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The prince of Texcoco was living evidence that the
Amerindian civilization could and did create a high level of intellectual
culture. But even Nezahualcóyotl’s court was repeating old concepts and forms
and breaking no new ground. The art of his engineers never equaled that of the
Classic Age; for hundreds of years Amerindian engineers and architects were
accustomed to applying old techniques without ever considering the concepts
behind the techniques they used.

There was another small island of humanism in these years at
Huexotzingo. However, the Mexica of Tenochtitlán were far more representative
of the Nahua culture of the age. The vast majority of men were dominated by
custom, deference, and devotion to a bloody-minded magic. The Mexica were only
more warlike, and better organized and inspired than most.

Itzcóatl the Conqueror died circa 1440. But this marked no
watershed in the history of Tenochtitlán, for Tlacaélel had done his work too
well. Utterly dominant in its own near-universe, Tenochtitlán had no rational
cause to go beyond the volcanoes. But Tlacaélel still lived and gave advice,
and ultrarational notions are easier to infuse than eradicate.

The ruling council, including Nezahualcóyotl, offered
Tlacaélel the revered speaker’s seat, which was by now almost a theocratic
throne. When the prime minister refused, the brother of Chimalpopoca,
Motecuhzoma Ilhuicamina, was ceremonially installed with rites and nose plug,
in the traditional year I-Dog.

Under Motecuhzoma warfare became the causa causans of the
Mexica state. The upper echelons of Mexica society had become totally
militarist, and the prosperity and employment of the burgeoning aristocracy and
bureaucracy depended upon a constant growth of the palace estates. The common
man was fired by mystic theology and saw war as his only means of mobility.
Such pressures were irresistible. And Motecuhzoma did not try to resist them;
he led his armies beyond the mountains into Morelos, and with this act the
Mexica empire passed its final point of no return.

Motecuhzoma raped and reduced all Morelos. Then he marched
south for the first time, into the series of valleys and broad plateaus that
made up the Oaxaca region. Here he encountered the Mixteca (Nahua: “Cloud
People”) on the snow-capped slopes. The Mexica did not subjugate the Mixtecs,
but they soon drove these inheritors of Monte Albán and the builders of Mitla
southwest along the same path they themselves had pushed the Zapotecs.

Motecuhzoma lived in the midst of an imperialist furor; he
and Tlacaélel, who continued in office, sought new excuses for war. Together
they planned new campaigns beyond the mountains.

With the Mixteca country thoroughly ravaged, Motecuhzoma
turned to the east. The Mexica twenties marched between Iztaccíhuatl and
snowbound Popocatépetl. They arrived at Huexotzingo and forced that city to
become a vassal. They conquered Cholula and exacted tribute. Finally,
Motecuhzoma came into the country of Tlaxcala. Here, as at Huexotzingo, the
Mexica ignored old debts. The Tlaxcalteca were ordered to submit to
Motecuhzoma, and Motecuhzoma attacked them when they did not.

The four great clans of the Republic of Tlaxcala resisted
stubbornly. Tlaxcala was ensconced in the cordillera like an eagle’s nest. The
forces of Huitzilopochtli failed to prevail over Mixcóatl, whom the Tlaxcalteca
worshipped as their principal deity. Checked, the angry Motecuhzoma bypassed
Tlaxcala and invaded the regions lying along the Gulf coast.

Near the present city of Veracruz the Cempoalteca had
created a sizeable nation. Motecuhzoma made war against Cempoala. The decisive
battle here was a hard-fought, near-run thing, and it was finally won only by
the efforts of the Tlatelolca contingent led by the lord of Tlatelolco,
Moquihuix the Drunkard. The Tenochcas cousins became very boastful over this
success, which angered Motecuhzoma. In the end, the Mexica armies returned to
the west, leaving Cempoala looted and subdued, its people seething. This
campaign was to bear several kinds of bitter fruit for the Mexica.

Now, Motecuhzoma had conquered a wide crescent of territory
that stretched out east and south from the Navel of the Moon. And with these
conquests, spearheaded by the warriors of Tenochtitlán, the internal nature of
the triple alliance began to change. Motecuhzoma hardly recalled the heady days
of the common war against Azcapotzalco. He handled his allies at Tlacopán and
Texcoco almost as haughtily as the people of Huexotzingo and Tlaxcala. This
again was a bad omen for the Mexica future.

During this imperialist expansion there was an even more
ominous change in the nature of the Mexica state. About 1450 a series of
unprecedented natural disasters struck Anáhuac. After a serious drought, there
were four consecutive years of snows and killing frosts; the normal seasons
went awry. The corn supply failed, and the whole civilization was in danger of
starvation. Such things had happened regularly in Mexico, but the Mexica tribal
memory had no record of a disaster of such magnitude.

However, every Meso-American was steeped in the knowledge
and fear that his gods, Tezcatlipoca of the Night, Tláloc of the Rain, and
Huitzilopochtli the Sun, could and would visit communal destruction on the
whole race. The common people at Tenochtitlán took these disasters as evidence
that the gods were displeased. In the face of mass panic, the rulers of
Tenochtitlán themselves panicked, and they undertook enormous efforts to
appease the gods.

Despite the institution of human sacrifice, which began with
the Magicians, there is not much evidence that the practice had really gotten
out of hand. Symbolic destruction had been kept at symbolic levels; it probably
was not much more extensive than comparable practices among the ancient Syrians
and Mesopotamians, or the barbaric Germans and Celtic Druids. A few warriors
were killed ceremonially to please the Sun, and a few virgins sacrificed to
assure the sprouting of corn. But now the Mexica reacted violently according to
their culture. The slant and dynamism that Tlacaélel had given the cult of Huitzilopochtli
resulted in a vast orgy of destruction.

Motecuhzoma mounted expeditions to the south and east to
find thousands of new victims. According to the Mexica’s own records, the fury
did not cease until ten thousand men were slaughtered at Tenochtitlán.

This sacrificial orgy was unparalleled in all of human
history. And it seems to have spread over much of Mexico. There was no
essential difference between the Mexica and most of their tributaries and
enemies. The Mexica, however, had greater opportunity to seize victims.

The final tragedy was that in Amerindian eyes this magic
worked. Following the shower of hot blood the frosts ceased and the sun again
warmed the earth. The corn flourished. The lords of Tenochtitlán took credit
for averting disaster, and Tlacaélel urged the people to build a newer and more
magnificent temple to Huitzilopochtli. And from this time forward mass
ceremonial murder was not only institutionalized but uncontrollable. The rulers
could not have halted the practice had they wanted to.

This sacrificial ardor had effects beyond the destruction of
human life. After 1450 the empirical nature of Mexica imperialism began to
change. The ancient Tolteca militarism had been pragmatic in its struggle for
predominance and power, but now the Mexica armies tended to see the purpose of
warfare more and more as a search for sacrificial victims. The warrior who took
four live captives was honored over one who merely killed four enemies in

The perversion produced one unique manifestation. This was
the development of the so-called Flower War. The Mexica met both their enemies
and their subject cities in prearranged ceremonial battles, whose sole purpose
on each side was the seizure of prisoners for sacrifice. The Mexica fought
these especially with Tlaxcala, Cholula, and Huexotzinga. A Flower War ended by
agreement when one or both sides had taken all the victims it needed or
desired. All cities killed their prisoners basically in the same way, for the
same reasons.

Being taken in a Flower War and dying on the altar was an
honor. The Amerindian culture never escaped its primordial belief that the
manner of a man’s death was more important in eternity than the manner of his
life. The mass orgies of destruction that swept the highlands could not have
been carried on so long had there not been passive acceptance even among the
victims. Warriors tried to die well.

Besides the cardiectomies, flayings, and burnings before the
gods, there was another form of sacrifice called “gladiatorial combat” because
it somewhat resembled the bloody customs of the Etruscans and Romans. The
victims were sent unarmed, or otherwise handicapped, against a series of picked
warriors in a narrow court, while spectators watched from the walls. A prisoner
who defeated five warriors could win his life, and the Mexica had records of
such cases. There were also records of prisoners who won freedom but, in the
throes of exaltation, insisted on fighting until they died.

These perversions of the practical purposes of war fatally
flawed the Amerindian military art and in the next century did much to ensure
the civilization’s downfall.

In Motecuhzoma’s later years he began to handle friend and
foe alike with contempt—even old Nezahualcóyotl was hard put to avoid trouble
with the Mexica ruler—and his manner pointed up the complete political failure
of the Mexica’s drive for empire. They were steadily conquering their world,
but they were failing utterly to create a greater society or a Mexic universal
state. The tribe allowed no other people except the Texcoca an honorable place
in their empire. Thus they turned what might have been a promising confederacy
or a Pax Mexicana into a world of lords and slaves, a world seething with
perennial revolt.

When Motecuhzoma Ilhuicamina died in 1468 this rebellion
boiled over.

The Eagle council again offered Tlacaélel the throne; again
he refused it. The choice then fell on Axayácatl, another royal scion.

Axayácatl (“The Scourge”) was no Maxtla, presiding over the
collapse of a jerry-built hegemony, because he had a united Mexica behind him.
When long-subdued parts of the Valley revolted, he quickly crushed them. He
marched through all the dominions, again reducing cities and severely punishing
anyone who opposed Mexica rule. He removed some refractory local rulers,
dispersed some tribes, and established permanent garrisons in others. All these
moves emphasized the Mexica inability to create a lasting political
infrastructure; they were experiments in subordination.

The lords of Tenochtitlán now were having serious problems
even with their cousins in Tlatelolco. The sister city was Mexica, but its
rulers traced their lineage from Azcapotzalco rather than Culhuacán and had
retained a separate identity. A terrible jealousy had grown up between the two branches
of the dominant race, as each city considered itself to be the true seat of
empire. Tlatelolco had the finest marketplace in all Mexico, but the Tenochca
were more numerous.

A long-simmering hostility reached flashpoint when the lord
of Tlatelolco, Moquihuix the Drunkard, won the important victory at Cempoala.
He was neither temperate nor tactful, and though he had married a sister of
Axayácatl, this relationship now provided the Tenochca with an excuse for war.

The sister, Jade Doll, probably never adopted her husband’s
interests; she seems to have served as a spy for Tenochtitlán. Moquihuix sent
her back to her brother, along with certain insulting remarks about her
supposed lack of feminine charms. Axayácatl used these insults as a pretext to
invade the northern island, which was connected with Tenochtitlán by a
causeway, in 1473.

The Tlatelolca resisted bitterly; even naked women and
children battled the invaders. But the Tenochca were prepared; the Tlatelolca
taken by surprise. The head of the war chief of Tlatelolco was mounted on a
pole and carried into the city. Moquihuix himself was killed in fighting at the
main temple-pyramid, and with his death resistance ceased.

Axayácatl annexed the northern island to Tenochtitlán; he
installed a Tenochca governor and ended the existence of Tlatelolco as an
independent city. Hostility continued, but soon the two areas rapidly grew
together as the lake was filled between them. When the Spanish arrived,
Tlatelolco with its still splendid market plaza was merely the northern quarter
of Tenochtitlán.

Axayácatl had crushed all opposition in the Valley by 1473.
Now he hurled the power and the fury of the Mexica once again beyond Anáhuac,
this time to the north and west. They quickly conquered the valley of Toluca
and then invaded Michoacán.

But in Michoacán, in the high cool region around Lake
Pátzcuaro, the Mexica met their match and received their only serious check
from the Tarasca tribe, which had carved out a miniature empire with a capital
at Tzintzuntzan (“City of the Hummingbird”). The Tarasca were fierce and
innovative warriors; they set imaginative ambushes and fought with copper
weapons. They were untrammeled with ritualistic conceptions of warfare, and
they cut Axayácatl’s first expedition to pieces in their pine forests.

The Mexica mounted another invasion in the 1470s, but once
again were defeated and thereafter avoided Michoacán. The Mexica scribes drew
accounts that depicted the Tarasca as a brother warrior people, descended from
the great peoples of fabled Aztatlán. The slant-eyed Tarasca were dubious
relations of the Mexica in any case, but the fiction undoubtedly soothed Mexica

Like Motecuhzoma, Axayácatl also failed to reduce Tlaxcala,
although he was able to conquer all the territory that surrounded the mountain
enclave. Some historians attribute this failure to deliberate policy: the
Mexica preferred to maintain Tlaxcala as a strong neighbor to supply them with
captives, and on which to hone their arms, but this theory does not fit the Mexica
character. Axayácatl would surely have subordinated the Tlaxcalteca could he
have done so at supportable cost.

From the 1470s on perpetual warfare ensued between the two
peoples. This conflict may have been an exercise for the Mexica, but it was an
intolerable burden for the Tlaxcalteca, and it sowed a lasting hatred which has
not even disappeared entirely between the two regions in the twentieth century.

Although Nezahualcóyotl died in 1472 and Axayácatl in
1481—the same year in which the Mexica completed the great calendar stone that
was to become a national symbol of the Mexican Republic—it proved to be the
spirit of Tlacaélel that lived on in Mexica events.

The succession passed to Axayácatl’s brother, Tizoc
(“Blood-stained Leg”), who appears to have been a great builder. The immense
temple-pyramid advised by Tlacáelel was pushed to completion, and all
Tenochtitlán now was beautified with palaces and gardens that surpassed those
of Texcoco. But the imperial course set by Tizoc’s predecessors left him no
room for maneuver. Expansion and the search for victims was caked by custom;
they had become the entire rationale of the nobility and warrior castes of the
Mexica state.

Tizoc either was not a warrior, or was an unsuccessful one.
Some accounts claim he took a hundred thousand Huaxteca and Tlappaneca
prisoners by war, but these were exaggerations. The aristocracy seems to have
grown steadily disenchanted. In 1486 Tizoc died, apparently poisoned in his own
palace, perhaps by his own kin of the Eagle dynasty.

Ahuízotl, third son of Motecuhzoma Ilhuicamina, received the
nose plug and throne, and he was to be a speaker after the fiercest Mexica
hearts. The imperial dynamism that faltered under Tizoc revived; again Mexica
armies struck out almost by reflex. They cut through to the Pacific in the
vicinity of Acapulco and they reentered Oaxaca to the south. Ahuízotl ravaged a
wide territory and then stationed a permanent garrison in Oaxaca, at Cuilapa.

Ahuízotl (“Water Dog”) took thousands of Zapotec prisoners,
dominated Chiapas, and, according to some accounts, sent an expedition as far
as Panama which sent back either tribute or trade goods from South America.

Then, avoiding the stubborn Tarasca and Tlaxcalteca,
Ahuízotl went north against the remaining civilized peoples of Amerindian
Mexico, ravaging the country of the Huaxteca as far as the River Pánuco, and
scouting out the primitive regions beyond the river, including
barbarian-inhabited northern Mexico. These poor and arid territories did not
interest the Mexica. Ahuízotl halted the path of empire at the Pánuco. Dragging
thousands of unfortunate Huaxtecs in his train, he returned to Tenochtitlán.

The great new temple of Huitzilopochtli might now be
properly dedicated to the god. Ahuízotl made this event a religious and
triumphal ceremony. All the lords of Meso-America, ally, tributary, or foe,
were invited to attend, and to see the extent of Mexica power. Indeed, the
temple-pyramid and its complex was the largest structure built during the
Historic period (though in total size the temple of Huitzilopochtli did not
approach that of the court-citadel of Teotihuacán). The outer walls enclosed
some twenty-five hundred square yards and eighty-odd lesser temples and
palaces. The walls embellished with carved serpents copied the older styles,
and the courtyards were paved with polished stone. The great pyramid that
dominated the court rose three hundred feet above six terraces. Two square
squat towers jutted another fifty-six feet from the broad, flat apex of this
pyramid. Between the towers stood an enormous idol of Huitzilopochtli.
Ceremonial fires burned eternally beside this monstrous image.

The temple complex was erected in a central quarter of the
city, almost where the present-day cathedral stands. The palace of Axayácatl
bordered the temple on the west, with public armories and granaries on the
other sides. This area, with its enormous, paved plaza, was the public and
ceremonial heart of Tenochtitlán.

In the dedication ceremony, thousands of Matlazuica,
Zapotec, and Huastec captives were herded across the plaza; the column was
reputedly three miles long. Besides the principal altar atop the pyramid, there
were some six hundred minor altars situated throughout the courts for mass
slaughter on important occasions.

The great drum always boomed its dread noise over the city
and surrounding lake when a sacrifice began. The hueytlatoani, as supreme
commander, supreme judge, and supreme priest, usually performed the first
sacrifice assisted by other dignitaries in red robes.

The sullen, but unresisting victims, painted with blue or
yellow chalk, sometimes holding small banners, were seized one by one and
stretched out on the rough stone altar. According to Diego de Landa—and Mexica
pictographs, which are quite vivid—the celebrating priest pressed the point of
an obsidian knife just beneath the victim’s left nipple, gave the blade a
thrust and a powerful, circular twist, and then, he plunged his hand into the
gaping wound and jerked out the still-pumping heart in a gout of hot blood. The
smoking organ was immediately placed on a platter and rushed before the image
of the god; his stone face was smeared with bright arterial blood; sometimes
the fresh heart itself was placed between his gaping stone jaws. The symbolism
was exact: the god was fed.

Cardiectomy was the favored method of sacrifice in the
highlands, although some earth or fertility deities liked their victims
stretched out on racks, blood dripping to the ground. Huehueteotl, god of fire,
who was the most ancient god of all, was honored by victims who were given a
narcotic, thrown into a fire, and then pulled out before they died of burns
only to have their hearts extracted. The Mexica also practiced a ritual
cannibalism on occasion. Parts of arms and legs were eaten, never for food, but
out of the most ancient Amerindian belief that certain properties reside in the
flesh and can be passed on by its consumption. Most tribes of the Southwestern
United States practiced ritual cannibalism into the nineteenth century.

After the sacrifice, the corpse was usually beheaded and the
skull placed on a rack. In 1519 Bernal Díaz, Cortés’ soldier, estimated he saw
a hundred thousand such skulls around the main plaza of Tlaxcala.

The speaker and high officers began the ceremony, but the labor
quickly fell to the horde of lesser priests, who Bernal Díaz described as being
hooded, with long, matted hair and uncut fingernails, smelling of sulphur and
rotted blood. They abstained from women and led austere lives, much revered by
the populace. The priesthood did far more than perform sacrifices and maintain
the temple fires. They were keepers of the calendar, teachers, and sustainers
of the ancient arts. They also deliberately courted irrationality and
hallucinations, by eating certain mushrooms, Jimson weed, or peyote. Divinatory
hallucinations were a very old and very important part of Amerindian religions,
particularly throughout southwestern North America. The Chichimeca apparently
carried these customs deep into civilized Mexico, and it is likely that the
dominant surrealistic vision of the Meso-Americans was connected with such

The Mexica boasted that at least twenty thousand, and
perhaps eighty thousand captives were destroyed to celebrate Ahuízotl’s
triumph. All Tenochtitlán was pervaded by a hideous stench. The already
undrinkable waters of the lake were further ruined; there were outbreaks of

Because of the deliberate self-identification of modern
Mexican intellectuals with the Mexica nation, the whole question of human
sacrifice is now treated with understandable reluctance in Mexico. Ritual
cannibalism is emotionally denied, and the currently fashionable view is to
ignore or play down the bloodletting, which the nineteenth-century European
writers so obviously enjoyed.

The fact of human sacrifice, however, cannot be expunged.
The Nahua accounts themselves are too explicit. One problem, historically, is
that the Spanish conquerors made judgments and played with numbers inflating
the numbers of victims either to prove how religiously barbaric the natives
were or perhaps to justify the Spaniards’ own crimes. Bernal Díaz
recorded—probably with accuracy—that he saw daily sacrifices in some
localities. Zumárraga, the first bishop of Mexico, estimated that twenty
thousand died by the knife every year before the Conquest. Historian Francisco
López de Gómara raised the figure to fifty thousand, while the
missionary-author José de Acosta mentioned only five thousand, but admitted
that on special occasions, such as the dedication of Huitzilopochtli’s temple
in Tenochtitlán, as many as twenty thousand might be killed. But other Spanish
priests played down the whole business. Bartolomé de las Casas, whose purpose
was to protect the Amerindians from his countrymen, swore that only one hundred
per year were sacrificed.

The Mexica themselves certainly saw human sacrifice no more
as an abomination than the Spanish, in the main, saw their own Inquisition as
evil. This magic served a major social purpose. The Amerindians of Mexico were
no more, nor less, monsters than other men. If there was a genuine gangrene in
their civilization, it came from the vision that made symbolic destruction, and
even auto-sacrifice, important and holy. Even so, the immense faith of the
Amerindian culture in the immortality of the soul made the culture contemptuous
of death itself, especially if it seemed to serve a useful purpose.

Ahuízotl’s dedication of the temple marked the flood tide of
empire for Tenochtitlán. The central highlands had been subdued. Ahuízotl’s
power and influence ran beyond his actual writ, in fact, because many
independent peoples beyond his conquests wisely sent him symbolic tribute and
presents. Since Ahuízotl had found the arid northlands undesirable, he had
turned the major thrust of empire toward the south, toward Oaxaca and beyond.
There the inhabitants were more civilized than the savages of the north, and
there was more desirable loot, like prized feathers and green jade.

As tribute poured in to Tenochtitlán and thousands of slaves
sweated to support its projects, scores of lesser pyramids, palaces, and public
buildings rose. The array of vast monuments stretching from Tlatelolco to the
entrance to the city compared favorably with the vanished splendor of the forum
in imperial Rome. And there was no contemporary market, anywhere in the world,
to compare with Tlatelolco’s great trading square.

When Ahuízotl died in 1502, he had, in enlarging his
hegemony, carried on the tradition of his ancestors; his character lives on in
the modern Mexican-Spanish word ahuizote, which stands for someone violent,
vindictive, and fierce.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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