Research Proposal: Aztec Influence Over Pre-Colonial Mexico

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Aztec Conquest

The Conquest of the Aztecs

The traditional perspective on the peoples who populated the land today known as Mexico and anthropologically described as Mesoamerica is that they were the members of a warlike society that, on account of its primitive view of the world, was bound for extinction at the hands of European conquerors. This is a version of the explanation for the total annihilation of the Aztec people and culture as it occurred in the 16th century. However, this is a story whose primary sources are those produced by the Europeans to witness, commit and prosper from the genocide of a once mighty culture. Therefore, it is with a certain concession to uncertainty that the collection of historians evaluated for this discussion inform the ideas expressed here above the people labeled with the catch-all term of Aztecs. The Nahuati speaking peoples of Mesoamerica, of a multitude of ethnicities and coming from their own distinct family-based political systems, would come together to form an alliance to the dominance of the area known today as Mexico. And in the years prior to the arrival of Spanish conquerors, the Aztecs would employ a political system, a warfare strategy and a system of agriculture which would all figure significantly into the success of the civilization and its contribution to the evolution of human civilization.

The discussion here considers the degree to which the practices and customs evident in the history available to our interpretation could be credited for the imperial dominance of the Aztecs in their time. Tying together the religious, political and economic characteristics of the Aztecs, we can begin to see both the reasons for the culture's success and, possibly, for its failure. To this end, it is interesting to note that powerful nature of the Aztec political system was significantly rooted in the relationship between ritual, religion, divine right and public office. Though it is true that the Aztec civilization oriented itself according to a sophisticated system within which members of the society held hierarchically officiated positions of importance to social functioning, this system would also be deeply inlaid with powerful demonstrations of spiritual authority. The capacity of the Aztecs to extend their political system through Mesoamerica would be facilitated by claims of divine right. Accordingly to Elzay (1991), this would be one of the more effective elements of its political indoctrination. Elzay tells that "the rise of the Aztecs to dominance in central Mexico during the fifteenth century was accompanied by a rapid expansion of the imperial state cult. The state cult, focused on the Great Temple complex in Tenochtitlan, magnified the grandeur and authority of the ruler by means of great public ceremonies and large-scale sacrifices, and also through the rewriting of Aztec history." (Elzey, 106)

It is without connotation that we consider the religiosity of the Aztecs Kings, but as historical accounts accumulate, it becomes increasingly evident that this has prefigured into the peoples' eventual demise. As illustrated by Leon-Portillo's (1959) accounting of the battle between Cortes' Spanish forces and the Aztecs as led by King Montezuma, The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico, the conflict's outcome was actually determined by a set of cultural divergences that predisposed the Aztec's to implement very little resistance to Spanish interests. A consideration of the sequence of events leading up to, concurring with and following the destruction of the Aztec people as offered from the perspective of the defeated pre-South American culture indicates that though they derived their capabilities from a civilization equally as sophisticated and advanced as that of the Spanish, their leadership was driven to approach the incoming Europeans with a stance that was softened by religious and geographical characteristics.

Leon-Portillo's work is most revealing of the disposition that greeted the Spanish upon their first arrival in 1519. He begins his discourse on the Aztec experience roughly ten years prior to this point, when the pagan native culture's record illustrates the portent of some coming threat. The pretenses which he draws for the initial Aztec perspective that the ornately attired and towering horseback Spaniards were actually gods provide a new conception for why a force of men perhaps no larger than 600 in strength was capable of reducing a centuries old culture to nothing more than historiographical record. Broken Spears reveals that before the Spanish breached South American shores, Aztec religious literature spoke of a series of harbingers to their inevitable destruction. The most chillingly accurate of these bad omens was the so-called 7th bad omen which concerned the discovery of a strange and ominously colored crane on the Aztec fishing waters. A mirror which adorned the bird's head reflected the threatening venture of a foreign looking people. When the spiritual leader Motecuhzoma looked at the mirror, "he saw a distant plain. People were moving across it, spread out in ranks and coming forward in great haste. They made war against each other and rode on the backs of animals resembling deer." (Leon-Portilla, 6)

This is to denote that the Aztec demonstrations of divine right were not simply for the purposes of political dominance. The Aztecs were consistent in their deference to the various elements of their belief system which historical account would come to describe as mythology. The personification of gods through idolatry would be one of the consistent markings of a political culture which otherwise is demonstrated to have actually imposed its authority on conquered lands with a surprising modesty. In spite of the descriptions which are recurrent of its sometimes brutal military excellence, once lands were conquered, local leadership and customs were generally allowed to persist. But the indulgence in religious presentation would be correlated to a true assumption of entitlement conquest. To this point, Elzay denotes that "proof that authority exercised by a city was legitimate often involved an appeal to prophecy. Some of the prophecies took the form of verbal promises or predictions of future conquests and were delivered by a supernatural being in the place and time of origins and reiterated during periods of crisis or ritual celebration." (Elzey, 107) As most of the sources consulted indicate, the population of Mesoamerica during the 13th and 14th centuries was ethnically diverse, with cultural or practical differences pertaining to region and genetic inbreeding. Here within though, there did exist an evidently broad consent to a shared religious system through which political powers would be vested.

This would be a large girding for the eventual unification of city-states which precipitated the period often identified as the period of the Aztec Empire. Smith & Berden (1992) indicate that "in the year 1430 three powerful city-states in the Basin of Mexico joined in an alliance designed for military, political, and economic control of their neighbors. By 1519, when Hernando Cortes set foot on the Mexican coast, that control had swept beyond their immediate neighbors into the highlands and lowlands of central and southern Mexico. Also by that time, the Mexica of Tenochtitlan had emerged as the military leaders, supported by their allies, the Acolhua of Texcoco and the Tepaneca of Tlacopan." (Smith & Berdan, 354) This provides us with something of a portrait of the conditions which coalesced to provide for an empire of this nature. As Smith & Berdan indicate, the very brief but ideal moment at which these forces of varying virtue had come to compensate for one another's strategic shortcomings to create a real cultural expansion for the Aztecs.

As empires are concerned though, the Aztec one may not qualify technically. (Barlow, 345) The alliance described above would begin to establish a connectivity across different city-states in Mesoamerica, with major alliances allowing for conquest of smaller city states. However, most archaeological record indicates that the Aztecs practiced a tribute system where, once conquered, such city-states were expected only to make regular tributary payments. Beyond that, the value of expansion was in its opening of trade routes betwixt such city-states, establishing a powerful economic foundation inclining the support of those conquered. As most city-states which remained current in their tribute payment were entitled to retain local leadership and customs, it would be within the social hierarchy would play a significant role in government. As a matter of cultural tendency, "the social order was strongly hierarchical, with power and privileges the prerogative of a largely hereditary nobility." (Smith & Berdan, 354)

Thus, the economic benefits of its imperial era suggest would by design serve to enrich those born into luxury and comfort, reinforcing a clearly defined socioeconomic class system. Indeed, this would be true even within conquered city-states, where local leaders would be expected to play a direct role in ensuring that tribute payments were paid. This would bring its own benefits to both parties, with local leaders typically rewarded handsomely for their commitment and with the Aztec Empire gaining another source of resource and income. The system is described in the text by Rounds (1970), who would report that "as a strategem for centralizing power, the dynasty adopted measures… [END OF PREVIEW]

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