For many years, the Aztecs have captured our imaginations. Stories from the original European invaders combined with unique, awe-inspiring ruins and legends that speak of places of gold create an image of Aztec society defined by grandeur, wealth, and splendor. But who exactly were the Aztecs? Where did they come from? How did they rise to control such a wide expanse of land? And if they were so powerful, how was it possible for them to fall from power and dominance just three years after contact was made with the Spaniards?
Luckily for us, we can answer most of these questions. Detailed historical accounts from Spanish conquistadors, Aztec documents such as the Codex Mendoza (a detailed account of Aztec rulers, the tribute system and daily life in the empire created in the mid-15th century after spanish conquest, and a wealth of archaeological sites make it possible to uncover some of the secrets of this ancient civilization.
In truth, the daily life of an Aztec commoner was not all that different from the life of today’s common folk. Sure, technology was far more primitive, and there was a constant looming threat of complete and total destruction at the hands of one of the many Aztec gods. But apart from this, the average Aztec citizen was responsible for working their land, paying taxes, and providing for their families. When they weren’t doing this, they were either off fulfilling their obligatory military service or perhaps enjoying a relaxing game of patolli with their friends.
While life of a commoner in the Aztec empire seems okay, it was one full of hard work and uncertainty about the future. Few Aztec commoners were able to enjoy goods or services beyond the basic necessities for life and worship. Aztec leaders on the other hand, lived a life of luxury. Servants, concubines, and laborers were bound to the nobility, and this life of luxury helped employ the ever-growing Aztec population.
Overall, the Aztec Empire, of the empire of the Triple Alliance, would grow in both size and population to be one of the largest in the ancient world. It was the second largest empire in all of America in the 16th century; only the Incas occupied more territory. At its peak, the Aztec Empire included some 50 or more city-states and upwards of 3 million people. However, this would nearly all disappear with the arrival of the Spanish. Superior weapons and devastating disease laid waste to much of what the Aztecs had build over the previous centuries.
Many of the secrets of the Aztec Empire have been uncovered. Yet many more still remain. Historians and archaeologists are constantly learning more about the way the Aztecs lived, how they organized themselves politically, and how they interpreted their position in the world and the cosmos.
This guide will review some of the major parts of Aztec history, including a detailed account of who the Aztecs were, how they expanded, how they lived, how they worshiped, how they played, and finally, how they died. By taking the time to remember the Aztecs and their accomplishments, we can all play a part in making sure one of the world’s greatest civilizations lives on forever.
Where Did the Aztecs Live?
To understand Aztec civilization, it’s important to grasp the diverse geographical landscape in which their empire thrived. The Aztecs are considered a Mesoamerican civilization, with Mesoamerica being the term to describe the area extending from North-Central Mexico to the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica.
As you would expect from an area so large, the defining characteristic of Mesoamerican geography is diversity. Coastal lowlands differ greatly from central highlands in all aspects, from climate, soil conditions, and availability of crops. It’s important to note that what is traditionally considered the Aztec Empire, the area surrounding Tenochtitlan (present-day Mexico city) in the valley of Mexico, differed greatly from its surrounding territories and relied on them for a number of different essential and luxury resources.
In general, Mesoamerica can be divided into three major environmental zones. The tropical lowlands refer to the lands lying below 1,000 meters (~3280 ft). These parts of Mesoamerica are referred to as tierra caliente (hot lands). All of Mesoamerica lies in a tropical climate, but higher elevations bring temperatures down. Temperatures are hot, the air is humid, and rainfall is heavy. The principal landscapes in this zone are heavy-vegetation forests or savanna grasslands. The Aztecs relied on these territories for such goods as colorful feathers from parrots and quetzals (used for ritual and art), jaguar skins, tobacco, and jade.
As one moves inland, they enter the Mesoamerican Highlands. The highlands refer to areas that are between 1,000-2,000 m (~3280-6560 ft.) and are often referred to as
While this territory is mountainous, human civilization has flourished in river valleys and other expanse with relatively flat land. Many other Mesoamerican civilizations found their home here, including the Mixtecs, Zapotecs, Tarascans, and highland Maya. The southern part of the heart of the Aztec Empire falls in this territory.
If you continue climbing up the
In the heart of the Valley of Mexico is Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital. Built essentially on Lake Texcoco, Tenochtitlan was founded in 1325 and would grow to be a powerful city, the largest in Mesoamerica. Agreements with nearby city-states greatly expanded their capacity to grow and expand in both territorial and cultural influence.
Surrounding the Valley of Mexico, the elevation drops rapidly, and cultural diversity expands. To the north, Otomi-speakers dominated and remained relatively outside Aztec influence. To the west is the Toluca Valley, where Aztec-Nahuatl speakers shared territory with many different language groups. And to the east is the Puebla Valley, where several cities in the northern part of this territory resisted Aztec conquest and remained independent until the Spaniards arrived in 1519,
It’s important to grasp the environment in which the Aztec Empire developed. Challenging terrain and cultural diversity made for a state of constant jockeying for power and influence. Establishing dominance in this area required a wise and efficient use of resources, along with a good deal of force and cunning, and the making of enemies along the way. This would be the eventual demise of the Aztec Empire, but it first facilitated a civilization that is responsible for much of Mesoamerican history.
Who were the Aztecs?
The first thing to remember is that the Aztecs are the Aztecs only to us. This is the name historians use to describe the empire formed by the Nahuatl-speaking people who referred to themselves as the Mexica. The name Aztec is said to derive from the word Atzlan, which describes a place in Northern Mexico where it’s believed the semi-nomadic Mexica originated. The exact location of Aztlan is unknown, though it is generally agreed to be in the north of modern Mexico. Many Nahuatl-speaking tribes claim their origin to be from Atzlan, but even the Aztecs we know did not have a clear idea of where it is. Montezuma I famously sent out a band of warriors and explorers to find it, but they were unsuccessful. The word Aztec comes from Aztecah, which means “people from Aztlan”. However, this name was not used by the Aztecs to describe themselves. It became the accepted term over time. In general, it’s unclear if the Aztecs move to the Valley of Mexico was by design or rather as part of a much larger southern migration carried out by the people of Nortern Mexico.
The Aztecs where likely related in some form or another to the Toltecs, a civilization that grew to prominence in Northern Mexico in the 11th and 12th centuries. It was very important for early Aztec rulers to establish some sort of lineage with the Toltecs, as they felt this provided them with legitimacy. Additionally, the Aztecs would adopt and adapt many of the religious and spiritual practices of the Toltecs. For example, the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, who is considered to be one of the most important gods in the Aztec religion, was the priest-king of Tula, the Toltec capital.
However, despite efforts by Aztec rulers to make direct connections to the Toltecs, it’s far more likely that the people we now refer to as Aztecs were actually a combination of different hunter-gatherer tribes. It’s unclear
The Aztec Empire typically refers to what is known as the Triple Alliance. This was an alliance between the three cities in the Valley of Mexico, Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan. The capital was to be Tenochtitlan, and it would grow to be the center of Aztec influence in the region.
The story, or stories, of the founding of Tenochtitlan sheds some light into the Aztec values and worldviews that can be seen throughout the empire’s history. The first story speaks to the power of religion and myth. After having been forced to settle elsewhere, the god Uitzilopochtil came to the priest Quauhcoatl and told him they should build their city where they find a tenochtli cactus with an eagle sitting on top. Legend has it the men with whom Quahcoatl was travelling found this cactus shortly thereafter and chose to settle there.
Another story explains why the Mexica were looking for a new place to settle. They were semi-nomadic, meaning they changed lands according to agricultural or pastoral needs. Forced to the south, they found most of the Valley of Mexico already occupied by other tribes and linguistic groups.
The first Mexica settlement, Chapultepec, was on a hill on the western shore of Lake Texcoco. Founded in roughly 1250, Chapultepec would not last long. By the end of the 13th century, the Tepanecs of Azcapotzalco, the tribe that had established dominance in the area surrounding Chapultepec, had driven the Mexica from Chapultepec and gave them permisssion to live on the barren lands surrounding the city-state of Tizapan, also in the area surrounding Lake Texcoco.
In 1323 though, the Mexica played a cruel trick on their new ruler. After asking for his daughter’s hand in marriage, they promptly sacrificed her and flayed her skin. A priest then presented himself to the king wearing his daughter’s skin. Horrified, this caused the Mexica to be expelled from Tizapan. They were once again forced to find a new place to live.
It’s impossible to know if the Aztecs chose Tenochtitlan because of divine intervention or out of necessity. Forced to evacuate two prior settlements, the Mexica could no longer be too picky. Tenochtitlan is essentially a swamp, and its growth was due in large part to the tremendous effort of adding dirt and mud to build solid ground upon which a city could be built.
No matter the reason, Tenochtitlan was the center of what we now refer to as the Aztec Empire. Its symbol is, fittingly, an eagle perched upon a cactus. The image appears in the center of modern-Mexico’s flag, indicating the role this ancient civilization plays in the collective psyche of one of the world’s largest modern nations.
It’s becoming increasingly common to refer to Tenochtitlan by its full name: Mexico-Tenochtitlan. The exact meaning of the name is not fully understood. Tenochtitlan clearly draws its moniker from the Nahuatl word for prickly pear, tenochtli, but the origin of the word Mexico is more difficult to uncover. Most scholars now agree it means “in the center of the moon,” with the moon referring in this context to Lake Texcoco. This deduction is confirmed when looking at the how the name Mexico-Tenochtitlan is translated into the nearby Otomi language, where the Mexican capital is referred to as “anbondo amedetzana”. Bondo is known to mean prickly pear, and amedetzana means “in the middle of the moon”. Many sources and historical documents will refer to the city as simple Tenochtitlan, but those living during the height of the Aztec empire would have used its full name.
These origin stories of Mexico-Tenochtitlan reflect how we would eventually come to perceive this ancient civilization and culture. Aztec mythology and religion has been heavily studied, and most modern depictions of Aztec life include at least some reference to the brutality of human sacrifice. Images of priest ripping out the beating hearts of citizens are aplenty. And while this did occur, Aztec culture was, as you would expect, decidedly diverse and dynamic, especially for a civilization of this size.
Estimates indicate more than 1 million people were living in the Valley of Mexico when Cortes came onto the scene in 1519. And there were likely another two or three million in the highlands surrounding it. These figures make the Aztec civilization the largest in the Americas at the time of European arrival.
It’s also important to remember that when we talk about the Aztec Empire, we are in many ways talking about the period of time after the formation of the Triple Alliance. This was an agreement to unite the three major city-states surrounding Lake Texcoco, specifically Mexico-Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan, and to place Mexico-Tenochtitlan at the center as the capital. The three cities would share bounties from trade and tribute, allowing them to orchestrate their expansion into the surrounding valley.