- 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
Such was the ascendancy that the kings of Mexico had over them that they were silent even when their sons and daughters were taken from them for any purpose. This is why some say that, of the three children of every farmer or non-farmer, one was given for sacrifice. This is manifestly false, for in that case there would not have been a man left in the whole country, nor would it have been as populous as it was. Besides, the lords ate only the sacrificial victims, who were rarely free men, but slaves and prisoners of war. Still, they were cruel butchers, and killed during the year many men and women, and some children, not, however, as many as some have said. …
All these tributes were brought to Mexico on the backs of men or in canoes, at least enough to maintain the household of Moctezuma. The other tributes were used to feed the soldiers, or were exchanged for gold, silver, precious stones, jewels, and other valuables, which the kings esteemed and kept in their apartments and treasuries. In Mexico, as I have said, there were storehouses and buildings in which the grain was kept, with a majordomo and assistants to receive it, distribute it in an orderly manner, and keep the records in picture books. Each town had its tribute collector, something like a constable, who carried a staff of authority and a fan. He listed the goods and numbers of people in the towns and provinces of his district, and brought the accounting to Mexico. If any collector made an error or cheated, he died for it, and even the members of his family would be penalized as kinsmen of a traitor to the king. Farmers failing to pay their tribute were arrested. If they were poor because of sickness, they were allowed to defer payment; if it was because of laziness, they were forced to pay. In short, if they did not fulfill their obligation and pay on the appointed days, they might be taken as slaves and sold for their debts and tributes, or even sacrificed. …
Moctezuma had a hundred large cities, with their provinces, from which he received the rents, tributes, homage, and vassalage I have spoken of. In some of them he maintained fortresses, garrisons, and treasurers to receive the services and taxes they paid him. His domain extended from the [Gulf to the Pacific], and two hundred leagues inland. It is true, to be sure, that in the midst of it were several provinces and large towns, such as Tlaxcala, Michoacán, Panuco, and Tehuantepec, which were his enemies and paid him no tributes or services, but the trade he carried on with them when he pleased was worth a great deal to him. There were likewise many lords and kings, such as those of Texcoco and Tacuba, who owed him nothing but obedience and homage; they were of his own lineage and were the ones to whom the kings of Mexico gave their daughters in marriage.
A T THE TIME OF C ORTÉS’ COMING , Mexico was a city of sixty thousand houses. Those of the king and lords and courtiers were large and fine; those of the others, small and miserable, without doors, without windows, but, however small they might be, seldom containing fewer than two, three, or ten inhabitants, so that the city had an infinitely large population. The main part of the city was surrounded by water. Its thoroughfares were of three kinds, all wide and splendid: one of water alone, with a great many bridges; others of earth alone; the third kind was of earth and water; I mean, they were half on land, where men could walk, and half in the water, where canoes could circulate. The waterways were naturally clean, and the streets frequently swept.
Almost all the houses had two doors, one opening on the causeway, the other on the water, where they kept their canoes for transport. The city was built upon the water, but the water was not used for drinking. Drinking water was brought in from a spring in the hill of Chapultepec, a league distant, at the foot of which were two large statues carved in the rock, of Moctezuma and (it is said) his father Axayacatl, armed with lance and shield. The water was conveyed in two pipes, each supplying an ox [a large volume] of water. When one of the pipes became foul, they used the other until it too got foul. The city was served by this spring, which also supplied water for the ponds and fountains of many houses. The water was also sold from canoes, for which certain taxes were levied.
The city was divided into two districts: one called Tlatelolco, which means island; the other, Mexico, where Moctezuma resided, which means source. It was the nobler district, for it was larger and the residence of the king. The city was known by this name, although its proper and ancient one is Tenochtitlan, which means stony fruit. …