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Aztec Polity

John Fiske (Born Edmund Fiske Green March 30, 1842 in Hartford, Connecticut, United States; Died July 4, 1901 (aged 59) in Gloucester, Massachusetts, United States) was an American philosopher and historian.  In his work The Discovery of America, he explores the notion of polity in Mexica (Aztec) society, and tries to correct inappropriate European characterizations of native social organization, particularly as it related to kingship, decision making, and authority over the citizenry.  His insights are a useful reminder that the Aztec Confederacy was at once draconian and collaborative, a mixture not easy to understand from the Spanish perspective.

Some of the language has been modified.


The state of society which Cortes saw has, indeed, passed away, and its monuments and hieroglyphic records have been in great part destroyed. Nevertheless some monuments and some hieroglyphic records remain, and the people are still there. Tlascalans and Aztecs, descendants in the eleventh or twelfth generation from the men whose bitter feuds gave such a golden opportunity to Cortes, still dwell upon the soil of Mexico, and speak the language in which Montezuma made his last harangue to the furious people. There is, moreover, a great mass of literature in Spanish, besides more or less in Nahuatl, written during the century following the conquest, and the devoted missionaries and painstaking administrators, who wrote books about the country in which they were working, were not engaged in a wholesale conspiracy for deceiving mankind.

What has been called the “empire of Montezuma” was in reality a confederacy of three tribes, the Aztec, Texcoco, and Tlacopan, dwelling in three large composite cities situated very near together in one of the strongest defensive positions ever occupied by natives in the Americas.

The Aztec confederacy.  This Aztec confederacy extended its “sway” over a considerable portion of the Mexican peninsula, but that “sway” could not correctly be described as “empire,” for it was in no sense a military occupation of the country. The confederacy did not have garrisons in subject towns or civil officials to administer their affairs for them. It simply sent some of its chiefs about from one town to another to collect tribute. This tax consisted in great part of maize and other food, and each tributary town reserved a certain portion of its tribal territory to be cultivated for the benefit of the domineering confederacy. If a town proved delinquent or recalcitrant, Aztec warriors swooped down upon it in stealthy midnight assault, butchered its inhabitants and emptied its granaries, and when the paroxysm of rage had spent itself, went exulting homeward, carrying away women for concubines, men to be sacrificed, and such miscellaneous booty as could be conveyed without wagons or beasts to draw them. If the sudden assault, with scaling ladders, happened to fail, the assailants were likely to be baffled, for there was no artillery, and so little food could be carried that a siege meant starvation for the besiegers.

The tributary towns were also liable to be summoned to furnish a contingent of warriors to the war-parties of the confederacy, under the same penalties for delinquency as in the case of refusal of tribute. In such cases it was quite common for the confederacy to issue a peremptory summons, followed by a declaration of war. When a town or city was captured, the only way in which the vanquished people could stop the massacre was by holding out signals of submission; a meeting then sometimes adjusted the affair, and the payment of a year’s tribute in advance induced the conquerors to depart, but captives once taken could seldom if ever be ransomed. If the parties could not agree upon terms, the slaughter was renewed, and sometimes went on until the departing victors left nought behind them but ruined houses belching from loop-hole and doorway lurid clouds of smoke and flame upon narrow silent streets heaped up with mangled corpses.

The sway of the Aztec confederacy over the Mexican peninsula was thus essentially similar to the sway of the Iroquois confederacy over a great part of the tribes between the Connecticut river and the Mississippi. It was simply the levying of tribute, — a system of plunder enforced by terror. The so-called empire was “only a partnership formed for the purpose of carrying on the business of warfare, and that intended, not for the extension of territorial ownership, but only for an increase of the means of subsistence.” There was none of that coalescence and incorporation of peoples which occurs after the change from gentilism to civil society has been effected. Among the Mexicans, as elsewhere throughout North America, the tribe remained intact as the highest completed political integer.

The Aztec tribe was organized in clans and phratries, Aztec clans.and the number of clans would indicate that the tribe was a very large one. There were twenty clans, called in the Nahuatl language “calpullis.” We may fairly suppose that the average size of a clan was larger than the average tribe of Algonquins or Iroquois; but owing to the compact “city” life, this increase of numbers did not result in segmentation and scattering, as among natives in the lower status. Each Aztec clan seems to have occupied a number of adjacent communal houses, forming a kind of precinct, with its special house or houses for official purposes, corresponding to the estufas in the New Mexican pueblos. The houses were the common property of the clan, and so was the land which its members cultivated; and such houses and land could not be sold or bartered away by the clan, or in anywise alienated. The idea of “real estate” had not been developed; the clan simply exercised a right of occupancy, and … its individual members exercised certain limited rights of user in particular garden-plots.

The clan was governed by a clan council, consisting of chiefs (tecuhtli) elected by the clan, and inducted into office after a cruel religious ordeal, in which the candidate was bruised, tortured, and half starved.

Clan officers.  An executive department was more clearly differentiated from the council than among the natives of the lower status. The clan (calpulli) had an official head, or sachem, called the calpullec; and also a military commander called the ahcacautin, or “elder brother.” The ahcacautin was also a kind of peace officer, or constable, for the precinct occupied by the clan, and carried about with him a staff of office; a tuft of white feathers attached to this staff betokened that his errand was one of death. The clan elected its calpullec and ahcacautin, and could depose them for cause

The members of the clan were reciprocally bound to aid, defend, and avenge one another; but wergild was no longer accepted, and the penalty for murder was death. The clan exercised the right of naming its members. Such names were invariably significant (as Nezahualcoyotl, “Hungry Coyote,” Axayacatl, “Face-in-the-Water,” etc.) and more or less “medicine,” or superstitious association, was attached to the name. The clans also had their significant names and totems. Each clan had its peculiar religious rites, its priests or medicine-men who were members of the clan council, and its temple or medicine-house. Instead of burying their dead the Mexican tribes practised cremation; there was, therefore, no common cemetery, but the funeral ceremonies were conducted by the clan.

The clans of the Aztecs, like those of many other Mexican tribes, were organized into four phratries; and this divided the city of Mexico as the Spaniards at once remarked, into four quarters. The phratry had acquired more functions than it possessed in the lower status. Besides certain religious and social duties, and besides its connection with the punishment of criminals, the Mexican phratry was an organization for military purposes.  The four phratries were four divisions of the tribal host, each with its captain. In each of the quarters was an arsenal, or “dart-house,” where weapons were stored, and from which they were handed out to war-parties about to start on an expedition.

The supreme government of the Aztecs was vested in the tribal council composed of twenty members, one for each clan. The member, representing a clan, was not its calpullec, or “sachem;” he was one of the tecuhtli, or clan-chiefs, and was significantly called the “speaker” (tlatoani). The tribal council, thus composed of twenty speakers, was called the tlatocan, or “place of speech.”  At least as often as once in ten days the council assembled at the tecpan, or official house of the tribe, but it could be convened whenever occasion required, and in cases of emergency was continually in session. Its powers and duties were similar to those of an ancient English shiremote, in so far as they were partly directive and partly judicial. A large part of its business was settling disputes between the clans. It superintended the ceremonies of investiture with which the chiefs and other officers of the clans were sworn into office. At intervals of eighty days there was an “extra session” of the tlatocan, attended also by the twenty “elder brothers,” the four phratry-captains, the two executive chiefs of the tribe, and the leading priests, and at such times a reconsideration of an unpopular decision might be urged; but the authority of the tlatocan was supreme, and from its final decision there could be no appeal.

The executive chiefs of the tribe were two in number, as was commonly the case in ancient America. The tribal sachem, or civil executive, bore the  title of cihuacoatl, the “snake-woman.” or “snake-woman.” His relation to the tribe was in general like that of the calpullec to the clan. He executed the decrees of the tribal council, of which he was ex officio a member, and was responsible for the housing of tribute and its proper distribution among the clans. He was also chief judge, and he was lieutenant to the head war-chief in command of the tribal host. He was elected for life by the tribal council, which could depose him for misconduct.

The office of head war-chief  [had] the title of … tlacatecuhtli, the “chief-of men.” or “chief-of-men.”  He was primarily head war-chief of the Aztec tribe, but about 1430 became supreme military commander of the three confederate tribes, so that his office was one of peculiar dignity and importance. When the Spaniards arrived upon the scene Montezuma was tlacatecuhtli, and they naturally called him “king.” To understand precisely how far such an epithet could correctly be applied to him, and how far it was misleading, we must recall the manner in which early kingship arose in Europe. The Roman rex was an officer elected for life; the typical Greek basileus was a somewhat more fully developed king, inasmuch as his office was becoming practically hereditary; Evolution of kingship in Greece and Rome.otherwise rex was about equivalent to basileus. Alike in Rome and in Greece the king had at least three great functions, and possibly four. He was, primarily, chief commander, secondly, chief priest, thirdly, chief judge; whether he had reached the fourth stage and added the functions of chief civil executive, is matter of dispute. Kingship in Rome and in most Greek cities was overthrown at so early a date that some questions of this sort are difficult to settle. But in all probability the office grew up through the successive acquisition of ritual, judicial, and civil functions by the military commander. The paramount necessity of consulting the tutelar deities before fighting resulted in making the general a priest competent to perform sacrifices and interpret omens; he thus naturally became the most important among priests; an increased sanctity invested his person and office; and by and by he acquired control over the dispensation of justice, and finally over the whole civil administration. One step more was needed to develop the basileus into a despot, like the king of Persia, and that was to let him get into his hands the law-making power, involving complete control over taxation. When the Greeks and Romans became dissatisfied with the increasing powers of their kings, they destroyed the office. The Romans did not materially diminish its functions, but put them into commission, by entrusting them to two consuls of equal authority elected annually. The Greeks, on the other hand, divided the royal functions among different officers, as e. g. at Athens among the nine archons.

The typical kingship in mediæval Europe, after the full development of the feudal system, was very different indeed from the kingship in early Greece and Rome. In the Middle Ages all priestly functions had passed into the hands of the Church. A king like Charles VII. of France, or Edward III. of England, was military commander, civil magistrate, chief judge, and supreme landlord; the people were his tenants. That was the kind of king with which the Spanish discoverers of Mexico were familiar.

Now the Mexican tlacatecuhtli, or “chief-of-men,” was much more like Agamemnon in point of kingship than like Edward III. He was not supreme landlord, for landlordship did not exist in Mexico. He was not chief judge or civil magistrate; those functions belonged to the “snake-woman.” Mr. Bandelier regards the “chief-of-men” as simply a military commander; Montezuma was a “priest-commander” but for reasons which I shall state hereafter,  it seems quite clear that he exercised certain very important priestly functions, although beside him there was a kind of high-priest … If I am right in holding that Montezuma was a “priest-commander,” then incipient royalty in Mexico had advanced at least one stage beyond the head war-chief of the Iroquois, and remained one stage behind the basileus of the Homeric Greeks.

The tlacatecuhtli, or “chief-of-men,” was elected by an assembly consisting of the tribal council, the “elder brothers” of the several clans, and certain leading priests. Though the office was thus elective, the choice seems to have been practically limited to a particular clan, and in the eleven chiefs who were chosen from 1375 to 1520 a certain principle or custom of succession seems to be plainly indicated. There was a further limit to the order of succession. Allusion has been made to the four phratry-captains commanding the quarters of the city.  Their cheerful titles were “man of the house of darts,” “cutter of men,” “bloodshedder,” and “chief of the eagle and cactus.” These captains were military chiefs of the phratries, and also magistrates charged with the duty of maintaining order and enforcing the decrees of the council in their respective quarters. The “chief of the eagle and cactus” was chief executioner, he was not eligible for the office of “chief-of-men;” the three other phratry-captains were eligible. Then there was a member of the priesthood entitled “man of the dark house.” This person, with the three eligible captains, made a quartette, and one of this privileged four must succeed to the office of “chief-of-men.”

The eligibility of the “man of the dark house” may be cited here as positive proof that sometimes the “chief-of-men” could be a “priest-commander.” That in all cases he acquired priestly functions after election, even when he did not possess them before, is indicated by the fact that at the ceremony of his induction into office he ascended to the summit of the pyramid sacred to the war-god Huitzilopochtli, where he was anointed by the high-priest with a black ointment, and sprinkled with sanctified water; having thus become consecrated he took a censer of live coals and a bag of copal, and as his first official act offered incense to the war-god.

As the “chief-of-men” was elected, so too he could be deposed for misbehaviour. He was ex officio a member of the tribal council, and he had his official residence in the tecpan, or tribal house, where the meetings of the council were held, and where the hospitalities of the tribe were extended to strangers. As an administrative officer, the “chief-of-men” had little to do within the limits of the tribe; that, as already observed, was the business of the “snake-woman.” But outside of the confederacy the “chief-of-men” exercised administrative functions. He superintended the collection of tribute.

Each of the three confederate tribes appointed, through its tribal council, agents to visit the subjected pueblos and gather in the tribute. These agents were expressively termed calpixqui, “crop-gatherers.” As these men were obliged to spend considerable time in the vanquished pueblos in the double character of tax-collectors and spies, we can imagine how hateful their position was. Their security from injury depended upon the reputation of their tribes for ruthless ferocity. The tiger-like confederacy was only too ready to take offence; in the lack of a decent pretext it often went to war without one, simply in order to get human victims for sacrifice.

Once appointed, the tax-gatherers were directed by the “chief-of-men.” The tribute was chiefly maize, but might be anything the conquerors chose to demand,—weapons, fine pottery or feather-work, gold ornaments, or female slaves. Sometimes the tributary town, instead of sacrificing all its prisoners of war upon its own altars, sent some of them up to Mexico as part of its tribute. The ravening maw of the horrible deities was thus appeased, not by the town that paid the blackmail, but by the power that extorted it, and thus the latter obtained a larger share of divine favour. Generally the unhappy prisoners were forced to carry the corn and other articles. They were convoyed by couriers who saw that everything was properly delivered at the tecpan, and also brought information by word of mouth and by picture-writing from the calpixqui to the “chief-of-men.” When the newly-arrived Spaniards saw these couriers coming and going they fancied that they were “ambassadors.” This system of tribute-taking made it necessary to build roads, and this in turn facilitated, not only military operations, but trade …


Source:  John Fiske, The Discovery of America with Some Account of Ancient America and the Spanish Conquest, in Two Volumes (Volume 1)

Categories: Aztec Aztec Culture Aztec Society

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The Orly

As Fray Bernardino de Sahagún observed: the Mexicans “are held to be barbarians and of very little worth; in truth, however, in matters of culture and refinement, they are a step ahead of other nations." We explore the history and legacy of the Nahua and Maya civilizations, both of which challenge our preconceptions.

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