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.

Childbirth in Aztec Society

If you’ve read about the Aztecs in your textbooks, you are probably familiar with their seemingly strange religious practices, which could include human sacrifice to pacify their gods. What you may not know is that the Aztecs often celebrated life, especially when a child was born. In fact, a Spanish priest who lived among the Aztecs said that he had never seen a society in which children were valued so much. A few months before the birth, the grandparents of the unborn baby would invite family members to a feast, which served as a kind of baby shower. Instead of gifts, however, the future grandparents selected a midwife to help the mother through her labor. They expressed their concern for the survival of the mother and the child to the midwife and urged her to do her duty.

On the day of the birth, the midwife returned to second feast with promises of her skill. After a successful delivery, the midwife gave the war cry, which meant that the mother had fought a good battle during labor. The Aztecs recognized the difficulty and pain of giving birth by comparing it to capturing an enemy in battle.

Both boys and girls were welcomed joyfully as the midwife compared the baby to precious items like jade and turquoise. Depending on the gender of the baby, the midwife recited their different roles. To a boy she said, “you are pledged, you are promised, you are sent to the field of battle. War is your destiny, your calling.” In contrast, a baby girl was told, “You are to prepare drink, you are to grind corn, you are to toil, you are to sweat, beside the ashes, beside the hearth.”

After the birth, the family brought in a soothsayer to tell the child’s fate. According to the Aztecs, the date and time of birth decided whether the child would be wealthy or poor, or have a good or bad character. If the child’s future seemed bleak, the family could wait to name the child on a more positive day, which would improve the child’s chances for a good life.

The child received its name during a bathing ceremony. During this ceremony, the midwife bathed the child and presented it with small symbols of its future tasks. For example, a boy received a small shield, bow and arrows. A girl was given tools used for spinning and weaving. After the bath, the baby was named. Aztec children were sometimes named for the day of their birth as in Ome Mazatl, which meant Two Deer. Names of flowers and other animals were also used, however. Regardless of their names or genders, all children in Aztec society enjoyed the love of their parents and extended family, as well as aid from their gods.


The Education of Aztec children

Although Aztec children didn’t go to school as quickly as most kids today, they learned a lot from their parents as they grew. By the young age of five, boys carried firewood and accompanied their fathers to the marketplace. The boys watched their parents exchange goods in the market. The market was also a place for boys to meet new people and learn how to behave around both adults and other children. At the age of five, their mothers taught girls how to weave cotton. In their preteen years, boys learned to fish while girls perfected their spinning and cooking skills.

Aztec parents valued hard work and humility. As their children’s first teachers, they tried to pass on these values. The Codex Mendoza, which was painted few years after the Spaniards arrived, says that parents “instructed and engaged them [children] in personal services…this was so that…they did not spend their time in idleness, and to avoid the bad vices that idleness tends to bring.”

The lessons of their parents helped boys endure their formal schooling, which for wealthy sons began at fifteen. They entered a school run by Aztec priests called the calmecac. Most of the boys who attended this school would become priests, though they occasionally chose other professions. Government jobs, for example, required an elite education. Physical work was part of the curriculum. In the mornings, boys swept the temple, collected firewood, and worked in the fields. They fasted and went on pilgrimages to satisfy their gods. Afternoons were devoted to the study of history, astrology, writing, and the law. They also learned some fighting techniques because priests often accompanied soldiers into battle.

Most Aztec boys, including commoners, attended the telpochcalli where they learned military skills. These boys also spent time doing physical work so they would be able to endure battles. One popular task was increasing the load of firewood a boy carried on his back to see if he would be able to carry the shield and other items he needed during a battle. Martial arts were also taught.

Teenage girls continued their education at home, though some had a public role as priestesses, called cihuatlamacazqui. Young priestesses were taught their temple duties and presided over religious ceremonies. Women were essential to certain Aztec religious festivals.  During the ceremony of Quecholli, priestesses dedicated to the goddess of corn dressed in feathers and painted their faces. They sang and paraded through the streets, tossing handfuls of corn into the crowds. The seeds were signs of a good harvest in the coming year. Most girls, however, were married around the age of fifteen. They married young men who had finished their formal education.