Living in a beautiful, rich and well regulated altepetl (city-sate) of the Mexican Valley might have been a pleasant experience unless you and your family were extremely poor.
To be a pipiltin, a noble, was good. Whether residing next to the imposing cultural center, among the magnificent temples, palaces and ceremonial enclosures with a full size ball court and a beautiful plaza, or living in the colorful neighborhoods consisted of two-storey stone houses, you would have nothing to complain about. Wealthy citizens, traders, artisans and minor nobility lived well.
But closer to the marketplace and the harbor areas, the dwellings turned into lower, simpler looking constructions, sporting logs or cane-and-reed houses and much less wealth and color.
So if you were macehuatlin, a commoner, you would live around those areas, enjoying less luxury and more of a hard work. Each morning you would wake up with dawn, ready to go to work, whether to row out in order to farm your chinampa (floating man-made farms that covered considerable parts of the Lake Texcoco), or heading for your workshop to do various urban crafts. You would be expected to serve in the army too, but usually as a simple warrior, unless you managed to distinguish yourself and so start climbing the ranks.
If it happened, you would be better and better off, accumulating wealth and influence, eventually moving into a better neighborhood and acquiring slaves to make your life easier. You would be even allowed to wear jewelry like noble people, because the commoners were forbidden certain costly adornments and cotton clothes. They were not to drink octli in public and to be idle about their duties, expected to lead righteous, generally humble lives. Organized into calpulli, districts, they got by, working together, answerable to the elected head of their district, who was in his turn reporting to the representatives of the city administration.
So, just in case your prospective career as a brave, fearless warrior didn’t work, you would have to accept your lot and work diligently and with no complains, because if you succumbed to crime or gambling you may end up in a worse position, selling yourself into slavery, or sentenced to it by a court.
Tlacotin, slave, was the next lower step in the Mexican Valley societies. But as opposed to some other ancient cultures, slaves composed relatively small percentage of the general population, maybe because the slavery was almost never for life.
Slaves could be either captives taken from the conquered lands (opposed to the general belief, only the captive warriors were qualified to be sacrificial victims; no commoners or women and children faced that fate), or they were commoners who sold themselves into slavery to pay debts, survive poverty or serve their time if convicted by a court.
The crimes sentenced to slavery varied from failure to pay tribute to theft, but even a murderer could end up turning into a slave. Convicted of murder person would usually be executed, but if the family of the victim wanted him to serve as their slave, the judge might be forthcoming. Also if a man murdered a slave, the owner of the destroyed property could demand this person to serve as a slave instead.
Theft and rape often resulted in slavery, as well. And so was the crime of selling free people (like selling slaves’ children, who were legally free; in this case both the seller and buyer would be enslaved). A slave who had sold himself voluntarily might have saved money and paid the same price to gain his freedom back.
So basically the slaves were not outside the law, relatively protected from mistreatment, allowed to have families, possessions and even slaves of their own, entitled to appeal to courts in the case of mistreatment. There were even some legal benefits, like an exemption from paying a tribute and serving in the army. It was not illegal for the slaves to marry a free person and there was no social stigma attached to such unions and their fruits. The children of the slaves were born free people.
Many slaves were brought in from foreign lands, to be sold in the central markets of the large altepetls. Like with any other state activity, the government regulated this trade and it was illegal to sell an obedient slave against his or her wishes. In his turn, if the slave disobeyed his master, he was the one to be dragged into court, with the charges brought against him, backed by witnesses. A public warning would be ensued for the first time offender, but a few more of such warnings would see a slave chained with a wooden collar and sold for good. If this happened more than three time, a slave would be branded as troublesome, handed to the government for public works or sacrifice, creating the ultimate three strikes rule.
In Tenochtitlan there was another interesting law about slavery. On the way to the slave market, when the slave was about to be sold or resold, if he managed to get away and make his way to the palace without being stopped, he would be considered as free man. The only person allowed to chase that slave was the owner, or the owner’s son. No one else was to interfere, under the pain of becoming a slave himself.
An excerpt from “The Warrior’s Way”
As the grayish mist spread, Mino could make out the colorful walls behind their back and to their left. They seemed to be placed in the corner of the alley, between two marble columns. Ahead, there was a small pool and a few stone benches. Her eyes could make out a large tented podium, a dark threatening shape in the semidarkness.
The air was brightening rapidly. Hurriedly, she doubled her efforts to cut her ties against the crude pole.
“Would you stop doing that!” cried out someone behind her back.
She gasped, startled. Turning her head as far as she could, she met a pair of glaring eyes.
“Stop rocking this thing. It’s annoying,” said the man, now more calmly.
“I want to get out of here. Don’t you?”
“Where to, silly girl?” The man snorted and pushed the pole toward her, hitting her back.
“I don’t care. I’ll stop when my ties come off.”
A woman to her left laughed. “The ties are not your problem, girl. You have nowhere to go.”
“I can go home,” said Mino, resuming her rubbing.
“The Smocking Mountain, around altepetl of Texcoco. The Highlands.”
“A long way!”
“I don’t care.”
“It’s the girl that was caught tonight, on our way here, isn’t it?” called another voice, its accent heavy. “You didn’t get very far the first time, little one, did you?”
Mino ignored them, working on.
“She can do that sanctuary thing,” said the woman to her left.
“What sanctuary thing?” The man with the accent snorted.
“They say if a slave manages to break free and run all the way to the Palace, he is a free man.” The woman paused, trying to turn her head and observe her audience – an impossible feat when one is tied to the pole and can only turn one’s neck.
“None of us would make it,” said another woman. “The whole market would be after such a slave.”
“But there is another rule,” said the first woman. She paused again, savoring the moment. “Only the owner of that slave or his sons is allowed to participate in the chase. None of the others. Not even the warriors.”
“Are you sure about this custom?” asked the man with the accent. “How do you know about it?”
“I know. Trust me to know,” said the woman importantly.
Mino felt the string loosening. “We don’t know the way to the Palace,” she said, her eyes on two men appearing from around the podium. She stopped moving and clasped her sweaty palms behind her back.
The other slaves fell silent as the two men approached, eyeing the tied people. One leaned forward, studying every face, one by one, carefully and thoughtfully.