Social Structure and Organization

On the previous page we learned about the Aztec’s belief system and what they worked to accomplish as a society. Now, let’s take a look at why the Aztec had such success in accomplishing their societal goals.IMG_1398


Children who have been raised in America are often exposed from a young age to the idea that “all men are created equal”. While I it is a nice thought, throughout history sociology and anthropology have taught us that in actuality human civilizations are made up of unequal parts. Access to goods, money, resources, prestige, power, and much more has always been inherently unequal. Sometimes children, specifically here in America, can be naive when it comes to the hierarchal aspect of human society. (Carrasco 127) What made the Aztec such a successful empire was their acceptance and commitment to this natural social hierarchy and inherent inequality. The Aztec believed that the universe would work best when, “everything and everyone finds their correct place and conforms to the requirements of that place in the universe”. (Carrasco 129) The Aztec were not fond of doing your own thing. Doing the right thing entailed being in the proper social place according to your sacred lineage, social group, and working profession while continually contributing to the overall benefit of society. The Aztec even thought that failure to conform to your role in society would release harmful magical forces that would contaminate your family and neighborhood due to the imbalance in the cosmos. (Carrasco 131) The Aztec remind me of a well oiled machine where every person did their part to make the machine work as efficiently and effectively as it could. The Aztec could also be compared (quite well actually) to Bill Belichick and his New England Patriots. Belichick’s team motto is, “Do your job!”. This mentality of doing your part for the collective whole has led the Patriots to success just like it brought success to the Aztec. Without people constantly competing against each other to get ahead and rather being content with the role the universe has given them, the Aztec were able to achieve their goals extremely efficiently.

What did this hierarchy look like?

The Aztec, like most civilizations, set up a pyramidal social structure that can be separated most broadly into two groups, the pipiltin, and the macehualtin

Now let’s break these two groups down…

The pipiltin were essentially the people in positions of power. They controlled religious, military, civil, and economic aspects of society. (Tuerenhout 123)

At the top of the pyramid is the Emperor

Just below the Emperor is the Tlatoani. The tlatoani is the ruler of a particular city-state or province. He is the head of state, head of the military, and head of the priesthood. Tlatoani were sometimes subordinate to other tlatoani depending on what city-state they govern. The subordinated tlatoani is referred to as a teuctlahtoh. These positions are voted on by the noble class and not hereditary. (Tuerenhout 124)

Below this head of state were the Tetecuhtin, or singular, Tecuhtli. These were the lords of the teuccalli, or “Lord’s House”. They were supported by the tribute paid by commoners attached to the house and any other lands they inherited. This position was usually passed down to sons but only if they were deserving in some way, usually military distinction. (Moctezuma 81)

The two above positions created the actual ruling class. The rest of the pipiltin was filled in by their offspring. They are the hereditary nobles. These nobles held the important positions in the government, military, and priesthood. All of the pipiltin are supported by the revenue generated by the commoners working the land.

The in-betweeners:

There were a few groups of people that did not exactly fit into the noble class but were also held in higher esteem than the working class. These people include highly specialized artisans who produced luxury goods as well as the pochtecaor long-distance merchants. The other group in this position was the Calpolehqueh. They were the leaders of their calpulli and represented the members of their ward before the government.

Working Class

The rest of Aztec society made up the working class or macehualtin. The working class was organized into calpulli. These were basically groups or clans of workers that represented a specific ward, neighborhood, or territorial region. Each calpulli had its own land. This was the bulk of the Aztec population. They performed a wide range of labor and tasks and were required to pay tribute to the tlatoani. They were also organized in order to perform public works such as building large temples, or constructing canals. (Moctezuma 84)

Slightly below the common worker was a group known as the mayequeh. These were laborers that were permanently employed to work the lands of the nobles. Unfortunately, this position was hereditary. (Tuerenhout 125)

At the bottom of this pyramid is the slave or tlacotin. In Aztec society people were not born a slave. People joined this class when they were unable to pay their debts or were convicted of a crime. Anyone unable to pay back a creditor or who lost a bet in a ball game and could not pay would become a slave. If found guilty of a crime such as theft or murder, that person would become a slave to the victim or victim’s family. (Moctezuma 86)

Military Hierarchy

The military is unique in the idea that hierarchy was based off of battlefield accomplishments and people could rise in the ranks regardless of whether they were nobles or commoners. This was smart for the Aztec to do because it made the military the only avenue for social mobility. Therefore people had an incentive to perform well militarily. This is probably why the Aztec had the reputation of being the fiercest warriors. At the top of the military hierarchy is the tlatoani. Below him was essentially a general staff that governed the military. This consisted of four nobles usually brothers or close relatives to the tlatoani. (Townsend 196) Aside from these highest positions, any other position could be attained by men from any class. Warriors would rise in the ranks based off of how many prisoners they captured and how many brave acts they performed on the battlefield. In order to be considered for prestigious orders such as the order of the Jaguar or the order of the Eagle,  warriors had to have captured at least 4 prisoners. (Tuerenhout 161) There were even higher orders such as the otonin (otomies) and cuauhchique (shorn ones) which required 5 or 6 prisoners and several deeds of exceptional bravery. (Hudson 196) In theory, even the lowest commoner could rise in the ranks and join any of these orders. However, these orders tended to be made up of the sons of nobility because, due to their birth, they received the better military training, and when sent into battle for the first time, they were the ones who benefitted from the protection of veteran warriors. (Tuerenhout 162-163)

What did the Aztec do to emphasize this social stratification?

Pictures: (top to bottom)

1.) Courtesy of Gianni Dagli Ortis/Corbis (Tuerenhout 124)