Aztecs: Social Structure and Government

In Aztec culture, as in most other civilizations, the family unit was very important. There were several levels of organization in Aztec family life beginning with the base family unit. The base family unit consisted of two parents and their unmarried children. The main functions of the base family unit were education of the children and food preparation. Many base family units, however, banded together to form extended families. The households of extended families were usually composed of several brothers and their families. The primary functions of the extended families were to coordinate land use and food production (such as growing crops). In most cases, extended families contained just a few base family units. In large cities, however, they often grew to many more.

Although extended families farmed the land, they usually did not own it. They were allowed to use it by the calpulli to which they belonged. Calpulli were groups of families that controlled the use of the land and performed other territorial functions, as well as social ones. The majority of calpulli had atelpuchcalli, a school for young men. Another function of the calpulli was a taxation unit. The empire collected taxes from each calpulli, which in turn collected taxes from its member families.

Most rural calpulli were based on lineage. In other words, the members of a rural calpulli believed that they were descended from a common ancestor. In the cities, the calpulli were based more on geographical, political, and occupational similarities than lineage. In both cases, calpulli were tightly knit and sometimes were even somewhat isolated from other calpulli, both politically and physically.

In urban areas such as Tenochtitlan the wisest and most powerful leaders of each calpulli constituted a city council. These leaders in turn selected four main members. One of these prime members was selected to be the tlatoani, or leader, of the city. Thus, the Aztec cities had a multi-leveled semi-democratic system of government. It should be noted, however, that the leaders of Tenochtitlan (who were also the rulers of the entire empire) were selected on an almost hereditary basis.

Below the ruler on the socio-economic scale were the nobles—the priests, the career warriors, and the administrators (such as tax collectors). Even further down on the success ladder were the plain soldiers, common farmers, and slaves. Aztecs condoned slavery as a punishment for severe crimes, but even slaves had some rights. For one, their families and offspring remained free. In addition, if a slave found time to do other work on the side, freedom could be bought—for a price. A special class, the pochteca existed below the nobles but above the commoners. They were separate from the other classes and had many other rights and privileges.

Although every citizen of the empire belonged to a class from birth, it was possible to change one's place in society. Serious crimes were often punished with temporary or permanent slavery, and nobles were no exception. In fact, nobles were held to an even higher standard than the commoners, due to the belief that it was the nobles' duty to provide a good example for the rest of the empire's citizens. On the other hand, good deeds such as valor in battle were rewarded, and many soldiers who proved themselves in battle were admitted into one of the privileged military orders.

Once Tenochtitlan became the empire's principal city, its ruler became the undisputed sovereign of the entire empire and was given the title Huey Tlatoani. Over time, a belief formed that the Huey Tlatoani was a descendant of the gods, and thus he was considered almost divine. He fulfilled the duties of the chief executive, the commander-in-chief, and the chief priest. He was simultaneously the empire's main administrative, military, and religious leader. The emperor's power was supreme.

Below is a list of all the Aztec Great Speakers (emperors), the English translations of their names, and the dates they served.
Greyhaired One
- ? -
Smoky Shield
Serpent of Obsidian
Moctezuma I
The Valiant One
Face of Water
Ill Leg
Man of Water
Moctezuma II
The Valiant One
- ? -
He who decends like an eagle
Information from: