When most people think of the Aztecs, they probably conjure up images of human sacrifice. Yet much of Aztec society was sophisticated, including their social order.
At the bottom of the Aztec social hierarchy were slaves. How did people become slaves? A person might be captured in a foreign land, or slavery might be a sentence for a crime. Anyone regardless of their class could become a slave. Even people with a lot of money sometimes ended up as slaves because of gambling debts they owed.
Surprisingly, slaves did have some rights. They could own money and get time off. They also had their own families. Children of slaves were born free. Nobles often acquired slaves as servants for their households. While these rights don’t make the life of a slave seem so hard, unlucky slaves could be sold to priests for human sacrifices. And despite the fact that slavery wasn’t hereditary, some parents sold their children into slavery in order to support the rest of the family.
Like most societies, the Aztecs had an abundance of commoners who worked as farmers or craftsmen. Farmers tended land that belonged to nobles, and craftsmen did woodwork or made pottery. The men had to serve in the Aztec army. Women also had tasks, which included cleaning, cooking, weaving, and going to the marketplace. Some women also sold textiles at market. Female commoners spent most of their time at home.
For a commoner, home was a one room house made of reed walls and a thatched roof. Commoners lived in districts of four or five families, often all relatives. Each district had a temazcal or sweat bath where children were often born. Male children of commoners attended a free school that taught them how to be warriors. Commoners could not become merchants or nobles, but they could move up in society by becoming brave warriors or priests.
Whereas many ancient societies only had poor and rich classes, the Aztec had a middle class or pochteca made up of traveling merchants. They traded goods as well as serving as spies for the king. During their travels, merchants assessed which lands the king might conquer. Since their missions were dangerous, merchants were also trained warriors who carried weapons. They could become wealthy but couldn’t display their wealth by wearing expensive clothes or jewels.
Wearing fine capes and jewelry were privileges reserved for the noble class. Nobles ruled over a number of commoners. They assigned labor in neighborhoods called calpullis. They lived near their workers either in a nice home with stone walls or a small palace. Children of nobles attended a special school called the calmecac. Unlike the schools for commoners, these schools taught poetry, public speaking and the Aztec calendar as well as warfare. Children of nobles grew up to be government officials, high priests, and military captains.
For all their privileges, the Aztecs expected a great deal from the nobility. They were expected to be model citizens. If a noble committed a crime, the punishment was more severe than for a commoner who committed the same crime.