When the Spanish began their conquest of Mexico in 1519 they encountered a powerful nation known as the Aztec. The Aztec called themselves Mexica and from this the name Mexico is derived.
According to oral tradition, the Aztec originated in a land known as Aztlan. Some experts feel that Aztlan was actually in Arizona. The Hopi-an ancient Arizona people-are linguistically related to the Aztec. Furthermore, there are some similarities between some of the Hopi stories of origins and those of the Aztec. There are others, however, who feel that Aztlan was in Northern Mexico, perhaps in the present-day state of Sonora.
According to their oral traditions, the Mexica (Aztec) were to wander the earth looking for the promised land. The promised land would be in a broad valley. In the center of this valley there would be a lake. In the center of this lake there would be an island. In the center of this island they would find an eagle sitting upon a cactus with a snake in its claws. It was here that they were to build the great city which would be the capital of their empire.
The story describes the valley of Mexico and the location of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan. Today, this story is symbolized on the Mexican flag which shows an eagle on a cactus with a snake in its claws.
When the Aztec arrived in the Valley of Mexico they found it to be densely populated. There were at this time a number of city-states in the valley. Initially, the Aztec did not begin construction of their city, but instead went to work for these city-states as mercenaries (military contractors in today’s terminology). The Aztec soon gained a reputation as fierce and skillful warriors.
The Aztec city of Tenochtitlan was founded in 1325, less than two centuries prior to the Spanish conquest. Tenochtitlan was a fully planned city. It was based on a symmetrical layout that was divided into four city sections called campan. Within each of these four sections were calpolli: groups of related families. Each of the calpolli had its own temple and gods. Leadership of the calpolli was provided by a principal chief who was elected for life.
Each calpolli was subdivided into a hierarchical class system. The elite-also called nobility-formed the top group, and most of the people were commoners. It was possible for commoners to advance to nobility through valor in battle. At the bottom of the class system were the serfs and the slaves. People became slaves because they were unable to pay their debts, which were usually due to gambling losses.
Tenochtitlan was on an island. The Aztec connected it to the mainland with three major causeways. The spiritual and political center of the city was the ritual precinct. Here the Aztec built a great pyramid that rose nearly 200 feet in height. The pyramid and the temples and palaces which surrounded it were built of stone.
The Aztec, like the other American Indian civilizations, did not have draft animals or wheeled vehicles. To facilitate traffic-the flow of people and goods-throughout the city they constructed a web of canals. Canoes provided quick and easy transportation.
To feed the city’s population, the Aztec surrounded their island city with chinampa beds. These floating gardens provided an extremely efficient agricultural system. With this system, the Aztec managed to obtain up to seven harvests each year. A single chinampa hectare would feed 20 individuals per year. It is estimated that the chinampas of Tenochtitlan could feed a population of about 180, 000 people.
In the time just prior to the Spanish invasion, the population of Tenochtitlan was estimated at 200, 000 and the total population of the area (what we would call the metropolitan area today) was estimated at about 700, 000.
The Aztec emperor was selected by a council of nobles, chief priests, and top war officers. However, the emperor was selected from the royal lineage and was usually the brother or son of the previous emperor. This was not a democracy. Once in power, the emperor was an absolute ruler. He was supported in this role by a close link with the god Huitzilopochtli. As a rule he was a representative of this god.
When a new emperor was selected, he was first taken by the chief priests to the Great Temple. Here he meditated, fasted, and prayed. Then the priests would escort him to his palace for a coronation banquet attended by kings from other lands outside the Aztec domains. After his coronation, he was treated as a semi-divine being. When he traveled, a group of nobles would carry him on a litter of feathers. Cloths would be strewn on the ground as he walked so that his feet wouldn’t touch the earth.
Economically, the Aztec are considered to be a pre-capitalistic people. They had a market economy which included the use of several types of currency. For small purchases, cacao beans served as money. These were not native to the Aztec homeland and had to be imported from Mexico’s lowland areas. This increased their value. For larger purchases, the Aztec used standardized lengths of cotton cloth called quachtli. These two forms of money were used primarily when making purchases in the markets.
A typical Aztec town would have a weekly market, but the larger cities held markets every day. According to the Spanish, the central market of Tlatelolco, Tenochtitlan’s sister city, had about 60, 000 shoppers per day.
Within a typical market there would usually be several different kinds of vendors. These would include farmers who would be selling some of their produce and potters who were selling their vessels. In addition, there were professional merchants. These merchants would travel from market to market buying and selling different products.
The professional merchants were organized into pochteca, a type of guild. There were 12 of these hereditary guilds, each with their own gods. The pochteca were wealthy and powerful. The pochteca would travel throughout Mesoamerica, seeking goods which they could sell in the various markets throughout the Aztec empire. This was dangerous work for it was not uncommon for them to be attacked and killed for their goods, or to become ill while traveling through unfamiliar country. The pochteca also served as the judges and supervisors of the larger markets.
While the Aztec certainly had a mercantile, commercial economy, it is not considered to be capitalistic. Two items which are important in a capitalistic economy were not for sale: land and labor.
While the Aztec had neither draft animals nor wheeled vehicles, they did interconnect the many cities and towns of the empire with roads. At regular intervals-roughly 10 to 15 kilometers-there were places for the travelers to rest and to eat. There were also latrines at these rest stops. The cost of maintaining these roads was collected through tribute from the communities.
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