Aztec society was made up of hundreds of calpulli (clans), each of which existed as minor states in their own right and comprised up to two hundred families.
The most eminent calpulli of all was the royal family itself, headed by a tlatoani (Great Speaker) who was considered to be divine. The remainder of the Aztec families consisted of a man, his wife, their unmarried children and the households of their married sons or brothers. The land, communally owned, was shared out for cultivation between the households.
The Structure of the Calpulli
By the very nature of their environment, rural calpulli were found in small towns or in a group of villages. Larger calpulli were confined in the main to the major Aztec towns and the cities, where they occupied neighborhoods.
Each clan had its own ruling council, selected from the heads of the households, and a tlatoani who normally belonged to a leading family but was not, of course, divine, like the Great Speaker who resided in Tenochtitlan. Each calpulli paid group taxes to the central government and ran its own schools for girls or for young men, where military and moral training were high on the timetable.
The clan owed duties to the government, providing obligatory unpaid labour for agricultural, construction and other projects and performing military service. The watchwords of this carefully organized society were duty, discipline and devotion to the gods, and that applied equally to the divine tlatoani in Tenochtitlan and the lowliest member of the smallest calpulli.
The Aztec Hierarchy
Nevertheless, there were clear divisions within Aztec society as a whole:
Alongside or only just below the tlatoani were the priests, whose functions embraced not only the direction and practise of religion, but participation in war and government.
The tlatoani himself frequently belonged to the priestly class as well as being born into the tetecuhtin (nobility). As a group, the tetecuhtin were generally ranked below thetlatoani and included the professional soldiers.
The macehualtin, the class of free commoners, stood below them. There were also the mayeques (serfs) who worked on the rural estates, some of which were private- and some state-owned.
The unfortunates termed ‘pawns’ were poor Aztecs who sold themselves or members of their families in return for sustenance and housing. They were not slaves per se for the limit on their service made them more like indentured laborers.
Real slaves the tlatoctli, were bought and sold at markets like any other commodity. Many of them ended their lives as human sacrifices.
Higher Status, Greater Expectations
There were, too, shades of difference within each class. The tetecuhtin who had no political office and inherited no private estates became dependent on the tlatoani, while others who occupied state positions and owned land were more respectably placed.
Among the macehualtin, merchants, jewellers, goldsmiths, featherworkers and sculptors had a higher status than those with more mundane occupations. Privilege, whether earned or inherited, required higher standards of behavior. For instance, a serious crime such as drunkenness incurred the death penalty when committed by a tecuhtli, whereas a macehual would be given a second chance.
This did not mean the culprit escaped a penalty. As punishment, a drunkard would have his head shaved and his house knocked down. Only if he were found drunk a second time would a macehual be executed.
At the same time, it was necessary that the macehualtin be seen to know their place. For example, wearing cotton clothing was a monopoly of the upper classes in Aztec society. So were elaborate jewellery, beautiful plumes, perfumes, presents of roses and certain luxury foods such as cocoa. A commoner caught aping his ‘betters” in any of these ways was liable to be killed for his temerity.
Service in Return for Privilege
The tetecuhtin may have enjoyed the cream of what their society had to offer, including large tracts of land, but in return, the Aztec state demanded service from them and particularly military service.
Because of the constant need to provide prisoners as human sacrifices, the state could not afford protracted periods of peace. The 15th century tlatoani Montezuma I Illhuacamin decreed that war was the most important element in Aztec life, and that the tetecuhtin could enjoy none of their privileges unless they had military experience, or better still, physical evidence of wounds sustained in battle.
The Battle of the Flowers
This was not a difficult demand to fufill. The supply of sacrifices was usually plentiful, given the warlike nature of the tribes living in the Valley of Mexico and beyond, and their ongoing rivalries, together with the provision of victims as part of the tribute exacted from subject peoples.
But if by any chance there was a shortfall, the Aztecs used to stage a ceremony known as the War of the Flowers in which a ritual battle was organized so that each side could take prisoners and afterwards offer them to their gods.