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The Aztecs: A Tributary Empire (1)

Introduction

When the Spanish arrived in the Americas, they discovered two large and conspicuously sophisticated empires: the Aztecs [Note 1] in central and southern Mexico and the Inca in Peru. (Never really empires, the great Maya states in the region that is today southeastern Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize had already collapsed and been replaced by petty successor states.) Each of these exhibited great wealth flowing inward to the capital from a broad geographical region that constituted its empire.

This essay is concerned with the Aztec polity as an example of a "tributary empire," that is, one made up of communities that send goods as "tribute" to the capital because failing to do so would bring devastating punishment. The Aztec empire was very successful, drawing immense wealth to its capital and sustaining military power that usually intimidated or eliminated opposition. I shall argue that it was also fragile, for I see it as built almost entirely on intimidation, so that any sign of weakness at the center easily inspired rebellions. By that logic, the Aztec empire did not fall because of the very small force of Spaniards who attacked them, but because the Spaniards catalyzed a rebellion of conquered peoples and polities eager to throw off Aztec domination.

In this essay we shall not be concerned with the ultimate collapse of the Aztecs after the Spanish arrived, but rather with the way in which they came to power and with the ways in which they consolidated, maintained, and extended their power once they had it.


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