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Slavery existed among them, but in the least objectionable form in which it has existed anywhere. Its subjects were prisoners of war, who however were almost invariably sacrificed rather than enslaved, criminals, public debtors and poor persons who sold themselves or their children. The services to be exacted were limited with precision. The slave was allowed to have his own family and property, even other slaves. His children were free. There was no such thing as hereditary slavery, and sales of slaves were rare.
The separation of the judicial power from the executive and legislative evinces a comprehension of the principles of good government hardly to be looked for. Over each of the principal cities and its tributary country there was a supreme judge, appointed by the king, but holding his office for life. He had jurisdiction in both civil and criminal causes. There was an inferior court in each province, composed of three members, having concurrent jurisdiction in civil causes. In criminal cases an appeal lay to the supreme judge. Besides these there were inferior magistrates throughout the country, chosen by the people of the districts and having jurisdiction in minor causes. There were also inferior censors, elected by the people, whose duty it was to watch over a certain number of families and report any infraction of the laws. In Tezcuco a general meeting of all the judges throughout that kingdom, presided over by the king, was held every eighty days at the capital for the determination of causes of first importance. This general court also acted as a grand council of state. For a judge to receive a bribe was punishable with death. The judges were supported from a part of the produce of the crown lands set apart for that purpose. They wore official robes and worked full days. Officers corresponding to sheriffs and bailiffs were in attendance to preserve order, summon parties and witnesses. Lawyers do not appear to have been in favor and are not mentioned in connection with the proceedings of the courts. In criminal causes the accused was allowed to testify. The testimony and proceedings were taken down by the clerk in hieroglyphical painting and delivered to the court.
In the art of levying taxes, as in all other branches of the
science of government, the Aztecs were far in advance of all savages. Besides the revenue from crown lands, services in building the kings palaces and buildings were exacted from laborers dwelling in the adjacent territory. Tribute in kind was required from farmers and manufacturers, and the table of the monarch and his retainers was abundantly supplied by his subjects. His granaries were filled with corn and his warehouses with cotton cloths and feather robes, arms, armor and utensils collected by his tax gathers from all parts of the empire. In fact every variety of product for use or ornament was collected for the king.
Any description of the Mexican government which ignores the priesthood leaves out the most characteristic part. The influence of the priests on the policy, as well as on the manners and morals of the people, was of first importance. The chief priests were not only at the head of a vast religious establishment, numbering thousands of inferior members, but at the same time superintended the educational system of the empire and exercised a most potent influence on the policy of the king. To supply the thousands of human victims, who were sacrificed during each year to their cruel gods, it was necessary to wage war and bring in captives. At the behest of the priests the monarch was often influenced to put the armies into the field. Thus the empire was extended, at the expense of neighboring tribes, and victims were supplied for the sacrificial stone.
At the head of the religious order were two priests chosen by the king and principal nobles. Below them were others of various ranks and functions in all the towns of the empire, forming a very numerous body. Their teocallis or temples, in great number and many of them of vast size, were thickly scattered about the cities. On the top of the terraced mounds of earth, on which the temple proper stood, the victim was bound on the sacrificial stone, and in sight of the people far and near the priest cut his breast open with a sharp stone, tore out his throbbing heart, held it bleeding to the sun and then cast it at the feet of the idol. The body of the victim was then given to his captor to be served at a great feast given to his friends.
In some respects the religious societies were similar to those of the Catholic Church. They held and tilled great bodies of land, the surplus products of which over what was consumed by them, were distributed to the poor. The priests heard the confessions of the people and granted absolution for their misdeeds. More important, however, than all this, the religious houses were the repositories of learning. To them was due the credit of developing the art of picture writing, and they took charge of the instruction of the young. By this means their doctrines and superstitions were given a strong and lasting hold on the people, especially the nobility, whose children were trained by them.
In all ages and among all people public ceremonies have played an important part in public affairs and exercised a powerful influence on society. Among the savage tribes of America, feasts, dances and formal councils have afforded the occasion and opportunity for gathering the sentiment of the tribe on public questions, for arousing their passions and starting them on the war path. In imperial Rome the culture and innate savagery of the people were exhibited at the circus. Nero read his verses above the arena whose sands soaked up the blood of martyrs, gladiators and wild beasts. The Mexicans exhibited no less strong contrasts in their public ceremonies. Beautiful flowers in tropical profusion, emblems of peace and innocence, adorned the processions which bore victims to the altars of the gods. Innocent babes, gaily decked with beautiful robes and roses, were carried to their doom by chanting priests. At the same time that observance of these most cruel and savage rites was inculcated, the priests taught lessons of private virtue and integrity, obedience to law, industry and thrift. It may be remarked that even their treatment of prisoners was an improvement on that prevailing among the savage tribes with which they were surrounded. The act of cutting open the breast and tearing out the heart was quickly and dexterously performed, and the suffering of the victim soon ended. Let it not be forgotten also, while we are condemning the Aztecs for their barbarity, that, at the same time, the most Christian nations of Europe were
breaking heretics on the rack, walling them up alive in tombs and applying all the tortures which fiendish ingenuity could devise, for the purpose of preserving intact the authority of the priests and teachers professing to be followers of the meek and lowly Nazarene, who came to bring peace on earth and good will to men. Let us remember that our Puritan ancestors, even at a later day, hung and burned people guilty only of the imaginary crime of witchcraft. Let us bear in mind how heads were lopped off in England and elsewhere for even dreaming the death of the king. Though so abhorrent to our ideas and feelings, their cannibalism seems to have been prompted by fanaticism rather than foul appetite.
The number of festivals observed by the Mexicans was very great. Each god received his due honors, and all religious ceremonies were conducted by the priests and observed by the people with order and decorum. It is curious to note that under the more ancient civilization of the Toltecs human sacrifice was unknown. Not until the ascendency of the Aztecs had the Inquisition begun its bloody career on the European continent.
The domestic regulations of the Aztecs were neither of the best nor of the worst. Polygamy was practiced to some extent, especially among the rich, but was not general. Slavery as we have seen existed but in a mild form. On the other hand marriages were celebrated with much ceremony, continency on the part of both sexes was strongly inculcated, and adultery severely punished. Though children were strictly ruled, especially while under instruction, their parents regarded them with affection. Wives were not slaves to their husbands, but were their companions and shared with them at feasts and entertainments. Divorce implied disgrace and could only be obtained through a court for cause. Guardians were appointed for orphans and were held to the strictest account in the management of their estates. The principal part of the labor of the fields was performed by the men. Only the lighter kinds of work were done by the women, and it is said that in the division of labor the weaker sex was quite as tenderly regarded as in most parts of Europe today.
The educational and material progress made by the Mexicans was such as might naturally be expected from their circumstances. Considerable skill was developed both in agriculture and in manufactures, but trade hardly passed the stage of local barter. Regular markets were held in the cities on every fifth day, which were attended by a great concourse of people. Different quarters were assigned specially to each kind of commodities and, where barter failed, a kind of currency consisting of quills of gold dust, bits of T shaped tin and bags of cacao of a specified number of grains was used. The precious metals as well as tin and copper were wrought with much skill into useful and ornamental vessels and implements of various kinds. The fibre of the maguey and cotton furnished material for the weavers, of which they made good use, and the richest robes were made with feathers. Though their architecture was not of high order, the teocallis and palaces were of great size, and the latter of considerable pretensions for comfort. Post routes were established throughout the empire, with stations at short intervals, and by means of trained messengers dispatches were forwarded with remarkable speed. Picture writing had reached a stage of development that furnished means of communication by writing and orders from the king were so transmitted by his messengers.
The most marked and surprising evidence of scientific progress was in the correctness of their calendar, in which the length of the year was set down with a very close approximation to absolute accuracy, and the equinoxes and solstices were correctly noted.
Domestic animals the Aztecs had not. They were therefore total strangers to the shepherd state. The buffaloes of the prairies were never reduced to subjugation by them. The care with which they made provision for future wants in well stored granaries and warehouses is in marked contrast to the improvidence of northern tribes. In their pulque, made from the sap of the maguey, they had an intoxicating drink of which they were excessively fond, but of which only the old people were allowed to partake freely. The diversity of