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   Mexico-Tenochtitlan: Origin and Transformations of the Last Mesoamerican
                                 Imperial City.

                                   Gerardo Gutiérrez
                            University of Colorado at Boulder

On the eve of the Spanish conquest, the city of Tenochtitlan was the largest human
settlement and most densely built space of the northern hemisphere of the American
continent. It was a lacustrine city, founded on a conglomerate of small islands along the
western side of Lake Texcoco. Tenochtitlan was the primary city of a native empire
stretching over 300 km of rugged mountains from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Coast
and some 500 km across the arid plains of Central Mexico to the exuberant forests of the
Soconusco, Chiapas. Tenochtitlan became an imperial city in its own right, but its urban
form and infrastructure was also shaped by enormous economic resources and human
capital, which the Aztecs managed to draw from all over Mesoamerica. The city was
founded by immigrants against the wishes of aggressive neighbors; it struggled to survive
in dire conditions during its first century to rapidly emerge as a dominant polity through a
combination of political shrewdness, military might, and serendipity. The urban form,
function, and assemblage of Tenochtitlan had everything to do with its political and
military successes; therefore, the analysis of this city cannot be disassociated from the
history and archaeology of the Aztec Empire and its conquered provinces.

Lewis Mumford emphasized that a city is not merely a physical entity or locus of
economic activity, but an expression of the human spirit (Mumford 19xx). According to
this line of thought, Tenochtitlan as a city represents the most refined expression of
Mesoamerican urbanism. Tenochtitlan was the product of all the natives of central and
southern Mexico, Aztec and non-Aztec, who voluntarily or through coercion financed the
construction of its large temples, fine palaces, urbanism, and maintenance of its warrior
and commoner population through tribute and labor. In addition, Tenochtitlan was the
beneficiary of more than two thousand years of Mesoamerican experience in city
construction and urban dwelling. After its explosive urban growth, it was largely
destroyed by Spanish conquistadors during the siege of 1521. Although the urban history
of Tenochtitlan spans less than 200 years, it left behind a large body of indigenous and
European historical accounts of its former glory. In a similar way the damp clay of Lake
Texcoco has unexpectedly preserved vast quantities of archaeological remains from the
Aztec capital. These accidents of preservation provide the opportunity to carefully dissect
the rise and fall, as well as the nature of urban life, in the last imperial society of

The objective of this chapter is to analyze the specific urban layout and culture of
Tenochtitlan, along with its ideology as the capital of the dominant Mesoamerican polity
during the Late Postclassic period. I begin with a brief summary of the history of Mexica-
Tenochca tribe, from their migration to the founding of a city in a swampy island in Lake
Texcoco, their first century as servants of Aztcapotzaco, including the event in which
they defeated that city and became their masters. It is impossible to understand what

Tenochtitlan looked like, its internal structure, and lavish political and ideological
practices, without reviewing its complex tributary system that siphoned wealth and
resources from a large hinterland; thus, after the historical summary, I will explain this
tribute system and then proceed to describe the city and its daily life. I then introduce the
urban history of Tenochtitlan and how the swampy island began as a modest city, and
how each of its rulers managed to improve and enlarge it, not only by building and
scaling up its material infrastructure, but also by promoting an accelerated “urban
revolution.” Indeed, the city itself became the political hub, commercial emporium, and
religious axis mundi of Mesoamerica. This was made possible by a change in the
mentality and cultural practices on the part of the Mexica-Tenochca people who, on the
eve of the Spanish Conquest, regarded themselves as the “Lords of all Created Things.” I
end this paper by analyzing how the mighty native city was torn apart by its Indian and
European conquerors. It is noteworthy that Tenochtitlan was the first American city to be
conquered by use of cutting-edge Old World siegecraft.

Urban Historicity of Postclassic Central Mexico
A city is an entity of such complexity that a single approach cannot adequately evaluate
all of its variables. Flexible methodologies and concepts are better suited to understand
urban phenomenon when studying different regions and earlier developments. Most
approaches used by scholars of urbanism create models interpreting the urban experience
from the Old World. These ancient, classic, medieval, mercantile, industrial, and modern
cities are used and abused as models that, consciously or unconsciously, explain the
origin, development, structures, morphology, and functions of non-western settlements
throughout the world. By doing so, we lose the full range of urban experiences worldwide
(Gutiérrez 2003).

The urbanism of Postclassic central Mexico needs to be understood within the confines of
a native political-territorial structure known as the altepetl in the Nahuatl language
(Lockhart 1992). The word altepetl literally means "the waters, the mountains," and it is
what the Spaniards referred to as señorío indio, which poorly translates as “Indian
Kingdom.” The Spaniards also translated altepetl as “city;” thus, for decades,
archaeologists have referred to these political units as “city-states.” This concept is a poor
choice, since many altepetl1 or native states were so complex that they encompassed
several cities under their domain. The Spaniards soon realized that Indian señoríos
(kingdoms) had an intricate political organization. Perhaps most shocking for the
Spaniards was the fact that an altepetl was governed by multiple rulers through councils,
which formed loose confederations. Therefore, a critical element was how each segment
of the altepetl was ruled by a particular tlatocamecayotl (ruling lineage). For tributary
purposes, the Spaniards split the largest and most complex altepetl into individual
segments, which they called parcialidades (parts), each governed by a single native ruler,
who was referred to as a cacique (using the Caribbean term for “chief”). The dissolution
of Prehispanic polities into modular segments has created significant confusion for
generations of scholars who engage in convoluted debates on the nature of the native

 Altepetl is used here for both the singular and plural to faciliatate reading for the non-Nahuatl speaking
audience. In Nahuatl, the plural of altetpetl is actually altepeme.

polity (Ouweneel 1990; Tomaszewski and Smith in press). The Colonial era practice of
breaking apart native states into their minimum segments based on a single ruler needs to
be set aside when evaluating Prehispanic sociopolitical organization. Instead, the entire
cohort of the altepetl, with its multiple ruling lineages and council of rulers, is the more
accurate Prehispanic form. This native sociopolitical entity allows for a better understand
of the confederate nature, multi-centrism, and most importantly, the political and
territorial organization in Mesoamerica (Gutierrez 2003). The altepetl is composed of a
network of settlements governed by a group of rulers tied to together or bonded by
kinship (Reyes 1979). The concept of altepetl per se does not recognize an urban-rural
dichotomy, since it embodies all of the cities, smaller settlements, people, territories, and
resources under the political control of the council of rulers. According to Molina’s
(1970) vocabulary, the primary settlement of the altepetl was called altepenayotl. In the
particular case of Tenochtitlan, which was founded on a small island by poor migrants, it
was the primary settlement of a self-contained altepetl, and thus formed its own

The Mexica-Tenochca People
The people who founded Mexico-Tenochtitlan spoke the Nahuatl language, classified as
part of the Uto-Azteca family, which extended from the state of Utah to Central America.
According to their mythology, these indigenous people came from a place called Aztlan,
supposedly located somewhere in northwestern Mexico or southwestern United States.
From this Aztlan comes the popular name of Aztecs. By order of their tribal god
Huitzilopochtli (Hummingbird on the Left), they departed from Aztlan in the native year
One Flint, corresponding to the European calendar of AD 1064. Huitzilopochtli ordered
them to seek a sacred land where they would be their own masters and “Lords of All
Created Things.” At the beginning of this migration, they were led by a god-bearer
named Chalchiuhtlatonac and were organized in seven segments or calpulli (big house).
Determined to find this Promised Land and settle there in peace or through warfare, they
made a covenant with their god and changed their name to Mexica. After wandering for
many decades, they entered the Basin of Mexico and settled in the Chapultepec area circa
AD 1299 (Codex Chimalpahin, Anderson and Shroeder 1997:29).

When the Mexica arrived to the Basin of Mexico there already existed an urban network
of more than 40 cities located around an interconnected system of five shallow lakes
(from north to south: Zumpango, Xaltocan, Texcoco, Xochimilco and Chalco). Together
these lakes covered roughly 1300 sq km, with a perimeter of some 300 km. Powerful
ruling houses resided in these cities, and through diplomacy, marriage alliances, and
warfare they formed at least five fragile confederations (Hodge 1984). The Tepaneca
confederation dominated the western shore of the lake with at least 12 cities, the most
important being Azcapotzalco, Tacuba and Coyoacan. The eastern side of the lake was
under the control of the Acolhua confederation with some 14 cities under the leadership
of Texcoco. Three confederations shared the fresh-water, southern lakes of Chalco and
Xochimilco. The Culhua confederation controlled the Iztapalapa peninsula with three
cities under the leadership of Culhuacan. The Xochimilca confederation also had three
powerful cities including Xochimilco. Finally the Chalca confederation controlled a small
fringe of the Chalco lake shore, but their four constituent cities included the rich

hinterland of the western piedmont of the Popocatepetl volcano. The city of Chalco was
an important trade port, while the city of Amecameca controlled the pass between the
adjacent valleys of Puebla and Morelos. Each of these five confederations held vast
quantities of resources, people, and strategic positions and was constantly warring with
each other. The Tepanecs and the Acolhuas were the most powerful in the valley but
were unable to conquer each other; hence, both were always trying to lure any of the
other three smaller polities to their side. Alliances shifted constantly, which in practice
generated a stalemate.

When the Mexicas arrived and tried to establish their own altepetl in Chapultepec, no one
tolerated the newcomers. A combined force of Tepanecas and Culhuas attacked the
Mexica position and overwhelmed them. The fleeing survivors were divided in two
groups. The Mexica-Tenochca became captives of Culhuacan and were forced to settle in
Tizapan located on the northern slope of the Iztapalapa Peninsula (Gonzales Aparicio
1973). The other group, the Mexica-Tlatelolca escaped to a barren island in the lake
where they became subjects of the ruler of Aztacapotzalco. The Mexica-Tenochca and
the Mexica-Tlatelolca were integrated into the political structures of their new masters.
Primarily they became tribute payers and had to provide military service in the wars of
Culhuacan and Azcapotzalco. The Tenochcas and Tlatelolcas also intermarried with their
overlords, a fact of great import for later developments since each Mexica group became
affiliated to different ruling linages. The Tepaneca was an ever-growing and powerful
confederation, while the rulers of the Culhua confederation fancied themselves the true
descendants of the Toltecs, the people of the mythical empire of Tollan or Tula, followers
of the Wind God, Quetzalcoatl, and creators of all arts and practical crafts. The Tenochca
were good warriors and assisted Culhuacan in its wars with Xochimilco, and they
achieved some esteem with the Culhua people, thus a high-status Mexica warrior
(Opochtli Iztahuatzin) married a daughter of the ruler of Culhuacan (Lady Atotoztli).2
This marriage produced a son name Acamapichtli, who later become an important figure
in Aztec history.

In spite of having been accepted as a subordinate segment of the Culhua confederation,
the Aztecs were expelled from Tizapan for having “married” a noble woman of
Culhuacan to their tribal god (Huitzilopochtli). Such a marriage involved the ritual
flaying and killing of this unfortunate noblewoman. Upon hearing about her death, the
Culhua warriors attacked the Tenochca, who escaped into the dense vegetation of shallow
Lake Texcoco. The Tenochca people took temporary refuge in the barren islands of the
western shore of the lake until they reached the low swampy island of Temazcaltitlan,
just south of where the Mexica-Tlatelolca had been forced to settle earlier. It is likely that
in this place they were embraced by their relatives of Tlatelolco, with the new arrivals
requesting protection from the rulers of Azcapotzalco. Not surprisingly, the Mexica-
  This kind of marriage alliance was a common practice in Mesoamerica, in which powerful rulers gave
their daughters to lesser lords to strengthen the master-subject relationship. The male son of such a
marriage was likely to succeed his father as leader of that segment of the altepetl, and, additionally, these
lesser rulers of the polity were grandsons of the primary ruler. A blood bond secured some degree of
loyalty and also created a special class of nobles who identified themselves more with the interests of the
ruling lineage than with those of the commoners who constituted the majority of the population of the
altepetl (Carrasco 1984).

Tenocha glossed over this event,3 preferring to describe their arrival and the founding of
the city of Tenochtitlan as having occurred by following the correct signs given to them
by their tribal god when they left Aztlan in AD 1064.

In the central part of the island of Temazcaltitlan, they allegedly saw a majestic eagle
devouring a serpent atop a cactus (tenochtli). Near this spot, there were two caves, one
facing east and the other north; a spring of fresh water flowed at the location, with
cypresses and willows providing shade. The Tenochca proclaimed that this was their
promised land, and they won their altepetl in the native year of 2 House or AD 1325. The
island was renamed Tenochtitlan to reflect the portent of the eagle atop the cactus and
also to pay homage to Tenoch, the leader who had kept them united in Tizapan and led
them through the swamps in their escape from Culhuacan. Nonetheless, Tenochtitlan
was located in a section of the lake claimed by the powerful city of Azcapotzalco, capital
of the Tepaneca confederation. Thus, the Mexica-Tenochca had to present themselves as
supplicants to obtain permission of Azcapotzalco to stay on the island.

By the second half of the 14th century, the generation of native leaders who had led the
Mexica-Tenochca people to the Basin of Mexico was dying off. They particularly
mourned the death of their leader Tenoch in AD 1363. Most of the Tenochca people had
since been born in the Basin of Mexico and had been exposed to the complex diplomacy,
dynastic alliances, and warfare between the five existing confederations around the lakes.
So, instead of electing another tribal leader, they wanted to possess their own tlatoani or
ruler, in accordance with the altepetl political system of central Mexico (Lockhart 1992).
To attain this goal, they needed to intermarry with one of the established ruling linages.
They deliberated, carefully deciding with which confederation to align themselves. Since
the Tlatelolca people had a well-consolidated relationship with the ruling linage of
Azcapotzalco, there was no immediate benefit for the Tenochca to request a marriage
partner from the noble ruler of that house, since they would be outranked by their
relatives the Tlatelolcas. The option of creating an alliance with Texcoco and the
Acolhuacan confederation was too risky, since Azcapotzalco would not permit this.
During these deliberations, somebody remembered the infant son of the Mexica warrior,
Opochtli, with the Culhua lady Atotoztli who had been left behind in Culhuacan. This
child, Acamapichtli, was the grandson of a ruler of Culhuacan and was also the grandson
of a brave Mexica-Tenocha warrior who had helped lead the migration. They decided to
take their chances and approach the prestigious Culhua confederation. A group of
Tenocha leaders went to Culhuacan and humbly requested from its ruler that
Acamapichtli be made the ruler of the Mexica-Tenochca, and in return they would guard
the part of the lake that belonged to Culhuacan. The Culhuacan ruler agreed to let them
have Acamapichtli as the Mexica-Tenochca ruler, but he then revealed that the young
Acamapichtli did not reside in Culhuacan anymore. They were told that Acamapichtli

 There are two explanations for the split between the Mexica-Tenochca and the Mexica-Tlatelolca.
Chimalpahin (1997:109) espouses the idea that the separation took place in 1337 after the founding of
Tenochtitlan; but Ramírez (1858), in his interpretation of the Mapa Sigüenza (MNA 35-14), observes that
an earlier split occurred at Chapultepec when the Mexica were attacked by Azcapotzalco and Culhuacan.
Indeed, the Mapa Sigüenza shows that Tlatelolco already existed before the ceremonial founding of

had been adopted by Illancueitl, a young widow of the previous ruler of Culhuacan. Since
Illancueitl was infertile and had never born a royal child, she had been expelled and
returned to live with her brother, the ruler of Coatlinchan, an important city of the
powerful Acolhua confederation. The Tenochca leaders went to Coatlinchan and
respectfully asked its ruler for the child. The ruler replied that he needed to consult with
his sister who regarded that child as her son. Although Acamapichtli was a high-status
noble, since his mother was the daughter of a former ruler of Culhuacan, he was still far
removed from any opportunity of succession in that confederation. While in Coatlinchan,
he was a long-term guest, tolerated for being the adopted child of the ruler’s sister.
Therefore, Illancueitl and the ruler of Coatlinchan saw a political opportunity to establish
an outpost of the Acolhua confederation on a tiny island, close to their rival
Azcapotzalco. They agreed to give Acamapichtli to the Tenochca, but they also had to
take Illancueitl as his wife and thus “queen” of Tenochtitlan. In transitioning from
adoptive mother to spouse of Acamapichtli, Illancueitl became the primary wife of a ruler
with blood ties to the house of Culhuacan. Although likely unrecognized at the time, this
event was a master stroke for everyone involved. First, the Mexica-Tenochca obtained
everything they wanted and more: a male grandson of a former ruler of Culhuacan
(probably the cousin or nephew of the extant tlatoani) as ruler. With this they renewed
their kinship allegiance with the Culhua confederation. In addition, they were given a
politically savvy and mature Acolhua princess, creating a political bond with Coatlinchan
and thus with Texcoco (Gillespie 1989). Perhaps the biggest winner was Illancueitl, the
repudiated wife of the former lord of Culhuacan. Indeed, Illancueitl had been educated in
the royal courts of the Acolhuacan confederation to be the primary wife and mother of
powerful rulers. She had partially attained that goal by marrying a Culhua tlatoani, but
then lost it due to her infertility. Unexpectedly, she was presented with a second
opportunity to be a ruler’s wife, and she seized it through her adopted child,
Acamapichtli. Notably, the Tepanec confederation did not foresee any danger in these
arrangements, underscoring how unimportant the Mexica-Tenochca probably were in the
larger political maneuverings of the confederations of the Basin of Mexico.

Acampichtli provided a key element for all future rulers of Mexico-Tenochtitlan; all
could tie themselves to a prestigious genealogy with Toltec heritage. Illancueitl also
provided something even more valuable: political training for an entire generation of
future Tenochca rulers, all of whom would build the Aztec empire. Since Illancueitl was
barren, the Tenocha believed they would be able to manipulate the offspring of
Acampichtli by giving him wives drawn from their 13 leading tribal houses. Illancueitl
refused to be sidelined and outmaneuvered the Tenochca, since her first action was to
have Acamapichtli procreate a son with a slave woman from Azcapotzalco. This event
was scandalous and infuriated the Mexica-Tenochca, and it also provided Illancueitl a
baby that she could raise without the intervention of the Tenocha leaders and their
calpulli. The first born child of Acampichtli was Itzcoatl, and he was educated as
Illancueitl’s child. Itzcoatl would eventually become the fourth tlatoani of Tenochtitlan
and was the revolutionary leader who defeated Azcapotzalco and seized its confederation.
Itzcoal became the first emperor or huey tlatoani of the Aztec empire. In addition,
Illancueitl also demanded that all the children procreated by Acamapichtli were to be
removed from their Tenochca mothers as soon as they were born and given to her.

Illancueitl took charge of their political education and taught them the complex politics of
native diplomacy. In practice, this created an upper echelon of Culhua-Mexica nobles
ideologically distanced from the tribal leaders and the Mexica commoners.

When Acamapichtli died, his second son Huitzilihuitl was installed as ruler in 1391. For
him, the Mexica-Tenochca decided to make marriage alliances with three ruling linages:
Azcapotzalco and Tacuba, both powerful cities of the Tepanec confederation, and with
Quauhnahuac (Cuernavaca). From these marriages two future rulers of Tenochtitlan were
born: 1) Chimalpopoca, the grandson of the lord of Azcapotzalco; and 2) Moctezuma
Ilhuicamina (or Moctezuma I), the grandson of the ruler of Cuernavaca. Huitzilihuitl was
a great negotiator and managed to maintain stable relations with all the confederations.
His most important accomplishment was to increase the status of Tenochtitlan within the
Tepanec confederation by marrying the daughter of the ruler of Azcapotzalco. In due
time, his son Chimalpopoca might have been eligible to be a member of the great council
of the Tepanec confederation, although this did not occur. Had the potential of
Chimalpopoca materialized, Tenochtitlan would have become just another Tepanec city
forever subordinated to Azcapotzalco. But a number of historical events led Tenochtitlan
down a different path. When Huitzilihuitl died his son Chimalpopoca became ruler of
Tenochtitlan sometime after AD 1415, albeit at a very young age. As a result, the ruling
council of Mexico-Tenochtitlan was dominated by his older uncles and cousins, who
were attached to the ruling house of Culhuacan and also tied to the Acolhuacan
confederation through their link to the city of Coatlinchan. Itzcoatl, the first son of
Acamapichtli, was then military leader of the council of Tenochtitlan. He, together with
his nephews, Tlacaelel, Moctezuma Ihuicamina, and Nezahualcoyotl, pushed for a more
confrontational relationship with Azcapotzalco. This infuriated the Tepanec rulers who
began to take steps to punish the Mexica-Tenochca. In a typical situation the ruling
council of Mexico-Tenochtitlan would have been purged, eliminating its Culhua nobility,
but the Tepanecas did not have the opportunity to accomplish this. In 1426 Tezozomoc,
the old ruler of Aztacapotzalco and leader of the Tepanec confederation, died. A war of
succession erupted between the rulers of Tacuba and Coyoacan. Maxtlatl, the ruler of
Coyoacan, seized power and implemented a policy of terror including systematic
assassination of political rivals. This weakened the Tepanec confederation. Quite
mysteriously, at this exact moment the ruler of Tenochtitlan, Chimalpopoca, and ruler of
Tlatelolco, Tlacateotzin, were both murdered. Supposedly Maxtlatl ordered their
assassination, but it is also possible that the real perpetrators of this crime were members
of the Colhua nobility of Tenochtitlan led by Itzcoatl.

Regardless of who was behind the assassination of Chimalpopoca, Maxtlatl received the
blame. Open war was now inevitable and justified according to native rules of
engagement. Itzcoatl, the offspring of Acamapichtli with a slave woman, reared and
educated by the noble woman Illancueitl, became the fourth tlatoani of Tenochtitlan in
AD 1427. The Mexica-Tenochca managed to gain the support of the Acolhua
confederation led by Texcoco in their fight against Azcapotzalco. In addition they also
attracted a large faction of Tepanec cities associated with Tacuba. This reduced
considerably the cohesion and fighting capacity of the Tepanec confederation. And last,
but not least, they secured the neutrality of the Culhua, Chalca and Xochimilca

confederations (Durán 1984). This was particularly important for the population of the
island, who needed access to ports to buy food. The population of the island was
becoming too large to support itself by foraging for lake resources.

War spread throughout the western side of the Basin of Mexico; Tacuba provided
beachheads from where Azcapotzalco was attacked. By AD 1428 the city of
Azcapotzalco was taken by the Aztecs and Maxtlatl retreated to Coyoacan. The battles
continued until AD 1431 when Coyoacan was taken at night. The Tepanec ruler Maxtlatl
escaped through the mountains to Tlachco (probably Taxco, Guerrero) and never returned
to the Basin of Mexico. The Triple Alliance or Aztec Empire won their first war and at
the same time inherited the rights of domination over all the places conquered previously
by Azcapotzalco. After four years of war, Tenochtitlan went from being a mediocre city
on the western side of the brackish Lake Texcoco to a city equal in stature to Texcoco
and Tacuba. In a couple of decades it surpassed its two partners in demographic size and
political relevance. After his death, Itzcoatl was succeeded by his nephew Moctezuma
Ihuicamina (AD 1440-1468), then by his three grandsons Axayacatl (AD 1468-1481),
Tizoc (AD 1481-1486) and Ahuitzotl (AD 1486-1502). Moctezuma Xocoyotzin (AD
1502-1520), Itzcoatl’s great grandson was the last Aztec emperor who extended the
boundaries of the empire and beautified the imperial capital before the arrival of the
Spanish conquistadors. He then became a key player in the fall of his own city and
empire. The last two rulers of Tenochtitlan, Cuitlahuac (AD 1520) and Cuauhtemoc (AD
1520-1525) were great grandsons of Itzcoatl too, but their role in history was to defend
the city until it was impossible to resist the combined assault of Spaniards, Old World
diseases, and the armies of its former native enemies.

The Aztec Tributary System
Before the Aztecs coalesced into an empire, the typical tributary organization of the
Postclassic period was structured at the local level, where each segment (calpulli or
tlaxilacalli) of a political unit had at least one tequitlato who was a local officer in charge
of organizing all things related to tribute (Velasco 1562:30). This tequitlato was
responsible for allocating and collecting the tribute owed by each tributary unit, usually
defined as a composite group of houses and co-residents. Tribute was paid in goods
(tlacalaquilli) or in labor (coatequitl) based on lists of tributaries. Once the Aztecs began
a successful program of political expansion, they created a network of political operators
and tribute collectors to oversee compliance by local lords to their demands (Kobayashi
1993:53). Imperial governors and native tribute collectors (calpixque) operated with
autonomy, living in the provinces with their family and a few retainers (Durán 1994:181).

Based on the tributary data of the Aztec empire as reported in the Información de 1554
(Scholes and Adams 1957; Borah and Cook 1963; Rojas 1997), I present a map of the
financial, ideological, and political organization of the empire based on the memory of
native tribute collectors. My first goal is to provide an acceptable proxy of the total Aztec
tributary revenue on the eve of the Spanish Conquest. The Información de 1554 is the
only tributary tally that provides exchange rates for tribute goods based on items of native
cloth (mantas) at the time of the Conquest, as well as their exchange rates three decades

later (Rojas 1997:47-88). This provides the unique opportunity to standardize all the
various types of tributary goods into one abstract unit based on mantas and capture a
broad picture of the Aztec empire.4

When the proper conversions are applied to all items, province by province, the total
amount of tribute paid to the Aztecs is estimated to be some 652,246 items of cloth per
year. This is a conservative figure, since I am using the lowest exchange rate offered in
the testimony of the tribute collectors. According to these estimates, the tributary
province of Tochtepec in the Gulf of Mexico contributed the largest share of tribute to the
Aztec system with a figure of 99,000 mantas every year. This large amount highlights the
great value the Aztecs placed on multicolor feathers and strings of jade beads provided by
this province. Tochtepec contributed 15.3% of the total of all tribute paid to the Aztecs.
In contrast, Yoaltepec, in western Oaxaca, provided the least amount of tribute, the
equivalent of only 2,025 mantas per year (0.3%). Between these extremes, the average
tribute of the 39 provinces was 16,724 mantas, but given the wide gap between the
minimum and maximum contributions, the standard deviation was 16,862 mantas.
Removing the outlier cases, the median tributary contribution can be estimated at 11,115

 The Información de 1554 does not make reference to the provinces of Malinalco, Xocotitlan and
Tlatelolco, which were mentioned in the Codex Mendoza, while the Infomación de 1554 does mention
Apan as a province but not the Codex Mendoza. Since in this section I attempt to present the broad picture
of what the Aztec empire consisted of according to the tribute information, I have therefore included in my
estimate of its total revenue all of the tribute from 39 provinces, which would include the records of
Malinalco, Xocotitlan and Tlaltelco from the Codex Mendoza, as well as Apan.

Table 1. Estimated value of the tribute paid by each province standardized in mantas.
Map ID      Province                Total no. of mantas      % of total tribute           Cumulative Percentage
         30 Tochtepec                                99715                         15.3                       15.3
         37 Atlan                                    45000                          6.9                       22.2
         19 Tepecuacuilco                            36540                          5.6                       27.8
         20 Cihuatlan                                36000                          5.5                       33.3
         33 Cuetlaxtla                               30020                          4.6                       37.9
         36 Tochpan                                  26510                          4.1                       42.0
          2 Petlacalco                               24725                          3.8                       45.8
          3 Acolhuacan                               24513                          3.8                       49.5
         39 Oxitipa                                  24090                          3.7                       53.2
         27 Coixtlahuaca                             23450                          3.6                       56.8
         35 Tlatlauhquitepec                         21015                          3.2                       60.0
          4 Quauhnauac                               20443                          3.1                       63.2
          5 Huaxtepec                                19383                          3.0                       66.1
         11 Xilotepec                                15297                          2.3                       68.5
         18 Apan                                     14844                          2.3                       70.8
         10 Atotonilco de Pedraza                    13100                          2.0                       72.8
         34 Tlapacoyan                               12900                          2.0                       74.7
         31 Xoconochco                               12660                          1.9                       76.7
         21 Tlapan                                   12080                          1.9                       78.5
         12 Quahuacan                                11115                          1.7                       80.2
         38 Tzicoac                                  10725                          1.6                       81.9
          1 Tlatelolco                                9869                          1.5                       83.4
         17 Tlachco                                   9634                          1.5                       84.9
         13 Tolocan                                   9551                          1.5                       86.3
         14 Ocuilan                                   8643                          1.3                       87.7
         32 Quauhtochco                               8600                          1.3                       89.0
         29 Tlachquiauco                              7565                          1.2                       90.1
         26 Tepeacac                                  7501                          1.2                       91.3
          9 Hueypochtlan                              7170                          1.1                       92.4
          7 Axocopan                                  7155                          1.1                       93.5
         28 Coyolapan                                 6825                          1.0                       94.5
          8 Atotonilco el Grande                      6711                          1.0                       95.6
         25 Chalco                                    6625                          1.0                       96.6
         22 Tlacozautitlan                            6465                          1.0                       97.6
          6 Quauhtitlan                               5065                          0.8                       98.4
         15 Malinalco                                 3941                          0.6                       99.0
         23 Quiauhteopan                              2440                          0.4                       99.3
         16 Xocotitlan                                2339                          0.4                       99.7
         24 Yoaltepec                                 2025                          0.3                      100.0
            Total                                   652246                        100.0

When the data on the quantity of mantas paid by each province per year is grouped more
broadly into a range of 10,000 items of cloth (Table 2), it is easier to distinguish skewing
of the data. That is, the majority of the provinces (18) contributed the equivalent of
10,000 mantas or less, while only five provinces contributed 30,000 or more mantas. The
tributary capacity of these classes varies considerably and presents a skewed distribution
(Chart 1), since the four provinces paying 30,000 or more mantas (Tochtepec, Atlan,
Tepecuacuilco, Cihuatlan and Cuetaxtla) contributed 33.3% percent of the total yearly
Aztec revenue; while the 18 provinces paying 10,000 mantas or less contributed only
18.1% of the total tribute received by the Aztecs. To put it in a slightly different way,
there were half a dozen giant provinces paying a lot of tribute (42%), and there were a
dozen small provinces at the opposite end of the scale providing only 9.9% of the total

Table 2                    Number of provinces in the          Percentage of tribute by
Classes                    class                               class
0-10,000                                                  18                           18.1
10,000-20,000                                              9                           21.9
20,000-30,000                                              7                           26.7
30,000 or more mantas                                      5                           33.3

Chart 1

The spatial distribution of the tributary revenue is also insightful. I have mapped the
tributary participations of each province in Figure 1. The location of each dot on this map
represents the geographic position of the primary settlement in each province, and the
Aztec tribute collectors were usually stationed in these provincial capitals. The Aztec
tributary province is an artifice used to control the tribute of more than 400 altepetl or

native political units (Barlow 1949:4), but nobody knows whether the various altepetl had
distinct identities within this bureaucratic arrangement.

As presented in this map (Figure 1), the Aztec tributary system was affected by distance
from Tenochtitlan, and the number of subject provinces declined as the capacity to
exercise political and ideological control waned over increased distances (Table 2).
Specific historical adaptation can be inferred in the logistics of the system, since the total
amount of tribute does not decrease similarly with spatial remoteness. Indeed, four of the
largest provinces are located furthest away from Tenochtitlan. Even though there were 26
provinces within a distance of 200 km from Tenochtitlan, contributing 54% of the tribute
(351,981 mantas), another 11 provinces located beyond the radius of 200 km provided
46% of the total revenue (300,265 mantas). This indicates that the provinces closer to
Tenochtitlan were supporting its staple finance in grains (Brumfiel 1980, Kobayashi
1993:36) and in bulky mantas needed to maintain the liquidity of the exchange system of
the Aztec economy (Hicks 1994; Gutierrez in press). In contrast, the primary wealth
finance needed to support the sumptuous ideological and political life of the Aztecs was
coming from the exterior provinces located in the tropical coasts or in mountainous
regions with abundant metamorphic rocks. This tribute was not as heavy or bulky while
offering great exchange value in the market system, as well as high desirability in the
political and religious realms: gold, cacao, feathers, and precious stones (see also maps in
Berdan 1992:67-77).

Table 2.
Distace from Tenochtitlan   Provinces          Number of cloaks      Percentage of cloaks
0 -100 km.                                17                203775                      31.2
100-200 km.                                9                148206                      22.7
200-300 km.                                9                145065                      22.0
More than 300 km.                          4                155200                      24.0
Total                                     39                652246                          100

Figure 1. Map showing the spatial distribution of Aztec tribute converted into individual items of cloth
(mantas). The axes radiate out from Tenochtitlan and have as their center the juncture of the old Tacuba
and Iztapalapa roads (the corner of Guatemala and Argentina streets today) and are tilted approximately 8°
to true north, as is the general layout of Mexico City’s downtown area.

So far, I have provided the most general framework of the financial capabilities of the
Aztec tributary system based on the conversion of all the tribute in kind (tlacalaquilli)
into a single abstract unit of exchange represented by mantas. This representation does
not take into account tribute in labor (coatequitl) given to the empire. Nor have I
addressed the impact of ideological practices associated with each type of tribute (Berdan
et al. 1992). What this map provides is a generalization to help us understand the
structure within which the actors took decisions. This in turn provides the opportunity to
identify some limits in the imperial practice of tribute collection and its impact on the
larger ideological, political, and economic realms of Postclassic Mesoamerica. The
cyclical concentration of tributary wealth during each of the four tributary festivals of the
year, and its subsequent ritual and political consumption had direct and indirect effects
throughout Mesoamerica. A large tribute component was siphoned from a radius of 400
km around Tenochtitlan, ending up in the Basin of Mexico. This constantly depleted the
Aztec hinterland of staples and wealth, creating artificial scarcity. For example, in the
case of Quauhnauac, Smith (1994; Model 2) has estimated that the Aztecs appropriated

around 40% of the total tribute collected by that province (the local lords still retained
60% of the regional tribute). At the other end of the system, the flow of resources, as
exemplified in enormous quantities and great diversity of goods, subsidized the urban
population of the Basin of Mexico. Ideological practices were designated to absorb any
excess supply of tribute, especially through destruction of vast quantities of goods in
lavish rituals and feasting, as well as in calculated gift-giving and the assignment of war
prizes to valiant warriors. In spite of these mechanisms and the supposed imposition of
rigid etiquette prohibitions for the display of wealth (Durán 1994:208), tributary goods
were widely traded in the marketplaces and made Tenochtitlan, Texcoco and Tacuba
splendid and wealthy cities (Bernal 1986:171-172).5

Beyond the economics, native tribute has an important ideological dimension, since its
social practice institutionalized the subordination of one group to another. The fact that a
tributary relation could begin by merely requesting a seemingly inconsequential gift was
a practice recognized by all Mesoamerican people. Once the first “gift” was requested,
there were only two options: 1) to give it and thus accept a subordinate tributary position
made permanent by scheduling the delivery of subsequent gifts at regular intervals of the
calendrical cycle; or 2) to reject the request as an insult and proceed to mobilize the
resources of the political entity to go to war against the petitioner.

As Durán (1994:197) relates, eccentricities in tributary demands were actually devised to
humiliate and punish recalcitrant adversaries, although he also describes how important
“quirky” tribute items were to the ritual life of the empire. In his chapter on Aztec tribute,
in addition to mentioning “normal” tribute goods painted in the Codex Mendoza and the
Matrícula de Tributos, he also describes in detail the tribute paid in live animals of all
kinds, from fleas to jaguars (Durán 1994: 202-207). Birds and marine animals were
greatly appreciated, as well as all types of snakes. Aztecs put a high price on animals that
presented strange mutations, especially those with unusual coloring. Notably, these
exotic tributary items ended up in the ritual caches of the main temple at Tenochtitlan
(López Lujan 20xx). These items highlight the ideological role of tribute, since according
to Durán: “The purpose of this tribute was to show the magnificence and authority of the
Aztec nation and so the Aztecs would be held to be Lords of All Created Things, upon
the waters as well as upon the earth” (Durán 1994: 205).

The tribute system was certainly critical for the economic vitality of the city, but so was
the trade system which operated in parallel to tributary institutions, and surpassed them,
since Mexica long-distance traders ventured beyond regions under actual imperial
control. Berdan (1994:306) and Hassig (1985:109) have found that although most of the
tribute items were locally produced with regionally available resources, some Aztec

  See Berdan (1992:63-64) for a discussion regarding the unsolved problem of who was the recipient of all
this tribute (Tenochtitlan, Texcoco or Tacuba). I support the position that these late imperial tallies
represent the composite tribute revenue shared by the three confederate partners of the Aztec empire
(perhaps following the popular proportions of 2/5 for Tenochtitlan, 2/5 for Texcoco and 1/5 for Tacuba). If
such were not the case and in the future we find evidence that all of this tribute belonged only to
Tenochtitlan, then we have to reconstruct an Aztec tributary system two or three times larger than what is
presented here. I have reservations about a tributary system of this size (something on the order of
2,000,000 mantas per year).

tributary demands forced the local calpixque to acquire materials outside of their
province. Thus, the local calpixque had to engage in trade and market exchange to obtain
rare products, like precious stones and exotic bird feathers, as well as popular items used
as mediums of exchange, like cacao. An unintended outcome of these tributary demands
was likely the emergence of new marketplaces all over the empire and ports of trade in
areas that were not under the political domination of the Aztecs (Chapman 1957; Hirth

Mexico-Tenochtitlan Ideological Template
Archaeologists have found material evidence of earlier human activities on the island
where Tenochtitlan was founded, but this is not surprising since the Basin of Mexico has
seen human occupation since at least 8,000 BC. (Smith; others). Regardless of the
minimal traces of intermittent previous occupations on the island, Tenochtitlan and
Tlaltelolco started as entirely new settlements that did not have to adapt to the rigidity of
previous urban forms. Since Tenochtitlan militarily subjugated Tlateloco in 1473, the
name of the former has achieved primacy; nonetheless, the existence of Tlatelolco is
important in any discussion of Tenochitlan. The urban space of both cities not only
coalesced as they expanded over several small islets, creating a large semi-artificial
island, but the urban duality endured throughout the entire history of the Mexica people.
These twin cities were each planned with their own cosmological layout, and the
organization of space responded primarily to negotiations between the two groups in the
appropriation and allocation of the scarce land of the swampy terrain and micro-

The founding of Tenochtitlan was embedded within an elaborate rituality that involved
finding the “right place” for the future settlement and the performance of specific
ceremonies for taking possession of the land. The Mexica practice of place-making began
before the foundation of the altepetl of Tenochtitlan by invoking memories of an actual or
mythical migration full of significant incidents. During their spatial and temporal
movements, they became familiar with and appropriated the landscape by assigning place
names to geographic locations, by warring or merging with pre-existing inhabitants, and
by learning about local resources. Sacred points on the landscape of their new home
needed to fit within the narrative of ancient prophesies and previous foundation events.
Visual elements like the “bent-shape” mountain, the cave, the V-shaped crag providing
access to a mountain range, and clear spring waters had to be present to fulfill mythic
parameters. However, the potential location for any new settlement also required a sense
of sacredness. A place is perceived as sacred by the occurrence of extraordinary and
supernatural events, which are interpreted as propitious omens. Many suitable foundation
locations were discarded or abandoned if bad omens occurred, like the sudden falling of
trees or a sudden dispute between tribal factions. For the Mexica the prodigious sight of
the eagle atop the cactus sprouting from the heart of the god Copil (Huitzlopochtli’s
nephew) marked the holiness of the place selected as the foundational node and cosmic
axis of the new city.6 In Nahuatl this sacred place is referred as altepeyolloco or the
“kidney” of the city, referencing its central religious district. The Tenochca god carriers

    The original place name of that spot was Atlihtic (Codex Chimalpahin Vol 1, pp. 179).

(teomama) initially built three elements as part of the foundation of their altepetl and to
legitimize their taking possession of the land: 1) a ball court, 2) an earthen mound and on
top of it 3) an earthen altar. The mound was built at the edge of two natural caves, which
were later buried under subsequent construction stages. In their explorations in the main
temple of Mexico-Tenochtitlan, archaeologists could not corroborate the existence of
such caves, but from other Mesoamerican examples, the presence of an artificial or
natural cave is a requisite for the founding of a new altepetl. The best known case is that
of the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan, where the enormous mass of the pyramid was
constructed over a cave. Since many tribal gods were perhaps deified ancestors, the
vertical axis created by the underworld cave and the main temple projecting into the sky
was the ideal meeting point for the cult of the ancestors: the place where the living could
communicate spiritually with ancient founding fathers.

For Mexico-Tenochtitlan, the first temple was poorly built, using only the materials at
hand, reeds and clay, since there is a lack of rocks in the lake. A cosmic axis was laid out
with an azimuth of some 8 degrees, and the city was divided in four quarters: Moyotlan
(South-West), Teopan (South-East), Atzacualco (North-East) and Cuepopan (North-
West). From this humble first temple, each Mexica ruler committed to enlarging it,
however, that depended on the political fortunes of each ruler. Tlatelolco has a similar
layout, but shows more organic growth than Tenochtitlan, perhaps indicating that
Tlatelolco could not re-organize the space of its main temple after the Tenocha ruler
Axayacatl defeated the Tlatelolca ruler Moquihuix in AD 1473.

During the government of Ahuitzotl, the eighth tlatoani of Tenochtitlan (AD 1486-1502),
the Aztec capital acquired a more stable layout and operation. The Great Temple was
expanded and the religious district became an enormous complex known as the sacred
precinct of Mexico-Tenochtitlan. This was the symbolic heart of the Aztec empire,
grouping at least 78 specialized buildings, temples, and shrines (Sahagún 1989). A wall
on all four sides surrounded the whole complex, embracing an area of some 14 ha. The
sacred area could only be entered through four gates oriented to the cardinal directions, as
were the great causeways which led out of the city. One of these causeways went north to
Tepeyac, another led to Iztapalapa in the south, and the third to Tlacopan (Tacuba) in the
west. The fourth road left the city center and went east to the lake and aligns with the
Tlaloc Mountain 46 km to the east. Cortés recorded that the causeway to Iztapalapa was
as wide as two lances, so that eight horses could ride side-by-side along its entire length.

Tenochtitlan was a symbolically planned city, following the template of the native
cosmic map, as is clearly depicted in the first plate of the Codex Mendoza. Although
Mexican archaeologists daily find more and better information on the nature and
organization of the sacred precinct (Matos 2003, 1987), we still have a sketchy plan of its
former self. The main temple is the best understood construction in this precinct. For
many decades archaeologists and historians debated its location; many believed that it
was under the modern Cathedral of Mexico City. The debate ended in 1913 when Manuel
Gamio located its southwest corner at Seminario Street. For almost 70 years there was no
further exploration of the Great Temple and its sacred precinct, although Mateos Higuera
created a useful map pinpointing the location of Aztec sculptures uncovered during

constructions in Mexico City, providing a better idea of the extent of the sacred precinct.
Ignacio Marquina also stands out for his ambitious artistic reconstructions of the ritual
precinct. On February 21, 1978, workers from the Electric Light Company were digging
at the corner of Guatemala and Argentina Streets and discovered a large stone carved
with a series of reliefs. Excavations on the spot revealed an enormous monolith 3.25 m,
or over 10 feet, in diameter, with a representation of a decapitated and dismembered
female nude carved in relief. This was a depiction of the goddess Coyolxauhqui who,
according to Aztec myth, had been killed by her brother, the war-god Huitzilopochtli.
The discovery of the Coyolxauhqui stone led the authorities to order further work to
expose this central area of Tenochtitlan.

Over a six year period, Mexican archaeologists led by Eduardo Matos Moctezuma
uncovered the material remains of seven construction phases of the Great Temple of
Tenochtitlan. Stage I was the sanctuary built by the Aztecs when they first arrived in
Tenochtitlan in AD 1325; this stage is known only from historical sources because it was
impossible to excavate below the Stage II pyramid owing to the high subsoil water level.
Stage II survived in excellent condition and has provided the best information on the
religious ideology of the Mexica people. The temple of Stage II was more a high platform
than a pyramid. Nonetheless, it contains all the prototypical elements of the later stages.
This temple was crowned by two shrines dedicated to the gods Tlaloc (north) and
Huitzilopochtli (south). Each shrine had a sculpture associated with these deities. In front
of the shrine of Tlaloc, there was a “chac-mool” (a representation of a man lying on this
back with a receptacle resting on his abdomen, which is thought to have held a sacrificed
individual’s heart and blood). Before the shrine of Huitzilopchtli there was a blocky stone
called a techcatl, upon which many were sacrificed in honor of that god. The two shrines
faced west. The temple has two stairways from the base to the summit. It is believed that
Stage II corresponds to the reigns of either Acamapichtli, Huitzilihuitl, or Chimalpopoca,
that is, before AD 1428 (the year of Aztec independence from Azcapotzalco).

Little can be said about Stage III since only the plain pyramidal base, without adornment
or surmounting structures, has survived. The double stairways are well made. Eight
tezontle sculptures of standard-bearers were found leaning against the steps near the base
of the stairway leading to the Huitzilopochtli shrine. On the back wall of the pyramidal
body of the Great Temple, at the base of the side devoted to Huitzilopochtli, there is a
stone carved with the calendrical glyph “4 Reed.” This probably references the date AD
1431, which would place this construction stage in the reign of Itzcoatl (AD 1426-1440).

The architecture and sculptures of Stage IV are the most spectacular of the Great Temple.
The pyramidal base was enlarged and adorned with braziers and serpent heads on all four
sides. Stage IVb is labeled as such because it designates a partial enlargement of the
Temple: the main facade, on the west side, was amplified and adorned with undulating
serpent bodies wrapping around the corners and terminating in snake heads. In the middle
of Huitzilopochtli’s side, at the foot of the stairway, Coyolxauhqui’s dismembered body
is preserved in low-relief carved on a huge stone. A stone plaque bearing the glyph “1
Rabbit” was found and is believed to be equivalent to AD 1454. Chronologically,

therefore, it seems that Stage IV corresponds to the reign of Motecuhzoma I (AD 1440-
1468). Little has survived from Stages V and VI. What has been uncovered is stucco
plaster on the platform, and part of the floor of the ceremonial precinct, the latter formed
by stone slabs joined by stucco. Stage VII of the Great Temple was seen by the Spaniards
at the beginning of the sixteenth century. All that remains of this period is a section of
stone flooring in the ceremonial precinct.

Mexico-Tenochtitlan Urban Infrastructure
At the founding of the city, the Mexica-Tenochca were organized into 14 calpulli that
spatially materialized as 14 districts or modules. This was an increase of seven new
calpulli with respect to the original seven calpulli described in the migratory narrative.
Since the numeric order in which the segments are mentioned in the sources reveals their
relative status, it is interesting to note how some migratory calpulli lost status when the
altepetl Mexico-Tenochtitlan was created. The most reveling case is Yopico, originally
listed as the first calpulli during the migration only to be displaced to fifth position during
the city’s foundation.

Table 3. List of founding calpulli of Tenochtitlan.

Calpulli #01: Tlacochcalca (Migratory Calpulli #02)
Calpulli #02: Cihuatecpan (Migratory Calpulli #04)
Calpulli #03: Huitznahuac (Migratory Calpulli #03)
Calpulli #04: Tlacatecpan (Migratory Calpulli #06)
Calpulli #05: Yopica (Migratory Calpulli #01)
Calpulli #06: Tezcacoac
Calpulli #07: Tlamatzinco
Calpulli #08: Molloco Itlillan
Calpulli #09: Chalmeca (Migratory Calpulli #05)
Calpulli #10: Tzonmolco
Calpulli #11: Coatlan
Calpulli #12: Izquitlan (Migratory Calpulli #07)
Calpulli #13: Milnahuac
Calpulli #14: Coatl Xoxouhcan

Although Tenochcas and Tlatelolcas defined themselves as part of the same people, their
different alliances after the Battle of Chapultepec in AD 1299 created distance between
them, provoking constant quarrels. The Tlaltelolcas developed a political identity related
to Azcapotzalco, and they had their own altepetl composed of 15 calpulli. Below is the
list of the names of the early leaders of these calpulli:

Calpulli #01: Atlanquahuitl
Calpulli #02: Huicton
Calpulli #03: Opochtli
Calpulli #04: Atlazol
Calpulli #05: Cuitlachquauhtli

Calpulli #06: Xochilleletzin
Calpulli #07: Cemachiquihuitl
Calpulli #08: Xomimitl
Calpulli #09: Callaomitl
Calpulli #10: Ocelopan
Calpulli #11: Iztac Michin
Calpulli #12: Cocihuatli
Calpulli #13: Poyahuitl
Calpulli #14: Xiuhcoyollatzin
Calpulli #15: Maltecatzin

If one assumes that together Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco had a total of 29 calpulli during
the colonization of the island, the original population size might have ranged between
1,450 and 2,900 people (assuming each migratory calpulli had a fluctuating population
between 50 to 100 people). When the Spaniards lived in Tenochtitlan from November of
1519, to June of 1520, they reported there were 60,000 “houses” on the island. This
figure has provoked debate on the definition of “house,” leading to some estimates of
240,000-300,000 people (4-5 people per house). Based on Calnek’s work (Calnek 1978a,
1978b, 2003), Sanders (2003) reanalyzed all the information available about the area
occupied by Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco, the size and nature of their households, and the
possible land use of each sector of the city. Based on his analysis, he proposed a more
conservative figure ranging from 120,000 to 140,000 people allocated among 69 calpulli
(49 for Tenochtitlan and 20 for Tlatelolco). The surface area of the island would have
reached some 12-13 sq km (Calnek 2003:172). If we take the figure of 2,900 individuals
as the original founders and 140,000 people as the maximum population on the eve of the
Spanish Conquest, the annual growth rate of the island’s population is estimated at 0.02
percent—the city was doubling its population every 35 years. This growth is amazing
given the high mortality rates usually associated to pre-industrial populations.

What were the factors underlying this demographic growth? Aztec society practiced
polygyny and with their military successes after the defeat of Azcapotzalco, the nobility
and warriors had access to a large pool of captive women who became concubines,
increasing the birth rates. Nonetheless, given the typically high mortality rates of
preindustrial societies (Davis [1965] 1999:7), it still would not have been possible for
Tenochtitlan to have become such a large city by natural growth, regardless of polygnous
marriage patterns. This growth must have been amplified by a steady flow of immigrants
from outside the island. Population movements were likely driven by factors associated
with the expansion of the empire and probably came from the nearby settlements of the
Basin of Mexico. In one example of expansion from Cortés, he relates how the Mexica
forced the rulers of all subject polities to send and maintain permanently a son or close
relative to live in Tenochtitlan. This policy would have resulted in at least 400 small
palaces representing conquered altepetl, adding greatly to the urban layout of the city.

The Spaniards always referred to Tenochtitlan as “another Venice,” due to the lacustrine
nature of its urbanization, with some 20 km of navigable water courses and a similar
number of raised dry roads (Sanders 2003). The romantic urban character of the city,

however, prevented Tenochtitlan from prospering initially for lack of lands to practice
agriculture. The Tenochca were forced to trade with the people living along the shores of
the lakes and in the piedmonts. Originally the inhabitants of the island specialized in the
commerce of lacustrine resources that they then exchanged with their neighbors to
acquire wood and stone. These materials were necessary for the consolidation and
expansion of what became a largely artificial island. With this trade, they were also able
to pay their tributary obligations to Azcapotzalco, who originally claimed ownership over
the island. For some 100 years, the Tepaneca confederation also used the Mexica
warriors in their wars with Texcoco and other native polities. Once the Tepanec
confederation fell, the Triple Alliance switched roles and appropriated the combined
armies of the pre-existing five confederations to expand its dominium over central

Tenochtitlan was a city in the broadest sense of the concept. Ideologically it was the most
important center of native power in Mesoamerica. It also possessed the most elaborate
religious precinct, the largest concentration of native nobility, the largest population, and
the highest density of inhabitants per square kilometer. I would argue that the most
sophisticated urban infrastructure ever developed in the New World occurred at
Tenochtitlan. The inhabitants of Tenochtitlan used a group of shallow islands in the lake
as anchors for an artificial platform of more than 12 sq km. Millions of cubic meters of
sediment were used to artificially raise this platform above the level of the lake.
According to Durán (1994:xx) this work began during the rule of Acamapichtli, but it
continued until the Spanish Conquest and, ironically, well into the Colonial period. The
chinampa system developed in the lakes of Xochimilco and Chalco was used to create the
first raised fields connecting the islands. Lines of willow trees, brush, wooden stakes, and
rocks consolidated the walls of these artificial blocks of the city. Deep canals were dug to
allow canoe navigation, thus wooden bridges were necessary to cross from one block to
another. Moving through the city of Tenochtitlan would have involved a combination of
canoes and walking through a complex network of streets and alleys connected by
hundreds of bridges. Since the bridges could be easily removed, it was possible to get
stuck in one district of the city without access to a canoe.

The most amazing projects, however, were the artificial causeways connecting the island
to the main cities on shore, the aqueduct that brought fresh water to the city, and the dikes
that regulated the level of Lake Texcoco. All these engineering projects were formidable
tasks that would have never been possible without the forced labor of the conquered
polities around the lake. The Xochimilcas were burdened with the construction of the first
causeway during the rule of Itzcoatl (Durán 1984:110). This causeway is known as
Iztapalapa Street, originally was 3 brazas wide (some 4.5 m) and some 10 km long, and
was built to resist the tides of the lake. It became the main communication route of
Tenochtitlan with its southern and eastern realms, and it had to have been widened still
more, since Cortés reported that it was as wide as the width of 8 horses. Another three
causeways were built, one to Tacuba (west), the other to Tepeyac (North), and one to the
eastern side of the island, but the sources do not specify when these were built. I would
highlight that the four causeways converged in the sacred ceremonial precinct and were

used for long religious processions, especially during the primary ceremonies of the year
when dozens of captives had to walk to their sacrifice.

The most famous hydraulic projects involved the construction of an aqueduct of 5 km in
length connecting the springs of Chapultepec to the island. An earlier version of this
project was constructed during the reign of Chimalpopoca, although the fragile wooden
structure collapsed frequently (Durán 1984:67). After Azcapotzalco was subjugated, the
aqueduct was rebuilt with stone and had two parallel canals. This was a great sanitary
improvement for the city, and it would have helped to reduce mortality rates caused by
gastrointestinal bacteria. During the reign of Ahuizotl, a second, more ambitious
aqueduct of over 6 km was constructed from Coyoacan to the city for the irrigation of
gardens and pleasure pools, but the Aztec engineers were unable to control the additional
water, and the city flooded, creating a technological disaster. In the end, the Coyoacan
aqueduct had to be disconnected from the springs. Moctezuma Ilhuicamina ordered the
construction of a 16 km dike in the middle of Lake Texcoco to regulate tidal flooding. A
second dike was built later on the eastern side of the island as a second barrier, but
regardless of these efforts, the island was prone to floods and the Mexica people learned
to cope with them.

Moctezuma Xocoyotzin proudly presented his city and all the other cities in the Basin of
Mexico to Hernando Cortés from the summit of the temple of Tlatelolco. Down in the
marketplace, thousands of inhabitants from all over central Mexico were busily bartering,
trading, and exchanging. Tenochtitlan had become a cosmopolitan city, and all of its
inhabitants likely felt the same pride in living in this important city and state. Lavish
ceremonies accompanied by redistribution of resources, feasting, trade, as well as the
large construction projects that directly and indirectly involved thousands of people from
a radius of more than 300 km would have provoked a mixture of emotions from all those
subject to Tenochtitlan. Admiration, fear, and rancor are reported in multiple sources.
Apparently, the Mexica people were slow to create a social and political identity
embracing the entire empire or even the other altepetl in the Basin of Mexico. The people
of the Triple Alliance seemed to have enjoyed special privileges from being part of this
partnership, but loyalties and identities created at the level of the altepetl were never
broken, hence an imperial identity was never forged. This situation proved costly when
the Spaniards arrived in the Basin of Mexico.

Both Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco settlements were destroyed during the siege of the
island. Whatever was left standing, pyramids and stone monuments, were used as
foundation stones in the houses that were later built for the European conquerors.
Notably, the features that made Tenochtitlan an undefeatable city for their native
enemies: its size, its location in the middle of a lake, its long streets with movable
bridges, ultimately became the major weaknesses during their battles with the Spanirds.
After the conquistadors were expelled from Tenochtitlan in June of 1520, they and their
Indians allies began planning the assault on the city. This involved the latest siegecraft
techniques of the time. Cannons, firearms, lances, swords, cross-bows, and even a failed
stone-thrower catapult were used. Special brigantines were built in Tlaxcala and then
transported to Lake Texcoco. This single action gave Cortés naval superiority of the lake.

No longer was the lake a defense for the city, but instead allowed the Spanish brigantines
to fire cannons at a city lacking defensive walls. The causeways in the lake became the
roads of conquest for the Spanish-Tlaxcala forces. The aqueduct was broken and food
supplies cut off by a land and naval blockade. Suddenly the large population of
Tenochtitlan was a liability. Starving people began to flee. All of the native lords from
subject polities who had initially taken refuge on the island deserted the Mexica and
became Spanish allies. Even the cities of Texcoco and Tacuba deserted the Mexica,
ending a 90-years-old alliance. Only the Tlatelolca remained with the Tenocha. Once
again facing adversity, the people of Huitzilopochtli united to fight their last battle. At
one point, even the women and children took shields and swords and climbed to the roofs
of their homes to simulate the appearance of large army, when in reality there were not
enough warriors left to stop the last assault.

The destruction of Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco led to the creation of a new city that
emerged on the same sacred locale where the Mexica immigrants first witnessed the signs
to found their city and state. This new city, however, became the center for the Spanish
colonization of Mexico, Central America, the southern United States, and the Philippines.
The Mexica, the Tlatelolca and all the rest of the Nahuatl speaking people of central
Mexico became foot soldiers for the Spanish expeditions throughout New Spain—
another irony of history. The short lifespan and rapid emergence of Tenochtitlan and
Tlatelolco provide the unique opportunity to analyze the rise of a Native American
empire and the construction of its imperial capital. The ideology and symbolic elements
of the Triple Alliance Empire were as important as the economic factors associated with
its expansion. Tenochtitlan people endured difficult origins requiring them to adapt their
ethos to warfare, diplomacy, and trade. They were very successful and solved the primary
needs of the early city, including subsistence and construction materials—particularly the
commoners who became the traders and merchants. The Tenocha exploited opportunities
which other more established groups of Mesoamerica did not recognize. An ambitious
Tenochca elite was created from a combination of tribal leaders and more established
Mesoamerican ruling lineages. Although over time the elite became more distanced from
the Tenochca commoners, they never completely separated themselves. Redistribution of
tribute based on merit earned in battle helped to maintain social cohesion between the
elite and the commoners. A state-run educational system helped to consolidate a
Tenochca identity for those who lived in the imperial city at the calpulli level. The
Tenocha relationship with their provinces however, was exploitive, since they were
interested in the appropriation of wealth produced by other Mesoamerican states.
Nonetheless, they did respect regional ruling dynasties and thus minimized their impact
on local affairs. Tenochtitlan became for other Mesoamericans a place with great power
and wealth. “Culhua, Culhua, Mexico, Mexico,” were the words the Spaniards heard
when they asked the people of Tabasco for a place abundant in wealth.

Indeed, Mexico-Tenochtitlan was a place of power and wealth according to the
Spaniards, but also for the Mexica people and their conquered subjects. Mexico was the
place “where the rock nopal stands, where the eagle reposes, where it rests; where the

eagle screeches, where it whistles; where the eagle stretches, where it is joyful; where the
eagle devours, where it gluts; where the serpent hisses, where the fishes swim, where the
blue waters join with the yellow, where the waters are afire-there at the navel of the
waters, where the waters go in; where the sedge and the reed whisper; where the white
water snakes live, where the white frog lives; where the white cypress stands, where the
most precious white willow stands” (Codex Chimalpahin 1997:27).

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