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Aztecs

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Aztecs

Often overshadowed by the rise of European colonialism, the Aztec Empire was at the height of its power in the 15th century. The Aztecs were not just a handful of feather-adorned warriors committing human sacrifice; they were an empire 11 million strong, with their own culture, religion, class systems, art, and science. Who were the Aztecs, then, and how did such a prominent world empire fall into relative historical obscurity so quickly?

The Aztec Empire

Before the Aztecs, Mesoamerica was ruled by warring city-states called altepetl, each with a ruler called a tlatoani. Agricultural development and aggressive expansion were the chief aims of these individual city-states until the growing Aztec Empire overpowered them.

Already confused by the ancient terminology? There is a handy definitions table at the end of this article

Aztecs Map Study Smarter Map of Aztec Empire. Source: Badseed, CC-BY-SA-2.5,2.0,1.0, Wikimedia Commons.

Founding of the Aztec Empire

The origin of the Aztec people lies somewhat in myth. According to legend, a group of northern Mesoamerican people migrated south from a semi-mythical land called Aztlan. Guided by a prophecy from their god Huitzilopochtli (Aztec god of the sun, war, and sacrifice), the people found a sign: a giant eagle perched on a cactus eating a snake.

The Aztecs called themselves the Mexica:

The people of 14th century Mesoamerica spoke a language called Nahuatl. When the people from Aztlan landed in Tenochtitlan, they renamed the land and themselves in dedication to Huitzilopochtli. The name 'Mexica' roughly means 'sons of Huitzilopochtli', so they referred to themselves as the Mexica. It was not until European historians derived the name 'Aztec' from 'people of Aztlan', that the Nahuatl-speaking people of Mesoamerica became known as the Aztecs.

In 1325, this group of migrating people settled here, calling their new settlement Tenochtitlan. Tenochtitlan was based within five interconnected lakes and eventually developed to become the administrative and cultural center for the entire Aztec Empire during its reign in Mesoamerica.

Rise of the Aztec Empire

After a war of unification in Mesoamerica between many altepemeh (plural of altepetl, the city-states), the Aztec Triple Alliance was formed between Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan in 1428. The alliance continued to grow in power, conquering neighboring territories. Tenochtitlan became the capital of a quickly rising empire.

Aztecs Painting Study SmarterAztec Painting. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Aztecs conquered through military might and political maneuvers. The Aztec warriors (the elites in Aztec society) were fearsome in battle, led by clever military strategists. Those warriors captured in a defeat were often sacrificed. Marriages, alliances, and fear of conquest brought many city-states into the Aztecan fold.

If the European discovery had been delayed for a century or two, it is possible that the Aztec in Mexico or the Iroquois in North America would have established strong native states capable of adopting European war tactics and maintaining their independence to this day, as Japan kept her independence from China.

-Historian Samuel Eliot Morison

Once an altepetl was absorbed by the Aztecs, they were expected to provide a tribute of goods and sacrifices to Tenochtitlan but were otherwise left alone. Roads were built across the Aztec Empire, tightening trade between cities. Tenochtitlan swelled in population to roughly 200,000 people, about the same size as Paris across the Atlantic Ocean.

Aztecs Sacrifice Study SmarterPainting of an Aztec sacrifice. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Aztec society flourished. A class system developed, including rulers, nobles, serfs, servants, and slaves. Great pyramids were erected, upon which many thousands of ritual sacrifices were conducted in favor of the gods, including decapitation and heart removal. An estimated 20,000 people a year were sacrificed in the Aztec Empire, during an otherwise period of great cultural, artistic, and scientific growth.

Floating Gardens:

To feed their growing population, the Aztecs built chinampas (floating gardens in Nahuatl). The city of Tenochtitlan was beset by five large, connected lakes. To make up for the lack of land, the Aztecs constructed large, rectangular rafts from woven sticks and piles of mud. They anchored the rafts to other rafts, or to the lake floor, allowing room for canoes to paddle between. On over 20,000 acres of floating land, the Aztecs planted corn, squash, tomatoes, and flowers. The floating gardens were a very effective feat of engineering capable of feeding an empire.

Fall of the Aztec Empire

Hernan Cortes arrived on the shores of Central America in 1519 with 600 conquistadors under him. He was in search of gold and other riches in the New World. Arriving at the gates of Tenochtitlan, Cortes was not disappointed. Seeing the shining armor and horses of Cortes and his Spanish companions, the Aztec leader Montezuma II offered them a warm welcome and many gifts, some of which were gold.

Aztecs Hernan Cortez Study SmarterMontezuma greets Hernan Cortez. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Military Conquest

The situation escalated very quickly. Cortez took Montezuma II, the religious leader of the Aztec people, hostage within his own court. Threatening the life of the Aztec leader, Cortez issued a set of demands to the people of Tenochtitlan. Tensions rose and Cortes was forced to evacuate the city, but he already had other plans in motion.

Montezuma II:

Also known as Moctezuma (and a host of other spellings), Montezuma II was the ninth and (almost) last Aztec ruler. He reigned from 1502 to 1520, inheriting the Aztec Empire at its height. Although Montezuma II was a great warrior and military strategist, he became much disliked by Aztec neighbors and vassal states throughout his reign, due to calls for excessive sacrifice. Historians debate Montezuma II's perception of Hernan Cortes. Some historians say that Montezuma II saw Cortes as a god-like figure, a deity called Quetzalcoatl. Then, there is debate if Quetzalcoatl even existed in Aztec mythology, or if the deity was introduced through Cortes. Other historians believe that Montezuma II simply saw a powerful ally in Cortes and welcomed the conquistador accordingly. Whatever Montezuma II really believed; it did not end well for him.

The Aztecs had ruled over their resentful neighbors and vassal states through imperial might. Cortes inspired the enemies of the Aztec Empire to stand against their oppressors (and if they denied, Cortes had his own military might to dispense). In August 1521, Tenochtitlan fell to a lengthy siege by Cortes and his Mesoamerican allies.

Disease in the New World

Cortes's greatest weapon, however, was unintentional. Traveling over the Atlantic Ocean, the Spaniards carried with them diseases that the Mesoamericans had never been exposed to. During the siege of Tenochtitlan, many of the inhabitants had fallen ill to smallpox and other European afflictions. The native population of Mesoamerica was about 20 million in 1520. In 1580, the population fell to less than 2 million.

Aztecs calendar

Testament to the significance of Aztec culture is their two-calendar system. The calendar cycles were deeply connected to the Aztec religion, dictating the quality of harvests and the sacrifices necessary to make those harvests successful.

Aztecs Calendar Study SmarterAn Aztec sun stone. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The first calendar, the Tonalpohualli, covered a 260-day cycle (length of time between the appearance of Venus in the sky, the length of Aztec harvest cycles). The second calendar, the Xiuhpohualli was a 365-day cycle, each day representing a different god or religious festival. Notably, the Aztecs did not account for leap years, so their calendars slowly fell out of sync with the movement of the earth around the sun.

Aztec Definitions Chart

The chart below provides definitions for all of the Nahuatl vocabulary used in this article.

Word Definition
HuitzilopochtliAztec god of sun, war, and sacrifice
altepetl Mesoamerican city-state
tlatoani Ruler of a city-state
Tenochtitlan Capital of the Aztec Empire
chinampas Floating gardens
Tonalpohualli Aztec 260-day calendar
Xiuhpohualli Aztec 360-day calendar

Aztecs - Key takeaways

  • Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec Empire, was founded in 1325.
  • For most of the 14th and 15th centuries, the religious Aztec people dominated Mesoamerica through military might, committing thousands of sacrifices to satisfy their gods.
  • In 1519, Hernan Cortes arrived in Mesoamerica. He introduced political turmoil and disease to the Aztec Empire, leading to its fall in 1521.
  • The Aztec calendars stand as a testament to the significant merging of culture and science in a fascinating, pre-colonial Central American empire.

Frequently Asked Questions about Aztecs

The Aztecs lived in Mesoamerica (modern-day Central America). 

Hernan Cortes, a Spanish conquistador, brought advanced weaponry, diseases, and political disruption to the Aztec Empire in the early 16th-century. 

The Aztecs are said to have immigrated from a northern land to Tenochtitlan in Central America, establishing the future capital of the Aztec Empire in 1325. 

The Aztecs were a people located in Mesoamerica in the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries. Centered in Tenochtitlan, the Aztecs established a powerful empire of over 11 million people. 

The Aztecs were ravaged by diseases introduced by European colonists. The Aztec population reduced by over 18 million people in the 16th century after their capital Tenochtitlan fell in 1521. 

Final Aztecs Quiz

Question

Popular belief holds that the Aztecs committed thousands of human sacrifices per year. How accurate is this belief? 

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Answer

Yes, the Aztecs did sacrifice thousands of humans per year to satisfy their gods. 

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Question

What was the shape of Mesoamerica before the Aztec Empire rose to power? 

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Answer

A host of agrarian city states. 

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Question

The Aztec's principal god, Huitzilopochtli, is the god of what concepts? 

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Answer

Sun, war, and sacrifice.

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Question

Why did the Aztec people settle at Tenochtitlan? 

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Answer

According to myth, they found a giant eagle perched on a cactus eating a snake at the site of their future capital, a sign from their god. 

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Question

What was the capital of the Aztec Empire? 

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Answer

Tenochtitlan

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Question

Who were elite in Aztec society? 

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Answer

Aztec warriors

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Question

What happened to enemy warriors of the Aztecs that were captured in battle? 

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Answer

They were often sacrificed

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Question

At its height, what was the population of Tenochtitlan? 

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Answer

200,000 people 

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Question

What was the name of the conquistador leader who conquered the Aztec Empire? 

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Answer

Hernan Cortes

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Question

What was the primary reason for the fall of the Aztec Empire and its people? 

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Answer

Disease brought by Spanish colonizers. 

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