The Aztec Empire had a hierarchical government with power and responsibility running from the top down. The empire’s rule was indirect over its provinces. That is, as long as the province or territory paid the tribute it owed the empire in full and on time, the empire left the local leaders alone.

The foundation of the empire’s hierarchical structure was the family. A group of interrelated families then formed a calpulli, a sort of neighborhood or guild. The calpullis organized local schools and shrines and took care of the group as a whole. Each calpulli elected a headman to oversee the calpulli’s responsibilities. Most Aztec cities contained many calpulli.

The headman of each calpulli was a member of the city council. The city councils had a good deal of power; they made sure the city ran smoothly. Each council had an executive council of four members. These four members were nobles and usually a member of a military society.

One of the four executive council members would be elected the leader of the city, the tlatcani, who oversaw not only the city but the surrounding countryside as well. These city councils and leaders formed the provincial network of the empire.

At the center of the empire were the main Aztec altepetls, or city states, of Texcoco, Tlacopan and Tenochtitlan. Of the three, Tenochtitlan gradually muscled its way to dominate over the others.

The pinnacle of power centered in the Huey Tlatoani, the Reverend Speaker or emperor. The emperor had absolute power and was worshipped as a god. By the emperor’s side was his Snake Woman or Cihuacoatl, who functioned as a grand vizier or prime minister. Although Snake Woman was the title of this position, it was always held by a man, usually the emperor’s brother or cousin. While the Huey Tlatoani dealt with issues of diplomacy, tribute, war and expansion of the empire, the Snake Woman’s responsibility was Tenochtitlan itself.

Directly under the emperor were his advisors, the Council of Four. These advisors were generals from the military societies. If something were to happen to the emperor, one of these four men would be the next Huey Tlatoani. The council advised the emperor in his decisions.

The empire required a host of other government offices, which were filled by a city’s noble families. Each city had a court system with Special Courts, Appellate Courts and a Supreme Court. The city’s merchant class, the pochteca, had their own court to consider matters of trade.

Managing the constant incoming tribute goods from far-flung provinces required another power structure, both central and provincial. Government officials also oversaw the markets, from the central markets of the cities to the smaller markets of town and country.

All of the priesthood and government officials reported to the emperor and his Council of Four. All supported the emperor. Although the Aztec Empire’s grip on its provinces was light, the tribute flowed into the central coffers.

This article is part of our larger resource on Aztec civilization. For a comprehensive overview of the Aztec Empire, including its military, religion, and agriculture, click here.