Nezahualcoyotl[i] was the son of Ixtlixochtlotl I, Tlatoani of Texcoco, and Matlalcihuatzin, the daughter of Huitzilhuitl, Tlatoani of Tenochtitlan. Nezahualcoyotl was born on April 28th 1401[ii]. Little is known of Nezahualcoyotl’s youth but like any Aztec scion of the nobility he would have been taught at the Texcoco calmecac[iii]
Ixtlilxochitl, a descendant of the Acolhua[iv], like his father before him, paid tribute to the Tepanec city of Azcapotlzalco[v] Ixtlilxochitl did not care to be tied to the Tepanec and in preference to marrying the daughter of Tezozomac, the aggressive Tepanec Tlatoani, chose to marry Matlalcihuatzin. Ixtlilxochitl openly challenged Tezozomac, calling himself Lord of the Chichimecs, as his family was descended from Xolotl, the first Chichimec ruler.
Tezozomac responded by gaining the support of Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco[vi], leaving Texcoco friendless. He then sent Ixtlilxochitl cotton that he was to have woven for use by Tezozomac, thus emphasising his subordinate status. Ixtlilxochitl refused to do so, he claimed that he could put the material to best use as cotton armour for his troops.
From Thirteen Rabbit (1414) to Four Rabbit (1418) Tezozomac waged war against Ixtlilxochitl and Texcoco. At one point Ixtlilxochitl reached the outskirts of Azcapotlzalco but was driven back and eventually superior numbers won the day and Ixtlilxochitl fled Texcoco, heading for the mountains. He was murdered in the foothills of Mount Tlaloc, in the presence of Nezahualcoyotl.
On the Run
Unlike the precedents followed in Tenochtitlan[vii], in Texcoco leadership was passed on from father to son. Nezahualcoyotl was now unofficially the Tlatoani of Texcoco at the age of fifteen. He had no lands but did have the loyalty of his people. Nezahualcoyotl fled to Huexotzinco[viii] and then travelled to Tenochtitlan in Eight Rabbit (1422) seeking refuge with his mother’s family.
Texcoco was forced to pay tribute to Tenochtitlan rather than Azcapotlzalco, presumably as a reward for Tenochtitlan’s support in the fight against a neighbouring city. Nezahualcoyote’s grandfather Huitziilhuitl died in Three House (1417) and the new Tlatoani of Tenochtitlan was Tezozomac’s grandson Chimalpopoca.
Nezahualcoyotl’s aunts allegedly bribed Tezozomac who allowed Nezahualcoyotl to be partially educated as one of the family[ix]. While resident in Tenochtitlan Nezahualcoyotl came of age as a warrior and it is alleged that, although confined to within the city limits, Nezahualcoyotl handed over prisoners to Tezozomac. In exile Nezahualcoyotl was able to keep the spirit of resistance alive and well in Texcoco.
Tezozomac died in Twelve Rabbit (1426) and was succeeded by his son Maxtla, who was far less able than his father. Maxtla arranged the assassination of Chimalpopoca after a series of conflicts between the Tepanecs and Tenochtitlan.
After Maxtla became ruler of Azcapotzalco, Nezahualcoyotl returned to Texcoco, but had to return to exile a second time when he learned that Maxtla plotted against his life. Maxtla sent a delegation to Texcoco ostensibly as an embassy, but in reality under orders to kill Nezahualcoyotl. The plot was uncovered by Nezahualcoyotl’s attendants and Nezahualcoyotl took refuge in Huexotzinco once again.
The Triple Alliance
Chimalpopoca was succeeded by his uncle Iztcoatl who forged an alliance to defeat Maxtla. Nezahualcoyotl was aware of his need for allies to regain his city and he was only too happy to fall in with his uncle Iztcoatl’s plans. In One Flint Knife (1428) the city state of Texcoco joined the cities of Tenochtitlan and Tlacopan to form the Triple Alliance[x]. One of the architects of the alliance was the Cihuacoatl or Snake Woman of Tenochtitlan Tlacaelel[xi].
Backed by alliance forces Nezahualcoyotl returned to his patrimony in Texcoco, which became the headquarters of the revolt. Nezahualcoyotl was prominent in the coalition and led a force of warriors from Texcoco and Huexotzinco across the lake in a fleet of canoes. Tlacopan also rose up in revolt against Maxtla’s forces.
Maxtla’s capital was besieged by a force possibly as large as 100,000 men. After 114 days of the siege and a battle[xii], led by Nezahualcoyotl[xiii], Azcapotzla fell and Maxtla was captured in a ritual sweat-bath by his own embittered countrymen.
‘The allied powers, after a series of bloody engagements with the usurper [Maxtla], routed him under the walls of his own capital. He fled to the baths whence he was dragged out, and sacrificed with the usual cruel ceremonies of the Aztecs; the royal city of Azcapulzalco was razed to the ground.’[xiv]
It fell to Nezahualcoyotl to sacrifice the son of his father’s killer. The sacrifice offered the victim’s lifeblood to safeguard the soil, ensure the coming of the rains and it would validate the state and the power of its ruler. The sacrifice was also an act of respect towards Maxtla as it was shameful for a ruler to be kept prisoner[xv].
Tlatoani of Texcoco
Following the fall of Azcapotzla the Triple Alliance armies once again set out on campaign against the fertile Tlalhuica territories to the south[xvi]. They conquered Cuauhnahuac, the main town of the region and then the settlements of Cuitlahuac, Culhuacan, Mixquic, and Xochilmilco.
Tlacopan took the lands in the western part of the Valley of Mexico, while Texcoco received most of the eastern lands. Tenochtitlan took lands in both north and south. Tenochtitlan became the apex of the alliance with Texcoco in second place. The conquered regions paid tribute to the Triple Alliance in the way of goods and victims for sacrifice[xvii]. Nezahualcoyotl pioneered the policy of leaving local leaders in charge and Iztcoatl soon followed suit as it reduced the chances of revolt.
When he returned victorious to Texcoco Nezahualcoyotl apparently took the maxim;
‘That a monarch might punish, but revenge was unworthy of him’[xviii]
to heart. With Iztcoatl’s support he eliminated elements of the Texcoco nobility who were hostile to his return but pardoned others of the turncoat nobles and gave some posts of honour and his confidence.
Nezahualcoyotl created eight districts among his thirteen tribute paying towns and assigned a tribute collector to each one who was assigned the task of providing the palace with food and firewood on a rotational basis. The provinces were also required to pay tribute in the form of military service and the provision of labour for the construction and maintenance of temples; Nezahualcoyotl had a number of temples refurbished or reconstructed within the Texcoco heartlands.
In addition to the other councils set up by Nezahualcoyotl when he became Tlatoani was one which must have been close to his heart; that of the council of music which was devoted to encouraging the study of science and art. Works on astronomy, chronology, history and other sciences had to be approved by the council before they could be publicised. Wilful perversion of the truth was a capital offence.
The council of music was staffed with specialists with no regard to rank and had supervision over the production of all artworks and the finer fabrics. The council also decided on the qualifications of teachers and the quality of their teaching. Poor teaching was a punishable offence and the council instituted exams for the students. On set days the students had to present their work before a tribunal of the three heads of the Triple Alliance who then deliberated with the council members on the merits of the work presented to them. Prizes were distributed to those found worthy.
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 Conquest of Mexico – WH Prescott, JM Dent and Sons Ltd 1978
The Aztecs – Richard F Townsend, Thames & Hudson Ltd 2010
[i] Hungry Coyote is one translation of the name Nezahualcoyotl; another is Fasting Coyote
[ii] By the Aztec calendar his birth date was Four Rabbit (day), One Snake (month), Thirteen House (year)
[iv] Unlike the other rulers of towns in the Valley of Mexico
[vi] Both cities were part of the Chicimec empire and Tezozomac promised to make these two cities the pillars of the empire
[ix] His exposure to the culture and politics of Tenochtitlan would influence how he later governed Texcoco
[x] Which was to become the Mexica Empire
[xii] The battle consolidated the supremacy of the warrior class
[xiii] Some sources say that Tlacaelel was general of the army but this would appear to contradict the practise of leaving the Cihuacoatl in charge of the city while the Tlatoani went to war
[xiv] The Conquest of Mexico - Prescott
[xv] Azcapotzla was razed to the ground and the land was used for a slave market
[xvii] Each area only paying tribute to the city that claimed their region; it was down to Nezahualcoyotl’s influence that Texcoco garnered two fifths of all tribute given to the three towns of the Triple Alliance; Tenochtitlan took three fifths while Tlalopec took only one fifth
[xviii] The Conquest of Mexico - Prescott