The Role of Aztec Kings

The king was at the top of the Aztec social hierarchy. They called him the Tlatoani, which meant speaker because he acted as a spokesman for his people. Unlike most European societies, the position was not hereditary. Nobles elected the king. At least in theory, the position was based on merit, though the son of a king might find ways to bribe the nobles.

An Aztec king had many privileges. He lived in a huge palace with hundreds of rooms. He also had hundreds of servants and slaves to tend to his every wish. The palace was decorated with handmade tapestries and murals. Since cleanliness was important to the Aztecs, the king had his own private bathroom where he bathed daily. If guests came to visit him, they also had their own bathrooms. Within the palace, the king housed his many wives. When he dressed, he put on embroidered clothing decorated with many feathers.


King Moctezuma I, reigned 1440-69. Image from Tovar Codex, 16th century.

Not only did he live in a palace, but he owned all the city lands. He gave grants of land to nobles, but only the king could decide who received a grant. Besides land grants, the king decided on all laws and taxes.

Despite all of the king’s privileges, he had great responsibilities. The king served as the high priest and oversaw many of the daily sacrifices to the gods. The Aztecs believed that their sun god, Tonatiuh, required regular gifts of human hearts to be made to him. Without these sacrifices, the sun would stop shining and the world would end. As high priest, the king was responsible for the continuation of the universe.

In addition to his religious duties, the king served as general of the army. He led his men into battle and made battle plans. He conquered other lands and generally enabled his people to feel secure.

The king not only led the army, but also led political relations with kings from other city states. He formed political alliances with their Tlatoanis. Alliances were often formed during elaborate state dinners. As many as 300 plates were set at the king’s table, which was piled high with the best food from the local markets. Singers and dwarfs provided entertainment during the dinner. After the feast, the king and his guests left and the servants who prepared the feast had their meal.

In general, the Aztecs expected their king to set a good example for others to follow and to provide them with a good life.

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