Mayans, Toltecs, Aztecs, and Incas
by Sanderson Beck
Part 3 The Aztecs
Aztecs to 1519
Little is known about the specific ethics of most of the natives in the Americas before the Europeans came, because only the Mayans left writing. Significant exceptions are the Aztecs and Incas, because they developed powerful empires and were conquered by the Spaniards. Most of the tribes lived simply and cooperatively, probably with fewer ethical violations. All of the Americas had about a hundred million people, but less than ten million lived north of Mexico.
In the 13th century Tariacuri planned a Tarascan empire in Tzintzuntzan, where a king would rule guided by the deity Curcaueri; worship of any other patron deity was a capital crime. The gods were given credit for victories in war but did not justify them; wars were not fought for sacrifices, although captives were sacrificed. Tarascans tried to capture the salt deposits at Ixtapan from the Aztecs. The Aztecs also went to war for economic purposes. Aztecs appointed local administrators, but the Tarascan dynasty did not share power. Aztec legends begin with the Mexica migrating for two centuries after being originally from Aztlan. Their warlike hummingbird god (Huitzilopochtli) symbolized the spirits of fallen warriors. By the end of the 13th century they had settled in Chapoltepec.
The Mexicas were driven from Chapoltepec about 1315 by Copil, the son of Huitzilopochtli’s sister, whom they had previously abandoned. They soon returned, but four years later they were attacked by a coalition that probably included the Tepanecs; the Mexica ruler Huitzilihuitl was sacrificed in Culhuacan, and they settled just west of there at Tizaapan. The Mexica traded with the Culhuacans and treated them like brothers, intermarrying and becoming Culhua Mexica. Aiding Culhuacan in a war against Xochimilco, they were ordered to take no prisoners and cut their ears off.
After being vassals to the Tepanecs of Azcapotzalco, the Mexica went south. According to legend they settled in a swampy area where an eagle sat on a cactus with a serpent in its beak, though Mexica had lived there for centuries. Tenochtitlan, an island in a lake, was founded in 1325 and Tlatelolco in 1358; the two cities became rivals. While being ruled by their first king, Acamapichtli (r. 1372-91), the Mexica served as mercenaries for Tepanec king Tezozomoc (r. 1371-1426), helping them to conquer Tenayuca and Culhuacan. The Tepanec empire collected tribute from the Mexica as well as from others. The closest relatives of the late king selected the next Mexica king-Acamapichtli’s son Huitzilihuitl (r. 1391-1414), who was allowed to marry Tezozomoc’s granddaughter. The Mexica helped the Tepanecs conquer Tlaxcala in 1395 and were given some of the acquired lands. Three years later they invaded Cuauhtinchan, and in 1411 the Mexica grabbed Chalco but had to give it up to a coalition that included the Tepanecs. Huitzilihuitl died about 1414 and was succeeded by his son Chimalpopoca.
Meanwhile Ixtlilxochitl had become king of Texcoco in 1409; after refusing to have Texcoco make cotton into mantles for the Tepanecs, he claimed to be emperor of the Chichimecs. Ixtlilxochitl further aggravated the Tepanecs by rejecting Tezozomoc’s daughter and marrying the sister of Chimalpopoca. Tezozomoc attacked Texcoco in 1415 but was repulsed and was later besieged at Azcapotzalco for several months. The skillful Tezozomoc managed to gain Chalco and Otumba as allies, and together they attacked Texcoco and killed Ixtlilxochitl in 1418. Control of Texcoco was given to the Mexica, but most of the tribute went to the Tepanecs. Ixtlilxochitl’s 16-year-old son Nezahualcoyotl with his friend Coyohua managed to survive and lived in Tenochtitlan for a while; the prince was allowed to return to Texcoco in 1424. Tezozomoc tried to get Coyohua to kill his master, but he refused.
When water at Tenochtitlan was becoming polluted, an aqueduct was built from Chapoltepec. Conflict over the building materials was said to have caused the death of Tezozomoc in 1426. He was given an elaborate funeral and had chosen as his successor his son Tayauh, who was supported by the Mexica. Chimalpopoca’s advice to Tayauh to kill his brother Maxtla was overheard. Maxtla then used the same trick to kill Tayauh, and he had Chimalpopoca captured and killed in Tenochtitlan; his killers also tracked down and murdered Tlacateotl, ruler of Tlatelolco. This story may have been Aztec propaganda to cover up the more probable version that Itzcoatl arranged for Tepanecs from Tacuba to kill Chimalpopoca. Nezahualcoyotl came to Tezozomoc’s funeral but was protected by the occasion from Maxtla, who appointed a bastard brother of Nezahualcoyotl to rule Texcoco; but this young man’s treacherous plot against Nezahualcoyotl failed.
Itzcoatl was the brother of Huitzilihuitl and became Mexica king in 1427. He was greatly aided by his nephews Moteuczoma Ilhuicamina (Montezuma I) and Tlacaelel. As a diplomat Tlacaelel courageously went to Azcapotzalco. Maxtla claimed his Tepanec people were hostile to the Mexica, and war was ritually declared in 1428. Tlacaelel managed to escape the Tepanecs and returned to Tenochtitlan. There the nobles and warriors were ready to fight, but the common people wanted peace. According to Aztec history, the lords promised to sacrifice themselves if they lost, and the people agreed to serve them and pay tribute if they won.
Persecuted by the Tepanecs, Nezahualcoyotl joined Itzcoatl in an alliance against them. Maxtla had also alienated Cuauhtitlan by his cruel treatment and transferred the slave-dealing center from there to Azcapotzalco. Moteuczoma Ilhuicamina went to Chalco to gain their help; but having been at war with the Mexica for so long, they imprisoned him. He escaped and went on to Huexotzingo, where Cuauhtitlan accounts of Maxtla’s excesses so enraged them that they murdered the Tepanec envoys. Huexotzingo and Tlaxcala also helped Nezahualcoyotl regain much of his realm at Texcoco, and together they attacked Azcapotzalco, forcing Maxtla to give up his siege of Tenochtitlan, which enabled Moteuczoma to take Tacuba. The allies besieged Azcapotzalco for 114 days until the Tepanec general Mazatl was wounded, and his army fled. The unpopular tyrant Maxtla was captured and sacrificed by Nezahualcoyotl. Most of the land went to the nobles and the warriors rather than the people of the clans, who all together only got as much as Tlacaelel and Moteuczoma.
The lands of the Mexica nobles were farmed by serfs. The state had some lands to supply the government. Some communal lands were farmed by freemen, who had to pay tribute. The Mexica king had about four close relatives of important influence but also a larger council of a dozen or so nobles. Warriors were rewarded for their services. Priests were influential nobles who educated other nobles; others were only given military training. Judges and officials were supposed by the historian Sahagun to be impartial, but merchants had privileges and their own law courts. The common people were not allowed to wear fine cotton clothes, jewelry, feathers, or partake of certain foods and drinks such as cocoa; no one was supposed to drink alcohol much until they were past fifty. People could become enslaved for crimes or be sold into it for debt; apparently most war captives were sacrificed. Slavery was not hereditary, though the poor or starving might sell their children.
Ancient words of advice by Mexica nobles to their children indicate they were motivated by a strong sense of honor and disdained to engage in common trade. They were urged to be clean and pure, and women could avoid poverty by spinning and weaving. Chastity and fidelity to one mate were encouraged, though two or three young men might share a paramour before they were married. Kings and nobles often had more than one wife. Everyone was admonished not to be vain, proud, or praise themselves, which provokes the anger of the Near and Close Lord. Rather one should bow one’s head and be truly meek and humble, because the Lord knows one’s heart and sees within us what we merit. The ideal was to be pure of vice and filth, and it was considered a blessing to die in war.
All the nobles were educated to be priests in the calmecac (school); the rich could get their sons in with gifts, and it was said those with poor gifts were not excluded. The youths slept in the calmecac, and discipline was strict. Serious offenses like being with a woman or drinking could be punished by death, and minor sins, like not awaking to pray at midnight, were purged with bloodletting. During fasts they got only water and plain corn-cakes once a day either at noon or midnight. Verbal discourse was valued, and songs were studied from books. According to writings inscribed during the Spanish period, priests were expected to be chaste, truthful, moderate, and devout. They also claimed that the chief priest called Quetzalcoatl was not selected by lineage but for being the best person with the purest and most compassionate heart. Aztec artists were inspired by the Toltecs, whom they admired. A good feather artist, for example, should be skillful, a master of oneself, and it was his duty to humanize the desires of the people; but a bad artist ignores how things look, is greedy, and scorns other people. A good painter is wise; God is in his heart, and he puts divinity into things and converses with his own heart.
Tlacaelel served three Mexica kings as cihuacoatl (snake woman); he was an able administrator but may have overseen the book burning under Itzcoatl intended to erase their humiliating Tepanec history. Though Nezahualcoyotl participated in the massacre of Azcapotzalco and the taking of other cities, he codified the laws of Texcoco and was known for his wisdom and justice. He went among the poor incognito to learn from them, and in his realm he only allowed war prisoners to be sacrificed. He supervised the construction of dams and canals that greatly enhanced agriculture. The causeway and aqueduct from Chapoltepec to Mexica were begun under Itzcoatl and were completed in 1466. Nezahualcoyotl gave prizes in the arts, crafts, music, and poetry. He wrote poetry about human mortality in this world and immortality in the next; yet he believed songs would last. He felt alone and empty of wisdom but praised the Giver of Life who distributes truth and brings joy.
Itzcoatl initiated the Mexica (Aztec) empire by conquering Coyoacan, Xochimilco, Cuitlahuac, and the remaining towns in the valley of Mexico. After conquering Cuernavaca, Itzcoatl died in 1440, and Moteuczoma Ilhuicamina was elected king. Moteuczoma was a successful general and also a high priest; he expanded the Mexica empire to the Gulf coast and organized botanical and zoological gardens. He had campaigned against Chalca to gain victims for his coronation. When they captured and killed two sons of Nezahualcoyotl and prepared for war, the Mexica mobilized every man and boy in 1444 and gained the Tepanecs and Acolhuas as allies. The final battle was fought on the feast day of the Chalca god Camaxtli so that they would have captives to sacrifice. The victorious Mexica took five hundred prisoners and sacrificed them. The long war with the Chalca was suspended when the Mexica suffered a great famine, though the Mexica found cause to make the Cohuixcas tributaries in 1448. The need for sacrificial victims stimulated the Mexica, Tepanecs, and Acolhuas in the valley to take on the Cholultecs, Tlascaltecs, and Huexotxincas in ritual combats to gain captives. A young man was not really recognized as a warrior until he had captured a soldier by himself, and it took four captures before he was considered a veteran.
A plague of locusts had devoured crops in 1446, and floods caused devastation three years later. Nezahualcoyotl oversaw the building of a dike to protect Tenochtitlan. The bad harvest in 1450 was followed by two years in which frosts destroyed the corn (maize) and a year of drought so that in 1454 there was no seed to sow. Famine became extreme as people sold themselves and their children into slavery to people along the coast; Mexica rulers prohibited the selling of a child for less than 400 ears of corn. With a new 52-year cycle rains came in 1455; but the Mexica imperial system had broken down, and in superstitious desperation they increased the number of human sacrifices; Moteuczoma and his brother Tlacaelel even planned so-called “wars of flowers” with the Tlaxcala and Huexotzingo for the purpose of getting more victims. Moteuczoma Ilhuicamina led the campaign against the peoples on the Gulf coast, and tribute was exacted from them. He demanded that the people of Cotaxtla supply them with mantles twice as long as before. After many were killed, the common people denounced their leaders and turned them over to the Mexica, who replaced the chiefs and doubled their tribute. Prisoners were not sacrificed but were given to the nobles with Tlacaelel receiving a large number.
Next the Mexica army turned north and invaded the Huastecs, killing and taking captives. Back at Tenochtitlan they were sacrificed at the festival of their own god Xipe Totec after fighting in an arena against better-armed opponents. The captor of the prisoner supervised the ritual. A long war with Chalco finally resulted in their subjugation when three despairing Chalco princes came over to the side of the Mexica in 1465, making it a part of the Aztec empire. The next year Moteuczoma led an attack against Tepeaca and three other towns, which agreed to pay tribute and accept Mexica’s god. Moteuczoma Ilhuicamina died in 1468 and left no legitimate sons; his brother Tlacaelel declined to succeed him, and Nezahualcoyotl recommended nineteen-year-old prince Axayacatl. He led the campaign to subdue the Cotaxtla rebellion in 1470.
Nezahualcoyotl died in 1472; though he had sixty sons and 57 daughters from forty wives, he was succeeded by his oldest legitimate son, eight-year-old Nezahualpilli. Three sons challenged him, but Axayacatl and the Tacuba saved Nezahualpilli by bringing him to Tenochtitlan, where he was crowned king of Texcoco. In 1473 some maidens of Tlatelolco complained that they had been ravished by youths from Tenochtitlan. The Tlatelolcan ruler Moquihuix had married Axayacatl’s sister but had rejected her for more attractive concubines. She warned her brother, who was able to gather more allies, including Texcoco, and they defeated and killed Moquihuix. The Tlatelolcans submitted that they were only merchants and offered tribute; they were put under a military governor from their neighboring city of Tenochtitlan. Axayacatl used his military power to exact unfair trade agreements, such as from the cities of Xoconoxco (Soconusco) in the east. In 1474 a dispute between Toluca and Tenancingo resulted in the latter asking for help from Axayacatl, who took advantage of the conflict to gain tribute from both. Axayacatl was wounded in the thigh, but many captives were gained for the sacrifices to celebrate the inauguration of the Stone of the Sun, which weighed 24 tons and became famous as the Aztec Calendar Stone.
In 1478 the Mexica once again subdued the rebellious Huastecs of Tuxpan; but that year they found tougher resistance from the Tarascans in the north. About 24,000 Mexica took on 40,000 Tarascans; but after two days of fighting they fled, having lost 20,000 men. Nonetheless Matlaltzinco was brought into the Mexica empire. Axayacatl died in 1481 and was succeeded by his older brother Tizoc. Nezahualpilli advised him to take care of widows, orphans, and the elderly as well as his warriors. Tizoc followed the Mexica custom of launching a war to gain sacrificial victims for his coronation by invading Metztitlan in the north; but his campaign was a dismal failure as they lost three hundred men and brought home only forty captives. Tizoc also tried to suppress a rebellion in Toluca, and his battles were commemorated on an extant stone; but he was unpopular and was probably poisoned in 1486 so that his younger brother Ahuitzotl could replace him.
Ahuitzotl was an aggressive king and began his reign by attacking the cities of Xiquipilco, Chiapas, and Xilotepec, providing many victims for his lavish coronation that cost a year’s tribute and to which he invited even his enemies. Ahuitzotl insisted that allies join him in quelling the unrest in the coastal province of Huastec. The pyramids of the Great Temple in Tenochtitlan were inaugurated in 1487 with four days of sacrifices that were reported by several sources to claim an astonishing 80,400 lives. These sacrifices were justified by the belief that such rituals were necessary to keep the sun on its course. The captive warriors were mollified by being honored as gods prior to their hearts being cut out. Next the Mexica king ruthlessly devastated the rebellious cities of Teloloapan and Oztoma, killing all the adults and distributing 40,000 children around the empire.
Ahuitzotl wanted to colonize some areas with four hundred people taken from each of Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tacuba; but Nezahualpilli persuaded him to reduce the numbers to half and let people volunteer. Ahuitzotl sent his daughters to be wives of Nezahualpilli, who later caught his queen with three lovers and had the four executed. Nezahualpilli was severe in his justice, having also executed two rebellious sons. A judge was condemned to death for hearing a case in his home, as was another for favoring a noble over a poor man. His reforms included nullifying a law that made children slaves if their parents were, thus resisting the trend toward more slavery in the late empire.
Ahuitzotl’s empire enabled the Mexica to gain cotton from the northern coastal region and gold and cochineal from the Oaxaca Zapotecs, who revolted against the unfair trade in 1496. Ahuitzotl tried to prevent his victorious warriors from plundering, and they resented his limited sharing of booty. When the rulers of Tehuantepec offered to pay much tribute to prevent a slaughter, Ahuitzotl pleased everyone by distributing it to his men. When the people of Tehuantepec tried to trade with Xoconoxco, the latter called them cowards for being lackeys of Mexica. Tehuantepec appealed to Ahuitzotl. His armies defeated Xoconoxco, but once again the warriors complained when they were not allowed to pillage. When the city of Tenochtitlan needed fresh water, Ahuitzotl forced the ruler of Coyoacan to make his springs available. Warned that this would cause flooding, Ahuitzotl went ahead anyway; the springs and heavy rains flooded the lagoon, causing much damage before Nezahualpilli could repair the dikes and remove the new dams with help from divers.
When Ahuitzotl died in 1502, the nobles had several outstanding candidates to choose from for their next king. Nezahualpilli warned that the empire was overextended and that they needed an experienced statesman. They elected Moteuczoma Xocoyotl (Montezuma II), the 34-year-old son of Axayacatl. Moteuczoma was known for his aristocratic attitudes and may even have promised to favor the nobility, for he began his reign by dismissing all the commoners who had worked in the government under Ahuitzotl. The former king had chosen many commoners for their abilities, but Moteuczoma refused even to hire his own half-brothers. Children of slave mothers were definitely rejected, and the only other necessary requirement besides nobility seems to have been their height. Moteuczoma had been found cleaning the temple when he was elected, and he was an ascetic disciplinarian who favored strict punishments. He even sent people to bribe judges and punished those who succumbed to the temptation. Once he was surrounded by the nobility, the new king ordered that all those who had served Ahuitzotl were to be executed.
Moteuczoma Xocoyotl began his military campaigns by attacking Nopallan on the Oaxaca coast. He warned cities that any rebellion would be crushed. At the usual sacrifices during his coronation the guests ate psychedelic mushrooms. After suppressing a rebellion in distant Xoconoxco, where he ordered all those over fifty killed, Moteuczoma made it his policy to consolidate his empire by conquering the independent cities nearest his capital. He bullied the commercial city of Tlatelolco into providing more support for his military expeditions. In 1503 he captured Achiotla in Oaxaca. The next year a war broke out between Tlaxcala and Huexotzingo, usually allies; after the former burned the latter’s crops, Moteuczoma intervened and occupied Huexotzingo but was defeated by the Tlaxcalans. After his army massacred the people of Yanhuitlan, the people of Zozollan fled to the mountains. In 1506 the city of Teuctepec sent out an army that was defeated; though the fortress could not be taken, Moteuczoma ordered the many prisoners sacrificed. Threatened with the death of half their population in 1511, the Mixtec city of Tlaxiaco submitted and only had some prisoners sacrificed as gladiators.
Mexica fought Tlaxcala and its ally Huexotzingo for several years. During this war Moteuczoma Xocoyotl sent the Acolhua army of Nezahualpilli and let them be ambushed as he watched. In 1512 a new stone was dedicated, and 12,000 Mixtecs were sacrificed. Nezahualpilli died in 1515, and Moteuczoma chose his own nephew Cacama as the new king of Texcoco. That year Moteuczoma once again sent his army to occupy Huexotzingo in its battle against Tlaxcala; but most were killed or taken prisoner. Nonetheless Moteuczoma made many other conquests. The Chichimec prince Ixtlilxochitl organized a revolt and took his partisans to independent Meztitlan, while his brother Cacama was being crowned. In 1517 Ixtilxochitl marched south with a hundred thousand men and gained support from several cities. Moteuczoma sent his general Xochitl, but he was defeated, captured, and burned alive. Ixtlilxochitl sent a message to Cacama, and they agreed to divide their kingdom. The Huexotzingo chief captured the Tlascaltec warrior Tlalhuicol and sent him to Moteuczoma, who offered him freedom and employed him as a general against the Tarascos. Tlalhuicol returned with spoils but volunteered to be a gladiator, killing eight Anahuac warriors before he was sacrificed.
The people of Huexotzingo finally made peace with Tlaxcala and returned to their homes in 1518. Moteuczoma Xocoyotl had been receiving premonitions and disastrous omens along with rumors of invading foreigners; frustrated that they were saying his empire would fall, he had astrologers, magicians, and sorcerers killed. He was sacrificing more victims to inaugurate the refurbishing with gold of a temple to their war god Huitzilopochtli when he received definite news of strangers led by Juan de Grijalva. An embassy was sent with generous gifts, but the Spaniards had departed. The next year the ships of Cortes arrived. By then Tenochtitlan had more than 120,000 people and the valley of Mexico more than a million.