Before the arrival of the Spaniards on the American continent, the Aztecs had established their powerful empire with a sophisticated administrative and military structure. The Aztec government itself derived power from the religious institution in addition to various social units including family and clan. There were various subjugated city-states in the Aztec empire that paid tribute to the emperor in the capital city of the empire, Tenochtitlan. The Aztec Empire was a military empire which constantly expanded and brought new city-states into its fold. Therefore the system of government in the Aztec empire revolved around the system of tribute from the conquered city-states.
While the Aztec city-state existed much before the establishment of the Aztec Empire, the formal structure of the empire was established in 1428. It was preceded by a civil war where various city-states were battling against each other for greater control. The civil war saw alliance between the three city-states of Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan. This was known as the Triple Alliance and laid the foundations of the Aztec Empire and government. Various imperial reforms were carried out after the formation of the triple alliance in order to maintain enhanced control over the conquered territories.
The Aztec government had a relatively loose central administration which wielded only reasonable control over the rest of the empire. The central administration was in the capital city of the Aztec Empire, Tenochtitlan. It was here that the emperor resided who was the primary ruler of the Aztec government. He was called Huey Tlatoani which means great ruler or great speaker. He was the authority of the central government. He ruled by divine right and made decisions about various affairs of the state including decisions on whether the Aztec People should go to war. The king was assisted by Aztec nobles while the rest of the territories enjoyed a reasonable degree of independence in exchange for tribute.
The Aztec Empire gave a reasonable degree of autonomy to the conquered city-states as long as they paid a tribute. Generally, the local rulers were also restored to their previous positions after the conquest and local affairs remained largely the same. The system of these city-states, which can be called the provincial governments, revolved around the concept of city councils. These city councils consisted of all the elders of the city-states. Another important unit of the provincial government on the level of the city-states was “calpulli” which was a group of families and can be translated as “clan”.
At the top of the hierarchy of the Aztec government was of course the emperor who ruled by divine right. The emperor was in turn assisted by the nobles who made up the city councils. Each city-state of the empire had its own councils. At a even lower level came the calpulli which was a clan consisting of various families. The calpulli was responsible for taking care of the basic needs of the clan. For instance, they set up the schools for the education of the common citizens and made sure that taxes were properly collected from the people.
At the height of the Aztec Empire, there were 38 tributary provinces which were generally supervised by high stewards or directly-appointed stewards. In the main, these stewards made sure the steady stream of the tribute from provinces to the central government. On the other hand, in the capital Tenochtitlan, the system was overseen by the central head of tribute known as petlacalcatl. Sometimes a military governor was placed at the head of the provincial supervision in case the province was restive. In the provinces, the local nobility was exempt from the tribute which made their allegiance easier.
Religious ideology played a very important legitimising role for the Aztec rulers and Aztec government. The rulers were seen as representatives from gods and sometimes even descendants of gods. They therefore ruled by the divine right sanctioned by the priestly class. Since the rulers ruled by divine right, killing of a ruler was tantamount to disturbing the cosmic order. Therefore, whenever a ruler was killed or removed from this position, a person from the same bloodline was appointed the new ruler. Given the military structure of the Aztec empire, various militaristic rituals were part of the Aztec religion. The Aztec government and religious ideology went hand in hand.
Important laws of the Aztec government were laid down during the long reign of the fifth Aztec emperor, Moctezuma I. He took power in 1440 and was the emperor who consolidated the Aztec Empire. The laws laid down during his reign established and governed the relationship between different city-states, classes, and individuals. This also included punishment for criminals and court proceedings. In order to enforce these laws, there were market-place courts, appellate courts, as well as courts on provincial level. Additionally, there were military courts for wartime cases and a supreme court. The ultimate authority of law was the king himself.
The ultimate authority in the Aztec empire rested with the emperor himself. His powers extended not only in the political, military, and administrative spheres but also in the religious matters. This was because he had a divine right to rule since he was considered a descendant of the gods. It was the emperor who decided when to go to war or how much tribute a subjugated city-state would pay. The emperor was also the final authority in the judicial matters and actively participated in the religious festivals in order to continue his religious legitimacy.
The Aztec government had a sophisticated hierarchical structure at the top of which was the figure of the emperor. The emperor resided in the capital city of the Aztec empire and exacted tribute from the other city-states. The system of Aztec government was not too central and a fair degree of autonomy was given to the provinces as long as they continued to pay the tribute. City-councils, mainly consisting of the nobility, played important administrative role in the Aztec government. The final authority in all matters, however, was the Aztec emperor himself.