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The Aztec Account of the Spanish Conquest of Mexico
 
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 The Aztec Empire

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PostSubject: The Aztec Empire   Tue Jun 30, 2009 8:10 am

The wealth and military power of Tenochtitlan were a result of the conquests accomplished by Itzcoatl, who ruled between 1428 and 1440. He had joined with Nezahualcoyotl, king of Tezcoco, to defeat Azcapotzalco and to form the so-called "triple alliance," made up of Tenochtitlan, Tezcoco and the relatively insignificant city of Tlacopan (Tacuba).

Another important factor in the growth of Aztec power was the shrewd work of the royal counselor Tlacaelel, nephew to Itzcoatl who instituted a number of significant reforms in the tribe's political, religious, social and economic structure. As a profound student of the cultural elements inherited from the Toltecs, he made use of everything that served his purpose -but he also gave everything a special slant, for his purpose was to consolidate the strength and wealth of the city. One of the indigenous texts in the Codice Matritense describes how Itzcoatland Tlacaelel rewarded the principal Aztec chieftains with lands and titles after the victory over Azcapotzalco, and then says that the king and his adviser decided to give their people a new version of Aztec history.

The preserved an account of their history, but later it was burned, during the reign of Itzcoatl. The lords of Mexico decreed it, the lords of Mexico declared: "It is not fitting that our people should know these pictures. Our people, our subjects, will be lost and our land destroyed, for these pictures are full of lies....

In the new version, recorded in a number of extant documents, the Aztecs claim to be descended from the Toltec nobility, and their gods- Huitzilopochtli in particular -are raised to the same level as the ancient creative gods Tezcadipoca, and Quetzalcoatl. But most important of all is the exalted praise given to what can only be called a mystical conception of warfare, dedicating the Aztec people, the "people of the sun," to the conquest of all other nations. In part the motive was simply to extend the rule of Tenochtitlan, but the major purpose was to capture victims for sacrifice, because the source of all life, the sun, would die unless it were fed with human blood.

As a result, Huitzilopochtli ceased to be the tutelary god of a poor band of outcasts, and his rise to greatness coincided with that of the Aztecs themselves. The old Toltec prayers, most of them directed to Quetzalcoatl, were revised in his favor, and his priests composed a number of others. Since he was identified with the sun, he was called "the Giver of Life" and "the Preserver of Life." Tlacaelel did not originate the idea that Huitzilopochtli-the-Sun had to be fed the mostprecious food of all-human blood but he was unquestionably responsible for the central importance that this idea acquired in the Aztec religion.

There is good evidence that human sacrifices were performed in the Valley of Mexico before the arrival of the Aztecs, but apparently no other tribe ever performed them with such frequency. The explanation seems to be that Tlacaelel persuaded the Aztec kings (he was counselorto Motecuhzoma I and his successor Axayacatl after the death of Itzcoatl) that their mission was to extend the dominions of Huitzilopochtli so that there would be a constant supply of captives to be sacrificed. Fray Diego de Duran wrote that Itzcoatl "took only those actions which were counseled by Tlacaelel," and that he believed it was his mission "to gather together all the nations" in the service of his god. It was also Tlacaelel who suggested the building of the great main temple in Tenochtitlan, dedicated to Huitzilopochtli. Before the Spaniards destroyed it, it was the scene of innumerable sacrifices of captives, first from nearby places and later from such distant regions as Oaxaca, Chiapas and Guatemala.

The changes brought about by Tlacaelel in Aztec religious thought and ritual were his most important accomplishments, but he also reformed the judicial system, the army, the protocol of the royal court and the organization of pochtecas, or traveling merchants, and he even directed the creation of a large botanical garden in Oaxtepec, on the outskirts of Cuauhtla in the present-day state of Morelos. Despite his key role in Aztec history, Tlacaelel never consented to become king, even though the nobles offered him the throne on the death of Itzcoatl in 1440 and again on the death of Motecuhzoma I in 1469. He preferred to be the "power behind the throne," using his influence to realize what he considered to be the grand destiny of his people. He died a little before 1481, without suspecting, of course, that the magnificence and power for which he was so largely responsible would be destroyed in less than forty years. Considering the unquestionable brilliance of this unusual man, who has been seriously neglected by the historians, one is tempted to ask: What would have happened had the Spaniards arrived during his lifetime? The question is unanswerable, but at least it is an interesting topic for speculation.
To return for a moment to the conquests inspired by Tlacaelel's advice, they began, as we have seen, with the defeat of Azcapotzalco and the formation of the alliance with Tezcoco and Tlacopan. Then the Aztecs set out to conquer the other city states around the lake, and one by one Coyoacan, Cuitlahuac, Xochimilco and Chalco were forced to submit. Other states, alarmed by the Aztecs' growing power, elected to sign treaties with Tenochtitlan and to deliver it tribute. Among these was the city-state of the Tlahuicas, a people with the same language and culture as the Aztecs, in the southern part of what is now the state of Morelos.

Next the Aztecs marched eastward toward the Gulf coast, where the people of Cempoala also agreed to pay tribute. It was in Cempoala that the Spaniards later took excellent advantage of the enmity the Cempoaltecas bore toward their masters.
The succeeding phase of Aztec expansion was toward the south. Sometimes the armies arrived as conquerors, at other times in search of trade, but their constant aim was to increase the power of Tenochtitlan. They dominated the present-day states of Oaxaca and Chiapas, penetrated into Guatemala and even according to some accounts-reached the Isthmus of Panama, sending or bringing back tribute and trade goods to their capital.

The Aztecs, however, always respected the independence of their neighbors, the Tlaxcaltecas, whose state was a "confederation of four republics." There is no doubt that Tenochtitlan could have overwhelmed Tlaxcala without too much difficulty, and the reason it did not is probably that it wanted a nearby source of victims for the human sacrifices. Therefore the Aztecs maintained an almost perpetual state of war with Tlaxcala, but never actually conquered it. Also, the Aztecs seem to have regarded the frequent battles as a convenient way of testing and training their younger warriors. This situation was so hateful to the Tlaxcaltecas that when Cortes arrived they became his most loyal native allies, in the hope that with the aid of the strangers they could at last defeat their oppressors.

By 1519 the Aztecs ruled over several million human beings, who spoke a variety of languages. Their empire stretched from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf coast and from central Mexico to the present-day Republic of Guatemala. The swift growth of their wealth and power naturally resulted in significant changes in their old way of life. The incipient social classes were consolidated, and the social-political structure became so elaborate that the Spanish conquistadors found it almost as astonishing as some of the city's architectural wonders.
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