- Historic Sites
The City Of The Living God
From a long-obscure life of Cortés, written by his own secretary, comes a narrative of the incredible splendors of Moctezuma’s Axtec capital
April 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 3
An amazing number of men were in and out of this house, caring for the birds, beasts, and serpents. The diversity of the birds, the ferocity of the beasts, and the serpents swelling with poisonous fury delighted our Spaniards, who, however, did not enjoy their frightful hissing, the hideous roaring of the lions, the howling of the wolves, the screams of the tigers and lynxes, and the yelps of the other animals, owing to hunger or perhaps to the thought that they were caged and could not give vent to their fury. And truly, at night the place was a picture of hell and abode of the devil; and so it was, in fact, for in one of the rooms, 150 feet long by 50 wide, was a chapel thickly plated with gold and silver, all set with pearls and precious stones: agates, cornelians, emeralds, rubies, topazes, and the like. Here Moctezuma often came in the night to pray, and the devil appeared and gave him advice on petitions and reauests.
Moctezuma had another building, for the storage of grain and feathers and mantles brought in as rents and tributes. It was also something to see. Above its doors was the coat of arms, or device, of the rabbit. It housed the majordomos, treasurers, accountants, secretaries, and all those employed in the management of the royal estate. All these buildings without exception had their chapels and oratories of the devil, who was prayed to for the protection of their contents. For these reasons the buildings were very large and accommodated many people. …
B ESIDES THOSE JUST MENTIONED , Moctezuma had many pleasure houses with delightful gardens, some of medicinal and aromatic herbs, others of flowers, roses, and sweet-smelling trees in infinite numbers. It was something to make one praise the Creator to see such variety, coolness, and perfume, and the skill and delicacy with which a thousand different figures had been fashioned out of leaves and flowers. Moctezuma did not permit any vegetables or fruits to be raised in these gardens, saying it was not fitting for kings to operate farms for profit in his pleasure spots, and that it was the duty of slaves or merchants to raise such fruits. Nevertheless, and despite what he said, he did own orchards, but at a distance, which he seldom visited. Outside of Mexico he also possessed great houses in the woods, surrounded by water, with springs, rivers, fishponds, rabbit warrens, breeding grounds, and crags and rocks where stags and deer, hares, foxes, wolves, and other such animals roamed free, in the hunting of which the Mexican gentlemen exercised themselves much and often. So many and so great were the houses of Moctezuma that they were equalled by those of few kings.
M OCTEZUMA HAD DAILY A COMPANY of 600 gentlemen and lords to act as his bodyguard, each with three or four armed servants to wait on him, some even with as many as twenty or more, according to their rank and wealth; so altogether they numbered 3,000 (some say many more) in the palace guard. All of them were fed with the leftovers from the king’s table and his rations. The servants did not retire to their quarters until he had finished eating, and then not until night. The guard was so numerous that it quite filled the courtyards, squares, and streets [of the palace]. It could be that, to impress the Spaniards, they put on this guard and show of power, and that ordinarily it was smaller. The truth is, however, that all the lords under Mexican rule, who … numbered thirty, each with 100,000 vassals, resided a part of each year in Mexico at the court of the great lord Moctezuma, out of obligation and gratitude, and when they returned to their own lands and dominions, they did so with the permission and at the choice of the king. Even so, they had to leave behind a son or brother as insurance against their rebellion, and for this reason they all maintained houses in Mexico-Tenochtitlán. Such, then, were the estate and household of Moctezuma, and such was his generous and noble court.
T HERE WAS NO ONE in all his dominions that did not pay some tribute to the lord of Mexico: the lords contributing their personal service; the peasants (called macehuales ), their persons and goods. This they did in two ways: either as renters or as owners; the owners gave a third of their yearly produce, to wit: dogs, fowl, birds of plumage, rabbits, gold, silver, precious stones, salt, wax and honey, mantles, featherwork, cotton, cacao, maize, chili, sweet potatoes, broad beans, kidney beans, and all kinds of fruits, greenstuff, and cereals, by which they live. The renters paid by the month or the year whatever they must, and because it was a great deal they were all called slaves. These, even though they had nothing to eat but eggs, yet thought the king was doing them a favor. I have heard that tributes were even assessed against their foodstuffs, and that everything else was taken from them, because of which they dressed very poorly. In fine, they possessed a single pot for cooking herbs, a stone or two for grinding maize, and a mat to sleep on. The renters and owners not only paid this tribute, but served with their persons whenever the great lord wished, although he did not call them up except for war and hunting.