In the center of Mexico — in the region where we today find Ciudad de México — is the Valley of Mexico, a fertile highland plateau located some 2,000 meters above sea level. People have lived here for some 12,000 years, and it has always been one of the most densely populated regions in the world. Today the urban sprawl which is the Mexico City Metropolitan Area has an estimated 21.3 million inhabitants. Two thousand years ago, it was the city of Teotihuacán which dominated the valley. With its estimated 150,000 people it was the largest city in the Americas at the time. Indeed, it was so crowded that some of the inhabitants had to live in multistory apartment buildings. Teotihuacán was a cosmopolitan city, but it was not the center of an empire. It was looted and destroyed in 550 CE. Today Teotihuacán is the most visited archaeological site in Mexico, famous for the large pyramids located along the so-called “Avenue of the Dead.” The Pyramid of the Sun was both the political and the religious center of the city.
Once Teotihuacán had lost its position, power shifted to Tula, the capital of the Toltec Empire, 674-1122, a bit further to the northwest. In Tula too we find impressive pyramids. Ceramics from Tula have been found all over Central America, and its cultural influences spread at least as wide. This was when the cult of the Feathered Serpent, a god associated with the city of Tula, became a common object of worship. Subsequent kingdoms that rose to prominence in the Valley of Mexico, including the Aztecs, would always bolster their claim to power by tracing their heritage to the Toltecs. The Feathered Serpent, known to the Aztecs as Quetzalcoatl, symbolized this lineage.
The power of Tula too lasted about 500 years, but instead of being replaced by another large empire, it was replaced by a system of smaller states. After the year 1000, a number of city-states, known as altepetl, sprung up in the Valley of Mexico. In the sixteenth century, there were as many as fifty of them. Each city-state was led by a king, known as a tlatoani, who controlled all land and acted as the political, military and religious leader. The tlatoani spoke in the name of the people — he was the source of law and wisdom — and the one who interpreted and carried out the will of the gods. In return, he had the right to collect taxes. Each city-state was rigidly hierarchical. Under the king, there was a class of noblemen, and under them a class of warriors whose rank varied depending on their achievements on the battlefield. The political system was reflected in the layout of each city. The royal palace was at the center, together with the main temple pyramid and the main market square. Around this center lived the nobility while the commoners lived in the outskirts. The noblemen too were regarded as chosen by the gods, and this gave them wide-ranging powers. Yet, the Mexican city-states were not dictatorships. The power of the tlatoani was balanced by the power of a royal council, and by judges who acted to protect the rights of ordinary people.
Relations between the Mexican city-states ranged from friendly to openly hostile. Many joined together in alliances and some attached themselves as tribute bearers to more powerful neighbors. No state dominated all the others, and none of them was sufficient unto itself. Wars were common, but they tended to be small-scale affairs and rarely upset the balance of power. It was only by trading with each other that the city-states could survive. Socially and culturally too they were closely interconnected. Shoppers would visit a neighboring city looking for bargains and members of the nobility of different states participated in each other’s ceremonies, festivals, and funerals. The families of the various tlatoani were often related to each other by marriage. Indeed marriages were an important means of establishing political alliances and maintaining peace. A lower-ranking tlatoani would always try to marry off his daughter to a tlatoani of a more powerful state.
It was into this city-state system that the Mexica arrived in the thirteenth century. [Read more: “Books from ancient Mexico”] The Mexica were Nahuatl-speaking people who had started moving south from their legendary homeland of Aztlán, located somewhere in northern Mexico, already some two hundred years previously.[Read more: “Independence for Aztlán”] Stopping in various places along the way, but never settling for more than a couple of decades in each place, they eventually arrived in the Valley of Mexico. As outsiders without a city-state of their own, the Mexica began by hiring themselves out as soldiers and tried to gain a foothold in the system by making alliances with established rulers. The first such alliance was with the city of Culhuacán whose tlatoani allowed them to settle on his territory. When the arrangement with the Culhuacán king broke down in the 1320s, the Mexica were once again looking for a home. Next, they allied themselves with the Tepanec state. The Tepanecs too were Nahuatl-speaking migrants with their origin in the north. Again they began by working as soldiers, and in return, they were given the right to build a city, Tenochtitlan, established in 1325. The location, on an island in the middle of the swampy Texcoco lake, was hardly prime real estate, but it provided excellent protection from attackers, and the shores of the lake were good agricultural land. In 1372, the Mexica appointed a first tlatoani of their own.
In 1426, the Tepanec king died, and shortly afterward the king of the Mexica was murdered. This provided an opportunity for new political alignments. A new group of people came to power in Tenochtitlan who broke off the alliance with Tepanec and instead allied themselves with the city-states of Texcoco and Tlacopan. Together these three states formed an alliance, a triple alliance, which was to become known as the “Aztec Empire,” 1428-1521. The alliance covered political, military and economic matters. The three states agreed not to fight each other, but instead to cooperate in wars of conquest against other city-states. All spoils of war were to be divided equally between them as would all taxes which they collected from the cities they conquered.
Yet warfare was not always the best way to subdue enemies. Often threats of force were enough or lavish gifts were given or perhaps offers of friendship or membership in a military alliance. As a result, the practices of diplomacy and of warfare blended into each other. Much as for the Maya, war for the Aztecs was a highly ritualistic affair. Instead of massive peasant armies colliding with each other, which has been common elsewhere in the world, warfare was often understood as one-on-one combat between noblemen. Once defeated, the enemy was not killed, but instead, and again much as among the Maya, taken back home and ritually sacrificed in a public ceremony.
In the course of the fifteenth century, the Aztecs created a large empire covering the entire Valley of Mexico and much of Central America besides. King Moctezuma I, 1398-1469, who was Mexica, was the person responsible for much of this expansion. During his reign, taxes were levied directly on the subdued city-states, and a number of extensive building projects were embarked on, including new pyramids. Trade continued to flourish. In fact, the Aztec Empire could be described as a series of related marketplaces where you could buy everything from precious metals and construction materials to weapons, fruits, vegetables, and herbs. There were also markets that specialized in products such as dog meat. Vendors were organized into guilds, and depending on their wares they were allocated to different streets. A new legal code, established under Moctezuma, laid down the rules for how Aztec society was to be organized. The state had a firm grip on society: only great noblemen and successful soldiers were allowed to build two-story houses; commoners could not wear cotton clothing; adulterers were to be stoned, and thrown into rivers; thieves would be sold off for the price of their theft, and so on.