Any comparison of empires necessitates a definition of the term ‘empire’ itself, which is ‘a form of social and political organization that is larger than a state’ (Perkins, CD1 Track 4). As states generally have neighbors with which it interacts, collaboration and rivalry often translating into armed hostilities and warfare, seem inevitable.
Conquest of neighboring states results in uneven balance of power and a ‘dominant central state controlling a peripheral series of neighboring states’ (Perkins, CD1 Track 4). An empire usually comes about through military dominance (Scarre, CD1 Track 4), empire-building requiring secure control over conquered territories.
Other defining features – in this case shared by both Aztec and Roman empires – include wide geographical extent (the Aztecs ruled much of present-day Mexico south to Guatemala, while the Roman Empire extended from Italy into Gaul or modern-day France, Spain, North Africa, the Mediterranean lands of Greece and Asia Minor, into Syria, Judea and Egypt); centralized political and strategic functions (the preeminence of the cities of Tenochtitlan and Rome as the center of the Aztec and Roman empires respectively); and form of governance (conquered provinces provided resources in the form of taxes, tribute, forced labor, etc. In the Old World, Rome spread its influence through military conquest. A seeming paradox is that though the Roman Empire might have been created by force, it is not held together in the same manner (Jones, CD1 Track 4). Roman legions are often stationed at the empire’s fringe to ensure control of provinces, but the main territories immediately behind are absorbed into the system. Some trick of governance facilitates participation of the provinces in managing the empire in the manner of a devolved system.
Rome had a more inclusive approach towards consolidation. It utilized a common currency, ensured internal security for citizens which facilitated trade and prosperity within the empire, and recruited and trained provincial aristocracies to become military commanders. In the New World, the Aztecs by 1519 dominated 400 previously independent polities over an area including the Gulf Coast, the Valley of Oaxaca, parts of western Mexico, and the Pacific coast of Guatemala, with subjects numbering 6-10 million people (Human Past, p. 36).
Terracing, irrigation systems, and artificially drained fields made it a productive agrarian region able to support the vast number of people inhabiting its cities, the political and cultural centers of the empire. Formed through intimidation, alliance, and conquest, Aztec conquered polities were grouped into 38 tributary provinces, from which tribute of all kinds flowed, enriching Tenochtitlan’s rulers who dominated the Triple Alliance (Human Past, p. 636).
Other provinces joined the empire as military allies paying only nominal tribute yet nonetheless necessary to move and feed the imperial armies. Divergent from the Roman experience, one force which held the Aztec empire together was ‘interaction among elites throughout the empire’ (Smith, CD 1 Track 4), through feasting of conquered elites (local kings and nobles), in the imperial capital and their participation in imperial ceremonies, together with giving of certain privileges to ensure their continued cooperation and payment of tributes.
Its kings indirectly controlled the empire through local kings. Local governance was largely left to local leaders, as long as they acknowledged being subjects of the empire and paid tribute. Complaisant local rulers were left in place, their offspring married into the royal families of Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan (Human Past, p. 637). Sometimes local dynasties were replaced with royal governors, their lands absorbed by the rulers while elsewhere, the Aztecs ruled cheaply through intimidation and tax collection.
Thus the general perception that although some aspects of life remain unaltered, the Aztecs nevertheless introduced significant changes to the political and economic organization of the territories it conquered, i. e. the case of Toluca valley. Sometimes punitive measures were used locally and core populations resettled in frontier posts (Human Past, p. 637). The Aztecs also utilized certain commonalities in its material culture, common architectural styles, sculptures, and other objects shared across territories, and closely connected to the elites (Smith, CD 1 Track 4).
In Aztec society, each city-state shared a common language, diet, technology, religion, customs, and political organization, with one or more hereditary king ruling over each city-state (Human Past, p. 637-628). These local kings, their families, and nobles benefited from tribute. Nobles received land as reward for service, were entitled to education, allowing the local royal elite to monopolize political, religious and military offices, and participated in court life in the capital.
Both Aztec and Roman empires appear to have had dominant elites which, even if not directly allied with the ruling family, still retained some measure of power and influence and a social presence which could not simply be taken for granted. The Aztec empire and its Mesoamerican neighbors were ‘highly organized, hierarchical and warlike’ (Perkins, 2007 Study Guide, p. 47). These seem to have been prerequisites toward its rapid formation through conquest/military alliance.
Their ancient capital at Tenochtitlan was a testament to the Aztecs’ power and high level of civilization reflected in the city’s sophisticated design and the bounty it received in tribute. But despite its veneer of strength, the Aztec empire proved fragile, crumbling at the hands of the Hernan Cortes-led Spanish ‘conquista. ’ Though outnumbered, the Spaniards utilized their superior arms and shrewd political tactics which effectively disrupted the elite blocs of the Aztec social hierarchy, leading to the gradual breakdown of the coercive powers which had held the empire together for so long.
Centuries before at the other side of the world, Rome had expanded through wars, annexations and alliances, eventually gaining control of the varied mosaic of Italian tribes, Etruscan city-states and Greek colonies (Human Past, p. 505). Roman culture was diversely complex. Military success was rewarded with political authority and wealth, driving imperial expansion. Indigenous pre-Roman societies were loosely organized in large settlements. Roman control encouraged local and regional development through promoting Roman cultural traits: baths, games, the imperial cult, education in Latin, material culture (Human Past, pp. 07-508).
Romanization became a variable process, Roman culture adopted in part only if and when it suited local needs and purposes, particularly by local elites in creating internal hierarchies, and furthering their own ends through identification with Rome. New provincial subcultures were thus created. More significantly, the imperial capital was maintained at the expense of the empire. Romans paid no taxes, received handouts of food, and were entertained by spectacles and games to keep the city’s population entertained and distracted.
Urban features of the capital found their way to the cities scattered throughout the empire: temples, amphitheaters, walls and roads, the hallmarks of a well-run community. Imperial annexation had profound effects on local societies, and Rome greatly benefitted from its provincial holdings (Human Past, p. 508). Taxes were levied across the empire, funding the imperial extravagance of its rulers, free food distributions in Rome, and provisions for the army. Natural resources, i. e. old, silver and copper mines of Spain and the Iberian Peninsula were placed under imperial control. Sea transport facilitated large-scale movement of goods, labor, skills and power. Several features of the Roman Empire – conquest of neighbors by war, defense of frontiers, personal ambition of members of the elite, control and taxation of provinces, expansive territorial extent, a certain degree of cultural uniformity, internal trade – are not unique but rather typical attributes of archaeological empires which have risen and fallen throughout history.
A possibly distinguishing feature of imperial Rome was extensive development of the imperial metropolis in terms of size and density, the detailed structure and organization of the city and Roman society. More significantly, the various peoples (Etruscans, Carthaginians, Greeks, Gauls, etc. ) the Romans conquered and annexed to their empire did not remain isolated and separate ethnic groups at its fringes but were to some extent assimilated. ‘There was cultural exchange between Roman imperial power and the peoples of the states it absorbed’ (Perkins, 2007 Study Guide, p. 1), notably the Greeks from which Roman culture borrowed heavily.
Both Roman and Aztec empires, albeit emerging in different periods and dissimilar parts of the world, share key features: domination of states and peoples by another state or people; territorial and cultural domination over a wide geographical area; the development of a system of political control and the formation of a form of government, perhaps with provinces and subject-kings; a bureaucracy empowered by writing; some degree of political or economic unification, but with cultural and ethnic diversity (Perkins, 2007 Study Guide, p. 2). Differences between the two were also varied. In technological sophistication the Aztecs were essentially Neolithic in their technology (a trait they shared with other Mesoamerican empires), whereas the Romans were technologically in the Iron Age. The Aztecs met their end at the hands of Europeans in search of God, gold and glory.
They failed to unite their forces and respond to the armed external threat massing on their shores. The Roman Empire survived longer than its Aztec counterparts, constantly adapting to new conditions, external threats and opportunities. Rome was wracked from within by political strife, economic decline, and extensive unrest within its provinces, leading to its eventual defeat by invading Germanic tribes.