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Professor Warwick Bray

Question for January 2005

Which were the most common crimes among the Aztecs? Asked by St Mary of Charity Primary School. Chosen and answered by Professor Warwick Bray.

Criminals facing trial
Criminals facing trial (Click on image to enlarge)

The best way to find out about crime in the Aztec world is to look at the law codes drawn up by the various Aztec kings. Like our own laws, these give definitions of crimes and also list the punishments for criminals who were caught. The more serious the crime, the more serious the punishment. We don’t have figures that tell us which crimes were the most common, so I can’t give a statistical answer to the question.

Some crimes are exactly what we would expect, because they happen everywhere in the world, for example, murder, kidnapping, highway robbery, assault and causing physical harm, theft, selling stolen goods, being drunk and disorderly in the street, giving false evidence, and not paying back debts. There are laws dealing with all of these, so we know these things happened in Aztec Mexico, as they do in any country.

Prisoners on public display, being kept in a wooden cage with the roof weighted down by stones; a criminal being clubbed to death
Prisoners on public display, being kept in a wooden cage with the roof weighted down by stones; a criminal being clubbed to death (Click on image to enlarge)

Many Aztecs were farmers and fishermen, and lived in villages outside the main towns, so there were laws about how to behave in the countryside. It was a crime to light a fire in the woods without permission, to cut down trees, to move boundary-markers, to take game from another man’s hunting trap and to steal crops from the fields. All these were crimes that could be punished by death.

Witchraft was also a problem. The Aztecs believed that certain people had a special knowledge of spells, herbs and potions. This knowledge could be used for good (e.g. to heal the sick) but it could also be used to cause harm to other people. Practising evil magic was a serious crime, and offenders were usually executed.

Besides crimes against other people, there were also crimes against the state, just as there are in our own society. Treason and rebellion are obvious examples. The Aztecs demanded high standards from their officials; judges who took bribes and let criminals go free were normally killed. Surprisingly, adultery and homosexuality were also crimes against the state, because the Aztec social and economic system was based on the household unit of husband, wife and children. The wife did the domestic chores and wove cloth for sale; the husband worked at his trade or profession.

An adulterer being stoned to death
An adulterer being stoned to death (Click on image to enlarge)

Anything that upset the stability of family life was not just a personal matter, or an offence against religion, but a crime against the organization of the Aztec state. Punishment was severe, and adulterers were stoned to death, burned, or strangled.

Slaves
Slaves (Click on image to enlarge)

The Aztecs were divided up into social classes. At the top was the ruler, and below him the nobility, commoners and slaves. Everyone was expected to know his place and to behave and dress appropriately. There were laws about this too. Insulting the king was a crime; so was impersonating an official. Only noblemen were allowed to wear sandals in the city (though never in the palace), to wear clothes made of cotton, to build two-storey houses, and to wear particular kinds of jewellery.

Offenders were brought to trial before a professional court. The Aztecs had no prisons (though criminals were sometimes temporarily kept in wooden cages), and prison sentences were therefore not an option.

Executing a criminal by strangulation
Executing a criminal by strangulation (Click on image to enlarge)

People found guilty of a crime either made restitution (repaid stolen goods with interest, or became slaves to the person they had wronged), were publicly shamed (e.g. by having their heads shaved and then paraded round the town), or, for serious crimes, were executed by stoning, clubbing, burning, strangulation or sacrifice in the temple. Because the Aztecs expected higher standards of behaviour from nobles and officials, the punishments were often more severe for high-ranking people than for commoners.

Quick references

Warwick Bray, The Everyday Life of the Aztecs, pp.83-87. London: Batsford, 1968

Richard F. Townsend, The Aztecs, pp.91-93. London: Thames & Hudson, 2000

(All images from the Florentine Codex, books 2, 7 and 8)

Professor Warwick Bray has answered 2 questions altogether:

Which were the most common crimes among the Aztecs?

Why is the original [Mixtec gold pendant in the British Museum] in England?

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