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Tenochtitlan and the Conquest of the Americas


History Of The Conquest Of Mexico, The Aztecs (part two)

Book:        Book I: Introduction. Preliminary View Of The Aztec Civilization.

Author:      Prescott, William H.



Chapter II: Succession To The Crown, Part I.


Aztec Nobility - Judicial System - Laws And Revenues - Military Institutions


     The form of government differed in the different states of Anahuac.

With the Aztecs and Tezcucans it was monarchical and nearly absolute.  The

two nations resembled each other so much in their political institutions that

one of their historians has remarked, in too unqualified a manner indeed,

that what is told of one may be always understood as applying to the other. ^1

I shall direct my inquiries to the Mexican polity borrowing an illustration

occasionally from that of the rival kingdom.


[Footnote 1: Ixtlilxochitl, Hist. Chich., MS., cap. 36.]


     The government was an elective monarchy.  Four of the principal nobles,

who had been chosen by their own body in the preceding reign, filled the

office of electors, to whom were added, with merely an honorary rank,

however, the two royal allies of Tezcuco and Tlacopan.  The sovereign was

selected from the brothers of the deceased prince, or, in default of them,

from his nephews.  Thus the election was always restricted to the same

family.  The candidate preferred must have distinguished himself in war,

though, as in the case of the last Montezuma, he were a member of the

priesthood. ^2  This singular mode of supplying the throne had some

advantages.  The candidates received an education which fitted them for the

royal dignity, while the age at which they were chosen not only secured the

nation against the evils of minority, but afforded ample means for estimating

their qualifications for the office.  The result, at all events, was

favourable; since the throne, as already noticed, was filled by a succession

of able princes, well qualified to rule over a warlike and ambitious people.

The scheme of election, however defective, argues a more refined and

calculating policy than was to have been expected from a barbarous nation. ^3


[Footnote 2: This was an exception. - In Egypt, also, the king was frequently

taken from the warrior caste, though obliged afterwards to be instructed in

the mysteries of the priesthood.  Plutarch, de Isid. et Osir., sec. 9.]


[Footnote 3: Torquemada, Monarch. Ind., lib. 2, cap. 18; lib. 11, cap. 27.

Clavigero, Stor. del Messico, tom. ii. p. 112. - Acosta, Naturall and Morall

Historie of the East and West Indies, Eng. trans. (London, 1604.) - According

to Zurita, an election by the nobles took place only in default of heirs of

the deceased monarch.  (Rapport, p. 15.)  The minute historical investigation

of Clavigero may be permitted to outweigh this general assertion.]


     The new monarch was installed in his regal dignity with much parade of

religious ceremony, but not until, by a victorious campaign, he had obtained

a sufficient number of captives to grace his triumphal entry into the capital

and to furnish victims for the dark and bloody rites which stained the Aztec

superstition.  Amidst this pomp of human sacrifice he was crowned.  The

crown, resembling a mitre in its form, and curiously ornamented with gold,

gems, and feathers, was placed on his head by the lord of Tezcuco, the most

powerful of his royal allies.  The title of King, by which the earlier Aztec

princes are distinguished by Spanish writers, is supplanted by that of

Emperor in the later reigns, intimating, perhaps, his superiority over the

confederated monarchies of Tlacopan and Tezcuco. ^1


[Footnote 1: Sahagun, Hist. de Nueva-Espana, lib. 6, cap. 9, 10, 14; lib. 8,

cap. 31, 34. - See, also, Zurita, Rapport, pp. 20-23. - Ixtlilxochitl stoutly

claims this supremacy for his own nation.  (Hist. Chich., MS., cap. 34.)  His

assertions are at variance with facts stated by himself elsewhere, and are

not countenanced by any other writer whom I have consulted.]


     The Aztec princes, especially towards the close of the dynasty, lived in

a barbaric pomp, truly Oriental.  Their spacious palaces were provided with

halls for the different councils who aided the monarch in the transaction of

business.  The chief of these was a sort of privy council, composed in part,

probably, of the four electors chosen by the nobles after the accession,

whose places, when made vacant by death, were immediately supplied as before.

It was the business of this body, so far as can be gathered from the very

loose accounts given of it, to advise the king, in respect to the government

of the provinces, the administration of the revenues, and, indeed, on all

great matters of public interest. ^2


[Footnote 2: Sahagun, who places the elective power in a much larger body,

speaks of four senators, who formed a state council.  (Hist. de Nueva-Espana,

Lib. 8, cap. 30.)  Acosta enlarges the council beyond the number of the

electors.  (Lib. 6, ch. 26.)  No two writers agree.]


     In the royal buildings were accommodations, also, for a numerous

bodyguard of the sovereign, made up of the chief nobility.  It is not easy to

determine with precision, in these barbarian governments, the limits of the

several orders.  It is certain there was a distinct class of nobles, with

large landed possessions, who held the most important offices near the person

of the prince, and engrossed the administration of the provinces and

cities. ^3  Many of these could trace their descent from the founders of the

Aztec monarchy.  According to some writers of authority, there were thirty

great caciques, who had their residence, at least a part of the year, in the

capital, and who could muster a hundred thousand vassals each on their

estates. ^4  Without relying on such wild statements, it is clear, from the

testimony of the Conquerors, that the country was occupied by numerous

powerful chieftains, who lived like independent princes on their domains.  If

it be true that the kings encouraged, or, indeed, exacted, the residence of

these nobles in the capital, and required hostages in their absence, it is

evident that their power must have been very formidable. ^1


[Footnote 3: Zurita enumerates four orders of chiefs, all of whom were

exempted from imposts and enjoyed very considerable privileges.  He does not

discriminate the several ranks with much precision.  Rapport, p. 47, et seq.]


[Footnote 4: See, in particular, Herrera, Historia general de los Hechos de

los Castellanos en las Islas y Tierra firme del Mar Oceano (Madrid, 1730),

dec., lib. 7, cap. 12.]


[Footnote 1: Carta de Cortes, ap. Lorenzana, Hist. de Nueva-Espana, p. 110. -

Torquemada, Monarch. Ind., lib. 2, cap. 89; lib. 14, cap. 6. - Clavigero,

Stor. del Messico, tom. ii. p. 121. - Zurita, Rapport, pp. 48, 65. -

Ixtlilxochitl (Hist. Chich., MS., cap. 34) speaks of thirty great feudal

chiefs, some of them Tezcucan and Tlacopan, whom he styles "grandees of the

empire"!  He says nothing of the great tail of 100,000 vassals to each,

mentioned by Torquemada and Herrera.]


     Their estates appear to have been held by various tenures, and to have

been subject to different restrictions.  Some of them, earned by their own

good swords or received as the recompense of public services, were held

without any limitation, except that the possessors could not dispose of them

to a plebeian. ^2  Others were entailed on the eldest male issue, and, in

default of such, reverted to the crown.  Most of them seem to have been

burdened with the obligation of military service.  The principal chiefs of

Tezcuco, according to its chronicler, were expressly obliged to support their

prince with their armed vassals, to attend his court, and aid him in the

council.  Some, instead of these services, were to provide for the repairs of

his buildings, and to keep the royal demesnes in order, with an annual

offering, by way of homage, of fruits and flowers.  It was usual, if we are

to believe historians, for a new king, on his accession, to confirm the

investiture of estates derived from the crown. ^3


[Footnote 2: Macehual, - a word equivalent to the French word roturier.  Nor

could fiefs originally be held by plebeians in France.  See Hallam's Middle

Ages (London, 1819), vol. ii. p. 207.]


[Footnote 3: Ixtlilxochitl, Hist. Chich., MS., ubi supra. - Zurita, Rapport,

ubi supra. - Clavigero, Stor. del Messico, tom. ii. pp. 122-124. - Torquemada,

Monarch. Ind., lib. 14, cap. 7. - Gomara, Cronica de Nueva-Espana, cap. 199,

ap. Barcia, tom. ii. - Boturini (Idea, p. 165) carries back the origin of

fiefs in Anahuac to the twelfth century.  Carli says.  "Le systeme politique

y etoit feodal."  In the next page he tells us, "Personal merit alone made

the distinction of the nobility"!  (Lettres Americaines, trad. Fr. (Paris,

1788), tom. i. let. 11.)  Carli was a writer of a lively imagination.]


     It cannot be denied that we recognize, in all this, several features of

the feudal system, which, no doubt, lose nothing of their effect under the

hands of the Spanish writers, who are fond of tracing analogies to European

institutions.  But such analogies lead sometimes to very erroneous

conclusions.  The obligation of military service, for instance, the most

essential principle of a fief, seems to be naturally demanded by every

government from its subjects.  As to minor points of resemblance, they fall

far short of that harmonious system of reciprocal service and protection

which embraced, in nice gradation, every order of a feudal monarchy.  The

kingdoms of Anahuac were in their nature despotic, attended, indeed, with

many mitigating circumstances unknown to the despotisms of the East; but it

is chimerical to look for much in common - beyond a few accidental forms and

ceremonies - with those aristocratic institutions of the Middle Ages which

made the court of every petty baron the precise image in miniature of that of

his sovereign.


     The legislative power, both in Mexico and Tezcuco, resided wholly with

the monarch.  This feature of despotism, however, was in some measure

counteracted by the constitution of the judicial tribunals, - of more

importance, among a rude people, than the legislative, since it is easier to

make good laws for such a community than to enforce them, and the best laws,

badly administered, are but a mockery.  Over each of the principal cities,

with its dependent territories, was placed a supreme judge, appointed by the

crown, with original and final jurisdiction in both civil and criminal cases.

There was no appeal from his sentence to any other tribunal, nor even to the

king.  He held his office during life; and any one who usurped his ensigns

was punished with death. ^1


[Footnote 1: This magistrate, who was called cihuacoatl, was also to audit the

accounts of the collectors of the taxes in his district.  (Clavigero, Stor.

del Messico, tom. ii. p. 127. - Torquemada, Monarch. Ind., lib. II, cap. 25.)

The Mendoza Collection contains a painting of the courts of justice under

Montezuma, who introduced great changes in them.  (Antiq. of Mexico, vol. i.,

Plate 70.) According to the interpreter, an appeal lay from them, in certain

cases, to the king's council.  Ibid., vol. vi. p. 79.


     Note: This word, a compound of cihuatl, woman, and coatl, serpent, was

the name of a divinity, the mythical mother of the human species.  Its typical

application may have had reference to justice, or law, as the source of social

order. - Ed.]


     Below this magistrate was a court, established in each province, and

consisting of three members.  It held concurrent jurisdiction with the

supreme judge in civil suits, but in criminal an appeal lay to his tribunal.

Besides these courts, there was a body of inferior magistrates, distributed

through the country, chosen by the people themselves in their several

districts.  Their authority was limited to smaller causes, while the more

important were carried up to the higher courts.  There was still another

class of subordinate officers, appointed also by the people, each of whom was

to watch over the conduct of a certain number of families and report any

disorder or breach of the laws to the higher authorities. ^2


[Footnote 2: Clavigero, Stor. del Messico, tom. ii. pp. 127, 128. -

Torquemada, Monarch. Ind., ubi supra. - In this arrangement of the more

humble magistrates we are reminded of the Anglo-Saxon hundreds and tithings,

especially the latter, the members of which were to watch over the conduct of

the families in their districts and bring the offenders to justice.  The hard

penalty of mutual responsibility was not known to the Mexicans]


     In Tezcuco the judicial arrangements were of a more refined character; ^3

and a gradation of tribunals finally terminated in a general meeting or

parliament, consisting of all the judges, great and petty, throughout the

kingdom, held every eighty days in the capital, over which the king presided

in person.  This body determined all suits which, from their importance or

difficulty, had been reserved for its consideration by the lower tribunals.

It served, moreover, as a council of state, to assist the monarch in the

transaction of public business. ^4


[Footnote 3: Zurita, so temperate, usually, in his language, remarks that,

in the capital, "Tribunals were instituted which might compare in their

organization with the royal audiences of Castile."  (Rapport, p. 93.)  His

observations are chiefly drawn from the Tezcucan courts, which in their forms

of procedure, he says, were like the Aztec.  (Loc. cit.)]


[Footnote 4: Boturini, Idea, p. 87. - Torquemada, Monarch, Ind., lib. II,

cap. 26. - Zurita compares this body to the Castilian cortes.  It would

seem, however, according to him, to have consisted only of twelve principal

judges, besides the king.  His meaning is somewhat doubtful.  (Rapport, pp.

94, 101, 106.)  M. de Humboldt, in his account of the Aztec courts, has

confounded them with the Tezcucan.  Comp. Vues des Cordilleres et Monumens

des Peuples indigenes de l'Amerique (Paris, 1810), p. 55, and Clavigero,

Stor. del Messico, tom. ii. pp 128, 129.]


     Such are the vague and imperfect notices that can be gleaned, respecting

the Aztec tribunals, from the hieroglyphical paintings still preserved, and

from the most accredited Spanish writers.  These, being usually eccle

siastics, have taken much less interest in this subject than in matters

connected with religion.  They find some apology, certainly, in the early

destruction of most of the Indian paintings, from which their information

was, in part, to be gathered.


     On the whole, however, it must be inferred that the Aztecs were

sufficiently civilized to evince a solicitude for the rights both of property

and of persons.  The law, authorizing an appeal to the highest judicature in

criminal matters only, shows an attention to personal security, rendered the

more obligatory by the extreme severity of their penal code, which would

naturally have made them more cautious of a wrong conviction.  The existence

of a number of co-ordinate tribunals, without a central one of supreme

authority to control the whole, must have given rise to very discordant

interpretations of the law in different districts.  But this is an evil which

they shared in common with most of the nations of Europe.


     The provision for making the superior judges wholly independent of the

crown was worthy of an enlightened people.  It presented the strongest

barrier that a mere constitution could afford against tyranny.  It is not,

indeed, to be supposed that, in a government otherwise so despotic, means

could not be found for influencing the magistrate.  But it was a great step

to fence round his authority with the sanction of the law; and no one of the

Aztec monarchs, so far as I know, is accused of an attempt to violate it.


     To receive presents or a bribe, to be guilty of collusion in any way

with a suitor, was punished, in a judge, with death.  Who, or what tribunal,

decided as to his guilt, does not appear.  In Tezcuco this was done by the

rest of the court.  But the king presided over that body.  The Tezcucan

prince Nezahualpilli, who rarely tempered justice with mercy, put one judge

to death for taking a bribe, and another for determining suits in his own

house, - a capital offence, also, by law. ^1


[Footnote 1: "If this should be done now, what an excellent thing it would

be!" exclaims Sahagun's Mexican editor.  Hist de Nueva-Espana, tom. ii. p.

304, nota. - Zurita, Rapport, p. 02. - Torquemada, Monarch. Ind., ubi

supra. - Ixtlilxochitl, Hist. Chich., MS., cap. 67.]


     The judges of the higher tribunals were maintained from the produce of a

part of the crown lands, reserved for this purpose.  They, as well as the

supreme judge, held their offices for life.  The proceedings in the courts

were conducted with decency and order.  The judges wore an appropriate dress,

and attended to business both parts of the day, dining always, for the sake

of despatch, in an apartment of the same building where they held their

session; a method of proceeding much commended by the Spanish chroniclers, to

whom despatch was not very familiar in their own tribunals.  Officers

attended to preserve order, and others summoned the parties and produced them

in court.  No counsel was employed; the parties stated their own case and

supported it by their witnesses.  The oath of the accused was also admitted

in evidence.  The statement of the case, the testimony, and the proceedings

of the trial were all set forth by a clerk, in hieroglyphical paintings, and

handed over to the court.  The paintings were executed with so much accuracy

that in all suits respecting real property they were allowed to be produced

as good authority in the Spanish tribunals, very long after the Conquest; and

a chair for their study and interpretation was established at Mexico in 1553,

which has long since shared the fate of most other provisions for learning in

that unfortunate country. ^1


[Footnote 1: Zurita, Rapport, pp. 95, 100, 103. - Sahagun, Hist. de

Nueva-Espana, loc. cit. - Humboldt, Vues des Cordilleres, pp. 55, 56. -

Torquemada, Monarch. Ind., lib. 11, cap. 25. - Clavigero says the accused

might free himself by oath: "il reo poteva purgarsi col giuramento."  (Stor.

del Messico, tom, ii. p. 129.)  What rogue, then, could ever have been



     A capital sentence was indicated by a line traced with an arrow across

the portrait of the accused.  In Tezcuco, where the king presided in the

court, this, according to the national chronicler, was done with

extraordinary parade.  His description, which is of rather a poetical cast, I

give in his own words.  "In the royal palace of Tezcuco was a courtyard, on

the opposite sides of which were two halls of justice.  In the principal one,

called the 'tribunal of God,' was a throne of pure gold, inlaid with

turquoises and other precious stones.  On a stool in front was placed a human

skull, crowned with an immense emerald of a pyramidal form, and surmounted by

an aigrette of brilliant plumes and precious stones.  The skull was laid on a

heap of military weapons, shields, quivers, bows, and arrows.  The walls were

hung with tapestry, made of the hair of different wild animals, of rich and

various colours, festooned by gold rings and embroidered with figures of

birds and flowers.  Above the throne was a canopy of variegated plumage, from

the centre of which shot forth resplendent rays of gold and jewels.  The

other tribunal, called 'the King's,' was also surmounted by a gorgeous canopy

of feathers, on which were emblazoned the royal arms.  Here the sovereign

gave public audience and communicated his despatches.  But when he decided

important causes, or confirmed a capital sentence, he passed to the 'tribunal

of God,' attended by the fourteen great lords of the realm, marshalled

according to their rank.  Then, putting on his mitred crown, incrusted with

precious stones, and holding a golden arrow, by way of sceptre, in his left

hand, he laid his right upon the skull, and pronounced judgment." ^2  All this

looks rather fine for a court of justice, it must be owned.  But it is

certain that the Tezcucans, as we shall see hereafter, possessed both the

materials and the skill requisite to work them up in this manner.  Had they

been a little further advanced in refinement, one might well doubt their

having the bad taste to do so.


[Footnote 2: Ixtlilxochitl, Hist. Chich., MS., cap. 36. - These various

objects had a symbolical meaning, according to Boturini, Idea, p. 84.]


     The laws of the Aztecs were registered, and exhibited to the people, in

their hieroglyphical paintings.  Much the larger part of them, as in every

nation imperfectly civilized, relates rather to the security of persons than

of property.  The great crimes against society were all made capital.  Even

the murder of a slave was punished with death.  Adulterers, as among the

Jews, were stoned to death.  Thieving, according to the degree of the

offence, was punished by slavery or death.  Yet the Mexicans could have been

under no great apprehension of this crime, since the entrances to their

dwellings were not secured by bolts or fastenings of any kind.  It was a

capital offence to remove the boundaries of another's lands; to alter the

established measures; and for a guardian not to be able to give a good

account of his ward's property.  These regulations evince a regard for equity

in dealings, and for private rights, which argues a considerable progress in

civilization.  Prodigals, who squandered their patrimony, were punished in

like manner; a severe sentence, since the crime brought its adequate

punishment along with it.  Intemperance, which was the burden, moreover, of

their religious homilies, was visited with the severest penalties; as if they

had foreseen in it the consuming canker of their own as well as of the other

Indian races in later times.  It was punished in the young with death, and in

older persons with loss of rank and confiscation of property.  Yet a decent

conviviality was not meant to be proscribed at their festivals, and they

possessed the means of indulging it, in a mild fermented liquor, called

pulque, which is still popular, not only with the Indian, but the European

population of the country. ^1


[Footnote 1: Paintings of the Mendoza Collection, Pl. 72, and Interpretation,

ap. Antiq. of Mexico, vol. vi. p. 87. - Torquemada, Monarch, Ind., lib. 12,

cap. 7. - Clavigero, Stor. del Messico, tom. ii. pp. 130-134. - Camargo,

Hist. de Tlascala, MS. - They could scarcely have been an intemperate

people, with these heavy penalties hanging over them.  Indeed, Zurita bears

testimony that those Spaniards who thought they were greatly erred.

(Rapport, p. 112.)  M. Ternaux's translation of a passage of the Anonymous

Conqueror, "aucum peuple n' est aussi sobre" (Recueil de Pieces relatives a

la Conquete du Mexique, ap. Voyages, etc. (Paris, 1838), p. 54), may give a

more favourable impression, however, than that intended by his original,

whose remark is confined to abstemiousness in eating.  See the Relatione,

ap. Ramusio, Raccolta delle Navigationi et Viaggi (Venetia, 1554-1565).]


     The rites of marriage were celebrated with as much formality as in any

Christian country; and the institution was held in such reverence that a

tribunal was instituted for the sole purpose of determining questions

relating to it.  Divorces could not be obtained until authorized by a

sentence of this court, after a patient hearing of the parties.

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