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Zoe Steenberge

Aztec Social Classes

This concise summary of Aztec social classes was kindly sent to us by Zoe Ann Steenberge, who has been researching Aztec culture for more than 20 years and has an extensive library on the culture. Zoe lives in Malone, New York, USA, holds an associates degree in Applied Science from North Country Community College, has travelled to Mexico and visited many Aztec sites. She enjoys writing short stories and is primarily concerned with reviving interest in ancient Aztec culture.

Social class refers to the hierarchical distinctions between individuals or groups in societies or cultures. Normally, individuals are grouped into classes based on their economic positions and similar political and economic interests within their culture. The factors that determine class vary from one society to another. Aztec society was rigidly structured within social, political, and religious hierarchies.

Aztec society was composed of eight different social classes which were made up of rulers, warriors, nobility, priests and priestesses, free poor, slaves, servants, and the middle class. The most important of these were the tlatoani (rulers), warriors, nobility, and the high priests and priestesses. The lesser classes were composed of the free poor, slaves, servants, and the middle class.

A succession of less than a dozen rulers carried the Aztec people through from obscurity to empire-builders. The later rulers from 1440-1520 included Montezuma I, Axayacatl, Tizoc, Ahuitzotl, and Montezuma II. These men were all powerful leaders with multitudes of conquests. Each ruler contributed toward cultural works, such as the famous Aztec calendar, an aqueduct, and a ten-mile dike to control the waters of Lake Texcoco. It was the power of the Aztec rulers that contributed, ironically, to the rise and fall of the great Aztec Empire.

Aztec warriors were a select group of exceptionally brave young men, who were well trained in the use of weapons for use in combat, battle, and war. They were the military. Few Aztecs were as privileged as the military men and even young cadets had the respect of royalty and the priesthood. This career was made rewarding by rank, land, and good wages given by the emperor. Warriors of particular valor could enter fraternal orders which practiced various rituals and bestowed privileges. Eagle and Jaguar warriors were the elite and performed secret dances and received additional grants of land.

Rich and wealthy families of noble blood, well bred and respected by the rest of society composed the nobility class. The nobles were firmly in control of society. They ran the government, owned the land, slaves, and servants. They also commanded the army. Power and wealth of Aztec nobility rested on control of land, labor, and tribute. There were three ranks of nobles. The tlatoani, or ruler; Tetecuhtin, the high lords and the Pipiltin who were the regular lords. Each had a different position in society. The nobles enjoyed great wealth and privileges which were rigidly specified by law. The net that held the Aztec empire together was its noble class - individuals of high birth who governed, administered, and reaped the greatest rewards from imperial expansion.

The life of an Aztec priest was very hard and uncomfortable even though they were treated as nobles and were very important to Aztec society. Aztec priests had many responsibilities including: watching the planets and stars to prophesize and sound the time, keeping track of eclipses and other planetary events, naming certain constellations, computing the movement of stars and planets for predictions of their future positions in the sky, reading the calendar, divining the incantations to the gods and horoscopes, divining horoscopes for newborns to see if their sign was lucky or not, and checking the horoscopes of engaged couples to see if they were compatible, making offerings and sacrifices to the gods, sacrificing victims on the sacrificial stone, and drawing blood.

The priests of Tlazolteotl heard confessions, went to war with the warriors to hear their confessions, and took the boys in training out into the dark on nightly walks to gather dangerous creatures. The life of an Aztec priestess was equally very hard and uncomfortable. Priestesses also performed many ceremonies, prayers, songs, incantations, and divinations in honor of the gods as well. Their responsibilities included reading the calendar and interpreting the Sacred Calendar, divining the incantations to the gods, reading horoscopes, and making sacrifices and offerings to the gods.

Although these people were poor and of a lower class than those who belonged to what we would call the aristocracy, there was one thing, however, that they did have, and that was their freedom. They did have their families and each other. It was not unheard of, though, for someone of the lower class to become a noble through bravery in the military service or even marriage. Their homes and their diets were simple. Two groups within this particular class were the fowlers who hunted waterfowl and the farmers who tilled the land.

Slaves were a class of people who were owned by the nobility and those of the merchant class who had amassed some wealth. Unlike the servants, they were considered property and could be sold over and over again. A slave was considered to be the legal property of their master who could do whatever he wanted with them within certain limits because even slaves had certain rights. If slaves chose to marry, they could with their master’s permission, and any children they had were born free unless their spouse was also a slave. A slave could buy his or her freedom, or his master could write a letter releasing the slave from bondage.

Servants were people who, although the nobility owned them, were not considered to be property the way a slave was, for they were free to marry and their children were born free. They could also own property, slaves, and even their own servants. However, they could be sold just as easily as slaves unless the owner had a document written freeing them from their bondage. They were also allowed to have businesses or trades of their own in order to support their families and themselves.

The middle class was one of the largest groups in Aztec society and mainly consisted of the accountants, lawmakers, merchants, quarriers, feather workers, potters, weavers, sculptors, painters, goldsmiths, and silversmiths.

The merchants or pochteca had their own guild and were very choosy and particular about who could join their ranks. They led a different lifestyle to those of other Aztecs for they lived in a separate area of the city, belonged to a merchant guild, had their own laws and judges, and worshipped their own god called Yacatecuhtli. His name means “the lord who guides” to whom they made offerings so that he would protect them on their dangerous journeys for trade. Through the merchants, the Aztecs were able to acquire goods needed through trade. Their children were only allowed to marry the children of other merchants in the guild. The pochteca went on very long, dangerous trading expeditions to all corners of the Aztec Empire. Some pochteca acted as spies reporting to Aztec generals about the wealth of other cities and the size of their armies.

Metal workers worked with gold, copper, and silver for they had no iron. These metals were used to make jewelry and religious objects. They came from the far reaches of the empire either as trade goods acquired by the pochteca or tribute. Goldsmiths and silversmiths first made a clay model of what they wanted to make, which they covered with beeswax and then coated with more clay. A small furnance which was heated by charcoal into which air was blown into through a metal tube was used to melt the metal. The molten metal was then poured into a hole in the top of the mould of the desired object, and the heat melted the wax which was replaced by the metal. After the mould was left to cool, the clay was then smashed leaving the finished metal object.

Feather workers had their own guild and they made many very beautiful objects, which have unfortunately almost all been destroyed. The most highly prized feathers came from the brilliant plumage of the Quetzal bird. There was a huge aviary in Tenochtitlan where three hundred workers cared for many thousands of brightly colored birds. As these birds molted, their feathers were collected, graded, and then taken to the feather workers.

The potters were able to make beautiful pottery to sell in the market place without using the potter’s wheel, which was at that time unknown in Mexico. They made very beautiful cups, statues, vases, and delicate bowls and plates that were sometimes inlaid with precious and semi precious stones. These objects were very beautifully decorated with brilliant colored paints that were made from nature itself.

Law governed every aspect of the person’s life from birth to death. It covered criminal behavior, divorce, and land ownership. Although the laws covered the whole empire, they varied from place to place. The laws were designed to protect the class system that prevailed throughout the empire.
The Aztecs had three types of Law Courts: local courts, the Teccalco court in Tenochtitlan, and the High Courts at the Emperor’s palace. In the local courts, only minor cases were dealt with, and senior warriors acted as judges while the Teccalco court dealt with the more serious crimes and were led by experienced judges. The most serious cases and those involving nobles were heard by the High Courts at the Emperor’s palace.

The Court of Appeal was held in the city of Texcoco and was made up of twelve judges and was held every twelve days under the presidency of the king of Texcoco to decide the most difficult cases. No case could last for more than eighty days, and these judges sat from dawn to sunset and were liable to death if a bribe was taken or accepted.

A trial was brought when a crime had taken place and the criminal had been charged with a date being set for the trial. The criminal was held in the cuauhcalli without food or drink until the trial started. Achcacauhtin or officers of the law were charged with carrying out the sentence of the court.

Each of the Aztec social classes has a lengthy and colorful history, a story within itself. Many aspects of the social classes are quite parallel to our own classes in contemporary life.

emoticon Q. If pochteca was the word for an Aztec merchant, what would an illegal dog-trader be called?
A. A poochtaker!

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Mexicolore replies: We usually give the author’s name at the top of the article; in this case, for example, the author of the article is Zoe Ann Steenberge. so please give the title of the article, the author’s name and then the URL or simply
Mexicolore replies: Keep your shirt on, Christopher! Hang on: look, it’s as clear as crystal that this section of our website, called ‘You Contribute’, is open to keen ‘amateurs’ and other members of the general public to offer their opinions. In our view Zoe has done a good job of summarising some of the key features of what you know perfectly well was - like virtually all throughout history - a hierarchical society. We ask contributors to these pages specifically NOT to add in bibliographical references etc in order to keep the articles ‘short and sweet’. If you want an ‘academic’ reference on our site to Aztec social classes, go to this page in our ‘Ask the Experts’ section -
Mexicolore replies: I imagine, Zoe, that they’re thinking of a societal one...
Mexicolore replies: Thanks Monty. You can read a partial answer to this in the ‘Ask Us’ section of the website: look for the piece ‘What happened to the nobility after the Conquest?’
Mexicolore replies: Zoe replies: ‘I have some Aztec short stories and if you want I can send them to you via email. they aren’t published anywhere on the internet so a search there would be fruitless. I am grateful for the comments left on the page by others.’ We’ve arranged for email addresses to be exchanged in this case.
Mexicolore replies: Generally, throughout our site, we research, select and prepare the illustrations to accompany our own and articles submitted by external contributors (such as Zoe, in this case). It’s a lot of work to do this. We decided when uploading pieces in this section (‘You Contribute’) not to add enlargeable images, and to omit captions and sources, to save time and detail. If you’re interested in more information on any of these images, let us know and we’ll dig out the details for you. Many of them appear, with more data, in other parts of the site.
Mexicolore replies: No. macehualli was the term for commoner. ‘Officially’ the Mexica appear to have had just the two classes, commoners and nobles (pipiltin).