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.

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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.

Travel Brochure for Aztec Capital of Tenochtitlan

The Aztecs didn’t have brochures in the fifteenth century. Based on their experiences with the Spanish conquistadors, they weren’t looking to attract many tourists, either. If they had a brochure for visitors to their capital of Tenochtitlan, however, it might have read something like this:

Welcome to Tenochtitlan!

The Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan makes every city in the New World look small, and some in the Old World, too. An estimated 200,000 people live here, compared to 150,000 in fifteenth century Paris.

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Mural by Diego Rivera showing life in Aztec city Tenochtitlan

Places to visit include:

The City Zoo

Don’t miss seeing the zoo, the likes of which have never been seen by Europeans. The first section houses birds of prey such as eagles. The second section houses reptiles, mammals, and exotic birds. The Spanish call most of the mammals lions because they’ve never seen an ocelot or mountain lion before. These big cats are fed parts of sacrificial victims. The Spanish find this disgusting, but it is unwise to voice your opinion as a tourist. Among the reptiles you can see rattlesnakes, or as the Spanish like to call them, “snakes with music in their tails.”

Public Theater

Aztecs enjoy all kinds of art, and artists are treated with respect. The theater, or cuicacalli, which means house of song, has several different functions. It is both an opera house and a school of music for youth. Young people who have musical talent can come there and learn to play the drums, the flutes, or trumpets.

The theater is also the place where dances are performed for the community. Aztecs like to refer to dancing as “singing with your feet,” so singing and dancing are naturally performed under one roof.

Botanical Gardens

As you make your way around the city you will notice the fine public gardens. The finest garden in Tenochtitlan, however,  belongs to King Moctezuma. His palace houses plants from every part of Mesoamerica, even ones that should not be able to grow here. Between 300-500 gardeners check on the hundreds of plant species. If one species dies, then an expedition is sent out to get another sample.

Tlatelolco Market

Tlatelolco is the sister city of Tenochtitlan. When you walk through its marketplace, you can find merchants selling pottery, cloth, gold, and jewelry. Slave auctions also take place here. After shopping you will probably be hungry. The marketplace has many restaurants that serve food from all over Mesoamerica. Entertainment is available from street dancers and singers. Overall the marketplace is a great spot for families to spend time together and for residents to socialize.

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Model of Templo Mayor by S. Shepherd, 23 Nov. 2006

Templo Mayor

Downtown you can see the Templo Mayor from a great distance. It is 60 meters tall, and has two flights of steps that lead to two temples at the top. Each temple is a different color–blue for the rain god, and red for the war god. Daily sacrifices are performed to appease the gods. The heart is cut out of the human being sacrificed. The Spanish are a bit queasy about this practice, but Moctezuma has warned them to act like the guests that they are in the city.