Tezozomoc, The Mexican Machiavelli (1320-1426)

In 1371 the birth of Niccolo Machiavelli was 102 years in the future. In that year, a Prince mounted the throne of the Tepanec city of Azcapotzalco on the shores of the sapphire-blue Lake Texcoco in Central Mexico. Tezozomoc (Angry Stone Face) would rule for 56 years and create in that lifetime an empire not seen in Mexico for 300 years, since the glory of great Tollan. He would demonstrate every skill and guile of war and statecraft, for the mere writing of which Machiavelli would later be branded infamous—and taken seriously. If the famous Florentine had already known, his model for the ultimate warrior-statesman, whom he had unwitting described in The Prince, had already grown old and died. He was remembered as:

‘. . . a shrewd military strategist who also made effective use of flattery, bribery, assassination and treachery in a career worthy of a Machiavelli. Here, no less than in Renaissance Italy, the pragmatic aims of politics were never confused with idealism, much less with morality. But also like the tyrants of the Italian states, this ruler’s accomplishments and fortunes were interwoven with the changing life a civilization.’

For the empire Tezozomoc built would be inherited not by his own seed but by his favoured vassals, the Mexica, who learned the lessons of empire at the knee of this great Tepanec lord. It would be the Mexica, in their magnificent capital of Tenochtitlan in the centre of Lake Texcoco, close by Tezozomoc’s capital of Azcapotzalco, who would inspire the final flourish of native Mexican civilisation before the coming of Cortés.

In a process that predated the Toltecs, the barbaric Náhuatl-speaking Chichimec tribes kept drifting into the civilised lands of Central Mexico from the north. Like the Germans drawn to the rich lands to the south, the Chichimeca were drawn to the attractions of older, more cultured peoples, whom they conquered and by whom they were in turn civilised. The Tepaneca and Acolhua were two such Chichimec groups. The Tepaneca occupied much of the western shores of the lakes in the Valley of Mexico and the Acolhua the eastern. The Mexica were a later group. After the fall of great Tollan in 1168, the history of Central Mexico was the history of the absorption of the Chichimeca and their coalescence into civilised states. The first great Chichimec leader was Xolotl, who entered the Valley as a conqueror and whose exploits were aided by the bow and arrow, introduced for the first time into the warfare of Central Mexico. He overwhelmed the men of Culhuacán in 1246. Culhuacán was a great prize—the prestigious centre of surviving Toltec culture that the Chichimeca were eager to adopt. Xolotl forced the Chichimec Huetzin upon the Toltec-Culhua as their king and married his son to a Culhua princess. The fusion of Toltec-Culhua and Chichimec blood was the foundation of all the coming great dynasties of Central Mexico, each equally proud of the Toltec lustre and the Chichimec vigour they had inherited.

The first of the Chichimeca to pick up the imperial idea and compel the unity of the region were the Acolhua under the leadership of Huetzin, who ruled from approximately 1253 to 1274, in alliance with the Tepanec lord of Tenanyocan (Tenayuca), Tochintecuhtli (Rabbit Lord). The Acolhua empire dominated the Valley of Mexico and reached north-eastward as far as Tulancinco but collapsed with the deaths of its founders, just as the Mexica, the last of the Chichimec peoples, were entering the Valley of Mexico. By 1300 the Tepaneca, who had arrived in the Valley about the same time as the Acolhua, began their march to empire when the city of Azcapotzalco slowly began to replace Tenanyocan as the chief city of that nation. Shortly thereafter, in 1320, Tezozomoc was born in Azcapotzalco, son of Acolhnahuacatzin, leader of the Tepaneca, and Cuitlaxaochitzin (Leathery Flower) daughter of the great Chichimec founder, Xolotl. By the middle of the century, power in the Valley was shared by three peoples in a reoccurring pattern dating back to great Tollan. The new triumvirate included the Tepaneca of Azcapotzalco, the Acolhua of Coatlichan, and the Toltec-Culhua of ancient Culhuacán, surviving member of the Toltec triple alliance.

This delicate balance of power had already collapsed when Tezozomoc came to the throne of Azcapotzalco in 1370, a situation perfectly suited to a man of his talents. Culhuacán had simply disintegrated, probably pushed along by a Mexica attack in the last decade. There were also other powerful independent states in the region such as Chalco and Xochimilco in the southern region of the Valley, each with their own vassal cities and towns. The system of vassalage was loose enough for a cunning man like Tezozomoc to use it as an endless series of levers and wedges to create shifting alliances that relentlessly increased his power.

‘His very longevity gave him ample opportunity to expand his realm and to display his talents both in war and diplomacy. A firm believer in the principle of divide and rule, he showed a rare skill in isolating his rivals and in crushing them one by one. For this Machiavellian monarch, tomorrow’s victim was his ally against today’s adversary.’

First Conquests and Special Vassals

Tezozomoc’s eye did not allow even the smallest pawn to go unnoticed. The Mexica had been driven from their attempted settlements in the southern parts of the Valley onto the small, barren islands in Lake Texcoco near his capital of Azcapotzalco. Their twin settlements of Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco elected new kings the year after Tezozomoc came to the throne and were his nominees. Up to this time, the Mexica had tried to avoid vassalage to any power, but their precarious position now drove them to swear fealty to Azcapotzalco and pay tribute in exchange for protection. The Mexica of Tenochtitlan were determined to do more to advance themselves. For the next two generations, the Mexica used the protection of the Tezozomoc to gather power by serving as loyal vassals who supplied increasingly important military service in his wars. Tezozomoc was glad to use such a particularly warlike and ferocious people.

Tezozomoc’s first victim was the broken-down polity of Culhuacán. Its value lay in its very weakness and in its genteel heritage, priceless in establishing legitimacy from the Toltec golden touch. The later Mexica histories were to describe the takeover as an act of mercy, so badly had the city deteriorated. Tezozomoc’s reward to his Mexica vassals was to put a Mexica prince on Culhuacán’s tarnished throne.

The absorption of Culhuacán had been the first in a series of rapid conquests of other cities in the southern part of the Valley of Mexico. Xochimilco, Cuitláhuac, and Mizquic, all valuable agricultural cities in the chinampa (floating lake gardens) region, followed quickly. Those conquests brought Tezozomoc’s power into contact with the powerful Chalca confederacy of thirteen states directly south of the three newly conquered cities with whom they had had close and friendly relations. Chalco had enormous prestige as a civilising force and lay astride the southern part of the Valley of Mexico in the modern state of Morelos, which put it in close contact with surrounding peoples and all the riches they had to offer. In 1376 Tezozomoc attempted to detach the Chalca dependency of Techichco and ignited a bloody war that would flare and sputter until 1410. Initially, the war was a Tepanec affair, but Tezozomoc eventually turned most of the fighting over to the Mexica, which sparked one of the great enmities of Mesoamerican history. For almost a hundred years thereafter, Chalco was a bitter enemy of the Mexica. By the first decade of the new century, Tezozomoc’s proxy war between the Mexica and Chalca was reaching a crescendo of violence. Then, about 1407, the Chalca suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of the Mexica due to internal dissension among their leaders. The Mexica victory was so thorough that they installed their own rulers on many Chalca cities. But the Mexica victory so upset the regional balance of power and alarmed the courts of central Mexico that a coalition was formed to free the Chalca. Even armies from outside the Valley poured in to force the Mexica to disgorge their enormous conquest. Even Tezozomoc took a hand. His vassals had become too powerful and, it has been suggested, had the effrontery to act more as partners than as vassals. Faced with such a coalition, the Mexica king, Huitzilíhuitl, dropped his prey in 1410. The Chalca rulers resumed their thrones. Tezozomoc apparently was satisfied with this chastisement of the Mexica. However, he was caught on the horns of a dilemma. The Mexica had proven how powerful they could be and how easily they could slip the leash. On the other hand, they were just too valuable, as the obsidian teeth in his sword, to suppress. Since they were a major means to the empire he coveted above all things, the latter argument seems to have prevailed.

In 1404, the Mexica sought to strengthen their position by the tie of blood with Tezozomoc and requested one of his daughters for Huitzilíhuitl. It was not an impertinent request. Tezozomoc had skilfully married his children and grandchildren among the kingdoms of the Valley to cement alliances and create a strong web of common interest. The Mexica had become valuable vassals, and he was not averse to binding them closer to himself. So when the Mexica emissaries came to him begging a wife for Huitzilíhuitl, they spoke in terms of strengthening Tezozomoc’s power:

‘Great lord, accede to our plea. Have pity upon your servant, the king of Mexico; upon the city which is among the reeds and rushes, where Huitzilíhuitl rules and protects your vassals. He is single, still to be wed. What we ask of you is that you surrender one of your jewels and precious plumes—that is, one of your noblewomen. She will not go to an alien place but will stay within her own land and country, where she will be in command. Therefore, O lord, we beg you not to refuse that which we ask of you.’

Tezozomoc saw another web spinning out to bind his power, and responded:

‘O Aztecs, your words, your humility have overcome me, and I find it difficult to answer. I have daughters, and the Lord of All Created Things has destined them for this end. Behold my beloved daughter called Ayauhcihuatl. You are welcome to take her.’

A son was born in 1407 to the Tepanec princess to the delight of Tezozomoc, who selected the child’s name, Chimalpopoca (Smokes Like A Shield), from the signs under which he had been born. The tie of blood was now working well to the advantage of the Mexica as Ayauhcihuatl quickly became a partisan of her husband’s people. Child in arms, she approached her father and begged him to reduce the heavy tribute of the Mexica. He easily relented and essentially excused them of all but a symbolic tribute of a few ducks, frogs, and fish. From this indulgence, envy and distrust grew among the princes of Azcapotzalco.

In 1395 a dynastic succession in the city of Xaltocan in the northern part of the basin of the Valley provided Tezozomoc with the opportunity to expand in that direction. Tzompantli, the new ruler of Xaltocan, a city of the non-Náhuatl speaking Otomis, allowed his subjects to go on a rampage and plunder nearby towns. Tezozomoc was encouraged by the ruler of Texcoco, Techolatlallatzin, to destroy the Otomi city. In the name of order, Tezozomoc organised an expedition to suppress the Otomis. To his own Tepanec forces he summoned those of his Mexica vassal. Joined by the forces of Texcoco, they crushed the Otomis from east and west, forcing Tzompantli to flee. Hailed as a liberator from Otomi depredations, Tezozomoc annexed not only Xaltocan but most of the cities in the north, going as far as Tollan itself. But the tribute he levied on the conquered Otomis was so harsh that many fled to the protection of Texcoco, the centre of Acolhua power on the eastern shore of the lake. The kaleidoscope of alliances was taking another turn. Techolatlallatzin foolishly allowed his central authority over his own Acolhua cities to devolve upon a number of jealous vassals.

The Wars against Texcoco

By the turn of the century, Tezozomoc had firmly established his rule in the western, northern, and much of the southern regions of the Valley basin. The Mexica had begun campaigning heavily in the west as far as Morelos for him, although they would later claim these were their own conquests. His armies also fought their way through the old Toltec zone of Tollan itself and the Tolluca Valley and southward to Izucar. Now only the eastern shore of the lake stood against him. Patiently, Tezozomoc worked over the next years to weaken the Acolhua. His spies and emissaries quietly encouraged pro-Tepanec factions among Texcoco’s vassals and in Texcoco itself. Like Cromwell, he believed that it is not enough to strike when the iron was hot—it was necessary to strike to make the iron hot. Techolatlallatzin’s fracturing of Acolhua power among his vassals gave the wily Tepanec opportunities in plenty. Eventually Tezozomoc was ready to challenge the power of the Acolhua more openly. His opportunity came when their new king, Ixtlilxochitl (Black-Faced Flower), rashly claimed the title of Lord of the Chichimeca (Chichimecatl or high king of all the Chichimec-descended peoples of the Valley) as his legacy from his ancestor Xolotl. This was the very title Tezozomoc coveted for, as he growled, was he not also Xolotl’s grandson? Tezozomoc then sent Ixtlilxochitl a load of cotton requesting him to weave it into mantles for the Tepaneca. In the diplomatic language of the day, his request was blatant demand that Texcoco swear fealty to Azcapotzalco; the mantles would be tribute. Ixtlilxochitl defiantly gave the cotton to his own vassals and proceeded with his coronation.

Tezozomoc had raised the art of destroying an enemy’s power base to a high order. So much treason was afoot in Ixtlilxochitl’s kingdom that he dared not leave his capital while Tezozomoc’s forces ate away at its borders bit by bit. Eventually Ixtlilxochitl suppressed the disloyal towns and consolidated his power in his loyal ones, but the damage had been done. Tezozomoc had preoccupied Ixtlilxochitl’s attention thoroughly on internal security. So much so that Tezozomoc was able to raise an army from his western and southern vassals and march secretly into Texcocan territory before Ixtlilxochitl could raise and concentrate an army. The Tepanec army attacked the loyal Texcocan vassal city of Itztallopan in the southern part of the kingdom. The attack began in the morning, and after a day-long battle, overwhelmed it. Tezozomoc’s campaign continued as he subdued more of Texcoco’s vassals to the north: Otompan, Acol-man, Tepechpan, and Tollantzinco. Although the war ended without the conquest of Texcoco, Ixtlilxochitl had been clearly defeated. The altars of the gods in Azcapotzalco and Tenochti-tlan ran red with the blood of Acolhua captives. It was not Tezozomoc’s policy to finish off Ixtlilxochitl in one campaign. He had humbled his only rival and would peel off his remaining loyal towns one by one. Texcoco remained far too strong to attack directly. Ten years after the victory at Itztallopan, Tezozomoc struck again at one of Texcoco’s most loyal allies, the nearby city of Huexotla to the south along the lake. For the first time, the Tepanec armies and their vassals came by water, in a great fleet of canoes. The scene is vividly described by Frances Gillmor:

‘Then the sun rose one morning on the lake covered with canoes of the enemy. They had come by Huexotla. And the water of the lake was red that day as the eagle and tiger warriors fought. The water was foul with the bodies of the dead. Still the canoes came over the water, and the armies clashed day after day. The warriors died, and went to suck the honey of the skies with the hummingbirds of Huitzilo-pochtli.’

The attack across the lake may have been a Mexica idea, for they had been specialising in the military use of the canoe. The advantage of this technique was logistical. An army travelling around the lakeshore would have to subsist on what its own men or bearers could carry, and in enemy territory, supply quickly became a problem. By coming across the lake, that problem was solved; supplies could easily move across the lake to support an army. The battle was fought both on land and on the lake as the Acolhua met the Tepanec fleet with their own. The fighting lasted many days, with the Tepaneca attacking in the day and returning to their bases at night. Tezozomoc was again working on two fronts. While his armies pinned down those of Ixtlilxochitl, his agents were sowing more discord among the Acolhua and their vassals, fanning the strength of the peace party. And again, Ixtlilxochitl was caught between two fires.

As before, the war was not decisive, but Tezozomoc was drawing the noose tighter and tighter around Texcoco. Three years passed, and the lord of the Tepaneca resumed the war. His army marched north around the lake against Texcoco. At Chiucnauhtlan, north of Texcoco, Ixtlilxochitl defeated him in a great battle. Tezozomoc fell back to find allies to the north and south of Texcoco, in Chalca and Otompan. But Ixtlilxochitl was emboldened by his victory and gathered many allies to him. With this new host, he went onto the offensive and took the war to Tezozomoc, retracing Tezozomoc’s route around the lake, conquering city after city. He drove the Tepanec armies before him until he had shut up Tezozomoc in Azcapotzalco, but the city continued to be supplied by canoe from the lake, probably by his Mexica vassals. Other Tepanec armies ravaged the undefended towns of Texcoco. Nevertheless, Tezozomoc saw that the odds were against him in the present war, and he sued for peace, promising to swear fealty to the Texcocan king. Accepting the promise, Ixtlilxochitl marched home and disbanded his allies.

Over the next year, Tezozomoc’s royal kin began travelling throughout the Acolhua lands, visiting their many relatives, themselves the descendants of the ancient Tezozomoc. He was gathering the strands of his vast web. His wisdom in spreading his seed among the greatest houses in all the Valley of Mexico would now bring him back from the edge of defeat. In 1418 he raised a new alliance and struck now in deadly earnest at Texcoco, but first he baited his trap. The royalty of the Valley were converging on Chicunauhtla for a great hunting festival, and Tezozomoc pleaded a special favour from Ixtlilxochitl. Would the Texcocan allow him to swear fealty there rather than make another long and wearying trip to Texcoco itself? The regularly gullible Ixtlilxochitl agreed. As he was about to set out, he was warned that Tezozomoc planned to assassinate him. His brother, who resembled him, went in his stead and was duly murdered and flayed, his skin stretched over a rock. The warning had done Ixtlilxochitl little good, for though Tezozomoc’s plot to murder him had failed, his work of the last year had not. Ixtlilxochitl’s kingdom collapsed immediately, attacked from without and betrayed from within; Tezozomoc had even suborned factions within Texcoco itself to attack the king’s supporters. Ixtlilxochitl attempted to flee to Tlaxcallan over the mountains but was hunted down and killed while his young son Nezahualcoyotl watched in hiding. Had Ixtlilxochitl been a less resilient and defiant enemy, Tezozomoc would likely have returned his throne to him as a vassal. The old Tepanec had anticipated Machiavelli’s advice on what to do with defeated enemies: kill them or befriend them. The latter had been a good policy in most cases, but the Texcocan king would not bend and had to die. Texcoco needed another lesson to cure it of its resistance as well. All through the land, Tezozomoc’s warriors travelled and asked each child under the age of seven, ‘Who is your king?’ If they answered as they had heard their parents talk, Ixtlilxochitl or Nezahualcoyotl, they were butchered on the spot by swift blows from the obsidian-edged sword.

New Rivals

Now, at the moment of his complete victory, remorseless age was closing at last about the conqueror. Wrapped in his blankets as braziers glowed around him to supply the warmth his body could no longer provide, he waited in contentment for the end.

‘In Azcapotzalco the old king shivered with age and death coming. . . . His wars were ended. His sons and his grandsons were placed strategically in all the great towns of the kingdom. In Acolman, in Coatlichan, in Tenochtitlan itself . . . Maxtla in Coyohuacan—a city rich and powerful . . . he need not take offense that he was not to rule in Azcapotzalco . . . Tayauh would be better there. . . . Everything was settled now . . . and the tribute was pouring in . . . the men of the conquered towns were planting corn for Azcapotzalco . . . the land was settled.’

The old man was mistaken. The land was not settled. With the final lesson ground into the Acolhua, Tezozomoc distributed the cities and towns to his allies and even to his two prized Mexica vassals, Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco. Yet the heir to the Acolhua kingdom had not fallen into his net. Nezahualcoyotl seemed to be everywhere, seen first in one Acolhua city, then in a village, or in the courts of the powerful neighbours, Tlaxcallan and Huexotzinco. But as year followed year, the ephemeral prince receded from his concerns as no danger materialised. Then great ladies from the royal house of Tenochtitlan, his own relations and Nezahualcoyotl’s as well, came with gifts of rich jewels to beg and wheedle his forbearance of the young prince. Tezozomoc relented and allowed Nezahualcoyotl to live in Tenochtitlan, where the Mexica vouched for his behaviour. He accompanied the Mexica to war and took captives, presenting them to Tezozomoc as an act of vassalage. The old man’s fears were successfully allayed, and he allowed Nezahualcoyotl to live in his own city of Texcoco. Then a hideous nightmare reawoke his fears, and he resolved to kill the prince. He would do it by indirection and bribe a close friend of the Texcocan prince to turn assassin.

‘Listen, Coyohua, it is for this that they came to fetch you. I dreamed another thing that was truly evil: that an eagle came upon me; that a tiger came upon me; that a wolf came upon me; that a snake came upon me, huge, brightly coloured and very venomous. Coyohua, may it not be that Nezahualcoyotl destroys me; may it not be that he seeks out his father Ixtlilxochitl . . . may it not be that he himself resumes the war against my sons, lords and princes?’

But Coyohua only pretended to fall in with the plot. Instead, he warned the prince, who fled over the mountains to safety. Tezozomoc’s last trap had been sprung. He suddenly had more important worries at his very threshold.

With the conquest of Texcoco, the Mexica found themselves with tributaries of their own. Now the relationship of master and vassal began to sour. Ross Hassig pointed out the change, ‘A militarily powerful Tenochtitlan was a desirable ally, but with Texcoco subdued, Tenochtitlan looked less like a necessary ally and more like a potential challenger.’10 The flash point apparently was the request of the Mexica that the Tepaneca supply them with building materials to construct an aqueduct from the springs of Chapultepec to their island cities. The request was seen correctly in Azcapotzalco as tantamount to a demand for tribute, a reversal of roles between master and vassal. Tezozomoc did not betray his anger but merely replied to the Mexica that he would consult his council, whose spokesman replied:

‘Lord, monarch, what is in the mind of your grandson and of his advisors? Do they think that we are to be their slaves? Is it not enough that we sheltered them and admitted them within our territory, that we permitted them to build their city? Have we not given them the water that they asked for? Now they demand, in a shameless manner, without respect for your dignity, that you and all of us build them a pipe for their water? We do not wish it; it is not our will. We would rather lose our lives! Even though King Chimalpopoca of Mexico is your descendant and friend of the Tepanec nation, we refuse to be commanded in this manner. He is only a child, and what he has done has been provoked by his advisors. We would like to know where they found such daring and insolence.’

The tone of the council’s reaction was a clear indication that power was at last slipping from the old man’s fingers. He was swept along by his council, which roused the population of Azcapotzalco against the Mexica and imposed an embargo on all trade with the twin island cities, blocking every road and causeway. The council, and especially the king’s son, Maxtla, was determined to destroy the Mexica. Maxtla had more on his mind than just the Mexica. He coveted the throne of Azcapotzalco that his father had assigned to another brother. Tezozomoc wanted them to spirit away his much beloved grandson from Tenochtitlan, but they refused. Chimalpopoca, they said, may have been a Tepanec on his mother’s side, but he was a Mexica on his father’s, the side that counted and the side to which he would cleave. They demanded his death. Durán records then the last pathetic days of the great Tezozomoc before his death in 1426 at the incredible age of 106:

‘The king was so distressed when he heard this response, so saddened to see that he could not pacify his vassals, that he became sick with sorrow, and soon after died of his grief. He died a very old man.’

Thus passed into history, Tezozomoc, lord of the Tepaneca, one of the most remarkable monarchs of all time. His empire was a monument to his own genius and the work of a single lifetime—and that only, as his successor would prove.

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