The basic unit of Aztec society was the family. The family was very important to the Aztecs and marriage was considered sacred. Men could marry more than one wife, but there was usually a primary wife who was in charge of the household. Marriages were arranged by matchmakers.
Families belonged to a larger group called the calpulli. Families and individuals did not own land in Aztec society, the calpulli did. A calpulli was like a clan or small tribe. Many of the families in a calpulli were related to each other. Calpullis had a chief, a local school, and often had a trade in which they specialized.
Above the calpulli was the city-state, also called the Altepetl. The city-state included a large city and its surrounding areas. The largest city-state and capital of the Aztec Empire was Tenochtitlan. Other city-states in the Aztec Empire had to pay tribute to the emperor who lived in Tenochtitlan.
There were different social classes within Aztec society. At the very top of society was the king along with his family. The king was called the Huey Tlatcani and he was very powerful.
Tecuhtli - Just below the emperor, who ruled the capital Tenochtitlan, were the rulers of the other city-states. They were very wealthy and lived in large palaces within their cities. They had complete power over their cities as long as they paid tribute to the emperor.
Pipiltin - Below the Tecuhtli were the pipiltin or the noble class. Only the noble class could wear certain types of clothes and jewelry such as feathers and gold. The pipiltin held the high ranking positions in the priesthood, the army, and the government. They formed the city council which helped to rule the city-states. The king was always chosen from the pipiltin.
Pochteca - There was a special class of Aztec merchants called pochteca. They were treated like the nobility in society because their jobs were considered very important to the Aztec Empire. The pochteca traveled long distances in order to bring back luxury goods that were treasured by the nobility.
Macehualtin - The common people in Aztec society were called the macehualtin. This included the farmers, warriors, and craftsmen. Later on in the history of the Aztecs, craftsmen and warriors began to have a higher position in society than the farmers.
Slaves - At the bottom of Aztec society were the slaves. In Aztec society, the children of slaves were not slaves. Aztec people became slaves by selling themselves into slavery to pay for debts or as punishment for crimes. The slaves had certain rights. They were not to be mistreated by their owners, they could buy their freedom, and they could not be sold by their masters unless they agreed.
Interesting Facts about Aztec Society
In the Nahuatl language calpulli meant "big house".
The Aztec nobility, or pipiltin, claimed that they were direct descendents from the legendary Toltec people.
The merchants had their own patron god named Yacetecuhtli who they believed watched over them and kept them safe on their journeys.
Two common ways to move up in the ranks of society were through the priesthood or through the military.
Slaves who escaped their masters and made it to the royal palace would be set free.
Slaves could have possessions including other slaves.
The traveling merchants were often employed by the Aztec government as spies.
Although the merchants were allowed to be rich, they were not allowed to dress as the nobility. They had to dress as the commoners.