Go to site main page, student resources page.

Open window for Contents, Glossary, Maps.

Content created: 080821
File last modified: 160117
Part 11 Part 13

The Aztecs: A Tributary Empire (12)

Tlacahélel's Early Policies (1430-1455)

Dramatis Personae


After the founding of the Triple Alliance, a number of changes were made in Aztec governance, all of them having the effect of consolidating political power into the hands of the "speaker" (and his clique) and of extracting an ever greater flow of goods from conquered realms to the capital at Tenochtítlan. It is reasonable to see these changes as largely the work of Tlacahélel, since they all tend toward the same end and exhibit a great consistency over time, but the historical chronicles do not usually tell us just how these decisions were made or enforced. Briefly, here three of "Tlacahélel's" initial reforms:

Codex Mendoza
Beginning in Itzcoatl's reign, war tribute was no longer passed on to the calpolli for redistribution, but was distributed directly from the emperor, including a good share to warriors. Different grades of warriors were permitted to wear differentially prestigious battle gear (shown here in the Codex Mendoza, a tribute list, the surviving copy of which was heavily annotated in Spanish).
  1. Distribution of War Booty. Beginning in the reign of Emperor 4, Uncle Itzcóatl, the distribution of war booty was changed, with the bulk of it being routed to the "speaker" and then going directly to warriors, not to the calpólli leaders for redistribution. The result was that calpólli leaders, deprived of their role in distributing resources to calpólli members, were very much weakened as a political force.
  2. Elevation of Huitzilo-póchtli. A great number of gods were worshipped by the Nahua, including Quetzal-cóatl ("feathered serpent") and Tláloc, a rain god (possibly originally meaning "sprouting seed"). Both of these cults dated back to Teotihuácan times (or before). Mexican towns had central ceremonial platforms topped by temples. In the one that the Aztecs constructed in the center of Tenochtítlan, the convention was adopted of giving it a double form: two conjoined pyramids. One was devoted to Tláloc, who was associated with rain and moisture, and the other was devoted, not to Quetzal-cóatl, but rather to Huitzilo-póchtli, the patron of the Mexica and of the Aztecs, honored as the god of war. [Note 24]
24. The Aztecs almost certainly associated Quetzal-cóatl with the admired Toltecs. It is tempting to see the elevation of Huitzilo-póchtli as coming at the expense of Quetzal-cóatl. This would symbolize the displacement of the Toltecs by the Aztecs, making the Aztecs at once the Toltecs' inheritors and the Toltecs' superiors.
  1. Burning of Books. In 1440, during the reign change from Emperor 4 to Emperor 5, all non-Aztec historical records were gathered and destroyed from all areas controlled by the Aztec régime in order to avoid the propagation of "erroneous" views of history, such as views that the Aztecs did not have legitimate political power or that they had lost battles.

When Emperor 4, Uncle Itzcóatl, died in 1440, he was succeeded by his nephew (Tlacahélel's half-brother) Moteuczóma Ilhuicamína ("the frowning lord who shot heaven with an arrow," Emperor 5), sometimes known as Moteuczóma I. Emperor 5, with Tlacahélel as his top general, embarked upon a series of very successful campaigns to conquer other towns. By six years later, Aztec forces were drawing tribute from towns far to the south in Oaxaca, although most attention was paid to the towns around the lake itself. Not all campaigns were successful. Chálco held out for another twenty years, and nearby Tlaxcállan was never conquered. Still, there was considerable success.

The Aztec empire, like earlier Mexican empires as far as we know, seemed to grow organically from a practice by which various towns sought to gain tribute from each other. If you were a leader of a small town —it is a great exaggeration in most cases to say "city"— and you were attacked, the first step would be the arrival of a representative from the Triple Alliance asking for you to surrender, to send the principal statue of your patron god to a "god house" in Tenochtítlan, and then to send loads of goods to Tenochtítlan at regular intervals.

25. The codex, written on European paper, was captured on its way to Spain by French pirates and sold to an English writer contemporary with Shakespeare. It is now in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University.

One of the few records we have of such a flow of goods is the Codex Mendoza. The Codex Mendoza (or Códice Mendocino) was created somewhere between 1530 and 1540 at the order of Antonio de Mendoza, the viceroy of New Spain. It contains a history and a tribute list representing the flow of goods into Tenochtítlan just before the Spanish arrival. [Note 25] Because of the difficulty of interpreting some of the glyphs, there is not full agreement on the quantities of materials owed. But in broad outline, here is what seems to have been expected to arrive once every eighty days (based on Thomas 1993: 615-617):

Codex Mendoza
A portion of the Mendoza tribute list, showing pictures of tribute to be offered and, along the left side and bottom, the place glyphs of towns from which it is expected. Along the top are fabrics in various designs. In the middle are colored feathers and precious stones. At least in the early days, nearlly all of the tribute demanded involved luxury products for the conspicuous consumption of the elites.

This is a remarkably heavy burden, and would have come close to exhausting the energies of even a very large population. Some of these products would be directly gathered by the town submitting them. But insofar as possible, each town would try to conquer weaker neighbors to demand at least a portion of their dues from those populations. Thus tribute flowed from areas that were not under direct Aztec control, through larger towns that were Aztec subordinates, and on to Tenochtítlan. The Aztec empire has been described as being "full of holes," areas that indirectly provided tribute to the center, but were not directly controlled. A central demand for particular tribute would then have a "ripple effect" or "cascade effect" as subordinate towns would repeat the demand to their own subordinate settlements.

Return to top.

Setting the tribute burden, like establishing targets for takeover, required information, and the people best suited to collect it were the countless merchants who traveled the countryside (and the lakes and rivers) carrying goods from one place to sell them in another, or actually collecting some of the tribute to be delivered. The Aztecs called such people pochtécah (singular: pochtécatl), a word which, in the spelling "pochteca," has been widely borrowed in English (not always appropriately) to refer to real or hypothetical central Mexican traders traveling far beyond the limits of their known world (as far north as Arizona, for example, or into the Maya settlements of Yucatán). Protected by imperial decree, and often working under imperial command, the pochteca, were the backbone of the trading system and therefore of the great market of Tlatelólco and lesser imitators. But, loved, hated, admired, envied, attacked, defrauded, they were also the information specialists of their age.

This was so much the case, that merchants also became an integral part of the Aztec war machine, and may have been its most important map makers. One historian writes:

When tlatoanis of Tenochtitlan prepared any military campaign, they convened expert advisors at the palace to work out a strategy. Among them were the captains of the army and a few merchants who knew the routes and the terrain in detail. In order to formulate the plan, maps helped them to estimate the days, the supply points, and the risks of attack by rebels near the routes, and, mainly, to anticipate the battle.

The Spaniards themselves used indigenous pictographic maps to explore the area and to plan their attack on Tenochtitlan. … Unfortunately, no map is preserved from pre-Hispanic times, but throughout the colonial period many cartographic documents were made that reflected the characteristics of the earlier ones. … [Escalante 1998:36] (Spanish original.)

Merchants were not merely spies, and they would have been most unwelcome on their journeys if they had been. Their main occupation was exchanging goods from different regions. But the practical knowledge and language skills they gained, like the learning that travelers gain in any era, was of potential political value, and the Aztec administration was not about to ignore it.

Return to top.

photo by DKJ
This wax museum figure of an eagle warrior, dressed in feathers, but carrying a club covered with deadly obsidian blades, underlines the link between death and prestige that was associated with Aztec warfare.

But suppose your town refused the request from Tenochtítlan that you surrender, send your patron god to the Tenochtítlan god house, and send regular tribute?

In that case an army would march from Tenochtítlan to capture and burn your town temple, to take your god by force, and to capture or kill your defenders as long as they continued to resist. In early Aztec times, surrender would allow you to keep whatever (and whoever) remained. In later Aztec times things changed, and losing such a battle led to your extermination and the resettlement of your town by migrants from Tenochtítlan.

Although killing enemy warriors was considered an excellent result, and the status of an Aztec male was much enhanced for each additional enemy he could kill, it was thought preferable to take the enemy warrior as a prisoner, force him to march back to Tenochtítlan, and offer him as a human sacrifice. The prospect of being turned into a human sacrifice in honor of the patron war god of the Aztecs might well have inspired defending forces to great effort to resist Aztec incursions, but it might equally have convinced many towns to capitulate without a battle in order to prevent loss of their whole population of able-bodied young men. [Note 26]

26. Farming is men's work in Mexico to this day, and the destruction of the defense forces of a town or village was the same as the destruction of its agricultural labor force. It is not known how the women, children, and older people remaining in conquered towns survived once they were deprived of most of their agricultural productivity, or how tribute was calibrated so that they could continue to send goods to Tenochtítlan.

About five years into the reign of Emperor 5, Moteuczóma I, there began a devastating series of natural disasters, which lasted for seven years. The period saw both drought and floods, as well as early frosts and unseasonable snowfall in the mountains. Both the weather and the human responses to it resulted in widespread crop failures, accompanied by starvation, emigration, and the sale of children whom there were no means to feed. As the crisis deepened, it was addressed by both practical and religious measures.

Tlacahélel, always an enthusiastic supporter of human sacrifice, advocated human sacrifice on a more massive scale than had ever been seen before as a way of addressing the situation. In the end his advice was followed. In 1455, after the great sacrifice(s), perfect weather produced abundant crops, and this was used as a justification of the proposition that human prosperity depended upon spilling a large amount of human blood.

« Part 11 Contents
Glossary, Bibliography
Part 13 »

Return to top.