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The Aztec Empire

Updated on December 18, 2014


Once there was territory named Aztlan; its boundaries reached from the most northern parts of what we now call Mexico into the state of modern day California. For many years, Aztlan was home to Aztec people, but did Aztlan really exist? Some historians say "yes," and others say "no."

Some factions say that Aztlan's location was placed along a tributary of the Lerna River. Others speculate its location as having been Lake Patzcuaro's island of Janitzio, while still others support the idea that it was located in California or New Mexico. Then you have those who believe that Aztlan is simply a place of Native American legends; I guess we'll never really know.

Aztlan is believed to have been an island. Surrounded by marshes, it was located in the middle of a lake. Some historians believe that Aztlan was also known by the name Chicomoztoc, the place of "seven caves," and that the island and the caves were all a part of the landscape in the place the Aztecs first called home.

Aztec Migration

The Aztec Empire, at its peak, was by far the most powerful Mesoamerican kingdom of all time. Its boundaries fell within through much of what is now known as the central and southern parts of Mexico, covering more than 80,000 square miles of land. Stretching all the way from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico and from Guatemala to central Mexico, the Aztec Empire was home to 15 million people, in 489 separate villages and 38 distinct provinces.

When the Aztecs migrated southward from Aztlan to Mexico, it was not as one simple movement or one immediate group of people. Instead, they are known to have come from at least 17 different ethnic groups over several generations.

The Aztec migration followed a specific route along the Pacific coastline, and it ended in the Valley of Mexico. Settling along the shores of Lake Texcoco, the Aztec found themselves newcomers to the valley. Other tribes were already there, one of those being the Toltec, a civilization that was still well able to defend itself against the Aztec's invasion into their lands.

The Toltec allowed the Aztec a specific area around the lake for settlement, and they kept the best land for themselves. A peace treaty was signed between the two tribes, and the Aztecs moved into the area they were granted, but that wasn't good enough. Swamps are not conducive to farming, and they are not the best places to build homes, but that was what they got. Adaptation was essential, so they adapted.

Making the Marshes Home

A swampy marsh is most certainly not an easy place to live, but the Aztec people took their situation as a challenge rather than a defeat. The work was difficult, and the tasks ahead of them required both imagination and fortitude. Determined to survive, the Aztecs wasted no time in crafting rafts from the multitude of reeds and twigs at their disposal, only then realizing that the rafts could be tied together forming gigantic, floating platforms.

Long poles, meant to serve as anchors were then pushed into the bottom of the lake, and the rafts were secured. With their foundation constructed, Aztec engineers took the project one step further, laborers hauled mud from the swampy marshes and spread it across the platforms, layer by layer, until finally, manmade islands began to appear on the surface of the lake.

The islands, once completed were used for farming. This early civilization had indeed created farmland for agricultural use. Known as the Floating Gardens (chinampas), this land gave the Aztec people the ability to grow food and build huts in which to live. Although corn was their most abundant crop; squash, tomatoes, avocados, chili peppers, and cocoa were other important food sources. Besides farming, the Aztecs were also adept fishermen. They built canoes, and hunted waterfowl near the lake.

Tlateolco Marketplace
Tlateolco Marketplace

Aztec Expansion

As time went on, and the Aztec Empire conquered neighboring tribes expanding their boundaries, agriculture became the economy on which their civilization was based. Moving inland, irrigation was necessary in order to farm more extensively in dry areas. Slash and burn agriculture was also used, and surplus was stored for later use. Dikes and canals were built to control water levels, and the lakes were used to transport goods and carry on commerce.

Nearby Tlateolco was the largest market of the time, and the Aztec traded there extensively. They had no money system and relied on the trade of goods and specialized services.

The Toltec city of Tula was an important center of trade. Weaving, pottery, and obsidian were used in trade for imports such as jade, turquoise, animal skins, feathers and other luxuries. The Toltec traded and maintained peaceful relations with the Mayans, and the two civilizations shared much in the way of architecture and design, but soon their city would burn and their civilization would collapse.

Aztec Legend

Legend tells us that the Aztec people founded their home in the "place of the prickly pear cactus." That one morning as they were wandering the valley in search of a place to settle, a priest spotted an eagle perched upon a cactus on an island across the lake. The eagle, feasting on a writhing snake was a sign that that they were to settle, and that they were to do it peacefully.

Legend says that they were to settle in a neighborly fashion until they gained strength, that they were to build a glorious city, a city more splendid than any had ever known. And they were to do this without waging war. It must have been difficult for this warrior people to keep peace. Normally, the fighting would have ensued with their arrival; they liked to fight, they enjoyed conquest, and they showed no mercy, but they did as they were told, and then they did as they wanted. Time and strength would bring war, conquest, and broad expansion. It would bring the birth of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, a place of vast riches and of bloody human sacrifice. And by 1519, it would once again become an area coveted by a new people; the Spanish.

Importance of Education

Teachers were some of the most respected citizens of the Aztec community. Attendance in school was mandatory, and it was free. Every child was required to take part in the Aztec educational system; everyone, be they boys, girls, or slaves received an education. The Aztec civilization was the first to not only offer, but mandate this opportunity for its people.

Leaders of the Aztec community were well aware that in order to build the city they dreamed of, its construction would require countless engineers, builders, and tradesmen. Boys attended one of two different types of schools; there was one school for the wealthy, and there was one for those not so wealthy. Slaves would attend the former.

Each school taught specialization, and students from either could go on to become farmers, traders, builders, doctors, astronomers, and engineers. Education for the sons of the wealthy also included instruction in law, hieroglyphics, self expression and possibly the interpretation of dreams. They were counseled in public speaking, taught detailed accounts of their cultural history, and instructed in religion. Schooling for commoners and slaves was more focused on producing farmers and warriors, but an adept pupil might just get his chance for advancement.

Girls were also instructed in religion. They were given no free time and expected to acquire the skills necessary to produce Aztec crafts. The Aztecs were well known for their work in weaving, sewing, and fine embroidery, and it was imperative that their skills be passed down from generation to generation. Young women were also prepared for their eventual journey into marriage by learning about childcare, cooking, and of course, what it took to be the ideal wife.

All three Aztec schools put a tremendous focus on religion, and although recess and playtime were not included in the school day, every child in the community was instructed in song and dance. Not for fun mind you, but because singing and dancing were integral parts of the Aztec religious festivals.

Because the Aztecs believed that all citizens should behave properly, a code of conduct was implemented that dictated exactly how they should conduct themselves. Children were taught manners in school, and each and every member of the Aztec society was expected to follow the rules. The rules were law, and anyone believing that their conduct was above this set of guidelines risked death. The following codes are not complete, but they just might give you some pointers in etiquette.

~ Wherever you walk, go with a peaceful air

~ Do not mock the old

~ Do not mock the sick

~ Do not set a bad example

~ Do not interrupt the speech of another

~ Do not mock one who has sinned

~ Do not complain

The Aztecs people elected their first emperors and officers from the groups of tribal chiefs. Later, it became common for the emperor to hand down his position to another family member.

Emperor's Palace
Emperor's Palace

Leadership and Tribal Law

The emperor was housed in the imperial palace at Tenochtitlan, a sprawling mansion that was also home to various government offices, and the shops of the most talented Aztec craftsmen. If you had the opportunity to walk there, you'd be able to leisurely wander through tremendous gardens, and maybe even catch a glimpse of the wildlife kept in the emperor's private zoo.

City-States were governed by the nobility, and as long as their allegiance was firmly given to the emperor they had license to do pretty much whatever they pleased. These governors were greedy, and often looked to expand their own borders. Although the emperor was the most powerful leader in the land, each tribe was in charge of choosing its own chief. The chief was chosen by the members of his tribe, and specific attributes were most desirable. It was imperative the tribal chief be the wisest in his city state. He also needed to be the bravest and wealthiest man in the tribe. Penalties for those who broke the law varied accordingly.

Laws may have varied a bit from tribe to tribe, but the penalties in each city-state were equally severe. Drunkenness was considered the worst possible crime, and was punishable by death. Thieves also received the death penalty. Laws were written down in codices (books), as were the punishments for breaking them. One of the most interesting of the Aztec laws was the "one time forgiveness law." One time, and one time only, could you choose to confess your crime to the priests of Tlazolteol, and just that once you would be forgiven without punishment. The catch, your confession had to come before the discovery of your transgression. I wonder how many took advantage?

Slavery in the Aztec World

To be a slave in the Aztec world was much like being a free man. Unlike other civilizations, slaves were not captured during war. The slaves of Aztec nobility, were indeed Aztecs themselves. To become a slave depended on only two circumstances; you either sold yourself into slavery, or you became one as punishment for a crime. There were no other scenarios......... slavery was based on your own decision or the fact that you'd committed a transgression; it was that simple.

Aztec slavery differed from other civilizations in other ways as well. You could not be born into slavery; you could marry who you pleased, and you could buy your freedom. The most interesting law I discovered had to do with the sale of slaves. If an owner wished to sell a slave at the market and he/she ran away, all it took was for them to make it to the palace unhindered. Not getting caught won a slave their freedom. Sometimes it pays to be quick on your feet.

Aztec Religion

The Aztec culture was guided by religion. Every aspect of life was pervaded by religious beliefs and customs; gods of nature were worshipped and believed to be vital to their agricultural economy. Giant stone pyramids, topped with temples, dominated their cityscapes. Human sacrifice provided the gods with sustenance; something the priests felt appeased their supernatural deities.

Human sacrifice had been practiced for hundreds of years in The Valley of Mexico. Many of the early indigenous tribes felt that the ultimate sacrifice of human life would grant them the gods' favor. Spilling human blood upon an altar was a form of respect, a payment of debt. To sacrifice the living insured the sunrise and healthy crops. Destructive weather would be held at bay and life would go on; the people would be cared for.

The Aztecs however, took sacrifice to an entirely new level. They believed that no matter what they did, the gods would never have enough. During the mid 1400s, natural disasters ran rampant in the valley; droughts, floods, infestation by locusts, and starvation caused the Aztecs to believe the gods' thirst for sacrificial blood was insatiable. Fear and death led the priests practice massive human sacrifice; the flow of blood would assuage the god's appetites.

The year 1455, found the weather amiable and the crops bountiful. Sure that the increase in rituals had provided for them, human sacrifice continued in large numbers. Numbers so high that legends claim more than 80,000 prisoners of war were sacrificed in 1487 alone; their bloodshed in honor of the sun god during the dedication of his newly reconstructed temple in Tenochtitlan. The first sacrifice was performed by the emperor, Ahuizotl, who cut out the heart of his victim and burned it upon the shrine. Hundreds of priests anxiously awaited their turn to take part in the dedication, hungering to wield the power of the sacrificial knife, a blade of obsidian, a symbol of power. The dedication took four days in all. Blood ran down the steps of the pyramid, drying, only to be soaked once more. It was considered a "holy death;" it was a massacre.

The rites of sacrifice were elaborate, and they were planned to honor specific gods on specific dates. Aztec priests were revered; they determined when and if the empire would go to war, which days were luckiest for battle. Nobody, not even the emperor argued with their forecasts. A 260 day religious calendar assisted the priests in their decisions. A 365 day solar calendar was also used for guidance. Combining the two calendars produced a 52 week year that played an inherent role in the Aztec society.

Montezuma II and the Spanish Conquest of the Aztecs

The reign of Montezuma II, the Aztec empire's last great emperor spanned a period of eighteen years. When he became emperor in 1502, his rule extended over an area of 58,000 square miles.

Montezuma greeted the Spanish with conflicting emotions. An old Aztec tradition led him to believe that Cortes and his men were in fact returning gods. Legend told of the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, and how he had departed his worldly life on a raft vowing to return. The god's return was predicted for the year of One Reed; the exact year of the Spanish landing.

Montezuma sends representatives to meet the Spaniards in hopes that if the God was indeed returning he would gain favor for his people. The Aztec welcome included offerings of gold, silver, and expensive cloth. Cortes happily accepted Montezuma's gifts, everything except the meat which had been ritually prepared from the blood of human sacrifice. Cortes' rejection of the ritual gifts revealed to Montezuma that he was not the incarnation of the great Quetzalcoatl, but it also brought the emperor feelings of fear. He knew these men were a threat to the empire, but instead of sending them away he invites them into the city. He believes that bringing them inside the city walls will allow the Aztec warriors to overcome and defeat what he now perceives as the enemy.

Hernan Cortes and his band of Spanish soldiers marched into the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan in 1519. Their eyes opened wide, dazzled by gold and riches. They walked through the city's markets in disbelief; it was clean, had beauty shops, merchants selling a variety of foods. Meat and other wild game were available for purchase, as were medicines, and even better yet, cocoa beans.

In a letter home, Cortes wrote that the market was inhabited by more than 60,000 people, all buying and selling wares. Pottery, woven mats, paints, and small eating establishments lined the city streets. Never, he wrote, not even in Constantinople or Rome had he seen so large or so busy a market.

Diaz del Castillo, one of Cortes' men describes their first impression of the great Montezuma in this way; "The Great Montezuma was about forty years old, of good height, well proportioned, spare and slight, and not very dark, though of the usual Indian complexion. He did not wear his hair long but just over his ears, and he had a short black beard, well-shaped and thin. His face was rather long and cheerful, he had fine eyes, and in his appearance and manner could express geniality or, when necessary, a serious composure. He was very neat and clean, and took a bath every afternoon. He had many women as his mistresses, the daughters of chieftains, but two legitimate wives who were Caciques (leaders) in their own right, and only some of his servants knew of it. He was quite free from sodomy. The clothes he wore one day he did not wear again till three or four days later. He had a guard of two hundred chieftains lodged in rooms beside his own, only some of whom were permitted to speak to him." (Diaz del Castillo 1568/1963: 224-25)

Montezuma's plan to overcome the Spanish strangers backfired. Yes, they were unfamiliar with their surroundings, and the fact that they were outnumbered was without question, but nonetheless they took the first opportunity they had to imprison the emperor. Their conquest was quick and painful. Montezuma died while in captivity, some believe he was stoned to death by his own people.

In addition to claiming the Aztec lands for Spain, Cortes and his men brought a variety of things with them into the capital; most importantly, they brought death. Cortes was determined to conquer both the land and its people. He had sailed his ships from Spain, and was well stocked for the excursion into the new world; his men carried guns, they rode horses, and were accompanied by their animals, large fierce hunting dogs. But the most devastating thing that the army brought into the Valley of Mexico was illness. Soldiers brought childhood diseases that had never before been known in the area, and many of the people died. The Spanish conquest had some help, and diseases that had been dreaded but commonplace in their own homeland gave them an edge they never expected.

The Spanish victory over the Aztec empire was celebrated with the storming of the great pyramid and the burning of its sacred temple. Fear of retaliation led the Spanish to retreat by night. By day, they moved on and attacked the empire's other great cities. Their complete and total conquest marked the end of a civilization.


You Wouldn't Want to be an Aztec Sacrifice; Gruesome Things You'd Rather Not Know, Fiona MacDonald, The Salariya Book Company, LTD, @ 2003

Hispanic Heritage; Ancient Empires & Mighty People, Richard Sanchez. ABDO and Daughters, @1994


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