Pochteca (sing. pochtecatl) were professional, long-distance traveling merchants in the Aztec Empire. They were a small, but important class as they not only facilitated commerce, but also communicated vital information across the empire and beyond its borders. The trade or commerce was referred to as pochtecayotl. The pochteca also traveled outside the empire to trade with neighboring lands throughout Mesoamerica. Because of their extensive travel and knowledge of the empire, pochteca were often employed as spies.
Status in Aztec Society
Pochteca occupied a high status in Aztec society, below the noble class. The pochteca were responsible for providing the materials that the noble class used to display their wealth. These materials were often obtained from foreign sources. The pochteca also acted as agents for the nobility by selling the surplus tribute that had been bestowed on the noble and warrior elite. The pochteca traded the excess tribute (food, garments, feathers and slaves) in the marketplace or carried it to other areas to exchange for trade goods.
Due to the success of the pochteca, many of these merchants became as wealthy as the noble class, but were obligated to hide this wealth from the public. Trading expeditions often left their districts late in the evening, and their wealth was only revealed within their private guildhalls. Although politically and economically powerful the pochteca strove to avoid undue attention. The merchants followed their own laws in their own calpulli, venerating their god, Yacatecuhtli, “The Lord Who Guides”, an aspect of Quetzalcoatl. Eventually the merchants were elevated to the rank of the warriors of the military orders.
The pochteca were organised into twelve guilds, each based in one of the urban centers of the Valley of México:
The markets were part of a complex interlocking system. In the Valley there were four levels of market:
- The great market of Tlatelolco which met daily.
- The markets of Texcoco and Xochimilco.
- The Macuiltianquiztli - every five-days markets of the city-states Huitzilopocho, Cuautitlán, Azcapotzalco, Mixcoac, Huexotla, Cóatlichan, Otompan and Chalco.
- The markets of the smaller towns and villages.
Some of the cities were famous for specialized markets:
- Texcoco sold ceramics and clothing.
- Acolman specialised in dogs and food animals
- Tepepulco sold birds, important for their feathers.
- Azcapotzalco was a trading hub and controlled all major markets and trade routes.
The highest official of the pochteca in Tenochtitlán was the Pochtecatlailotlac, the Merchant-Arbiter who also sat as one of the judges in the Tlacxitlan, the highest court of law.
Each of these cities included a merchant district and a market, the tianquiztli, though the greatest market was the tianquizco in Tlatelolco, the fifth campan of Tenochtitlán. Tlatelolco included seven calpulli inhabited by the pochteca: Pochtlan, Ahhuachtlan, Atlauhco, Acxotlan, Tepetitlan, Itztolco and Tzommolco. Each of the pochteca calpulli were governed by the Pochtecatlatoque – the Merchant Speakers or Leaders. Those of the Pochtlan and Acxotlan districts had special titles:
- The Tlailotlac of Pochtlan was the arbiter in mercantile affairs, overseeing the commerce of the Pochteca Teucnehnenqueh, the ‘travelling lords’. Elderly experience merchants, the Pochtecahuehuetqueh, helped him manage the mercantile concerns of the district.
- The Acxoteca of Acxotlan was the Merchant-General of the Naualoztomeca, the ‘disguised merchants’.
Each of the Pochtecatlatoque were aided by the pochtecatlatoque. The pochtecatlatoque were the elder of the pochteca, and were no longer travelers, but rather acted as administrators, overseeing young pochteca and administering the marketplace.
The volume of trade passing through the great tianquizco of Tlatelolco was unsurpassed in Mesoamerica. It served not merely to distribute goods but as the great clearing house of the Empire. Such was the organisation required to manage this massive entrepreneurial center that the Aztec state founded special institutions and officials to oversee it.
- The Pochtecatlailotlac, the ‘first of the merchants’ was the effective governor of Tlatelolco, answering to the Huey Tlatoani and accounted a magistrate of the Teuctlahtohqueh, the imperial judges.
- The Tianquizpan Tlayacanqui, the Marketplace Judges, oversaw the enactment of pochteca laws and sentenced any thieves caught within the confines of the tianquizco. The Pochteca Tlahtocan commercial court had three levels and between three and five judges would sit in court each market day.
- The omnipresent Tianquiztlacanqui administered the day-to-day running of the market, checking for compliance with the laws and looking out for fraudulent dealing. They also ensured the payment of the imperial trade tax, the pochtecatequitl, enforced on all sales.
Types of Pochteca
The professional merchants were classified into the following roles:
- The importers: pochteca and oztomeca.
- The wholesalers, the tlaquixtiani.
- The retailers, the tlanecuilo.
The pochteca were divided into the following types:
- The Pochteca Teucnehnenqueh, the pochteca trading on behalf of the nobility. They were considered the higher rank of pochteca, carrying out some private trade as well.
- The Pochteca Naualoztomeca, the ‘disguised merchants’, seeking after rare goods often on their own behalf but also as spies for the state. A oztomecatl (plural oztomeca) was a merchant-guard or vanguard-merchant seeking out new markets and resources and goods of interest to Tenochtitlán. Senior warrior-merchants were known as Teyahualonime, with a merchant-general given the title of Acxotecatl. Often the trade performed by these warrior-merchants was a precursor of military conquest.
Within these groups there were also:
- The Tecouanime, the slave merchants. These people were often referred to as the richest of merchants, as they played a central role in bathing the slaves used for sacrificial victims.
- The Iyahqueh, merchants based in outlying trade stations and depots, supporting the long trade routes.
- The Tlanamacani, salesmen acting as agents for the pochteca guilds.
The Tlanecuilo or Tlanecuiloani, the regional traders and pedlars were not part of the pochteca guilds but were an important part of market commerce. They traded in foodstuffs and utilitarian goods rather than the luxuries carried by the pochteca and frequently specialised in specific items, such as:
- The Huauhnamacac traders who sold the seeds of amaranth (pigweed). In several ceremonies images of the gods (notably Huitzilopochtli) were made with amaranth mixed with honey to be eaten by the people.
- The Iztanamacaque, sellers of salt.
- The Tlacemanqui traders who sold items, including silver and gold.
- The Tlanamacac producer-sellers who came to the markets to sell their produce.
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Ross Hassig, Aztec Warfare, University of Oklahoma Press (1995).
Ian Heath, Armies of the Aztec and Inca Empires, and other native peoples of the Americas, and the Conquistadores 1450-1608, Foundry Books (1999), pp 50-51.
Alfredo Lopez Austin & Leonardo Lopez Lujan, Mexico’s Indigenous Past, University of Oklahoma Press (2001), pp 235-236.
Michael E. Smith, The Aztecs, Blackwell (2003), pp 112-114.
Jacques Soustelle, Daily Life of the Aztecs, Phoenix Press edition (1995), pp 60-65, 85-86.
George Clapp Vaillant (1901-1945, The Aztecs of Mexico, Penguin Books edition (1953), pp.122-23; also Plate 38 depicting portion of the Codex Florentino.
Rudolf van Zantwijk, The Aztec Arrangement. The Social History of Pre-Spanish Mexico, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press (1985), pp. 125-177: Ch. 7, The Social and Economic Development of the Aztec Merchants; Ch. 8, Ritual and Ceremonial Organization of the Merchants and Other Vocational Groups.