His name was Axayacatl, which meant Water Face – a(tl)=water, xayacatl=face – but also depicts certain water incest that was abound in Lake Texcoco and still a part of the native cuisine in Mexico today (or rather its eggs are).
The sixth tlatoani of Tenochtitlan was very young when he came to rule the powerful city-state and all its numerous provinces and dependencies, inheriting his grandfather Motecuzoma Ilhuicamina, the fifth Mexica ruler. Motecuzoma I ruled for over three decades and left a formidable legacy, including many legitimate children; yet for some reason, his nineteen years old grandson was chosen, although even among his own brothers Axayacatl was not the eldest. His father was Itzcoatl’s legitimate son, and his mother was the daughter of Motecuzoma I.
On his glyph he appears as customary, seated on the reed mat, petatl, wearing a noble headband, xiuhuitzolli, with the traditional speech scroll coming out of his mouth, signifying his status of tlatoani, the Revered Speaker, the supreme ruler. His name is attached to his glyph, depicting a face with water dripping along it.
According to most primary sources, he was very young and it is unclear why he was the one to inherit. Some say that he was Tlacaelel’s personal choice. By this time, Tlacaelel was an old man in his seventies, but his influence in Tenochtitlan still seemed to be unparalleled, his word almost the law. The rulers of Texcoco and Tlacopan, Tenochtitlan’s partners in the Triple Alliance, seemed to have a say in the matter as well, advised by the council of four highest advisers and warlords, and probably another lesser council that included the heads of Tenochtitlan’s districts.
So in the year of Three House or 1469, Axayacatl come to occupy the highest position in the rapidly growing and expending Mexica altepetl, the leading partner of the powerful Triple Alliance. Fortunate to inherit a strong, consolidated by three decades of steady rule and expansion empire, Axayacatl did venture into an immediate campaign of small proportions in the west, but his first real challenge presented itself close to three years later, when Tlatelolco, Tenochtitlan’s sister-city, decided to make trouble.
Situated on the nearby island, or maybe even the same island Tenochtitlan occupied according to different primary sources, Tlatelolco enjoyed relative independence, not forced to pay tribute to its powerful neighbor, having a ruler of its own and even a few conquests to account, participating in Tenochtitlan campaigns as a partner and not a subjected nation. Moquihuixtli, the Tlatelolcan last tlatoani, was older than Axayacatl and according to Codex Mendoza had a respectable warring record behind him, having participated in Tenochtitlan’s wars under its previous emperor Motecuzoma Ilhuicamina. Still his city could not rival the power of Tenochtitlan and yet in the early 1473 Tlatelolco began making trouble, or so claimed Diego Duran, Domingo Chimalpahin, and Codex Mendoza to begin with.
Possible reasons for sudden displays of defiance might have been Tenochtitlan’s change of rulers. After three decades of a knowledgeable and seasoned tlatoani as Motecuzoma I, Axayacatl’s youth and lack of experience in leading warriors must have been glaring. Also Tenochtitlan’s main ally in the powerful Triple Alliance, Texcoco, a very important Acolhua altepetl, experienced similar changes, when its famous ruler of many decades, Nezahualcoyotl, died in 1470 as well, leaving a young son to occupy the Acolhua throne. Sources like Codex Mendoza state that Tlacaelel, Tenochtitlan’s Head Adviser of many decades and the alleged architect of the growing empire, certainly a man of over seventy years old, died at the beginning of Axayacatl’s rule as well (others, such as Duran and Chimalpahin, claim that Tlacaelel lived for at least another decade).
In any case, all those upheavals in the Triple Alliance’s leadership might have given Tenochtitlan’s immediate neighbors ideas, as in 1473 Tlatelolco began defy, and then actually challenge Tenochtitlan openly, and with much zeal. To this Axayacatl responded with surprising patience, not hurrying to plunge into a nearly civil war, as Tlatelolcans were Tenochtitlan’s kin, another Mexica-Aztec city among other Nahuatl-speaking nations of the mainland – Acolhua, Tepanecs, Chalcoans and the other’s non-Mexica. Such inner squabbling between two islands of Mexica-Aztecs must have looked bad to the mainland nations. And yet, while trying to negotiate, Axayacatl, pretending to be unaware of the Tlatelolcan war preparations, didn’t keep idle, sending spies into the neighboring city, according to Duran. Thanks to this strategy, the surprise night attack by the Tlatelolcans did not catch Tenochtitlan unprepared, turning rapidly into the disaster for its instigators. The following execution of the envoy that came to Tlatelolco bringing the necessary declaration of war – something the neighboring island neglected to do while attempting their night attack – did not mend the matters. The battle that followed was decisive and from 1473 Tlatelolcan independence ceased. Incorporated in the growing Tenochtitlan’s domain, it was forced to pay a heavy tribute, and then gradually became the part of the Mexica capital, with two islands united by artificial means, making Tenochtitlan twice as big, and more important than ever.
Having dealt with his first serious challenge successfully, the young emperor, now held in a great respect, turned his eye to the southwest and the fertile Toluca/Tollocan Valley and important towns and cities dotting it. A series of campaigns that lasted several years brought those areas under Triple Alliance’s power, with Axayacatl proving himself an aggressive, charismatic, farsighted leader and strategist, a fierce warrior and a thoughtful commander. Fighting on the front lines, either among charging warriors or springing from ambushes of his planning, fond of splitting his forces while luring his enemies into traps of his choosing, Axayacatl was wounded in one of the battles.
According to different sources, it might have happened either in the battle for Toluca altepelt itself, or in a later campaign against Xiquipilco further to the northwest. Leading his handpicked warriors in an intricately executed ambush, the young emperor fell into a similar sort of a ruse, surprised by the camouflaged enemy force that momentarily cut him off his own followers. According to many primary sources, Axayacatl fought fiercely, even when his thigh was sliced to the bone, holding on until reinforcements arrived. The leader who had wounded him, an Otomi warrior named Tlilcuezpalin of Xiquipilco, was honored by the young emperor, released according to some sources or forced to fight in ‘gladiatorial’ combat with more captives of this war according to others. Some claim that the young emperor was limping ever since.
With the southwest and the highlands surrounding their fertile valleys subdued, Axayacatl embarked on an even more ambitious undertaking. To the west of Toluca Valley spread a power that Tenochtitlan could not but take into account, the strong Purepecha/Tarascan Empire. Some claim that Axayacatl’s persistence in subduing Toluca Valley came as a desire to create a buffer zone between the Triple Alliance’s domains and this unknown but ominously strong power of the Western Mexico. The conquered city of Toluca was turned into a garrison city in a fashion that was not typical to Tenochtitlan’s policies that usually left the conquered cities and provinces alone, to govern themselves as long as they paid the required tribute and made no trouble. But not this time. Toluca was supplied with a governor and a respectable warriors’ force to be stationed around permanently.
The mentioned above Purepecha/Tarascan empire is less known to us due to certain lack of pre-colonial and post-colonial records alike. They didn’t seem to be set on expansion, but they certainly guarded their borders and were able to call upon a considerable number of warriors in case of a need. Something, the Triple Alliance had tested shortly after Axayacatl’s Toluca Valley campaigns.
With reinforcements from both Tenochtitlan’s allies, Texcoco and Tlacopan, Axayacatl led a considerable force of reportedly twenty four thousand warriors to the west of Toluca Valley and into what is known today as Michoacan region. Apparently to a sound defeat of which proportions Tenochtitlan didn’t know and wouldn’t experience again until the Spaniards arrived. The battle, according to several primary sources, was fierce, lasting close to two days, resulting in such resounding defeat, Axacayatl was forced to order retreat on the onset of the second night, leading several hundred warriors instead of over twenty thousand that originally followed him into the battle.
Curiously, the Tarascans did not follow up on their resounding victory by invading the same Toluca Valley or maybe even heading for the Triple Alliance’s actual capitals as those might have feared. Having made their point, the mysterious people of Michoacan stayed inside their Western Mexico borders, seemingly content with the balance of powers, not striving to try and push the Triple Alliance off the regional map. No more campaigns against Western Mexico were fought by Tenochtitlan. The Triple Alliance learned and accepted.
Later on, Axayacatl was reported to recover from this blow to his empire’s martial might and probably his personal pride as well. The remaining three years of his reign were spent in campaigns at the Huasteca regions, to the northeast of Tenochtitlan this time. He had died reportedly of an illness, at the age of 31, a relatively young man and probably a remarkable person.
Codex Mendoza reports him to be “restless, proud and greatly feared by his subjects”. Duran, on the other hand, claims that he was a shy, impressionable young man, under heavy influence of the elderly Tlacaelel (who in other sources is reported to be dead for quite a few years prior to the mentioned wars and campaigns.) Despite his main focus on warfare and conquests, Axacayatl was reported to “maintain the laws established by his predecessor” and keep his capital in order, with no economical troubles or disasters to plague the great city.
He had many wives and among his most famous offspring were Motecuzoma II and Cuitlahuac, two rulers that has the misfortune of dealing with the conquistadors upon their arrival about half a century later.
An excerpt from “Warrior Beast”, The Aztec Chronicles, book #4.
“I’m not involved in it as heavily as you think I am, you nosy boy,” the woman was saying, a touch of pouting, almost flirtatious complaint to her voice. “The Tenantzinco delegation is of no interest to me. I have nothing to gain or lose from its safe stay here in Tenochtitlan, or from our Emperor’s eagerness to go out and conquer more southern towns and lands. This foolish ruler of Tenantzinco thinks he’ll gain Tenochtitlan’s support and thus will subdue his troublesome neighbors with no sweat or investment, but it will not be this way. You know it and I know it. And your brother up there in his beloved highlands knows it too.” A soft chuckle interrupted. “I can see why this delegation’s current wellbeing worries you. Your brother wants Tenochtitlan busy and up to its neck in various wars and campaigns out there in the south, away from his side of Smoking Mountain, away from Huexotzinco and even this troublesome Tlaxcallan so-called confederation. Don’t they call themselves this way these days?”
Another soft chuckle enlivened the night. Then a brief silence prevailed. Of the Texcocan man’s voice there was no trace as yet. Miztli held his breath, momentarily worried. Whom was this woman talking to? And was the Texcocan all right, not harmed or rendered powerless in any other way?
“You are too well informed for your professed disinterest in any of it.” When the man spoke, his words rang strongly, to Miztli’s immediate spell of relief, holding none of the previously displayed, slightly challenging, somewhat typical male superiority that characterized the Texcocan’s attitude toward their current hostess and benefactress until now. “And you do know about the attempt to silence that Tenantzinco delegation, or at least to prevent their attempt to make Tenochtitlan involved? Those stones have everything to do with it.” The last phrase came out rock-hard, ringing icily in the quietness of this back of the garden.
“You are in no position to demand answers from me,” retorted the woman with none of her previously flirtatious tone as well. “Whatever you were trying to achieve, you failed. Those stones, the payment, or Tlatelolcans, or the visiting foreigners with their silly requests; they will all go on doing whatever they were supposed to do while you will be stuck here or elsewhere, recovering from nasty wounds, with the boy you are dragging along for some reason helpless without you and your guidance. You will not recover in time to do something in this particular play. And you are not in the position to demand answers from me. My life is of no interest to you. You are not your brother!”
Another bout of silence prevailed, through which Miztli felt the girl nodding sagely, as though satisfied with her mistress putting the pushy stranger in his place. As though anyone could best YaoTecuani. He fought the urge to run out and back into the fire-lit room, just in case. The man was wounded, and that woman was nasty, dangerous, evidently highly unscrupulous and not to be trusted.
Then the Texcocan’s laughter interrupted the night, soft and sharp and again unbearably superior.
“Don’t discard me that quickly, Xochitl. You may be surprised with what I can do even in such an unfavorable condition. Or what that boy can do, for that matter. You would do better keeping us both on your side, woman. Your history with my brother has nothing to do with it.”
He paused again, evidently to gulp something. That brew the woman was making for him? But what was their history? Why were they fencing like enemies and old friends at the same time? And who was this man’s powerful brother even the nasty Tenochtitlan healer was afraid of? Must be the same highlander leader Necalli’s father kept mentioning with much affection and respect.
“You are as insolent as you always were, boy,” said the woman, her sigh loud, holding an open grudge. “You never knew your place, and your brother kept encouraging you instead of curbing your insolent strike, like they did back in Texcoco. One wonders why you still live in that snotty altepetl, or anywhere around our ‘lowlands.’ Unless all you care about is spying for your brother or working to keep the might of Tenochtitlan from reaching toward his domain. They will, one day, you know? And not so long from now.” A pause prevailed again, accompanied with a nasty glare, of that Miztli was sure. “After they are through with the south, maybe, eh? A few more spans of seasons and our warriors will be besieging the passes of Smoking Mountain and the other one, crossing to war on Huexotzinco and then Tlaxcala, taking them all.”
“Shut up,” was Texcocan’s tired response. “It’s hard enough to keep your medicine in without vomiting it all over your prettily swept floor. Your nastiness doesn’t help my self control.” Another pause, more comfortable than the previous ones. “It won’t happen and you know it. Not as long as my brother is in charge of the matters up there, being listened to and obeyed even by the Tlaxcala hotheads.”
Surprisingly, the woman’s laughter shook the darkness, its affability spilling. “With him up there and in charge and you sneaking all over our altepetls, making sure they are keeping busy and elsewhere.”