Aztecs The Aztec Empire was a Native American state that ruled much of what is now Mexico from about 1427 until 1521, when the empire was conquered by the Spaniards. The empire represented the highest point in the development of the rich Aztec civilization that had begun more than a century earlier. At the height of their power, the Aztec controlled a region stretching from the Valley of Mexico in central Mexico east to the Gulf of Mexico and south to Guatemala. The Aztec built great cities and developed a complex social, political, and religious structure. Their capital, Tenochitlan, was located on the site of present-day Mexico City.
An elaborate city built on islands and marsh land, Tenochtitln was possibly the largest city in the world at the time of the Spanish conquest. It featured a huge temple complex, a royal palace, and numerous canals. After the Spanish conquest, the empire of the Aztec was destroyed, but their civilization remained an important influence on the development of Mexican culture. Many present-day Mexicans are descended from the Aztec, and more than 1 million Mexicans speak Nahuatl, the native Aztec language, as their primary language. In Mexico City, searches continue to uncover temple foundations, statues, jewelry, and other artifacts of the Aztec civilization. Aztec refers both to the people who founded the empire, who called themselves Mexica, or Tenochca, and, more generally, to all of the many other Nahuatl-speaking ethnic groups that lived in the Valley of Mexico at the time of the Spanish conquest.
The name Aztec is derived from Aztlan, the mythical homeland of the Mexica; according to tradition, Aztln was located northwest of the Valley of Mexico, possibly in west Mexico. The name Mexico is derived from Mexica. Long before the rise of the Aztec, the Valley of Mexico was the center of a highly developed civilization. A fertile basin, the valley was located 7800 ft above sea level. In its center lay five interconnected lakes dotted with marshy islands.
From about AD 100 to 650 the valley was dominated by the city of Teotihuacan, center of a powerful religious, economic, and political state. After the decline of Teotihuacn, the Toltec people migrated into central Mexico from the north and established a conquest state there. The Toltec civilization reached its height in the 10th and 11th centuries. In the 13th century wandering bands of Nahuatl-speaking warriors, often called Chichimec, invaded the valley. They took over Toltec cities, such as Atzcapotzalco, and founded new ones, such as Texcoco de Mora.
The Chichimec combined their own cultural traditions with those of the Toltec to form the early Aztec civilization, whose social structure, economy, and arts would reach their height under the rule of the later empire. The group that eventually founded the Aztec Empire, the Mexica, migrated to the Valley of Mexico in the middle of the 13th century. As late arrivals, the Mexica, a hunter-gatherer people, were forced by other groups in the valley to take refuge on two islands near the western shore of Lake Texcoco (one of the five lakes in the area). The Mexica believed in a certain legend, which held that they would establish a great civilization in a marshy area, where they would first see a cactus growing out of a rock with an eagle perched on the cactus. After the Mexica arrived at the swampy site on the shore of Lake Texcoco, their priests proclaimed that they had seen the promised omen. The site turned out to be a strategic location, with abundant food supplies and waterways for transportation.
The Mexica began farming for a living, and in 1325 they founded the city of Tenochtitln on one of the lake islands. For the next 100 years they paid tribute to stronger neighboring groups, especially the Tepanec of the city-state of Azcapotzalco, whom they served as mercernaries. As the Mexica grew in number, they established superior military and civil organizations. Gradually, they revolted against the Tepanec and won control of some territory on the mainland. In about 1427 the Mexica of Tenochtitln formed a triple alliance with the city-states of Texcoco and Tlacopan (now Tacuba). Under the Mexica ruler Itzcoatl, his successor Montezuma I, and the Texcocan ruler Netzahualcoyotl, the three states began a series of conquests.
They eventually established an empire that extended from central Mexico to the Guatemalan border and included many different states and ethnic groups, who were forced to pay tribute to the alliance. Tenochtitln became the dominant power within the alliance. Aztec society was highly structured, based on agriculture, and guided by a religion that pervaded every aspect of life. The Aztec worshipped gods that represented natural forces that were vital to their agricultural economy. Aztec cities were dominated by giant stone pyramids topped by temples where human sacrifices were dedicated to the gods.
Aztec art was primarily an expression of religion, and even warfare, which increased the empire’s wealth and power, served the religious purpose of providing captives to be sacrificed. The basic unit of Aztec society was the calpulli, sometimes, at least for early Aztec history, thought of as a clan, or group of families who claimed descent from a common ancestor. Each calpulli regulated its own affairs, electing a council and officers to keep order, lead in war, dispense justice, and maintain records. Calpulli ran schools in which boys were taught citizenship, warfare, history, crafts, and religion. Each calpulli also had a temple, an armory to hold weapons, and a storehouse for goods and tribute that were distributed among its members.
Within each calpulli, land was divided among the heads of families according to their needs. Each family had a right to use the land but owned only the goods that it produced. In Tenochtitln, the Aztec capital, calpulli fulfilled the same functions but somtimes took a different form. As the city grew large and complex, the calpulli were no longer based on family relationships, but became wards, or political divisions, of the city. Each calpulli still had its own governing council, school, temple, and land, but its members were not necessarily related.
There were 15 calpulli in Tenochtitln when the city was founded in 1325; by the 16th century there were as many as 80. In Tenochtitln and other Aztec city-states, the most capable leaders of each calpulli together composed a tribal council, which elected four chief officials. One of these four officials was selected as the tlatoani (ruler). After Tenochtitln became the center of Aztec civilization, its ruler became the supreme leader of the empire, to whom lesser rulers paid tribute. This ruler was considered semidivine, a descendant of the Aztec gods, and served as both military leader and high priest. His title was huey tlatoani, meaning great lord or great speaker.
The ruler was supported by a noble class of priests, warriors, and administrators. Below these nobles were the common people, including merchants, artisans, soldiers, peasant farmers, and laborers. Aztec merchants formed a hereditary class, called pochteca. They lived in special quarters in the cities, formed guilds, and had many privileges. Aztec rulers and nobles owned land on private estates. Most land for commoners was owned by a calpulli, which assigned its members plots to use. Landholders paid tribute to the empire in agricultural products, which were used to finance public projects. All able-bodied men owed military service to the empire.
Citizens could also be drafted to work on public lands or build temples, dikes, aqueducts, and roads. Although Aztec society had strict classes, a person’s status could change based on his or her contribution to society. Commoners could improve their rank, especially by performing well in battle, and become prosperous landowners. Young people of some classes could study to become priests or warriors. Warriors who captured many prisoners gained prestige and wealth and might be admitted into one of several elite military orders. A person who committed a crime or did not pay his debts became a slave; however, such slaves could eventually regain their freedom, and their children were born free.
Tenochtitln was the center of the Aztec world. The marvels of the island city were described at length by the Spanish conquerors, who called it the Venice of the New World (in reference to Venice, Italy) because of its many canals. At its height, the city had a population of more than 200,000, according to modern estimates, making it one of the most populous cities in the ancient world. Tenochtitln was connected to the mainland by three well-traveled causeways, or raised roads. During the rainy season, when the lake waters rose, the causeways served as protective dikes.
Stone aqueducts brought fresh drinking water into the city from the mainland. Tenochtitln’s canals served as thoroughfares and were often crowded with canoes made from hollowed logs. The canoes were used to carry produce to the public market in the city’s main plaza. At the center of Tenochtitln was a ceremonial plaza paved with stone. The plaza housed several large government buildings and the palace of the Aztec ruler, which was two stories high and contained hundreds of rooms.
The most important structure in the plaza was a large, terraced pyramid crowned with two stone temples dedicated to the most important Aztec gods – the sun god (also the god of war) and the rain god. A surrounding enclosure contained buildings for priests and elite military groups, courts for sacred games, and smaller pyramids topped by temples where incense and sacrificial fires burned before enormous idols. Other temple pyramids were built in every section of the city. Residents of Tenochtitln lived in houses built around open courts, or patios. Houses of the nobility were made of plastered brick or stone and painted bright shades of red or white.
The houses of the common people were smaller, made of interwoven twigs and mud, and thatched with grass. Farming provided the basis of the Aztec economy. …