Tlacaelel, the man who gave the Aztec empire its history

24 July 2012 Comments Leave a comment

Many sources report him to be the First Son of the Second Mexica Ruler, Huitzilihuitl; or at least one of the tlatoani’s first children.

A legitimate son, he possessed it all – the birthright, the brilliance, the drive, the ability to work hard – all the qualities that might have made him a remarkable ruler. Yet, for reasons known maybe only to him, he had preferred to shape what would later on become the famous Aztec Empire from behind the scenes.

Early Tenochtitlan

Only a decade or two before Tlacaelel was born, Tenochtitlan had been nothing but a mediocre town, stuck on an island, with no prospects and no significant future, having no place to grow and no resources to develop it.

Its first Tlatoani, Acamapichtli, was reported to be the son a Mexica nobleman and a princess of Culhuacan, an infinitely better bloodline as far as the Mexican Valley’s (Anahuac) nobility was concerned. Raised in the exquisite aristocratic Acolhua city-state, located on the eastern shore of Lake Texcoco, this man did not hesitated when Tenochtitlan’s elders asked him to become the ruler of the Mexica island. Apparently, he was not a person to shy away from an interesting challenge.

Two decades of his rule saw the puny island town growing into a worthwhile city, with the first level of the future Great Pyramid challenging the skyline, wide canals dug throughout the city to make the traffic and transportation easier, first causeway spread out to connect Tenochtitlan with the mainland, and many cane-and-reed houses giving way to the adobe and stone constructed dwellings.

On the personal level, Acamapichtli made sure to place the royal house of Tenochtitlan in a proper position, recognized by the rest of the Anahuac local powers, from the haughty Acolhua of Texcoco to the powerful Tepanecs of Azcapotzalco; not to mention the people of Chalco, Xochimilco, and other towns and altepetls, city-states, surrounding the vastness of Lake Texcoco. He took quite a few noble wives from all sort of places, managing to acquire even a Toltec princess of Culhuacan, spicing his harem by locally noble women as well, daughters of those same districts elders and other influential Mexicas.

Thus, when Acamapichtli died, Tenochtitlan royal house has no lack of legitimate heirs.

The Second Tlatoani

First to inherit was one of the younger sons, Huitzilihuitl. He was reported to be barely over twenty, a young man of pleasant disposition, suitably smart and nicely tractable. The elders of Tenochtitlan, those who comprised the council of the districts’ leaders, with much influence and responsibilities, including the ratification of the nominated next ruler’s candidacy, were not disappointed with their choice.

About two decades of this Second Tlatoani’s rule saw Tenochtitlan not only growing rapidly, but also expanding, not crushing under the heavy tribute levied by the Tepanecs on the island-city before that.

A wise move of acquiring one of the Tepanec Emperor’s daughters for a Chief Wife saw to it that Tenochtitlan’s tribute was reduced to one fourth of what it used to be paid through the previous decades under Acamapichtli. Many sources state that the clever Tepanec woman had pleaded with her mighty father upon the birth of her son, the prospective heir to Tenochtitlan’s throne, and so the tribute was cut considerably.

Less tribute, more means to invest in the city. Tenochtitlan prospered, but there was a price to pay. The island city was turning into a true tributary of the mighty Tepanecs, less independent, more servile.

When in 1415, Tezozomoc, the Tepanec Emperor, opened an outright war against Texcoco, the Acolhua Capital, Tenochtitlan has no choice but to keep neutral as long as they could, not at liberty to aid their Acolhua neighbors and possible allies of previous years. The Mexica island was in no position to anger its stern overlords in Azcapotzalco.

And its not that the island-city did not gain much from its enforced neutrality. The eastern trading routes, interrupted by nearly two years of hostilities, shifted toward the peaceful Tenochtitlan. The markets filled with unheard-of before excesses, and the economy flourished. With the attention of their overlords elsewhere, Tenochtitlan was also able to strengthen its naval forces and its land-born defenses, all the while maintaining their demure pose of neutrality, reinforcing neither side.

At this time Tlacaelel has already been a youth, probably about to finish his studies in calmecac, the school for nobles that even the royal offsprings attended. Most of the sources are placing his date of birth around 1397-98. So by the time of the Tepanec-Acolhua War he must have seen close to 18 summers.

His mother, Cacamacihuatl, was reported to be a noble woman of Tenochtitlan. But of course she was not noble enough to compete with his father’s, Huitzilihuitl’s, Chief Wife, the daughter of the mighty Tepanec Emperor. Therefore, Tlacaelel was not the prospective heir.

Even at such a young age he must have been wise enough to cherish no farfetched ideas concerning his birthright. A mere youth, the mighty ruler’s son or not, was no match for the Emperor’s Chief Wife, who must have been a dominant woman, as most of the sources mention her in connection to the reduced tribute, and not only as a mother of the next ruler – the lot of the other women who were honored with a mention at all.

Thus, it was her son, Chimalpopoca, who has been groomed for the office of tlatoani, although according to Diego Duran he has been barely a boy of ten or twelve years old by the time Huitzilihuitl died. Too young to inherit, but inherit he did, becoming Tenochtitlan’s Third Tlatoani at the height of the Tepanec-Acolhua War, which dragged on and on, with less success than the Tepanecs must have been expecting. The Acolhua turned out to be a worthy adversary, defending their altepetl and its provinces fiercely, then taking the war into the Tepanec side of the Great Lake for some time.

The implications of the Tepanec-Acolhua War

However, the death of the Second Mexica Emperor changed all that. Tenochtitlan’s neutrality was no more. Whether it was because Chimalpopoca felt obliged to support his grandfather, the Tepanec Emperor, or whether the pressure from Azcapotzalco grew, but Tenochtitlan participated in the renewed attack on Texcoco quite eagerly, sending considerable warriors’ forces to join the invasion.

Planned most cunningly, with a deceptive, well thought out strategy Tezozomoc was famous for, the invasion succeeded, with Texcoco going down quite soundly, its ruler Ixtlilxochitl killed, the surviving heir, Nezahualcoyotl, fleeing into the Highlands with nothing but his life, and the mighty Tepanec Empire absorbing the Acolhua altepetl and its provinces, growing yet larger and wealthier, more invincible than ever.

Tenochtitlan was rewarded with the generous part of the tribute coming from the conquered Texcoco, and the permission to build an aqueduct using the springs of the mainland, also controlled by the Tepanecs of course. The trade flourished even more than before, and the fresh drinking water added to the delights of the ever growing city.

The aftermath of the Acolhua defeat

By this time Tlacaelel was already in the thickest of it, in the midst of his altepetl’s activities, a vigorous young man near his mid-twenties, full of energy and ideas, aiming for the office of Tlacochcalcatl, the Chief Warlord of Tenochtitlan, held by his uncle Itzcoatl for some time.

Taking upon himself the task of guiding his royal nephew, Chimalpopoca, Itzcoatl took the responsibility of become Cihuacoatl, the Head Adviser, thus leaving the office of leading warrior to Tlacaelel, another of his distinguished nephews.

Like his half-brother Huitzilihuitl, father of both Tlacaelel and Chimalpopoca, Itzcoatl was the son of the First Tlatoani, but wherein Huitzilihuitl’s mother was perfectly legitimate wife and a woman of noble origins, Itzcoatl’s mother was a simple concubine, a slave from Azcapotzalco’s marketplace, or just a beautiful commoner, a vegetable-seller according to some of the sources. Either way she was not legitimate enough to warrant her son’s possible ambition to occupy Tenochtitlan’s throne. So Itzcoatl bid his time, advanced his career in the areas he was good at, namely warfare and organization, content to help his ruling nephew, a young man of not a patient or wise enough disposition to conduct himself wisely in front of all the Great Lake’s political upheavals. Or so it seemed.

The upheavals in the Tepanec royal house

In 1426 the old Tepanec Emperor died after ruling Azcapotzalco and, gradually, the entire region around Lake Texcoco for quite a few decades, with a stony fist at that. The Tepanec royal house plunged into turmoil and the waves of unrest spread all over the Mexican Valley.

The official heir, Tayatzin, stepped up to occupy the throne as instructed, but one of his numerous brothers, Maxtla, palmed off with the rulership of a province of Coyoacan, did not think his father chose wisely. Shortly after the ceremony of his anointment, Tayatzin died of unknown cases. Maxtla came to rule Azcapotzalco and hence the entire Tepanec Empire.

Tenochtitlan, along with other Tepanec provinces, began to worry.

Even smaller changes in the Great Capital were bound to reflect on all Tepanec provinces, namely the entire Mexican Valley’s basin, but Chimalpopoca, in addition to this, did not act wisely by supporting Tayatzin openly and vocally while this short-time ruler was still alive. The island city, not very popular with the Tepanec nobility as it was, found itself facing an offended, inimical ruler. Not a good state of affairs.

The revolt against the Tepanecs

Tlacaelel, the Chief Warlord at this point, was reported to prepare for the worst, readying Tenochtitlan for the possible attempt of invasion. Bent on seeing his inherited empire tidy and obedient, Maxtla was already reported to poison not only his own brother, the legitimate heir to the Tepanec throne, but the ruler of Tlatelolco, Tenochtitlan’s sister-city located on the neighboring island, as well.

That without counting the attempt on the heir to the still-subdued Texcoco, Nezahualcoyotl, who after hiding in the Highlands for some time, had emerged back in the Lowlands and was allowed to live in Tenochtitlan and later on even in Texcoco itself by the old Tezozomoc himself for close to eight years since the fall of Texcoco. Well, this prudent young man, already adept in the art of survival, did not stay to see what would happened but fled back into the Highlands, to seek for possible reinforcements and support.

Isolated, Tenochtitlan was left to face the crisis alone. But that wasn’t the worst of it. Some time later, Chimalpopoca, the Third Tlatoani of the island-city, was found dead, slain in his own palace according to many primary sources. Maxtla, already notorious for his political killings, was held to be the supposed instigator, even though some later-day scholars suspect Itzcoatl’s direct involvement. The fourth Tlatoani of Tenochtitlan had everything to gain out of this particular death, the elevation to the throne being one of the benefits, the safety of his island city, another. Chimalpopoca’s policies were not wise or farsighted.

Tlacaelel’s exploits in Azcapotzalco

However, having received a strong, experienced ruler to lead them, Tenochtitlan’s more commonly originated leading elements – influential traders, nobles of the neighboring Tlatelolco and the heads of Tenochtitlan’s districts – were reported to experience a sudden spell of uncertainty.

A delegation came to Itzcoatl, demanding to do everything in order to reach a peaceful agreement with the powerful Azcapotzalco. No common people wanted war, the brunt of which would fall on their shoulders to carry.

Upon hearing this Tlacaelel was reported to launch into a fiery speech, talking of honor and bravery, of Tenochtitlan’s worthiness and its true destination. That had Itzcoatl, the new Tlatoani, convinced, but not the districts and the neighboring Tlatelolco’s representatives.

The offshoot of this argument was a compromise, an embassy to be sent to Azcapotzalco, offering peace but demanding fair treatment and better conditions for relationship than before. Some sources hint that it might have even included Nezahualcoyotl’s case. Not the conditions the Tepanec Emperor was likely to accept, but it was worth a try.

Tlacaelel volunteered to lead the dangerous mission himself. Or so the accepted narration would have it. Retold about a century and a half later, as the original Nahuatl books that might have been containing more authentic accounts were burned when Cortez conquered Tenochtitlan and Texcoco, it may be that the exploits of this particular man were somewhat exaggerated by the this or that descendant retelling his version of history for the benefit of the recording monks. According to those, having taken upon himself such perilous mission, Tlacaelel proceeded to travel to Azcapotzalco, alone and barely armed, reaching the outskirts of the Great Capital and demanding at the first guards house to be let in and escorted straight into the presence of the Tepanec ruler himself. There he proceeded to state his case, with great courage and eloquence, causing notoriously dishonorable Maxtla to hesitated and even behave courteously enough by letting Tenochtitlan’s ambassador go unharmed, with the demand to return on the next day in order to receive his answer.

Tlacaelel had been reported to do just that, leave fearlessly, to return with the break of dawn. Still alone, still displaying no fear. At this point, the undecided Tepanec ruler arrived at the decision, which was a resounding ‘no’ to the islanders’ shameless demands. So Tlacaelel proceeded to offer the customary weaponry and attire, thus ‘arming’ the Tepanec ruler for the upcoming war, while anointing him as the sacrificial victim at the same time – the traditional declaration of war, along with the subtle hint at whom would be the loser of the conflict. Then he went home, having been detained by the guard house on this second exodus of the enemy city. The incident which still saw him back in Tenochtitlan, unharmed, having left a few dead Azcapotzalco’s guards behind him, those who were silly enough to try and detain him by force after all.

A questionable account, from the overnight trips back and forth from Azcapotzalco to Tenochtitlan – an ambassador, even of the enemy city, would be more likely to remain for the night, enjoying the local hospitality, instead of rowing back and forth or running miles of the countryside and the length of the causeway – to the actions of Maxtla himself, notorious for his unscrupulousness and dishonesty but for this particular incident, or the ways Tenochtitlan, not a village of little importance even in those days, was conducting its war and peace business.

The tides have turned

Some sources say that shortly thereafter, the Tepanecs launched the attack on the island, laying a siege to it, but Nezahualcoyotl’s reinforcements of rebellious Acolhua and the friendly Highlanders of Huexotzinco made the difference. Back from the mountainous east the Texcoco heir came, leading hordes of fierce, warlike Highlanders.

Re-conquering the Tepanec-controlled Acolhua towns of the eastern shore south to Texcoco the Highlanders and the upraising Acolhua, with Nezahualcoyotl and Tenocelotl, the Huexotzinco’s war leader, proceeded to cross Texcoco Lake, heading for the Tepanec side of it.

Simultaneously, the besieged Mexica of Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco poured out under the overall leadership of Tlacaelel, confronting their attackers with great vigor. A battle fought at the city’s edge was fierce and brutal, with the Mexica ‘…fighting like never before…’.

At the same time, Moctezuma Ilhuicamina, another son of Huitzilihuitl, Tlacaelel’s half brother and Itzcoatl’s nephew, led a large contingent of war canoes toward Tlacopan, threatening this Tepanec second important city in a hope of making it side with the invaders – an offer that has probably been already made beforehand, accompanied by fair promises.

Thus Azcapotzalco was threatened from the south, while the crossing Highlanders and Acolhua did the same from the north.

In the end of the day the Tepanec forces retreated back toward the mainland and Azcapotzalco, with the Mexica hot on their heels.

The tides had turned.

It was now Azcapotzalco besieged and fighting to its life, with even Tlacopan, the Tepanec largest provincial city, switching sides, joining the combined forces of Mexica, Acolhua and the Highlanders of Huexotzinco.

Some sources say that the fight for the Tepanec Capital lasted for up to 114 days; some claim it had taken much less than that. A few more battles were fought, led by the famous Tepanec warlord, Mazatl, until this renowned warrior was killed in a fair hand-to-hand, some say by Tlacaelel himself, some give this honor to Moctezuma Ilhuicamina.

By this time, Azcapotzalco was near its doom, taken shortly thereafter, razed to the ground, its temples burned, pyramids destroyed, citizens slain or sent to the slave markets, everything of value taken. According to the later records, after a few decades or so, the list of Azcapotzalco rulers was renewed, the city allowed to resume its life, but in a small unimportant state, as meaningless tributary as the Mexica Island was for the Tepanecs before.

Tlacopan had inherited some of the old Azcapotzalco’s glamour, joining in the Triple Alliance the victorious Mexica and Acolhua had formed shortly thereafter. Not completely equal in this triumvirate, Tlacopan enjoyed a junior status, representing the Tepanecs but receiving one fifth of the tributes and spoils as opposed to two fifths the other participants took each.

The Triple Alliance and Tlacaelel’s role in it

Tlacaelel, elevated into the status of Cihuacoatl, the Head Adviser, got to work with yet more zeal.

His island city was not just a city anymore but a growing empire, a leading partner in the Triple Alliance, or so he must have envisioned it. Drastic changes were needed, most basic of reforms.

He had applied to this work with his usual vigor and fearlessness, not hindered or intimidated by the challenges or even convention. Tenochtitlan had to adjust to its new status. Absorbing all the Tepanec provinces and tributaries took time, while the fleeing Maxtla was hunted down and towns and altepetls such as Coyoacan, Xochimilco and the others were shown the error of their ways upon their refusal to accept the new Mexica dominance.

Those first conquests are still attributed to Tlacaelel, even though from there it was Itzcoatl and Moctezuma Ilhuicamina, the new Chief Warlord, who would lead the wars of the next decade or so. Tlacaelel had to stay in Tenochtitlan more often than not, reforming and reorganizing, transforming his island city into an imperial capital of his vision.

Tlacaelel’s reforms

Striving to unite his Mexica people, maybe to install a sense of destiny in them, while setting them slightly apart from the rest of the Mexican Valley’s inhabitants, he had elevated Huitzilopochtli, the special Mexica god, above the other deities that were worshiped mutually by every town and altepetl of Anahuac. The festivals dedicated to this divine Mexica patron were larger and more impressive than the celebrations other deities received, and his temple atop the Great Pyramid he had shared with Tlaloc alone.

The distribution of the newly acquired wealth – lands, spoils, manpower, not to mention the outpour of the new tribute – was to be faced as well. First to benefit from any of this was the royal house, of course, personally and as a representative of the state. Each noble was rewarded with tracks of land according to his contribution and his direct involvement in the Tepanec War. Thus the gap between aristocracy and the commoners widened further and further.

Tlatocatlalli were tracks of land granted personally to people, to use as the receiver saw fit. The royal family was first to receive its share, its most ardent supporters next in line, the city authorities trailing after them.

Tecpantlalli was the land allocated to the city itself, the palace’s enclosure and other districts. The proceeds of the palace’s share maintained the governmental expenses, courts, building programs, royal’s enclosure’s schools and temples. The rest of the land was granted to the city districts, to be apportioned by the districts’ leaders according to their consideration. Some of these lands were assigned to the upkeep of local temples and other district’s buildings and offices, schools, local marketplaces and such.

Thus, the formerly powerful council of the districts’ elders, who in the earlier times used to have their say in every important matter, from confirming the appointment of a new ruler to a general management of the city and its activities, lost its say and importance gradually, yielded its place to the more exclusive council comprised of the royal family mostly, Tlatoani and his closest advisers and warlords. Under reforms of Tlacaelel the royal family gained very rapid ascendancy.

Successful warriors were rewarded with lands as well, elevated into a new class of lesser nobility, again ahead of the previously influential city elders. The royal family was not dependent on Tenochtitlan’s commoners anymore, neither in tribute nor in military support. Out of those changes a new warrior class elite emerged.

Tlacaelel’s later reforms and undertakings

Religious, social and economical reforms aside, the Mexica kept extending its reach, conquering far and wide. Tlacaelel remained in his office of Cihuacoatl for the rest of his life, governing Tenochtitlan and its growing provinces and tributaries along with two more tlatoaque that succeeded Itzcoatl after his death.

Moctezuma Ilhuicamina was to become the Fifth Tlatoani of Tenochtitlan, a honor Tlacaelel was reported to decline. It is said that everyone in the city and around it, even Nezahualcoyotl, the ruler of Texcoco and Totoquihuaztli the ruler of Tlacopan, Tenochtitlan’s partners in Triple Alliance, pleaded with Tlacaelel to take the burden of governing his Mexica city in name and not only in fact as he had done until now. Still for reasons unknown, Tlacaelel has declined, and it was his half-brother Moctezuma Ilhuicamina who had inherited the title.

Through the next three decades, he had ruled together with his half brother, strengthening Tenochtitlan’s position in the Triple Alliance and the Mexican Valley and beyond it, subduing altepetl of Chalco, the old time enemy in the south, and venturing far beyond, into Cuauhnahuac, a region rich in cotton and maize, then out into the Hot Lands of the Totonac people in the east, where the riches of goods and food were reported to be staggering.

The terrible years of first flooding, then drought that Tenochtitlan endured between 1452 and 1455 made its rulers anxious to ensure uninterrupted food supplies in case of another failure in the local harvest. Hence the venture into the Totonac lands.

The flooding trouble were solved by the building of nine-mile-long dike that enabled to control the lake’s water levels, an engineering marvel reportedly planned and supervised by Nezahualcoyotl personally. A three-miles-long aqueduct was added to the engineering feats, supplying Tenochtitlan with a constant flow of fresh water from the mainland, a much better construction than the old clay and lime-stone made structure offered, braking down more often than it had worked.

The seventh reconstruction of the Great Pyramid was reported to bring the Mexica Aztecs to the peak of their glory, commenced by Tlacaelel in 1484.

He was reported to die at the year 1487 or Eight Reed, leaving behind a successor to his high position, his second son Tlilpotoncatzin by one of his noble wives Maquiztzin. According to one of the most known ancient biographers, Chimalpahin Cuauhtlehuanitzin, Tlacaelel has left fifteen known children from his collection of wives and concubines and, of course, a firm legacy for his Mexica People, no tributaries of anyone, not anymore.

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5 Comments to “Tlacaelel, the man who gave the Aztec empire its history”

  1. sometimes those who really rule are not the ones on the throne but those beside or behind them. in this instance, it was fortunate that the “real ruler” was not a usurper nor a tyrant but a partner who “ruled” wisely.

    • Hi Ao,

      Thank you for your insightful comment 🙂
      You are so right and many times the names of the people contributing to the success of building the empire would not even come down to us, shaded by the glorious names of the actual rulers.
      It’s so very interesting to come upon those less known ‘architects’ of well known empires 🙂

  2. I’ve read a lot of prolific writers, but your list tops them all. My goodness.
    thanks for following on twitter.
    Jack

  3. Helpful

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