The Toltec Empire: Government & Political Structure

Instructor: Harley Davidson

Harley has taught university-level History classes and has a Ph.D. in History

The Toltec Empire was a militaristic civilization whose political structure reflected its war-like ways. In this lesson, we will examine Toltec government, as well as the Toltecs' rise and enigmatic downfall.

Toltec Government and Structure

While you may have heard of the Aztec and Mayan empires, did you know that another empire dominated central Mexico for centuries before the Aztecs? The Toltec Empire reigned over central Mexico from the 10th to 12th-centuries CE from its capital of Tollan, which is located in the modern-day Mexican state of Hidalgo. The Toltecs announced their presence to the world around 900 CE by conquering the city of Teotihuacan, one of the biggest and most influential cities in the pre-Columbian Mesoamerican world. This fiery beginning to the Toltec story foreshadowed their equally destructive demise.

A remnant in the Toltec capital of Tollan

Kings, Priests, and Warriors

When thinking about the Toltecs' government structure, imagine that it consists of two distinct pillars: its military aristocracy and its priesthood. Their centrality to Toltec politics reflected the empire's militaristic nature and the importance of the gods in Mesoamerican society. Much of what we know about Toltec history comes from Aztec documents, so we have to be somewhat critical of what they say. The Aztecs believed that the first Toltec king was Ce Técpatl Mixcóatl. Técpatl is a figure wrapped in intrigue, with the Aztecs treating him more like a mythological figure than human. But it would be his son, Ce Acatl Topiltzin Quetzalcóatl, who would go on to become the most well-known Toltec king. Topiltzin formed the Toltec Empire and provided the Toltecs with their permanent political structure.

The Aztecs held the Toltecs in high regard. The first Toltec king took the name Mixcoatl, who later became an important Aztec god. He is illustrated here in an Aztec codex.

Exact details about Topiltzin, such as his date of birth or when he reigned, are difficult to uncover, as much of Toltec history became enshrouded in Aztec mythology. What we do know is that he took on the name of the god Quetzalcóatl, or 'feathered serpent', and adopted and modified the already-existing cult of Quetzalcóatl, ending the cult's practice of sacrificing prisoners. The priests of Quetzalcóatl became one of two important castes in Toltec society. The other ruling caste was the Toltec military, which consisted of several military orders named after different animals such as Coyote, Jaguar, and Eagle. We can also see the importance of Toltec warriors in Toltec chacmools, warrior statues that became widespread in Toltec temples; they would spread to other civilizations in Mesoamerica over time.

A chacmool depicts a reclining warrior holding a sacrificial pot. This particular chacmool was built in the Mayan city of Chichen Itza, showing how far Toltec influence spread.

The king could be the leader of both castes, as was the case with Topiltzin, or he could be solely a warrior-king. Toltec nobles and the Toltec king himself legitimized their rule and status with military conquest. On the one hand, the Toltecs were engaged in a constant defensive struggle with their nomadic neighbors, the Chichimecs. But on the other, they engaged in the conquest of their neighbors, stretching their influence as far as the Mayan civilization. The cult of Quetzalcóatl and the Toltec military orders both showed up in Mayan cities over time. The Toltecs' antagonistic relationship with their neighbors fueled their politics, and brought great riches to their capital, but it would also eventually lead to their downfall.

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