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General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 23 Feb 2017/8 Snake
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Aztec emperor v commoner

Were there rich and poor in Aztec times?

A school asked us this classic question - and we passed it on to one of our Panel of Experts, Professor Frances Berdan. She didn’t hesitate: the answer is...

Aztec/Mexica nobles
Aztec/Mexica nobles (Click on image to enlarge)

’Definitely! Aztec society was broadly divided into nobles-by-birth and commoners (everyone else). We can safely say that nobles were generally richer than commoners. Power and wealth went hand in hand, and nobles had special rights that allowed them to amass and display great wealth: they controlled lands and the commoners who worked those lands, they received tributes in goods and services from their subjects, and they enjoyed the best jobs in the realm (like ruler, general, ambassador and tax collector).

Moctezuma outside his summer house...
Moctezuma outside his summer house... (Click on image to enlarge)

‘The ruler was the richest of all, commanding vast tributes from his imperial conquests: shimmering tropical feathers, precious stones, gold, chocolate and all kinds of food and clothing – all of which he kept in his palace storerooms.
What did rulers and other nobles do with such vast wealth? They built grand palaces of expensive materials and the finest workmanship.

Moctezuma gives gifts to poorer members of Mexica (Aztec) society
Moctezuma gives gifts to poorer members of Mexica (Aztec) society (Click on image to enlarge)

‘They also used a lot of it for public and ceremonial displays – for instance, inviting enemy or allied rulers to lavish feasts to show off their great wealth and power. They sponsored large building projects, paying their artisans well (not well enough to make those artisans rich, but neither were they poor). And they went about exquisitely dressed and adorned – the best way to tell who someone was in Aztec society was simply by looking at them.

‘Disguised’ Aztec merchants on a business trip
‘Disguised’ Aztec merchants on a business trip (Click on image to enlarge)

‘The professional merchants (pochteca) are particularly interesting in terms of wealth. These daring merchants (who were commoners-by-birth) traveled far and wide, sometimes gaining a great deal of wealth. Some of them were so wealthy that they risked making the nobles jealous.

Aztec merchants returning home with goods
Aztec merchants returning home with goods (Click on image to enlarge)

‘Hence, when the pochteca returned from a long, successful trading trip, they would sneak back into their city, at night, and conceal their rich and abundant goods. These merchants would spend their wealth on ceremonial feasts among their fellow merchants, gaining prestige and high positions within their merchant ‘guild’.

Working the land before the Spanish Conquest
Working the land before the Spanish Conquest (Click on image to enlarge)

‘In contrast to nobles, farmers and other producers went about simply dressed and generally had few household possessions beyond the basic necessities. Yet there were wealth differences among commoners: excavations in commoner houses in Morelos by Michael Smith have shown that some commoners had more fancy possessions than others, some possessing decorated pottery and even jade.

An Aztec commoner family
An Aztec commoner family (Click on image to enlarge)

‘Apparently commoner farmers were able to earn or otherwise acquire such wealth, for they worked lands of different sizes and quality, had access to markets where they could obtain fancy goods, and could also win luxuries in contests or receive them as gifts. The strict sumptuary laws [laws that put limits on the luxuries you could own] of the Aztecs, however, dictated that commoners could not go about displaying these expensive objects and adornments; that was a jealously guarded right of the nobility.’

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Here's what others have said:

Mexicolore replies: You bet they had chocolate back then! That’s where it comes from!