Wednesday, January 4, 2012

How the Aztecs Organized Themselves (Part 1)

Fig A. Mural by the famous Diego Rivera of Mexica (Aztec) Civilization. Photo by Wolfgang Sauber. Click to Embiggen. 
     When the enterprising Spanish finally did meet the high civilizations of Mesoamerica, after spending several unrewarding decades invading the contrastingly meager Carib and Taino chiefdoms of the Greater Caribbean Sea, they found orderly, structured societies with qualities alien to their medieval sensibilities. Among those qualities were a series of polytheistic religions that happen to promote ritualistic human killings, densely populated stone cities built and maintained without the aid of domesticated work animals, and a nutritious crop base wholly incomparable to that of the greater Eastern Hemisphere. For these Spanish, it represented a drastically alien context than that of their native Iberian Peninsula.
Fig B. Diego Rivera Mural of Tenochtitlan. Photo by Wolfgang Sauber.
Click to Embiggen. 
However, regardless of what may have seemed like an infinite gulf of differences between them, the invading Spanish and the American world increasingly dominated by the Mexica (Me-SHE-ka...who we now call the Aztecs) did share recognizable similarities. State-level, centrally controlled societies were obvious from the first moments Hernan Cortes and his predecessors (expeditions under Francisco Hernández de Córdoba and Juan de Grijalva) stood on Mexican beaches. In the Spanish and greater European areas of the time period, similar sorts of societies were the normal course of human organization. So, in the establishment of colonial Spanish existence and the reorganization of native institutions and traditions to suit that existence, the Spanish, their reluctant newly-conquered subjects and willing allies, did not wander far from the native political structures being utilized in Mesoamerica nor did they replace them completely with an all-Iberia model. As time wore on, the Spanish understanding of political organization was interwoven with that of the Mesoamerican order to produce a unique Mesoamerican-Castilian hybrid, which was born out of the varying circumstances, chaos, compromises, and aims of post-Conquest Mexico.So, let's start at the beginning: what was the Aztec organization like? How did they divide themselves into "states" and "counties" and "parishes"? What did the map look like to them?

The Altepetl
Fig C. An Example Mexica (Aztec) Tlayacatl (Empire or "Composite State") with its Constituent Altepemeh. Click to Embiggen
Fig D. Notice the Foreign Altepetl in the North? Click to Embiggen. 
As one of the civilizing human areas of the sixteenth century earth, Mesoamerica was developing and utilizing its own special brand of political organization at the time of the Spanish arrival in the 1520s. The most important element of this style of organization is the individual altepetl, an entity integral to Mesoamerican political structure. The centrality of altepemeh (plural of altepetl, Karttunen 9) in this region of America lay “at the heart of the organization of the Nahua world, both before the Spaniards came and long after” (Lockhart 14). They varied in population, size, economic situation, and geography. An altepetl firstly “constituted a separate people with its own sense of common origins and ethnicity” (Horn 21) before they were thought of as a fixed geographic territory on the map. Altepemeh were, on the Mexican average, comparable in size and scope to the ancient Greek or Sumerian city-states. They were, importantly, capable of flexible, modular organization with other Altepemeh and were, as a result, sometimes independent, singular, and sovereign groupings of people and other times would combine together willingly or unwillingly to form larger, more complex states or empires.
Fig E. Notice how the entire Foreign Altepetl from the previous map moved to join the Realm of Toltecatl? An Altepetl did not have to physically move to join a larger organization of Altepemeh, but they sometimes could. This is just an extreme case. More typically, an altepetl would just ally themselves with other altepemeh. Click to Embiggen. 
A single altepetl was typically ruled by a single tlatoani or “speaker”. Some altepemeh “have had two dynastic lineages that formed a duel organization" (Horn 30) resulting in more than one tlatoani (or tlatoque to pluralize it). Generally, in the time before the Spanish arrived "the presence of a tlatoani…was fundamental to the existence of an altepetl" (Horn 45), meaning each altepetl had its own representative speaker. An altepetl was also overseen by its own individual state-sponsored deity (Horn 21) Which is similar in some ways to the ancient Roman faith. An altepetl would sometimes have its own marketplace, and could consist of both sparsely populated countryside and nucleated, thickly populated urban settlements. 
Fig F. 1869 Map of Tenochtitlan by George F. Cram of Illinois.
Tenochtitlan was the central altepetl of the Aztec Empire. Click to Embiggen
It is important to note that an urban settlement was not the capital of the altepetl or a political entity unto itself (Lockhart 20) the way that modern European-inspired cities across the world are now organized. The Spanish, and Europeans in general, would think “in terms of city and countryside, dominant and subordinated entities...they would see a capital city ruling outlying subjected hamlets” (Lockhart 20), but pre-Conquest Mesoamerica saw the divisions of an altepetl broken down into more or less equal calpolli or tlaxilacalli (more on Calpolli below). These were a kind of all-important district or neighborhood-like sub-division that functioned as a building block for an individual altepetl. Concentrated urban settlements were a part of life in the Mesoamerican political world, but they “were not central to the modes of sociopolitical organization” (Lockhart 15) nor were they “really compatible with the principles of altepetl organization” (Lockhart 19). Altepemeh could be reorganized and combined with other altepemeh to form larger political organizations, however “the unit either giving or receiving tribute was always the altepetl. While empires and large ethnic confederations came and went, the smaller constituent states [the altepetl] tended to survive in some form through the centuries” (Lockhart 14). Let's review the fundamentals of the Altepetl:

  • An altepetl firstly constituted a separate people with its own sense of common origins and ethnicity before they were thought of as a fixed geographic territory on the map
  • Altepemeh were, on the Mexican average, comparable in size and scope to the ancient Greek or Sumerian city-states
  • They were, importantly, capable of flexible, modular organization with other Altepemeh and were, as a result, sometimes independent, singular, and sovereign groupings of people and other times would combine together willingly or unwillingly to form larger, more complex states or empires
  • An Altepelt was ruled by a Tlatoani (most of the time just one, but occasionally there were two)
  • An Altepetl was divided into more or less equal units called Calpolli, a kind of all-important district or neighborhood-like subdivision that functioned as a building block for an individual altepetl
  • An Altepetl thought of itself as a people before it thought of itself as a territory. 

This is a simple outline of Mesoamerica's most important political level of organization. It may be considered like a county or parish in the United States, to some degree, but more closely related to a city-state, and definately related to ethnicity. But what smaller political units made up the altepetl? How far down did the Altepetl subdivisions go? How did those smaller divisions function within a single Altepetl?

The Calpolli
Fig G. Altepetl D is divided into its Calpolli, which are labeled in white. Click to Embiggen. 
The individual calpolli or tlaxilacalli that comprised the altepetl were organized in even, symmetrical or even mythical and historically important arrangements (such as cardinal directions). Calpolli translated from the original Nahuatl as "big house" (here is some spoken nahuatl, which comes from some sort of christianizing effort). They were more or less permanently labeled in ways that connected them to a characteristic ethnicity or geographic location. Calpolli origins tend to be obscure. There are some indications that the calpolli perhaps “arose from a process of division of an earlier unitary group of people...some calpolli names imply foreign ethnicity and doubtless many subgroups indeed originated as outsiders” (Lockhart 17). This indicates, again, the modular method of organization calpolli had, allowing states to assemble and disassemble around basic political building blocks. A calpolli had its own patron deity other than the overall altepetl deity to which the people were bound, which sometimes came with its own temple or place of worship. A calpolli would also have a leader, a teuctli or teuctlatoani (Lockhart 16), which is like a Tlatoani in a way and whose lineage may or may not have had a dynastic dimension; “there might also be a school for youths (telpochcalli - a school for commoners), possibly a priest's house (calmecac), and a certain degree of craft specialization” (Horn 21). Each calpolli or tlaxilacalli held sway over its own geographical portion of the overall altepetl which was “exclusively for the use of its own members” (Lockhart 17) so that the entire altepetl was divided up into its constituent calpolli in this way. It is because of this calpolli-centric method of organization that “physically dominant settlements carried no independent or special status” (Horn 21) within the altepetl. If a city or town existed in an altepetl, then it likely lay partly or wholly inside one or more calpolli or tlaxilacalli and was thus the responsibility of those affected units. If you will notice in Figure G (above) that Calpolli 1 and Calpolli 2 of Altepetl D share the city of Chicueyititlan. Those two calpolli units would thus be responsible for their respective territories of Chicueyititlan in terms of administration and their respective people would identitfy themselves in terms of that calpolli, its schools, temples, patron deity, and individual teuctli.
Fig H. If you had never been to NYC, would you really be able to understand a political boundary without someone pointing it out to you? Notice how it seems that the entire of NYC is its own entity. However, with further research, one finds out that responsibility is divided up into smaller sub-city units. Map on right altered from original Julius Shorzman work. Click to Embiggen. 
Perhaps a workable analogy can be found in the modern New York City metropolitan area (above), where state and county boundaries are invisible in the urban chaos as seen from the air. It easily appears that the city is its own political division apart from the rest of the world. However, anyone who deals with the city financially or legally will soon learn that the city is divided into sub-city districts. Respective duties and responsibilities and jurisdictions in the New York metro area are distributed to each county, state, and borough over their divided patches of pavement despite the physical and economic interconnectedness of the whole area.
Just like the parent altepetl, calpolli or tlaxilacalli were subject to a modular method of organization and each, thus, “held a position of equal status within the altepetl” where “no one calpolli ranked above another in prestige and privilege” (Horn 21). In this manner, the duties and responsibilities of the altepetl were shared in a “fixed order of rotation...that was the life thread of the altepetl” (Lockhart 17). These duties and responsibilities cycled indefinitely through each calpolli, but the process was also an indication of “ranking and order of precedence from first to last” (Lockhart 17). The order of calpolli ranking was malleable and sometimes created as a matter relating to the history of the altepetl, when calpolli were created or joined into an altepetl or were subdivided or divided from previous calpolli or pinched off from other altepetl units. These ranking orders were useful in dividing the responsibilities and duties of an overall altepetl among the constituent calpolli. The composition of the service staff of the Tlatoani (one of the most important tasks) and of the temple of the overall altepetl deity, the leadership of the overall altepetl, maintenance of the altepetl marketplace, "delivery of tribute goods and participation in labor drafts" (Horn 21) and other functions and privileges of the state were decided using this continuously cycling system. 
Fig. J. A more abstract example of Calpolli Rotation
However, leadership of the overall altepetl tended to remain in the control of the top ranking calpolli or tlaxilacalli, whose tlatoani also served as the teuctli or teuctlatoani for this calpolli, and whose "ruling family…had ties to specific calpolli" (Horn 21). In this respect, it would be as if the United States of America was a great big Altepetl and each state represented the individual calpolli units. In a quick, crude example, say that the president were elected from Ohio Calpolli, which means that the president would be in charge of the entire nation AND the Ohio Altepetl. The altepetl's official overall deity, too, would come from the top ranking calpolli, outranking all the different calpolli units' individual gods. Despite what can be assumed to be the rights, influence and duties of the ruling class, the top-ranking calpolli “itself carried no special privilege” (Horn 21), even though it sat atop the constantly cycling rank rotation. It was considered equal to the other calpolli in the altepetl. For further illustration of calpolli units in the organization of the Mexica state, check out this wikipedia page which lists the calpolli of Tenochtitlan (if you'll notice there are 20 calpolli in Tenochtitlan AND 20 day-signs on the Aztec Calendar, which is in keeping with the rule that says Calpolli can be organized around important or mythical numbers). Let's review the Calpolli:
  • Calpolli units make up an individual altepetl. They are organized according to symmetry, cardinal directions, mythically important numbers, so forth...
  • Like the larger altepemeh, calpolli units are capable of modular organization. A calpolli can leave one altepetl and join another.
  • Calpolli origins tend to be obscure. They arose from a process of division of an earlier unitary group of people...some calpolli names imply foreign ethnicity and doubtless many subgroups indeed originated as outsiders
  • A calpolli had its own patron deity other than the overall altepetl deity to which the people were bound, which sometimes came with its own temple or place of worship
  • A calpolli would also have a leader, a teuctli or teuctlatoani (Lockhart 16), which is like a Tlatoani in a way
  • Each calpolli held sway over its own geographical portion of the overall altepetl which was “exclusively for the use of its own members”
  • Duties and Responsibilities of the entire altepetl were shared, in rotation, among the calpolli units
  • Leadership of the overall altepetl tended to remain in the control of the top ranking calpolli
Fig. K. Notice the calpolli has been subdivided into their respective
wards. The calpolli is a microcosm of the altepetl in that they rotate
duties within the calpolli the way all the calpolli rotate duties
inside the altepetl. Click to Embiggen, although it might be pointless
In addition to these qualities, the calpolli may have individually broken down into even smaller units. James Lockhart uses “wards” (Lockhart 17) in the apparent absence of an indigenous term to describe these sub-calpolli units. Wards were groupings of neighborhoods possibly numbering up to a hundred households or less. They were responsible for particular duties in respect to the parent calpolli, just the same as the calpolli was responsible for specific duties in respect to the parent altepetl. These duties included having leadership who was obligated to handle “land allocation” and “tax collection” (Lockhart 17) and which presumably also answered to the calpolli teuctli or teuctlatoani. Wards did not appear in early records often and “lacked names as distinctive as those of the calpolli” (Lockhart 17). When they did show up, some would “appear in Nahuatl census lists unnamed, and others may at times have taken on some of the innumerable toponyms that blanketed the Nahua countryside” (Lockhart 17). Little is known about this level of the overall political structure, but it appears that the “ward” was a microcosm of the calpolli to a degree (to which the calpolli, in turn, was a microcosm of the altepetl). Wards either warranted little importance for documenting among the contemporaries of early New Spain or records of the extent of their involvement might still be lost to time. Another quality inherent to the calpolli or tlaxilacalli that characterized its members was a sense of group or ethnic pride reminiscent of nationalism. The Mesoamerican peoples of central Mexico identified most basically with the calpolli in which they lived or originated. This quality seemed to be reinforced or "enhanced by ethnic differences" and it seemed that "by the time of the conquest it was not uncommon for an ethnic minority to form a separate calpolli within an altepetl" (Horn 21). This ethnic pride would allow the calpolli to reform or reconstitute itself, or even create a new, more or less ethnically uniform calpolli in ethnically unfamiliar altepemeh. For example, “the altepetl of Coyoacan was predominantly Tepanec, in the mid-sixteenth century both ethnic Mexica and Otomi minorities were present, apparently living in ethnically distinct tlaxilacalli…in Coyoacan's hilly hinterland" (Horn 22). During the Spanish reorganization of Mesoamerica especially, the calpolli "tended to maintain their identity, forming separate residential districts with their own internal governments, the names of which often reflected their ethnic composition" (Horn 22).Let's review the ward:

  • Wards are the subdivisions of the calpolli
  • A ward was a microcosm of the calpolli to a certain degree, possibly made up of groupings of 100 households or so
  • They were responsible for specific duties within the calpolli the same as a calpolli was responsible for specific duties within an altepetl; tax collection was among these duties
  • Little is known about this smallest level of political division in Aztec society: they either warranted little importance for documenting among the contemporaries of early New Spain or records of the extent of their involvement might still be lost to time.

Fig. L. A map of Lake Texcoco, the seat of power for the Triple Alliance
(what we call the Aztec Empire). Map source unknown, by way
of Aliette de Bodard
Finally, shifting the measure of Mesoamerican political organization upwards above the calpolli and the altepetl, one can see that the altepemeh were capable of a complex degree of organization higher than the individual altepetl. Indeed, altepemeh were capable of varying types of assembly. Some would combine to form confederations. One altepetl could conquer another, or defeat several and demand tribute – Mesoamerican empires may have been born in such ways. Other altepemeh conglomerations would split or dissolve from their unions into smaller units, driven by the individualistic ethnic pride of the smaller, constituent parts. Altepemeh that were aligned with one another could remain so for a very long time, “becoming so deeply entwined...that after the conquest they could no longer be taken apart” (Lockhart 20). Other unions may be only fleeting, and others still “could mold a sense of ethnicity among an originally diverse group...out of a common historical experience” (Lockhart 20). Above all, when altepelt organized together or divided apart, they behaved in much the same way that calpolli might within an individual altepetl. Duties and responsibilities of the individual altepetl were due to the larger confederated or imperial state, “which was considered and called an altepetl itself...ranked in order of precedence and rotation” (Lockhart 21). Collected altepetl were organized in much the same way that the collected calpolli would be inside an individual altepetl unit; in equal, separate and symmetrical patterns and rotations. The historian Chimalpahin “introduces the useful word tlayacatl for constituent altepetl of a tightly knit composite state” (Lockhart 21).
The “composite state” or tlayacatl did not scale up every property that its individual altepetl divisions possessed. Where a ward had its tax collector and land allocator, a calpolli had its teuctli or teuctlatoani, and an individual altepetl had its tlatoani or tlatoque, the larger “complex altepetl” (Lockhart 20) or “composite state” (Lockhart 21) had no such individual leadership to which the constituent parts were focused. The leadership that it did exhibit instead were the collective “tlatoque of the constituent parts” ruling only their respective territories, leading to a situation where “each ruler received all the tribute of his own subjects and none from the other constituents” (Lockhart 21). This invites the idea of collaborative leadership that may have dealt with issues affecting the whole composite altepetl together as a group. Basic representation for the entire composite altepetl appeared to be necessary sometimes in dealing with outside peoples and governments. In these cases, a tlatoani was selected from one of the constituent altepetl to “function to an extent as ceremonial head for the whole” (Lockhart 21) union of tlayacatl or constituent altepetl, usually selected from the top ranking individual altepetl. Tlaxcala before the arrival of the Spanish appeared to have been doing this very thing, where “one of the four tlatoque of preconquest Tlaxcala was designated titular representative for his lifetime” (Lockhart 21) for the whole of the Tlaxcallan confederation. When altepetl were combined together like this, it was not uncommon for intermarrying to occur among the dynasties of the constituent altepetl or tlayacatl. Such behavior reinforced the overall “composite altepetl” in much the same way that monarchical families of certain European nations reinforced alignments to other European nations through intermarriage with other monarchical families throughout much of post-Roman European history. In some specific cases, the intermarrying reinforced the structure of the “composite altepetl” so much that “one person might be a candidate for several of the rulerships and even advance in the course of his lifetime from a lower-ranked to a higher-ranked position, treating the entire composite state as a single stepped system” (Lockhart 21). Let's review the Tlayacatl, or "composite state":

  • Tlayacatl can be assembled in many different ways, including conquest and the formation of federations
  • Some Tlayacatl would stay together for generations, becoming so intertwined that, after a time, they are inseparable. others would form only brief alliances and disassemble in short order.
  • Like the calpolli and wards withing them, the individual altepetl was bound to perform duties due to their parent tlayacatl in fair rotation
  • A Tlayacalt had no real collective leadership; instead, the dominant altepelt Tlatoani spoke for the entire composite state in a ceremonial fashion. Otherwise, a tlatoani worried for their respective altepetl
  • Intermarriage was common and acted to knit together the respective altepemeh more tightly into the larger tlayacatl

Fig. M. A recreation of Mexica life in Tenochtitlan, the dominant altepetl of the Triple Alliance. This image is clearly geared toward younger audiences. However, it is illuminating and worth looking over. Source unknown. Please click to Embiggen. 
As you can see, Mexica political organization is a fascinating and detailed topic. What is known about how this prominent Mesoamerican empire organized its human landscape is barely known...the above information may seem like a great amount, but honestly we have only scratched the surface. Many details remain locked in academia, within the minds of experts who do not get the chance to elaborate on their knowledge publicly or within historical documents that have not been translated from the original Spanish or Nahuatl. Sadly, the best information may be lost to time. The Spanish invasion did a fair amount to erase or suppress the Mexica traditions. However, where the Spanish only went so far, European-borne diseases went much, much farther. Successive epidemics of smallpox and other diseases are said to have killed the majority of the old Triple Alliance. At its height, the Triple Alliance held sway over a population of 25.2 million subjects in 1518, which disease reduced to about 700,000 by 1623 (Mann 147). If these numbers are accurate, most of Aztec culture vanished in the blink of the historical eye, and what remained was changed forever. 
Fig. N. An incomplete map of the Empire of the Triple Alliance, also known as the Mexica Empire for which the modern nation of Mexico is rightly named. Marked with green borders are the conquered and allied provinces of the this Aztec Empire, each a series of tlayacatl and altepemeh (and constituent calpolli and wards). Image done by Yavidaxiu

However, all is not lost. Modern Mexico is a living, breathing blend of the old Mexica and the Spanish-borne traditions. And as we will see in part 2 and part 3 of this series, it proved very tough to stamp out Mexica culture completely. In fact, much of the methods of pre-Conquest Mexican organization blended together with the incoming Spanish-style of organization to produce a new hybrid system. The Mexica live on, certainly. Be sure to check out the next installments.

Gibson, Charles. Tlaxcala in the Sixteenth Century. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1952.

Gibson, Charles. The Aztecs Under Spanish Rule. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1964.

Horn, Rebecca. Postconquest Coyoacan: Nahua-Spanish Relations in Central Mexico, 1519-1650. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1997.

Karttunen, Frances E. An Analytical Dictionary of Nahuatl. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992.

Lockhart, James. The Nahuas After the Conquest: A Social and Cultural History of the Indians of Central Mexico, Sixteenth Through the Eighteenth Centuries. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1992.

Mann, Charles C. 1491, New Revelations Of The Americas Before Columbus. Vintage Books, 2006. Print.

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