The Aztecs shared many factors in common with the other major cultures of the Americas, but in many ways it was their social structure that set them apart. It was highly stratified, every person in the Aztec society playing an important role. At a basic level, the Aztec's social structure can be divided into three classes - the nobility, the commoners, and the serf/slave class.
The noble class of the Aztecs was known as the pipiltin, and was actually somewhat larger than most might expect. Though still the smallest of the social orders, the pipiltin consisted of not only the government rulers and administrators but also the priestly classes and even the military commanders.
At the top of the noble class were the rulers of the Aztec Empire. The Emperor himself would be considered part of this class, as were the rulers (tlatoani) of the other cities of the empire. This is the smallest part of any social class in the empire, as it is essentially the same as the royalty of European or Asian antiquity. These rulers typically reigned for life and were replaced by an election conducted by their own noble relatives.
Depiction of Aztec Noble Dancers
Aztec priests were a social class within another social class. The Aztec priests had various jobs and their social rank was tightly controlled by their function in the Aztec religion.
The Aztec social structure placed the priests near the top of the order, though priests did have to adhere to strict rules that included vows of celibacy and sobriety. Even with that said, the priests exercised a great deal of influence over the goings-on of the Aztec Empire and were in many ways as powerful a force as any others in their social class.
The tecuhtli, or lords, of the Aztec Empire were among the most diverse members of the upper Aztec classes. Some members of this class were landowners, while others worked as judges or as military leaders. They, like other members of the noble class, had the ability to wear jewelry in public and commanded a great deal of respect. Like other nobles, they were also able to collect tribute from the lower classes.
Sacrifice of an Aztec Noble
The common class in the Aztec social structure is a little different than what you'd see in other parts of the world. In fact, you might think of the Aztec commoners as something closer to the modern middle class, as these individuals were often artisans and business owners. Still, they occupied a far lower rung on the social ladder than the Aztec nobles.
The top of the heap when it came to social prestige were the artisans and the traveling merchants of the Aztec society. Aztec artisans were held in high esteem, while Aztec merchants benefitted from being a vital part of the economy.
While they could not display their wealth in the same way as nobles, members of this class could actually be quite wealthy. In fact, artisans and merchants could theoretically hold a higher social rank than some minor priests!
Skilled tradespeople and free laborers made up the bulk of the Aztec commoner class. A vital part of the Aztec social structure, these individuals all lived within neighborhoods called calpulli. Each calpulli was led by a single nobelman and actually had its own council of elders. Though most commoners didn't have a great deal of power, their needs were still respected and considered when it came to the running of the empire.
Representation of how aztec commoners would advance through the ranks
A significant part of the Aztec social structure was made up of landless workers and slaves. They had the fewest rights of any group and often found their needs less prioritized than others.
Many Aztecs lived their lives as serfs, or bonded servants. These serfs did not have land on their own and instead lived and worked on the land owned by the nobles. Unlike commoners, these laborers did not live in the calpulli and thus did not have the same kind of representation as the other commoners. Still, Aztec workers had some degree of freedom. If you were the average Aztec, you would probably be part of this social class.
Aztecs had a very large slave class. A common punishment for individuals was being reduced to the role of slave, which were called tlacotin.
Tlacotin could find themselves in that position because they committed a crime or even because they were unable to pay tribute to nobles. Many more slaves, though, were in that position because they were prisoners of war. In fact, this was the best most prisoners could hope for, as many slaves were sacrificed in various Aztec festivals.
It should also be noted that Aztec workers and Aztec commoners could sell themselves or their families into slavery to pay debts. It should be noted, though, that Aztecs could not be born into this class - children born of a slave would not be slaves, though they would not be likely to become part of a higher social class either. Most slaves remained in this capacity until they were freed or until their owners died, which ended their term of servitude.