The class system of the Aztecs was rigid and stratified. Those at the top enjoyed spoils and privileges, and those at the bottom struggled to live. The ruling class, the top level of social stratification, was itself divided into several categories according to function, importance, and standing (Soustelle, 36). The tecuhtli , the dignitaries or lords, was applied to the highest level of the ruling class, consisting of the most important warriors, administrators or judges. These individuals were traditionally elected, but by the sixteenth century, the election process evolved more into a presentation ceremony (Soustelle, 39), however, many of these individuals did reach their position through promotion according to merit. Each tecuhtli was responsible for a particular region and was the highest form of government in that region. Each district or calpulli had a calpullec , or chieftain, who was elected for life and was responsible for harmony within the community, staging council sessions, mediating debates and the like (Soustelle, 42). The warriors of Mexica were highly admired and respected and were accorded such honor and privileges that no Aztec did not wish to be a warrior.
The priests of Mexica enjoyed many of the same privileges. At the top of the hierarchy stood the two high priests that represented the dual high gods of the Aztecs: Uitzilopochtli and Tlaloc, god of war and god of farmer's plenty (Soustelle, 52). Beneath them lay a web of priests that extended in all directions and covered the responsibilities essential to offer human reverence to the gods. For instance, the 400 hundred gods of drinking each had a priest devoted to them. The Aztec priests place in society was along the lines of calpullec--important and of high standing, but not as high the tecuhtli or the high-priests.
As the political structure of the nation began to solidify, it became increasingly difficult for the calpullec of a town to visit another town in order to conduct trade. Hence, a middle class consisting of merchants arose. These merchants were both tradesmen and, by virtue of their business practices, sometime warriors. Some towns were even advanced enough to have what were effectively merchant guilds. As the merchants became more firmly established in the social order, they began to take on many of the mannerisms and even slight privileges of the ruling class. The merchants were now able to educate their sons with prospects of sending them off to be warriors and were even allowed to wear jewelry outside of holidays, but only if they were granted this privilege by a high ranking tecuhtli. It has even been theorized that had the Aztec destruction not taken place, the merchant class would have continued to rise and would have supplanted the warrior and ruling class in a short matter of time.
The common people were not completely stagnant socially; it was possible for them to move up the social hierarchy. However, if they did nothing to distinguish themselves, they lived the life of a plebeian. The common man was forced into compulsive military service, to be ready to provide labor for church sponsored projects, and to pay taxes to the local calpulli. However, it cannot be stressed how important it was for the common man to at least be free, for it is this fact that gave them the opportunity to lift themselves from near the bottom of society to the top. There were no impenetrable walls separating the classes, and the humblest life was not without hope (Soustelle, 72). So while it is true that the commoner would have to had labor difficulty for his livelihood, it was no guarantee that his son would be forced to do the same, a societal characteristic of the Aztecs not shared by a great deal of other ancient societies.
Written by Talli Somekh.