Aztec Law

Aztec Law

Aztec Legal System and Sources of Law

From the Tarlton Law Library (University of Texas):

“The Aztec legal system was highly complex and was designed to maintain social order and respect for government institutions. Aztec laws were based on royal decrees and on customs that had been passed down from generation to generation. These laws were also interpreted and applied by Aztec judges in the various court systems. Aztec judges were not necessarily bound by existing law, and had some discretion to do what was just and reasonable under the circumstances. The concept of stare decisis did apply in certain situations, as punishments ordered in certain cases were typically applied to subsequent similar cases.

The major civil and criminal laws were written down in pictograph for use by judges, while other customary laws were passed down to younger generations through spoken hymns. At the time of the conquest, the Aztecs had just begun to codify their laws into a more formal written form. However, the Spanish missionaries deliberately destroyed the few written court and legal records that existed because they were considered to be heretical. Other legal manuscripts were burned by Spanish troops for fuel, or were allowed to rot from humidity and neglect. As a result, the limited information that is available about the Aztec legal system comes from Spanish chroniclers and troops who documented their observations during the two years before Tenochtitlan was conquered.

Many Spanish priests also studied the Aztecs during the years immediately following the Conquest, and wrote manuscripts known as codices. These codices discussed Aztec history, religion, natural history, warfare, political affairs, and the events following the Conquest. The best and most comprehensive work was the 12 volume General History of the Things of New Spain, which was also known as the Florentine Codex. Written by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, this work was based on interviews with Aztec elders who survived the Conquest, and includes detailed information about Aztec daily life, merchant and artisan business practices, and the governance of the Aztec empire. Because this codex provides a relatively pro-Aztec viewpoint of the Conquest, it was suppressed for 300 years during the Spanish inquisition. The Codex Mendoza, which was commissioned in the 1540s by a Spanish viceroy, is also an important resource because it covers the history of Tenochtitlan, has detailed tribute records, and includes a discussion of Aztec law and punishments. The Libro de Oro Codex (the Codex Ixtlilxóchitl) was written by Fray Fernando de Alva Cortés Ixtlilxóchitl and contains a collection of 65 criminal laws that were supposedly copied from an original Aztec manuscript.”

Aztec Judicial System

From the Tarlton Law Library (University of Texas):

“The Aztec judicial system was made up of multiple courts with differing levels of jurisdiction. These included the trial courts, appellate courts, and a supreme court. The trial courts were known as Teccalli courts, and heard civil and criminal cases involving commoners. Civil judgments by this court were considered final, but criminal sentences could be appealed. The appellate courts, known as Tlacxitlán, reviewed criminal appeals from the Teccalli courts and served as trial courts for cases involving nobles and warriors. The Aztec Supreme Court reviewed decisions from the Tlaxitlán. The Chief Justice, or Cihuacoatl, determined the final verdict and his decision could not be appealed to the Emperor or the other judges. If the Cihuacoatl decided that a case was too important for the Court to rule on alone, it was sent to the Emperor, who held court every 12 days and rendered final judgments with the assistance of four elder noblemen. The Emperor retained the ultimate right to intervene in cases or appeals that were of importance to him or to the empire.

The Aztecs had various special jurisdiction courts, including commercial courts (which handled marketplace and merchant disputes), family courts, fiscal affairs courts, a military court, and a religious court (which handled cases concerning priests, students, and religious matters). The Aztecs additionally had neigborhood courts that were similar to modern justices of the peace. Judges were elected by the neighborhood to hear minor criminal and civil cases, and reported their decisions to the tecalli courts. These judges also had a police force to serve summons and arrest criminals.

Aztec judges were viewed with great respect and honor, and were expected to be impartial, ethical, and honest. The Emperor (or tlatoani) appointed the Cihuacoatl, who in turn appointed all of the lower court judges except for the neighborhood judges. Judges were appointed for life and could be removed only for misconduct. Judges received their training through an apprenticeship program that involved observing court proceedings. Future judges were then selected from among the apprentices. The judiciary was self-policing, and judicial misconduct was punished by reprimand for the first minor offense. After the third minor offense, a judge would be removed from office and have his head shaved, which was considered a great humiliation among the Aztecs. Major breaches of professional ethics, including bribery, accepting gifts, and colluding with a party to a case, were punishable by death.

Individuals who were accused of crimes or were involved in civil disputes were summoned to court and had the opportunity to defend themselves. Attorneys did not exist, and individuals usually represented themselves with the assistance of friends and relatives. Trials were public, all parties were required to testify under oath, and documents, testimony, circumstantial evidence, and confessions were admissible. No trial could last more than 80 days and verdicts were determined through a majority vote. Judges were assisted during proceedings by court personnel, including recorders or painters who documented the court proceedings, a crier who announced verdicts, and an executioner who carried out death sentences.”

Aztec Criminal Law

From the Tarlton Law Library (University of Texas):

“Under the Aztec legal system, crimes were severely punished. While capital punishment was common, other punishments included restitution, loss of office, destruction of the offender’s home, prison sentences, slavery, and shaving the offender’s head. For certain crimes, punishment could extend to the family of the guilty party. These crimes included theft, treachery, and a priest’s violation of the rule of chastity. The Aztecs had a prison system, which included the cuauhcalli (a “death row”), the teilpiloyan (a debtors’ prison), the petlacalli (a prison for individuals who were found guilty of minor crimes), and a fourth type of prison which involved a judge drawing lines or placing sticks on the ground and ordering the prisoner not to cross them. Conditions in the petlacalli were so harsh that many prisoners died while in custody.

Numerous offenses were punishable by death, including homicide, perjury, rape, abortion, highway robbery, moving boundary markers, serious defamation of character, destruction of crops, selling stolen property, weight and measure fraud, witchcraft, incest, official graft, pederasty, inciting a public disturbance, sedition, treason, desertion or insubordination by soldiers, use of the emperor’s insignia, and serious judicial misconduct. Capital punishment could be carried out through hanging, drowning, stoning, strangulation, beheading, beating, disembowelment, burning, quartering, and opening the chest to remove the perpetrator’s heart. It was possible for victims or families of victims to intervene in the execution of a sentence. If they chose to forgive the perpetrator, his death sentence was removed and he would become a slave of the victim’s family.

Theft was considered a serious crime. Capital offenses included theft from merchants, theft from a temple, theft of arms or military insignia, and theft of more than 20 ears of corn. Petty theft was generally punished through restitution. If the perpetrator wasn’t able to pay for the stolen item, he became the victim’s slave.

Adultery was a capital offense for the guilty couple and for those who were aware of the offense and failed to report it. Men were punished for adultery only they had relations with a married woman. Married women were considered guilty regardless of the circumstances of the marital status of their lovers.

Public drunkenness was punishable by death for younger individuals. However, elders could consume as much alcohol as they wished.

Children under the age of ten were considered to be legally incapable of committing criminal acts, but were still expected to respect and obey their parents. If they failed to do so, their parents could bring them before the court, which could order punishments such as beatings, disinheritance, or death (especially if children assaulted their parents). Children of nobility were sentenced to death if they were disrespectful, cowardly, or wasteful.”

Aztec Property Law

From the Tarlton Law Library (University of Texas):

“The Aztecs had a complex and hierarchical land ownership system, and drew sophisticated boundary maps that were used to mark different types of land and settle disputes. The Emperor owned personal and royal property which was used as he saw fit. He additionally exercised dominion over newly conquered lands, and could give this land to nobles, warriors, and calpulli. Owners of conquered lands were not necessarily displaced and were usually allowed to continue living on and working their lands. However, they had to share the profits of the land with their new Aztec owners.

Nobles could own land on a restricted and unrestricted basis. Nobles obtained land by purchasing it from other nobles or as a gift from the emperor for service to the Aztec empire. Purchased land could be sold or willed. Land grants from the emperor sometimes had conditions that required them to be returned to the emperor upon the death of the owner. Warriors had similar rights to purchase land or receive it from the emperor. Institutions such as the army, temples, and certain public offices (judgeships) could also own land which was received from the Emperor. These entities owned the rights to the profits from the land and used them to support the office holder. However, the individual office holder did not own the land.

Commoners could not own land on an individual basis. However, they had access to land through their calpulli. Although the calpulli were run by nobles, members of the calpulli were permitted to elect a neighborhood leader (calpullec) to manage the distribution of communally-owned calpulli land. This land was given to individual families, and generally stayed with the family unless it went uncultivated for two years or the family moved away. If this occurred, the unused land would then be redistributed to other families. The barrios also had separate undistributed communal lands that families were expected to cultivate. The proceeds of this land were used to pay the barrio’s taxes to the nobles and the emperor. Although the calpulli was responsible for dividing and reassigning the land, individual plots of land were often inherited by subsequent generations of the same family.”

Aztec Commercial and Tax Law

From the Tarlton Law Library (University of Texas):

“A strong system of laws governed the economic operations of the Aztec Empire. The main sources of income for the empire were tribute and taxation. The conquered regions paid tribute to the emperor and the Aztec citizenry paid taxes (with the exception of priests, nobles, minors, orphans, invalids, and beggars). Merchants paid taxes on the goods that they sold, artisans paid taxes based on the value of their services, and barrios paid taxes through the crops that they produced. Failure to pay taxes was punishable through slavery or the confiscation of property.

Tribute was collected as a collaborative effort by the members of the Triple Alliance every 80 days, 6 months, or 12 months, depending on the goods being collected and the distance that they had to travel. Tribute items typically included warrior costumes and shields, tropical feathers, copal incense, paper, foodstuffs, and animal products. Official tribute collectors, known as calpixque, were located in each of the conquered provinces and ensured that payments were made as required. Researchers have observed that tribute payments were generally reasonable, and were only increased if a region reneged on its tribute obligations. Regions that failed to pay tribute were severely punished.

Merchants were extremely important to the Aztec empire, especially traveling merchants known as pochtecah who ventured into neighboring regions. Pochtecah were organized into their own calpulli and could pass their profession and land down to their children. They had their own guilds, laws of conduct, and courts to enforce their laws. They ventured into foreign regions to establish trade and sometimes served as messengers and spies for the Aztecs. Merchants who were attacked while on the road were expected to defend themselves, and were sometimes assisted by warriors. War was justified if the safety of an Aztec merchant was threatened.

Local commerce was required to be carried out in large marketplaces known as tianquiztli. The various marketplaces were open once a week on rotating days, although the largest market in Tlatelolco was open on a daily basis. The marketplaces were patrolled by special commissioners who worked to prevent fraud and disturbances. Commercial disputes were settled in the marketplaces through special commercial courts that had the power to impose capital punishment if necessary. Sales were made on cash and credit. While there was no official currency, various goods functioned as money, including cacao grains, small squares of cotton cloth, small nuggets of gold, pieces of tin, and precious feathers.

The Aztecs used contracts to carry out their business activities. Contracts were formed verbally and became legal and binding when witnessed by four people. There is evidence to suggest that the Aztecs had sales, commission sales, lease, work, and loan contracts. Loan contracts used collateral in the form of property, goods, or future slavery if a default occurred. Interest on loans was illegal, although there is evidence to suggest that it was charged. A debt could be passed on to a party’s heirs, and loan defaults resulted in jail, slavery, or the confiscation of property.”

Aztec Family Law

From the Tarlton Law Library (University of Texas):

“Aztec family law generally followed customary law. Men got married between the ages of 20-22, and women generally got married at 15 to 18 years of age. Parents and relatives decided when and who their children would marry, and sometimes used marriage brokers. Nobles could only marry other nobles, and marriages were often used to form political alliances. Marriage ceremonies had to follow certain rituals in order to be legally recognized.

Marriage was conditional in that the parties could decide to separate or stay together after they had their first son. Marriages could also be unconditional and last for an indefinite period of time. Polygamy and concubines were permitted, though this was more common in noble households and marriage rites were only observed with the first, or principal, wife. Aztec families could live in single family homes, though many opted to live in joint family households for economic reasons.

Aztec families were very close knit. Children were considered gifts from the gods, but were expected to be obedient to their parents and elders. Parents were permitted to physically punish their children, and would beat them using maguey spines or force them to inhale chili smoke. Children who became orphaned lived with aunts and uncles or other family members. Fathers were responsible for raising their sons, and educated them until they began school. Mothers took care of raising the girls in the family.

There was no divorce, but men and women could petition the courts for legal separation on the basis of incompatibility, misconduct by the wife, insanity by the wife, abuse by the husband, laziness by the wife, infertility, or financial debt. Courts generally tried to encourage reconciliation where possible. Simple abandonment of a household by one party was also sufficient to establish a legal separation. Once the couple separated, the sons went to live with their father and the daughters stayed with their mother. Property registered at time of marriage was returned to the party who brought it to the marriage. If there was a guilty party in the marriage, the offender forfeited half of the community property to the other spouse. Divorced and widowed parties could get remarried. Widows had the option of marrying their husband’s brother as well.

There is some conflicting information among researchers regarding inheritance rights. According to Avalos, women had no inheritance rights and the first born son inherited all property from his father. A trustee would be appointed if the heir was still a minor. If there were no male children, property was passed on to the nearest male relatives, and if no male relatives existed, the property went to the state. However, Avalos acknowledges that a father could create a will as he saw fit, with property conceivably going to his wife or daughters. According to Kellogg, men and women could both acquire property through inheritance, though the right of women to inherit property may have been limited by the fact that the deceased’s brother would usually act as a guardian of the estate.”

Aztec International and Military Law

From the Tarlton Law Library (University of Texas):

“The Aztec empire was strongly militaristic and its relations with other territories typically revolved around war. The Aztecs conquered neighboring regions in order to collect tribute and obtain captives for human sacrifice. War was justified when a territory closed its roads to commerce, when a merchant or ambassador was killed, or if a territory refused to pay its required tribute. A ritual was followed for declaring war. The Aztec Emperor would issue a declaration of war and envoys were sent to the enemy region. The enemy was given a gift of weapons and 20 days to respond to the declaration and submit to Aztec authority. If no agreement was reached, the enemy was brought another gift of weapons and given another 20 days to respond. If no agreement was reached after this second offering, a third and final warning was given with harsher terms. If no agreement was reached after the final warning, the Aztec army would attack within twenty days. Enemy kings suffered personal punishment by the Aztecs if they waited until the third warning to accept the Aztec empire’s terms. During combat, captured warriors were enslaved and sacrificed. Captives had the option of fighting Aztec warriors in order to obtain their freedom and would be forced to fight with a handicap (such as with one hand tied behind their backs). If the captured warrior won the fight, he would be set free.

The Aztecs also engaged in what were known as “flower wars.” These wars were conducted to provide warriors with battle training and to obtain human sacrifices for religious ceremonies. Human sacrifice was important to the Aztecs and was done to appease the gods and maintain the balance of life in the universe. Most sacrificial victims were warriors captured in battle. To be sacrificed was an honor because it was believed that this would guarantee life after death.”

Texcocan Law

From the Tarlton Law Library (University of Texas):

“Texcoco was founded in the 12th century and grew to prominence within the Aztec Empire in the early 15th century (…) the Texcocan legal system was highly sophisticated and had various important differences compared to the legal system in Tenochtitlan.

First, Nezahualcoyotl (a great Texcocan leader) formally codified 80 laws for his empire that were divided into four parts. The enforcement of each part was left to four different supreme councils: the War Council, the Treasury Council, the Council of Music, Arts, and Sciences, and the Legal Council. The first three councils were made up of one representative from each of the 15 provinces in the empire. The War Council enforced laws concerning the military, including disputes over captives, battlefield conduct, and wartime treason. The Treasury Council enforced laws related to merchants and tribute collectors. The Council of Music, Arts and Sciences handled cases involving artisans, priests, superstition, witchcraft, and magic. This Council also regulated the schools, licensed teachers, and determined if censorship of art and crafts was necessary.

The Supreme Legal Council handled criminal, civil, and property matters. Decisions by local and provincial judges were appealed to this council, which was made up of six sets of two judges from the various geographic regions. These cases could in turn be appealed to two supreme judges, who issued sentences only with the approval of the Texcocan ruler. The Texcocan ruler turned to his divine tribunal for advice on serious cases and death sentences, had a separate ruler’s tribunal to handle less critical matters, and was advised by 14 great lords on political and legal issues affecting the empire. As with the legal system in Tenochtitlan, cases had to be resolved within 80 days. There is some evidence that judges followed precedent, and also made decisions based on what was reasonable under the circumstances of the specific cases.

Although Texcocan laws were strictly enforced, Nezahualcoyotl was merciful. He had corn planted along public roads so that hungry individuals could eat and not be accused of theft. Begging was also prohibited by death, but the Texcocan ruler gave food and clothing to the needy and to wounded soldiers.

Second, the Texcocan empire had highly complex property laws. Land was divided into six categories. Tlatocamilli land was royal land that was farmed by calpulli members for the benefit of the ruler. Tecpantlalli lands were lands on which the royal palaces were located. Commoners worked these lands and were employed as palace servants. Calpulalli were calpulli lands designated for use by commoners, but were owned by nobles. Pillalli lands belonged to minor lords. These lands could not be sold, but could be passed on to heirs or would otherwise revert back to the state. Tecpillalli lands belonged to minor lords related to ancient lords, and to merit-worthy warriors and other individuuals. These lands could be sold to other nobles. Yaotlalli lands were acquired through war.

Finally, the Texcocans had complex inheritance and succession rules. Children had the legal right to inherit property from their fathers, and could only be disinherited for violence, cowardice, cruelty, or wastefulness. Property generally passed from father to son. Among nobles, the first born son was usually the first in line to receive the inheritance. However, if he was deemed unsuitable, a different son was selected based on his merit and abilities. Commoners tended to divide their property equally among the offspring of the deceased, and there is some evidence to suggest that women inherited property.”


See Also

    • Mexican Legal System
    • Maya Law
    • American Indigenous Law
    • Ancient Mesoamerica

Further Reading

    • Alba Hermosillo, Carlos H. Estudio Comparado Entre el Dereceho Azteca y el Derecho Positivo Mexicano. México, D.F.: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Instituto Indigenista Interamericano, 1949.
    • Almazan, Marco A. “The Aztec States-Society: Roots of Civil Society and Social Capital.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 565 (Sept. 1999): 162-175.
    • Ávalos, Francisco. “An Overview of the Legal System of the Aztec Empire.” Law Library Journal 86, no. 2 (Spring 1994): 259-276.
    • Bahamondes Fuentes, Delfin. El Derecho en la Civilización Maya. Santiago: Editorial Jurídica de Chile, 1973.
    • Hassig, Ross, and Ronald Spores, eds. Five Centuries of Law and Politics in Central Mexico. Nashville, Tenn.: Vanderbilt University, 1984.
    • Berdan, Frances F. (1982) The Aztecs of Central Mexico: An Imperial Society. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York.
    • Boone, Elizabeth H. (1996) The Aztec World. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC. Glyph of Ahuitzotl from Tepozteco
    • Smith, Michael E. (2003) The Aztecs, 2nd edition. Blackwell Publishers, Oxford.
    • Soustelle, Jacques (1961) Daily Life of the Aztecs on the Eve of the Spanish Conquest. Stanford University Press, Stanford.
    • Townsend, Richard F. (2000) The Aztecs, revised edition. Thames and Hudson, New York
  • Carter, Robert F. “The Amazing Aztec Jurisprudence.” American Bar Association Journal 50 (July 1964): 667-69.
  • Ceballos Novelo, Roque J. “Las Instituciones Aztecas: Algunas Consideraciones Sobre su Origen, Carácter y Evolución.” Anales del Museo Nacional de Arqueología, Historia y Etnografía 2, no. 5 (1937): 279-304.
  • Chellet Díaz, Eugenio. El Derecho Tributario en la Nación Azteca. México, 1962.
  • Garraty, Christopher P. “Aztec Teotihuacan: Political Processes at a Postclassic and Early Colonial City-State in the Basin of Mexico.” Latin American Antiquity 17, no. 4 (Dec. 2006): 363-87.
  • Gayosso y Nararrete, Mercedes. “Causas que Determinaron la Ausencia de la Adopción en el Derecho Azteca.” In Memoria del IV Congreso de Historia del Derecho Mexicano, 1986, edited by Beatriz Bernal, 383-397, vol. 1. México, D.F.: Instituto de Investigaciones Jurídicas, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1988.
  • Hernández Rodríguez, Régulo. Organización Política, Social, Económica y Jurídica de los Aztecas. México, 1939.
  • Lima, Maria de la Luz. “Control social en México-Tenochtitlán.” In Estudios Jurídicos en Homenaje al Maestro Guillermo Floris Margadant. México, D.F.: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México 1988.
  • López Austin, Alfredo. La Constitución Real de México-Tenochtitlan. México, D.F.: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Seminario de Cultura Nahuatl, 1961.
  • “General survey of the sociopolitical, legal, economic, educational, and ecclesiastical aspect[s] of Tenochtitlan…Noteworthy principally for its greater utilization of Nahuatl textual material than any previous study.” — Handbook of Latin American Studies
  • Moncayo Rodríguez, Socorro. “Consideraciones en Torno a la Esclavitud Entre los Aztecas.” In Memoria del IV Congreso de Historia del Derecho Mexicano, 1986, Vol. 2, edited by Beatriz Bernal, 793-809. México, D.F.: Instituto de Investigaciones Jurídicas, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1988.
  • Sánchez Vázquez, Rafael. Génesis y Desarollo de la Cultura Jurídica Mexicana. México, D.F.: Editorial Porruúa, 2001.
  • Sandoval Pardo, Fernando R. Historia Crítica del Estado Mexicano: Análisis Estructural y Superestructural de los Estados Azteca, Novohispano e Independiente, 1325-1911. México, D.F.: Editorial Porrúa, 2001.
  • Seus, John M. “Aztec law.” American Bar Association Journal 55 (August 1969): 736-739.
  • Toscano, Salvador. Derecho y Organización Social de los Aztecas. México, D.F.: Universidad Nacional de México, 1937.