His name was Itzcoatl, which meant Obsidian Serpent – izt(li)=obsidian, coatl=serpent – and he came to succeed his nephew, the Third Tlatoani of Tenochtitlan, in 1428 or One Flint Knife/Ce Tecpatl. Most sources agree with this date, even though a few claims vary from as early as 1425 to as late as 1435.
He has reigned for thirteen years only, but the changes he brought to the balance of powers of the entire Mexican Valley/Anahuac were more than profound.
On his glyph he appears in the regular ruler’s fashion, seated on a reed mat-petatl, wearing a noble headband-xiuhuitzolli, with the customary scroll coming out of his mouth. His name is attached to his glyph, depicting a red and yellow serpent with black obsidian spikes.
He was one of the several illegitimate sons the First Ruler of Tenochtitlan Acamapichtli has sired, therefore his way to the throne was not an easy one. He came to rule as a mature man in his late-thirties, after serving Tenochtitlan in Chief Warlord’s capacity-tlacochcalcatl-under its Second Ruler, and as the Head Adviser-cihuacoatl-under the Third. In this time Tenochtitlan seemed to need desperately the sort of a leadership Itzcoatl was offering, a tough, hardened, experienced warrior of formidable disposition and little fear.
The death of Chimalpopoca, the Third Tlatoani, cast the island city into its worst crisis, ruining its relationship with the powerful Tepanec capital beyond repair. The entire region was in a terrible turmoil, with Tenochtitlan’s sister-city Tlatelolco situated on the nearby island at loss at the death of its own ruler, and Texcoco, the Acolhua capital on the eastern shore, torn between their quest for freedom from the Tepanec yoke and its resentment of the Mexica islanders who contributed to their earlier defeat. The Acolhua heir, Nezahualcoyotl, a staunch Mexica ally after many summers of exile spent in Tenochtitlan, has been forced to flee back into the neighboring Highlands, to gather support and reinforcements there hopefully, but until he reappeared Tenochtitlan was on its own, facing the Tepanec rage all alone.
Indeed, the new Tepanec ruler, Maxtla, did not make his former tributaries wait. The offensive he launched against the island city resulted in a siege that was lifted only when Nezahualcoyotl came down the eastern Highlands, followed by thousands of local warriors, very fierce people who, for their own reasons, decided to get involved in the Lowlander’s political upheavals.
This turned the tide of the war most decisively, as instead of heading westwards and toward his beloved Texcoco in order to liberate it, the Acolhua future ruler opted for crossing Lake Texcoco straight away into the Tepanec heartlands, gathering thousands of his former Acolhua subjects into his already formidable highlander force as he went.
That made the frightened Maxtla lift his short-lived siege off the rebellious island and rush back toward his own capital, anxious to stop the invaders. Which heartened the besieged Mexica enormously, as they poured out of their city and into the mainland in more thousands, hot on the retreating Tepanecs’ heels. Their eagerness and organized manner with which they invaded the Tepanec side of the Lake testifies for Itzcoatl’s war readiness. Evidently, the new ruler did not waste his time on idle wait for reinforcements.
The war on Azcapotzalco lasted for more than a month – 40 days according to some sources, 114 to others, less than a market interval to some – and it ended with such resounding Tepanec defeat that Azcapotzalco was no more, just a cite of smoking ruins, or a huge slave market according to some claims.
The Triple Alliance that was formed shortly thereafter included Tenochtitlan with Itzcoatl in its lead, the reinstalled Acolhua ruler Nezahualcoyotl, and the minor partner, not an equal to the other two – Tlacopan, a Tepanec city that apparently wasn’t as happy with Azcapotzalco’s switching rulers as it might have seemed in the beginning. When the Mexica, the Acolhua and the Highlanders washed the western side of the Texcoco Lake, Tlacopan had chosen its side wisely.
The rest of Itzcoatl’s reign was spent in ‘inheriting’ the crumbled Tepanec Empire, subduing towns and cities who didn’t understand very well what happened in the Mexican Valley at first. A decade spent in consolidating the Triple Alliance’s power around Lake Texcoco was well spent. Codex Mendoza shows twenty four conquered towns and settlements, even though some of the conquests seemed to be nothing but reestablishing of the Mexica rule, already listed under the conquests of the previous tlatoaqui as well.
On the southern shore, the Tepanec Coyoacan fell next to Azcapotzalco, with the fleeing ex-emperor Maxtla being caught and executed there (according to other sources, he might have escaped Coyoacan as well, spending the rest of his days in exile, never to be heard of around the Mexican Valley again).
Then came the turn of Xochimilco, Mizquic, Cuitlahuac and Quauhnahuac (the last one being listed in several codices as a conquest of Huitzilihuitl as well). Similarly, Quauhtitlan seems to be nothing more than a reestablishment of the Mexica power over that region.
Texcoco and its provinces are listed as Itzcoatl’s conquests too, but those were probably just an aid the Mexica might have given to its Acolhua allies, the full-time members of the Triple Alliance, helping Nezahualcoyotl in re-conquering his former domain.
With the Mexican Valley being reasonably under control, shared between the Mexica and Acolhua, with the junior member Tlacopan holding to its smaller share of conquests, bereft complains, Itzcoatl moved to the south, subduing modern-day region of Guerrero, more former Tepanec provinces. Codex Mendoza claims towns of Cuecalan, Caqualpan, Yztepec, Yoalan, and Tepequacuilco. Another campaign against Quauhnahuac and Ziuhtepec followed.
This is the point that is generally held as the change in the Mexica history, when Tenochtitlan became not only totally independent entity, taking control of its destiny, but also began its ascendance toward the great regional power it had eventually became, with Itzcoatl being the man credited with the change of its status from subservient to that of an immanent dominance.
Inside Tenochtitlan, the political power became even more centralized, with the noble class gaining more and more distinction in the form of additional lands of the inherited Tepanec domain. It was distributed mainly among the nobles of the upper class, with other the prominent city representatives, the heads of the districts and others receiving considerably less, thus strengthening the power of the aristocracy as opposed to the traders and other wealthy elements of the city.
Backed by the two most prominent men of this time, his nephew Tlacaelel and Moctezuma Ilhuicamina, both very formidable still relatively young men, his Head Advisers and his Chief Warlord, Itzcoatl encountered no difficulties in pushing his social reforms while pursuing military expansion.
He vacated his throne in 1440 or 13 Flint Knife/Mahtlactli omei Tecpatl, but even though both his followers were very powerful and legitimate to claim the throne, Tenochtitlan was not about to repeat Azcapotzalco’s mistakes. Tlacaelel and Moctezuma were to rule in tandem for the next three decades to come, with Moctezuma receiving the office but not trying to assert his ascendance over his wise, powerful, extremely experienced half-brother, his Head Adviser.
An excerpt from “The Fall of the Empire”, The Rise of the Aztecs Series, book #5.
“The manners of my leaders are immaterial,” he heard Nezahualcoyotl saying. “This is a war council, and we invited our warlords to join it for a reason. We want to hear their opinions.”
Itzcoatl’s eyes blazed murder, but before he could open his mouth, whether to cut the impudent Acolhua to size with more condescending, icily-spoken words, or to burst out with unrestrained anger, Tlacaelel raised his hand.
“May I ask your permission to speak my mind?” Now all eyes were upon him, expectant. He knew he didn’t really have to ask for permission.
“Yes, you may speak, Tenochtitlan’s Chief Warlord,” growled Itzcoatl between his teeth.
He liked the way they all looked at him, expectant, trusting him to solve the problem. Even the foreigners, even that impressive Tenocelotl. The man had spent only a market interval with the Mexica forces, but somehow, Tlacaelel knew he made the correct assessment of his new allies’ qualities.
“I tend to agree with the Acolhua Warriors’ Leader as to the statement that we had reached an impasse. Today’s battle, although partially won, did not change that. We made the Tepanecs retreat behind their walls, but we did not break their spirits. Not even by killing their most trusted leader.” He encircled them with his gaze, pleased with their undivided attention.
“The Tepanecs are still strong, still battle-hungry, and the location of their walls is giving them a clear advantage. This, and the fact that they are fighting on their land, pressed against their own walls, defending their homes. To fight on and on may cost us more than we are prepared to pay and may not give us the final victory.” He paused, knowing that Itzcoatl would be furious now. “Therefore I, for one, would be willing to learn the nature of the unusual solution the Acolhua Warlord is willing to share with us.” Itzcoatl’s eyes were as dark as the ponds on the moonless night, and as cold, while the Highlander’s gaze sparkled with the well familiar, amused twinkle. These two had had a history, remembered Tlacaelel, preferring not to think about it.
“Thank you for your trust, Honorable Leaders,” began the Highlander brightly, as though no problems had arose from his unwarranted bursting into the impeccable noblemen’s discussion. “I’m aware that it is not our custom to conduct any sort of night warfare. Yet, in this situation, we may change our tactics to that extent. If we attack Azcapotzalco now, we will achieve the element of surprise, while our disadvantage will be less prominent in the darkness, fighting against the shaken, unbalanced enemy. If we are careful in organizing our forces, we may approach their walls unexpected, with their hastily organized resistance easy to overcome.”
“Our warriors are tired. They have been fighting since midday,” said Moctezuma, another prince to Tenochtitlan’s royal house, a very promising young man, one of Tlacaelel’s multitude of half brothers and Itzcoatl’s half nephews.
“Yes, I’m aware of that. My people and our highlander allies have been fighting since the high morning, taking the worst of the impact.” The twinkle was gone from the man’s eyes, replaced by the solemn thoughtfulness. He had always taken his duties of the warriors’ leader seriously, the only thing he had taken seriously, as far as Tlacaelel knew. The rest he had breezed through, trusting his luck, which usually, indeed, would not disappoint, to help this man to achieve the best of the best, from women to positions. “Yet, my men would be willing to make another effort. They are hardened warriors, and their morale is high. I’m sure the same can be said about the renowned Mexica warriors, as well.” His gaze encircled them, keen and sincere. “I’m aware that we may do better with more time to prepare for this unusual sort of attack. Yet, we could not have too much of that. Azcapotzalco should be taken tonight. Another day of fighting may prove disastrous, as we don’t know what additional surprises those people might have at their disposal, from reinforcements like the one who nearly surprised us this morning, to all sorts of traps in the hills. They know the terrain too well for us to feel confident about it. The Tepanecs are very good warriors, and their leaders were clever enough to conquer the whole valley and to hold it for twenty upon twenty of summers. However, here we might surprise them too thoroughly.” He glanced at Tenocelotl. “Our Highlander allies may agree to take upon themselves the first part of the attack, having more experience and an appropriate equipment to climb the walls, backed by their archers and our slingers. In the darkness, the defenders would not be able to use their slings and bows properly, while our shooters would find it easier to pick their targets, outlined more clearly against the sky.”
They all stared at the man, the rulers and the warriors’ leaders, the best of the four nations, some frowning, some doubtful, some managing to keep their expressions impassive. Only young Moctezuma looked expectant, and something close to an amused grin twisted the lips of the usually unperturbed Tenocelotl.
“How long will it take you to organize your warriors, including the time you would need to make them understand what sort of warfare is expected from them?” asked Tlacaelel.
The Highlander glanced at the sky. “My warriors will be ready some time after midnight.”
Tlacaelel nodded. “If we are to use our surprise to the best of our abilities, we should approach their walls in the darkest of the night, when the moon fades and the watchers are sleepy. Then we could shoot their guards, and that would give us enough time to let the first waves of our warriors get through before the enemy understands what happened.”
“Unless they are not as sleepy as you presume,” growled Itzcoatl, sounding more amused than angry now, back in control.
“They are tired no less than we are and distraught by the loss of their leader. And they are not expecting this sort of surprise.” The Highlander’s eyes lit suddenly, almost sparkling in the darkness. “And while we are on surprises and unusual sort of warfare…” His voice trailed off, as his gaze drew away, concentrating.
“What else can be done in the darkness?” asked Nezahualcoyotl, grinning.