World History 1 131 - 8.3.1 The Aztec Empire

The early origins of the Aztecs are cloudy, partly because this culture did not have a fully developed writing system for chronicling its history. Instead, the Aztecs relied on artistic records and oral traditions passed from generation to generation. They also used codices, book-like records drawn on bark paper that combined both images and pictograms. Based on information from these sources, historians have been able to place Aztec origins within the context of the collapse of the Toltec civilization.

Link to Learning

Aztec codices are similar to modern books, but instead of words they use images and icons to relay oral traditions. An example is the Codex Mendoza that was created around the year 1541. By scrolling through its pages, you will see both Aztec pictograms and Spanish translations.

The Toltec were an earlier Mesoamerican culture that filled the power vacuum created by the decline of Teotihuacán. From their capital at Tula, the Toltec dominated central Mexico between the tenth and twelfth centuries CE. When their civilization collapsed internally or was possibly conquered, a number of nomadic and warlike groups descended into the area, one of which appears to have been the Aztecs. A new period of cultural transformation and violent wars followed. The Aztecs clearly excelled in these military conflicts, likely acting as mercenaries. Ultimately, they were permitted to settle on a collection of islands within a large but shallow ancient lake called Lake Texcoco, one of five contiguous lakes that once spread across the Valley of Mexico.

Beyond the Book

The Aztec Origin Story

Much of our information about the Aztecs was recorded by the Spanish after they arrived in the sixteenth century. This is problematic for historians because Spanish religious leaders and conquistadores destroyed Indigenous records, particularly those that seemed to have religious significance. Since the Europeans viewed the Indigenous people through their own worldview and transformed Mesoamerica politically and culturally, their written accounts are often an imperfect means for understanding this people. Only by carefully studying the records we have, including Spanish accounts and Aztec codices, have scholars been able to piece together the story the Aztecs told themselves and their subject peoples about their origins.

The word Aztec is derived from their mythical original home, Aztlan. According to the Aztecs’ own origin story, they migrated from Aztlan centuries before their rise to greatness in the Valley of Mexico. This long period of wandering in search of a new home included a number of important events, such as battles, encounters with sorcerers, significant tribal divisions, and the birth of important gods like Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec war god. The story culminates in a dramatic clash on the shore of Lake Texcoco. There the Aztec migrants faced an alliance of rebels who sought their destruction. They survived only because Huitzilopochtli intervened by sending his priests to kill the leader of the enemy alliance and rip out his heart. Huitzilopochtli then instructed the Aztec priests to throw the heart far into the lake. It landed on the island of Tenochtitlán and sprouted a cactus, on which an eagle holding a snake landed. This was where Huitzilopochtli said the Aztecs should settle and build their great city (Figure 8.27).

A picture of a drawing is shown on beige colored parchment. A blue border made out of squares outlines the images within, except for the top left half, which shows some cursive writing in the beige spot. The squares are decorated with small circles and various images of animals and shapes. Inside the border, the top two thirds show a blue rectangle with a thick wavy border and a blue wavy “X” in the middle, creating four triangles. In the middle of the “X” a brown bird is seen with a black and yellow beak sitting atop a green three-pronged cactus in a brown pot with pink and white spikes all over and green, white, and pink flowers on top. In all four triangle sections of the rectangle figures are shown with white cloths tied behind their necks, sitting on a green striped pedestal, with long brown hair, and red and brown hats. All have objects tied to them by a thin black string and words written in black on their clothing. One lone figure in the left section is dark skinned and has no hat and sits on a gold decorated pedestal. The top portion has two figures sitting on either side of a green topped beige and white hut. Two blue and three green plants are seen and both figures have brown brushes ties to the back of their necks. In the left area, four figures are shown with three green plants and one blue plant. The items tied to them are an animal head, a body with a cactus head, a cactus, and a foot. The bottom triangle shows two figures, and two green plants and one blue plant. The items tied to the figures include shoes and a dolphin. There is also a round object shown with seven white circles shown inside and red, yellow, and brown strips on the sides. The triangle on the right shows two figures and three green plants and one blue plant. The items tied to the figures include a foot with an arrow through it and a plant. A skeleton head is also shown with a pole poked through it displayed on two poles and a platform. Below the “X” image, two nearly identical images are shown. A figure in a short shirt with black marks all over and wearing a small loincloth and red and white shoes stands holding a sword and a shield decorated with circles. Below them stands another smaller figure with a white short sleeved shirt and small loincloth with no shoes and holding a circle shield. To the right of both of these images is a white tiered building with stairs leading to a yellow tiered top with lines. Red marks and brown hook-like object are shown below the yellow portion. To its right a green object stands on a red bottom. Toward the bottom right is a blue upside down “T” object with brown hook-like items all over.
Figure 8.27 This colorful page of the sixteenth-century Aztec Codex Mendoza, written using traditional Aztec pictograms, shows the mythical battle with rebels on the shore of Lake Texcoco in the lower panel, and the eagle perched on the cactus above. (credit: “Codex Mendoza depicting the coat of arms of Mexico” by Bodleian Libraries/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

While archaeological evidence contradicts some of this legend, origin stories do have special cultural and political significance. Not only did the Aztecs’ migration story reinforce the important idea that they had emerged from obscurity to dominate the world, but different leaders also curated the history regularly to demonstrate that their reign was the culmination of earlier events. In this way, the story could change over time to support different rulers, general Aztec dominance, and specific cultural practices.

  • Why might the Aztecs have wanted to emphasize that they came from a distant land?
  • What other practical purposes might such an origin story serve?

The Aztecs began constructing their home city of Tenochtitlán among the islands within Lake Texcoco around 1325. During the following century, they survived by trading goods they could produce as well as continuing to serve as mercenaries for the surrounding powers. In this way, they accumulated wealth and supplied themselves with stone, which they used to transform their small island settlement into a large and architecturally sophisticated city. After acquiring some influence in the region, they formed an alliance with two neighboring city-states, Texcoco and Tlacopan. Then, in 1428, this Triple Alliance launched a surprise attack on the powerful city-state of Atzcapotzalco and made itself the dominant regional power. Over the next several decades, the Triple Alliance, with the Aztecs at its head, expanded its control of central Mexico to include Oaxaca in the west, parts of modern Guatemala in the south, and the areas bordering the Gulf of Mexico. By 1502, the newly crowned emperor of the Aztecs, Moctezuma II, was ruling an expansive empire from his capital city of Tenochtitlán (Figure 8.28).

Two maps are shown. The map at the top right shows Mexico with water to the east and west. The Gulf of California is labeled in the west, the Gulf of Tehuantepec in labeled south of Mexico and the Gulf Panama is labeled at the southern portion of the map. East of Mexico the Gulf of Mexico is labeled and southeast of that the Caribbean Sea is labeled. In the land to the north of Mexico these rivers are labeled from west to east: Colorado R., Rio Grande, Red R., Arkansas R., Mississippi R., and Ohio R. In the country of Nicaragua a mass of water is labeled Lake Nicaragua and south of that the Panama Canal is also labeled. The following countries are labeled from north to south with capitals marked with black stars: Mexico (capital: Mexico City), Belize (capital: Belmopan), Honduras (capital: Tegucigalpa), Guatemala (capital: Guatemala), Nicaragua (Managua), El Salvador (capital: San Salvador), Costa Rica (capital: San Jose), and Panama (capital: Panama). To the right in the water some islands are labeled, from north to south: Bahamas, Cuba (capital: Havana), Haiti, and Jamaica. The map to the bottom left shows an enlarged portion of southern Mexico. The Gulf of Mexico is labeled to the east and the Gulf of Tehuantepec shows in the south. A section in the lower portion of the map, along the southern hook of the Gulf of Mexico is highlighted green with the following cities labeled within the green: Tlapacoyan, Atzcapotzalco Tlacopan Texcoco, Tenochtitlan, Cuetlaxtlan, Tepeaca, Tepecoacuilco, Coyolapan and Cihuatlan. Cities labeled outside the green are: Oxtlipa, Tlapacoyan
Figure 8.28 By 1502, the Aztec-led Triple Alliance held sway over a large portion of central Mexico (shown in green). (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

At its height in the early 1500s, Tenochtitlán had a population of at least 200,000 people. It was a massive island city with large causeways that connected it to the shores of the lake. Some of the city’s land had been made by human intervention, which included creating artificial agricultural islands called chinampas around the city that were crisscrossed by canals for irrigation and transportation. These chinampas produced food for the city’s occupants. Toward the center of the island where the land was more firm were the homes of the city’s occupants, made mostly of adobe with flat roofs and built around small courtyards. At the center of the island were large temples, a ball court, administration buildings, homes for the elite, and the palaces of the rulers. The most impressive of the temples was the Templo Mayor, which was expanded numerous times during its long history. By the early 1500s, it was a dual stepped pyramid standing about ninety feet tall (Figure 8.29). One side was dedicated to the city’s patron Tlaloc, the god of rain. The other side was dedicated to Huitzilopochtli, the god of war. Priests climbed a long staircase to the temple to perform important state rituals.

A photo of varying sized building models is shown on a flat white surface and darker blue cloudy background. One large tiered structure shows in the middle back with orange colored lower tiers. Two separate tiered buildings sit atop the structure and show doors on the lowest tier. The left one shows vertical dark lines while the one on the right shows red coloring across the walls. In the forefront shorter and smaller more tiered structures are shown. All have lower orange colored plain tiers with tops tiers decorated with blue and red colors.
Figure 8.29 At their height in the sixteenth century, the temples at Tenochtitlán were beautifully painted, as this modern model shows. (credit: “Model of the Templo Mayor (main temple) of Tenochtitlan” by “schizoform”/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0)

One of the most important ceremonies performed at the Templo Mayor and other temples in Tenochtitlán was the ritual of human sacrifice. Like many Aztec traditions, this rite was widely practiced in Mesoamerica and had roots going back to the Olmec culture and likely earlier. Human sacrifices occurred on important days identified on the Aztec calendar and during the commemoration of new temples or the expansion of existing ones. Contemporary descriptions note that long lines of sacrificial victims were led up the steps to the temple platform. There they were laid on a sacrificial stone, where their chests were opened with a sharp flint or obsidian knife and their hearts removed by the executioner (Figure 8.30). The bodies were then tossed down the steps of the temple.

An image is shown on a yellow background with a sun in the top left corner depicting a solemn looking face. In the image, a man is shown being held up over a six-tiered orange, brown, and yellow structure wearing a small loincloth. One person is holding him at each arm and each foot. The figures holding him up wear cloths tied around them, are barefoot, and have long dark hair. The two in the front are kneeling while the two in the back stand. The figure being held up shows a red hole in his chest with red blood pouring out. Above the figure a person in a while loincloth and white robe with long black hair stands holding a heart over the figure with blood dripping down.
Figure 8.30 Like many pre-Columbian civilizations, the Aztecs considered human sacrifice an important part of their religious traditions. This image is from a sixteenth-century codex. (credit: “Aztec Human Sacrifice 10” by latinamericanstudies.org modification of "Image 242 of General History of the Things of New Spain by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún: The Florentine Codex. Book II: The Ceremonies" by Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

These rituals were closely tied to Aztec cosmology and the people’s understanding of their role in the universe. The gods were believed to participate in the practice of sacrifice and to have used it to create the world and perpetuate its existence (Table 8.2). They often needed the assistance of human beings, who were created to serve and feed them through human sacrifice and other means. The sacrifices were thought to ensure that the sun stayed in the sky, the harvests continued to be bountiful, illnesses were kept at bay, and the military power of the Aztecs remained supreme.

Centeotl The Aztec god of maize
Huitzilopochtli The Aztec god of war
Quetzalcoatl The “feathered serpent” and Aztec god of wind, dawn, merchants, and knowledge
Tlaloc The Aztec god of rain
Coatlicue The Aztec goddess of fertility and rebirth
Xiuhtecuhtli The Aztec god of fire and creator of life
Table 8.2 The Aztec Gods

Human sacrifice was also an important means of preserving and expanding the empire and keeping conquered territories in line, since sacrificial victims were often those captured in battle. Thus, the goal in warfare was often to seize the enemy alive. Aztec war had important ritual purposes too. In some instances, it could be highly theatrical and consisted of paired individuals fighting each other, rather than large armies. Young boys began training to serve in the Aztec military from an early age. They drilled regularly with javelins for throwing, leather-covered shields, and clubs fitted with obsidian blades. Until they were old enough and experienced enough to become warriors themselves, they worked in the service of veteran warriors (Figure 8.31).

An image is drawn on an off-white background. A soldier stands facing to the right in white garments with red and white striped socks and sleeves. He wears a white helmet that goes under his chin and depicts a serpent head with eyes and teeth. Green and brown feathers come out of the helmet in the back. He holds a brown and yellow circle shield with seven black and white striped circles on the front and brown, red, green and yellow feathers coming out of the bottom. He holds a tall spear in his left hand. Behind him can be seen three tall red sticks with green feathers projecting from the top. A spear with a hand on it can be seen behind him and script can be seen written alongside his spear, from top to bottom.
Figure 8.31 Aztec warriors, like this one shown in a detail from the Codex Mendoza (c. 1542), trained from childhood to fight in wars for the empire. (credit: “Tlacochcalcatl” by Unknown/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

The Aztec Empire also exacted tribute payments from its conquered territories. At its height, the empire consisted of thirty-eight provinces, each expected to submit specific tribute to the imperial capitals. Occasionally, regions that resisted incorporation into the empire were given harsh terms. More often, the type of tribute demanded was related to the location of the tribute state and the goods it typically produced. For example, the Gulf coast area was known for natural rubber production and was assessed a tribute payment of sixteen thousand rubber balls for use in the Aztec ball game. Locations much closer to the capitals commonly provided goods like food that were expensive to transport over long distances. Those much farther away might be expected to provide luxury goods the Aztec elite gave as gifts to important warriors. Typical tribute items included cloth, tools like knives and other weapons, craft goods of all types, and of course, food. Tribute items could also include laborers to work on larger imperial projects. The Aztec tribute system functioned much like a crude system of economic exchange. Goods of all types flowed into the centers of power and the hands of elites. But they also made their way to commoners, who benefited from the diversity of the items the system made available.

As a highly militarized society, Aztec culture prized perceived male virtues like bravery, strength, and fighting ability. Warriors were expected to sacrifice themselves to perpetuate the glory of the state. When they were successful in battle, they were adorned with rich cloth and celebrated by the masses. Aztec women operated within a more circumscribed world. They could not serve in the military or attain high positions within the state, yet they did not necessarily occupy a lower status than men. Rather, Aztec state culture emphasized the complementarity of women and men, with men expected to fill roles outside the home like farming and fighting and women responsible for domestic chores like cooking and weaving.

Aztec women thus often spent long hours grinding corn into meal and weaving clothing for the family. Their work could sometimes take them outside the home, such as to the markets where some gained considerable wealth as traders and served in leadership roles. As midwives and healers, women ensured that healthy children were born and that the sick were treated with medicines backed by centuries of knowledge about the medicinal properties of certain plants.

Aztec society was made up of a number of social tiers. At the bottom was a large number of enslaved people and commoners with no land. Above these were the commoners with land. Before the imperial expansion, landed commoners had some limited political power. However, within the imperial system they were relegated to providing food and service for the military. Above them were the many specialized craftspeople, merchants, and scribes. And above all commoners were the nobles, who used conspicuous displays of wealth to elevate themselves. They served in the most important military positions, on the courts, and in the priesthood.

The members of the Council of Four also came from the noble class. The council’s primary task was to select the Aztec emperor, or Huey Tlatoani, from the ranks of the nobility. The emperor occupied a position far above everyone else in Aztec society. His coronation included elaborate rituals, processions, speeches, and performances, all meant to imbue him with enormous power. Even high-ranking nobles were obliged to lie face down in his presence.

The Aztec rulers had not always been so powerful or elevated so far above the masses. Their great authority and the ceremony of their office increased with the expansion of the empire. By the coronation of Moctezuma II in 1502, the office of emperor had reached its height, as had the empire. The expansion of the preceding decades had slowed, and demands for tribute and captives for ritual sacrifice were taking their toll and stirring resentment in many corners of the empire. It was into this context that the first Spanish explorers came. They were able to exploit the weaknesses in the empire and eventually bring about a new Spanish-centered order built on top of the old Aztec state.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax