The Markets of Tenochtitlan: A Vast Choice of Goods in the Aztec Capital

Aztec Market

The Aztecs held their tianguis (markets) in Tenochtitlan every five days, selling everything from food and medicines to ornaments, tiles and woods.

When the Spanish conquistadores arrived in Tenochtitlan in 1519, the Aztec capital on Lake Texcoco held up to 300,000 inhabitants. They were augmented by thousands more who made long journeys on foot from the surrounding areas to attend the markets. This was more than enough population to support the vast amount of trade carried on in Tenochtitlan, which was the hub of a market network that extended throughout the Valley of Mexico.

Cortes Writes to his Royal Master

In the second of five lengthy reports, written on October 30, 1520, the conquistadores’ leader, Hernan Cortes, informed King Charles of Spain of the vast variety to be found in the markets of the city he mistakenly called ‘Temixtitan”:

“The city has many squares where trading is done…There is one square twice as big as that of Salamanca (in Spain) with arcades all around, where more than sixty thousand people come each day to buy and sell, and where every kind of merchandise produced in these lands is found…

“There is a street where they sell game and birds of every species … partridges, quails,, turtledoves, pigeons, eagles ….falcons, sparrow hawks and kestrels.

“There are streets of herbalists where all the medicinal herbs and roots found in the land are sold. There are shops like apothecaries, where they sell ready-made medicines as well as liquid ointments and plasters…”

Trading by Barter and Exchange

Yet nowhere in all this bustle of trade did any money change hands, for the Aztecs knew nothing of coins or paper money but traded entirely by barter and exchange.

When one of Cortes’ men, Bernal Diaz del Castillo visited the market at Tlatelolco, which was even more extensive than those in Tenochtitlan, he observed how the barter system worked.

“There were many …merchants who sold gold in grains as it came from the mines,” Bernal wrote. “ They put it in goose quills…They calculated how much so many blankets or gourds of cacao were worth, or slaves, or whatever else they traded, according to the length and thickness of the quills.”

Judges and Officials Ensure Fair Trading

The Aztec markets had their own courts comprising ten or twelve judges. Their task was to regulate trading, with special reference to the danger of giving short measure.

As long as the market was open, officials mingled with the crowds “observing what it sold and the measures with which it which it is measured.” Bernal added: “We saw one measure broken which was false.” Punishments for wrongdoing could be a great deal worse than this: anyone found guilty of stealing was flogged to death on the spot.

The Rules of Proper Measure

The rules about giving proper measures were extremely strict and covered a multitude of goods, including paper, paint, glue, feathers, rubber, salt, obsidian blades and mirrors, pottery, jewels, baskets, lengths of cloth, herbs and potions or slaves.

Maize and grains, for instance, were sold in measures of around 198 lbs. called troje, or about 132 lbs. called tlacopintli. Cloth was reckoned by the length of a hand, by the emmitl – the distance between outstretched arms – or by a longer measurement from the ground to the tips of the fingers when the arm was stretched above the head.

Paying for Goods with Cloaks

There were, though, some fixed “prices” in which the “currency” was a number of quachtli, or cloaks. For instance, a slave who was good at dancing was worth forty cloaks, while one without such talent merited only around thirty.

A canoe cost one cloak, a gold lip-plug cost twenty-five and a military costume with a feathered shield, sixty-four. A string of jade beads was a luxury item: it cost six hundred cloaks.

The Aztec Merchants, a Favoured Class

The Aztec pochteca, the merchants, who carried goods to the more distant markets by caravan, were something of a class apart. They enjoyed more privileges than was usual for commoners – for instance, they had their own lawcourts – but the nature of their work meant that they also took more than the usual risks.

Trading journeys could last for a year or more and safety could never be guaranteed, when the caravans had to cross hot, thirsty deserts, dangerous mountain passes and fast-flowing rivers.

The rituals observed before a caravan set out reflected these dangerous possibilities. First, the stars would be consulted to ensure that the day of departure was a lucky one.

Once the date was decided, the merchants, their wives and children would ceremonially wash their heads and cut their hair. None of them did these things again until the merchants had safely returned.

Then, some time during the night, the merchants would slip silently from their homes. By the time their families woke next morning, they would be far away and out of sight, somewhere in the mountains.


  1. Aguilar-Moreno, Manuel: Handbook to Life in the Aztec World (New York, NY, Oxford University Press, 2007) ISBN-10: 0195330838/ISBN-13: 978-0195330830
  2. Aghajanian, Alfred: Chinampas: Their Role in Aztec Empire – Building and Expansion (Los Angeles, California: IndoEuropean Publishing, 2007)ISBN-10: 1604440031/ISBN-13: 978-1604440034