AZTEC EMPIRE OVERVIEW
The Aztecs were a pre-Columbian society based in modern-day Mexico. Understanding their history is important to many other topics and people, including: Age of Exploration, Hernan Cortés, and more. The Aztec civilization was one of the biggest in the New World, and the story of their collapse is an important event in the world history. The following article details the main aspects of the Aztec Empire, however to learn more about specific topics you will need to click on the related links.
The Aztecs, who referred to themselves as the Mexica, extended throughout much of central Mexico and existed from the 14th century until the 16th century when they were conquered by Spanish conquistadors led by Hernan Cortés. However, to understand the Aztec Empire, its first important to understand their early history and how they came to be. The capital city of the Aztec Empire was Tenochtitlan and was first established in 1325 in the Valley of Mexico. Before establishing the city, the Aztec people are said to have come from the desert areas of northwest Mexico, such as the Sonora Desert.
EARLY HISTORY OF THE AZTEC
The time period before the Aztec established the city of Tenochtitlan is referred to as the ‘Long Migration’. During this time, Aztec history talks of the Aztec people leaving their homeland in the desert, called Aztlan, and migrating south over a period of two centuries. They didn’t settle again until reaching central Mexico and Lake Texcoco in the Valley of Mexico. This period of migration is an important aspect of Aztec history and highlights their religious beliefs. For example, in searching for a new homeland, the Aztecs waited until they came across a specific sign that was said to have been instructed to them by the god Huitzilopochtli. The sign they searched for was an eagle on a cactus holding a rattlesnake. They supposedly came across this sign after two centuries of migration when they arrived on the swampy shores of Lake Texcoco in the Valley Mexico. Officially, the city was founded on July 20th, 1325 on the western shores of the lake and was named for their chief Tenoch. Tenochtitlan means ‘the city of Tenoch’.
At the time the Valley of Mexico was populated by many different powerful civilizations, including: Chalco, Tepanec, Tlacopan, Culhuacan, and Chichimec. Several of these civilizations were also on the shores of Lake Texcoco, including the Culhuacan which were on the south shore. As such, when the Aztec people arrived in the Valley of Mexico they had to contend with the other civilizations. In fact, the Aztecs clashed with several of these groups and were briefly expelled and forced to relocate to a different location on the lake. Regardless, Tenochtitlan prospered quickly as a city.
WHO INFLUENCED THE AZTEC?
Different aspects of the Aztec Empire were not necessarily unique to the Aztec people. For instance, several different elements were common throughout most Mesoamerican societies in the time before the arrival of Europeans in the early 16th century. More specifically, the political and economic systems of the Aztec had a long tradition from earlier societies. For example, the role of the huey tlatoani and the system of tribute were common throughout the history of the area. As well, religious practices such as the wide array of Aztec gods and the tradition of human sacrifice were both rooted in earlier Mesoamerican history. For example, historians have uncovered evidence of human sacrifice from much earlier time periods in Mesoamerica. As well, there is evidence of the celebration of Quetzalcoatl (Aztec God) by the Teotihuacan people near the 1st century AD.
As a result, historians have identified several different Mesoamerican societies that they believe influence the Aztec people in terms of their political, economic and religious practices. These include: Olmec, Toltec and Teotihuacan. Click on the links of each society in order to read more about their history and influence on the Aztec Empire.
HOW DID THE AZTEC EMPIRE EXPAND?
One of the ways in which the Aztec expanded in strength and wealth at the time was by acting as mercenaries and warriors for other societies in the region. For example, in the decades after the founding of Tenochtitlan they worked as warriors for the Tepanec people. The Tepanec used the Aztec to help with their battles and campaigns in the region against other rival societies. For their help the Aztec received portions of the wealth that the Tepanec gathered from the societies that they defeated. As a result, the city of Tenochtitlan grew in importance and wealth throughout the 14th and 15th centuries. In general though, the Aztec were subjects of the more powerful Tepanec and Aztec leaders were only allowed to remain in power by paying tribute to the Tepanec. Also, during this time period, Aztec rulers increased the power of their society by forming strong alliances with other societies around Lake Texcoco. However, the relationship between the Aztecs and the Tepanec soon became strained and a conflict emerged.
Itzcoatl became the leader of the Aztec in 1427 and became the fourth tlatoani of the Aztec people. He reigned over the Aztec Empire from 1427 until 1440, and is best remembered as the leader who saw the Aztecs become the most powerful Mesoamerican society in the Valley of Mexico. For example, as leader he famously formed an alliance with two other societies in the area in order to overthrow their mutual rivals. The Aztecs, Texcoco and Tlacopan joined forces in 1428 to create the Triple Alliance. Together they fought against the Tepanec and challenged them for superiority in the Valley of Mexico. Over time the three were able to overpower all other societies in the Valley of Mexico. As well, the Aztec became the strongest of the Triple Alliance and Tenochtitlan became the center of power in the region.
All of the Aztec rulers at this time pushed forward with expanding the Aztec Empire across Mexico and strengthening the power of Tenochtitlan. In fact, the city grew in size and importance during this time as the Aztec culture came to dominate the region. For example, by the early 16th century, Tenochtitlan is estimated to have been three to five square miles (eight to thirteen square kilometers), and have a population of between 200,000 and 300,000 people. This means that it was one of the largest cities in the world at the time and larger than any in Europe. As well, the Aztec Empire had spread far from the Valley of Mexico during this time and, at its height, the empire consisted of land across most of central Mexico including the coastlines in both the Gulf of Mexico and Pacific Ocean. This vast expansion meant that the Aztec had conquered and suppressed many different groups of Mesoamerican peoples. The Aztec controlled these different societies by forcing them to provide tributes for payment and ritual sacrifice.
Aztec government had several different elements at its core. For instance, Mesoamerican city-states or ‘altepetl’ (as they were referred to as in the Aztec language of Nahuatl) were the basic structure of the Aztec Empire. The altepetl of the Aztec Empire was Tenochtitlan.
The spread of Aztec authority throughout the region meant that the Aztec Empire expanded and came to control, many of these different societies and their altepetl. As stated above, altepetls were the larger city-states that existed throughout Mesoamerica during the time of the Aztec. However, altepetls were made up of several different calpulli. The word ‘calpulli’ translates to ‘large house’ and refers to a small group or clan of people who lived within the altepetl. Calpulli can best be related to a family, since they were groups of people who were responsible for the day-to-day living of the group. In fact, calpulli were usually made up of a few different families, although in some areas a calpulli could be based entirely on a single family unit.
Each altepetl was ruled by a leader referred to as a ‘tlatoani’, which translates to as ‘Speaker’. The tlatoani was an important figure in Mesoamerica city-states because they essentially controlled and organized the government, military and economy of the altepetl. In general, each tlatoani were from the higher classes and had links to the royal families present in the society at that time. As such, authority over an altepetl usually stayed within a single powerful family and passed down through hereditary lines. The leader of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan and the one who ruled over all of the other altepetls in the Aztec Empire was called the ‘huey tlatoani’ or ‘Great Speaker’. The huey tlatoani played an important role in Aztec history and the expansion of the Aztec Empire. They primarily ruled over the Aztec Empire as a whole. For instance, the huey tlatoani oversaw the tribute system present in the Aztec Empire, the military and any wars that were carried out, and the expansion of the empire to new regions. Since the huey tlatoani was concerned with the affairs of the overall empire, the cihuacoatl in Tenochtitlan carried out the administration of the city itself. Today, historians refer to the huey tlatoani as Emperors since they oversaw all aspects of the far-reaching Aztec Empire.
The Aztec economy was based on several key factors, including: farming, tribute and markets. The Aztec Empire had a strong and thriving economy before the arrival of Spanish conquistadors in 1519. Due to its island location the Aztec economy was based primarily on agriculture in the form of chinampas. Also referred to as ‘floating gardens’ chinampas were mounds of dirt and other debris built up in the shallow, swampy areas of Lake Texcoco which surrounded Tenochtitlan. The use of chinampas was particularly popular in southern area of Lake Texcoco near the altepetl of Xochimilco.
Another important aspect of the Aztec economy was the tribute system present throughout much of Mesoamerica. Following the Aztec’s founding and construction of Tenochtitlan in the Valley of Mexico in 1325, they quickly established their authority across the other societies in the valley. At the time the Valley of Mexico was populated by many different powerful civilizations, including: Chalco, Tepanec, Tlacopan, Texcoco, Culhuacan, and Chichimec. Several of these civilizations were also on the shores of Lake Texcoco, including the Culhuacan which were on the south shore. By conquering many of these other city-states the Aztec were able to force them to pay tribute back to Tenochtitlan.
This system of tribute provided the Aztec Empire, and ultimately Tenochtitlan, with a continuous supply of goods and people from across central Mexico. In terms of people, conquered altepetl would often supply Tenochtitlan with either warriors or slaves. However, the supply of goods was vast and powered the Aztec economy. Goods paid as tribute to the Aztec included: food, clothing, weapons, luxury items, metals, lumber and more.
Another key feature of the economy was the development of large markets for the different goods from across the Aztec Empire. These markets supplied the citizens with different foods, luxury items and crafts. The markets sold all sorts of things, but it greatly benefitted both merchants (traders) and artists and craftspeople. For example, it allowed the artists and craftspeople a venue to sell their finely crafted goods. As well, the traders helped distribute goods across the Aztec Empire and ultimately central Mexico. For instance, all goods were transported throughout the empire by human beings. This was because the Aztec lacked any large domesticated animals such as horses. As such, waterways were important to Aztec trade because it allowed goods to be moved quickly. The class of people who carried out this long distance trade in the Aztec Empire were referred to as ‘pochteca’.
AZTEC SOCIETY (SOCIAL CLASSES)
Aztec society was made up of several different classes of people, usually divided as an upper class, middle class and lower class.
The upper class were referred to as pipiltin. These people were the nobility and controlled the highest positions in Aztec society. For example, they worked in the Aztec government, were high priests in the Aztec religion, and held the highest ranks in the Aztec military. As such, the pipiltin were the ruling class. The middle class in Aztec society were referred to as macehualtin and they made up the largest group of people in Aztec society. These people were considered to be among the commoner class and generally were made up of rural farmers. As such, macehualtin were organized in the calpulli system. Below the macehualtin in Aztec society were the mayeques. They were similar to macehualtin in that they often performed work on farms, but the mayeques were generally responsible for much more laborious work. For instance, they were often tasked with the hard labor on farms, building and maintaining the temples, and the houses of the nobles. The lowest social class in Aztec society were the tlacotin. These people were the slaves that worked throughout the Aztec Empire. For the Aztecs, slavery was not something that you could be born into. Rather, people became slaves of their own choosing, as a punishment for a crime, or because they were taken captive. Someone might choose to enter slavery as a means of paying off a financial debt.
An important aspect of the Aztec Empire was the culture that the Aztec people expressed through their art, clothing, food, language, religious traditions and warfare. Click on the link above to read more about each of the following aspects of Aztec culture.
Aztec art is seen in many of the objects and structures that the Aztec people used on a daily basis. For example, Aztec clothing, pottery, jewelry, temples, and weapons contained artistic styles. More specifically, the Aztec were known to use bright colors and vivid imagery to convey their culture and religion on these objects. Common materials used to create these objects included: feathers (especially from the quetzal bird), shells, gold, silver, glass beads, and other gemstones.
An important part of the Aztec culture was the clothing that the people made and wore. The clothing of the Aztec was similar to other pre-Columbian Mesoamerican groups, since they shared relatively similar histories and cultures. With that said, there are a few key points in relation to the clothing and dress of the Aztec. First, Aztec society was divided between distinct classes, and the different classes wore different types of clothing. For example, the high priests, nobility and royalty would wear very ornate clothing while the lower classes would not. Second, the basic item in Aztec clothing for men was the ‘maxtlatl’, which was a type of loincloth. Men would usually wear the maxtlatl with an out garment that resembled a cloak called a ‘tilmahtli’. The timahtli were stylized differently to distinguish between the different classes in Aztec society. Third, Aztec women were known to wear a type of blouse called a ‘huīpīlli’ along with a long skirt called ‘cuēitl’. For footwear, the Aztec nobility wore a sandal which they called ‘cactli’. Commoners in Aztec society were not allowed to wear these as they were viewed as a sign of status. As well, all Aztec people were required to be barefoot when they entered a temple or when they were in the presence of the emperor (huey tlatoani).
The Aztec had a diverse range of food items that made up their diet. With that said, because the events of the Columbian Exchange had not yet occurred, the Aztec where limited to locally grown foods. As such, since most domesticated animals originate from Eurasia, the Aztec diet was primarily based upon vegetables and fruits. For instance, likely the most common food item of the Aztec Empire was maize (corn). Maize is a cereal grain that was likely first grown by humans over 10,000 years ago in modern-day Mexico. As such, by the time of the Aztec Empire, maize had a long history of use in farming practices in Mexico. The Aztec would prepare the maize in several different ways, including grounding it down into a flour that could then be used to create a tortilla. Maize remains an important crop today and has spread across the world and is used in many different types of foods.
An important aspect of the Aztec Empire and history was their religious beliefs and practices. In general, the Aztecs shared many of their main religious beliefs and practices with other societies in the region. For example, some gods and religious practices were common throughout different Mesoamerican societies, including: Toltec and Teotihuacan. As such, when learning about Aztec religion it’s important to understand that much of it also applies to other civilizations throughout the history of the region.
The concept of ‘god’ in Aztec society is referred to as ‘Teotl’ in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztec. The Aztecs, like other Mesoamerican societies, had a wide pantheon of gods. As such they were a polytheistic society, which means they had many gods and each god represented different important parts of the world for Aztec people.
An important aspect of Aztec religion and culture was the practice of human sacrifice. From the perspective of the Aztec, sacrifice was necessary to ensure the survival of life. For instance, in Aztec religion, the world was created from the sacrifice of the gods. As such, they viewed sacrifice as necessary to repay their debts to the gods. Therefore, sacrifice did not necessarily just focus on human beings, as both animals and precious objects were also offered to the gods. Further to this idea, some historians have suggested that the Aztec practice of sacrifice was designed to protect and ensure the survival of the universe. This concept is best related to the Aztec god Huitzilopochtli, who was one of the main gods of the Aztec and likely the most prominent.
Throughout much of their history, the Aztec were a militaristic people who focused on the expansion of their empire. Following the Aztec’s founding and construction of Tenochtitlan in the Valley of Mexico in 1325, they quickly established their authority across the other societies in the valley. At the time the Valley of Mexico was populated by many different powerful civilizations, including: Chalco, Tepanec, Tlacopan, Texcoco, Culhuacan, and Chichimec. Several of these civilizations were also on the shores of Lake Texcoco, including the Culhuacan, which were on the south shore. Eventually, the Aztec Empire extended throughout most of central Mexico. As such, warfare was a central component of Aztec culture and Aztec warriors played an important role in Aztec society.
SPANISH CONQUEST OF THE AZTEC EMPIRE
The Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire is not only one of the most significant events in the early exploration and conquest of the Americas, but also one of the most significant events in world history. In general, the conquest displayed the impact of European exploration on the New World and the outcomes of the Age of Exploration. At the time of contact both the Aztec and the Spanish were powerful and wealthy societies. The article below is a brief summary of the fall of the Aztec Empire. Click here to read more about the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire.
Hernan Cortés was the Spanish conquistador that led the expedition to explore and conquer the Aztec Empire. At the age of 19, he travelled to the Spanish controlled colonies in the Caribbean. More specifically, he arrived at the island of Hispaniola which is the modern-day Dominican Republic and Haiti. After several years in the colonies, Cortés convinced Diego Velasquez, another conquistador and then governor of Cuba, to let him lead an expedition to Mexico. Cortés set sail soon after with approximately 11 ships and just over 500 men.
As stated previously, the Spanish returned to Mexico in 1519. Moctezuma II was informed of their arrival, which was in the area of the Yucatan Peninsula, to the east of the main territory of the Aztec Empire. Quickly, Hernan Cortés and his men encountered other Mesoamerican peoples living in the area. For example, they came into contact with the Tlaxcala, which was a powerful city-state to the east of Tenochtitlan. Tlaxcala were traditional enemies of the Aztec as the two had fought each in different battles including the Flower Wars. As such, the Tlaxcala used the opportunity to their advantage and allied themselves with the Spanish against Tenochtitlan. This is important, because Cortés used the Tlaxcala and other enemies of the Aztec in his later conquest of Tenochtitlan.
Some historians believe that Moctezuma II was unsure about Cortés due to a series of eight omens that occurred in the years before the arrival of the Spanish. Omens are events which are said to have significance on future events or occurrences. For instance, one of the roles of high priests in the Aztec religion was to interpret significant events to predict their impact on the huey tlatoani and the Aztec Empire.
Cortés and the Spanish arrived at the city of Tenochtitlan in November of 1519. While they were accompanied by their new allies, the Tlaxcala, only Cortés and the Spanish were invited into the city. At this point Cortés became fearful that Moctezuma II may order his death and in response he took the Aztec leader captive in the palace that Moctezuma II had prepared for the Spanish in Tenochtitlan. The Spanish remained in Tenochtitlan for the next several months, during which time they controlled the city through Moctezuma II. This is because Moctezuma II continued to rule over the Aztec Empire and city of Tenochtitlan from his imprisonment in the Aztec palace. The Aztec nobility and religious leaders became very angry during this time with the Spanish. They believed that Moctezuma II was weak and had let the Spanish take over the city. A conflict soon ensued between the two sides.
Sometime during the conflict between the Spanish and the Aztecs, Moctezuma II was killed, however there are different accounts of the event and historians are unsure of the truth. First, Spanish accounts of the death of Moctezuma II argue that he was killed by his own people while trying to get them to retreat from fighting the Spanish. The second version of his death, which comes from Aztec accounts of the event, is that Moctezuma II was killed by the Spanish as they fled the city following the Aztec retaliation for the Spanish massacre of Aztec people in the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan as part of a festival. Regardless, Moctezuma II died during this time and his death was one of several factors that led to the eventual collapse of the Aztec Empire during the Spanish conquest. Cuitláhuac, the younger brother of Moctezuma II, was chosen as the next tlatoani to rule over Tenochtitlan. Soon after, the Spanish fled Tenochtitlan in an event known as Noche Triste.
Following the events of Noche Triste, the Spanish fled to Tlaxcala, chased away by Aztec warriors. In Tlaxcala the Spanish recovered from their wounds, including Cortés who was injured in the escape from Tenochtitlan. This time in Tlaxcala had impacts for both the Spanish and the Aztec, because the Spanish were able to resupply and received new Spanish troops while the Aztec suffered from the consequences of the spread of European diseases.
One of the more significant European diseases was smallpox which is said to have had the largest impact on the indigenous people of the New World. For example, the Aztecs in Tenochtitlan supposedly underwent a mass spread of smallpox from September to November of 1520. Historians are unsure of how many of the Aztec people suffered and died from the disease at this time, but their newest tlatoani, Cuitláhuac, died from the disease. This is important because the Aztecs lacked stable leadership during the Spanish conquest of Tenochtitlan, since their leaders (Moctezuma II and Cuitláhuac) died. Regardless, the spread of smallpox throughout Tenochtitlan severely weakened the Aztec people and aided the Spanish in their final battle against the city. A new tlatoani, and the final one to rule over the Aztec Empire, Cuauhtémoc, was chosen in February of 1521.
The Spanish began their final attack against Tenochtitlan by destroying the aqueducts that brought fresh water to the city. Furthermore, Cortés had his men launch several small ships into Lake Texcoco, which prevented the people of Tenochtitlan from escaping or receiving help. The fighting of the final battle for Tenochtitlan was brutal. The Aztec people in the city, who were starving and suffering from smallpox, were bombarded by Spanish cannons and firearms.
While the Aztec carried out several counterattacks they were mostly ineffective due to the Spanish’s organization, alliances and overwhelming military power. Apparently, Cortés had hoped that the Aztecs would surrender so that he could capture Tenochtitlan intact and present it as a prize to the Spanish monarch Charles V. However, during the battle, the Aztec’s sacrificed many of the Spanish prisoners of war that they had held captive. This angered Cortés and caused him to order the destruction of the city and the Aztec people. Tenochtitlan was finally captured by the Spanish and Tlaxcala on August 13th, 1521. Cuauhtémoc was taken prisoner and the Aztec Empire was no more.
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