Who were they?
We know a lot about them. They kept extensive records. The Catholic priests
who followed the Conquest learned Nahuatl and recorded their stories.
This was when many of the codices – the illustrated books – were
re-written, the original ones having been destroyed immediately after
the conquest. I am particularly proud of my very own facsimile copy
of the Codex Mendoza. The original copy is in the Bodleian Library
The Aztecs were very sophisticated politically and socially, although
their technology was stone age. They had nothing like the Spanish swords
They had never seen horses. They practised slavery but all children of
slaves were born free. Unlike in Peru the Aztec rulers were not gods. Called
Tlatoani, literally ‘Great Speaker’, they were elected by a
council of Lords and took their responsibilities seriously. Some of the
rulers were meritocratic. Others, like Montezuma, were autocrats. Rank
could be earned through war and nobles could be demoted.
Women were economically active. They could own their own lands and divorce
their husbands. Drinking was banned unless you were old – there are
plenty of stories of drunken old women. Sex was controlled – dancing
girls for the warriors were ritualised, but in reality the Aztecs seemed
able to party pretty wildly. The city streets were swept daily. Canoes
moored under the lavatories lining the causeways collected the human manure
that fertilized their gardens. There were gardens everywhere, in pots,
on the roofs, and in the rulers’ palaces. A huge dyke separated the
fresh and brackish parts of the lake and protected the city from flooding.
Two aqueducts brought water into the city. A perfect city, you might say,
were it not for the constant sacrifice and the terrible smell of death
which the Aztecs would probably not have noticed.