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Tenochtitlan and the Conquest of the Americas

 

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

The Postclassical Era

Book:       Chapter 17: The Americas On The Eve Of Invasion

Author:     Prescott, William H

Date:        1992

 

 

 

Aztec Society In Transition

 

     During their wanderings, the Aztecs had been divided into seven calpulli,

or clans, a form of organization that they would later expand and adapt to

their imperial position. By the 16th century there were about 20 major

calpulli and 40 associated ones in Tenochtitlan alone. The calpulli were no

longer only kinship groups but also residential groupings that might include

neighbors, allies, and dependents. Much of Aztec local life remained based on

the calpulli, which performed important functions such as distributing land to

heads of households, organizing labor gangs and military units in times of

war, and maintaining a temple and school. Calpulli were governed by councils

of family heads, but not all families were equal, nor were all calpulli of

equal status.

 

     The calpulli had obviously been the ancient and basic building block of

Aztec society. In the origins of Aztec society every person - noble and

commoner - had belonged to a calpulli, but Aztec power increased and the rule

of the empire expanded. The calpulli had been transformed, and other forms of

social stratification had emerged. Legends of their origins emphasized that at

one time the Aztecs had all been peasants and had worked for others. As Aztec

power expanded, a class of nobility emerged, based on certain privileged

families in the most distinguished calpulli. Originating from the lineages

that headed calpulli - especially those that had married into non-Mexica

families or could claim Toltec background - and by marriages, military

achievements, or service to the state, this group of nobility accumulated high

office, private lands, and other advantages. The most prominent families in

the calpulli, those who had dominated leadership roles and formed a kind of

local nobility, were eventually overshadowed by the military and

administrative nobility of the Aztec state.

 

     While some commoners might receive promotion to noble status, most nobles

were born into the class - although birth merely qualified an individual for

high position, which ultimately depended on performance and ability. Nobles

controlled the priesthood and the military leadership. The military, in fact,

was organized into various ranks based on experience and success in taking

captives. Military virtues were linked to the cult of sacrifice and infused

the whole society; they became the justification for the nobility's

predominance and the ideology of the nobility's identity. The "flowery death,"

or death while taking prisoners for the sacrificial knife, was the fitting end

to a noble life and assured eternity in the highest heaven, a reward also

promised to women who died in childbirth. The military was highly ritualized:

There were orders of warriors - the jaguar, eagle, and other groups each had a

distinctive uniform and ritual and fought together as units. Distinctive

banners, cloaks, and other insignia marked off the military ranks.

 

     The social gulf that separated the nobility from the commoners was

widening as the empire grew and the pipiltin accumulated the lands and tribute

that the expansion implied. Egalitarian principles that may have once existed

in Aztec life disappeared - a situation similar to what happened among the

warring German tribes of early medieval Europe. Social distinctions were made

apparent by the use and restrictions on clothing, hairstyles, uniforms, and

other outward symbols of rank. The imperial family became the most

distinguished of the pipiltin families. Moctezuma II was particularly anxious

to favor the nobility, and under his rule aristocratic domination of society

was intensified and commoners were increasingly limited in their opportunities

for advancement and recognition.

 

     As the nobility broke free from their old calpulli and acquired private

lands, a new class of workers was created to serve as laborers on these lands.

These mayeques, or serfs, were sometimes from dependent clans or more often

from conquered peoples. Unlike the commoners attached to the land-controlling

calpulli, the mayeques did not control land and worked at the will of others.

Their status was low, but it was still above that of the slaves who might have

been war captives, persons punished for crimes, or those who had sold

themselves into bondage to escape hunger. The mayeques often did domestic

work, and while they could buy their freedom, they could also be offered as

sacrifices by their owner. Together, the mayeques and the slaves formed a

growing sector of the population whose situation was directly tied to the

fortunes of the nobility and the strength of the Aztec Empire and who had

little to gain from its success. Finally, there were other social groups. The

scribes, artisans, and healers all constituted part of a kind of intermediate

group, especially important in the larger cities. The long-distance merchants

formed a sort of calpulli with their own patron gods, privileges, and internal

divisions. They sometimes served as spies or agents for the Aztec military,

but despite this role and their wealth, they were subject to restrictions that

hindered their entry into or rivalry with the nobility.

 

     It is possible to see an emerging conflict between the nobility and the

commoners and to interpret this as a class struggle, but some specialists

emphasize that to interpret Aztec society on that basis is to impose Western

concepts on a different reality. Corporate bodies, such as the calpulli,

temple maintenance associations, and occupational groups, cut across class and

remained important in Aztec life. Competition between corporate groups was

often more apparent and more violent than between social classes.

 

Features Of Aztec Society: Overcoming Technological Constraints

 

     Membership in society was defined by participation in various wider

groups, such as the calpulli or a specific social class, and by gender roles

and definitions. Aztec women assumed a variety of roles. Peasant women helped

in the fields, but their primary domain was the household, where child-rearing

and cooking took up much time. Above all, skill at weaving was highly

regarded. Responsibility for training young girls fell on the mature and

elderly women of the calpulli. Marriages were often arranged between lineages

and virginity at marriage was highly regarded for young women. Polygamy

existed among the nobility, but the peasants were monogamous. Aztec women

could inherit property and pass it to their heirs. The rights of Aztec women

seem to have been fully recognized, but in political and social life their

role, while complementary to that of men, remained subordinate.

 

     The technology of the Americas limited social development in a variety of

ways. Here we can note a significant difference between the life of women in

Mesoamerica and in the Mediterranean world. In the maize-based economies of

Mesoamerica, women spent six hours a day grinding the corn by hand on stone

boards, or metates, to prepare the household's food. Although similar hand

techniques were used in ancient Egypt, they were eventually replaced by

animal- or water-powered mills that turned wheat into flour. The miller or

baker of Rome or medieval Europe could do the work of hundreds of women. Maize

was among the simplest and most productive cereals to grow, but among the most

time-consuming to prepare. Without the wheel or suitable animals for power,

the Indian civilizations were unable to free women from the 30 to 40 hours a

week that went into the preparation of the basic food.

 

     Finally, we must consider the size of the population of the Aztec state.

Estimates have varied widely from as little as 1.5 million to over 25 million,

but there is now considerable evidence that population density was high,

resulting in a total population that was far greater than previously

suspected. Historical demographers now estimate that the population of central

Mexico under Aztec control reached over 20 million, excluding the Maya areas.

This underlines the extraordinary ability of the Aztec state to intimidate and

control such vast numbers of people.

 

A Tribute Empire

 

     Each of the city-states was ruled by a speaker chosen from the nobility.

The Great Speaker, the ruler of Tenochtitlan, became first among supposed

equals. He was in effect the emperor, with great private wealth and public

power, and was increasingly attributed with the symbols and status of a living

god. His court was magnificent and surrounded with elaborate rituals. Those

who approached him could not look him in the eyes and were required to throw

dirt upon their heads as a sign of humility. In theory, he was elected, but

his election was really a choice between siblings of the same royal family.

The prime minister held a position of tremendous power and was usually a close

relative of the ruler. There was a governing council and, in theory, the

rulers of the other cities of the triple alliance also had a say in

government; but in reality most power was in the hands of the Aztec ruler and

his chief advisor.

 

     Over the course of a century of Aztec expansion a social and political

transformation had taken place. The position and nature of the old calpulli

clans had changed radically, and a newly powerful nobility with a deified and

virtually absolute ruler had emerged. Under the sponsorship of the prime

minister, Tlacaelel, the ancient cult of military virtues had been elevated to

a supreme position as the religion of the state, and the double purpose of

securing increasing tribute for the state and more victims for Huitzilopochtli

combined to drive further Aztec conquests.

 

     The empire was never integrated, and local rulers often stayed in place

to act as surrogates and tribute collectors for the Aztec overlords. In many

ways the Aztec Empire was simply an expansion of long-existing Mesoamerican

concepts and institutions of government, and was not unlike the subject

city-states over which it gained control. These city-states, in turn, were

often left relatively unchanged, provided they recognized Aztec supremacy and

met their obligations of labor and tribute. Tribute payments served both an

economic and a political function, concentrating power and wealth in the Aztec

capital. Archeologists at the recent excavations of the Great Temple beneath

the center of Mexico City have been impressed by the large number of offerings

and objects that came from the farthest ends of the empire and beyond. At the

frontiers, neighboring states, such as Michoacan, preserved their freedom;

while within the empire, independent kingdoms, such as Tlaxcala, maintained a

fierce opposition to the Aztecs. There were many revolts against Aztec rule or

a particular tribute burden, which the Aztecs often put down ruthlessly.

 

     In general, the Aztec system was a success because it aimed at exerting

political domination and not necessarily direct administrative or territorial

control. In the long run, however, the increasing social stresses created by

the rise of the pipiltin and the system of terror and tribute imposed over

subject peoples were internal weaknesses that ultimately contributed to the

Aztec Empire's collapse.

 

     The Aztecs, then, represented a continuation of the long process of

civilization in Mesoamerica. The civilizations of the classic era did not

simply disappear in central Mexico or among the Maya in Yucatan and Central

America, but they were reinterpreted and adapted to new political and social

realities. When Europeans arrived in Mexico, they assumed that what they found

was the culmination of Indian civilization, when, in fact, it was the

militarized afterglow of earlier achievements.

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