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Aztec Success Essay Research Paper Aztec SuccessThe

Aztec Success Essay, Research Paper

Aztec Success

The Triple Alliance was a bond formed in 1482 between the cities of Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tacuba. We know the empire they created as the Aztec Empire. Their reign included the conquest of many neighboring communities. The immense amount of land and people they reigned over caused many problems because of the enormous distances and rudimentary means of communication. This led to a special kind of rule where the remote cities received preferential treatment to guarantee their loyalty. The tribute system the Triple Alliance set up was the backbone of their Empire, and it financed the important religious festivals and the luxuries of the ruling class. The tribute was collected from conquered lands and consisted of everything Mexico could produce and consume. The system was quite flexible and adaptable to the problems of transport and the lack of an alphabetical writing system which made rapid communication troublesome. The ever-expanding conquests created “a bureaucratic and economic machine of enormous complexity that fed on a diet of tribute, trade, and a constant supply of sacrificial victims from near and distant lands” (Fagan, 95). The success of the Triple Alliance, in such a short period, came from the unique government it created, which incorporated a tribute system capable of combining the religious, political, and social values of the time.

The development of the Aztec Empire occurred in an amazingly short period. The Mexica were the last group to migrate to the valley of Mexico toward the beginning of the thirteenth century (van Zantwijk, 40). Their late migration left them low on the social scale forcing the Mexica to wander for many years trying to find a permanent settlement (Duran, 13). They lived off the western shore of Lake Texcoco, at Chapultepec for a short time, but this land belonged to the Tepanec people. In 1299 the Tepanec forced the Mexica to take refuge to the south of the lake, on the outskirts of Culhuacan (Leon-Portilla, 88). The Tepanec sent them there hoping the poisonous snakes of the area would kill them. Instead, the Mexica ate the snakes. The Tepanec again chased the Mexica out in 1323 and so the Mexica founded the site of Tenochtitlan, which was to become a great capital. Meanwhile, the Tepanec were building a great empire in nearby Azcapotzalco. The Mexica strived to become privileged members of the Tepanec empire. Although Tepanec confined them to secondary roles, they managed to take advantage of this time to train themselves (Gruzinski, 26). In 1426, Tezozmoc the leader of the Tepanec empire was succeeded by his son Maxtla, who hated the Mexica. Soon war broke out between the two groups (Duran, 61). Texcoco, a neighboring city, also was at odds with the Tepanec, and so the Mexica, the Tecocan and Tlacopan formed the Triple Alliance against the Tepanec. The Triple Alliance formed what is today known as the Aztec empire. The power of these three cities defeated the Tepanec and took control of their land after a siege lasting 114 days. Tenochtitlan, the Mexica capital, controlled the military and tribute payments while Texcoco held authority over juridical and cultural affairs. Tlacopan became a subsidiary to Tenochtitlan and dealt mostly with external relations, like presenting official declarations of war for the empire (Van Zantwijk, 111).

After only a little more than one hundred years in the Valley of Mexico, the Mexica became great leaders. In 1440 the emperor Moctezuma I came in to power. He was to be known as the father of the Aztec Empire (Gruzinski, 31). Moctezuma knew the importance of conquering neighboring lands to expand the power of the Aztecs. The perpetual battles that Moctezuma I began laid the groundwork for the success of the empire. The conquering of neighbors’ land was very important to the survival of both the Aztec Empire and the world (Davies, 42). The tribute payments gained by conquering supported the government economically and provided the victims for the sacrifices which the Aztecs’ believed fueled the world. The conquest of new lands was important to Aztec religion and society because of the growing need for humans to sacrifice. The Aztecs believed that someday this world or Sun would have to end. The only way to avoid the death of the sun was by giving it vital energy enclosed in the chalchiuhatl or “the precious liquid” which keeps humanity alive, blood. This called for a continuous supply of sacrificial victims, whose hearts and blood would be offered up to the sun, giving the sun the nourishment necessary to prolong its life indefinitely (Leon-Portilla, 101).

To make this possible, the Aztecs started a practice known as the “flower wars,” periodic battles whose purpose was to capture potential sacrificial victims. The Aztecs fought these pseudo wars with the people of Texcoco, Tlacopan, Tlaxcala, and Huexotzinco. Soldiers did their best not to kill opponents but rather to take them alive for sacrifice (Duran, 348). The Aztecs believed the continued existence of the universe depended on them, if they did not feed the sun the dark forces of the night would destroy it. This gave the Aztecs a justification for all their conquests. By subduing other people and reducing them to tributaries, they were realizing a supreme mission (Leon-Portilla, 102). The Aztec state was thus devoted to the notion of perpetual war (Davies, 51). Due to the importance of war the Aztec Empire eventually expanded to great lengths, stretching from the coast of the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico and from Northern Mexico to Guatemala (Fagan, 95). The religious, political and social needs of the community led to this expansion.

The Aztecs’ conquests were also rewarding because the tribute system required the payment of goods in addition to captives. The Aztecs required any conquered community to pay tribute or taxes to the main empire in Tenochtitlan. The city of Texcoco received an equal share of this tribute, but the control was in the hands of Tenochtitlan (Davies, 45). The sources state that they distributed the tribute in a 2:2:1 ratio. Tenochtitlan and Texcoco got two-fifths each and Tlacopan one fifth (Coe, 171). Tribute could consist of many things, such as precious stones, feathers, cacao, cotton, clothes, live animals, shells, maize, beans, fruit and much more. Gruzinski notes that “Several tens of thousands of tons of food, more than 100,000 cotton garments, and an impressive 30,000 bundles of feathers, and an impressive quantity of precious objects and rare animals constituted the tribute paid in a year” (44). Provinces that lacked foodstuffs and clothes used people as tribute, and their services were used for military or public work projects (Fagan, 148).

Imperial authorities supported local dynasties if they delivered their tribute payments on time (Smith, 76). The local dynasties included land granted to nobles and land controlled by calpullis, a group of families that controlled a territorial unit acting as a channel of goods and services to the state (Fagan, 146). The government imposed and linked social status to the tribute revenue (Brumfiel, 679). At the bottom were the commoners whose tribute payments supported all the nobles and calpulli (Smith, 76). Those who worked to provide tribute received little benefit other then vague promises of help in times of famine and war. Only a few highly privileged rulers and nobles enjoyed the full fruits of the trade and tribute system (Fagan, 125). The structure of the tribute system also allowed the empire to recruit large numbers of people in a short amount of time. These recruits came from the calpulli and the people controlled by the nobles. This was a major factor in the success of the Aztec Empire. In most of the campaigns subject neighbors furnished large contingents to form forces that a single city-state could not conceivably muster (Davies, 42). The Aztecs could punish any community that did not pay tribute almost immediately because of the empire’s ability to mobilize troops from other tributaries in a short time. The Aztec Empire presided over a variety of vassal states and tense political alliances which kept their armies in the field every year (Fagan, 113).

The social structure of the Aztec community complemented the government’s objectives. Aztec life existed not for the individual but for the group; each member conformed to social norms and contributed to the preservation of the community and state through tax, labor and, in war times, through military service (Fagan, 138). The government imposed the definition of an individual’s social status (Brumfiel, 679). Authority and tribute flowed up and down a social pyramid built on a solid base of close family ties, ancient lineage connections and communal ownership of land among the commoners (Davies, 120). The Aztec nobles consisted of two levels: the secular bureaucracy of judges, officials and soldiers and the organization of priests (Fagan, 95).

Another important factor that led to the success of the Aztec empire was their unique structure of the government. The communities that they conquered only felt the repression of the government through tribute payments (Davies, 41). After conquering lands the Aztecs left no garrison behind, only a tax collector. Apart from the tax collector the Aztecs respected local authorities, institutions and traditions (Gruzinski, 40). The indigenous rulers and nobles were left in place, but were demoted to the status of middle and lower rank officials (Coe, 167). The idea of conversion was alien to the peoples of Mexico. Sometimes the Mexica stressed the cult of their sun god Huitizilopochtli, but they did not require the conquered people to worship him. The Aztecs maintained a relatively peaceful relationship with the conquered by granting them religious freedom. The Aztecs did not have a regular army to serve as an occupying force (Gruzinski, 40). Their only communication from the conquered towns came through the tribute payments and merchants. The merchants sometimes acted as spies for the Aztec government, and were compensated for any information concerning rebellions in the conquered lands. The Aztecs were more interested in tribute then annexation (Fagan, 130-131).

The structure of the government caused the different social groups to feel important so that there was little chance for rebellion. The dominant groups kept subservient groups under control by making them responsible for some part of the government. Each group had a defined place and got satisfaction by exaggerating the importance of their role in the system (van Zantwijk, 26). The Aztecs divided the government operations among different ethnic groups so that the state could function only through their cooperation. The social hierarchy relied on a network of social and economic dependence that bound nobles and commoners to one another through obligation of service (Fagan, 179). The supreme power lay in Tenochtitlan and the emperor, however. The emperor’s position was based on hereditary succession by election (van Zantwijk, 25). Rule depended not just on force and terror but on personal qualities and exemplary lifestyles. The functions of the hierarchies and their mutual relationships changed overtime according to the administrative, social, economic and religious development of the society (74). At first the people acquired rank through achievements but eventually birth became the overriding factor (Fagan, 137). This increasingly stratified society needed to maintain the high levels of tribute to feed ever more non-farmers (179).

The Aztec empire faced two major problems that blocked complete control: enormous distances and rudimentary forms of communication. The empire at its height consisted of Northern Mexico to Guatemala and from the coast of the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico. Not only was this a vast amount of land, but it also contained a variety of climate and topography. To add to this trouble, the Aztecs had no beasts of burden, so everything had to be carried on the human back. Messages could take weeks to reach their destinations, making communication very difficult. Also, the Aztecs did not have an alphabetized writing system but relied on glyphs, ideographic representations (Leon Portilla, 44). These weaknesses often led to revolts in conquered lands. Nevertheless, these revolts were few and easily put down. Since the Aztecs could produce a force from any of their tributary communities in a short time, they could keep their empire in line (Fagan, 148). After such revolts the rebels were crushed and then forced to pay even higher tributes, not so much of quantity, but value and difficulty of supply (114).

The Aztec success at government can be attributed to their ability to control such a large territory and population through tribute and fear. The Triple Alliance knew how to take care of the populations of the Valley of Mexico. In exchange for warriors the Aztecs, granted the tributaries shares of the war booty. Remote cities received preferential treatment to guarantee their loyalty. The Aztecs entrusted others with guarding the frontiers, which exempted them from tribute payments. The empire “resembled an immense spider web, with the Triple Alliance at its center and a thousand networks linked through marriage alliances, exchange of services, interdependence and extortion” (Gruzinski, 42). The whole structure was flexible and adaptable to the empire’s changing needs. The Aztecs could not rely on efficient means of transport or an alphabetical writing system, but they found ways around these difficulties. The Aztec Empire was nothing like a highly centralized and totalitarian power, and this is what made it so successful. We can best describe it as a “sophisticated tribute-gathering machine” (Fagan, 113). Every aspect of the Aztec imperial government was focused on two ultimate ends: the feeding of t-he sun with the blood of sacrificial victims and the maintenance of the power and prestige of the emperor and the nobles (113). Both ends rested on the complex tribute system of the Aztec government.

Lynn Opulski


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Coe, Michael D. Mexico:From the Olmecs to the Aztecs. New York: Thames and Hudson Inc., 1994.

Davies, Nigel. The Aztec empire : the Toltec resurgence. Norman : University of Oklahoma Press, 1987.

Duran, Diego. Aztecs: the history of the Indies of New Spain. New York: Orion Press, 1964.

Fagan, Brian M. The Aztecs. New York: W.H. Freeman and Co., 1984.

Gruzinski, Serge. The Aztecs; Rise and Fall of an Empire. New York; Discoveries harry N. Abrams, Inc, Publishers, 1992.

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