Like any other society throughout history, looking at Aztec houses can give us a wonderful glimpse into their daily life as well as how their society divided itself up. The Aztec, or Mexica, as they called themselves, lived in a highly stratified society. And, while we usually think of their magnificent pyramids, aqueducts, and other mind-blowing constructions when we think of Aztec architecture, Aztec homes offer some of the best insight into this social makeup.
The stratification that existed in the Aztec civilization was a bit more complex than we have space for here. So, to explore the everyday life of the Mexica, we’ll dive into the homes (or, really, palaces) of the nobles and the modest homes of the Aztec commoners.
The Palatial Houses of Aztec Nobles
The nobility made up only about 5% of the Aztec Empire, but that didn’t stop them from building the biggest, dopest homes around. In fact, the nobles were the only people in the empire who were allowed to have two floors in their homes or lavishly decorate!1
While there were several levels to the Aztec noble class, they all enjoyed the splendors of their station.
The wealth needed to build and maintain these large homes was derived from the lands each noble was assigned to administer. In a system reminiscent of feudal Europe, Aztec nobles controlled estates of varying size according to the individual’s importance. These lands could then be handed down to the next generation.2
Whether in the countryside or the capital of Tenochtitlan, the homes of Aztec nobility were distinguished by their size and luxury. Due to their administrative duties, the Aztec elites had part of their homes set aside for council chambers, armories, and offices. On the private side, these palatial homes included bed chambers for the lord, chambers for his harem (as the Aztec elites practiced polygamy), and gardens.3
Indeed, gardens played an important part across Aztec society. Like everything else, though, the nobles had the means to take it to the next level. Some nobles, taking advantage of the amazing Aztec architecture, even had terraced roofs where they grew gardens on top of their homes.
The palace of Nezaualcoyotl offers a prime example of this life of luxury. As recorded by an Aztec man following the Spanish conquest, Nezaualcoyotl’s palace was filled “with many fountains, pounds, and canals, many fish and birds, and the whole planted with more than two thousand pines…”4
Though the size of these fantastic homes would have varied according to one’s rank in Aztec society, Nezaualcoyotl’s palace measured 1000 yards long by 800 yards wide. Truly, the homes of the elite were marvels of Aztec architecture.
The Adobe Houses of Aztec Commoners
When we talk about the average Aztec home, we must talk about the average houses of the Aztec commoner. Like the homes of the nobility, those of the lower classes would have varied in size based on the wealth of those who lived there. But, needless to say, the daily life of most Aztecs was a far cry from the life of the Aztec ruling class.
With that said, the typical Aztec home was around 15 to 25 square meters, with two doors, no windows, and only one floor. These houses usually contained one big room, with a smaller room or two off to the side. Quite a bit different than Nezaualcoyotl’s palace!
Most houses also contained a hearth, which seemingly served two purposes. For one, the hearth was a place to cook and for the family to gather. On the other, it may have been seen as the incarnation of the god of fire. As one historian has written, hearths had “a mysterious power of the god that was within them.”5
On the outside, these homes would have been whitewashed with lime in order to reflect the rays of the sun, and thus keep the interior of the home much cooler. The structure itself was built with adobe bricks, composed mostly of mud, sand, water, and straw – materials all readily available in the lake on which the Aztecs built Tenochtitlan. To top off these structures, the Mexica covered their homes with thatched roofs.6
In the plots surrounding these modest, lime-washed homes, their occupants often planted a garden in which they grew flowers and vegetables. Though many Aztec commoners worked in the floating gardens, or chinampas, that produced most of the crops that fed Aztec society, these smaller gardens may well have provided the lower classes with food for their own tables.7
Though most Aztecs lived in smaller, one or two room houses, these homes were typically gathered into neighborhood-like groupings called calpolli.
A calpolli typically consisted of a group of families. Sometimes this took the form of one large extended family, others as several different families neighboring one another.
A smaller calpolli was made up of 10-20 houses, though there does not seem to have been any defined size for these Aztec neighborhoods. Within each calpolli, the Aztec residents commonly oriented five or so homes around a single, central courtyard.8 This created common areas for the families of the calpolli to do the day’s work, like grinding corn, and to play outside of their homes. The Nahtuatl term for this was cemithualtin, which translates to “those in one yard.”
Calpolli contained more than just houses, however. The typical calpolli also boasted schools for the area’s youth, temples (and perhaps pyramids), markets, and at times even ball courts. In many ways, this layout of Aztec cities is reflected today in the barrios of Mexico.
With calpolli we see another similarity to feudal Europe. For, while on one level they functioned a bit like neighborhoods, on another they were also a means of state organization. The Aztec state would assign a calpolli to a member of an area’s ruling elite. It was then up to this member of the nobility to see to the administration of the calpolli, the collection of its taxes, and so on.
Steam Baths for All!
Interestingly, despite the stratification in Aztec civilization that led nobles to live in palaces and commoners to live in one or two room adobe brick houses, there was something they all shared: the love of steam baths.
Rich or poor, seemingly everyone in the Aztec Empire had access to a steam bath. The only difference was that the nobles could afford to have them in their home, whereas the commoners had a separate building for their baths.
Known as a temazcal, steam baths actually played an important role across Mesoamerica. These bath houses were typically made from stone or adobe bricks, and bathers would throw water onto hot stones once inside. Akin to a sauna, the bather poured water onto piping hot rocks to produce an abundance of steam.
Interestingly, though we often refer to the temazcal as a type of steam bath, the Mexica did not use them for cleaning themselves. A clean people, as shown by the teams of street sweepers they employed in Tenochtitlan, the Aztecs bathed for cleanliness in cold water. The steam baths were reserved for a higher purpose.9
Inside each steam bath, images of the god of the underworld and healing, Tezcatlipoca, were prominently displayed. The temazcal, as noted by one historian, “was a therapeutic, medicinal, and spiritual activity with strong social dimensions.” Bathers didn’t just enter to clarify the body, but to “symbolically enter the underworld.”10
For the Aztecs, a good steam bath, then, could well have been something meant to purify the body and the soul.
Sources on Aztec Houses
- Michael E. Smith, The Aztecs (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012)
- Jacques Soustelle, The Daily Life of the Aztecs on the Eve of the Spanish Conquest (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1962), 124
- Soustelle, The Daily Life of the Aztecs, 123
- “Aztec Housing from Grand to Primitive,” historyonthenet.com
- Soustelle, The Daily Life of the Aztecs, 12
- Smith, The Aztecs
- Casey Walsh, “Bathing and Domination in the Early Modern Atlantic World,” from Virtuous Waters: Mineral Springs, Bathing, and Infrastructure in Mexico (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2018), 28
- Walsh, “Bathing and Domination in the Early Modern Atlantic World,” 29