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Part 19 Part 21

The Aztecs: A Tributary Empire (20)

Conclusion: Tribute and Tributary Empires

At the beginning of this essay, we noted that the Aztecs were an example of a "tributary empire." The word "tribute" comes from the Latin word tribuere, "to pay," and we noted that in an important way the Aztec state depended upon on the flow of payments from conquered towns, which in turn had their own conquered towns paying tribute to them.

Generalizing beyond the Aztec case, we can define tribute as the regular payment of goods or services offered from a subordinate group or community to a dominant one because of the threat that the failure to pay will result in punitive sanctions by the dominant group or community.

photo by DKJ
House in Cáceres, near Toledo, Spain, built with dowry funds provided by Moteuczoma II for the marriage of his daughter to a Spanish soldier. It is important to see the "conquest" as a complex set of evolving relationships among people and groups, not just a single, quick and simple, black-and-white event.

Obviously, the Aztecs are not alone (even among Mexican societies) in linking political power to tribute, and tribute does not always involve payments to an organized and large-scale state. Indeed, historically, stabilized tributary relations most often existed between nomadic or semi-nomadic pastoral peoples and settled agriculturalists. Some peoples who lived by herding and raiding (or even just raiding), often at the peripheries of ancient states, such as the Mongol herders on the borders of China, or the Semitic herders on the borders of the Sumerian states, were willing to commute their occasional and unpredictable forays in quest of booty into regularized payments of tribute. So-called danegeld payments were collected by the Vikings from frightened and resentful communities on the coasts of the British Isles in exchange for not attacking them.

Quite aside from nomadic bullies extracting regularized payments from agriculturalists, throughout history it has been common for a conquering nation to extract payments from those it has conquered, just as the Aztecs did. The Romans did this —the payment was called a stipendium. So did the Assyrians of northern Iraq, the Persians of Iran, and the Hittites of Turkey. Through much of China's history, her relations with smaller surrounding peoples (such as Tibetans) depended heavily upon the rendering of goods from the weaker group to the Chinese throne, although in some cases the symbolism of the transfer seems to have mattered more than the actual value of the goods rendered.

In some cases, a conquering group faced a controversial policy decision whether to exterminate a community or allow it to "buy" its continued existence through regular tribute payments. The Homeric Greeks, described in Homer's Iliad, expected continuing payments from the remains of any place they plundered, but they also simply exterminated some of these communities, which rendered them useless as sources of tribute even while removing them as real or potential enemies.

In none of these examples was the collecting state actually dependent upon such tributary booty. But in a few cases, tribute can come to have a much larger role. Given sufficient power at the center, whole empires —"tributary empires"— can be constructed based on relations of tribute.The term “tributary empire” scarcely applies to a polity like dynastic China, in which tribute played only a minor role. But it is a convenient designation for an empire in which tributary relations are central to the entire political system.

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The Aztecs are one of the best documented cases. As we have seen, the Mexica moved into a valley crowded with small city states that worked in a similar way, and the growth of each little "state" depended very much on its ability, among other things, to defend itself against tribute demands (or accommodate itself to them) and to make such demands upon others. The Aztecs did not invent their system from scratch; Tlacahélel's innovations (if they were really his) were essentially refinements of a system with a long history. If we knew more about the Toltecs or the people of Teotihuácan, we might well find that those systems were extremely similar.

In general, tributary empires have proven fragile for two reasons, both visible in the Aztec example.

First, they are based on coercion, the direct or implied threat of extreme violence, and hence they lack widespread political legitimacy in the technical sense. They are therefore subject to destruction through the rebellion of subordinate polities (especially united in coalitions) at any time when the central power is insufficient to enforce its threat of punishment. I have tried to suggest here that the downfall of the Aztecs at the hands of a coalition of rebels and enemies would have occurred sooner or later whether or not the Spanish had arrived to precipitate and encourage it. (That is not, of course, everybody's opinion. [Note 35])

35. Much depends upon the extent to which one thinks that conquered towns and peoples really came to believe in the Aztec mythological system, with the central role it gave to Huitzilo-póchtli and to the continuing need for flowing human blood.

Second, to the extent that the dominant population is economically dependent upon tribute from subordinates, even minor disruptions in the flow of goods can result in serious deprivation. Much ancient trade involved luxury items used as symbols of elite status (objects which the literature on Egypt calls "powerfacts"), and even a minor disruption in the supply of these can spell trouble if they are important in the system of sumptuation sustaining the government. But a large population dependent upon trade for actual subsistence goods has normally proven inherently vulnerable. (Depending on outsiders for subsistence goods seems to have been an important factor in the collapse of the Mycenaean cities after the fall of Troy.)

Thus, the Aztec experience, in addition to its independent historical importance and inherent interest, can stand for a much broader range of experiments in organizing large populations that have been part of the human career.

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