Saturday, March 10, 2018

History of the Aztecs

The Nahuatl-speaking people of Aztecs, also called Tenochca or Mexica, overcame challenges that let them built one of the greatest Empire in Mesoamerica. 
Conquest of Tenochtitlan

Foundation of the Aztec Civilization

According to legend, the Aztecs came from Atzlan or White Land (which became the root word of Aztecs). But the name came only centuries after the fall of their Empire. The Aztecs called themselves as Mexica, from Mexico Valley. Many surmised that Atzlan was located in modern day northern Mexico and the Aztecs thrived as hunters and gatherers. They became highly influenced by the thriving Toltec Civilization of the 12th century until their decline by the end of the century.

The fall of the Toltec Civilization led to the rise of local tribes and city-states, while others left wandering for a home – a situation the befell the Aztecs. Besides living as hunter and gatherers, the Aztecs also earned a notorious reputation for brutality, thus many labelled them as barbarians. One that earned them such gruesome image was their practice of human sacrifice. Their brutality though allowed them to work as mercenaries for other tribes.

But Aztec brutality knew no bounds, even towards their employers. In the early 1300’s, they served the Culhuacans. They then sought an alliance with the tribe through marriage and asked for the chieftain’s daughter to be the bride. The Culhuacan chief agreed and sent his daughter to the Aztecs. But instead of a royal treatment, the Princess experienced firsthand being a sacrifice in an Aztec ritual. The Aztecs killed the Princess and flayed her. In a following meeting with the Culhuacan chief, the Aztecs shamelessly have a priest dance wearing the flayed skin of the Chieftain’s daughter. Their sacrifice of the Culhuacan princess led the Aztecs to be driven out. Disgusted and feared by many tribes, they left wandering once again.

An Aztec leader named Tenoch led a group Aztecs to the lake of Texcoco where he claimed the god Huitzilopochtli ordered them to go. While in the shores of the enormous lake in 1325, Tenoch and his people sighted an eagle bearing a snake perched on a cactus. He translated this as a sign by the god Huitzilopochtli to establish their new homeland in that sight. The event became highly commemorated in Mexican legends that it earned a place to be in the national flag of Mexico.

The Aztecs then drained the swamps and built an artificial island to settle in. In honor of their leader, the Aztecs named their new homeland as Tenochtitlan. Either coincidence or Tenoch being a fabricated figure, Tenochtitlan also meant the place of the prickly-pear cactus, a reference to the legend.

The Mexica, who then later called as Tenocha, lived a harsh life in the early years of Tenochtitlan. They always suffered from scarcity of food and water. Fishing and gathering failed to satisfy completely the hunger of the Aztecs. They also lived in constant danger of being devoured by other powerful tribes, like the Texcocans and the Tepanecs.

In this precarious situation, the Aztecs bid their time as their city began to grew. Population began to rise and the Aztecs built causeways tot he mainland to provide access to fresh water and food. However, even with their causeway, the Aztecs remained in danger as their supplies relied on the good will of their mainland neighbor and overlord, the Tepanecs.

The Aztec Empire

For years the Aztecs paid tribute to the Tepanecs for access to fresh water. In 1428, however, an ambitious warrior leader came to power to lead the Aztecs to independence and ultimately to the status of an empire.

Itzcoatl or Obsidian Snake ruled the Aztecs from 1428 until 1440. He along with his adviser Tlaccaelel formed an alliance with other powerful tribes – the Texcocans and Tlacopan – to capture Tepanec capital of Azcapotzalco. With the defeat of the Tepanecs, the Aztecs exploited their victory and developed aqueducts to secure Tenochtitlan’s water supply. 

With food and water secured, Itzcoatl embarked in a aggressive expansion of Aztec territory, conquering tribes and city-states holding key resources. And from this expansion, the Aztecs took hold of technology of building Chinampas - artificial farmlands made of wick and lake-bed soil. From these chinampas the Aztecs boosted food production planting various crops like maize, beans, squash, potatoes, and avocadoes. Their maize became the main ingredient for the Aztec’s own bread called tlaxcalli, a corn pancake known today better as tortilla.

Aztec agriculture furthered with the development of the famous Aztec calendar. This solar calendar with 365 days and ritual cycles of 260 days guided Aztec farmers in their planting and harvesting. This contributed to the rise of the Aztec population and a monument to the Aztec ingenuity and brilliance.

The rise in food production led to higher population and greater supply of men for the army. This allowed the Aztecs to continue its expansion during Itzcoatl's successors.

In 1440, Montezuma (Moctezuma) I came to power, expanding Aztecs borders in all directions. He made the Aztec Empire connected to both Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. He made the position of Emperor the most powerful in the Empire.

He also solved Tenochtitlan's flood problems and secured further source of fresh water by building a 10-mile dike designed to prevent salt water from the northern part of Texcoco in contaminating their fresh water during times of flood. This feat of engineering made the Aztecs one of the greatest builders in the Americas.

The power and prestige of the Emperor was extraordinary. Also called the Huey Tlatoani or the Great Speaker, the Emperor of the Aztecs were elected from the royal family by a council of nobles. After which, the Emperor had absolute power being the commander of the army and the high priest of the Aztec religion. He also received bountiful tributes from different regions of the Empire.

Commerce also contributed to the rise of the Aztec empire. Merchant guilds called Pochteca conducted trade missions to the frontiers of the empire. They served as explorers and reported back to Tenochtitlan the economic potential of a land and tribe, after which, the Emperor had the choice over the land and tribe’s fate. This lead to the rapid expansion of the Empire in just less than a century.

Pinnacle of Aztec Might

On the onset of the 16th century, the Aztecs had already ruled over 500 small states and had a population of 5 to 6 million. Tenochtitlan stood at the center of this empire embodying the glory and prestige that the Aztecs achieve. In the midst of this, the Aztec worked to hold the empire together either through strength and commerce.
Map of Tenochtitlan
Tenochtitlan grew and developed along with the rise of the Aztec empire. By 1500’s the population of the city reached 140,000 becoming the most densely populated city in the western hemisphere and rivaled that of Paris and London in Europe. In Tenochtitlan the Aztecs displayed their power and might through large public works. This included statues, plazas, palaces, and finally temples. The Templo Mayor dominated the skyline of the city honoring the Aztec gods Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc. The rich and noble in the city also displayed their wealth by erecting 2-storey houses. The city bounded itself through canals and a causeway that connected this floating city to the shores of Lake Texcoco. These displayed the Aztec’s wealth and progress.

The city also filled with buzzed as the Aztecs also showed reverence to their gods for gratitude and for continuous favor towards the Empire. The rituals served as an intimidation and a display of Aztec brutality towards their enemies. They honor their gods like Huitzilopochtli, the god of war and of the sun, and Tlaloc, the rain god, by killing prisoners of wars on top of their pyramids.
Besides being the religious center of the empire, Tenochtitlan also housed the center of administration of the Empire. Practically, the whole empire composed of self-governing provinces and regions while the Emperor only sent tax collectors to gather tribute and taxes. Anyone who broke their fealty towards the Emperor faced war against the Aztecs. Moreover, each region also paid tribute based on their local products, the most important being cacao beans.

Cacao which the Aztecs turned into xocalatl, the ancestor of chocolate, became one of the greatest contribution of this Mesoamerican civilization to the world. It commanded tremendous importance as Aztec emperors hoarded it and the people used it as currency.

Besides administration, the Aztec empire also maintained a strong army. Though they lacked a standing professional army, their conscript army still had excellent capability. Men working in the farms came together to form the army when a time of crisis came. The Emperor and his government armed them with obsidian weapons and the famous atlatl. Their ferocity and effective weapons helped to maintain the stability of the Empire.

Stability helped also to stimulate commerce, which contributed also to the unity of the Empire. Goods from the different parts of the Empire found the situation as suitable for trade. Merchants and pochtecas crisscrossed the Empire delivering exotic goods back to Tenochtitlan and in Tlatelolco market, 50,000 people crowded the market place for the best that the Empire produced.

Decline and Fall

As the Aztec savored their power and wealth, world events, however, turned against them. European discovery of the New World led to brave and ruthless explorers to go to Mexico in search of gold and glory.

Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpant
In 1502, Montezuma II came to power. But Montezuma already worried about his reign as he feared the year in the Aztec calendar One Reed (1519). Aztec religion designated the year as the return of the exiled white-skinned and bearded god Quetzacoatl that would signal calamity to the Empire. Indeed, in 1519, the scourge of the Aztec Empire landed in the shores of Tabasco. Hernan Cortes landed in Mexico in search of wealth and conquest. Some tribes that submitted but held grudge to the Aztec rallied to Cortes like the Tlascalans. Moreover a Mesoamerican woman named Malinali later called La Malinche guided and translated for the Cortes and his 400 man army. Her contributions to the fall of the Aztecs Empire and the rise of the Spanish colonial empire forever made her name synonymous with treachery. Many Aztec, however, had conflicting views towards Cortes. They stumbled whether to welcome him because of the legend and news of the awesome strength of Spanish weaponry or crush him before he gets more powerful. Montezuma decided in November 1519 to welcome Cortes to Tenochtitlan.

The situation began smoothly as Montezuma wandered about the foreigners while the whole of Tenochtitlan continued their everyday lives, including their human sacrifice. The sacrifices, however, disgusted Cortes’ men resulting to a fight that led to deaths of thousands of Aztecs.
Montezuma was then held hostage by the Spanish while being besieged by Aztecs. The Aztecs grew restless and the Spanish made Montezuma speak and calm the people. But the people turned against Montezuma and stoned him to death.

Cuauhtemoc became the Emperor and drove the Spanish out of the city. However, in 1521, Cortes’ insatiable greed for gold led to his return to Tenochtitlan with an army of different native tribes and couple of Spaniards. In August 13, Tenochtitlan fell after a great battle in the city. 240,000 people died during the fighting, among them and many more perished with the smallpox epidemic brought by the Europeans. Eventually, the Spaniards destroyed Tenochtitlan and began to build their legacy and capital in form of Mexico City.

Summing Up

The Aztec were brutal and a bloody civilization. Nonetheless, they showed great ingenuity and determination to change their fortune from barbaric nomads and mercenaries to Empire builders. They built one of the largest Empires in Mesoamerica and would have endured further if not for the arrival of the Europeans. Eventually, the guns and armor as well as the determination of its enemies overran the Aztecs, ending their empire and their civilization.

See also:

Websites: Staff. "Aztecs." In Accessed on March 10, 2018. URL:

The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. "Aztec." In Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed on March 10, 2018. URL: 

General References:
"Aztecs." In Encyclopedia of the Ancient World. Edited by Shona Grimbly. Chicago, Illinois: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 2000.

"Aztecs." In Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes. Edited by Carl Waldman. New York, New York: Checkmark Books, 2006.