Aztec society had different classes of people performing different tasks. On such class was of professional traders known as Pochteca who travelled throughout the empire, taking goods and information from place to place. These Aztec traders were not only central to Aztec economy but also acted as the foremost network of communication between different parts of the empire. Additionally, they also performed the role of spying during the time of war by visiting the enemy territory and gathering strategically important information.
Most part of the daily life of Aztec merchants, the Pochteca, was spent in trading and travelling. Since these merchants traded goods between different parts of the empire, they traversed dangerous and uninhabited territories between different city-states. This was made even more difficult because of the fact that there were not wheeled vehicles or pack animals in Aztec empire. When not travelling, a good part of the daily life of Aztec merchants was spent trading in the marketplaces.
Aztec traders were central to the sustenance of the economy of Aztec empire. They were the only effective trade and communication link between different parts of the empire and thus their role in keeping the empire functional was very important. They took news from one part of the empire to the other and exchanged goods. The special kind of long distance trade and commerce that the Pochteca indulged in was called pochtecayotl. One of the most important roles of Aztec merchants during the time of war was spying in the enemy land and procuring valuable information.
There was a separate class of Aztec merchants, the class of Pochteca, and it enjoyed considerable privileges in the Aztec empire. Their status was higher than the commoners but lower than the nobility. They were important to the nobles because they provided materials that the nobility used to display its wealth. On the other hand, they sold the surplus tribute that was given to the nobles and the warriors. Some of the members of this class had wealth on par with the nobility, although they were not allowed to display their wealth like the nobles.
There were three main types of Aztec merchants: the importer, the wholesalers, and the retailers. The importers were known as pochteca and oztomeca, the traders were called tlaquixtiani, and the retailers were called tlanecuilo. The importers were further sub-divided into two types. One type was called the Pochteca Teucnehnenqueh and it traded on behalf of the nobility and enjoyed a higher rank than ordinary traders. The other type, Pochteca Naualoztomeca, was of the ordinary traders seeking goods for their own gain. These later kind traded in ordinary goods of everyday life and various household items which common people purchased in the marketplaces throughout the empire.
There were three main skills that Aztec traders displayed. The most obvious one was trading goods between different parts of the empire. Due to the lack of wheels and horses, this was done through canoes along rivers. On the land, the porters carried the goods and warriors were dispatched to protect the goods. The second skill was to take information and news from one place to the other, thus forming a network of information between different parts of the time. The third skill, very important during the times of war, was of spying in order to gather information about the enemy terrain and other aspects. The Aztec traders were also organised into guilds to safeguard their interests and had their own neighbourhoods just like other classes such as priests and warriors.
The Aztec traders traded in a variety of goods between different parts of the empire. But since Aztecs did not make use of the beasts of burden and also did not have wheels, they traded only in relatively small items which could be transported easily from place to place. The most common trading items included ornaments made of gold, woven cloth, and salt which was harvested from the lake bed. The items usually purchased in return included tropical bird feathers, jaguar skins used for ceremonial garments, cotton, rubber, and others. Aztec merchants procured the luxury goods for the nobility which used them to display the wealth. Aztec traders working on behalf of the nobility enjoyed a higher rank compared to the ordinary traders.
The most common type of Aztec trades traded through the market places. Every city-state had a marketplace where trading took place. These Aztec merchants brought goods to the marketplace and sold them there. On the other hand, they also purchased goods from these marketplaces to sell them in other places. Thousands of people traded in these marketplaces on daily basis and all sorts of luxury and household items were available from here. Prices were regulated in the marketplaces by the government agents. Other than the large central marketplace, there were also various regional marketplaces.
Within the cities too, trading took place through the marketplaces which were frequented not only by Aztec traders but also by the common people. For instance, the market place at the sister city of Aztec capital, Tlatelolco, saw over 60,000 people indulging in trade on daily basis. Other than trading, these marketplaces provided an opportunity for the Aztec people to socialise. Common people purchased various household items, including vegetables and fruits, from these marketplaces. Strict government control was maintained over these markets for the regulation of prices and quality of the goods. Officials were also responsible for collecting the tribute and taxes for the emperor from these markets.
Aztec economy was hugely dependent on the trade between different parts of the empire. Thus the traders, known as Pochteca, were of central importance for successful functioning of this economy. These traders were of various types and traded in everyday household goods as well as luxury items used by the nobility. The traders not only transported goods from place to place but were also a source of news. Thus they also acted as a network of information between different regions of the empire. Some traders amassed considerable amount of wealth and enjoyed respectable status in society above the common people but below the nobility.