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5-08-2015, 20:39

Ruling from Tenochtitlan

The Aztec civilization had a complex system of trade, but its government sat on a shaky foundation. All power ultimately resided in one man— the huey tlatoani of Tenochtitlan. The connections between the city-states were maintained by tribute obligations, marriages between nobles, the attendance of the lords at ceremonies and other ritual duties,

The Templo Mayor in Tenochtitlan was once the physical testament to the power of the Aztec emperors.

military threats, and a legal system of standard laws and punishments. Some of these communities wanted to be free of Aztec rule, and the ultimate and singular power of the huey tlatoani led to resentment within the empire. Tenochtitlan’s huey tlatoani was elevated to a godlike status—he was respected by many, but also hated and feared.


At the lowest level of Aztec government were the calpulli. This was a group of families that collectively owned land. Many calpulli were part of a city, called an altepetl. Each calpulli had a leader who collected taxes and made sure the group’s children received an education.1 These calpulli leaders were members of the altepetl’s council. From that council, four members formed a higher council. Its leader was the altepetl’s tlatoani, the highest leader of the city. The tlatoani served in his position for life.

The empire itself was an alliance between the three city-states— Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan—with Tenochtitlan as the dominant arm of the alliance. Each of the three city-states in the alliance was ruled by a tlatoani. In these large city-states, the tlatoani was the head of external affairs of the government. He served as head of the military, oversaw the temples and markets, resolved judicial issues, and ultimately owned all of the land in the city. The tlatoani’s council included the cihuacoatl, the head of internal affairs of the government. He was the supreme judge for the courts, and he appointed lower judges and handled financial matters for the city. Below the tlatoanis and cihuacoatls were appointed rulers who governed different districts. Aztec nobles held most positions of power in the government. All were ultimately responsible to the head of the empire—the tlatoani of Tenochtitlan, known as the huey tlatoani.

Conquered cities remained fairly independent within the empire, and many local rulers were allowed to keep their positions. Once a part of the empire, though, the cities were required to pay tribute to Tenochtitlan.

At its height, the empire contained 38 provinces.2


Each community in the empire paid tribute to the government. This is how the government secured and grew its wealth. The tributes were made with specific types of goods

Montezuma II sat at the top of Aztec government, with the four judges of the high council in the middle and the commoners at the bottom.

or services, usually based on the skills or resources common to an area. Some valuable tribute items included jaguar skins, exotic feathers, and cacao beans. Every year Tenochtitlan received an enormous amount of goods from the empire’s communities, which included 7,000 short tons (6,300 metric tons) of maize, 4,000 short tons (3,600 metric tons) of beans, and 2 million cotton cloaks.

Tribute List

According to the Codex Mendoza, this is what the 23 towns in the province of Petlacalco were required to give to the empire:

Every six months:

• 400 multicolored loincloths

• 400 women’s tunics and skirts

• 2,400 large white mantas (a blanket shawl or cloak)

• 400 white mantas with multicolored borders

• 400 diagonally divided mantas Once per year:

• 1 blue quaxolotl warrior costume and shield

• 1 blue cuextecatl warrior costume and shield

• 1 white and red tzitzimitl warrior costume and shield

• 1 yellow ocelotl warrior costume and shield

• 1 green xopilli warrior costume and shield

• 20 red warrior costumes and shields

• 20 red cuextecatl warrior costumes and shields

• 20 blue papalotl warrior costumes and shields

• 1 bin of beans (a bin equaled 6,300 to 7,875 bushels [220 to 280 cu m])

• 1 bin each of chia, maize, and amaranth4

Lost Laws

Many Aztec laws and aspects of the legal system are unknown now because these laws were just being formally written down at the time of the Spanish conquest. The Spanish destroyed many Aztec legal records and documents, using some as fuel for fires. Others were neglected and allowed to rot, and more were destroyed because they went against the new society the Spanish wanted to establish.

Tax collectors had an important role, making sure each community paid its tribute in full at the required times of year. Failure to pay a tribute could result in death or destruction of property. The tax officials carried tribute goods back to Tenochtitlan, where they were used for the empire’s needs such as religious ceremonies, or sold at markets or given away as gifts. The amount of the tributes increased over time, leading to resentment among some of the city-states.


The Aztecs had a system of laws and punishments created to strengthen the government’s central power. This system was introduced by Netzahualcoyotl, the tlatoani of Texcoco from 1431 to his death in 1472. The laws defined behaviors and responsibilities of Aztec citizens and also clearly defined the punishments for breaking those laws. Often the punishments were severe and absolute.

Laws were based on royal decrees and long-standing Aztec customs. Judges applied these laws in the Aztec court system. Aztec laws were written using pictographs on sacred amatl

paper made from bark that showed the type of crime committed, such as stealing, and its prescribed punishment, which in the case of stealing was strangulation. There were 80 laws in the Texcocoan legal code, and similar laws were used in Tenochtitlan.


Aztec currency was in the form of goods. The Aztecs used a bartering system in which some objects had generally accepted values throughout the empire. These objects included cacao beans, cotton cloaks, and transparent quills made from feathers that were filled with gold dust.

Cacao Beans

Cacao beans are the fruit of the cacao tree, a tropical evergreen that is native to rain forests in the Amazon and Orinoco river basins. The beans grow in long pods filled with 20 to 60 beans each. These beans were ground into powder and used to make a chocolate drink prized by the Aztecs. Nobles drank the chocolate with added chili water, flowers, vanilla, bee honey, or other flavorings. One hundred cacao beans could buy a fine cape. Sixty-five cacao beans could buy a manta. Cacao beans were even counterfeited. The counterfeiters formed earth into the shape of a bean and then covered and sealed it with a cacao husk. Cortes brought cacao back to Spain, where it became popular among the nobility. The Spanish sweetened the cacao and added vanilla and cinnamon, serving the drink hot. The Spanish later introduced the chocolate drink to Italy, France, and other European countries.

Goods from across the empire were sold in the greatest marketplaces of Tenochtitlan and its suburb Tlatelolco. Every day, more than 60,000 people visited the market in Tlatelolco, the commercial center of the empire.


Marketplaces were also centers of gossip. Some traders, called the naualoztomeca, acted as spies along their trading routes. They changed their dress, hair, and speech to better fit in while visiting enemy territories. The information they brought back to the huey tlatoani was vital. The government often sent out these trader-spies before an Aztec attack.

trading was fair. All kinds of luxury goods could be purchased at the market, including jade, turquoise, copper tools, tobacco pipes, vanilla, and chocolate, just to name a few. Slaves were also commonly sold in markets.

Long-distance trading was also an important aspect of the Aztecs’ economy. Traders, called pochteca, traveled to areas far outside the empire’s lands on trading missions. Some were regular traders, others were commissioned by rulers for their personal business, others dealt only with slaves, and some acted as spies for the rulers. The Aztecs set up trading centers in towns around Mesoamerica. Some routes stretched up to present-day Arizona and New Mexico. Other routes led to the Gulf coast and Maya towns. Some trade went as far as South America. These traders exported Aztec goods such as copper bells, combs, obsidian ornaments, and rabbit-fur skins. They returned with exotic feathers, animal skins, gold, and valuable stones. This flow of goods fed the Aztec culture and government, providing for the needs of its many citizens.