The Aztec Empire was a Mesoamerica civilization in central Mexico that thrived in the time before the arrival of European explorers during the Age of Exploration. Throughout its history as a civilization the Aztec Empire expanded across much of central Mexico and other surrounding areas, to become that most dominant and powerful people in the region. As such, when learning about the Aztec Empire and its history, it is first important to understand the political systems and government structure that led to this strength.
ALTEPETL AND CALPULLI
Aztec government had several different elements at its core. For instance, Mesoamerican city-states or ‘altepetl’ (as they were referred to as in the Aztec language of Nahuatl) were the basic structure of the Aztec Empire. Following the Aztec’s founding and construction of their capital city and altepetl of Tenochtitlan in the Valley of Mexico in 1325, they quickly established their authority across the other societies in the valley. At the time the Valley of Mexico was populated by many different powerful civilizations and altepetl, including: Chalco, Tepanec, Tlacopan, Texcoco, Culhuacan, and Chichimec. Several of these civilizations were also on the shores of Lake Texcoco, including the Culhuacan, which were on the south shore.
The spread of Aztec authority throughout the region meant that the Aztec Empire expanded and came to control, many of these different societies and their altepetl. As stated above, altepetls were the larger city-states that existed throughout Mesoamerica during the time of the Aztec. However, altepetls were made up of several different calpulli. The word ‘calpulli’ translates to ‘large house’ and refers to a small group or clan of people who lived within the altepetl. Calpulli can best be related to a family, since they were groups of people who were responsible for the day-to-day living of the group. In fact, calpulli were usually made up of a few different families, although in some areas a calpulli could be based entirely on a single family unit. In general, calpulli were responsible for food production (farming), schooling, and taxation. For instance, the calpulli coordinated the use of land and designated different people to different farming tasks. As well, calpulli were known to operate schools for young men from the commoner class. These schools were referred to as ‘Tēlpochcalli Schools’ and played an important role in Aztec society. At these schools, the Aztec learned about their history, religion and traditions. The schools helped with social connections in Aztec society and reinforced important beliefs and customs. Finally, taxation in Aztec society started from the top and trickled down to the citizens. As such, the central government would tax the calpulli, who would then tax their individual families and citizens. Therefore, the calpulli were vitally important to the basic function of Aztec society. For example, the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan was said to based around as many as 20 different calpulli.
HUEY TLATOANI (AZTEC LEADERS)
Each altepetl was ruled by a leader referred to as a ‘tlatoani’, which translates to as ‘Speaker’. The tlatoani was an important figure in Mesoamerica city-states because they essentially controlled and organized the government, military and economy of the altepetl. In general, each tlatoani were from the higher classes and had links to the royal families present in the society at that time. As such, authority over an altepetl usually stayed within a single powerful family and passed down through hereditary lines. Also, tlatoani served in their position for life. The second in command of the altepetls was referred to as the cihuacoatl. This person also came from the higher classes and assisted the tlatoani by organizing different aspects of the altepetl. The leader of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan and the one who ruled over all of the other altepetls in the Aztec Empire was called the ‘huey tlatoani’ or ‘Great Speaker’. The huey tlatoani played an important role in Aztec history and the expansion of the Aztec Empire. They primarily ruled over the Aztec Empire as a whole. For instance, the huey tlatoani oversaw the tribute system present in the Aztec Empire, the military and any wars that were carried out, and the expansion of the empire to new regions. Since the huey tlatoani was concerned with the affairs of the overall empire, the cihuacoatl in Tenochtitlan carried out the administration of the city itself. Today, historians refer to the huey tlatoani as Emperors since they oversaw all aspects of the far-reaching Aztec Empire.
While the huey tlatoani had significant power in the government of the Aztec Empire it’s also important to recognize the role and power of the Aztec Council. The Council was made up of four members who advised the huey tlatoani on matters related to the military, economy and tribute system. As well, the Council was generally made up of members of the nobility. As such, new huey tlatoani were usually previous members of the Council. The Council provided an important role for the wealthy classes to have control over different aspects of the society while also influencing the heuy tlatoani.
TRIPLE ALLIANCE AND TRIBUTE SYSTEM
Itzcoatl became the leader of the Aztec in 1427 and became the fourth huey tlatoani of the Aztec people. He reigned over the Aztec Empire from 1427 until 1440, and is best remembered as the leader who saw the Aztecs become the most powerful Mesoamerican society in the Valley of Mexico. For example, as leader he famously formed an alliance with two other societies in the area in order to overthrow their mutual rivals. The Aztecs, Texcoco and Tlacopan joined forces in 1428 to create the Triple Alliance. Together they fought against the Tepanec and challenged them for superiority in the Valley of Mexico. Over time the three were able to overpower all other societies in the Valley of Mexico. As well, the Aztec became the strongest of the Triple Alliance and Tenochtitlan became the center of power in the region. This power allowed Tenochtitlan to wield authority over all of the other altepetl’s in central Mexico.
All of the Aztec rulers at this time pushed forward with expanding the Aztec Empire across Mexico and strengthening the power of Tenochtitlan. In fact, the city grew in size and importance during this time as the Aztec culture came to dominate the region. For example, by the early 16th century, Tenochtitlan is estimated to have been three to five square miles (eight to thirteen square kilometers), and have a population of between 200,000 and 300,000 people. This means that it was one of the largest cities in the world at the time and larger than any in Europe.
As well, the Aztec Empire had spread far from the Valley of Mexico during this time and, at its height, the empire consisted of land across most of central Mexico including the coastlines in both the Gulf of Mexico and Pacific Ocean. This vast expansion meant that the Aztec had conquered and suppressed many different groups of Mesoamerican peoples. The Aztec controlled these different altepetls by forcing them to provide tributes for payment and ritual sacrifice.
For example, conquered altepetl, were allowed to maintain their current rulers (tlatoani) and religion so long as they met several requirements, including: support the Aztec Empire and huey tlatoani of Tenochtitlan, pay tribute to Tenochtitlan, and include the Aztec god Huitzilopochtli in their own religious beliefs and practices. Any altepetl that did not follow these conditions were often severely punished by the powerful Aztec military, which would attack the city and destroy temples and public buildings. While this allowed the Aztecs to become the most powerful society in all of Mesoamerica, it also caused them to create many enemies from the surrounding city-states that they controlled.