Noble and Everyday Life

Noble Life and Everyday Life

Like many civilizations, Aztec society was hierarchical and a person’s social position, and therefore one’s way of life, was largely determined by birthright. Commoners worked as farmers, fishermen, or craftsmen. Noblemen served as government officials, scribes, and teachers. Although the class structure was reasonably rigid, some social mobility was possible through entry into the priesthood, achievement in warfare, or success in trade. The Aztec ruler, however, had to have been born into the right family. As the only figure allowed to wear the precious color turquoise, he lived in a sumptuous palace with spectacular gardens, a banqueting hall, a large zoo, and gold cutlery. Attended by an abundance of bodyguards and beautiful women (who had to approach him with downcast eyes and bare feet), the ruler possessed an almost godlike status. The ruler at the time of the Spanish invasion was the ninth Aztec emperor, Motecuhzoma II, who could trace his ancestry back to the first ruler, Acamapichtli. To maintain his luxurious lifestyle, the great Motecuhzoma demanded one-third of everything his people produced in taxes. He also demanded regular payments, known as tribute, from the subjects of conquered provinces.

At the opposite end of the social hierarchy were peasant farmers, landless commoners, and slaves. They had few rights or luxuries and spent their lives growing crops for food and tribute. A privileged upper class was formed by nobles and priests, both of whom played an important role in government and lawmaking. The higher classes were distinguished by their fine decorated textiles and sandals, which were important symbols of rank. They lived in palatial complexes and enjoyed objects of the finest quality. Only nobles were allowed to wear clothes made of cotton, and they frequently adorned themselves with intricate ornaments – pendants, lip plugs, and earspools. Commoners wore clothes woven from the much coarser fiber of the maguey plant. Below the nobles were the merchants and skilled craftsmen. It was to this middle class that professional warriors belonged. Young boys would be educated at home by their parents until the age of 15, at which point they would either be trained in warfare or sent for priestly instruction in writing, philosophy, and astronomy. (Girls were educated at home until 15 as well, but then married.) Although already respected members of society, warriors could improve their rank by capturing an ever-greater number of victims, and were rewarded with increasingly impressive costumes and precious tribute items.

Although we tend to think of gold as the most precious of materials, as did the Spanish conquistadors, the Aztecs did not. They worked the gold into exquisite pieces of jewelry, but referred to it as the excrement of the gods. Perhaps surprisingly to us, the most venerated material was feathers. Brightly colored plumes were gathered, often from farmed birds, and sent to Tenochtitlan as tax payment or tribute. They were fashioned into objects of great beauty, such as fans, shields, and headdresses. Featherworks were insignia of wealth and power, and an important element of the ritual outfit of warriors. Mosaics made of shell, turquoise, and other stones were also highly prized.

View + Discuss

Pendent in the shape of a warrior
Aztec, after 1325
Cast gold-silver-copper alloy,
11.2 x 6.1 cm
The Cleveland Museum of Art,
Leonard C. Hanna, Jr., Fund 1984.37
Photo © The Cleveland Museum of Art

1. This figure represents a warrior who holds a serpent-headed spear-thrower in one hand and a shield, darts, and banner in the other. Experts believe that he represents someone of elite status. How can you tell that this warrior is part of a respected group within his society?

2. Stone figures, clay pots, and jade ornaments are some of the objects that preserve our knowledge of Aztec civilization. What objects or images would you select to represent life today? Why do these objects serve as a valid representation of contemporary society?

3. Although only nobles had objects made from precious metals and stones, all Aztec homes had small shrines to the gods that might help to protect the family. Do you have religious objects in your home? Describe what they are, where they are placed, and how they are used.

Further Explorations

Within Aztec society a person’s status and social class were clearly delineated. Look through magazines and newspapers for indications of how people from various levels of contemporary society are depicted. Cut out your examples and have a class discussion about current indicators of status. What are contemporary “status symbols”?

Read over the section above and write a parallel essay about social class and status in contemporary society. 

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