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Huizipotakl, the Sun god, is slowly rising behind the mountaintops. His light is shimmering against the gentle lake waters before you.
There are trees as far as the eye can see, and the chirping of birds dominates the soundscape. Tonight, you will once again sleep amongst the stars. The sun is bright, but it is not hot; the air is cool and fresh, thin. The smell of sap and damp leaves wafts on the wind, soothing you as you stir and gather your things so that the journey can begin.
Quauhcoatl — your leader, the Great Priest — spoke the last night of the need to search through the small islands centered in the middle of the lake.
With the sun still below the mountaintops, he marches from camp with all the confidence you would expect of one touched by the gods.
You, and the others, follow.
You all know what you are looking for — the sign — and you have faith it will come. Quauhcoatl told you, “Where the eagle rests upon the prickly pear cactus, a new city will be born. A city of greatness. One that will rule the land and give rise to the Mexica — the people from Aztlan.”
It’s hard going through the brush, but your company makes it to the bottom of the valley and the shores of the lake before the sun reaches its apex in the sky.
“Lake Texcoco,” Quauhcoatl says. “Xictli — the center of the world.”
These words inspire hope, and that translates into a fervor for work.
By the early afternoon, your tribe has fashioned several rafts and is paddling towards the river. The muddled waters below sit still, but tremendous energy rises from its gentle lapping — a universal thrum that seems to carry with it all the force and power needed to create and sustain life.
The rafts crash ashore. You quickly drag them to safety and then set off with the others behind the priest, who is moving swiftly through the trees towards some destination only he seems to know.
After no more than two hundred paces, the group stops. Ahead is a clearing, and Quauhcoatl has gotten down on his knees. Everyone shuffles into the space, and you see why.
A prickly pear cactus — the tenochtli — stands triumphantly alone in the clearing. It towers over all, while being no taller than a man. A force grabs you and you are on your knees as well. Quauhcoatl is chanting, and your voice is with his.
Heavy breathing. Humming. Deep, deep concentration.
Minutes of silent prayer pass. An hour.
And then you hear it.
The sound is unmistakable — a sacred screech.
“Do not waver!” Quauhcoatl shouts. “The gods are speaking.”
The screeching gets louder and louder, a certain sign that the bird is approaching. Your face is mashed in the dirt — ants crawl over skin face, into your hair — but you do not budge.
You remain solid, focused, in trance.
Then, a loud whoosh! and the silence of the clearing is gone as the lord of the skies descends upon you and rests on his perch.
“Behold, my dear ones! The gods have called on us. Our journey is over.”
You pick your head off the ground and look up. There, the majestic bird — draped in coffee and marble feathers, its great, beady eyes absorbing the scene — sits, perched upon the nopal; perched upon the cactus. The prophecy was true and you’ve made it. You’re home. At last, a place to rest your head.
The blood begins rushing inside your veins, overwhelming all senses. Your knees begin to tremble, preventing you from moving. Yet something inside of you urges you to stand with the others. Finally, after months, or longer, of wandering, the prophecy has been proven true.
Read More: Aztec Gods and Goddesses
This story — or one of its many variations — is central to understanding the Aztecs. It’s the defining moment of a people who came to rule the vast, fertile lands of central Mexico; of a people who held the lands more successfully than any other civilization before it.
The legend positions the Aztecs — known in those times as the Mexica — as a chosen race descended from Aztlan, a proverbial Garden of Eden defined by abundance and peace, who had been touched by the gods so as to do great things for life on Earth.
Of course, given its mystical nature, few anthropologists and historians believe this story to be the actual account of the origin of the city, but regardless of its truth, its message is a crucial building block in the story of the Aztec Empire — a society known for brutal conquest, heart-ripping human sacrifices, extravagant temples, palaces adorned with gold and silver, and trading markets famous throughout the entire ancient world.
Who Were the Aztecs?
The Aztecs — also known as the Mexica — were a cultural group that lived in what is known as the Valley of Mexico (the area surrounding modern-day Mexico City). They established an empire, starting in the 15th century, that rose to be one of the most prosperous in all of ancient history before it was quickly toppled by the conquering Spanish in 1521.
One of the defining characteristics of the Aztec people was their language — Nahuatl. It, or some variation, was spoken by numerous groups in the region, many of whom would not have identified as Mexica, or Aztec. This helped the Aztecs establish and grow their power.
But the Aztec civilization is just one small piece of the much larger puzzle that is ancient Mesoamerica, which first saw settled human cultures as early as 2000 B.C.
The Aztecs are remembered because of their empire, which was one of the largest in the ancient American world, rivaled only by the Incas and Mayans. It’s capital, Tenochtitlan, is estimated to have had around 300,000 inhabitants in 1519, which would have made it one of the largest cities in the world at the time.
Its markets were famous throughout the ancient world for their unique and luxurious goods — a sign of the empire’s wealth — and their armies were feared by enemies both near and far, as the Aztecs rarely hesitated to attack nearby settlements for their own expansion and enrichment.
But while the Aztecs are certainly known for their tremendous prosperity and military strength, they are equally as famous for their catastrophic collapse.
The Aztec Empire was at its peak in 1519 — the year when the microbial diseases and advanced firearms, carried by Hernán Cortés and his conquistador friends, landed on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico. Despite the power of the Aztec Empire at the time, they were no match for these foreign invaders; their civilization crumbled from its zenith in what amounts to a historical instant.
And things got much worse after the fall of Tenochtitlan.
The colonial system the Spanish established was specifically designed to extract as much wealth from the Aztecs (and any other indigenous people they encountered), and their land, as possible. This included forced labor, demands for large taxes and tributes, the establishment of Spanish as the official language of the region, and the forced adoption of Catholicism.
This system — plus racism and religious intolerance — wound up burying the conquered peoples at the very bottom of what became an even more unequal society than what had previously existed as the Aztec Empire.
The way in which Mexican society developed meant that, even when Mexico finally gained its independence from Spain, life for the Aztecs did not improve much — the hispanicized population sought indigenous support to fill their armies, but once in power, this did little to address the harsh inequities of Mexican society, further marginalizing the original “Mexicans.”
As a result, 1520 — the year Tenochtitlan fell, just near twelve months after Cortés first landed in Mexico — marks the end of an independent Aztec civilization. There are people alive today with very close connections to the Aztecs of the 16th century, but their ways of life, worldviews, customs, and rituals have been suppressed over the years to the point of near extinction.
Aztec or Mexica?
One thing that can get confusing when studying this ancient culture is their name.
In modern times, we know the civilization that ruled most of central Mexico from 1325 – 1520 C.E. as the Aztecs, but if you asked people nearby living during that time where to find “the Aztecs,” they probably would have looked at you like you had two heads. This is because, during their time, the Aztec people were known as the “Mexica” — the name that gave birth to the modern term Mexico, although its exact origin is unknown.
One of the leading theories, put forth by Alfonso Caso in 1946 in his essay “El Águila y el Nopal” (The Eagle and the Cactus), is that the word Mexica refers to the city of Tenochtitlan as the “center of the navel of the moon.”
He put this together by translating the words in Nahuatl for “the moon” (metztli), “naval” (xictli), and “place” (co).
Together, Caso argues, these terms helped create the word Mexica — they would have seen their city, Tenochtitlan, which was built on an island in the middle of Lake Texcoco, as the center of their world (which was symbolized by the lake itself).
Of course other theories exist, and we may never fully know the truth, but the important thing to remember is that the word “Aztec” is a much more modern construct. It comes from the Nahuatl word “aztecah,” which means people from Aztlan — yet another reference to the mythical origin of the Aztec people.
Where Was the Aztec Empire Located?
The Aztec Empire existed in modern-day central Mexico. Its capital was Mexico-Tenochtitlan, which was a city built on an island in Lake Texcoco — the body of water that filled the Valley of Mexico but that has since been converted into land and is now home to the modern-day capital of the country, Mexico City.
At its peak, the Aztec Empire stretched from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean. It controlled most of the territory east of Mexico City, including the modern state of Chiapas, and stretched as far west as Jalisco.
The Aztecs were able to build such an empire thanks to their extensive trade networks and aggressive military strategy. In general, the empire was built on a system of tribute, although by the 16th century — in the years before its collapse — more formal versions of government and administration existed.
Aztec Empire Map
The Roots of the Aztec Empire: The Founding Capital of Mexico-Tenochtitlan
The story of the eagle landing on the prickly pear cactus is central to understanding the Aztec Empire. It supports the idea that the Aztecs — or Mexica — were a divine race descended from former great Mesoamerican civilizations and predestined for greatness; it also goes on to form the basis of modern-Mexican identity, as the eagle and the cactus feature prominently in the nation’s flag today.
It’s rooted in the idea that the Aztecs came from the mythical land of abundance known as Aztlan, and that they were sent away from that land on a divine mission to establish a great civilization. Yet we know nothing of its truth.
What we do know, however, is that the Aztecs went from being a relatively unknown entity in the Valley of Mexico to the dominant civilization in the region within less than one hundred years. The Aztec Empire has gone down as one of the most advanced and powerful of the ancient age — given this sudden rise to prominence, it’s only natural to assume some sort of divine intervention.
But archaeological evidence suggests otherwise.
The Southern Migration of the Mexica
Tracking the movements of ancient cultures is difficult, especially in instances where writing was not widespread. But in some cases, archaeologists have been able to associate certain artifacts with certain cultures — either through the materials used or the designs placed on them — and then use dating technology to get a picture of how a civilization moved and changed.
The evidence collected on the Mexica suggests that Aztlan may have, in fact, actually been a real place. It was likely located in what is today Northern Mexico and the Southwestern United States. But instead of being a land of splendor, it’s likely it was nothing more than… well… land.
It was occupied by several nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes, many of which spoke the same, or some variation, of the Nahuatl language.
Over time, either to flee foes or to find better land to call home, these Nahuatl tribes began migrating south towards the Valley of Mexico, where better temperatures, more frequent rainfall, and abundant freshwater made for much better living conditions.
Evidence suggests this migration took place gradually over the course of the 12th and 13th centuries, and led the Valley of Mexico to slowly fill with Nahuatl-speaking tribes (Smith, 1984, p. 159). And there is more evidence that this trend continued through the duration of the Aztec Empire, as well.
Their capital city became a draw to people from all over, and — somewhat ironically, considering today’s political climate — people from as far north as modern-day Utah used to set Aztec lands as their destination when fleeing conflict or drought.
It’s believed the Mexica, upon settling in the Valley of Mexico, clashed with the other tribes in the region and were repeatedly forced to move until they settled on an island in the middle of Lake Texcoco — the site that would later become Tenochtitlan.
Building a Settlement into a City
No matter which version of the story you choose to accept — the mythical one or the archaeological one — we do know that the great city Mexico-Tenochtitlan, often referred to more simply as Tenochtitlan, was founded in the year 1325 A.D. (Sullivan, 2006).
This certainty is due to cross-matching the Gregorian calendar (the one the Western world uses today) with the Aztec calendar, which marked the founding of the city as 2 Calli (“2 House”). Between that moment and 1519, when Cortés landed in Mexico, the Aztecs went from being recent settlers to rulers of the land. Part of this success was owed to the chinampas, areas of fertile farming land created by dumping soil into the waters of Lake Texcoco, allowing the city to grow on what was otherwise poor ground.
But being stranded on a small island on the southern end of Lake Texcoco, the Aztecs needed to look beyond their borders to be able to satisfy the growing needs of their expanding population.
They achieved the importation of goods in part through an extensive trade network that had already existed in Central Mexico for hundreds if not thousands of years. It connected the many different civilizations of Mesomerica, bringing together the Mexica and the Mayans, as well as people living in the modern countries of Guatemala, Belize, and, to an extent, El Salvador.
However, as the Mexica grew their city, its needs expanded just as much, which meant they needed to work harder to ensure the flow of commerce that was so central to their wealth and power. The Aztecs also began to rely more and more on tribute as a means of securing the resource needs of its society, which meant waging wars against other cities in order to receive a steady supply of goods (Hassig, 1985).
This approach had been successful in the region before, during the time of the Toltecs (in the 10th to 12th century). The Toltec culture was like previous Mesoamerican civilizations — such as that based out of Teotihuacan, a city just a few miles to the north of the site that would eventually become Tenochtitlan — in that it used trade to build its influence and prosperity, the roots of this trade were sowed by previous civilizations. In the case of the Toltecs, they followed the civilization of Teotihuacan, and the Aztecs followed the Toltecs.
However, the Toltecs were different in that they were the first people in the region to adopt a truly militaristic culture that valued territorial conquest and the annexation of other city-states and kingdoms to their sphere of influence.
Despite their brutality, the Toltecs were remembered as a great and powerful civilization, and Aztec royalty worked to establish an ancestral link with them, probably because they felt this helped justify their claim to power and would win them the support of the people.
In historical terms, while it’s difficult to establish direct links between the Aztecs and Toltecs, the Aztecs can certainly be considered to have been the successors of Mesoamerica’s previously successful civilizations, all of which controlled the Valley of Mexico and the lands that surrounded it.
But the Aztecs held onto their power much more tightly than any of these previous groups, and this allowed them to construct the shining empire still revered today.
The Aztec Empire
Civilization in the Valley of Mexico has always centered around despotism, a system of government in which power is entirely in the hands of one person — which, in Aztec times, was a king.
Independent cities peppered the land, and they interacted with one another for the purposes of trade, religion, war, and so on. Despots frequently fought with one another, and used their nobility — usually family members — to try and exercise control over other cities. War was constant, and power was highly decentralized and constantly shifting.
READ MORE: Aztec Religion
Political control by one city over another was exercised through tribute and trade, and enforced by conflict. Individual citizens had little social mobility and were often at the mercy of the elite class that claimed rulership over the lands on which they lived. They were required to pay taxes and also volunteer themselves or their children for military service as called upon by their king.
As a city grew, its resource needs grew as well, and in order to meet these needs kings needed to secure the influx of more goods, which meant opening new trade routes and getting weaker cities to pay tribute — aka pay money (or, in the ancient world, goods) in exchange for protection and peace.
Of course, many of these cities would have already been paying tribute to another more powerful entity, meaning an ascending city would, by default, be a threat to the power of an existing hegemon.
All of this meant that, as the Aztec capital grew in the century after its founding, its neighbors became increasingly threatened by its prosperity and power. Their feeling of vulnerability often turned into hostility, and this turned Aztec life into one of near-perpetual war and constant fear.
However, the aggression of their neighbors, who picked fights with more than just the Mexica, wound up presenting them with an opportunity to seize more power for themselves and improve their standing in the Valley of Mexico.
This was because — fortunately for the Aztecs — the city most interested in seeing their demise was also the enemy of several other powerful cities in the region, setting the stage for a productive alliance that would allow the Mexica to transform Tenochtitlan from a growing, prosperous city into the capital of a vast and wealthy empire.
The Triple Alliance
In 1426 (a date known by deciphering the Aztec calendar), war threatened the people of Tenochtitlan. The Tepanecs — an ethnic group that had settled mostly on the western shores of Lake Texcoco — had been the dominant group in the region for the previous two centuries, although their grip on power did not create anything that resembled an empire. This was because power remained very decentralized, and the Tepanecs’ ability to exact tribute was nearly always contested — making payments difficult to enforce.
Still, they saw themselves as the leaders, and were therefore threatened by the ascendancy of Tenochtitlan. So, they placed a blockade on the city to slow the flow of goods on and off the island, a power move that would put the Aztecs in a difficult position (Carrasco, 1994).
Unwilling to submit to the tributary demands, the Aztecs sought to fight, but the Tepanecs were powerful at the time, meaning they could not be defeated unless the Mexica had the help of other cities.
Under the leadership of Itzcoatl, the king of Tenochtitlan, the Aztecs reached out to the Acolhua people of the nearby city Texcoco, as well as the people of Tlacopan — another powerful city in the region that was also struggling to fight off the Tepanecs and their demands, and who were ripe for a rebellion against the region’s current hegemon.
The deal was struck in 1428, and the three cities waged war against the Tepanecs. The combined strength of them led to a quick victory that removed their enemy as the dominant force in the region, opening the door for a new power to emerge (1994).
The Beginning of an Empire
The creation of the Triple Alliance in 1428 marks the beginning of what we now understand as the Aztec Empire. It was formed on the basis of military cooperation, but the three parties also intended to help one another grow economically. From sources, detailed by Carrasco (1994), we learn that the Triple Alliance had a few key provisions, such as:
- No member was to wage war against another member.
- All members would support one another in wars of conquest and expansion.
- Taxes and tributes would be shared.
- The capital city of the alliance was to be Tenochtitlan.
- Nobles and dignitaries from all three cities would work together to choose a leader.
Based on this, it’s natural to think that we’ve been seeing things wrong all along. It wasn’t an “Aztec” Empire, but rather a “Texcoco, Tlacopan, and Tenochtitlan” Empire.
This is true, to an extent. The Mexica relied on the power of their allies in the initial stages of the alliance, but Tenochtitlan was by far the most powerful city of the three. By choosing it to be the capital of the newly-formed political entity, the tlatoani — the leader or king; “the one who speaks” — of Mexico-Tenochtitlan was particularly powerful.
Izcoatl, the king of Tenochtitlan during the war with the Tepanecs, was chosen by the nobles of the three cities involved in the alliance to be the first tlatoque — the leader of the Triple Alliance and the de facto ruler of the Aztec Empire.
However, the real architect of the Alliance was a man named Tlacaelel, the son of Huitzilihuiti, Izcoatl’s half-brother (Schroder, 2016).
He was an important advisor to the rulers of Tenochtitlan and the man behind many of the things that led to the eventual formation of the Aztec Empire. Due to his contributions, he was offered the kingship multiple times, but always refused, famously quoted as saying “What greater dominion can I have than what I hold and have already held?” (Davies, 1987)
Over time, the alliance would become much less prominent and the leaders of Tenochtitlan would assume more control over the affairs of the empire — a transition that began early, during the reign of Izcoatl, the first emperor.
Eventually, Tlacopan and Texcoco’s prominence in the Alliance waned, and for that reason, the Empire of the Triple Alliance is now remembered mainly as the Aztec Empire.
The Aztec Emperors
The history of the Aztec Empire follows the path of the Aztec Emperors, who were at first seen more as the leaders of the Triple Alliance. But as their power grew, so did their influence — and it would be their decisions, their vision, their triumphs, and their follies that would determine the fate of the Aztec people.
In total, there were seven Aztec Emperors who ruled from 1427 C.E./A.D. to 1521 C.E./A.D — two years after the Spanish arrived and shook the foundations of the Aztec world to complete collapse.
Some of these leaders stand out as true visionaries who helped make the Aztec imperial vision a reality, whereas others did little during their time atop the ancient world to remain salient in the memories we have of this once great civilization.
Izcoatl (1428 C.E. – 1440 C.E.)
Izcoatl became the tlatoani of Tenochtitlan in 1427, after the death of his nephew, Chimalpopca, who was the son of his half-brother, Huitzlihuiti.
Izcoatl and Huitzlihuiti were sons of the first tlatoani of the Mexica, Acamapichtli, though they did not have the same mother. Polygamy was a common practice amongst the Aztec nobility at the time, and the status of one’s mother had a big impact on their chances in life.
As a result, Izcoatl had been passed over for the throne when his father died, and then again when his half-brother died (Novillo, 2006). But when Chimalpopca died after just ten years of tumultuous rule, Izcoatl was given the nod to assume the Aztec throne, and — unlike previous Aztec leaders — he had the support of the Triple Alliance, making great things possible.
As the king of Tenochtitlan who made the Triple Alliance possible, Izcoatl was appointed the tlatoque — the leader of the group; the first emperor of the Aztec Empire.
Upon securing victory over the Tepanecs — the region’s previous hegemon — Izcoatl could lay claim to the systems of tribute they had established throughout Mexico. But this was no guarantee; claiming something does not grant the right to it.
So, to assert and consolidate his power, and to establish a true empire, Iztcoatl would need to wage war on cities in lands further afield.
This had been the case before the Triple Alliance, but Aztec rulers were considerably less effective operating on their own against the more powerful Tepanec rulers. However — as they had proven when fighting the Tepanecs — when their strength combined with that of Texcoco and Tlaclopan, the Aztecs were far more formidable and could defeat more powerful armies than they had been able to previously.
Upon assuming the Aztec throne, Izcoatl set out to establish himself — and, by extension, the city of Mexico-Tenochtitlan — as the primary receiver of tribute in Central Mexico. The wars he fought early on in his reign as emperor throughout the 1430s demanded and received tribute from the nearby cities of Chalco, Xochimilco, Cuitláhuac, and Coyoacán.
To put this in context, Coyoacán is now a subdistrict of Mexico City and lies just eight miles (12 kilometers) south of the ancient imperial center of the Aztec Empire: the Templo Mayor (“The Great Temple”).
Conquering lands so close to the capital might seem like a small feat, but it’s important to remember that Tenochtitlan was on an island — eight miles would have felt like a world apart. Plus, during this time, each city was ruled by its own king; demanding tribute required the king to submit to the Aztecs, reducing their power. Convincing them to do this was no easy task, and it required the might of the Triple Alliance army to do it.
However, with these nearby territories now vassals of the Aztec Empire, Izcoatl began to look even further south, bringing war to Cuauhnāhuac — the ancient name for the modern-day city of Cuernavaca — conquering it and other nearby cities by 1439.
Adding these cities to the tribute system was so important because they were at a much lower altitude than the Aztec capital city and were much more agriculturally productive. Tribute demands would include staples, such as corn, as well as other luxuries, such as cacao.
In the twelve years since being named the leader of the empire, Izcoatl had dramatically expanded the Aztec sphere of influence from not much more than the island on which Tenochtitlan had been built to the entire Valley of Mexico, plus all of the lands far to the south.
Future emperors would build on and consolidate his gains, helping make the empire one of the most dominant in ancient history.
Monopolizing Aztec Culture
While Izcoatl is known best for initiating the Triple Alliance and bringing the first meaningful territorial gains in Aztec history, he is also responsible for the formation of a more unified Aztec culture — using means that show us how humanity has simultaneously changed so much and so little throughout the years.
Soon after assuming his position, Itzcoatl — under the direct guidance of his primary advisor, Tlacael — initiated a mass book burning in all the cities and settlements over which he could reasonably claim control. He had paintings and other religious and cultural artifacts destroyed; a move that was designed to help bring people over to worship the god Huitzilopochtli, the sun god revered by the Mexica, as the god of war and conquest.
(Book burnings aren’t something most modern governments could get away with, but it’s interesting to note how even in 15th-century Aztec society, leaders recognized the importance of controlling information in order to secure power.)
In addition, Itzcoatl — whose bloodline had been called into question by some — sought to destroy any proof of his lineage so that he could begin to construct his own ancestral narrative and further establish himself atop the Aztec polity (Freda, 2006).
At the same time, Tlacael began using religion and military power to spread a narrative of the Aztecs as a chosen race, a people that needed to expand their control through conquest. And with such a leader, a new era of Aztec civilization was born.
Death and Succession
Despite his success in acquiring and consolidating his power, Itzcoatl died in 1440 C.E./A.D., just twelve years after he became emperor (1428 C.E./A.D.). Before his death, he had arranged for his nephew, Moctezuma Ilhuicamina — usually known as Moctezuma I — to become the next tlatoani.
The decision was made to not pass rule onto Izcoatl’s son as a way of healing the relationship between the two branches of the family that traced its roots back to the first Mexica king, Acamapichtli — with one led by Izcoatl and the other by his half-brother, Huitzlihuiti (Novillo, 2006).
Izcoatl agreed to this deal, and it was also fixed that Izcoatl’s son and Moctezuma I’s daughter would have a child and that son would be the successor to Moctezuma I, bringing together both sides of the Mexica’s original royal family and avoiding any potential secession crisis that might occur upon Iztcoatl’s death.
Motecuhzoma I (1440 C.E. – 1468 C.E.)
Motecuhzoma I — also known as Moctezuma or Montezuma I — has the most famous name of all the Aztec emperors, but it’s actually remembered because of his grandson, Moctezuma II.
However, the original Montezuma is more than deserving of this immortalized name, if not even more so, due to his significant contributions to the growth and expansion of the Aztec Empire — something that draws a parallel to his grandson, Montezuma II, who is most famous for later presiding over that empire’s collapse.
His ascension came about with the death of Izcoatl, but he took over an empire that was very much on the rise. The deal made to put him on the throne was done to quell any internal tension, and with the Aztec sphere of influence growing, Motecuhzoma I was in the perfect position to expand his empire. But while the scene was certainly set, his time as ruler would not be without its challenges, the very same ones rules or powerful and wealthy empires have had to deal with since the beginning of time.
Consolidating the Empire Inside and Out
One of the biggest tasks facing Moctezuma I, when he took control of Tenochtitlan and the Triple Alliance, was securing the gains made by his uncle, Izcoatl. To do this, Moctezuma I did something previous Aztec kings had not — he installed his own people to oversee the collection of tribute in surrounding cities (Smith, 1984).
Up until the reign of Moctezuma I, Aztec rulers had allowed kings of conquered cities to remain in power, so long as they provided tribute. But this was a notoriously faulty system; over time, kings would grow tired of paying over wealth and would slack in collecting it, forcing the Aztecs to respond by bringing warfare upon those who dissented. This was costly, and in turn made it even more difficult to extract tribute.
(Even people living hundreds of years ago weren’t particularly fond of being forced to choose between extractive tribute payments or all-out war.)
To combat this, Moctezuma I sent tax collectors and other high-ranking members of the Tenochtitlan elite to surrounding cities and towns, so as to oversee the administration of the empire.
This became an opportunity for members of the nobility to improve their position within Aztec society, and it also set the stage for the development of what would effectively be tributary provinces — a form of administrative organization never before seen in Mesoamerican society.
On top of this, under Moctezuma I, social classes became more pronounced thanks to a code of laws imposed on territories connected to Tenochtitlan. It outlined laws about property ownership and social standing, restricting things such as copulating between the nobility and “regular” folk (Davies, 1987).
During his time as emperor, he committed resources to improve on the spiritual revolution his uncle had initiated and that Tlacael had made a central policy of the state. He burned all the books, paintings, and relics that did not have Huitzilopochtli — the god of the sun and war — as the primary deity.
Moctezuma’s single biggest contribution to Aztec society, however, was breaking ground on the Templo Mayor, the massive pyramid temple that sat at the heart of Tenochtitlan and would later inspire awe in the arriving Spaniards.
The site later became the beating heart of Mexico City, although, sadly, the temple no longer remains. Moctezuma I also used the rather large force at his disposal to quell any rebellions in lands the Aztecs claimed, and shortly after coming to power, he began preparations for a conquest campaign of his own.
However, a lot of his efforts were halted when a drought hit central Mexico around 1450, decimating the region’s food supplies and making it difficult for the civilization to grow (Smith, 1948). It wouldn’t be until 1458 that Moctezuma I would be able to cast his gaze beyond his borders and expand the reaches of the Aztec Empire.
The Flower Wars
After the drought hit the region, agriculture dwindled and the Aztecs were starving. Dying, they looked to the heavens and came to the conclusion that they were suffering because they had failed to provide the gods with the appropriate amount of blood needed to keep the world going.
Mainstream Aztec mythology at the time discussed the need to feed the gods with blood to keep the sun rising each day. The dark times that had descended upon them could therefore only be lifted by ensuring that the gods had all the blood they needed, giving leadership a perfect justification for conflict — the collection of victims for sacrifice, to please the gods and end the drought.
Using this philosophy, Moctezuma I — possibly under the guidance of Tlacael — decided to wage war against the cities in the region surrounding Tenochtitlan for the sole purpose of collecting prisoners that could be sacrificed to the gods, as well as to provide some combat training for the Aztec warriors.
These wars, which had no political or diplomatic goal, became known as the Flower Wars, or the “War of Flowers” — a term later used by Montezuma II to describe these conflicts when asked by the Spanish staying in Tenochtitlan in 1520.
This gave the Aztecs “control” over lands in the modern-day states of Tlaxcala and Puebla, which stretched all the way to the Gulf of Mexico at the time. Interestingly, the Aztecs never officially conquered these lands, but the war served its purpose in that it kept people living in fear, which kept them from dissenting.
The many Flower Wars fought first under Montezuma I brought many cities and kingdoms under Aztec imperial control, but they did little to win over the will of the people — not really surprising, considering many were forced to watch as their kin had their beating hearts removed with surgical precision by Aztec priests.
Their skulls were then hung in front of the Templo Mayor, where they served as a reminder of rebirth (for the Aztecs) and of the threat that the unconquered, who defied the Aztecs, were subjected to.
Many modern scholars believe that some descriptions of these rituals may have been exaggerated, and there is debate regarding the nature and purpose of these Flower Wars — especially since most of what is known comes from the Spanish, who sought to use the “barbaric” ways of life practiced by the Azecs as moral justification for conquering them.
But no matter how these sacrifices were done, the result was the same: widespread discontent from the people. And this is why, when the Spanish came knocking in 1519, they were so easily able to recruit locals to help in conquering the Aztecs.
Expanding the Empire
The Flower War was only partly about territorial expansion, but even so, the victories earned by Moctezuma I and the Aztecs during these conflicts brought more territory into their sphere. However, in his quest to ensure tribute payments and find more prisoners to sacrifice, Moctezuma wasn’t satisfied with picking fights only with his neighbors. He had his eyes further afield.
By 1458, the Mexica had recovered from the devastation brought on by the prolonged drought, and Moctezuma I felt confident enough about his own position to begin the conquest of new territories and expand the empire.
To do this, he continued along the path set forth by Izcoatl — working his way first west, through the Toluca Valley, then south, out of central Mexico and towards the largely Mixtec and Zapotec peoples that inhabited the modern-day regions of Morelos and Oaxaca.
Death and Succession
As the second ruler of the empire based in Tenochtitlan, Moctezuma I helped lay the foundation for what would become a golden age for the Aztec civilization. However, his impact on the course of Aztec imperial history is even more profound.
By initiating and waging the Flower War, Moctezuma I temporarily expanded Aztec influence in the region at the expense of long-term peace; few cities would submit to the Mexica willingly, and many were simply waiting for a stronger opponent to emerge — one they could assist in challenging and defeating the Aztecs in exchange for their freedom and independence.
Going forward, this would mean more and more conflict for the Aztecs and their people, which would bring their armies further from home, and make them more enemies — something that would hurt them greatly when strange-looking men with white skin landed in Mexico in 1519 C.E./A.D., deciding to lay claim to all of the Mexica’s lands as subjects of the Queen of Spain and God.
The same deal that put Moctezuma I on the throne stipulated that the next ruler of the Aztec Empire be one of the children of his daughter and Izcoatl’s son. These two were cousins, but that was the point — a child born to these parents would have the blood of both Izcoatl and Huitzlihuiti, the two sons of Acamapichtli, the first Aztec king (Novillo, 2006).
In 1469, following the death of Moctezuma I, Axayactl — the grandson of both Izcoatl and Huitzlihuiti, and a prominent military leader who had won many battles during Moctezuma I’s wars of conquest — was chosen to be the third leader of the Aztec Empire.
Axayacatl (1469 C.E. – 1481 C.E.)
Axayactl was just nineteen years old when he assumed control over Tenochtitlan and the Triple Alliance, inheriting an empire that was very much on the rise.
The territorial gains made by his father, Moctezuma I, had expanded the Aztec sphere of influence across nearly all of Central Mexico, administrative reform — the use of Aztec nobility to rule directly over conquered cities and kingdoms — made it easier to secure power, and the Aztec warriors, who were highly-trained and notoriously lethal, had become amongst the most feared in all of Mesoamerica.
However, after taking control of the empire, Axayactl was forced to deal mainly with internal problems. Perhaps the most significant of these occurred in 1473 C.E./A.D. — just four years after ascending to the throne — when a dispute erupted with Tlatelolco, the sister city to Tenochtitlan that was built on the same stretch of land as the great Aztec capital.
The cause of this dispute remains unclear, but it led to fighting, and the Aztec army — much stronger than that of Tlatelolco — secured victory, sacking the city under Axayactl’s command (Smith, 1984).
Axayactl oversaw very little territorial expansion during his time as the Aztec ruler; most of the rest of his reign was spent securing the trade routes that were established across the empire as the Mexica expanded their sphere of influence.
Commerce, next to warfare, was the glue that held everything together, but this was often contested on the outskirts of Aztec land — other kingdoms controlled the trade and the taxes that came from it. Then, in 1481 C.E./A.D. — just twelve years after taking control of the empire, and at the young age of thirty-one — Axayactl fell violently ill and died suddenly, opening the door for another leader to assume the position of tlatoque (1948).
Tizoc (1481 C.E. – 1486 C.E.)
After the death of Axayacatl, his brother, Tizoc, took the throne in 1481 where he didn’t remain for long, accomplishing next to nothing for the empire. The opposite, actually — his grip on power in already conquered territories weakened due to his ineffectiveness as a military and political leader (Davies, 1987).
In 1486, just five years after being named the tlatoani of Tenochtitlan, Tizoc died. Most historians at least entertain — if not outright accept — that he was assassinated due to his failures, although this has never been definitely proven (Hassig, 2006).
In terms of growth and expansion, the reigns of Tizoc and his brother, Axayactl, were a proverbial calm before the storm. The next two emperors would reenergize Aztec civilization and bring it towards its finest moments as the leaders in central Mexico.
Ahuitzotl (1486 C.E. – 1502 C.E.)
Another son of Moctezuma I, Ahuitzotl, took over for his brother when he died, and his ascension to the throne signaled a turn of events in the course of Aztec history.
To begin, Ahuitzotl — upon assuming the role of tlatoani — changed his title to huehueytlaotani, which translates to “Supreme King” (Smith, 1984).
This was a symbol of the consolidation of power that had left the Mexica as the primary power in the Triple Alliance; it had been a development since the beginning of the cooperation, but as the empire expanded, so too did Tenochtitlan’s influence.
Bringing the Empire to New Heights
Using his position as “Supreme King,” Ahuitzotl set out on yet another military expansion in the hopes of growing the empire, fostering trade, and acquiring more victims for human sacrifice.
His wars brought him further south of the Aztec capital than any previous emperor had managed to go. He was able to conquer the Oaxaca Valley and Soconusco coast of Southern Mexico, with additional conquests bringing Aztec influence into what are now the western parts of Guatemala and El Salvador (Novillo, 2006).
These last two regions were valuable sources of luxury goods such as cacao beans and feathers, both of which were used heavily by the increasingly powerful Aztec nobility. Such material desires often served as the motivation for Aztec conquest, and emperors tended to look towards Southern rather than Northern Mexico for their spoils — as it offered the elite what they needed while also being much closer.
Had the empire not fallen with the arrival of the Spanish, perhaps it would have eventually expanded further towards the valuable territories in the north. But success to the south by virtually every Aztec emperor kept their ambitions focused.
All in all, the territory controlled by, or giving tribute to, the Aztecs more than doubled under Ahuitzotl, making him far and away the most successful military commander in the history of the empire.
Cultural Achievements Under Ahuitzotl
Although he’s mostly known for his military victories and conquest, Ahuitzotl also did a number of things while he ruled that helped advance Aztec civilization and turn it into a household name in ancient history.
Perhaps the most famous of all of these was the expansion of the Templo Mayor, the main religious building in Tenochtitlan that was the center of the city and the entire empire. It was this temple, and surrounding plaza, that was partly responsible for the awe the Spaniards felt when they encountered people in what they called the “New World.”
It was also, in part, this grandeur that aided them in deciding to move against the Aztec people, attempting to crumble their empire and claim their lands for Spain and God — something that was very much on the horizon when Ahuitzotl died in 1502 C.E. and the Aztec throne went to a man named Moctezuma Xocoyotzin, or Moctezuma II; also known simply as “Montezuma.”
Spanish Conquest and the End of the Empire
When Montezuma II took the Aztec throne in 1502, the empire was on the rise. As the son of Axayacatl, he had spent most of his life watching his uncles rule; but the time had finally come for him to step up and take control over his people.
Just twenty-six when he became “Supreme King,” Montezuma had his eyes set on expanding the empire and carrying his civilization into a new era of prosperity. However, while he was well on his way towards making this his legacy during the first seventeen years of his rule, the larger forces of history were working against him.
The world had become smaller as Europeans — starting with Christopher Columbus in 1492 C.E./A.D. — made contact with and were beginning to explore what they called the “New World.” And they didn’t always have friendship on their minds when they came into contact with existing cultures and civilizations, to say the least. This caused a dramatic shift in the history of the Aztec Empire — one that ultimately led to its demise.
Moctezuma Xocoyotzin (1502 C.E. – 1521 C.E.)
Upon becoming the ruler of the Aztecs in 1502, Montezuma immediately set out to do the two things almost all new emperors must do: consolidate the gains of his predecessor, while also claiming new lands for the empire.
During his rule, Montezuma was able to make further gains into the lands of the Zapoteca and Mixteca people — those who lived in the regions to the south and the east of Tenochtitlan. His military victories expanded the Aztec Empire to its largest point, but he did not add as much territory to it as his predecessor had, or even as much as earlier emperors such as Izcoatl.
All in all, the lands controlled by the Aztecs included some 4 million people, with Tenochtitlan alone having around 250,000 inhabitants — a figure that would have placed it amongst the largest cities in the world at the time (Burkholder and Johnson, 2008).
However, under Montezuma, the Aztec Empire was undergoing considerable change. In order to consolidate his power and reduce the influence of the many different interests of the ruling class, he began to restructure the nobility.
In many cases, this meant simply stripping families of their titles. He also promoted the status of many of his own kin — he put his brother in line for the throne, and appears to have attempted to place all the power of the empire and of the Triple Alliance into his family.
The Spanish, Encountered
After a successful seventeen years as implementer of the Aztec imperial strategies, everything changed in 1519 C.E./A.D.
A group of Spanish explorers led by a man named Hernán Cortés — following the whispers of the existence of a great, gold-rich civilization — made landfall on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, near what would soon be the site of the city of Veracruz.
Montezuma had been aware of Europeans as early as 1517 C.E./A.D — word had made it to him through trade networks of strange, white-skinned men sailing and exploring around the Caribbean and its many islands and coasts. In response, he commanded, throughout the empire, that he was to be notified if any of these people were spotted on or near Aztec lands (Dias del Castillo, 1963).
This message finally came two years later, and upon hearing of these newcomers — who spoke in a strange tongue, were of unnaturally pale complexions, and who carried strange, dangerous-looking sticks that could be made to unleash fire with just a few small movements — he sent messengers bearing gifts.
It’s possible Montezuma may have thought these people to be gods, as one Aztec legend spoke of the return of the feathered serpent god, Quetzalcoatl, who could also take the form of a white-skinned man with a beard. But it’s just as likely he saw them as a threat, and wanted to mitigate it early on.
But Montezuma was surprisingly welcoming of these strangers, despite the fact that it was probably obvious right away they had hostile intentions — suggesting something else was motivating the ruler of the empire.
After this first encounter, the Spanish continued their journey inland, and as they did, they encountered more and more people. This experience allowed them to see first-hand the discontent that people felt with life under Aztec rule. The Spaniards began making friends, the most important of which was Tlaxcala — a powerful city that the Aztecs had never managed to subjugate and who were eager to topple their biggest rivals from their position of power (Diaz del Castillo, 1963).
Rebellion often broke out in cities near where the Spanish had visited, and this probably should have been a sign to Montezuma pointing towards the true intentions of these people. Yet he continued to send gifts to the Spanish as they made their way towards Tenochtitlan, and eventually welcomed Cortés into the city when the man made it into Central Mexico.
The Fighting Begins
Cortés and his men were welcomed into the city by Montezuma as guests of honor. After meeting and exchanging gifts at the end of one of the great causeways connecting the island upon which Tenochtitlan was built to the shores of Lake Texcoco, the Spaniards were invited to stay in Montezuma’s palace.
They wound up staying there for several months, and while things started out okay, tensions soon began to rise. The Spaniards took Montezuma’s generosity and used it to grab control, putting the Aztec leader under what amounted to house arrest and taking control of the city.
Powerful members of Montezuma’s family apparently became upset with this and began insisting the Spanish leave, which they refused to do. Then, in late May of 1520, the Aztecs were celebrating a religious holiday when Spanish soldiers opened fire on their defenseless hosts, killing several people — including nobles — inside the main temple of the Aztec capital.
Fighting broke out between the two sides in an event that became known as “The Massacre in the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan.”
The Spanish claimed to have intervened in the ceremony to prevent a human sacrifice — a practice they abhorred and used as their primary motivation for taking control of the Mexica government, seeing themselves as a civilizing force bringing peace to a warring people (Diaz del Castillo, 1963).
But this was just a ruse — what they really wanted was a reason to attack and begin their conquest of the Aztecs.
You see, Cortés and his conquistador pals hadn’t landed in Mexico to make friends. They’d heard rumors of the empire’s extravagant wealth, and as the first European nation to make landfall in the Americas, they were eager to establish a large empire that they could use to flex their muscles in Europe. Their primary target was gold and silver, which they wanted not only for themselves but also to fund said empire.
Spaniards alive at the time claimed they were doing God’s work, but history has revealed their motives, reminding us how lust and greed were responsible for the destruction of countless civilizations that had been thousands of years in the making.
During the chaos that ensued after the Spanish attacked the Aztec’s religious ceremony, Montezuma was killed, the circumstances of which still remain unclear (Collins, 1999). However, no matter how it happened, the fact remains that the Spanish had killed the Aztec emperor.
Peace could no longer be feigned; it was time to fight.
During this time, Cortés was not in Tenochtitlan. He had left to fight the man sent to arrest him for disobeying orders and invading Mexico. (Back in those days, if you didn’t agree with the charges against you, it seems all you had to do was complete the simple task of killing the man sent to arrest you. Problem solved!)
He returned victorious from one battle — the one fought against the official sent to arrest him — right into the midst of another, the one being waged in Tenochtitlan between his men and the Mexica.
Yet, while the Spaniards possessed much better weapons — as in guns and steel swords versus bows and spears — they were isolated inside the enemy’s capital and were seriously outnumbered. Cortés knew he needed to get his men out so that they could regroup and launch a proper attack.
On the night of June 30, 1520 C.E./A.D., the Spaniards — thinking one of the causeways connecting Tenochtitlan to the mainland was left unguarded — started making their way out of the city, but they were discovered and attacked. Aztec warriors came from every direction, and while exact numbers remain disputed, most of the Spanish were slaughtered (Diaz del Castillo, 1963).
Cortés referred to the events of that evening as Noche Triste — meaning “sad night.” Fighting continued as the Spanish made their way around Lake Texcoco; they were weakened even more, providing the stark reality that conquering this great empire would be no small feat.
Cuauhtémoc (1520 C.E./A.D. – 1521 C.E./A.D.)
After Montezuma’s death, and after the Spanish had been driven from the city, the remaining Aztec nobility — those who hadn’t already been slaughtered — voted Cuitláhuac, Montezuma’s brother, to become the next emperor.
His rule lasted only 80 days, and his death, which was brought on suddenly by the smallpox virus raging throughout the Aztec capital, was a harbinger of things to come. The nobility, now facing extremely limited choices since their ranks had been decimated by both disease and Spanish hostility, chose their next emperor — Cuauhtémoc — who took the throne towards the end of 1520 C.E./A.D.
It took Cortés more than a year after Noche Triste to gather the strength he needed to take Tenochtitlan, and he began laying siege to it starting in early 1521 C.E./A.D. Cuauhtémoc sent word to the surrounding cities to come and help defend the capital, but he received few responses — most had abandoned the Aztecs in hopes of freeing themselves from what they saw as oppressive rule.
Alone and dying of disease, the Aztecs didn’t stand much of a chance against Cortés, who was marching towards Tenochtitlan with several thousand Spanish soldiers and some 40,000 warriors from nearby cities — mainly Tlaxcala.
When the Spanish arrived at the Aztec capital, they immediately began to lay siege to the city, cutting off the causeways and firing projectiles onto the island from afar.
The size of the attacking force, and the isolated position of the Aztecs, made defeat inevitable. But the Mexica refused to surrender; Cortés reportedly made several attempts to end the siege with diplomacy so as to keep the city intact, but Cuauhtémoc and his nobles refused.
Eventually, the city’s defenses broke; Cuauhtémoc was captured on August 13, 1521 C.E./A.D., and with that, the Spanish claimed control of one of the most important cities of the ancient world.
Most of the buildings had been destroyed during the siege, and most of the residents of the city who hadn’t died during the attack or from smallpox were massacred by the Tlaxcalans. The Spanish replaced all the Aztec religious idols with Christian ones and closed the Templo Mayor to human sacrifice.
Standing there, at the center of a Tenochtitlan in ruins — a city that once had more than 300,000 inhabitants, but that now withered in the face of extinction due to the Spanish army (and the diseases carried by the soldiers) — Cortés was a conqueror. In that moment, he likely felt on top of the world, secure in the thought that his name would be read for centuries, next to the likes of Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and Ghengis Khan.
Little did he know, history would take a different stance.
The Aztec Empire After Cortés
The fall of Tenochtitlan brought the Aztec Empire to the ground. Nearly all of the Mexicas’ allies had either defected to the Spanish and the Tlaxcalans, or had, themselves, been defeated.
The fall of the capital meant that, within just two years of making contact with the Spanish, the Aztec Empire had collapsed and had become part of Spain’s colonial holdings in the Americas — a territory collectively known as New Spain.
Tenochtitlan was renamed Ciudad de México — Mexico City — and would experience a new type of transformation as the center of a vast colonial empire.
To help fund its imperial desires, Spain set out to use its lands in the New World to get rich. They built on the already existing systems of tribute and tax, and forced labor to extract wealth from what used to be the Aztec Empire — in the process, exacerbating what was already a vastly unequal social structure.
Natives were forced to learn Spanish and convert to Catholicism, and they were given few chances to improve their standing in society. Most of the wealth flowed to White Spaniards who had connections with Spain (Burkholder and Johnson, 2008).
Over time, a class of Spaniards born in Mexico emerged and rebelled against the Spanish Crown for denying them certain privileges, winning Mexico its independence in 1810. But, as far as indigenous communities were concerned, the society they created was effectively the same one as that which had existed under the Spanish.
The only real difference was that the wealthy criollo (those born in Mexico to Spanish parents who were at the top of society, below only the Spaniards born in Spain, the españoles) no longer had to answer to the Spanish Crown. For everyone else, it was business as usual.
To this day, indigenous communities in Mexico are marginalized. There are 68 different indigenous languages recognized by the government, which include Nahuatl — the language of the Aztec Empire. This is the legacy of Spain’s rule in Mexico, which only began once it had conquered the Aztec civilization; one of the mightiest to have ever existed on either American continent.
However, while Mexico was forced to adapt to Spanish culture and customs, the people remained connected to their pre-Hispanic roots. Today, the Mexican flag features an eagle and a feathered serpent atop a prickly-pear cactus — the symbol of Tenochtitlan and an homage to one of the greatest and most impactful civilizations of the ancient age.
Although this symbol — Mexico’s official coat of arms — wasn’t added until the 19th century, it has forever been a part of Mexican identity, and it serves as a reminder that one cannot understand the Mexico of today without understanding the Aztec empire, its example of the “Old World,” and its near-instant disappearance at the hands of Spaniards operating under the delusion that their greed and lust was magnanimous and divine.
It serves as a reminder that we can’t truly understand our modern world without grasping the impacts of nearly five centuries of European imperialism and colonization, a transformation we now understand as globalization.
The prosperity and success of the Aztec civilization depended on two things: warfare and trade.
Successful military campaigns brought more wealth into the empire, largely because it opened new trade routes. It provided the merchants of Tenochtitlan the opportunity to accumulate wealth through the sale of the goods, and to acquire great luxuries that would turn the Aztec people into the envy of all of Mexico.
The markets in Tenochtitlan were famous — not only throughout Central Mexico but also up into Northern Mexico and the present-day United States — as being places where one could find all sorts of goods and riches. However, they were closely regulated by the nobility, and this was a practice carried out in most of the cities controlled by the empire; Aztec officials would see that the tribute demands of the king were met and that all taxes were paid.
This tight control over commerce throughout the empire helped ensure the flow of goods that kept the nobles and ruling classes in Tenochtitlan happy, a rapidly-growing city that would have more than a quarter of a million inhabitants by the time Cortés arrived on the Mexican coast.
However, to maintain control of these markets, and to expand the amount and type of goods flowing into the empire, militarism was also an essential part of Aztec society — the Aztec warriors that went out to conquer the people in Central Mexico and beyond were paving the way for merchants to make new contacts and bring more wealth into the civilization.
War also had meaning in Aztec religion and spiritual life. Their patron god, Huitzilopochtli, was the sun god and also the god of war. Rulers justified many of their wars by invoking the will of their god, who needed blood — the blood of enemies — to survive.
When the Aztecs went to war, emperors could call upon all adult males who were considered part of their sphere to join the army, and the punishment for refusing was death. This, along with the alliances it had with other cities, gave Tenochtitlan the strength it need to wage its wars.
All of this conflict obviously created a lot of animosity towards the Aztecs from the people they ruled — an anger the Spanish would exploit to their advantage as they worked to defeat and conquer the empire.
The parts of Aztec life that weren’t dominated by warfare and religion were spent working, either in the fields or in some sort of artisanry. The vast majority of the people living under Aztec rule had no say in the matters of government and were meant to remain separate from the nobility, the social class just under the rulers of the empire — who, combined, enjoyed nearly all the fruits of Aztec prosperity.
Religion in the Aztec Empire
As is the case with most ancient civilizations, the Aztecs had a strong religious tradition that justified their actions and very much defined who they were.
As mentioned, of the many Aztec gods, the primordial deity of the Aztec Empire was Huitzilopochtli, the sun god, but this wasn’t always the case. The Aztec people celebrated many different gods, and when the Triple Alliance was formed, Aztec emperors — starting with Izcoatl — followed the guidance of Tlacaelel, starting to promote Huitzilopochtli as both the sun god and the god of war, as the focus of Aztec religion.
In addition to promoting Huitzilopochtli, the emperors funded what amounted to ancient propaganda campaigns — done mainly to justify to the people the near constant warfare conducted by the emperors — that espoused the glorious destiny of the Aztec people, as well as the need for blood to keep their god happy and the empire prosperous.
The religious sacrifice of people did play an important role in the Aztec religious worldview, largely because the Aztec creation story involves Quetzalcóatl, the feathered serpent god, sprinkling his blood on dry bones to create life as we know it. The blood the Aztecs gave, then, was to help continue life here on Earth.
Quetzalcóatl was one of the major gods of Aztec religion. His depiction as a feathered serpent draws from many different Mesoamerican cultures, but in Aztec culture, he was celebrated as the god of wind, air, and the sky.
The next major Aztec god was Tlaloc, the rain god. He was the one who brought the water they needed to drink, grow crops, and flourish, and so naturally was one of the most important deities in Aztec religion.
Many cities in the Aztec Empire had Tlaloc as their patron deity, although they also likely would have recognized the power and might of Huitzilopochtli.
Overall, there are hundreds of different gods that were worshipped by the people of the Aztec Empire, the majority of which don’t have much to do with one another — developed as a part of an individual culture that remained connected to the Aztecs through trade and tribute.
Religion also helped fuel trade, as religious ceremonies — especially those involving the nobility — required gems, stones, beads, feathers, and other artifacts, which had to come from the far reaches of the empire to be available in the markets of Tenochtitlan.
The Spanish were horrified by Aztec religion, particularly its use of human sacrifice, and used this as a justification for their conquest. The Massacre in the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan reportedly took place because Spaniards intervened in a religious festival to prevent a sacrifice from occurring, which started the fighting and initiated the beginning of the end for the Aztecs.
Once victorious, the Spanish set out to eliminate the religious practices of those living in Mexico at the time and replace them with Catholic ones. And considering Mexico has one of the largest Catholic populations in the world, it seems they may have been successful in this pursuit.
Life After the Aztecs
After the fall of Tenochtitlan, the Spanish began the process of colonizing the lands they had acquired. Tenochtitlan was all but destroyed so the Spanish set to rebuild it, and its replacement, Mexico City, eventually became one of the most important cities and the capital of New Spain — the conglomerate made up of Spanish colonies in the Americas that stretched from Northern Mexico and the United States, through Central America, and all the way south to the tip of Argentina and Chile.
The Spanish ruled these lands until the 19th century, and life under imperial domination was rough.
A strict social order was put in place that kept wealth concentrated in the hands of the elite, particularly those who had strong connections to Spain. Indigenous people were forced into labor and kept from accessing anything other than a Catholic education, helping contribute to poverty and social unrest.
But, as the colonial era progressed and Spain came to control more land in the Americas than any other European nation, the gold and silver they had discovered soon wasn’t enough to fund their massive empire, plunging the Spanish Crown into debt.
In 1808, seizing this opportunity, Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Spain and took Madrid, forcing Charles IV of Spain to abdicate and placing his brother, Joseph, on the throne.
The wealthy criollos began to speak of independence as they sought to protect their property and status, and eventually declared themselves a sovereign nation. After several years of war with the United States, the country of Mexico was born in 1810.
Both the name of the new nation, and its flag, were established to reinforce the connection with the new nation and its Aztec roots.
The Spanish may have wiped one of the world’s most powerful empires off the face of the Earth in just two short years, but the people who remained would never forget what life was like before they were invaded by gun-carrying, smallpox bearing Europeans who had their sights set on world domination.
For those of us alive now, Aztec history is a remarkable testament to the growth of civilization, and a reminder of how much our world has changed since 1492, when Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
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