General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 18 Sep 2020/11 Rabbit
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Professor Elizabeth Graham

Question for February 2018

What percentage of Aztec society were slaves? Asked by Holy Trinity CE Primary School. Chosen and answered by Professor Elizabeth Graham.

Mexica (Aztec) slaves wearing collars, Codex Mendoza, fol. 66r
Mexica (Aztec) slaves wearing collars, Codex Mendoza, fol. 66r (Click on image to enlarge)

A very small percentage [Prof Warwick Bray suggests ‘about two per cent’ *- Ed.], and apparently they contributed almost nothing to labour - unlike in ancient Greece or Rome.
Editor’s Note:-
The Franciscan friar Diego Durán, writing in the 16th century, listed several ways in which an Aztec could become a slave:-
• Thieves could be sold as slaves to pay for the goods they had stolen
• Gamblers who risked their all on dice or other wagers risked being subject to slavery in some circumstances
• A child who was considered ‘beyond the pail’ could be sold into slavery, with the consent of judges, as an example to others
• Someone who borrowed valuable items and failed to return them by the due date could be sold by his creditors for the amount of the loss
• A man who killed another man, even if condemned to death for the crime, could, if pardoned by the widow, become a slave to serve her and her children
• In times of famine, the destitute could sell themselves and/or their children into slavery in order to survive. It was possible to buy out of slavery later by returning the original purchase price.

• Compare that with at least 10% as the proportion of slaves in ancient Rome...

Additional information from - and with thanks to - The Codex Mendoza by Frances F. Berdan and Patricia Rieff Anawalt, Vol. II, p. 206 (University of California Press, 1992)
Image from the Codex Mendoza (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford), scanned from our own copy of the James Cooper Clark facsimile edition, London, 1938.

Read more about Aztec crimes and punishments...

Read more on Aztec ‘slavery’ by Professor Graham...

‘The human cost of famine...’

Professor Elizabeth Graham has answered 9 questions altogether:

What if an Aztec warrior died or was killed in battle (rather than being taken/taking captive)?

Did the Aztecs force you to be who you are?

Did people get paid for cleaning the city?

Did the Aztecs ever meet the Incas?

Why did the gods destroy the four [previous] worlds if they made them in the first place?

When women went to the market with babies on their backs, did other women ever try to steal them?

What’s the most interesting fact you’ve come across about the Aztecs? (2)

What percentage of Aztec society were slaves?

What was the WORST job to have in Aztec times?

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