The origins of Aztec civilization lay in the large mountain-rimmed Valley of Mexico. This was a huge basin whose floor was some 2,500 feet above sea level and surrounded by high mountains reaching up to 6,000 feet.
Much of the land was unsuitable for farming, but by intensive and innovative agriculture what remained was made to support a very dense population. Just before the Spanish conquest it is estimated to have sustained a population of one to one-and-a-half million people.
Aside from agriculture, the Valley of Mexico is rich in mineral resources: obsidian, a superb material for a great variety of stone tools; basalt, for milling stones; and salt. There are also abundant sources of timber on the mountain slopes.
However, because of its altitude and cool climate, the region is unable to produce a great variety of tropical products such as cotton, tropical fruits, tobacco, rubber, cacao, honey, and precious feathers and skins. It is also lacking in sources of metal, jade, and turquoise. All these things were highly prized by the Aztec elite as essential in maintaining the high levels of material culture they came to enjoy. One of the main drivers for the rise of Aztec civilization, and motivations behind the Aztec conquests, was to obtain control of the exchange networks which brought in commodities from around Mexico and central America, and mould them to their own advantage.
The Aztec traced their ancestry to a small group which had moved into the Valley of Mexico from the north in the late twelfth century. The traditional date for their arrival is 1168. They belonged to a broader movement of Nahua-speaking peoples who had been migrating into central and southern Mexico since around 1100 CE.
Bands of these Nahua-speaking peoples lived a semi-nomadic existence on the margins of the small city-states which covered the Valley of Mexico at that time. In around 1325, one such band, the Mexica, moved into the swampland fringing Lake Texcoco, in the center of the Valley of Mexico. They did so in order to escape from the pressures surrounding them. Here they established two small settlements, at Tlatelolco and Tenochtitlán.
This event marks the foundation point for Aztec civilization.
Tenochtitlán began to expand strongly. To provide food for the growing population, its inhabitants made large wickerwork platforms and anchored them in the shallows of Lake Texcoco. They piled them high with silt and plant matter, and in this way created chinampas, highly fertile artificial islands for cultivating crops on (see below, Agriculture).
At that time, another Nahua-speaking people, the Tepaneca, dominated central Mexico. Tenochtitlán and Ttatloco paid tribute to the Tepanaca king, but they resisted Tepaneca interference in their internal affairs. Finally, in a war lasting from 1427 to 1430, they defeated the Tepanaca and conquered their capital, Azcapotzalco. They were able to do this by forming an alliance with two other nearby city-states, Texcoco and Tlacopan.
This Triple Alliance proved enduring. The leadership of the alliance lay firmly with the rulers of Tenochtitán, who at some date took a new name, the Aztec, after their legendary homeland, Aztlan (“White Land”). The alliance formed the power-base on which the Aztec empire was built, fighting its way to dominance over the fifty or so city states in the Valley of Mexico. It was helped in this by the constant fighting between these states.
The Triple Alliance went on to extend its power beyond the Valley of Mexico to include a large territory covering much of modern-day Mexico. In the process, Tenochtitlán grew into one of the largest cities in the world at that time. By around 1500 it had an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 inhabitants. The Aztec empire as a whole had an estimated population of five million or more.
The Aztec wars of conquest (and, after frequent rebellion by a tributary peoples, reconquest) did not only serve to expand and uphold Aztec power. They also boosted the Aztec exchange system, which played a central role in their imperialism. The wars themselves brought vast quantities of booty and wealth to the capital; and in their aftermath, tribute was imposed on the conquered peoples, which brought a regular supply of commodities to the capital.
Such goods as gold, silver, copper, pearls, jade, turquoise and obsidian were either used by the Aztec themselves as part of their policy of overawing their subjects and neighbors, or redistributed over a wide area of central America through trade or gifts to allies and potential allies.
As can be seen from this brief historical overview, the Aztec empire was made up of numerous city-states.
At its heart lay the three city-states which formed the Triple Alliance: Tenochtitlán, Texcoco and Tlacopan. This was true geographically (they were all located on or near Lake Texcoco), culturally and politically.
Each had their own rulers and royal families, and were theoretically independent, with each sharing in the tribute from the subject states.
They were not equal, however. Tlacopan was much smaller then the other two, and only received one fifth of the tribute. Texcoco was the second largest city in the empire, and traditionally received two-fifths of the tribute. It was the major cultural centre of the empire, perhaps something like a university town. It had a large library containing works dating back centuries, from previous Mesoamerican cultures.
It was, however, in the enormous city of Tenochtitlán where the true seat of power lay. This was the political capital of the empire, the home of the Aztec emperor.
All the other city-states were subject to the Triple Alliance (in reality, to Tenochtitlán). Some had recognized the futility of resistance and submitted to Aztec rule, while others had been conquered by the Aztecs at some time or other (and many had to be reconquered, sometimes more than once). As conquered peoples, all were subject to the Aztec rulers in their capital, Tenochtitlán.
In most cases, these conquered states were required to forward annual tribute to the Aztec capital, but were otherwise left as they were, under their own rulers. Their royal families would be expected to intermarry with the Aztec royal family, thus creating ties of kinship as well as subjection.
In a minority of cases, perhaps where the conquered ruler had put up a particularly fierce resistance or been rebellious, the Aztec ruler appointed a royal governor to rule.
Eventually the Aztec empire came to include around 500 of these states. Each was small, usually with a population of no more than 25,000 people. Most of them were city-states made up of a town and its surrounding villages (or calpulli). The town would be divided into wards (urban calpulli).
Because of the sheer number of these states within their empire, the Aztec grouped them into provinces. At the height of the empire there were 38 of these divisions. An Aztec governor was appointed to each province and was responsible for the collection and forwarding of the tribute to the capital, for maintaining law and order, and seeing that justice was done.
The Aztecs established garrisons at strategic points throughout their empire. These were in fact military colonies, as they consisted of warriors and their families. The warriors tended to be recruited from the towns of the Valley of Mexico, near to Tenochtitlán, and granted lands in the conquered province.
At the time of the Aztec, the basic component of Mesoamerican society, above the family, was the clan group, called a calpulli.
The great majority of calpulli were rural communities. Their members jointly owned the land the group occupied, and only the group, not the individual households, could sell or rent lands.
Some of them formed a single village; others were distributed in small hamlets or farmsteads across their land. In urban settings, they formed the wards into which the city was divided. As such they became centers of craft specialization.
The affairs of the calpulli were managed by a council of household heads, presided over by a chief or headman. The council was responsible for collecting the community’s taxes, and providing the labour required for public works and the troops for the army. It was responsible for educating and training its young men (the young women were educated in their own homes): its school, telpuchcalli, gave instruction in military and moral matters. And the chief and council presided over the religious life of the community, maintaining the worship of the group’s deified ancestor.
Large calpulli were divided into smaller subdivisions.
Like most pre-modern societies, the Aztec’s was a very hierarchical one. It was divided into three broad castes. At the top were the nobles and members of the royal lineage. Below them were the commoners, who made up the bulk of the population. At the base were the serfs, attached to private or state-owned rural estates.
Slaves did exist, but they hardly formed a separate element within Aztec society: they were mostly used for human sacrifice. Poor men who fell on hard times could sell themselves into bondage for a specified period of time, but such people had defined rights under Aztec law, and so were not slaves.
The three castes only give a hint at the complexities of the Aztec social structure. The commoner caste in particular comprised a large variety of hereditary occupation groups, some of whom enjoyed considerable prestige. Priests enjoyed a very high degree of status and authority, and the elite troops of the Aztec army, the Eagle and Jaguar warriors, had a very special place in the Aztec state. A few craft specialists also enjoyed considerable status, including stoneworkers, goldsmiths and feather workers.
Merchants were also highly respected. They controlled the large trading caravans, which travelled long distances over Mexico and Central America on journeys which sometimes lasted more than a year. Their role of bringing in commodities from afar which the Aztec elite needed to maintain its display of status and power, and to live lives of luxury, was highly valued.
They were organized along clan lines, as was the rest of Aztec society (see above), but together they formed a powerful guild. This controlled the system of town markets in the cities throughout the empire, including the capital.
Less prestigious groups were the ordinary soldiers and artisans, and the broad mass of farmers. At the bottom of Aztec society were the landless laborers.
The class system was not static. As may be seen from the above, within the commoner caste in particular there was a great deal of room for a man (but not a woman, except by marriage) to rise in wealth, status and power.
Ordinary soldiers who captured enemy soldiers in battle, for example, could be recruited into one of the elite regiments of Eagle or Jaguar warriors, and given an estate worked by serfs to provide him with wealth and status well above that of most of his peers. His sons could be trained as priests and officials, and join the ranks of the elite.
The system of landholding underpinned the status of the higher echelons of society. As we have seen, most of the land was held in common by the calpulli, but there were also estates worked by serfs. Some of these were privately-owned, by nobles, office-holders and elite warriors; others were owned by the king and members of the royal family. Such estates supported the dignity and leisured lifestyle of a small number of elite families.
There were striking distinctions of dress, diet and housing between members of different castes and occupation groups.
A person’s social standing was immediately apparent in the clothing they wore. The king wore tunics made from coyote fur and dyed cotton, adorned with the brightly colored feathers of ducks and other birds. He was bedecked with gold, silver and jade jewelry.
The nobility wore brightly colored cloaks, as well as jewelry such as necklaces, earrings, armbands and ornaments pierced through the nose and lip.
Various commoner groups were also identified by their special dress. Merchants wore white cotton cloaks; eagle warriors wore cloaks and helmets richly adorned with feathers; jaguar warriors wore jaguar skins. Ordinary soldiers wore plain knee-length shirts and loin-cloths, and had shaven heads, apart from a scalplock at the back. Once they had taken a prisoner, however, they were allowed to wear decorated tunics and grow their hair long.
Members of less prestigious groups such as farmers, artisans and laborers were not allowed to wear decorated or colored clothes.
The higher ranks of Aztec society, down to the soldiers, wore leather or woven sandals on their feet. The lower classes went around bare foot.
The Aztec ate very much what modern Mexicans eat. Maize and beans were the staples. The upper classes added meat, fruits, tomatoes, chili peppers and a drink made from chocolate, vanilla and honey. These were foods which had to be imported into the Aztec homeland, often from the distant lowlands of central America, and were correspondingly expensive.
Alcoholic beverages were made from different plants, and used in religious ceremonies and healing rituals – as well as at social occasions, judging by the fact that there was a god of drunkenness!
Houses also showed off a family’s social rank. The king’s household was located in a large palace (see below), while the nobles lived in large two-storied houses built of cut stone and lime plaster. Their flat roofs were made of log beams infilled with plaster, and frequently had gardens planted on them.
Merchants had smaller versions of these houses, of one story. The lower classes lived in one story huts made of adobe, stone or mud.
Aztec system of farming was extraordinarily labour intensive, but very productive. It involved plant and animal fertilizers, fallowing, irrigation and terracing.
The most notable aspect was the bringing of swamps, and even lakes, into cultivation. This was achieved by a system called chinampa – a process varying from digging drainage ditches to artificial construction of land from lake mud and vegetation. By this means lakes and swamps were converted into highly productive farmland.
The Aztec were highly skilled at the management of water. A series of dikes and sluice gates were constructed across lakes to control flooding, and convert portions of saline lake into freshwater swamp, and thence into chinampa fields. Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital, depended on these lands for much of its food.
Aztec technology differed little from that of other Mesoamerican group, so all this was achieved by human power and simple hand tools. This was directed in a highly controlled and disciplined way, so that the Aztec rulers became skilled at mobilizing and managing large numbers of laborers for particular ends.
As may be seen above, artisans were well-respected members of Aztec society. They formed hereditary occupation groups organized in clan groups (calpulli), which formed their own wards or sub-wards in towns and cities. The level of Aztec craftsmanship was often extraordinarily high, with superb work in gold, silver, stone, feathers, cotton textiles, jade, and turquoise.
We also saw above the prestigious place merchants enjoyed, and the high value that was placed on their work.
Tribute and trade
The Aztec economy rested to a large extent on the tribute system, which passed huge quantities of goods from the provinces to the capital without any commensurate return. As such, it could be classified as a parasitic system. If analogies with the tribute system in other pre-modern societies are anything to go by, such as the Roman empire or the Chinese empire under the Qing dynasty, tribute acted as a significant stimulant to commerce, as it acted to subsidize private trade.
Moreover, the sheer size of the capital, Tenochtitlán, and the huge demand it would have created, makes it a certainty that the commercial life of the Aztec empire was vibrant and expansive. Staple food crops such as maize, beans, mangoes, papayas and avocados were intensively traded at a local level.
Perhaps the most iconic element within Aztec civilization was its capital, Tenochtitlán. This huge and sophisticated city, one of the largest in the whole world at that time, astonished the Spanish conquistadores when they first set their eyes on it.
It had originally been two separate cities, Tlatelolco and Tenochtitlán; however, the people of Tlatelolco had grown resentful of the growing dominance of Tenochtitlán, and in 1473 they rebelled. This insurrection was quickly put down and Tlatelolco was absorbed into the Aztec capital. The separate identity of the latter was maintained for administrative purposes, but for all other purposes the two cities were merged into one.
Growth of the city
Tenochtitlán gradually spread into the surrounding lake by the process of chinampa construction, described in the section on agriculture.
As the city expanded, it was divided into four large wards, and each of these was subdivided into 12 to 15 calpulli.
A huge city
Tenochtitlán was connected to the mainland by several causeways, each leading to a suburb. In 1519 the city itself was 150-200,000 strong, and the population of the metropolitan area as a whole – the city, its lakeside suburbs, and surrounding rural communities (many on artificial chinampa islands in the lake) – was about 400,000 people, the largest and densest concentration in Mesoamerican history.
Feeding all these people was a major economic activity. The great market of Tlatelolco was claimed by the Spaniards to have had 60,000 buyers and sellers on the main market day. There was always an enormous number of canoes ferrying food produce and other goods to the market. Such was the demand for food that many local farmers had turned their holdings into market gardens.
The city housed the central administration of the empire, much larger and more complex than the administrations of the hundreds of small conquered states.
The imperial palace, where the administration was centered, was said to have contained 300 rooms, housed in multi-storied buildings grouped around three courtyards. The whole complex covered an area of ten acres.
The private apartments of the king, his wives, children, attendants and servants formed a portion of the palace; other rooms included great reception halls, halls for justice, council rooms, offices, archives, storehouses and workshops for the royal craftsmen.
Attached to the palace was a zoo and an aviary. The king also had a number of country retreats in the neighborhood of the city.
Near the palace were the mansions of the elite of Aztec society – the nobles and high government office holders, and wealthy merchants.
The city was also home to thousands of craftsmen, lesser merchants, laborers and soldiers, along with their families and servants.
As well as being the political capital of their empire, Tenochtitlán was the religious centre of Aztec civilization.
The main religious centers were the two main temple complexes of Tenochtitlán and Tlatelolco. The temple complex of Tenochtitlán consisted of three large pyramid temples, the largest, dedicated to Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc, being 100 feet high and 300 feet on each side at its base. The complex also contained six smaller pyramid temples, three monastic buildings (dormitories and colleges for priests), a ball court, a vast wooden rack for the skulls of sacrificed victims, a sacred pool, a sacred grove, and several large open courts. The whole was surrounded by a walled enclosure, 1,200 feet on each side.
The temple complex at Tlatelolco was at least half as large.
Other large temples were to be found in each of the four great wards of Tenochtitlán; and each calpulli also had its own small temple. The total number must have run into the hundreds.
Like most pre-modern cultures, Aztec civilization was built around its religious practices and beliefs.
The Aztec owed most of their religious beliefs and practices to the earlier cultures of the Valley of Mexico, notably the Toltec. They also borrowed elements from the religious systems of conquered peoples outside the Valley, and from neighboring peoples whom they did not conquer. At the time of the Spanish conquest, Aztec religion was still in a process of assimilating a variety of local religious traditions.
Aztec worship revolved around a complex series of public ceremonies, which were held at the temples and performed by professional priests acting as the intermediaries between gods and people.
Each deity had his or her own special ceremony. These ceremonies shared many common elements, including ritual bathing to cleanse the priests before contact with the divine; sacrifices to gain the gods’ favor; and the acting out of myths by masked performers, complete with dances, songs and processions. Given the complexity of the Mesoamerican pantheon, there must have been numerous of such ceremonies through the year.
The best-known feature of Aztec worship is the practice of human sacrifice. Indeed, this element of Aztec culture did have an impact on Aztec waging war, though other factors (such as the demand for tribute) were almost certainly as important.
There was a large professional priesthood. Each temple and god had its own priests, but the whole priesthood was organized into a single elaborate hierarchy. This consisted of several ranks of priests, and was headed by the high priest of high priests of Tlaloc and Huitzilopochtli, the leading national gods. He presided at the temple in Tenochtitlán.
Priests had several aspects to their role. They presided at religious ceremonies, took part in the education of novices, practiced astrology, and administered the temple lands.
Educating the élite
The schools which the priests maintained were for the sons of the nobility and elite commoners. Most of the novices would not go on into the priesthood, but would go on to a career in government or commerce. Instruction was not therefore exclusively religious, but covered a range of learning and behavior. It played a central role in the transmission of Aztec civilization from one generation to another.
As we have seen, Aztec civilization was based on the legacies of cultures which came before them in central America, such as those of the Olmec and Zatopec peoples. Thus, Aztec writing was derived from earlier forms. As such, it used a pictographic script, made up of symbols and images which represented objects and meanings.
The Aztecs preserved their records in codices: types of books which were made up of long, folded sheets made out of deer skin and inscribed with colorful images and symbols. It is from these that we have learnt much of what we know about Aztec civilization and history.
An austere life
Those that entered the priesthood on a permanent basis would go into a monastic existence in one of the religious houses. These were established in temple precincts, set apart from the rest of society.
Priests had to live an austere life, in which self-sacrifice played an important role. They were celibate, and regularly inflicted violence on themselves as penitence. For example, they passed barbed cords through the tongue and ears until they drew blood.
For all the pubic spectacle of Aztec worship handled by the priests, much religion would undoubtedly have been practiced in the privacy of the home. Every household had its family or clan altar. Here, the humble prayers of ordinary people would be accompanied heavenward by the fragrant smoke from incense burners, and would have perfumed the whole house. Religion really did hang in the air the Aztec breathed.
For the Aztec, the universe was unstable, and death and destruction continually threatened. Sacrifice – above all human sacrifice – was required to stave off catastrophe. In Aztec mythology, even the gods had been required to sacrifice themselves in order to maintain the universe.
The Aztec worshipped numerous gods and goddesses. Some of these were ancient fertility deities, such as Tlaloc, the chief of the rain gods; Chalchiuhtlicue, the god of fresh waters, Huixtocíhuatl, the god of salt waters and the sea, various earth goddesses who were associated with the fertility of the soil and of women, goddesses of love and birth and blood and war.
All the heavenly bodies were divine, such as Tezcatlipoca (the Great Bear), and Centzon Huitznáua (“the 400 stars of the south”). The national god of the Aztecs was their sun god, Huitzilopochtli, who was also god of war. He was the son of the earth goddess Coatlicue.
Tezcatlipoca, god of the night sky, was the protector of the young warriors. Quetzalcóatl, the god of the morning star, was also god of the wind, and as the legendary priest-king of the Aztec’s predecessors, the Toltec, was responsible for the discoveries of writing, the calendar, and the arts.
These are just a very few of the multitude of deities worshipped by the Aztec.
Serving the gods
A person’s duty was to fight and die for the gods and, therefore, for the preservation of universe. Curses, omens, and portents played a pervasive part in everyday life. However, a person’s fate depended ultimately on an impersonal destiny linked to the date he or she was born on.
A person’s fate in the afterlife did not reflect any good or bad deeds he had done during his time on earth. Warriors killed in battle went to be companions of the sun (but after four years returned to earth as hummingbirds), as did women who died in childbirth (though they did not return). Those who died of specified diseases went to the heavenly garden of the god of spring. Most, however, went down to Mictlan, the realm of the dead, where they eventually disappeared altogether.
Aztec civilization was built on the vastly rich cultural legacy of previous Central American cultures, such as the Olmec, Maya and Toltec. Indeed, to what extent the Aztec developed a distinct civilization from those that came before, or even from the many urban cultures which existed in Central America at the same time, is a moot point.
Aztec culture shared many traits with those of other Pre-Columbian civilizations. For example, the “Snarling Jaguar” was a common motif in Central American art from Olmec times onwards. It is also quite clear that the Pre-Columbian peoples shared a common stock of religious beliefs and practices. The same deities reappear again and again in Central American art, and it is clear that the people of the region shared a common- albeit evolving – pantheon.
Large scale ritual human sacrifice was also a widespread practice – it was by no means invented by the Aztecs, even though they are the people most famous for this practice, and probably did take it to its greatest level.
Other shared cultural traits were ball courts, which appeared in Olmec, Mayan and other Central American settlements and clearly had a major ritual significance. Pyramid temple architecture was another notable feature of Pre-Columbian culture in Central America, as was a complex dual calendar system.
Aztec religion – particularly the central importance given to omens and auspicious dates – gave calendars great importance. Like other Pre-Columbian peoples of Central America such as the Maya, the Aztecs had two calendrical systems. The most important was a highly complex ritual calendar of 260 days, which governed the fate of all things, including gods and humans.
The priests who interpreted the auspices associated with this calendar were probably the most influential group in Aztec society. No significant decision could be taken without consulting them. The other calendar was a highly accurate solar calendar of 365 days. This was applied to many practical purposes, especially to do with agriculture.
The Spanish conquistador, Hernan Cortez, and a small force of companions, arrived on the coast of Mexico in November 1519. At that date the Aztec empire was still vigorously expanding; it most certainly was not in decline. Within a few short years, however, it had completely vanished and its territory passed to the control of far-away Spain. How did this dramatic turn of events happen?
Why did the Aztec empire fall?
The Spanish conquerors had horses and guns. These must have given them some initial military advantages, though modern historians disagree on how much.
Hernan Cortes, the Spanish leader, was undoubtedly a man of immense capability and resourcefulness, salted with a generous dose of ruthlessness.
The Spanish also profited from some extraordinary good luck. A little over a year before their arrival, a comet had appeared in the skies, signifying impending doom.
All these factors would undoubtedly have given them an edge, at least to begin with. But Cortes’ band consisted of not much more than five hundred Spaniards. How could such a small force have overthrown such a well-organized state as the Aztec, which could put into the field an army numbering hundreds of thousands?
The answer is that they did not – or at least, they did not do it alone. What stands out from the history of the conquest of the Aztec is how many non-Aztec groups came over to the Spaniards’ side to rid themselves of Aztec rule.
This willingness to take up arms against their masters may simply have been because the peoples conquered by the Aztec had not had enough time to become accustomed to their status as subjects of another race.
It may also have been due, however, to the harshness of Aztec rule. It is noteworthy that many peoples had to be reconquered more than once before coming fully under Aztec control. This contrasts with Eastern Hemisphere empires like the Romans and Persians, who, against whom rebellions were certainly launched from time to time, but not as a normal course of events.
Above all, the thirst for human sacrifice by the Aztec gods must have kept subject peoples in a near-permanent state of anxiety, and truly reconciled to Aztec rule.
The Spanish force – a catalyst for change
The appearance of a completely new and determined group, with strange weapons and a forceful leader, will have made the decision to try again to get rid of Aztec rule an easy one to make for local peoples. The small size of the group may have lulled them into a false sense of security: how could such a few soldiers threaten their new found freedom, let alone their culture and way of life?
This is exactly what happened, however. In August 1521, Cortes and his allies took the great Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán and destroyed it. The next year they started building a new city on the ruins, with the cathedral, churches, plazas and palaces of the normal Spanish city – all contracted of stones taken from the ruins of Tenochtitlán.
The end of Aztec civilization
Spanish forces then fanned out across Mexico and central America, bringing the outlying territories under their control. They were assisted by the epidemics that went ahead of them, caused by the germs that they had brought with them from Eurasia. These thinned local populations and greatly weakened their ability to resist.
Everywhere the Spanish went they tore down temples to the native gods and built Christian churches in their place. The central feature of Aztec civilization – indeed of all native Pre-Columbian civilization – was thus fatally attacked. Although its influence continued, old beliefs and practices had to adjust to the new reality of the religion of the conquerors.
As new Spanish cities obliterated the older ones, Aztec civilization faded. It was soon little more than a memory.