General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 21 Sep 2017/10 Eagle
Text Size:

Search the Site (type in white box):

Article suitable for Top Juniors and above

Professor Michael E. Smith

Question for May 2011

Were there rich and poor in Aztec times? Asked by Parkfields Middle School. Chosen and answered by Professor Michael E. Smith.

Pic 1: Moctezuma surrounded by nobles (L); working the land (R)
Pic 1: Moctezuma surrounded by nobles (L); working the land (R) (Click on image to enlarge)

There were definitely rich and poor in Aztec society. The biggest division in society was between nobles and commoners. Nobles ran the government, they owned most of the land, and they were quite wealthy. This was a hereditary class – one could only be a noble if one’s parents were nobles. Commoners (95% of the people were commoners) did the hard work. Most were farmers, and they had to produce enough to feed their family and to pay rent (to the noble who owned their fields) and pay taxes (to the king). Other commoners (craft workers, bureaucrats, merchants, etc.) also had to pay rent and taxes to nobles and the king. There were laws that limited certain kinds of things to nobles. For example, only nobles could wear clothes made of cotton (commoners had to wear rougher cloth made from the maguey plant), and only nobles could build large houses built on platforms.

Pic 2: Artist’s impression of the emperor’s palace (L) and image of a farmer’s hut, Florentine Codex Book XI (R)
Pic 2: Artist’s impression of the emperor’s palace (L) and image of a farmer’s hut, Florentine Codex Book XI (R) (Click on image to enlarge)

The top nobles (the king and his family) were enormously wealthy. They lived in huge luxurious palaces with hundreds of servants, they ate expensive and fancy foods, and they sponsored artists who made sculptures, feather art, jewelry of gold and precious stones, and many of the nice objects that are in museums today. Lower-ranking nobles had to make do with less; they were less powerful and less wealthy than the royal family. But they still had the privileges of nobles.

One group of commoners occupied an intermediate position: the pochteca merchants. These professional traders went on long journeys and made lots of money from their trades. Some even became wealthier than lower-ranking nobles. By law, however, only nobles could show off their wealth. So the pochteca built high walls around their houses, they hid their goods, and when they returned from a trading expedition, they entered the city at night when everyone else was asleep.

Pic 3: Professor Smith’s illustration of a rural noble’s compound (A) compared to a commoner’s house (B)
Pic 3: Professor Smith’s illustration of a rural noble’s compound (A) compared to a commoner’s house (B) (Click on image to enlarge)

Today we know a lot about the lifestyles of the Aztec rich and famous. The nobles were the ones who talked to the Spanish chroniclers, telling them all about their lives. The written records tell us very little about Aztec commoners. But this is an area where archaeology fills in the gaps. Archaeologists have excavated many houses of Aztec commoners (and some noble palaces also), and the artifacts tell us about the lifestyles and living conditions of commoners. The drawing shows a noble compound (from a low-ranking rural noble) and a commoner house that I excavated at the site of Cuexcomate in the 1980s. You can see that the nobles lived in a big compound, with houses built up on platforms around a central patio. The commoners lived in small, one-room houses.

Pic 4: Moctezuma addresses nobles on 1-Flower Day - Florentine Codex Book IV
Pic 4: Moctezuma addresses nobles on 1-Flower Day - Florentine Codex Book IV (Click on image to enlarge)

Aztec nobles were probably not as rich as Bill Gates or Rupert Murdoch today, and even the lowest of the Aztec commoners were probably not as bad off as the poorest people today. But the division between the rich and poor was an important one in Aztec society.

Picture sources:-
• Pic 1: Details from (L) painting (unknown source), Museum of Mexican History, Chapúltepec Park, Mexico City and (R) mural painting of Mexican history by Diego Rivera, National Palace, Mexico City: photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 2: Illustration by Felipe Dávalos/Mexicolore (L); image from the Florentine Codex (R) - see below
• Pic 3: Illustration courtesy Professor Mike Smith
• Pic 4: Image from the Florentine Codex, facsimile edition published by the Club Internacional del Libro (Madrid, 1994)

Read Professor Frances Berdan’s answer to the same question...

Professor Michael E. Smith has answered 4 questions altogether:

Where did the aqueduct go to (from Tenochtitlan)?

Were there rich and poor in Aztec times?

If the Aztecs died of old age - if nothing went wrong - how long did they expect to live for?

Why did Aztec houses have no windows?

Comment button

Here's what others have said:

Mexicolore replies: Actually, it’s a good question. According to Professor Manuel Aguilar-Moreno ‘the purpose of the nobility was to serve the ruler, another aspect of the [harsh] calmecac education, and they were given jobs as ambassadors, tax collectors, provincial governors, teachers, scribes, judges, priests and army generals.’ They certainly wouldn’t have lazed around all day - laziness was a vice that the Aztecs loathed and punished severely!