10 Strange Facts About Slavery in the Ancient Aztec Empire


The Ancient Aztecs — although they called themselves the Mexica — were renowned for their vast stores of gold, their advanced society, their military skill and brutality, and also their incredibly bloodthirsty and regular mass sacrifices to their vicious gods. They were known for enslaving vast quantities of people and sacrificing most of them. However, many of the slaves within the Aztec Empire were treated quite well, had a lot of rights, and could even buy their way out of slavery. The truth is that while those prisoners of war earmarked for sacrifice may have had things pretty bad, most slaves in the old empire could look forward to a pretty decent life, and a chance at future upward social and economic mobility.

10. In Many Cases You Could Actually Buy Yourself Back Out Of Slavery

In today’s modern world, slavery is one of the most horrible and brutal practices imaginable. People are held against their will and usually controlled with extreme physical measures, never being given any chance to escape, or change their awful station in life. Now, most people would assume that slavery today is actually in a better place than the past, but that is not necessarily so. Many advocacy groups say there are more slaves now than there were ever before, but they are simply better hidden. A lot of ancient societies did have a form of slavery, but ironically, many of the more ancient societies had forms of slavery that would be considered to be much less oppressive than many forms you see in practice today.

Now, in some cases you were pretty trapped. If you were a captive of war you were very likely to be slated to be sacrificed and probably had little say in the matter. Also, if you are a slave who had been convicted in court multiple times of disobedience, you may find your options more limited. However, for most Aztecs, especially those who sold themselves into slavery, it was much more like a form of economic debt bondage. You could even earn money that you did not have to report back to your master, and eventually buy your freedom if you could work hard and save enough.

9. Parents Sometimes Sold Their Children As Slaves To Pay Debts

While it happens under the table in some parts of the world, creating a global system of almost impossible to track child slaves, in some societies in the past — like the Aztecs — it was actually legal to sell your own children in certain cases. You just had to go through a process. For starters, you couldn’t sell your own kids just because you really, really wanted to, or wanted to get a lot richer. The option was generally only considered in the first place if a family was very poor and struggling horribly to support the children they had. In those cases, some parents considered that the child would still have a decent life as a slave, may even have a chance at buying their own freedom in the future, and it would bring some much needed cash flow to the family while permanently decreasing the family’s expenses.

This wasn’t something you could just do, even if you were desperately poor or in debt, though. If you wanted to sell one of your kids, you first had to go before the courts and present your case to the officials. After hearing all of your reasoning for why you want to sell your child, they would then adjudicate if they thought you had sufficient reason — they would then either approve or deny the sale. In a way, all kids are the property of their parents until they are adults, but the Aztecs took it several steps further.

8. It Was Not At All Uncommon To Sell Yourself Into Slavery

This may sound totally foreign to most people — why would you sell yourself into slavery? Most people consider it a final end, something that you will never escape from until you die, and you have no recourse to change your outcomes at all. However, while that is how slavery tends to go today, they had the ability to buy themselves out and a lot of rules to prevent abuses, so desperate Aztecs saw things a little differently. Aztecs who were extremely poor or in debt sometimes voluntarily or accidentally put themselves in a position of slavery, but they could of course always buy their way back out at some point if they could be fiscally responsible and hard working enough.

There are a couple different ways it could happen, although usually gamblers who got into debt were the most likely to make use of either method. The first way is sort of by accident, as sometimes desperate gamblers would make themselves part of a wager, and then lose and immediately find themselves as someone else’s property. In other cases, the desperate man in debt would go to an official and get permission to sell himself. Once he had found a buyer, he would be given a price for the sale of himself equal to about 2,000 cacao beans — what was believed to be enough currency to last for about a year — and then be left on his own until he spent it all. Once the slave-to-be had spent all the money he had earned from the sale of himself, his bondage began — until and unless he could earn enough to ransom himself back, of course.

7. Slaves In The Aztec Empire Could Actually Own Other Slaves

Of course in today’s modern idea of slavery this is quite unthinkable — starting with the bondage of African-Americans, slavery in today’s society has been fully hereditary and extremely limiting. The slave in the modern world literally has no rights at all and is fully the permanent property of their master, unless they decided to sell the slave — in which case the slave had no recourse. Not that any of this is legal of course, but in the many places in society where slavery is practiced despite the law, this is the general practice. However, in Ancient Aztec society, you could not only buy yourself out of slavery, but even go ahead and buy other slaves yourself.

Now, to some people this may sound like a ludicrous proposition. After all, if you were wealthy enough as a slave to buy slaves, most would question why you would not first simply buy your own freedom. However it was not necessarily always that simple. In some cases remaining as a slave to a certain master could be beneficial if they had high social standing, and depending on your own value, it may actually still be cheaper to slowly buy low value slaves than simply buy your own freedom. You could then put these slaves to work so they could make enough money to buy your freedom if you wished, while also enjoying more luxury as a slave, since you had a team of people toiling away for you.

6. Slave Could Get Married And Slavery Was Not Hereditary

While the ability to get married could depend at times on the region or city, and whether you were a slave who had had repeated disobedience problems or not, for the most part, slaves could indeed get married if they chose. In today’s world and in the past few hundred years, children who are or were born to slave parents were born into slavery and most never knew a life of anything but belonging to and drudging for someone else. However, slaves in the Ancient Aztec Empire had a lot of rights compared to what most would imagine a slave to be, and were not fully considered property as we think of it.

Not only could slaves in most situations get married, but children born to slave parents, even if both were slaves, were born as free children — children were never born as slaves. The Aztecs seemed to have had an ideal wherein they believed that one could owe another person a portion of their labor, but they did not owe another their permanent fealty and did not truly belong to them — no one could deprive them in an ordinary situation of a chance to find a way out of their lot, if they worked hard enough. In a way, this was a very fair system, as many adults voluntarily sold themselves into slavery. The lack of a hereditary system ensured that children would not inherit a debt their parents had foolishly brought upon themselves.

5. Enemy Soldiers Were Usually Earmarked To Be Enslaved For Sacrifice

The Aztec military was quite fearsome for their time, and used bows and spears and other weapons of the age to great strength. They also intimidated their enemies by dressing in bizarre and colorful animal based costumes and creating a shocking presence on the battlefield. They were also feared because they would go to great lengths to capture enemy soldiers alive, knowing they would get greater honor from their fellow citizens and the gods if they could bring home alive a brave enemy soldier to give up as a blood sacrifice.

Now, not every enemy soldier that was captured was sacrificed, but it was the most common fate. The women and children were nearly always enslaved more permanently, although based on need many of them were sacrificed as well. Still, if you could manage to make it into a normal life as a slave while avoiding the fate of being sacrificed, and you didn’t disobey or cause trouble for your master, you may have still found a chance one day to buy your way to freedom. The Aztecs were a very tough, brutal enemy who rained awful death upon their foes and sacrificed countless of them to their gods, but in many ways, they were doing their best to be fair even to those they conquered.

4. Disobedient Slaves Could Find Themselves Turned Into A Sacrifice For The Gods

While slaves had a lot in common with freemen for the most part, and masters were not allowed to mistreat them or force them to do nothing but work every waking hour, the slaves were still expected to provide a certain level of labor for their owner, and be respectful and obedient in general. If a slave was being disobedient, the master had the drag them to the town square and prove before witnesses that the slave was disobedient. If this kept up three times, the master could then choose to sell the slave. Once a slave had been sold for being disobedient, he would be fitted with a wooden collar that showed everyone his shame and made it much harder for him to escape. At this point society had a vested interest in the slave in question not only not escaping, but of continuing to disobey.

Having enough sacrifices for the gods was very important, and if the slave were to be sold for disobedience three times, then he could be sold the next time to be used as a sacrifice at a future ritual. This could make good money for the seller, but it was, of course, a very final and painful end for the slave in question. Generally sacrifices were more commonly used on slaves taken directly from conquered enemy populations, but sometimes they didn’t always have as many sacrifices as they would like, so disobedient slaves from the local population made for a nice alternative.

3. In Ancient Aztec Society, It Was Illegal To Mistreat Your Slaves

In the modern world, slavery is such a horrific practice that masters tend to have total and callous life and death power over their slaves. They treat them with cruelty, and there is really nothing to stop the worst slavers out there, since they operate in the dark to begin with. However, in Ancient Aztec society, slaves not only had rights that gave them a chance at freedom and to certain property, but there were also limits to how their owners were allowed to treat them. While it is hard to find a full list of all laws, especially as it often varied by city or region to begin with, the general idea was that a slave was still a person, and should be allowed to expect a certain level of care and respect.

Slaves still were expected to be taken care of by their owners when it came to food, shelter and medical care, and even though children of slaves were born free, the masters were expected to pay for their care. If a slave could prove they were being mistreated before a court, they could earn their freedom. The truth is that owners simply didn’t dare abuse their slaves too much in most cases — if it was obvious enough abuse the slave could potentially take their freedom away, and if they just went ahead and killed a slave, they would likely end up being punished for murder by being earmarked as a sacrifice for the gods.

2. There Were Many Other Strange Paths To Freedom For Slaves

While we have already talked about how Aztecs could often buy themselves out of slavery, there were also other options as well. For starters, a slave marrying their owner or having children with them would instantly earn them their freedom. There were also strict rules about mistreating or abusing your slaves, and if you could prove it to the magistrates, you could earn your freedom. If the abuse was bad enough, your former owner may end up finding themselves sold into slavery for the crime they committed against you. These are some of the more common ways that a slave could find their way out without using money, but there were some other, stranger ways as well.

Slaves were supposed to be bound to the land of their owner most of the time, but if they were taken to the marketplace and they managed to break loose and make their way all the way outside the city walls, and step on a piece of human excrement, they could gain their freedom. Only the master and his sons could give chase; others risked making slaves of themselves as well for interfering. Slaves who had received the wooden collar for being incorrigible and who were being led through the market to be sold could gain their freedom if they could manage to break loose of whatever ropes were likely also holding them, and present themselves at a palace or temple, despite the restriction of the collar making it hard for them to move in narrow alleyways or among crowded throngs of people. As before, only the master and his sons could give chase if they didn’t want to end up belonging to someone themselves.

1. There Were Two Main Types Of Slavery In The Ancient Aztec Empire

Many people when talking about the Ancient Aztecs get confused as to what it actually meant to be a slave, and some have gotten a mistaken impression as to how cruelly slaves were really treated. The reason for this is that there were really two main classes of slaves, and they were treated very, very differently. The first class of slaves were men who were captured in battle. These men were usually quickly sacrificed to the gods, or were prepared for a future sacrifice to the gods. Some people have pointed to noblemen having their slaves buried with them for the afterlife, but it is more than likely that it was this type of slave that was being slaughtered to follow the nobleman — owners of the other type of slaves did not have life and death power over their slaves, and slaves would have been very unlikely to agree to such a thing unless it was one of the highest advisers to the Emperor himself — in which it would not be as evil or abusive as some would imagine if it was voluntary to some extent.

The other type of slavery was in some ways more common, and was much more like what we know of today as indentured servitude. The slaves had to live on their masters land, do chattel like work or farm work and had to do a certain amount of labor on a regular basis. However, they still had a lot of rights, they could still buy their way out or back in again, and could own property and advance their social standing. To be this second type of slave was often not that bad a thing at all, and if you were smart and made it a temporary situation, you could perhaps one day advance to be quite a rich citizen — provided you are disciplined enough as an individual and save carefully. The Aztecs truly wanted to reward those who were frugal and saved for a later day, perhaps believing that the people who planned for the future would be the best future leaders for their society.

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