Aztec Leaders: Rulers, Supreme Ruler and the Voice of the People
A tlatoani sat at the top of the Aztec city-state hierarchical structure. He was the ruler or king of his people and was thought to speak for them. Whilst each Aztec city-state had its own tlatoani, the tlatoque of Tenochtitlan, since the establishment of the Aztec Empire in 1430, held the title ‘Huey Tlatoani’, which means ‘Great Tlatoani’, and was the supreme leader of the land.
‘Tlatoani’ (the plural being ‘tlatoque’) is the title conferred on the ruler of an Aztec altepetl (equivalent to the term ‘city-state’). This title may be translated literally from Nahuatl to mean ‘one who speaks.’ He has a number of important prerogatives, as well as responsibilities towards his people.
Acamapichtli, the first tlatoani of Tenochtitlan, as depicted in the Tovar Codex. (Public Domain)
How to be a Tlatoani
The office of tlatoani was hereditary, as it was kept within a particular lineage in each Aztec city-state. This was important, as the Aztecs believed that a tlatoani’s right to rule rested on him being from the correct lineage. Nevertheless, this office was not inherited automatically from father to son. Instead, the Aztec tlaloque were elected by a city council, and once chosen, served in this position for life. The council, however, reserved the right to remove the tlatoani, should he prove to be unworthy.
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Once elected as tlatoani, an inaugural ceremony would be performed for the new ruler. We know that the inaugural ceremony for the huey tlatoani lasted for a period of time and consisted of several different parts, each of which prepared the ruler for his new role.
As an example, the first part of the inaugural ceremony was religious in nature and involved a retreat with fasting and penitential observances. Additionally, the new huey tlatoani would make regular solemn visits to the shrine of Huitzilopochtli, incense was burnt, and a blood-letting ceremony was performed. This stage was meant to gain the approval of the gods.
A European depiction of an Aztec temple, from ‘Americae, nona et postrema pars’ (1602). () An image of Huitzilopochtli is seen in the background. (Public Domain)
By contrast, the third part of the inaugural ceremony was the ‘coronation war’, which was designed to prove the new ruler’s prowess in war. The new huey tlatoani was required to go to battle to gain tribute and to capture victims for the human sacrifice that was to be carried out during the confirmation feast. One huey tlatoani, Ahuitzotl, is recorded to have captured a total of 80,400 prisoners, certainly more than enough to prove his worth. The huey tlatoani Tizoc, on the other hand, is recorded to have captured just 40 prisoners, which indicates that he was not worthy to rule.
The Aztec ruler Ahuitzotl (here written Ahuiçuçin = Ahuitzotzin, an honorific form), in the Codex Mendoza. (Public Domain)
Indeed, military leadership was one of the most important aspects of being a tlatoani. For the Aztecs, the goal of warfare was not only to gain tribute and to expand their territory, but also to maintain the universe. The Aztecs believed that human sacrifice was necessary to sustain the gods, who in turn ensured that the universe continued to exist. The victims of these rituals were often war captives, hence bestowing a sacred nature on warfare.
Other Aspects of a Tlatoani’s Life
A tlatoani had other functions as well. For instance, these were the supreme land-owners of their city-states, or in the case of the huey tlatoani, of the empire. Additionally, they served as high priests, received tribute, and resolved judicial disagreements, amongst other things.
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Monument of Cuauhtémoc, the last tlatoani. (Juan Francisco del Valle Mojica/CC BY 2.0)
The tlatoani wielded absolute power and was regarded as a representative of the gods. Nevertheless, thanks to the well-developed hierarchical structure of the Aztecs, he was supported by many other individuals.
For instance, his ‘second-in-command’ was the cihuacoatl (meaning ‘snake woman’, though the office was always held by a man’). It was the cihuacoatl who ran the day-to-day affairs of government, which made him a powerful figure. Still, his actions required the approval of the huey tlatoani, without which the cihuacoatl’s decisions could not be carried out.
A stone statue of Cihuacoatl, as the Aztec fertility goddess. Here she emerges from the mouth of a serpent holding an ear of maize in her left hand. Discovered in Cuernavaca. Dated 1325 - 1521 AD. Owned by the Museo Nacional Antropologia. (Madman2001/CC BY 3.0)
Rounding out the huey tlatoani’s inner circle was the ‘Council of Four’, which consisted of four powerful men who were the most likely candidates to succeed as huey tlatoani. The members of the council served as advisors to the ruler.
Top Image: Representation of Cuauhtémoc, the last tlatoani. Source: Morelianas
By Wu Mingren
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