Aztecs (Mexica)

Because the Aztec elite continually retold their own history to accord with contemporaneous political and religious concerns, the origins of the Aztec Empire are shrouded in myth and legend.

The consensus view among scholars is that the Aztecs, or Mexica, were a Nahua-speaking nomadic hunting and gathering people who began migrating south from their mythical homeland, called Aztlán, located somewhere in Mexico’s northern deserts, beginning in the early 1100s.

One in a series of Nahua-speaking ethnic groups that migrated into the more fertile regions of Mexico’s Central Highlands after the fall of the Toltecs during the Postclassic period, the Mexica were considered barbarians and dubbed Chichimeca, or “lineage of the dog,” by the more advanced and sedentary groups already settled in the Basin of Mexico.

With its rich diversity of environmental resources, the Basin of Mexico, a region called Anáhuac in Nahuatl, had been a primary locus of sedentary agriculture and the development of advanced civilizations since the Preclassic period.

The Aztecs migrated into Anáhuac around the year 1250, where they lived a precarious existence for the next century, learning the sedentary lifeways of their more numerous and powerful neighbors.

According to Aztec legend, the site of their capital city was chosen around the year 1325, when one of their holy men saw fulfilled the prophecy of their principal god, Huitzilopochtli: an eagle perched on a cactus, in some versions devouring a snake. The site was a small outcropping of rocks on the western edge of the southern part of Lake Texcoco.

On this site the Aztecs began building their capital city, an island linked to the mainland by causeways, which they called Tenochtitlán (Place of the Cactus Fruit). At the time other city-states dominated the Basin of Mexico, most notably Tepaneca, Texcoco, and Tlacopán.

The island-city grew rapidly, as did Aztec military and political power. In 1428, under Itzcoatl (c. 1427–40), the Aztecs overthrew their Tepaneca overlords, asserted their independence, and became the “first among equals,” in a Triple Alliance with Texcoco and Tlacopán.

Bent on imperial expansion, the Mexica polity under Moctezuma I (c. 1440–69) combined wars of conquest with alliance-making to expand their domain, a process continued under the rulers Axayacatl (c. 1469–81), Tizoc (c. 1481–86), Ahuitzotl (c. 1486–1502), and Moctezuma II (c. 1502–20).

By the early 1500s, the Aztecs had created an expansive tributary empire that reached far beyond Anáhuac to embrace most of the settled territories to the east (to the Gulf of Mexico) and south (to the edge of the Maya domains), and whose influence was felt as far south as the Maya kingdoms of Guatemala. To the west, various Tarascan polities resisted Aztec efforts to subdue them, while closer to home, some retained their independence—most notably the Tlaxcalans.

Far from unitary or monolithic, the Aztec Empire was shot through with multiple fractures and divisions—of languages, ethnic groups, religions, kingdoms, city-states—largely a consequence the Mesoamerican political-cultural imperial tradition of leaving intact the ruling dynasties and bureaucratic infrastructure of dominated polities. An estimated 400 polities were subordinate and paid tribute to their Aztec overlords.

By this time, Tenochtitlán had become one of the largest and most densely populated cities in the world, covering nearly 14 square kilometers, with intricate systems of canals, footpaths, gardens, walls, paved streets, residential complexes, temples, and pyramids.

The city’s population probably reached 250,000 people. The planned city was divided into quarters, corresponding to the four cardinal directions, with a separate fifth quarter, Tlatelolco, serving as the city’s principal marketplace.

At the city’s core lay the sacred precinct, covering perhaps 90,000 square meters, filled with more than 80 imposing structures, dominated by the Great Pyramid (Templo Mayor), some 60 meters high, with its twin temples devoted to Huitzilopochtli (the god of the Sun and war) and Tlaloc (the god of rain).

Aztec Society

Aztec society was extremely hierarchical, with complex gradations of class and status extending from top to bottom, with each individual and family pegged into a specific social category.

After the household and nuclear family, the foundational social unit upon which social relations among the Mexica were built was the calpulli, an extended lineage group that corresponded to occupation, place of residence, and local governance—variously translated as “parish,” barrio, and “clan.” The vast majority of the inhabitants of Tenochtitlán and its subordinate polities were maceualli (commoners, plebians) engaged in agriculture, petty trade, or service.

A small minority, at most 10 percent of the populace, constituted the ruling class of top-echelon bureaucrats, dignitaries, warriors, and priests. Merchants, or pochteca, divided into merchant guilds, appear to have constituted a separate social class, as did warriors, priests, and craft workers.

The Aztec economy was based on a highly developed combination of agriculture, tribute, and trade, along with intensive exploitation of Lake Texcoco’s abundant lacustrine resources.

An ingenious agricultural device, the chinampas (sometimes erroneously called “floating gardens”), artificial islands built of woven mats of reeds and branches atop which was piled mud and organic matter dredged from the lake bottom, provided abundant maize, legumes, fruits, and vegetables. Trade and commerce occupied a central place in the Aztec economy. cacao beans were the principal form of money.

Religious concerns intruded into every aspect of Aztec daily life. The notion that the worlds of the sacred and the secular constituted distinct or separate realms did not exist. The Aztec corpus of religious beliefs and practices was dizzyingly complex, their pantheon of gods, deities, sacred beings, and divine entities reaching into the hundreds.

The most important deities were Huitzilopochtli (the Aztec’s most honored deity), Tlaloc, Quetzalcoatl (“Plumed Serpent”), and Tezcatlipoca (“Lord of the Here and Now,” “Smoking Mirror,” “He Whose Slave We Are”).

The latter was considered an especially capricious, devious, and dangerous god, one who derived great pleasure from laying waste to human ambition and pretension. Propitiation of these and many other gods constituted one of humanity’s principal tasks, for without adequate ritual and obeisance, they might well turn on their mortal underlings and wreak havoc on their lives and fortunes.

Unlike the Christian God of this same period, Aztec gods, like Mesoamerican deities generally, were not considered exclusive. It was common for groups and polities to adopt new gods, especially those of a dominant or conquered group, by incorporating them into an already well-populated pantheon.

Intimately tied to Aztec religion were Aztec conceptions of time. The Aztec solar calendar was divided into 18 “months” of 20 days each, with a five-day “barren” or “hollow” period at the end of each solar year—a time of foreboding and dread. Each month, in turn, was devoted to specific rituals and ceremonies paying homage to a particular god or combination of gods.

aztecs solar calendar
aztecs solar calendar
Thus, for instance, the “Feast of the Flaying of Men” took place on March 5–24, and included mass ritual human sacrifice in honor of Xipe Totec (the god of fertility and martial success), as well as gladiatorial contests and sacrifices, dancing, and feasting.

In addition to the solar calendar was the sacred or divinatory calendar, a pan-Mesoamerican phenomenon, composed of 260 days and divided into 20 units of 13 days each—all associated with particular gods and rituals. An Aztec “century” consisted of 52 solar years.

The end of each 52-year cycle was considered a period of great danger, for unless the Sun god Huitzilopochtli was adequately propitiated with human blood, the Sun would cease to rise and the world would come to an end.

Closely linked to these temporal cycles, to the propitiation of the gods, and to the expansion of the Aztec Empire generally were conceptions and practices of warfare, which occupied a central place in Aztec political culture and cosmology.

By the Postclassic period, Mesoamerica as a whole had developed a highly elaborate series of beliefs and practices concerning warfare. In general, its principal purpose was not to occupy territory or kill enemy combatants, though the latter in particular was not uncommon, but to subdue competing polities and capture enemy soldiers on the battlefield.

These captives would be sacrificed to the gods, in order to ensure the good harvests, the well-being of the empire, and the continuation of the world. Thus, the so-called Flowery Wars (“flower” being a metaphor for human blood) between the Aztecs and as-yet unconquered kingdoms such as Tlaxcala were conceived and undertaken principally as ritual events whose principal purpose was to capture victims for later sacrifice.

The accumulation of animosities that resulted from these ritual battles, along with these cultural beliefs concerning warfare and divine intervention in human affairs generally, proved crucial in the later conquest of Mexico.