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  • Print publication year: 2014
  • Online publication date: July 2014

Chapter 5 - City-States and Imperial Rule


5 Rabbit [1458]. In this year the elder Moteuczomatzin declared war, and consequently all went to Coaixtlahuacan to fight the battles and make the conquests. At this time the great ruler Atonal was ruling there, occupying himself with tribute collection from everywhere in the coastlands.... By this time the city of Coaixtlahuacan had been captured. Then for the first time gold, quetzal plumes, rubber, cacao, and other wealth began coming in; then the Mexica began to feel cheered, thanks to the tribute goods.

Anales de Cuauhtitlan, 1570; in Bierhorst 1992: 107, 108

This chapter is about power and politics. It necessarily outlines the basic political structures of altepetl (city-states), conquest states, and the Triple Alliance Empire. Consistent with this book’s themes of complexity, variation, and dynamics, this chapter focuses on the diverse bases for legitimate rule, the nature and uses of power, the goals of and justifications for military expansion, and the consequences of empire building. It also explores strategies involved in the process of imperial expansion: strategies used by the imperial powers as they expanded their domain, and strategies used by conquered peoples as they coped with domination. Nothing was simple in the Aztec world, least of all politics.

The Altepetl, or City-State

The spatial and symbolic heart of an Aztec’s life was his or her altepetl, or city-state. This term refers to the people of a particular place and supposedly also to the place itself (Lockhart 1992: 14). But not every settlement was an altepetl, only those with a legitimate ruling dynasty, a sense (if not the actuality) of political autonomy, control over local lands and labor, a well-established founding legend, often with mythological underpinnings, and a patron deity complete with temple. It was also a primary tribute-paying or tribute-receiving unit. Some altepetl also exhibited a predominant ethnicity and/or a specialized occupation and may have enjoyed renown as extraordinary market or pilgrimage destinations.