When Hernán Cortéz
and his Spanish henchmen had finished their scorched earth, genocidal destruction of what they renamed Mexico, circa 1521, two great civilizations lay lost and barren. When the Spaniards witnessed human sacrifice, they became convinced of the heretic and evil nature of the Aztec society and redoubled their efforts to eradicate it, much to the chagrin of Mexican historians.
Records were sought out and systematically destroyed, temples destroyed and the people converted to Christianity at gunpoint. It occurred fast and violently, leaving behind a mound of Aztec rubble from which archaeologists can mostly only reconstruct. But they had a word for it:
"Tlamelahuacachinaliztli - the Aztec word for justice, which means straight line or to straighten that which is twisted."
Francisco Avalos, 1994
Historians date the beginnings of the Mayan civilization to long before the Aztecs - about 2,600 B.C. if, as many suggest, they are a continuation of the Olmecs. But the height of its glory, 250 A.D., the Mayan state occupied the whole of what is now Mexico, Honduras and El Salvador through to Guatemala and Belize and north to Yucatan and southern Mexico.
The Mayans, without any contact with Asia or Europe, developed a calendar, a form of writing, musical instruments, sports, agriculture and advanced systems of society; in short, civilization.
A large human society cannot function without order and there is no order without law.
The Mayans had a class system, with a paramount ruler, a class of rich nobles and a religious order, followed by an vast under-layer of merchants, artisans and other workers and then, the lowest of the law, the slaves.
From the noble families only were chosen judges who resolved disputes. These positions were hereditary.
The center of power and of law was the palace.
The Mayans believed that their fate was controlled by the gods and that those gods could be appeased by blood-letting. They contrived a series of devices to essentially torture the blood-letter. The Mayans did not just bleed others; they routinely pierced themselves. One practice was to pierce the penis with a thorn and bleed it.
The reach of the Mayans gradually receded into what is now the Yucatan Peninsula, as it was when Spanish ships landed on March 4, 1519.
The Aztecs, comprised mostly of a northern tribe of people from Aztlan, called Mexica, evolved to form a powerful nation in and around their capital of Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City, which they settled in about 1375.
The advent of the Aztecs has been dated to about 1,200 A.D. and it certainly ended abruptly - when the gold-crazed Spaniards arrived and destroyed it - and their justice system - in 1521.
The Aztecs would conquer other cities and impose a tribute system. The head of Aztec government was the emperor, who was taken to be a god and who held all property, thus simplifying the requirement to regulate property. The last emperor was Montezuma II (also spelled Moctezuma) who, in all but name, was a monarch. Like his predecessors, he gave out and took back land and assets as a way of rewarding warriors and such other public service.
The Aztecs had much in common with the Spartans of ancient Greece: they worshiped war and warriors. The Aztecs are thought to have invented mandatory education - for boys and girls - which they did by setting up community schools.
Mexica nobles held their posts by birthright. The nobles had a separate court system and much harsher sentences for crimes.
The Mexicas were cruel and barbaric. By their heyday, about 1425, they are believed to have ruled over 15-million.
Law began with the emperor - an absolute monarch- who at any time, could state the law. he also had the right to order capital punishment.
Legalism, much as in China at the time, was all the rage, with attendant cruel and unusual punishments.
In his 2004 paper, The Aztec Legal System, Dale Andrade wrote:
"Judges were greatly respected members of the community and were seen as the literal embodiment of the emperor’s justice. The emperor appointed judges ....
"Many Aztec judges were members of the nobility and had numerous responsibilities outside their judicial capacity including military service, political duties and tending to their temple (priests could be judges). Priest-judges would be a particularly fearsome sight as many priests were painted black and had long hair matted with dried blood from a long night of ritual bloodletting.
"When charges were filed, the accused party was summoned before the court and given a chance to confront their accuser. Parties represented themselves in court and while no lawyers were present they could bring a friend or relative to help plead their case.
"Trials were public and based on an inquisitorial process that allowed the judge to question witnesses, defendants and plaintiffs.
"Parties were required to swear strict oaths in the name of Huitzilopochtili to tell the truth and did so by touching the ground and then their lips. In this way, lying became an affront to the gods and was punished by death. Witnesses are said to have told the truth out of respect for this oath in addition to having a healthy fear of the judge who was described as very skillful in getting the facts and displayed much wisdom in their questioning and cross-examination."
The Aztecs differed little from the Europeans in dishing our barbaric punishments except that they articulated an incremental level of punishments for errant children including forcing the child to inhale the smoke of burning chili.
Torture was used to "facilitate" confessions.
The Aztecs also severely punished public drunkenness except for those who were over 70; they could drink all they wished!
The Aztecs celebrated polygamy and another unique form of marriage, termed conditional marriage, which lasted only until a male child was born. The unconditional marriage lasted until death or divorce, the latter only allowed by the court if reconciliation attempts were fruitless. The father took custody of the son(s), if any, in the event of a separation, the mother, the daughter(s).
Murder was punishable by death regardless of the circumstances unless the family of the dead forgave the perpetrator, in which case the murderer became the permanent slave of the victim's family.
Theft or possession of stolen goods usually led to a sentence of strangulation.
Adultery was punishable by death, usually stoning. Many a noble was executed for adultery.
Son(s) inherited all, leaving nothing to the wives and daughters although wills were allowed and enforced.
The Aztecs were renowned for human sacrifice. At the consecration of Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan in 1487, by the then-emperor Ahuitzol, Aztec records proudly assert that 84,400 prisoners were sacrificed over the course of four days, with the priests working around the clock, although some experts suggest that number would of been improbable since it would mean a rate of almost 15 "open heart surgeries" a minute. Small consolation to the captured soldier: to be the subject of human sacrifice was considered an honorable death.
When Spanish soldiers first entered the Aztec capital, the civilization was at its apex. One of the Spaniards, Bernal Diaz, who saw the Aztecs palaces and zoos, later wrote of that moment:
"When we saw all those cities and villages built in the water ... and that straight and level causeway leading to Mexico, we were astounded. These great towns and buildings rising from the water, all made of stone, seemed like an enchanted vision....
"Indeed, some of our soldiers asked whether it was not all a dream."
Soon, for the Aztecs, the dream turned into a nightmare as the Spaniards crushed all.
- Andrade, D., The Aztec Legal System, Santa Clara University School of Law, 2004, retrieved from http://www.daviddfriedman.com/Academic/Course_Pages/legal_systems_very_different_08/final_papers_04/andrade_aztec_04.html on August 11, 2009
- Avalos, Francisco, "An Overview of the Legal System of the Aztec Empire", 86 Law Library Journal 259 (1994).
- Cóttrill, Jaime, Aztec-History.com
- Duhaime, Lloyd, 1431: Nezahualcoytl's Law Code
- Duhaime, Lloyd, Aztec Court in Session
- Duhaime, Lloyd, Hernan Cortéz (1485-1547)
- Duhaime, Lloyd, Military Justice, Aztec Style
- Duhaime, Lloyd, Timetable of World Legal History
- Image of Aztec Court hearing is from the Florentine Codex. Other image is of a Mayan temple.
- Widener, M. and Glass, E., Law in Mexico Before the Conquest, University of Texas, Tartlon Law Library, retrieved on August 11, 2009