The Aztecs were a Mesoamerican culture that flourished in central Mexico in the post-classic period from 1300 to 1521. The Aztec people included different ethnic groups of central Mexico, particularly those groups who spoke the Nahuatl language and who dominated large parts of Mesoamerica from the 14th to the 16th centuries. Aztec culture was organized into city-states (altepetl), some of which joined to form alliances, political confederations, or empires. The Aztec Empire was a confederation of three city-states established in 1427: Tenochtitlan, city-state of the Mexica or Tenochca; Texcoco; and Tlacopan, previously part of the Tepanec empire, whose dominant power was Azcapotzalco. Although the term Aztecs is often narrowly restricted to the Mexica of Tenochtitlan, it is also broadly used to refer to Nahua polities or peoples of central Mexico in the prehispanic era, as well as the Spanish colonial era (1521–1821).
Table of Contents / Timeline
Most ethnic groups of central Mexico in the post-classic period shared basic cultural traits of Mesoamerica, and so many of the traits that characterize Aztec culture cannot be said to be exclusive to the Aztecs. For the same reason, the notion of "Aztec civilization" is best understood as a particular horizon of a general Mesoamerican civilization. The culture of central Mexico includes maize cultivation, the social division between nobility (pipiltin) and commoners (macehualtin), a pantheon (featuring Tezcatlipoca, Tlaloc, and Quetzalcoatl), and the calendric system of a xiuhpohualli of 365 days intercalated with a tonalpohualli of 260 days. Particular to the Mexica of Tenochtitlan was the patron God Huitzilopochtli, twin pyramids, and the ceramic ware known as Aztec I to IV.
From the 13th century, the Valley of Mexico was the heart of dense population and the rise of city-states. The Mexica were late-comers to the Valley of Mexico, and founded the city-state of Tenochtitlan on unpromising islets in Lake Texcoco, later becoming the dominant power of the Aztec Triple Alliance or Aztec Empire. It was an empire that expanded its political hegemony far beyond the Valley of Mexico, conquering other city states throughout Mesoamerica in the late post-classic period.
Aztec culture and history is primarily known through archaeological evidence found in excavations such as that of the renowned Templo Mayor in Mexico City; from indigenous writings; from eyewitness accounts by Spanish conquistadors such as Cortés and Bernal Díaz del Castillo; and especially from 16th- and 17th-century descriptions of Aztec culture and history written by Spanish clergymen and literate Aztecs in the Spanish or Nahuatl language, such as the famous illustrated, bilingual (Spanish and Nahuatl), twelve-volume Florentine Codex created by the Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún, in collaboration with indigenous Aztec informants. Important for knowledge of post-conquest Nahuas was the training of indigenous scribes to write alphabetic texts in Nahuatl, mainly for local purposes under Spanish colonial rule. At its height, Aztec culture had rich and complex philosophical, mythological, and religious traditions, as well as achieving remarkable architectural and artistic accomplishments.
In time, the Tepanecs of Azcapotzalco ousted the Mexica from Chapultepec and the ruler of Barbara, Cocoxtli, gave the Mexica permission to settle in the empty barrens of Tizaapan in 1299. There they married and assimilated into Culhuacan culture.
In 1323, they asked the new ruler of Culhuacan, Achicometl, for his daughter, in order to make her the goddess Yaocihuatl. Unknown to the king, the Mexica actually planned to sacrifice her. The Mexican believed that by doing this the princess would join the gods as a deity. As the story goes, during a festival dinner, a priest came out wearing her flayed skin as part of the ritual. Upon seeing this, the king and the people of Culhuacan were horrified and expelled the Mexica.
First King AcamapichtliTenochtitlan
In 1376 the Mexica elected their first tlatoani(can be translated into English as 'king'), Acamapichtli, following customs learned from the Culhuacan. These customs required cleaning daily nonstop as a ritual.
Tepanec WarValley of Mexico
Battle of AzcapotzalcoAzcaputzalco
During a disputed Tepanec succession, Maxtla killed his brother and usurped the throne then laid siege to Tenochtitlan. An alliance of opponents under Nezahualcoyotl drove Maxtla back to siege at Azcapotzalco, which fell after 114 days, and the tyrant was executed. Tenochtitlan, Texcoco and Tacuba then created the Triple Alliance, which became the foundation of the powerful Aztec Empire.
Moctezuma I and TlacaelelChalco
Two of the primary architects of the Aztec empire were the half-brothers Tlacaelel and Moctezuma I. Moctezuma I began the expansion in earnest. First he had to reconquer towns which were first conquered by Itzcoatl, but had since rebelled. He asked a number of smaller cities to contribute to the construction of a new Great Temple, and only Chalco refused, which caused Moctezuma to start a war against them which lasted for several years. He then conquered Huastec territory under a pretext of securing Aztec merchants in that area, and then he went to war against the Mixtecs of Coixtlahuaca. Later Moctezuma marched upon the Totonacan cities of Vera Cruz and conquered Xalapa, Cosamaloapan, Cotaxtla (modern day Cuetlachtlan), Ahuilizapan (Modern day Orizaba) and north into Huastec territory conquering Tuxpan and Xilotepec. Tlacaelel recast or strengthened the concept of the Aztecs as a chosen people and elevated the tribal god/hero Huitzilopochtli to the top of the pantheon of gods. In tandem with this, Tlacaelel increased the level and prevalence of human sacrifice, particularly during a period of natural disasters that started in 1446 (according to Durán). At the start of Tlacaelel's tenure, the Mexica were vassals. By the end, they had become the Aztecs, rulers of a socially stratified and expansionistic empire.
During his youth, his military prowess gained him the favor influential figures such as Nezahualcoyotl and Tlacaelel I, and thus, upon the death of Moctezuma I in 1469, he was chosen to ascend to the throne, much to the displeasure of his two older brothers, Tizoc and Ahuitzotl. It is also important that the Great Sun Stone, also known as the Aztec Calendar, was carved under his leadership. In the Year 1475 there was a major earthquake that destroyed many homes in Tenochtitlán. Using as a pretext the insulting behavior of a few Tlatelolcan citizens, Axayacatl invaded his neighbor, killed its ruler, Moquihuix, and replaced him with a military governor. The Tlatelolcans lost any voice they had in forming Aztec policy. Axayacatl largely dedicated his twelve-year reign to consolidating his militaristic repute: he led successful campaigns against the neighboring altepetl of Tlatelolco in 1473 (see Battle of Tlatelolco) and the Matlatzinca of the Toluca Valley in 1474, but was finally defeated by the Tarascans of Michoacán in 1476.
Battle of TlatelolcoTlatelolco
The Tempo Mayor is finished and inaugurated with the sacrifice of 20,000 captives. The temple was called the Huēyi Teōcalli in the Nahuatl language. It was dedicated simultaneously to Huitzilopochtli, god of war, and Tlaloc, god of rain and agriculture, each of which had a shrine at the top of the pyramid with separate staircases. The spire in the center of the adjacent image was devoted to Quetzalcoatl in his form as the wind god, Ehecatl. The Great Temple devoted to Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc, measuring approximately 100 by 80 m (328 by 262 ft) at its base, dominated the Sacred Precinct. Construction of the first temple began sometime after 1325, and it was rebuilt six times. The temple was destroyed by the Spanish in 1521 to make way for the new cathedral.
Christopher Columbus lands in Santa DomingoSanto Domingo
Christopher Columbus reached the island of Hispañola on his first voyage, in December 1492. On Columbus' second voyage in 1493, the colony of La Isabela was built on the northeast shore. Isabela nearly failed because of hunger and disease. In 1496 Santo Domingo was built and became the new capital. Here the New World's first cathedral was erected, and for a few decades, Santo Domingo was also the administrative heart of the expanding empire. Before they embarked on their prosperous endeavors, men like Hernán Cortés and Francisco Pizarro lived and worked in Santo Domingo.
Cortez lands in MexicoVeracruz
Conquistador Hernan Cortes and his Spanish troops did not conquer the Aztec Empire on their own. They had allies, with the Tlaxcalans being among the most important. As conquistador Hernan Cortes was making his way inland from the coast on his audacious conquest of the Mexica (Aztec) Empire, he had to pass through the lands of the fiercely independent Tlaxcalans, who were the mortal enemies of the Mexica. At first, the Tlaxcalans fought the conquistadors viciously, but after repeated defeats, they decided to make peace with the Spanish and ally with them against their traditional enemies. The aid provided by the Tlaxcalans would eventually prove crucial for Cortes in his campaign.
In October 1519, Spanish conquistadors led by Hernan Cortes assembled the nobles of the Aztec city of Cholula in one of the city courtyards, where Cortes accused them of treachery. Moments later, Cortes ordered his men to attack the mostly unarmed crowd. Outside of town, Cortes' Tlaxcalan allies also attacked, as the Cholulans were their traditional enemies. Within hours, thousands of inhabitants of Cholula, including most of the local nobility, were dead in the streets. The Cholula massacre sent a powerful statement to the rest of Mexico, especially the mighty Aztec state and their indecisive leader, Montezuma II.
Cortez enters TenochtitlanTenochtitlan
Capture of MontezumaTenochtitlan
Massacre in the Great Temple of TenochtitlanTenochtitlan
Death of MoctezumaTenochtitlan
Cortes returned to a palace under siege. Cortes could not restore order, and the Spanish were starving, as the market had closed. Cortes had a reluctant Montezuma hauled to the roof of the palace, where he pleaded with his people to stop attacking the Spanish. Enraged, the people of Tenochtitlan threw stones and spears at Montezuma, who was badly wounded before the Spanish were able to bring him back inside the palace. According to Spanish accounts, two or three days later, on June 29, Montezuma died of his wounds.
La Noche TristeTenochtitlan
Battle of OtumbaOtumba
The Spanish invaders who managed to escape from Tenochtitlan were weak, dispirited and wounded. The new Emperor of the Mexica, Cuitláhuac, decided that he had to try and crush them once and for all. He sent a large army of every warrior he could find under the command of the new cihuacoatl (a sort of captain-general), his brother Matlatzincatzin. On or about July 7, 1520, the two armies met in the flatlands of the Valley of Otumba. Spotting the brightly dressed Matlatzincatzin and his generals at the other end of the battlefield, Cortes decided on a risky move. Summoning his best remaining horsemen (Cristobal de Olid, Pablo de Sandoval, Pedro de Alvarado, Alonso de Avila and Juan De Salamanca), Cortes rode at the enemy captains. The sudden, furious assault took Matlatzincatzin and the others by surprise. The Mexica captain lost his footing and Salamanca killed him with his lance, capturing the enemy standard in the process. Demoralized and without the standard (which was used to direct troop movements), the Aztec army scattered. Cortes and the Spanish had pulled out a most unlikely victory.
The introduction of smallpox among the Aztecs has been attributed to an African slave (by the name of Francisco Eguía, according to one account) but this has been disputed. From May to September, smallpox spread slowly to Tepeaca and Tlaxcala, and to Tenochtitlán by the fall of 1520. At this time, Cortes was returning to conquer the city after being thrown out on the Noche Triste. Cortes names only one indigenous leader who died of smallpox, Maxixcatzin. However, Cuitláhuac and other native rulers also died of smallpox. Chimalpahin reports the death of some lords in Chalco from the disease as well. These deaths were part of a widespread epidemic which decimated the common population. Estimates of mortality range from one-quarter to one-half of the population of central Mexico.
Fall of TenochtitlanTenochtitlan
Today the legacy of the Aztecs lives on in Mexico in many forms. Archeological sites are excavated and opened to the public and their artifacts are prominently displayed in museums. Place names and loanwords from the Aztec language Nahuatl permeate the Mexican landscape and vocabulary, and Aztec symbols and mythology have been promoted by the Mexican government and integrated into contemporary Mexican nationalism as emblems of the country.
Aztec culture and history has been central to the formation of a Mexican national identity after Mexican independence in 1821. In 17th and 18th century Europe, the Aztecs were generally described as barbaric, gruesome and culturally inferior. Even before Mexico achieved its independence, American-born Spaniards (criollos) drew on Aztec history to ground their own search for symbols of local pride, separate from that of Spain.
- Berdan, Frances F. (2005) The Aztecs of Central Mexico: An Imperial Society. 2nd ed. Thomson-Wadsworth, Belmont, CA.
- Carrasco, Pedro (1999) The Tenochca Empire of Ancient Mexico: The Triple Alliance of Tenochtitlan, Tetzcoco, and Tlacopan. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.
- Davies, Nigel (1973) The Aztecs: A History. University of Oklahoma, Norman.
- León-Portilla, Miguel (Ed.) (1992) . The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico. Ángel María Garibay K. (Nahuatl-Spanish trans.), Lysander Kemp (Spanish-English trans.), Alberto Beltran (illus.) (Expanded and updated ed.). Boston: Beacon Press. ISBN 0-8070-5501-8.
- Matos Moctezuma, Eduardo and Felipe R. Solís Olguín (editors) (2002) Aztecs. Royal Academy of Arts, London.
- Smith, Michael E. (1984); "The Aztlan Migrations of Nahuatl Chronicles: Myth or History?", in Ethnohistory 31(3): 153 – 186.
- Townsend, Richard F. (2000) The Aztecs. revised ed. Thames and Hudson, NY.
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