The word “Aztec” evokes images of soaring pyramids, bloody human sacrifice and rampaging conquistadors. The Aztecs were eloquent orators, hard workers, fierce fighters and excelled in mathematics, agriculture and engineering. They were a people of motion who sought to better themselves through constant growth, expansion and change. This sense of change was not governed by whim, but through a series of complex laws handed down from generation to generation.
The word Aztec is a generic term referring to several Nahuatl-speaking groups that inhabited the Valley of Mexico from 1250-1519.The people we think of as Aztecs referred to themselves as the “Mexica” and were fierce warriors, cunning diplomats, skilled builders and shrewd merchants. The Mexica forged an empire of 15 million people that spanned two oceans and extended from the northern deserts of Mexico to Oaxaca in the south but for all the might, they eventually attained, the Mexica were a people of humble origin.
The Mexica began their journey to greatness in a semi-mythical land they called “Aztlan” (“Place of Herons”). Aztlan’s exact location is unknown, but could have been as near as 60 miles to the Mexico Valley or as distant as the American Southwest. It took nearly 200 years for the Mexica to migrate from Aztlan to the Valley of Mexico, a journey that began around A.D. 1111 and ended around 1325. During this journey, the Mexica developed the reputation as fierce warriors with bizarre customs and were considered barbarians by all they encountered.
Over the course of this journey, the Mexica were lead by three priests and a priestess who were divinely inspired by the god Huitzilopochtli to seek a new promised land. As time passed, dissenters began to defy the ruling priests and sought to break away from the main body of Mexica to settle down at one of the sites along the way. It is out of this turbulent time that Mexica law begins to take shape. Mexica priests were said to be divinely inspired to seek the promised land by Huitzilopochtli and defiance of their edicts was to defy god. This affront required the immediate sacrifice of the offending party to satisfy Hutizilopochtli and served to maintain order in the tribe.
The Mexica eventually arrived in the Valley of Mexico and became ensnared in the Machiavellian politics of the city-states surrounding lake Texcoco. They first settled on a hilltop called Chapultepec, but were twice ousted from this location because their neighbors feared their military prowess and reviled their bizarre customs. From Chapultapec, the Mexica fled into a miserable region festooned with volcanic activity and overrun with snakes. Their ability to thrive in this region so impressed the city-state of Culhua, that it employed the Mexica as mercenaries who developed an even more fearsome reputation for martial prowess. Throughout this time of wandering and strife, strict discipline and order needed to be maintained in the tribe, lest they be overwhelmed by the superior numbers of their neighbors or the brutality of the environments they were forced to endure. It is my belief that this mentality stayed with them throughout their tenure in the Mexico Valley, forming the bedrock of the order driven society they later created.
Unfortunately for the Culhua, the Mexica asked its king to make his daughter the mistress of the Mexica and bride of their god. This was allowed, and the king traveled to the temple of the Mexica to celebrate the wedding. He fled in horror upon learning that his daughter had been sacrificed and that a nearby priest was wearing her skin. In his fury, the leader of Culhua forced the Mexica to retreat into the marshes of lake Texcoco where they saw an eagle seated upon a prickly pear cactus. This sight was the signal for the Mexica’s long journey to end and the Mexica settled this island and named it Tenochtitilan (“Place of the Fruit of the Prickly Pear Cactus”). The year was 1325, and little did the surrounding city-states know that Tenochtitlan was poised to become the heart of the most powerful empire Mesoamerica had ever seen.
From 1325-1428 the Mexica were a semi-independent client state of the Tepanic city of Azcaportzalco. Azcaportzalco was a potent city-state, whose star was on the rise and had no little success conquering city-state after city-state. The Mexica paid tribute to Azcaportzalco in resources and military service, a state of affairs continued for over a century. During this time, the Mexica learned the laws and customs of the nearby societies and gained the tools they required to become a legitimate force in the Mexico Valley. They formed a web alliances through political marriages that gradually strengthened their position in the Mexico Valley, the most important of which was that of a Mexica noblemen to a princess from their old rival Culhua. Culhua was an ancient power who’s bloodlines reached all the way back to the Toltecs. This descent was considered vital to a leaders ability to rule and the marriage allowed Mexica nobility to claim legal and political legitimacy.
The Mexica waited patiently and honed their military skills in campaign after campaign until one day; a succession crisis arose in Azcaportzaco allowing the Mexica to ally with the city-state of Texcoco, to overthrow their former masters. In 1428, the Mexica, allied with Texcoco and Tlacopan formed the “triple-alliance, which became the dominate power in Mesoamerica for the next 90 years.”
The price of continual expansion was the development of enemies and resentment to the rule of the triple-alliance. The Aztecs had numerous enemies, the two most potent of which were the mighty Tarascan Empire to the West and the besieged Tlaxcala within. Herman Cortez and his conquistadors arrived on scene to find a potent empire of “heathens” filled with gold for the taking. Upon arrival in Tenochtitlan, many conquistadors thought they were dreaming as they observed a bustling city of over 250,000 people, with vast markets pulsing with commerce on an unimagined scale. This dream quickly came to an end when the Spanish observed the Aztec practice of mass human sacrifice. In 1519, Cortez, in alliance with enemies of the Triple Alliance launched an invasion that completely destroyed Tenochtitlan and with it, Aztec civilization.
During their period of imperial expansion, the Aztecs developed a complex bureaucratic state with an immense population and an ever-shifting series of tributary subjects. This, combined with the complex social structure and moral ideals of the Aztec people, necessitated the creation of an intricate legal system that was as efficient as it was harsh to govern its people. This web of law was both oral and, codified by scribes in pictorial form. The Aztecs maintained extensive written records including official correspondence between the capital and outlying regions and had vast archives. Government archives contained legal codes, records of lawsuits between villages and individuals, tribute maps, genealogies, histories, philosophical works government reports, extensive economic documents and anything else that may be of import. Unfortunately, most of this vast storehouse of knowledge was destroyed during the conquest or lost over time. The best remaining source of original books from the era were recovered from the Mixtec city of Oaxaca though most surviving texts tend to be post conquest works that were transcribed from the original or were written by Europeans with Spanish or Nahauatl margin notes.