The Aztec Empire was made up of city-states. At the center of each city-state was a large city that ruled the area. For the most part, the Aztec Emperor did not interfere with the ruling of the city-states. What he required was that each city-state paid him a tribute. As long as the tribute was paid, the city-state remained somewhat independent of Aztec rule.
Map of the Aztec Empire by Yavidaxiu from Wikimedia Commons
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The Emperor or Huey Tlatoani
The Aztec government was similar to a monarchy where an Emperor or King was the primary ruler. They called their ruler the Huey Tlatoani. The Huey Tlatoani was the ultimate power in the land. They felt that he was appointed by the gods and had the divine right to rule. He decided when to go to war and what tribute the lands he ruled would pay the Aztecs.
When an emperor died, the new emperor was chosen by a group of high ranking nobles. Usually the new emperor was a relative of the previous emperor, but it wasn't always his son. Sometimes they chose a brother who they felt would be a good leader.
Here are a few of the more famous Aztec Emperors or Huey Tlatoani:
Acamapichtli - The first emperor of the Aztecs, he ruled for 19 years starting in 1375.
Itzcoatl - The fourth emperor of the Aztecs, he conquered the Tepanecs and founded the Triple Alliance.
Montezuma I - Under Montezuma I the Aztecs became the dominant power of the Triple Alliance and the empire was expanded.
Montezuma II - The ninth emperor of the Aztecs, Montezuma II was the leader when Cortez and the Spanish arrived. He had expanded the empire to its greatest size, but was killed by the Spanish.
The second in command of the Aztec government was the Cihuacoatl. The Cihuacoatl was in charge of running the government on a day to day basis. He had thousands of officials and civil servants who worked under him and kept the government and the empire running smoothly.
There was also the Council of Four. These were powerful men and generals of the army who were first in line to become the next emperor. They gave advice to the emperor and it was important that he had their agreement in major decisions.
Other important officials in the government included the priests who oversaw the religious aspects of the city, the judges who ran the court system, and the military leaders.
The Aztecs had a fairly sophisticated code of law. There were numerous laws including laws against stealing, murder, drunkenness, and property damage. A system of courts and judges determined guilt and punishments. They had different levels of courts all the way up to a supreme court. Citizens could appeal rulings to a higher court if they did not agree with the judge.
One interesting part of the law was the "one time forgiveness law". Under this law, a citizen could confess a crime to a priest and they would be forgiven. This only worked if they confessed the crime prior to being caught. It also could only be used once.
The center of the Aztec government was the capital city of Tenochtitlan. This was where the emperor as well as the majority of the nobles lived. At its peak under Montezuma II, Tenochtitlan is thought to have had a population of 200,000 people.
Interesting Facts about Aztec Government
Huey Tlatoani meant "Great Speaker". The leader of other lesser cities was called the Tlatoani of that city.
Cihuacoatl meant "Female Snake" even though the office was always held by a man.
The priests were also responsible for running the schools.
When a new emperor came into power he had to spend four days fasting, meditating, and worshiping the gods.
The punishments for breaking a law were severe with death being a common punishment. Other punishments included having your head shaved or being sold into slavery.