Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Ruminations on the Aztec Empire

Had my vehicle in the shop for a long-overdue tune-up today. Apropos of nothing, if you have to have your steed looked at, be sure to get the mechanic with the NASCAR tattoos. Accept no substitute.

Anyhoo, during the process I wound up spending a long time in the waiting area with a group of Young Folk, who were intently listening to one of their number expound on the folklore of the Glorious Age of the Aztec Empire.

Man, I thought that L'Morte de Arthur took liberties with history. Hah! Malory was a rank amateur compared to whomever is fueling the Aztlan propaganda machine.

Just because I'm in one of them moods, we will now enter The Wayback Machine and spend todays entry riffing on Meso-America.

Ahem.

The early Aztecs were basically the Hell's Angels of the Meso-American world.

Before settling in the Valley of Mexico, they were considered brutish, rude, boorish, savage, barbaric, violent and worst of all, they didn't understand their place on the social ladder.

Damned barbarians. Have they no manners?

Looks like the proto-Aztecs got kicked out of every City-State and Empire in Mexico and spent most of their formative years as unwilling nomads.

Finally, they settled in (long tongue-twisting word with waaaay too many consonants, we'll just say, "Valley of Mexico") because one of their leaders saw an eagle perched in a cactus with a snake in its talons and marked it as a sign from the Gods.

Only the truly cynical would think that Azzie High Command had cued in on the fact that the troopies were getting seriously tired of wandering and were contemplating staging the Aztec version of the Change of Command ceremony as a factor in the choice of location.

The Aztecs spent the next 50-100 years hiring out to whichever Empire or City-State needed some really good warriors. The other tribes tolerated the Azzies, as long as they didn't try to move in with the Quality after the screaming and bleeding was done.

Same old story: The Azzies were Shining Saviours when somebody elses army was waving obsidian-toothed clubs at your populace, but when it came time to pay for services rendered -- suddenly the Aztecs were just another horde of over-paid, over-sexed mercenaries. Coulda done the job ourselves, didn't look so hard...

After three or four generations of this, the Aztecs got tired of being shown the highway as soon as the bodies quit bouncing, and they decided to make their own Empire and make darn sure that they got to be the Snobs.

At its height, the Aztec Empire was second only to the Inca Empire in size. Yes, they were Number 2 in Meso-America.

However, while folks call it an Empire, it wasn't an Empire as we would recognize it: the Aztecs simply got paid tribute from the various parts of their Empire -- they let the locals make their own laws and run their own governments.

The Azzies could have taken a page out of the Roman playbook and avoided that little strategic and tactical error, but que sera, sera.

Bit of pro-RKBA trivia: the Aztecs had a militia. If you weren't a girl-child, you learned to swing a pretty mean club. If you didn't want to be a good gun-nut...err, club-nut... you could take it up with the War God. In person. Right after you quit bouncing down the pyramid steps.

That's what I call an incentive system.

Anyhoo, since the Aztecs left their subjects more-or-less to themselves, a large part of their Empire pretty much stayed in some state of rebellion or other.

Cue Hernando Cortez and his Merry Band of Multi-cultural Marauders.

Once while choosing a new General, Napoleon is said to have ignored his list of certificates and medals, instead asking, "How lucky is he?"

Napoleon would have absolutely loved Hernado Cortez.

Cortez had been picked to lead an expedition to Mexico, but the expedition had been cancelled because the Governor of Cuba suspected Cortez of political ambitions.

Politics? Cortez? No!

Being a free-spirited type, Cortez went anyway, violating a direct order. He landed on the Yucatan Peninsula with 600 warm bodies, and when his spear carriers began to wonder what the hell they were doing in darkest Mexico, Cortez burned the ships to encourage the proper mindset.

Nice guy.

Little after they landed, Henry and the boys got jumped by the Tlaxcalans. The Tlaxcalans outnumbered Cortez's people by a factor of three hundred to one, and fought three pitched battles against the invaders before deciding to ally with the Spaniards.

Cortez decided to leave half his forces at Vera Cruz and go sightseeing (this is probably about the time we get Cortez's famous quote: "I do not wish to grub in the dirt like a peasant. I wish to find gold.") with his new-found Bestest Buddies, and ran smack into the Aztecs.

You want to talk about incredible dumb luck? Pale-skinned Hank could have shown up at any time plus or minus 15 years or so, but noooo, he has to show up when the locals were expecting their pale-skinned Quetzacoatl to reappear.

If I had tried that, the first Aztec I'd run into would have said, "Gods, huh? Well, if you're Gods, then getting whacked with this club shouldn't bother you...Hmm. Oops, he broke. Obviously not Gods. Kill them all."

Some folks get all the luck.

Anyhoo, Henry rode the "I am your God Quetzal-geshundteit. Give me all your gold as sacrifice. No, all of it. And throw in a maiden or two while you're at it" during the day, and at night he was convincing the subjugated City-States to throw off the yoke of their Imperialistic Aztec Oppressors and throw in with the freedom-loving Spaniards.

Busy little boyo, I'll give him that.

So, here's our boy. And he's up to his steel knickers fomenting insurgent uprisings, the Azzies are getting a case of the hips, things are looking a little gloomy for the Visiting Team, and what happens?

Remember the part about Cortez violating a direct order not to go to Mexico? Well, Hank's old boss in Cuba decides to do something about his little lost lamb and sends about 1400 armed reminders to Come Home. Cortez and his Tlaxcalan Best Friends Forever stomp the absolute menudo out of the arresting force and set about recruiting the survivors.

Considering the Meso-American way of dealing with recalcitrant attitudes, it's not very surprising that the survivors decided that they Really Meant to Sign Up The Whole Time.

Voila! Reinforcements.

Lucky bastard.

Anyhoo, there's the story of the Aztec Empire in a nutshell.

LawDog

13 comments:

texascarl said...

I was impressed when I read Bernal Diaz's "Conquest of New Spain". Diaz was there with Cortez and as an old man Diaz wrote about it all. His take was definitely warts and all (Wartez and all?), it's pretty hard to pick a 'good guy' from that little soiree.

Credit where credit is due, I'll tip my hat to anyone who runs that kind of bluff and wins that big of a pot.

The Grouchy Old Yorkie Lady said...

How I wish I'd had a history teacher as interesting as this when I was in school!

Of course, everything I remember about the Aztecs is from "Royal Hunt of the Sun"....

Wait. That was Pizzaro. Never mind. (Those Incans looks an awful lot like Aztecs to me.)

texasboy said...

Pretty much it LawDog, except for the cutting out of still beating hearts as sacrifice.

BobG said...

"Pretty much it LawDog, except for the cutting out of still beating hearts as sacrifice."
And skinning them, wearing the skins, cannibalism, etc. The rest is right on.

holly76201 said...

Thank You for the history lesson, Mr. Law Dog. May I have another?
And Bobg's comment above about skinning, wearing of same, cannibalism, etc., sure sounds like the Reivers from Firefly to me! {SHUDDER}

texasboy said...

WEll, the wearing the skins thing is debatable, and the cannibalism was ritual and rare.

Tam said...

The Nochte Triste reads like a 16th Century Blackhawk Down with horses instead of MH-6 Little Birds.

A fascinating time in history...

catfish said...

Not to mention Montezuma getting whacked by his own people.

The Aztecs were pigs - part of the reason Cortez was able to convince so many of the various native tribes to side with him was that everyone else hated the Aztec's guts.

I'm sure ritual sacrifice had nothing to do with it.

Nice recap, Dog.

markm said...

I doubt that the cannibalism was always ritual or particularly rare. The Aztecs maintained a pretty large capital city without the wheel or any domesticated animal other than a dog. So when their VIPs staged a feast, what was the meat course? You couldn't supply a city that big with fresh meat by hunting. They might be able to grow and haul in (by packslave) enough corn and beans to meet the bare nutritional requirements, but men like the Aztecs would want meat on their table, and I don't mean just jerky.

Ancient European cities of this size had no particular problem; they just drove herds of cattle and sheep in on the hoof and butchered them as needed. However, while no doubt the Aztecs liked dog meat as well as any other Indians, I can't see enough dogs being led in to meet the need.

So what's left is the only other domesticated critter the Aztecs had - slaves. Other cultures might handle the same problem by either turning vegetarian or keeping their civilation dispersed enough to be able to hunt. But the Aztecs clearly had no absolute taboo against cannibalism. I have no doubt that when the emperor wanted roast meat, troops would go out to the subject tribes and pick some people for the "honor" of being the main course.

Which is another reason it didn't require too much to stir the subject tribes into revolt.

Rhett said...

I really love archaeological stuff. The overall synopsies is pretty neat. Going to South America and visiting a lot of these sites is on my todo list before death finds my addy.

texasboy said...

markm, their priamry diet didn't consist of meat, and what meat they had was usually salted and sotred, no need to use people to get it and certainly no need to eat people. Sacrifice they did quite often, but not cannibalism.

BobG said...

http://www.mnsu.edu/emuseum/cultural/mesoamerica/aztec.html

"Cannibalism was not a daily occurrence in the Aztec life, but it was common on special religious and social occasions. Human sacrifices were necessary to honor the gods and to perpetuate human existence. They believed that humans were responsible for the pleasure or displeasure of the gods and, therefore, they aimed to make sure that the deities were happy. Twenty to fifty thousand people were sacrificed yearly."

BobG said...

Whoops! Try this:
http://www.mnsu.edu/emuseum/cultural/
mesoamerica/aztec.html