General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 20 Sep 2017/9 Jaguar
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Aztec/Mexica commoner alongside noble

Commoners versus nobles

Mexica (Aztec) society was largely divided into two main classes: commoners (macehualtin), like the figure on the left (C), and nobles (pipiltin), like the figure on the right (N). How did life differ for these two groups on a day-to-day basis? (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Aztec commoner, stone sculpture, Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City
Aztec commoner, stone sculpture, Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

• Obliged to pay tribute, in kind and in the form of communal work
• Only received tribute payments if they succeeded in moving up from commoner status to noble
• Only merchants (pochteca) who had earned high status had the right to own state-run land
• Could only take on leading public positions if they had earned these by special merit
• Subject to less severe penal code/official punishments; common criminals could be executed, always in public
• Taught in the less strict telpochcalli school
• Subject to monogamy (only allowed one wife/husband)
• Could only enter royal buildings as cleaners or builders/repairers.

Aztec noble, ‘Primeros Memoriales’ fol. 55v
Aztec noble, ‘Primeros Memoriales’ fol. 55v (Click on image to enlarge)

• Their work at the service of the state was considered equal in value to paying tribute; free from this obligation and from communal labour
• Received the benefits of tribute as payments either for their services to the state or for belonging to the ruling family
• Could own state-run lands known as pillalli
• Held the vast majority of public offices/positions
• Subject to a severe penal code, and liable to punishments for crimes such as prostitution that didn’t apply to commoners; subject to very severe punishments, given both to them as individuals and to their families; punishments for crimes were imposed in private
• Taught in the severe atmosphere of the calmécac élite school
• Could indulge in polygamy (allowed more than one wife/husband)
• Allowed to attend royal buildings.

Entitlement to drinking cacao and wearing sandals was limited to Mexica nobles...
Entitlement to drinking cacao and wearing sandals was limited to Mexica nobles... (Click on image to enlarge)

Strict Aztec ‘sumptuary laws’ meant that -
• had exclusive right to own and wear semiprecious stones
• could own and use painted ceramic vases and other luxury goods
• could wear clothes made of cotton, sandals, etc.
• were allowed to carry and enjoy aromatic flower bouquets
• could eat the flesh of sacrificial victims
• were allowed to drink cacao
• could partake of mind-changing drugs. Whereas...
• were only allowed to own and use plain pottery cups
• could only wear coarse cactus-fibre clothes
• could only wear sandals when travelling on roads
• weren’t entitled to enjoy flowers/sacrificial meat/cacao/drugs (see above).

NOTE: This feature is based on, and translated from, an extract from an article by Alredo López Austin (on our Panel of Experts) ‘La sociedad mexica y el tributo’, in Arqueología Mexicana, no. 124 (Nov-Dec 2013), pp 40-47. Many thanks, Alfredo!

Picture sources:-
• Photo of Aztec commoner statue by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Image scanned from our own copy of Primeros Memoriales by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, Facsimile Edition, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Oklahoma, 1993
• Photo of image of cacao bags, detail from the Codex Kingsborough, British Museum, by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Photo of Aztec sandals - detail from a mural in the National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City - by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore.

emoticon In the Aztec language, Nahuatl, macehualtin (commoners) means ‘people who deserve [a rest]!’

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