When I visited Vienna for the first time many years ago, I remember experiencing a feeling of “cognitive dissonance.” On one hand, one hardly ever hears about Austria in the news—it’s one of those small, insignificant European countries (this should not be taken as a put-down; in fact, such countries tend to deliver a much better standard of living to their citizens than most imperial nations who lavishly spend treasure on armies, fleets, and client states).
On the other hand, I saw grand palaces, vast squares, and broad boulevards. Vienna looks like an imperial city, and of course it was. The present mismatch between the scales of the capital and its country is a result of the collapse of the Hapsburg Empire, which was dismembered by the victorious allies following its defeat in World War I.
I had much the same feeling when I toured Teotihuacan last week. In my previous readings about Teotihuacan I distinctly remember that most referred to it as a “city state.” I read George Cowgill’s 2015 book Ancient Teotihuacan prior to the trip and, apparently, his opinion is that Teotihuacan was a rather small territorial state that might have controlled the Basin of Mexico but not much beyond it. Certainly not an empire.
Yet the dominant impression one gets when actually visiting Teotihuacan is that of sheer scale.
The Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan. Those dots on top are tourists (all photos in this post are by the author, published under the CC BY license)
It’s not just the size of pyramids, it’s the huge public spaces – the overall length of the central avenue (the “Avenue of the Dead”), which runs north and south, is 5 km.
The Avenue of the Dead, looking towards the Pyramid of the Moon (the Pyramid of the Sun is to my right)
The Avenue of the Dead, looking in the opposite direction from the Pyramid of the Sun
There are a number of huge plazas.
A reconstruction of Teotihuacan in the Teotihuacan Museum
It is estimated that the city covered 20 square kilometers and had a population of between 100,000 and 200,000. The city lacks any defenses, whether natural (it’s down on the flat plains, as you can see in the photos above) or artificial (no defensive wall). All of those are hallmarks of a capital of an extensive empire with frontiers far away, so that there is little danger of enemy penetrating to its core.
It’s interesting that there is some direct evidence that Teotihuacan conquered areas far away. For example, Stela 31 in Tikal apparently refers to the overthrow of a Tikal ruler in 378 CE by a Teotihuacano general. Now, Tikal (located in modern Guatemala) is 1200 km away from Teotihuacan—that’s quite a remarkable reach for a “city state”!
Stela 31 from Tikal (front view). National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Of course the text on Stela 31 is quite murky, and allows for a variety of interpretations, from an overthrow of one elite faction within Tikal by another, aided by some Teotihuacano adventurers, to an outright annexation of Tikal by the Teotihuacan Empire.
This inscription on the back of Stela 31 tells us about the involvement of Teotihuacan in the overthrow of a Tikal ruler (National Museum of Anthropology)
I leave arguing about the meaning of the text to the experts, but I think cliodynamics can contribute to the overall question—was Teotihuacan a city-state, or a large empire—in a meaningful way. We are nearly there with collecting a large set of data on hundreds of various polities, ranging in size from tiny to huge. There are lots of correlates of territorial extent, and once we have analyzed the data we can come up with an estimate—what is the likely range of possible territorial control that is suggested by the directly measurable characteristics of Teotihuacan?