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Professor Frances Berdan

Question for February 2007

What was the emperor’s house like? Asked by Bedgrove Junior School. Chosen and answered by Professor Frances Berdan.

Pic 1: Moctezuma’s Palace, Codex Mendoza (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford)
Pic 1: Moctezuma’s Palace, Codex Mendoza (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford) (Click on image to enlarge)

The Aztec ruler’s house was no ordinary house. The house of, say, a farmer or a potter would have been constructed of adobe brick walls and thatched roofs, and would have contained one room and an outdoor patio area. Now imagine a house that consisted of high walls, an enormous courtyard, patios, innumerable rooms, and as many as 100 baths. This house covered an area of 50,000 square meters, was raised on a platform and was built of stuccoed adobe or beautiful stones. It was sumptuously painted.

Pic 2: Palace-glyph as the placename glyph of the town of Tecpa, Codex Mendoza
Pic 2: Palace-glyph as the placename glyph of the town of Tecpa, Codex Mendoza (Click on image to enlarge)

At one end was the entrance, along the sides of the palace were the many rooms used for the administration of the empire, and at the far end, raised above the courtyard, were the residential rooms of the ruler and his household. No, this was no ordinary house: it was the grandest dwelling in the empire, and the house of the empire’s most powerful man. It was called a tecpan calli, or “lord’s-place house”, and it was right downtown, near the city’s principal temple.

Pic 3: Texcocan palace, Quinatzin Map Codex
Pic 3: Texcocan palace, Quinatzin Map Codex (Click on image to enlarge)

Tenochtitlan and Texcoco, as the two most powerful Aztec imperial cities, had imposing and exquisite palaces for their rulers. Actually, these rulers had more than one palace. Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin’s palace in Tenochtitlan, described just above, was probably built shortly after Motecuhzoma was installed as emperor in 1502, and today lies beneath Mexico’s national palace. A second royal palace in Tenochtitlan, also “downtown”, had served as the residential and administrative center of Motecuhzoma’s predecessors and was used by Motecuhzoma to house Hernán Cortés and his men when they first arrived in Tenochtitlan.

Pic 4: The palace of Nezahualcóyotl, based on the Quinantzin Map Codex
Pic 4: The palace of Nezahualcóyotl, based on the Quinantzin Map Codex (Click on image to enlarge)

Motecuhzoma’s own palace served as the ruler’s residence, and must have had an extremely large living area since the ruler had several wives and therefore required a great many rooms. But the palace also served as a government meeting center, and contained administrative rooms such as courtrooms for nobles and commoners, council chambers for accomplished warriors, rooms for storing tribute, armories filled with weapons, rooms that housed all manner of servants and caretakers, and also quarters decked out to house visiting rulers. Indeed, the palace was meant to impress and intimidate royal visitors, whether friendly allies or fierce enemies. It surely did.

Pic 5: The emperor’s palace - illustration by Felipe Dávalos
Pic 5: The emperor’s palace - illustration by Felipe Dávalos (Click on image to enlarge)

But it was also a pleasant place, with gardens, ponds, an aviary, and a zoo. Such a center required the presence of a huge number of people: Hernán Cortés tells us that more than 600 nobles appeared in this palace daily, and their servants overflowed two or three of the palace’s large courtyards. In addition, we must add the 200 noble guards (who resided in the palace itself) the 300 men who tended the aviary and zoo, great numbers of artisans, laborers, entertainers, cooks, servants, judges, plaintiffs, warriors, and royal wives and children. It is not hard to visualize the palace crowded with people of all walks of life bustling about, talking, working, coming, and going. It is described as a place of honor and glory, and also a place where there was much bragging, boasting, pride, arrogance, and gaudiness. The rulers did not wish to hide their wealth and power.

Pic 6: ‘A lord’s palace’, from the Florentine Codex
Pic 6: ‘A lord’s palace’, from the Florentine Codex (Click on image to enlarge)

A very similar picture is drawn of the royal palace of neighboring Texcoco, with its central courtyard, government rooms along the sides and a raised area for the ruler’s expansive personal household at one end. It is also described with maze-like corridors, and separate meeting rooms for historians, philosophers, and poets, special passions of the Texcocan ruler. This palace too bustled with all the activity, noise, and energy of a working government and living household.

Pic 7: ‘A ruler’s palace’, from the Florentine Codex
Pic 7: ‘A ruler’s palace’, from the Florentine Codex (Click on image to enlarge)

The Tenochtitlan and Texcocan rulers also periodically visited additional residences designed as horticultural gardens (with exotic plants from throughout the empire), game reserves for hunting, and “pleasure palaces” with dynastic monuments, magnificent gardens and elaborate waterworks. These “pleasure palaces” were high-class rural retreats: the Tenochtitlan rulers enjoyed the delights of Chapultepec, while the Texcocan rulers created a phenomenal hillside resort at Texcotzinco.

Pic 8: Ruins of the rock-cut bath on the south side of the ritual hill of Texcotzinco (also known as Tetzcotzingo)
Pic 8: Ruins of the rock-cut bath on the south side of the ritual hill of Texcotzinco (also known as Tetzcotzingo) (Click on image to enlarge)

In truth, there were many tecpan calli throughout the empire, for there were many city-state rulers of different degrees of power and importance. Each of these rulers, of greater or lesser domains, resided in palaces much grander than the dwellings of their subjects. One of these buildings, excavated by Susan Evans in the northeastern Basin of Mexico, was four times larger than the surrounding, more humble dwellings. It also had several rooms built on different levels around a large courtyard, embellished by a liberal use of cut stones (definitely expensive and beyond the means of the typical farmer or artisan). Another such palace, excavated by Michael Smith in Morelos (just to the south of the Basin of Mexico), follows a similar pattern: the palace of the local ruler covered an area of some 6,000 square meters and consisted of numerous rooms and courtyards whose walls were covered with colorful murals.

Whether presided over by a great emperor or local ruler, these palaces were designed as both royal residences and governmental centers. They were the city’s political nerve center, just as the nearby temple was the city’s sacred ritual center.

Berdan, Frances. 2005. The Aztecs of Central Mexico: an imperial society. 2nd ed., Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Díaz del Castillo, Bernal. 1963. The Conquest of New Spain (translated by J.M.Cohen). London:Penguin Books.
Evans, Susan. 1991. “Architecture and Authority in an Aztec Village: form and function of the Tecpan”. In Land and Politics in the Valley of Mexico (H.R.Harvey, ed.): 63-92. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
Sahagún, Bernardino de. 1950-82. Florentine Codex, Book 11: 270-271. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.
Smith, Michael E. 2003. The Aztecs. 2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell.

Pic 1: Codex Mendoza, folio 69r (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford), (scanned from the Cooper Clark facsimile edition, London, 1938)
Pic 2: Codex Mendoza, folio 32r (scanned from the Cooper Clark facsimile edition, London, 1938)
Pic 3: Quinatzin Map Codex (lower half) ‘Palace of Nezahualcóyotl and toponomy’ (original in the National Library of France), reproduction part of the study ‘Códice Mapa Quinatzin: Justicia y derechos humanos en el México antiguo’ by Luz María Mohar Betancourt, CIESAS, Mexico, 2004
Pic 4: Códice Mapa Quinatzin, p. 146
Pic 5: Illustration by Felipe Dávalos
Pics 6 & 7:Florentine Codex, Book 11, facsimile edition published by the Club Internacional del Libro (Madrid, 1994)
Pic 8: from ‘The Aztecs’ by Richard Townsend, Thames and Hudson, London, 2000, p. 146 (photo by Richard Townsend)

Professor Frances Berdan has answered 2 questions altogether:

What was the emperor’s house like?

When did the Aztecs stop using cocoa beans for money?

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Here's what others have said:

Mexicolore replies: To give one reference, we know that by the time the Spanish came on the scene, Moctezuma II’s royal gardens at Huaxtepec extended over 7 miles in circumference and held some 2,000 species of herbs, shrubs and trees.
Mexicolore replies: We know that Moctezuma II’s palace covered an area of 2.4 hectares (around 5 acres). Nezahualcoyotl’s palace in Texcoco was probably of the same size. His entire compound - including palace, gardens, temples, ball court, zoo, market plus numerous buildings measured 1,032 by 817m, an area of some 84 hectares (over 200 acres)!
Mexicolore replies: Good question, and apologies for the delay in responding.
This is due to the ‘Toltec effect’: the Aztecs had tremendous reverential respect for their perceived ancestors the Toltecs, from whom the Aztecs felt they had inherited all the most important aspects of their culture. To associate themselves with high social status and a ‘civilised’ way of life, they tried where possible to depict themselves in white robes (in Texcocan codices, Toltecs are invariably dressed in white capes).