The prince of Texcoco was living evidence that the Amerindian civilization could and did create a high level of intellectual culture. But even Nezahualcóyotl’s court was repeating old concepts and forms and breaking no new ground. The art of his engineers never equaled that of the Classic Age; for hundreds of years Amerindian engineers and architects were accustomed to applying old techniques without ever considering the concepts behind the techniques they used.

There was another small island of humanism in these years at Huexotzingo. However, the Mexica of Tenochtitlán were far more representative of the Nahua culture of the age. The vast majority of men were dominated by custom, deference, and devotion to a bloody-minded magic. The Mexica were only more warlike, and better organized and inspired than most.

Itzcóatl the Conqueror died circa 1440. But this marked no watershed in the history of Tenochtitlán, for Tlacaélel had done his work too well. Utterly dominant in its own near-universe, Tenochtitlán had no rational cause to go beyond the volcanoes. But Tlacaélel still lived and gave advice, and ultrarational notions are easier to infuse than eradicate.

The ruling council, including Nezahualcóyotl, offered Tlacaélel the revered speaker’s seat, which was by now almost a theocratic throne. When the prime minister refused, the brother of Chimalpopoca, Motecuhzoma Ilhuicamina, was ceremonially installed with rites and nose plug, in the traditional year I-Dog.

Under Motecuhzoma warfare became the causa causans of the Mexica state. The upper echelons of Mexica society had become totally militarist, and the prosperity and employment of the burgeoning aristocracy and bureaucracy depended upon a constant growth of the palace estates. The common man was fired by mystic theology and saw war as his only means of mobility. Such pressures were irresistible. And Motecuhzoma did not try to resist them; he led his armies beyond the mountains into Morelos, and with this act the Mexica empire passed its final point of no return.

Motecuhzoma raped and reduced all Morelos. Then he marched south for the first time, into the series of valleys and broad plateaus that made up the Oaxaca region. Here he encountered the Mixteca (Nahua: “Cloud People”) on the snow-capped slopes. The Mexica did not subjugate the Mixtecs, but they soon drove these inheritors of Monte Albán and the builders of Mitla southwest along the same path they themselves had pushed the Zapotecs.

Motecuhzoma lived in the midst of an imperialist furor; he and Tlacaélel, who continued in office, sought new excuses for war. Together they planned new campaigns beyond the mountains.

With the Mixteca country thoroughly ravaged, Motecuhzoma turned to the east. The Mexica twenties marched between Iztaccíhuatl and snowbound Popocatépetl. They arrived at Huexotzingo and forced that city to become a vassal. They conquered Cholula and exacted tribute. Finally, Motecuhzoma came into the country of Tlaxcala. Here, as at Huexotzingo, the Mexica ignored old debts. The Tlaxcalteca were ordered to submit to Motecuhzoma, and Motecuhzoma attacked them when they did not.

The four great clans of the Republic of Tlaxcala resisted stubbornly. Tlaxcala was ensconced in the cordillera like an eagle’s nest. The forces of Huitzilopochtli failed to prevail over Mixcóatl, whom the Tlaxcalteca worshipped as their principal deity. Checked, the angry Motecuhzoma bypassed Tlaxcala and invaded the regions lying along the Gulf coast.

Near the present city of Veracruz the Cempoalteca had created a sizeable nation. Motecuhzoma made war against Cempoala. The decisive battle here was a hard-fought, near-run thing, and it was finally won only by the efforts of the Tlatelolca contingent led by the lord of Tlatelolco, Moquihuix the Drunkard. The Tenochcas cousins became very boastful over this success, which angered Motecuhzoma. In the end, the Mexica armies returned to the west, leaving Cempoala looted and subdued, its people seething. This campaign was to bear several kinds of bitter fruit for the Mexica.

Now, Motecuhzoma had conquered a wide crescent of territory that stretched out east and south from the Navel of the Moon. And with these conquests, spearheaded by the warriors of Tenochtitlán, the internal nature of the triple alliance began to change. Motecuhzoma hardly recalled the heady days of the common war against Azcapotzalco. He handled his allies at Tlacopán and Texcoco almost as haughtily as the people of Huexotzingo and Tlaxcala. This again was a bad omen for the Mexica future.

During this imperialist expansion there was an even more ominous change in the nature of the Mexica state. About 1450 a series of unprecedented natural disasters struck Anáhuac. After a serious drought, there were four consecutive years of snows and killing frosts; the normal seasons went awry. The corn supply failed, and the whole civilization was in danger of starvation. Such things had happened regularly in Mexico, but the Mexica tribal memory had no record of a disaster of such magnitude.

However, every Meso-American was steeped in the knowledge and fear that his gods, Tezcatlipoca of the Night, Tláloc of the Rain, and Huitzilopochtli the Sun, could and would visit communal destruction on the whole race. The common people at Tenochtitlán took these disasters as evidence that the gods were displeased. In the face of mass panic, the rulers of Tenochtitlán themselves panicked, and they undertook enormous efforts to appease the gods.

Despite the institution of human sacrifice, which began with the Magicians, there is not much evidence that the practice had really gotten out of hand. Symbolic destruction had been kept at symbolic levels; it probably was not much more extensive than comparable practices among the ancient Syrians and Mesopotamians, or the barbaric Germans and Celtic Druids. A few warriors were killed ceremonially to please the Sun, and a few virgins sacrificed to assure the sprouting of corn. But now the Mexica reacted violently according to their culture. The slant and dynamism that Tlacaélel had given the cult of Huitzilopochtli resulted in a vast orgy of destruction.

Motecuhzoma mounted expeditions to the south and east to find thousands of new victims. According to the Mexica’s own records, the fury did not cease until ten thousand men were slaughtered at Tenochtitlán.

This sacrificial orgy was unparalleled in all of human history. And it seems to have spread over much of Mexico. There was no essential difference between the Mexica and most of their tributaries and enemies. The Mexica, however, had greater opportunity to seize victims.

The final tragedy was that in Amerindian eyes this magic worked. Following the shower of hot blood the frosts ceased and the sun again warmed the earth. The corn flourished. The lords of Tenochtitlán took credit for averting disaster, and Tlacaélel urged the people to build a newer and more magnificent temple to Huitzilopochtli. And from this time forward mass ceremonial murder was not only institutionalized but uncontrollable. The rulers could not have halted the practice had they wanted to.

This sacrificial ardor had effects beyond the destruction of human life. After 1450 the empirical nature of Mexica imperialism began to change. The ancient Tolteca militarism had been pragmatic in its struggle for predominance and power, but now the Mexica armies tended to see the purpose of warfare more and more as a search for sacrificial victims. The warrior who took four live captives was honored over one who merely killed four enemies in combat.

The perversion produced one unique manifestation. This was the development of the so-called Flower War. The Mexica met both their enemies and their subject cities in prearranged ceremonial battles, whose sole purpose on each side was the seizure of prisoners for sacrifice. The Mexica fought these especially with Tlaxcala, Cholula, and Huexotzinga. A Flower War ended by agreement when one or both sides had taken all the victims it needed or desired. All cities killed their prisoners basically in the same way, for the same reasons.

Being taken in a Flower War and dying on the altar was an honor. The Amerindian culture never escaped its primordial belief that the manner of a man’s death was more important in eternity than the manner of his life. The mass orgies of destruction that swept the highlands could not have been carried on so long had there not been passive acceptance even among the victims. Warriors tried to die well.

Besides the cardiectomies, flayings, and burnings before the gods, there was another form of sacrifice called “gladiatorial combat” because it somewhat resembled the bloody customs of the Etruscans and Romans. The victims were sent unarmed, or otherwise handicapped, against a series of picked warriors in a narrow court, while spectators watched from the walls. A prisoner who defeated five warriors could win his life, and the Mexica had records of such cases. There were also records of prisoners who won freedom but, in the throes of exaltation, insisted on fighting until they died.

These perversions of the practical purposes of war fatally flawed the Amerindian military art and in the next century did much to ensure the civilization’s downfall.

In Motecuhzoma’s later years he began to handle friend and foe alike with contempt—even old Nezahualcóyotl was hard put to avoid trouble with the Mexica ruler—and his manner pointed up the complete political failure of the Mexica’s drive for empire. They were steadily conquering their world, but they were failing utterly to create a greater society or a Mexic universal state. The tribe allowed no other people except the Texcoca an honorable place in their empire. Thus they turned what might have been a promising confederacy or a Pax Mexicana into a world of lords and slaves, a world seething with perennial revolt.

When Motecuhzoma Ilhuicamina died in 1468 this rebellion boiled over.

The Eagle council again offered Tlacaélel the throne; again he refused it. The choice then fell on Axayácatl, another royal scion.

Axayácatl (“The Scourge”) was no Maxtla, presiding over the collapse of a jerry-built hegemony, because he had a united Mexica behind him. When long-subdued parts of the Valley revolted, he quickly crushed them. He marched through all the dominions, again reducing cities and severely punishing anyone who opposed Mexica rule. He removed some refractory local rulers, dispersed some tribes, and established permanent garrisons in others. All these moves emphasized the Mexica inability to create a lasting political infrastructure; they were experiments in subordination.

The lords of Tenochtitlán now were having serious problems even with their cousins in Tlatelolco. The sister city was Mexica, but its rulers traced their lineage from Azcapotzalco rather than Culhuacán and had retained a separate identity. A terrible jealousy had grown up between the two branches of the dominant race, as each city considered itself to be the true seat of empire. Tlatelolco had the finest marketplace in all Mexico, but the Tenochca were more numerous.

A long-simmering hostility reached flashpoint when the lord of Tlatelolco, Moquihuix the Drunkard, won the important victory at Cempoala. He was neither temperate nor tactful, and though he had married a sister of Axayácatl, this relationship now provided the Tenochca with an excuse for war.

The sister, Jade Doll, probably never adopted her husband’s interests; she seems to have served as a spy for Tenochtitlán. Moquihuix sent her back to her brother, along with certain insulting remarks about her supposed lack of feminine charms. Axayácatl used these insults as a pretext to invade the northern island, which was connected with Tenochtitlán by a causeway, in 1473.

The Tlatelolca resisted bitterly; even naked women and children battled the invaders. But the Tenochca were prepared; the Tlatelolca taken by surprise. The head of the war chief of Tlatelolco was mounted on a pole and carried into the city. Moquihuix himself was killed in fighting at the main temple-pyramid, and with his death resistance ceased.

Axayácatl annexed the northern island to Tenochtitlán; he installed a Tenochca governor and ended the existence of Tlatelolco as an independent city. Hostility continued, but soon the two areas rapidly grew together as the lake was filled between them. When the Spanish arrived, Tlatelolco with its still splendid market plaza was merely the northern quarter of Tenochtitlán.

Axayácatl had crushed all opposition in the Valley by 1473. Now he hurled the power and the fury of the Mexica once again beyond Anáhuac, this time to the north and west. They quickly conquered the valley of Toluca and then invaded Michoacán.

But in Michoacán, in the high cool region around Lake Pátzcuaro, the Mexica met their match and received their only serious check from the Tarasca tribe, which had carved out a miniature empire with a capital at Tzintzuntzan (“City of the Hummingbird”). The Tarasca were fierce and innovative warriors; they set imaginative ambushes and fought with copper weapons. They were untrammeled with ritualistic conceptions of warfare, and they cut Axayácatl’s first expedition to pieces in their pine forests.

The Mexica mounted another invasion in the 1470s, but once again were defeated and thereafter avoided Michoacán. The Mexica scribes drew accounts that depicted the Tarasca as a brother warrior people, descended from the great peoples of fabled Aztatlán. The slant-eyed Tarasca were dubious relations of the Mexica in any case, but the fiction undoubtedly soothed Mexica pride.

Like Motecuhzoma, Axayácatl also failed to reduce Tlaxcala, although he was able to conquer all the territory that surrounded the mountain enclave. Some historians attribute this failure to deliberate policy: the Mexica preferred to maintain Tlaxcala as a strong neighbor to supply them with captives, and on which to hone their arms, but this theory does not fit the Mexica character. Axayácatl would surely have subordinated the Tlaxcalteca could he have done so at supportable cost.

From the 1470s on perpetual warfare ensued between the two peoples. This conflict may have been an exercise for the Mexica, but it was an intolerable burden for the Tlaxcalteca, and it sowed a lasting hatred which has not even disappeared entirely between the two regions in the twentieth century.

Although Nezahualcóyotl died in 1472 and Axayácatl in 1481—the same year in which the Mexica completed the great calendar stone that was to become a national symbol of the Mexican Republic—it proved to be the spirit of Tlacaélel that lived on in Mexica events.

The succession passed to Axayácatl’s brother, Tizoc (“Blood-stained Leg”), who appears to have been a great builder. The immense temple-pyramid advised by Tlacáelel was pushed to completion, and all Tenochtitlán now was beautified with palaces and gardens that surpassed those of Texcoco. But the imperial course set by Tizoc’s predecessors left him no room for maneuver. Expansion and the search for victims was caked by custom; they had become the entire rationale of the nobility and warrior castes of the Mexica state.

Tizoc either was not a warrior, or was an unsuccessful one. Some accounts claim he took a hundred thousand Huaxteca and Tlappaneca prisoners by war, but these were exaggerations. The aristocracy seems to have grown steadily disenchanted. In 1486 Tizoc died, apparently poisoned in his own palace, perhaps by his own kin of the Eagle dynasty.

Ahuízotl, third son of Motecuhzoma Ilhuicamina, received the nose plug and throne, and he was to be a speaker after the fiercest Mexica hearts. The imperial dynamism that faltered under Tizoc revived; again Mexica armies struck out almost by reflex. They cut through to the Pacific in the vicinity of Acapulco and they reentered Oaxaca to the south. Ahuízotl ravaged a wide territory and then stationed a permanent garrison in Oaxaca, at Cuilapa.

Ahuízotl (“Water Dog”) took thousands of Zapotec prisoners, dominated Chiapas, and, according to some accounts, sent an expedition as far as Panama which sent back either tribute or trade goods from South America.

Then, avoiding the stubborn Tarasca and Tlaxcalteca, Ahuízotl went north against the remaining civilized peoples of Amerindian Mexico, ravaging the country of the Huaxteca as far as the River Pánuco, and scouting out the primitive regions beyond the river, including barbarian-inhabited northern Mexico. These poor and arid territories did not interest the Mexica. Ahuízotl halted the path of empire at the Pánuco. Dragging thousands of unfortunate Huaxtecs in his train, he returned to Tenochtitlán.

The great new temple of Huitzilopochtli might now be properly dedicated to the god. Ahuízotl made this event a religious and triumphal ceremony. All the lords of Meso-America, ally, tributary, or foe, were invited to attend, and to see the extent of Mexica power. Indeed, the temple-pyramid and its complex was the largest structure built during the Historic period (though in total size the temple of Huitzilopochtli did not approach that of the court-citadel of Teotihuacán). The outer walls enclosed some twenty-five hundred square yards and eighty-odd lesser temples and palaces. The walls embellished with carved serpents copied the older styles, and the courtyards were paved with polished stone. The great pyramid that dominated the court rose three hundred feet above six terraces. Two square squat towers jutted another fifty-six feet from the broad, flat apex of this pyramid. Between the towers stood an enormous idol of Huitzilopochtli. Ceremonial fires burned eternally beside this monstrous image.

The temple complex was erected in a central quarter of the city, almost where the present-day cathedral stands. The palace of Axayácatl bordered the temple on the west, with public armories and granaries on the other sides. This area, with its enormous, paved plaza, was the public and ceremonial heart of Tenochtitlán.

In the dedication ceremony, thousands of Matlazuica, Zapotec, and Huastec captives were herded across the plaza; the column was reputedly three miles long. Besides the principal altar atop the pyramid, there were some six hundred minor altars situated throughout the courts for mass slaughter on important occasions.

The great drum always boomed its dread noise over the city and surrounding lake when a sacrifice began. The hueytlatoani, as supreme commander, supreme judge, and supreme priest, usually performed the first sacrifice assisted by other dignitaries in red robes.

The sullen, but unresisting victims, painted with blue or yellow chalk, sometimes holding small banners, were seized one by one and stretched out on the rough stone altar. According to Diego de Landa—and Mexica pictographs, which are quite vivid—the celebrating priest pressed the point of an obsidian knife just beneath the victim’s left nipple, gave the blade a thrust and a powerful, circular twist, and then, he plunged his hand into the gaping wound and jerked out the still-pumping heart in a gout of hot blood. The smoking organ was immediately placed on a platter and rushed before the image of the god; his stone face was smeared with bright arterial blood; sometimes the fresh heart itself was placed between his gaping stone jaws. The symbolism was exact: the god was fed.

Cardiectomy was the favored method of sacrifice in the highlands, although some earth or fertility deities liked their victims stretched out on racks, blood dripping to the ground. Huehueteotl, god of fire, who was the most ancient god of all, was honored by victims who were given a narcotic, thrown into a fire, and then pulled out before they died of burns only to have their hearts extracted. The Mexica also practiced a ritual cannibalism on occasion. Parts of arms and legs were eaten, never for food, but out of the most ancient Amerindian belief that certain properties reside in the flesh and can be passed on by its consumption. Most tribes of the Southwestern United States practiced ritual cannibalism into the nineteenth century.

After the sacrifice, the corpse was usually beheaded and the skull placed on a rack. In 1519 Bernal Díaz, Cortés’ soldier, estimated he saw a hundred thousand such skulls around the main plaza of Tlaxcala.

The speaker and high officers began the ceremony, but the labor quickly fell to the horde of lesser priests, who Bernal Díaz described as being hooded, with long, matted hair and uncut fingernails, smelling of sulphur and rotted blood. They abstained from women and led austere lives, much revered by the populace. The priesthood did far more than perform sacrifices and maintain the temple fires. They were keepers of the calendar, teachers, and sustainers of the ancient arts. They also deliberately courted irrationality and hallucinations, by eating certain mushrooms, Jimson weed, or peyote. Divinatory hallucinations were a very old and very important part of Amerindian religions, particularly throughout southwestern North America. The Chichimeca apparently carried these customs deep into civilized Mexico, and it is likely that the dominant surrealistic vision of the Meso-Americans was connected with such drug-taking.

The Mexica boasted that at least twenty thousand, and perhaps eighty thousand captives were destroyed to celebrate Ahuízotl’s triumph. All Tenochtitlán was pervaded by a hideous stench. The already undrinkable waters of the lake were further ruined; there were outbreaks of disease.

Because of the deliberate self-identification of modern Mexican intellectuals with the Mexica nation, the whole question of human sacrifice is now treated with understandable reluctance in Mexico. Ritual cannibalism is emotionally denied, and the currently fashionable view is to ignore or play down the bloodletting, which the nineteenth-century European writers so obviously enjoyed.

The fact of human sacrifice, however, cannot be expunged. The Nahua accounts themselves are too explicit. One problem, historically, is that the Spanish conquerors made judgments and played with numbers inflating the numbers of victims either to prove how religiously barbaric the natives were or perhaps to justify the Spaniards’ own crimes. Bernal Díaz recorded—probably with accuracy—that he saw daily sacrifices in some localities. Zumárraga, the first bishop of Mexico, estimated that twenty thousand died by the knife every year before the Conquest. Historian Francisco López de Gómara raised the figure to fifty thousand, while the missionary-author José de Acosta mentioned only five thousand, but admitted that on special occasions, such as the dedication of Huitzilopochtli’s temple in Tenochtitlán, as many as twenty thousand might be killed. But other Spanish priests played down the whole business. Bartolomé de las Casas, whose purpose was to protect the Amerindians from his countrymen, swore that only one hundred per year were sacrificed.

The Mexica themselves certainly saw human sacrifice no more as an abomination than the Spanish, in the main, saw their own Inquisition as evil. This magic served a major social purpose. The Amerindians of Mexico were no more, nor less, monsters than other men. If there was a genuine gangrene in their civilization, it came from the vision that made symbolic destruction, and even auto-sacrifice, important and holy. Even so, the immense faith of the Amerindian culture in the immortality of the soul made the culture contemptuous of death itself, especially if it seemed to serve a useful purpose.

Ahuízotl’s dedication of the temple marked the flood tide of empire for Tenochtitlán. The central highlands had been subdued. Ahuízotl’s power and influence ran beyond his actual writ, in fact, because many independent peoples beyond his conquests wisely sent him symbolic tribute and presents. Since Ahuízotl had found the arid northlands undesirable, he had turned the major thrust of empire toward the south, toward Oaxaca and beyond. There the inhabitants were more civilized than the savages of the north, and there was more desirable loot, like prized feathers and green jade.

As tribute poured in to Tenochtitlán and thousands of slaves sweated to support its projects, scores of lesser pyramids, palaces, and public buildings rose. The array of vast monuments stretching from Tlatelolco to the entrance to the city compared favorably with the vanished splendor of the forum in imperial Rome. And there was no contemporary market, anywhere in the world, to compare with Tlatelolco’s great trading square.

When Ahuízotl died in 1502, he had, in enlarging his hegemony, carried on the tradition of his ancestors; his character lives on in the modern Mexican-Spanish word ahuizote, which stands for someone violent, vindictive, and fierce.

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