GODS OF WAR – Tenochtitlan

When we saw so many cities and villages built in the water and other great towns on dry land we were amazed and said that it was like the enchantments (…) on account of the great towers and cues and buildings rising from the water, and all built of masonry. And some of our soldiers even asked whether the things that we saw were not a dream? (…) I do not know how to describe it, seeing things as we did that had never been heard of or seen before, not even dreamed about.

–          Bernal Díaz del Castillo

Tenochtitlan, originally known as México-Tenochtitlan, was a large Mexica city-state on an island in Lake Texcoco in the Valley of Mexico. Founded on June 20, 1325, it was the capital of the expanding Aztec Empire in the 15th century until it was captured by the Spanish in 1521.

At its peak, it was the largest city in the Pre-Columbian Americas. It subsequently became a cabecera of the Viceroyalty of New Spain. Today, the ruins of Tenochtitlan are in the historic center of Mexico City.

Tenochtitlan was one of two Nahua āltēpetl (city-states) on the island, the other being Tlatelolco.

Tenochtitlan covered an estimated 8 to 13.5 km2 (3.1 to 5.2 sq mi), situated on the western side of the shallow Lake Texcoco.

At the time of Spanish conquests, Mexico City comprised both Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco. The city extended from north to south, from the north border of Tlatelolco to the swamps, which by that time were gradually disappearing to the west; the city ended more or less at the present location of Avenida Bucareli.

The city was connected to the mainland by causeways leading to the north, south, and west. The causeways were interrupted by bridges that allowed canoes and other water traffic to pass freely. The bridges could be pulled away, if necessary, to defend the city. The city was interlaced with a series of canals, so that all sections of the city could be visited either on foot or via canoe.

Lake Texcoco was the largest of five interconnected lakes. Since it formed in an endorheic basin, Lake Texcoco was brackish. During the reign of Moctezuma I, the “levee of Nezahualcoyotl” was constructed, reputedly designed by Nezahualcoyotl. Estimated to be 12 to 16 km (7.5 to 9.9 mi) in length, the levee was completed circa 1453. The levee kept fresh spring-fed water in the waters around Tenochtitlan and kept the brackish waters beyond the dike, to the east.

Two double aqueducts, each more than 4 km (2.5 mi) long and made of terracotta, provided the city with fresh water from the springs at Chapultepec. This was intended mainly for cleaning and washing. For drinking, water from mountain springs was preferred. Most of the population liked to bathe twice a day; Moctezuma was said to take four baths a day. According to the context of Aztec culture in literature, the soap that they most likely used was the root of a plant called copalxocotl (Saponaria americana), and to clean their clothes they used the root of metl (Agave americana). Also, the upper classes and pregnant women washed themselves in a temazcalli, similar to a sauna bath, which is still used in the south of Mexico. This was also popular in other Mesoamerican cultures.

The city was divided into four zones, or camps; each camp was divided into 20 districts (calpullis, Nahuatl calpōlli); and each calpulli, or ‘big house’, was crossed by streets or tlaxilcalli. There were three main streets that crossed the city, each leading to one of the three causeways to the mainland of Tepeyac, Ixtapalpa, and Tlacopan. Bernal Díaz del Castillo reported that they were wide enough for ten horses. Surrounding the raised causeways were artificial floating gardens with canal waterways and gardens of plants, shrubs, and trees. The calpullis were divided by channels used for transportation, with wood bridges that were removed at night.


A few generations before, the Mexica had seemed just one more tribe of intruders which, famished and “uncouth”, had, about 1250, descended from the north in search of good land in the fertile valley. With difficulty, they had found themselves a home where (probably about 1345) they had begun to build their city – on a spot where, legend insisted, an eagle had been observed sitting on a cactus (Tenochtitlan meant “place of the fruit of the cactus”).

True heirs of the last great people of the valley, the Toltecs, whose capital had been at Tula (or Tollan), some forty miles north of the lake, and who had been overthrown by nomads in the late twelfth century.

The Toltecs had been fine craftsmen in featherwork, precious stones, and gold. They had apparently invented medicine. They had discovered the art of mining, and treating, precious metals. The Toltecs had also been clever farmers,

They assigned all fine achievements to Toltec initiative.

These Mexican re-interpretations of history had been accompanied by a “burning of books” about the past by the Emperor Itzcoatl.


The city had never been attacked. The Mexica had only to raise the bridges on the three causeways which connected their capital to the mainland to be beyond the reach of any plausible enemy.

There was no city bigger, more powerful, or richer within the world of which the people of the valley were informed. It acted as the focus for thousands of immigrants, of whom some had come because of the demand for their crafts.

The Mexica had in the mid-fifteenth century built a colossal city, bigger than any in Europe with the possible exception of Naples and Constantinople, on what had been, only a hundred and fifty years ago, a few huts on a mud bank.

Empire & Tribute

A “mosaic” of altogether nearly four hundred cities, each with its own ruler, sent regular deliveries to the Emperor.


Cocoa beans and cloaks, sometimes canoes, copper axes, and feather quills full of gold dust, were used as currency.

There were markets in all districts: one of these, that in the city of Tlatelolco, by now a large suburb of Tenochtitlan, was the biggest market in the Americas, an emporium for the entire region. Even goods from distant Guatemala were exchanged there. Meantime, trade on a small scale in old Mexico was carried on by nearly everyone, for marketing the household’s product was the main activity of family life.


Nahuatl was an oral language. But the Mexica, like the other peoples in the valley, used pictographs and ideograms for writing.

Beautiful painted books (usually called codices) recorded the possession of land, as of history, with family trees and maps supporting the inclination of the ancient Mexicans to be litigious. The importance of this side of life can be gathered from the 480,000 sheets of bark paper regularly sent as tribute to “the storehouses of the ruler of Tenochtitlan”.


The average Mexican’s home of adobe and thatch was bare. It rarely had more than a sleeping mat and a hearth. But it always had a shrine, with a clay figurine, usually of the earth goddess Coatlicue.


Now the Mexica had one of stone with two channels (used alternately, to allow cleaning).

Law & Order

Crime in old Mexico was limited, whether because of a general acceptance of the mores of society or as a consequence of harsh penalties. Strict judges sitting in regularly constituted tribunals administered equitable if severe punishments.

The law did not favour noblemen. Indeed, they were supposed to be punished more severely than commoners in respect of most crimes.

Most punishments were carried out in public. The death penalty was used for almost every crime considered a felony in modern society.

Save at certain festivals, neither the young nor the ordinary workers were allowed to touch pulque, the only Mexican alcohol. Drinking was punishable by death on the occasion of the second offence.

Most Mexicans were obedient, respectful, disciplined. There were no beggars. The streets were clean, the houses were spotless.


Women’s lives were spent weaving cloths.

A woman could own property, and go to law, without the approval of her husband. Women played a part in commerce, and they could become priestesses, though they never reached the highest level.

Aztec woman weaving at the loom by Fra Bernardino de Sahagun from The Code of Florence “”Historia general de las cosas de Nueva Espana”” in Spanish and Nahuatl, facsimile

All the same, daughters were often given away as presents;


The Mexica were tolerant of the other peoples, such as the Otomí, who lived among them. These had their own religion, culture, language, even their own calendars.


The “floating gardens”, the chinampas, intensely cultivated artificial islands built of mud, in practice usually rooted to the bed of the lake by willow trees, could be continuously cultivated, unaffected by drought.

Most land near the lake was ingeniously irrigated, and so could be continually cultivated. The average farmer in old Mexico – the average man, that is – had as hard a life as any peasant in Europe.

The main crop was, above all, maize, grown at all heights. Almost as important were amaranth and sage. Beans, chilli peppers and squashes were also widely grown. The sweet potato was produced on the coast. Cacti were cultivated, for many purposes: the sap was drunk as a syrup, and was made into the alcoholic pulque, and the needles were used for sewing, and blood-letting.

Turkeys, muscovy ducks, little dogs and bees were domesticated and almost everything which moved was eaten.

There were thus four main sources of food for Tenochtitlan: chinampa agriculture for vegetables, fruit and some maize; maize locally grown on land on the lakeshore and elsewhere; game and fishing; and tribute.

The upper classes of Mexico ate diversely. The poor perhaps survived on two and a half to three and a half pounds of maize a day, made into tortillas. They would have beans and vegetables cooked with peppers: and, on feast days, a slice of dog or, occasionally, venison.

An enterprising family could still find much free food: a larger variety, certainly, than enjoyed by the modern Mexican, for it included fish, weasel, rattlesnake, iguana, insects, grasshoppers, lake algae, worms and over forty kinds of water fowl.

Family Life

Family life, meantime, was cemented by elaborate formal courtesies as well as by ceremonies at important occasions: pregnancy and birth; baptism, marriage and death.

Though the Emperor, members of his supreme council, noblemen, and successful warriors could, as we have seen, have concubines, adultery (defined as sexual relations between a man and a married woman) was punishable by death (both parties were often thrown into the river or to the vultures).

If both adulterers were caught in the act, they either be stoned to death or sometimes, the male adulterers was brought to the husband of the female adulterer. The husband would then serve as the judge on the faith of the male adulterer. He could kill him with a strong blow to the head or he would give mercy and forgiveness to the male adulterer. For the female adulterers, it was immediate, she would be strangled to death.

Districts (Calpulli)

The internal life of Tenochtitlan was stable. It was in practice managed by an interlocking network of something between a clan, a guild and a district, known as the calpulli. In several calpultin (that being the plural style) families had the same professions.

Each calpulli had its own gods, priests, and traditions. Marriage (celebrated in old Mexico with as much ceremonial as in Europe) outside the calpulli, though not impossible, was unusual. Farmers of land which had been granted by the calpulli gave a proportion of the crops (perhaps a third) to that body for delivery to the imperial administration. There were perhaps as many as eighty of these in Tenochtitlan. Earlier, the leader, the calpullec, had apparently been elected but, by the fifteenth century, that office had become hereditary and lifelong.

The most powerful calpulli was that in the suburb known as Cueopan, where there lived the so-called long-distance merchants, the pochteca. These had a bad name among Mexica: they seemed to be “the greedy, the well-fed, the covetous, the niggardly . . . who coveted wealth”. But they were officially praised: “men who, leading the caravans of bearers, made the Mexican state great”. They served the Mexica as spies: telling the Emperor the strengths, the weaknesses and the wealth of the places which they saw on their journeys.

Military and Warfare

The supremacy of the Mexica in the valley and beyond had been won by their soldiers.

Boys in Mexico were prepared for war from birth in a way which both Spartans and Prussians would have found congenial.

Weapons of war were: the bow and arrow, the sling, the stone-headed wooden spear, along with the club and the macuauhuitl, a two-edged sword of black obsidian blades set in oak and a throwing stick (atlatl, used to launch spears – at fish as well as at men).

The best cloaks and the richest jewels were obtained as prizes for valour, not by purchase. Any male who failed to respond to the call to go to war lost all status, even if he were the son of the Emperor.

Promotion in the army (and hence a social rise generally) depended on capturing a specific number of captives: an event consummated by special insignia. Membership of the knightly orders, the “jaguars” and the “eagles”, was a supreme distinction obtained by the brave. The costumes of these orders, and indeed all the war costumes, ridiculous though they seemed to Europeans, were intended to terrify, by playing on the nerves of enemies.

Forces, organised in legions of 8,000 men, divided into companies of 100, and co-ordinated by the calpultin, maintained peace, and imperial rule, by the constant threat, and sometimes the use, of terror.

Successful wars ended with the burning of the enemy’s temple (which had the benefit of enabling the destruction of the armouries which were usually close by).

This Mexican era of continuous conquest had begun about 1430. The instigators were the first emperor, Itzcoatl, and his curious nephew, and general, Tlacaelel, who was also cihuacoatl. As a result of the efforts of these two men, the Mexica had transformed themselves into “a chosen people”.

At the age of ten, a boy had his hair cut with only one lock left on his neck. He was not permitted to have that removed till, at the age of eighteen, he had taken a prisoner in war. Then he could grow his hair,


The upper class sent their sons to rigorous boarding academies, the calmécac (“ houses of tears”).

The children of workers received vocational training in the more relaxed telpochcalli, the “houses of youth” established in every district. The teachers were professionals, but priests played a part.

Yet they, like those in the calmécac, received ample instruction in morality and natural history through homilies which they often learned by heart.

Girls received training as housewives and mothers.

Triple Alliance

Tenochtitlan’s safety had been underpinned for ninety years by an alliance with two other cities on, respectively, the west and east sides of the lake – Tacuba and Texcoco.

Texcoco, the capital of culture…

These two places obeyed the Emperor of the Mexica in respect of military affairs. Otherwise they were independent. The royal houses of both were linked by blood with that of Tenochtitlan.

Emperor (Huey Tlatoani)

Appropriately, the literal translation of the word for a ruler, tlatoani, was “spokesman”: he who speaks or, perhaps, he who commands (huey tlatoani, emperor, was “high spokesman”).

A new emperor, always of the same family as his predecessor, was usually his brother, or cousin, who had performed well in a recent war.

In the selection of a new ruler, about thirty lords, together with the kings of Texcoco and Tacuba, acted as an electoral college.

Disputes were avoided since each election of a ruler was accompanied by the nomination of four other leaders, who in theory would remain in their places throughout the reign of an emperor, and of whom one would become the heir.

The monarch had supreme religious duties.

Deputy Emperor (Chicuacoatl)

The Mexican emperor stood for, and concerned himself with, the external face of the empire. Internal affairs were ultimately directed by a deputy emperor, a cousin, the cihuacoatl, a title which he shared with that of a great goddess, and whose literal translation, “woman snake”, connected him with the feminine side of divinity.

Religion and Deities

The last, the fifth age, that of the Mexica, known as “4-Motion”, would, according to myth, one day culminate in a catastrophe brought on by terrifying earthquakes. Monsters of the twilight would come to earth. Human beings would be changed into animals: or, possibly, turkeys.

In order to stave off that bleak day, the god Huitzilopochtli (whose name meant “Hummingbird on the left”, or “of the south”), who incarnated the sun (as well as war and the chase), the virginally conceived child of the ancient earth goddess Coatlicue (literally, “serpent skirt”), had, every morning, to put to flight the moon (his sister Coyolxauhqui, whose name meant “her cheeks are painted with bells”) and the stars (his brothers, the Centzonuitnaua, “the four hundred southerners”). That struggle symbolised a new day.

Huitzilopochtli had, by extraordinary convention, to be given nourishment, in the shape of human blood (“most precious water”).

Two high priests commanded them: one to serve Huitzilopochtli, the other to care for the interests of the still very important deity, Tlaloc, god of rain. Both were named by the Emperor.

Their bodies dyed black, their hair long, their ears tattered by offerings of blood, priests were immensely influential.

Figures representing these gods were to be seen everywhere, at crossroads, in front of fountains, before large trees, on hilltops, in oratories, sometimes made of stone, sometimes of wood, baked clay, or even seed, some big, some small.

The gods of Mexico seem to have been the rain, the sun, the wind, fertility, themselves – not just the inspirers of those things.

There was also in Mexico a semi-sacred profession separate to the priesthood, containing men dedicated to private rites, principally fortune-telling, miracle-healing, and interpreting dreams; placing themselves in a state of ecstasy, itself often obtained by drinking pulque, smoking tobacco, eating certain mushrooms (sometimes with honey, to constitute the “flesh of the gods”), or the seeds of morning glory, the datura lily, and the peyote cactus.

Indeed, the Mayas in Yucatan, in their heyday in the sixth century AD, had been more remarkable in their persistence, and knowledge. They had “a long count” of years which the Mexica did not. Their mathematics had been more complex. Mexican hieroglyphs were also more pictorial and less abstract than Maya ones. All the same, the Mexican priests who interpreted the calendars and, with two notched sticks, the heavens, were mathematicians of skill and imagination.


Xiuhpohualli, based on a solar year of 360 days divided into eighteen months; the extra five days which made up a 365-day year were “useless fillings”, dedicated to no god: unfortunate occasions on which to be born.

Special divines interpreted these calendars. These men not only gave the infant his name, but predicted with certainty the kind of life which he or she might expect to have.

After fifty-two years in Mexico, a new century (so to speak) was begun. The most recent such event, the fourth since the foundation of the city, had been in 1507. Festivities, Rituals and Sacrifices. Mexica were without rivals in the amount of time which they devoted to celebration. In Tenochtitlan under the emperors they had become flamboyant.

These occasions were marked not only by songs and dancing, accompanied by music from drums, flutes, conch shells, and rattles, but by processions – in which the participants dressed in feathers, in dramatic cloaks, in masks and wigs, in jaguar skins, in some circumstances even in the skins of human beings. Those celebrating painted their faces extravagantly. There were theatrical battles between mock gods and mock soldiers. Flowers were important too:

Blood-letting was of great importance: even on ordinary days, emperor and clown, priest and warrior, regularly, with needles from the maguey cactus, took blood from their tongues, or from the lobes of their ears, in acts of self-mutilation in the service of the gods. Sometimes blood would be obtained by passing straws through a hole made in the tongue, the ears, even (by priests) the penis.

At festivals there were other offerings: sometimes of animals or birds, especially quail; but, on an increasingly large scale, human beings, as a rule prisoners of war, or slaves especially bought for the purpose. Most of those sacrificed were men, though boys and girls.

The normal procedure was for the victim to be held down on a stone block by four priests. His heart would be plucked out professionally by a chief priest or even the monarch, using a flint knife. The heart would be burned in a brazier. The head would be cut off and held up. The limbs would be ritually eaten, with maize or chilli, by noblemen and successful warriors. The torsos would be thrown away, or given to animals in one of the zoos.

The blood of sacrificed victims was regularly spattered, as if it were holy water, over the doors, pillars, staircases and courts of Mexican temples and houses.

By the early sixteenth century, the Mexica’s own poor had begun to offer their children as victims.

Those who suffered under “the obsidian knife” were assured a place in a better afterlife – in Omeyocan, the paradise of the sun – than those who died conventionally (in practice a flint knife was used for sacrifice, for obsidian is brittle: but the latter stone was used as a metaphor).

Those sacrificed were often given the benefit of hallucinogenic doses in order to make them accept their fate; or, at least, a good drink of pulque.