This new identity provided them with both the symbolic and material means to distinguish themselves from the masses." (Rounds, 74)
This strategy would prove ingenious. The result was such a greater fluidity of trade and transport of goods that though a class system did persist, the connectivity would improve the opportunity for personal acquisition in all classes. Of course, this would not alter the essential nature of society which, in the details pertaining to its sophistication, is shown to have had a clearly structured and enforced inheritance system. To the point, archaeologically consulted "wills reveal a functioning, coherent inheritance system in which the sex of the testator was probably the single most relevant factor in understanding how rights to property were divided." (Kellogg, 314) In a clear ownership and material-based society, the relevance of economic realities under the rule of the Aztec Empire would be significant. To be sure, the wealthy landowners remained those most proportionally benefited by the system, but commoners in these city-states would also gain greater access to work, to goods and to a personal mobility that, we may suggest, was as great a reason as any for the success experienced by the Aztecs at their height of power.
Of course, this power could have scarcely been possible were the Aztecs not also equipped with an uncommon military prowess. Well-documented in some regards but also often overlooked in the face of overwhelming evidence that Spanish colonization was quite easily won, its military reputation was actually one not just of greatness on the battlefield. In many ways, its success as a military empire would also pertain to its perceptiveness with respect to strategy. Its expansionist premise, which casts a far different light on indigenous American culture than does the nomadic tribalism seen in North America, would be executed with a clear look to military defense. In its targets of conquest, for instance, it complemented the connectivity of its capital city-states with "a frontier strategy. City-states in strategic provinces were incorporated into the Aztec imperial realm, but on a different basis than the tributary provinces. Their geographic location seems especially significant: for the most part they lay along hostile borderlands and had military value; they dominate routes which served as major arteries for trade or extended military action; or they were situated handily for commerce and served as trading entrepots." (Smith & Berdan, 356) It is thus that we can begin to see the clear connection between military and trade routes as they facilitated the Aztec strategy of growth.
That said, the Aztec military tendencies are those which most distinguish the culture to history, both correctly and with some prejudice. Indeed, the Aztecs are seen at their best and worst as brilliant but savagely skilled warriors with no fear for the drawing of blood. The expansion and maintenance of its empire would tie directly into the political and religious precepts which have already been here discussed, with conquest pairing with its own ceremonial conceits. These ceremonial conceits, for obvious reason, would be the practices which gained the most notoriety and which have retained the longest shelf-life in the image of the Aztecs. To the point, Isaac (1983) reports that "virtually everything written in this century on Aztec warfare has stressed its ritual component and, whether intentionally or not, has fostered the impression that the main aim of most or all Aztec warfare was the capture of enemy soldiers for sacrifice to the Huitzilopochtli." (Isaac, 121)
As noted in the introduction to this discussion, there is a conflict in our understanding of this area of Aztec life, particularly because so many of our anthropological sources are originated at the hands of European sources, with their inherent biases. Therefore, the routine characterization of the Aztecs as bloodthirsty and savage may be limited in its reliability....
What cannot be denied though is that the Aztecs had built for themselves and extremely formidable fighting force. This was recorded as "killing and wounding without pity whatsoever." (Isaac, 122) Drawn from a description of the coup which led to the triple alliance of ruling city states, this denotes that without too much attention to the implications of their alleged mercilessness, we can conclude that the Aztecs attained their dominance through military campaigning.
Such is demonstrable if we are to consider the pattern by which the Aztecs expanded their empire, using the accumulation of resources and of tributary soldiers in order to grow at an exponential pace. As the Brunfiel (1983) source tells us, "through the conquest and incorporation of the northern polities, the sizes of the mid-latitude domains increased to the point where they were able to defeat the larger southern communities (Anales de Cuauhtitlan 1945:66; Anales de Tlatelolco 1948:52; Historia de los Mexicanos 1965:54; Ixtlilxochitl 1975-77:I, 318-319)." (Brumfiel, 271) It is compelling to see how the nature of its tribute system would actually facilitate an ever-growing ability to expand its hegemonic sphere of influence through an initial groundswell of sheer military force. The connection between strategic ascension and conquest by force would shape the power structure in the region for all the years until the arrival of Spanish conquerors.
Often, another cause cited for the brief but monumentally importance success enjoyed by the Aztecs would be their evolutionary push of agricultural techniques relating to irrigation, planting and land usage. The settlement of city-states in the Mexican Valley as a primary characteristic of the empire suggests a stationary lifestyle relating to the ability to achieve sustenance without resorting to nomadic measures. Still, "despite the automatic assumption by some ecologists that agricultural hydraulic works were the reason for this increased centralization of authority, the military hypothesis seems more tenable. During this period the Aztecs were short of land and of pure water suitable for irrigation, and so practiced very little agriculture." (Rounds, 75) This is to indicate that the Aztecs would achieve most of the technological and agricultural innovations for which they are often recognized in the period following major conquest, with an emphasis of resources and political attention on military matters.
It was with the achievement of the alliance that the Aztecs would suddenly gain an access never before available to them to all manner of arable land. For instance, "Cuauhnahuac was somewhat lower in elevation than the Basin of Mexico, with rich agricultural lands that produced important crops that did not grow in the Basin" (Smith, 76) This meant that priority could be placed on exploiting fertile lands with sustained growth, a contrast from a history of conquering lands in search of food and resource. Thus, we can see that there would be something of a reciprocal relationship between the stability of the Aztec empire and the stability of a farming food source.
There is another level at which its agricultural practices would serve to sustain the empire though. Namely, in the socioeconomic class structure which we have addressed a number of times in this account, there is present a system which would in many ways mirror the feudalism of Europe. The idea of land ownership as defining the noble class persisted in Mesoamerican cultures. Thus, with the establishment of the empire, this system would be strengthened, with agricultural lands coming to function not just as a source of food but also as a channel through which economic classes could be retained and understood. It is on the basis of this understanding that Kurtz (1984) argues that "preferential access to economic desiderata by the ruling class, such as land, slaves, tenant farmers, and corvee symbolized the distinction between rulers and ruled and compounded economic differences. Commoners, for example, were not permitted to own more land than they could work in person; nobles could buy and sell land and employ commoners as laborers." (Kurtz, 306) The maintenance of such a system around the practices of agriculture created a close correlation between this practical sustenance and the permanence of rigid class divisions.
Ultimately, this and other factors here would only be sufficient to create a temporary stability for the Aztecs. Because of their commitment to the visions which are alleged to have presaged their destruction, the Aztecs have involuntarily left us to assume that there purpose was simply for a dramatic and world-altering rise to dominance and a destruction which was equally as rapid. The details of history report the Aztecs in an unsympathetic light by paying focus to those aspects of the culture which seem most to offend modern sensibility. Yet in another way, the Spanish conquerors who would deliver present day Mexico to us, would disrupt a culture which is not just rich in anthropological insight. Indeed, the Aztec Empire was the peak accomplishment to be yielded by centuries of technological, intellectual and cultural development, and in a period of remarkably little time, its European conquerors were able to essentially wipe this accomplishment off the face of the earth.
Barlow, R.H. 1945. Some Remarks on the…
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