Loved and tender son,

This is the will of the gods.

You are not born in your true house

Because you are a warrior. Your land

Is not here, but in another place.

You are promised to the field of battle.

You are dedicated to war.

You must give the Sun your enemies’ blood.

You must feed the earth with corpses.

Your house, your fortune, and your destiny

Is in the House of the Sun.

Serve, and rejoice that you may be worthy

To die the Death of Flowers!

– From the prayer of the Mexica midwife

The two greatest men of fifteenth-century Mexico were a prince of Texcoco and a prime minister of Tenochtitlán. Nezahualcóyotl of Texcoco and Tlacaélel of Tenochtitlán were both highborn; they were both supremely intelligent, and both lived long lives at the core of power. But while Nezahualcóyotl was a cultivated intellectual given to reflections on the fleeting grandeur of the world, Tlacaélel was a brutal-minded patriot, intent above all else on his country’s wealth and power.

Mexican historians understandably prefer the image of the former to that of the Mexica cihuacóatl (“Snake Woman,” the symbolic title of the second officer of Tenochtitlán). But as chief justice and high priest and chief minister of the Mexica, Tlacaélel did most to shape his times. He never held a throne, but he was the power behind thrones he twice refused. He understood the difference between dominant influence in the state and the cares of exercising power and had the wisdom to prefer the first.

He was of royal blood, a nephew of Itzcóatl, and showed early ability in the rebellion against Azcapotzalco. From this time he was always one of the four great councilors of the tribe, one of the four men who, in the name of the twenty clans, administered the state, advised the ruler, and in effect chose every ruler from their own ranks.

Tlacaélel’s name remained almost unknown for centuries, but he was the principal architect of the Mexica or Aztec empire. He dreamed vast dreams in the smoke of Azcapotzalco, and while Nezahualcóyotl, the child of fickle fortune, looked upon the work of Tezozómoc and despaired, Tlacaélel was able to transmit his dreams to his warrior uncle and to all his tribe. He could have seen no omens in the faces of the wailing, enslaved Tepanecs, or in the revolt he had helped engineer.

And while Nezahualcóyotl wrote poetry about the vanity of men and the mutability of fortune, Tlacaélel planned a new course of empire.

The rulers of the three victorious cities of Anáhuac—Tenochtitlán-Tlatelolco, Texcoco, and Tlacopán—struck a pragmatic alliance in the ruins of Azcapotzalco, realizing that between them they had enough power to dominate the Valley; the Mexica and the Texcoca were great warriors, while the Tlacopaneca could provide a commissariat of corn. Under the terms of this alliance the lords of Tlacopán and Texcoco became members of the Mexica council—though power remained with the four members from Tenochtitlán.

The alliance easily asserted its power over the Valley. But while the Texcoca merely reestablished their hegemony over the northeast corner of the lake, the Mexica, urged by Tlacaélel, filled the power vacuum on the ocotl-covered slopes of the west by annexing not only the lands but the tributary cities of Azcapotzalco. The Mexica were already overcrowded on their muddy isles, but this proved to be an irreversible step toward empire.

Tlacaélel was ruthlessly practical, with only one purpose: to increase the power of Tenochtitlán. His Toltec education gave him knowledge of things that went back to Teotihuacán—but it had not eradicated his true Mexica nature, barbarian, bellicose, parochial, with an island mentality and a thoroughly tribal mind. His genius—and he had genius—lay in his ability to blend his knowledge and his qualities into empirical actions. The precise chronology of his acts is unknown. They began with the destruction of Azcapotzalco about 1431 and continued until his death in 1480, when he had irreversibly fixed the destiny of the Mexica nation.

When the Mexica seized the western shore of Lake Texcoco they were still a homogeneous grouping of fierce warrior-peasant clans who could have more readily harassed and ravaged the Valley than created and maintained an empire. But it was at this time that Tlacaélel, Itzcóatl, and the small group of Culhua-descended pipiltin were able to make vast changes in tribal society.

The first step was to create a military aristocracy that would be a true instrument of empire.

Until now tribal territories had always been held by the clans, who assigned fields to families according to ability and need. But Tlacaélel and Itzcóatl refused to permit the newly conquered lands to be added to the communal holdings and disposed of them in different ways.

Much of the new land was designated as pillali, or fields of the nobles, assigned to distinguished warriors who were to hold them for life, with the right to command the labor of the conquered population on them. The sons of tectecuhtzin, the feudal landholders, had the right of succession to both privileges, though the lands reverted to the hueytlatoani’s office if a lineage died out. Itzcóatl also decreed that the military honors and distinctions won in the war were hereditary. Here, at one stroke, the rulers of Tenochtitlán created a powerful military aristocracy and the beginnings of a militaristic caste system.

The conquered people who were forced to work the pillali were known as mayeque (“handy ones”). As serfs bound to the soil, they were only permitted to keep enough of the fruits of their labor to eat, the bulk of it going to their landlords. There was also a whole class of people less fortunate than the mayeque, the slaves. Serfdom and slavery were old in Mexico.

The slaves, however, were not chattels like Negroes in North America. They kept certain rights; they could contract marriage and beget free children; and they could buy back their freedom and even have slaves of their own. The slave class came from prisoners of war, criminals who did not merit death, and certain people who could not repay obligations.

The distinction between slaves and mayeque serfs, clear at first, began to blur.

Tlacaélel believed that a powerful, militaristic class, freed from economic production, was necessary for empire. But he also drew on old forms of organization to create and subsidize the burgeoning bureaucracy that any organized, civilized state required—the administrators, judges, scribes, public engineers, teachers, and junior professional military ranks. For this purpose other fields were set aside: the tlatocatlalli, or fields reserved for the revered speaker and the upkeep of his office; the tecpantlalli (“palace estates”) which supported the growing horde of officers of the hueytlatoani, the “state” bureaucracy; and lands designated as Shield or War Fields, which provided provisions for the professional warriors, and for extended campaigns. All these lands were worked by serfs.

In an agricultural society which had no notion of money, this was the only means of creating a state treasury and of rewarding public servants. The actual ownership of all land was still communal, that is, it came from the tribe or state, but now the ruling clique designated its use. Tlacaélel also founded a new class in addition to the skilled groups that the palace subsidized, the pochteca, or merchants. The pochteca formed a caste or guild; they were not entrepreneurs but rather agents who carried on a strategic commerce for the palace. In fact, throughout Mexic society everyone except the family head on his communal plot in some way worked for or was dependent on the “state.”

These actions obviously drove deep class divisions between the Mexica tribesmen, separating the people into pilli or nobility, and ordinary tribesmen, or macehualtin, with certain public-supported intermediate skilled ranks.

The Mexica rulers were consciously trying to re-create the previous imperial social orders. Tlacaélel planned to solve problems, not to create them. There could be no gain in wealth or power without social diversification, specialization, and stratification, and since civilization rested on small cornfields, the directors, sustainers, and war-makers had to be freed from primary labor. There could be no palaces and fine parks, no aqueducts and paved roads, and no soaring pyramids without the labor of thousands of people straining at subsistence level. All of the Meso-American cultures built their capital, and their civilization, out of peasant sweat.

Obviously, power and direction passed to the land- and office-holding aristocrats after 1431. But the life of the macehual, the common clansman on whom the real power of the Mexica nation rested, did not really change. The creation of a landed aristocracy and a palace bureaucracy affected the common farmer very little because foreign peoples supported these structures. The macehual kept on living in a common house, working common land with his close relatives, and there is no evidence that he disliked or opposed the changes in any way; in fact, he seems to have considered the rising nobility still his kinsmen, and he saw possible opportunity for himself, through war.

At clan level the Mexica were yet a remarkably homogeneous and cohesive folk, while the new aristocrats and sustainers of the state stood outside the clan organization, and so arose a peculiar dualism.

The old tribal cohesiveness provided a hard core around which to form a remarkable military force. Tlacaélel, whose interests had no boundaries, completely remade the army along Toltec lines, again blending the old and new—the war-band clan feeling of the people and military hierarchies developed by the lords of Tula.

The basic fighting unit was a squad of twenty men, led by a minor officer or chief. Twenty such “twenties” formed a squadron or battalion of four hundred men. These squadrons were always drawn from a single clan, and had to be commanded by an officer of that clan. Twenty squadrons comprised an army of about eight thousand. This, with bearers, allies, and auxiliaries, was the basic field unit with which the tribe made war.

The speaker was supreme general, and the field general, who commanded several armies of Mexica and allies, was normally an aristocrat of Eagle blood. Below the tlacatécatl (“Chief of Men”) and tlacochcalcatl (“Chief of the House of Arrows”), the tecuhtli who commanded the clan battalions were also of the military elite. The army was hierarchical and completely disciplined.

Outside of the straight military rank structure there also existed a vast proliferation of military honors, elite orders, and hereditary warrior castes. The common warrior, or yaoquizque, was awarded special feathers, ornaments, and other distinctions for valiant deeds. The warrior who captured four enemies in battle was honored, with a title and a special chair. The best warriors formed the elite orders of Jaguar, Eagle, and other “knights,” which the Mexica adopted from the Toltec culture and which fought as special groups. Virtually all commanders and officers were chosen from these ranks.

Despite this strict hierarchy and the fact that such distinctions were made hereditary, the army was the main road to social mobility. Macehual yaoquizque could and did rise through valor and ability; they could become recognized warriors, leaders, and even feudal noblemen. And all judges, palace officers, priests, and bureaucrats were usually appointed from among distinguished fighting men. Such appointments were still more accessible to the sons of aristocrats, the pipiltin, but even they had to prove themselves in war.

Officers and elite warriors wore elaborate masks and feather headdresses, and colorful insignia of rank—fantastic trappings from the barbarian Nahua past. A Mexica army was a disciplined mass of men, commanded by proven officers, supported by an organized commissary, and sustained by a special treasury of palace lands when in the field. The warrior did not have to feed himself; bearers and slaves carried along thousands of baskets of tortillas or corn cakes. And yet the army was still made up of savage, barbarically colorful war bands, hordes of clansmen fighting shoulder to shoulder, blood brothers marching against the world.

However, the institution of a militaristic nobility and the organization of a vast tribal army did not automatically bring about an empire. Tezozómoc had conquered Anáhuac with a similar social and military organization—although it lacked the Mexica tribal core—and had carved out only an ephemeral dynastic state, which fell apart at his death. Tlacaélel’s genius was superior. He had a new rationale for empire, a new vision: a people in arms, committed to a divine mission, driven by mysticism toward a vast collective goal. His great success lay in his ability to give the Mexica a usable past, a myth of superiority, and a vision of glory. Tlacaélel understood human nature and the nature of his bellicose, resentful, barbarian kinsmen very well.

The tribe had an inferiority complex arising from its humiliating past. Tlacaélel dictated new histories that overlaid this past with satisfying myths. The Codex Matritense sings:

They had kept stories of their past,

But in the reign of Itzcóatl these were burned;

The lords of Mexico ordered this;

So the lords of Mexico decreed:

Their people must not know the old pictures

Because all of them were filled with lies.

So Tlacaélel rewrote history, his scribes turning out new lies. New books depicted the Mexica, or the Culhua-Mexica, as having always been a great people, the equal of every Nahua nation, who had wandered out of a forgotten paradise. They came as the Chosen of Huitzilopochtli, Children of the Eagle and the Sun, blood heirs of the mighty Toltecs, through Culhuacán. It was a irresistible genealogical myth.

This was harmless compared to the new rendering of the cult of Huitzilopochtli, the tribal deity. Now Huitzilopochtli was offered the most extravagant praise. He was shown to be equal and even the superior of Tezcatlipoca, the powerful Toltec god. He had always required human blood—but now Tlacaélel interpreted the will of Huitzilopochtli in a stunning new revelation.

The Sun God was also the God of War, and he had chosen the Mexica for a great mission—to bring together all the nations into the service of the Sun. The Mexica were to subdue the world and offer Huitzilopochtli continual blood, which he required so that he might continue to rise in the east and vanquish the night. Unless Huitzilopochtli were refreshed and strengthened, he could not replenish the earth. He had called the Mexica to this special service so that they might gain great honor and glory. As agents of the god, the tribe would become demigods themselves, rulers in his name of all the earth.

The warriors who fed Huitzilopochtli, either through the hearts of enemies or by their own blood in battle, were assured of eternity in the East Heaven of the Sun, the most exalted of Meso-American paradises.

Here indeed was a divine mission, promising lordship in this life and heaven hereafter. And the Mexica, as a whole people, seized upon it eagerly. The outstanding characteristic of the Mexica people in their great century was the mystical belligerency that some modern Mexican intellectuals deny and most historians find almost incredible.

Tlacaélel did not invent holy war; he only gave the old Meso-American mythology a new and violent thrust. Blood magic was part of the culture, and religious warfare came down from ancient times. More is known about the empire of Tenochtitlán than the great Mexican hegemonies that preceded it, but since it is known that the Mexica were adaptive rather than creative, the Mexica empire perhaps tells a great deal about those earlier realms.

Like a Caesar, Charlemagne, or Hitler, Tlacaélel found the correct combination of forces for his times. He escaped fame as a great conqueror only because he preferred to remain in the Mexic background, behind the throne.

He created a formidable tool of conquest. History has shown that a homogeneous people with an island mentality, if led by capable rulers and fired with ultrarational goals, burst upon the world more ferociously than others, and fight more tenaciously than heterogeneous societies.

Commanding this instrument, directing it toward goals he himself had devised, Tlacaélel of Tenochtitlán now held history in his hand.

Itzcóatl took only those actions, wrote the Spanish historian Durán, that were advised by Tlacaélel, to gather together all the nations. Now the Mexica horde pushed south along the lake. Coyoacán fell, then Cuitláhuac, then Xochimilco, another center built like Tenochtitlán out on its island. Chalco, to the southeast, was overrun.

These cities were populated by men like the Mexica, who spoke similar dialects and worshipped the same pantheon of gods. Perhaps the ruling circle of the Mexica was unafraid that a hungry Huitzilopochtli would refuse to replenish the earth and perhaps the nobility and warriors may have only been dreaming of glory, wealth, and power. But it would be a mistake to consider their warfare pragmatic. Behind it all was a haunting dread. The Mexica tribesmen believed in their war god; they believed in the immortality of the soul; and they believed the universe was ruled by their magic. Thousands fell; the sun was fed; many Mexica won their eternal reward. And each year the power and wealth of Tenochtitlán swelled.

The huge snakehide drum tlalpanhuehuetl, which was sounded only to signal human sacrifice or herald war, boomed its dismal message out over the lake. Spaniards who heard it wrote that the monstrous drum could be heard two leagues away, and that its sound made hairs stand up on the nape of the neck. The Mexica continuously found pretexts for war: a refusal to pay tribute, an insult to an ambassador—and Mexica envoys cultivated insults—or interference with traveling merchants. The Mexica were always scrupulous about declaring war and sending advance notice.

The armies of Tenochtitlán would then march forth with advance scouts and flankers to prevent ambush. Picked warriors and priests pushed far ahead; long lines of bearers brought up the rear. Mexica and allies often marched separately, because of the logistic problem, and arrived at a designated battlefield several days apart.

Although the Amerindian warfare took ambush and treachery into account, tactical maneuver was unknown. Foes assembled on a chosen field, usually outside a threatened city. After ceremonial demonstrations and war cries, the actual battle began with a shower from each side of stones, darts, arrows that were usually deflected by shields and did little damage.

When the missiles were exhausted, the infantry charged in close-packed ranks. At this moment the generals lost control; the battle was decided by numbers and mass ferocity, as ranks of warriors clashed.

Men struck with the crude but fearsome maquauhuitl, a wooden sword with obsidian teeth, which could sever a head with one stroke, clubbed one another, or thrust with lances or spears.

The first prisoners taken in an action had to be dragged to the rear and sacrificed at once, which sometimes delayed the final assault. The battle ended when one side was overwhelmed.

The Mexica, armed by fury and discipline, cut their way into countless towns. The last desperate resistance was always in front of the main teocalli or temple-pyramid. When the last defenders were hacked to pieces or driven off, the Mexica set the temple afire. The Mexica pictograph for a captured city was the drawing of a ruined temple, sometimes with a spear driven through it.

The fallen center was then drawn into the hegemony of Tenochtitlán. Long lines of bound prisoners were herded back for the altars of Huitzilopochtli. Most of the conquered people were not molested, but for the rest of their lives they would pay tribute, which the Mexica had learned the hard way from Tezozómoc. Now, they were insatiable and cunning in their demands—corn, fowl, metals, jades, paper, slaves—all of which they kept a permanent record.

Itzcóatl, at the head of his armies, conquered almost all the Valley of Mexico in ten years. These bloody raids made further expansion easier, for the fame and terror of the Mexica spread. When Itzcóatl led an expedition beyond the Valley for the first time, into southern Morelos, its people surrendered without a fight. The Mexica always permitted a city to surrender, and if it rendered homage and paid tribute, its people were permitted to retain their property and lives.

Because the Mexica were victorious everywhere, this warfare added yearly to their wealth and power. Nor were their losses in men serious. The Texcoca fought with them, and other subject peoples were sometimes made to join their ranks.

Most of the peoples who submitted or were overrun spoke Nahuatl and had inherited Toltec culture. Even the Tlahuica of Morelos were Nahua. It would have been possible, at this time, for the Mexica to have founded some sort of great society, or to have erected a powerful Nahua confederacy in the highlands—a union that might have been able to stave off invasion in later years. But the Mexica never again followed the precedent they had set with Texcoco and Tlacopán in seeking allies. They either subjected every other people with whom they came in contact, or made them pay tribute, and failing this, made perpetual war. They did not incorporate the fallen centers into their political structure; they made a sullen empire of rulers and ruled.

The Mexica, though not lenient, left subdued cities under their own rulers, especially at this time because they lacked the political sophistication to devise any other method of controlling or collecting tribute. The defeated rulers had to swear allegiance to Itzcóatl, and this made for frequent rebellion.

By 1440 the Mexica were utterly dominant throughout Anáhuac.

In these same years, Nezahualcóyotl of Texcoco symbolized a different facet of the civilization. This prince ruled over warriors who were the equals of the Mexica, but he was not really interested in expansive war. He fought with the Mexica in their wars, but he made quite clear that he had no belief in the cult of Huitzilopochtli. Nezahualcóyotl was intellectual. He admired astronomy, philosophy, engineering, and art, and he gathered a great number of skilled and learned people into his court at Texcoco, acquired the finest library in all Mexico, and had a palace probably unequaled in magnificence. Texcoco in these years was still a more splendid city than Tenochtitlán; in fact, Nezahualcóyotl built causeways and aqueducts to service his allies in Tenochtitlán.

Nezahualcóyotl showed that he sought intellectual rather than magical-militaristic answers to the questions of the universe. He was interested in popularizing a new syncretism, by which all the old gods would be held to be One, a single giver of life. However, this esoteric view never caught on outside his circle of philosophers.

Even so, a sort of humanism was sprouting in Texcoco, which could not possibly arise in Tlacaélel’s Tenochtitlán. Tenochtitlán was too overwhelmingly devoted to social purpose, and too constructed like a human anthill, for any true humanism to take hold.

Nezahualcóyotl did live the good life of a Mexic prince. He enjoyed his splendid apartments and great library and the services of a vast harem. He sired over a hundred children by these wives and concubines. He was greatly admired for this by his people, and also for the disciplined manner in which he ruled his household. Nezahualcóyotl’s name was a byword for wisdom and justice; his courts were considered the fairest of all in Mexico, because several of his own children were sentenced to death for public sins.


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