As with everything else in Aztec society, a person's trade or occupation depended on their status in society. The lower classes did most of the manual labor involved in farming and building, keeping up the roads and streets, growing the cities' food in the terraces and chinampas. The next layer of society provided the artisans: jewelry makers, stone workers, feather workers and potters. Above them were the healers and scribes. Merchants, long distance traders known as the pochteca, were in a class of their own, just under the nobles. Priests and warriors were generally of the noble class, as were officials in the Aztec government. At the top, of course, was the king or emperor.
Many commoners worked in agriculture, either working the chinampas or on the farther-flung fields and terraces used to grow the empire's staple crops. The chinampas were an Aztec method of intensive gardening using raised beds the farmers created in the shallows of Lake Texcoco. Other commoners were hunters or fishermen, most of them living in the countryside but sending their goods to the central market.
Many jobs and specialties were involved in running the Aztec cities: pyramid builders, construction trades, road builders, tanners, dyers, porters, miners and quarrymen. All these trades were needed to keep the cities and empire running smooth. These were honorable occupations, although all required hard work.
Many artisans got their start young; their families were metal workers or jewelry makers so that is what the boys and girls learned to do. Other commoner boys and girls were particularly skilled. When this was noticed by their parents, they were sent for special training in that art. Sometimes entire villages focused on a particular art or trade: stone carving or feather working. Many calpulli, clans or guilds of interrelated families, focused on a particular trade or art.
Healers specialized in various aspects of the healing arts. Some collected plants and herbs from out in rural areas. Others sold the herbs in the market and other still compounded the medicines used in Aztec healing. Some specialized in bonesetting, others in the digestive tract. Women and girls were trained as midwives.
Aztec scribes generally worked for the government or the pochteca. They wrote the intricate codices that encapsulated Aztec life. They kept track of the tribute paid to the emperor and of the pochteca's travels and trades.
All Aztec boys received military training. A boy who proved himself fighting might be sent on to the army for special training and from there become a warrior. At the top of the warrior class were those who had captured many enemy warriors for the sacrifices. These became jaguar and eagle warriors and they received land and the rank of noble from the emperor.
Priests also received special training in writing, theology, the calendar and rituals. Since religion ruled every aspect of an Aztec's life, priests were extremely important to the empire. They were trained in astronomy and the cosmos so they could decide the timing of important rituals and the human sacrifices that were central to Aztec life.
This article is part of our larger resource on Aztec civilization. For a comprehensive overview of the Aztec Empire, including its military, religion, and agriculture, click here.