General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 20 Apr 2021/4 Wind
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Aztec society was hierarchical but encouraged upward mobility

Aztec social mobility

Whilst it’s true that Mexica (Aztec) society was strongly hierarchical, social mobility - both downwards and upwards - was not just possible, but surprisingly widespread. In his classic work The Aztec Arrangement (1985) Dutch scholar Rudolph van Zantwijk finds evidence of ‘frequent instances of social mobility’. But it wasn’t always that way: things really began to change under the rule of Itzcóatl and his Prime Minister (and cousin) Tlacaelel, following a successful Aztec rebellion against the Tepanecs. To rally his troops, Tlacelel offered them a carrot AND a stick... (Written by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Tlacelel - illustration by María Ramos
Tlacelel - illustration by María Ramos (Click on image to enlarge)

... Bring us victory against the Tepanecs and you’ll be elevated to noble status, OR be blamed for our defeat and get sacrificed! ‘With this’, explains van Zantwijk, ‘a new element had been introduced by which the Aztec social hierarchy was no longer based exclusively on descent but was also based to a great extent on military achievement. Thus a new institutionalised mechanism was created for social mobility, for improving one’s position in society...’ The plan worked. Equally, the policy was amplified: just because you belonged to a high-status family no longer meant you would automatically be considered for high office - you had to PROVE YOUR WORTH by performing great services for the community (or the government). Military prowess soon inspired ‘victory’ in other areas of Aztec life: success in trade, or exemplary religious devotion...

Examples of upward social mobility amongst Aztec citizenry
Examples of upward social mobility amongst Aztec citizenry (Click on image to enlarge)

It was a case of ‘win-win’ at all levels. By encouraging such upwardly mobile individuals to marry into their families, community chiefs could keep the status of their own families high and devote energy to increasing the external status of their community.
Here are some examples of ‘how to move up’ in Aztec society:-
• A local street seller with good market skills and knowledge of profits could become a pochteca (a travelling merchant who belonged to part of the noble class)
• A skilled fighter could become a high-ranking warrior in the army
• An intelligent youth could train to become a priest
• A skilled craftsperson could become a toltecatl, a valued and respected artisan, recalling the skills of the famed Toltecs.
In summary, in van Zantwijk’s words ‘Successful macehualtin [commoners] could become imperial nobles, and hereditary nobles could lose their prestige or even their lives...’

Picture sources:-
• Main: photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Tlacelel illustration: scanned from Handbook to Life in the Aztec World by Manuel Aguilar-Moreno, 2006
• Graphic: prepared by Mexicolore.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Oct 06th 2020

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