skin sandals. He led him to a splendid throne covered with jaguar skins and eagle feathers.’[ix]
Next came a public ceremony; Ahuitzotl was carried on a litter back to the Templo Mayor where at Huitzilpochtli’s shrine he used jaguar claws to let his own blood[x] and offered quails as a sacrifice. Further sacrifices were made to the sun. Ahuitzotl was then carried on his litter to the coateocalli[xi] where he made further blood sacrifices. He then carried on to a temple dedicated to the earth and spring planting where he once again gave his blood to the god.
Finally Ahuitzotl returned to the palace where a series of speeches gave him to understand that he was now raised above his fellow man for he was imbued with the powers of the gods. As leader of his people Ahuitzotl now had the power to speak to the gods and was their embodiment on earth.
|Tlaxcolotongo Falls near Xicotepec|
Ahuitzotl was tough and fearless, proving himself to be Tenochtitlan’s most fearsome leader; he lived and fought with his men on campaign. His campaigns were short, sharp and brutal and Ahuitzotl took murderous retribution against his enemies. The coronation war was a circuit into the Toluca valley and then northward to Xicotepec, before turning to the northern Valley of Mexico.
The fighting killed two birds with one stone; Ahuitzotl suppressed the rebellious cities and reasserted the Tlatoani’s dominion over the army which had become demoralised in Axayacatl’s declining years and under Tizoc’s lacklustre leadership. The booty Ahuitzotl and his army collected on their foray was equal to one year’s tribute. Almost immediately Ahuitzotl marched out on a second punitive campaign to the Gulf Coast, where many cities had refused to send tribute.
Conquered realms were forced to send tribute every year and altogether Tenochtitlan received 123,000 cotton[xii] blankets from its tribute cites annually. Other goods sent as tribute included enough food to feed 360,000 people per annum[xiii], food, gold, silver, precious stones, armour made of feather and cotton, rubber, rubber balls, cotton, cotton textiles and worked products. Everything had to be carried on the back of porters as there were no draught animals.
This wealth was recorded and then stored in special depositories; much of it was used to venerate the gods. For cities close to the empire labour was also a form of tribute demanded by the victors.
Commemoration of the Tlatoani
Following his successful coronation war Ahuitzotl had plenty of prisoners to sacrifice and he used them both to commemorate the completion of the Great Temple’s reconstruction in Eight Reed (1487) but also as the final sequence in the rituals that confirmed him as Tlatoani.
The commemoration festival lasted four days. On the first day, to demonstrate the primacy of Tenochtitlan within the Triple Alliance, Ahuitzotl presented the Tlatoani of Texcoco and Tlacopan with symbols of their status and then the three leaders led a 2,000 strong company of nobles and warriors in a stately dance. He then made a triumphant entrance in a costume adorned with quetzal feathers and jewellery and was surrounded by the dancers. Ahuitzotl made formal presentation of the insignia of office to the officials surrounding him, to underline his pre-eminence.
‘All the gentry of the neighbourhood were invited….the calpixques[xiv] and administrators….brought together all the necessaries for the feast….The ruler himself arrayed the nobles in rich blankets, and he told them this was the reward for their brave deeds.’[xv]
The final part of the commemoration was the sacrifices. Between 20,000 and 80,000 victims[xvi] are alleged to have been killed in what one chronicler described as;
‘Butchery….without equal in human history.’[xvii]
Tlacealel, as cihuacoatl[xviii], dedicated the seventh reconstruction of the Templo Mayor but it was Ahuitzotl himself who made the first sacrifice, attended by his co-rulers of Texcoco and Tlacopan. He cut out the victim’s heart with his obsidian blade, holding it up to the sky before making his obeisances to the new temples. In accordance with custom the body was then thrown down the temple steps before the army of priests in attendance took over the remainder of the killings which took four days to complete.
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
[i] The shaved ones
[ii] Master of the House of Darts or General of the Army; often a last promotion before being elected Tlatoani. Tizoc had been Axayacatl’s Tlacochcalcatl
[iii] Usually close relatives of the Tlatoani
[v] Ancient American Civilisations - Katz
[vi].The year Two House was the anniversary of the foundation of the empire, which was believed to foreshadow the fall of the empire
[ix] The Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Aztecs and Maya – Phillips
[x] ‘Made to the earth as a sign of truth and a bond with the land he was to govern’ – Townsend p. 106
[xi] Holding the statues of gods captured from conquered cities
[xii] Cotton was especially prized by the peoples of central America
[xiii] The cities paying a food tribute were those closest to the Aztec empire, while more far-flung lands contributed textiles
[xiv] Stewards who oversaw conquered lands
[xv] Ancient American Civilisations - Katz
[xvi] Allegedly making four lines that stretched for over four kilometres; although Davies suggests that these figures do not take account of the Aztec method of calculating and that the figure was probably closer to 4,000
[xvii] The Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Aztecs and Maya – Phillips