Daily Life in Tenochtitlan: Insights into the Mexica Empire and Its Culture

Explore the fascinating daily life of the Mexica Empire and its capital city, Tenochtitlan. Discover the culture, traditions, hygiene practices, administration, and social roles of this ancient civilization, shedding light on a little-known past.

Daily Life in Tenochtitlan: Insights into the Mexica Empire and Its Culture
A view of the gardens of King Nezahualcoyotl's palace in Texcoco, featuring fountains, irrigation channels, ponds, and baths.

The Mexica empire flourished long before the arrival of the Spaniards, spanning across the great basin of Mexico and extending over the central and southern margins of the lakes, including Huexotla, Coatlinchan, Culhuacan, Iztapalapa, Chalco, Xico, Xochimilco, Tacuba, Azcapotzalco, Tenayuca and Xaltocan. It was the most expansive power the region had ever seen.

Collaborating with neighboring peoples such as Tlacopan and Texcoco, the Mexica subdued several indigenous populations settled in the center and south of present-day Mexico. Although much has been said about the grandeur of the Mexica empire, everyday life in Tenochtitlán remains shrouded in mystery.

Curiosity about the daily activities of the Mexica - what they ate, how they lived - is understandable. Fortunately, the research of the French ethnologist Jacques Soustelle sheds light on our ancestors' lives. Soustelle's seminal work, La vida cotidiana de los aztecas en vísperas de la conquista (The Daily Life of the Aztecs on the Eve of the Conquest), offers fascinating insights into this ancient civilization.

Originally published in French in 1955, Soustelle draws on various historical sources, including the works of Sahagún, Durán, Torquemada, and other chroniclers, as well as codices and archaeological data. Through his extensive research, Soustelle paints a vivid picture of Mexica culture, providing valuable information that allows us to peer into the past.

The House and Furniture

As the sun rises over the vibrant city of Tenochtitlan, the world awakens to the sound of temple drums, seashell trumpets, and the bustling activity of its inhabitants. From lakeside villages to opulent palaces, the day begins in houses of all shapes and sizes.

The women of the city start their day by using a blower woven from palm leaves to wake up the fire that has been dozing among the stones of the hearth. After that, they kneel before the metate (metlatl) of volcanic stone and begin to grind maize to make tortillas (tlaxcalli) with rhythmic clapping.

Meanwhile, the men head off to their labors with their food (itacatl) in a bag, and the women stay at home, tending to their daily tasks. Depending on the wealth and activity of the inhabitants, there were different types of houses, ranging from extensive constructions to peasant huts made of branches and adobe with grass roofs.

Most houses were constructed of adobe and consisted of a kitchen, a room where the whole family slept, and a separate bath (temazcalli). The artisans had their workshops, and the merchants had their warehouses. The plot of land on which the house stood included an inner courtyard and a garden where the children could play and the women could spin and weave.

Although the houses hardly differed from each other in terms of furniture, the beds were the so-called petate (petlatl), and there was also a more elaborate type of seat, the icpalli with back, made of wood or rushes. The emperor's furniture was covered with cloth or skins and had gold decorations on it, while the clothes, fabrics, and jewels of the family were kept in woven chests called petalacalli.

Inside the houses, frescoes adorned the walls of wealthy homes, and pinewood torches (ocotl) were used for lighting. The hearth was the focal point of every home, especially the most humble. The three stones between which the logs were lit and the vessels rested had a sacred character and were the embodiment of the "old god," the god of fire.

The merchants particularly venerated fire, and before the departure of a caravan, they would gather at the house of one of them and sacrifice birds, burn incense, and throw magic figures made of cut-out paper into the fire. When they returned, they offered their share of food to the fire before beginning the feast with which they celebrated the happy end of their journey.

Mexica women prepare maize for tortillas on a metate of volcanic stone, an essential daily task in Tenochtitlán.
Mexica women prepare maize for tortillas on a metate of volcanic stone, an essential daily task in Tenochtitlán.

Mexica Hygiene and Eating Habits

Cleanliness and the importance of personal hygiene were at the forefront of Mexica culture. Whether you were a ruler or an ordinary citizen, it was customary to bathe twice a day, with a mandatory bath before bedtime. The Mexica relied on natural resources, such as copalxocotl and the root of the Saponaria, to produce a cleansing lather for the body and clothes, which the Spanish referred to as the 'soap tree'.

Modesty was highly valued, and women often wore their hair in two chongos instead of wearing excessive makeup, which was considered distasteful. Cleanliness was an integral part of daily life, with morning mouth and face washing, daily bathing, and frequent dress cleaning being commonly inculcated practices.

The Mexica did not have a traditional breakfast. Instead, they would have their first meal after a few hours of work, typically around 10 a.m. This meal consisted of atolli or atole, a sweetened or spiced beverage made with maize flour, honey, or chili.

For lunch, the Mexica usually ate at noon and their meal typically included tortillas, chili sauce, tomato, beans, and occasionally tamales. They consumed little meat and primarily drank plain water. After lunch, they would take a short nap while squatting.

Dinner was usually simple and limited to amaranth or chia gruel. Among the Mexica, the four most highly valued food plants were maize, amaranth, beans, and chia.

Aztec Gardens and Animals

The grandeur of the Aztec manor was not only characterized by its architecture but also by the splendor of its gardens and animal exhibits. King Nezahualcoyotl's palace in Texcoco was approximately one kilometer long and 800 meters wide, with more than 300 rooms for public and private use. The rest of the area was dedicated to gardens that were adorned with fountains, irrigation channels, ditches, ponds, and baths.

The gardens housed numerous water features, including fish and birds of prey, and were surrounded by over two thousand junipers. Additionally, there were many labyrinths, some of which were in the king's baths where visitors could get lost. The gardens also featured a house of birds on the border of the temples, where the king kept various species of birds, animals, snakes, and serpents brought from various parts of the land. For those that could not be housed, their figures were made of stones and gold.

The gardens were meticulously cared for, and water was brought in to ensure the plants and flowers were irrigated. The water was accumulated in a pond adorned with historical bas-reliefs that were destroyed by the first bishop of New Spain, D. Fr. Juan de Zumárraga, who believed them to be idols.

Hernán Cortés, a Spanish conquistador, documented the Mexican emperor's fascination with freaks, including albinos, dwarfs, hunchbacks, and other contracted beings. The emperor also kept various animals, including pumas, jaguars, coyotes, foxes, and wild cats. In cages, he kept birds of prey, which were partially covered for protection from the rain and the other half exposed to the sun and air. Hundreds of servants cared for the animals and freaks in the garden museum.

Cortés' account is corroborated by his fellow adventurer, Andres de Tapia, who enumerates the many species of birds, ferocious animals, and "freaks" that Montezuma kept for his amusement. "There were in this house," he adds, "in large jars and pitchers, snakes, and vipers. And all this was but by way of grandeur." This account is also validated by Bernal Díaz, who speaks of the "many vipers and poisonous snakes, which have in their tails one that sounds like a rattle; these are the worst vipers of all, and they had them in large jars and pitchers, and in them, many feathers, and there they laid their eggs and bred their vipers. ... and when the tigers and lions roared, and the oyes and foxes howled, and the snakes hissed, it was horrible to hear, and it sounded like hell."

Finally, it's worth noting that most Aztec families had flower gardens in their backyards, and the lakeside suburb Xochimilco, also known as the place of the flower fields, was the garden that supplied the whole valley. Additionally, each family had domestic animals, including turkeys, rabbits, and dogs (xoloitzcuintle).

The bustling marketplace of Tenochtitlán, offering a vast array of merchandise from all over the world.
The bustling marketplace of Tenochtitlán, offers a vast array of merchandise from all over the world, including food, jewelry, animal skins, and household items.

Mexica Precepts of Conduct

The ancient tlatoanis placed great importance on dignity, which they believed involved displaying a serious, serene, and even humble demeanor and maintaining one's proper place. Inexperienced warriors were frowned upon for speaking vainly, boastfully, loudly, or rudely. According to the Florentine Codex, such individuals were referred to as ahuillatoa, totoquauglatoa, tlatlaquauhtlatoa, or quauquauhtlatoa.

In selecting a lord, the tlatoanis chose individuals who were not haughty, presumptuous, boisterous, discourteous, spoiled, impudent, bold in speech, or prone to speaking without thought. Those who spoke gibberish or made mocking comments were called tecucuecuechtli or "truhan", and were not considered for notable positions.

A true lord was expected to be humble, obedient, prudent, peaceful, and quiet, with a moderate approach to pleasure and a calm demeanor. He was to exercise self-control in his speech, speaking thoughtfully and quietly, and avoiding raising his voice. He was to remain discreet, and silence was preferable to speaking rashly.

These precepts, known as huchuetlatolli, were considered essential to being an "honest man" of the time. The huehuetlatalli, preserved in Nahuatl text by Father Olmos, provided extensive guidance on how a distinguished Mexica should behave before superiors, peers, and subordinates.

This included showing respect for elders, displaying compassion towards the unfortunate, avoiding light or frivolous conversation, and adhering to scrupulous standards of courtesy in all circumstances. When entering someone's home, one was expected to act with respect and greet people properly. During meals, it was forbidden to make noise, cough, or spit.

Aztec Administration and Laws

The Aztec Empire had a decentralized form of administration. In conquered provinces, a tax collector called the "calpixqui" was appointed in the provincial capital. Strongholds on the frontiers or newly subdued regions had governors appointed by the central power. Incorporated cities were allowed to retain their chiefs as long as they paid tribute, while others were obligated to provide lodging and provisions for troops or officials passing through.

Some cities received new governors from Tenochtitlan. Each city had its own administrative and political autonomy but was subject to paying taxes, supplying military contingents, and submitting disputes to the courts of Mexico or Texcoco. In other words, the Mexica empire was a loose confederation of city-states.

The Mexica had strict laws that punished corruption, embezzlement, and unjust sentences by death. The laws were equally applied to everyone, regardless of social class. Ordinary citizens knew they were protected by the laws as long as they obeyed them.

Ancient Mexica civilization comes to life in stunning detail, offering a glimpse into their daily routines.
Ancient Mexica civilization comes to life in stunning detail, offering a glimpse into their daily routines, customs, and beliefs.

Mexico City Markets

Mexico City, at the time of the Spanish conquest, was comprised of Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco. The central plaza of Tenochtitlán, along with its neighborhoods, served as a marketplace. According to Cortés, the city had multiple plazas for buying and selling goods. One particular plaza, enclosed with portals and as large as twice the city of Salamanca, had more than sixty thousand people daily engaging in trade. This plaza offered a vast array of merchandise from all over the world, including food, jewelry made of gold and silver, sandals, ropes, and various animal skins, such as the jaguar, puma, fox, and deer, raw or tanned. Additionally, there were eagle, hawk, and falcon feathers available for purchase.

The plaza also sold a diverse range of food items such as corn, beans, oilseeds, cocoa, chili, onions, and various other vegetables and herbs. Meats such as turkey, rabbit, hare, and deer were available, along with ducks and the Aztec's beloved hairless dogs. Fruits, sweet potatoes, honey, corn syrup, maguey cane syrup, salt, dyeing colors, cochineal, indigo, earthenware vessels, gourds, vases, plates, flint or obsidian knives, copper axes, wood for building, boards, beams, firewood, charcoal, resinous wood for torches, bark or aloe paper, cylindrical reed pipes filled with tobacco, fish, frogs, crustaceans, and even a type of "caviar" made from insect eggs collected on the surface of water, mats, chairs, and braziers.

Cortés noted that this market had "houses like those of apothecaries" where they sold ready-made medicines, potables, ointments, and plasters. There were also establishments similar to barbershops where people could get their heads washed and shaved. Other establishments offered food and drink for a price.

Social Roles in Tenochtitlan

In Tenochtitlan, social roles were predetermined from birth. Male children were dedicated to becoming warriors, with their umbilical cords buried alongside miniature arrows and shields. The god of young warriors, Tezcatlipoca, was revered as their patron deity. Education in the calmécac was mainly military, with boys' hair cut short and only allowed to grow a lock on the nape of their necks, which they could only cut after taking a prisoner in battle.

For girls, their fate was different. Soon after birth, they could be presented in the neighborhood temple and be given a censer and copal by their mothers, symbolizing a reciprocal commitment. However, they would only become priestesses, known as cihuatlamacazqui, after they reached ichpochtli or young womanhood.

Despite being vastly different from the rest of the world, the customs, identity, and spirituality of pre-Hispanic daily life in Tenochtitlan still resonate with modern-day Mexico. Jacques Soustelle has narrated this fascinating history in detail, shedding light on a little-known past that remains an integral part of our cultural heritage.

As descendants of this incredible civilization, it's essential to continue learning about our roots. By doing so, we can feel an immense sense of pride in our cultural wealth and appreciate the extraordinary world that our Mexica ancestors built and inhabited.

Full Citation: Ma. Guadalupe Flores Rodríguez, La Vida Cotidiana De Los Habitantes De Tenochtitlan. 1st ed., Mexico, Instituto Nacional de los Pueblos Indígenas, 2021.