Guide to the Aztec civilization

The Aztec civilization (also known as the Aztec Empire) dated from the 12th century AD to the 15th century AD and stretched from what we now know as Central Mexico to Costa Rica during the same timeline. The original Aztecs were a nomadic people known as the Mexica who spoke Nahuatl, a dialect of the 'Uto-Aztecan' languages. They were descendants of Asians who migrated to the arid Northwest in North America during the last Ice Age; the furthest that Aztec history can be traced.
The Mexica are known to originate from a mythical place known as Aztlan, which is also the etymological root to the Spanish derived word Aztec. Having offended their patron god Huitzilopochtli, they were banished from Aztlan to a nomadic life in wait for a sign from their god that would allow them to settle. Even though the chronology of the Aztec civilization is often hard to establish because they used a distinct Aztec calendar, historians have established that this exodus took place sometime between 1100 and 1170AD.

The Beginnings of the Aztecs or Mexicas
For nearly 50 years, these people wandered, only to settle briefly and then uproot their settlement because of inadequate means to support themselves or hostile neighboring towns or tribes. The Mexicas were not a sophisticated tribe, and fell into the category of Chichimec; wild desert people. Around 1168AD they found themselves in the Valley of Mexico, where they had possibly participated in fall of Tollan, an empire that had presided over the region for 150 years. Two prominent successor states, Azcapotzalco and Colhuacan had established themselves around Lake Tetzcoco and both considered themselves as descendants from the nobility of Tollan. This posed a serious issue to the Mexicas as neither state saw any reason to allow them to put roots in the region.

Initially forging ties with Azcapotzalco, the Mexica lived on their territory, working as laborers and mercenaries, till an influential descendant of a sorcerer started to spread the seeds of doubt and hatred against the new settlers. Purportedly, Copil, the descendant had been rejected by these people in their journey south and avenged this by getting the Mexica ejected from Azcapotzalco territory.
The opposing settlement of Colhuacan gave the Mexica people a place to settle in exchange for military support against their common enemy, the Tepanec or the people of Azcapotzalco. When in one of their ritual sacrifices, the Mexica skinned the favorite daughter of the Colhuacan leader; they lost favor and had to resort to renewing ties with Azcapotzalco. 1320-1325AD sees the Mexica people allotted a settlement near the marshes of Lake Texcoco. The god who had banished the Mexica from Aztlan had sent them on a journey which would culminate when they receive a 'sign' allowing them to settle. This would be a vision of a rock near a lake with a cactus on it, and an eagle holding a serpent in its claws would be perched on the said rock. When the Mexica reached the islet off Lake Tetzcohco, their historical records claim that vision is exactly what they saw, and in 1325AD they created the city of Tenochtitlan on that very location, which would later form the heart of the Aztec civilization.

A Tributary Empire
At the time Tenochtitlan was formed, there were already many altepetl or city states in the valley of Mexico. Each altepetl had its own king, nobility, warriors, and bureaucratic systems in place. The city state had a centre where important institutions lie; educational, judicial, religious, and of course the royal residence. Further from the more urban centre, the farmers and laborers resided.
Neighboring altepetl would either maintain commercial ties of trade or else wage war against each other. The aim of these wars was not to conquer territory but to establish a system of tribute. The reigning king of the losing altepetl would not be dethroned; an annual tax or tribute would be levied on that altepetl. This allowed the stronger, more powerful city states to run their own territories, enlarging their influence and establishing their strength without the added burden of governing more territories. Tribute paying altepetl kept their government and paid a price. Often alliances were formed via trade and marriages of influence and these tactics kept the region alive with growth and strife simultaneously.
By the mid 1400AD, Azcapotzolco was one of the most powerful altepetl with a large web of tributary states. And with its rise to power had accumulated enough hatred to give strength to a combined enemy: the Triple Alliance. Tenochtitlan , Tetzcoco and Tlacopan  combined forces, assassinated the ruler of Azcapotzalco and rid it of the might that it gained through these states paying tribute.
From here onwards, the Aztec civilization became a formidable force and the Aztec tributary empire took form. Tlacaelel, the son of a previous emperor of Tenochtitlan and cousin of another, rose to become an indispensible and monumental figure for the Aztec civilization and how it evolved. He became advisor to the then current ruler and is to date known for his economic and politic ingenuity. The Tlacaelel Prize is still given out annually in Mexico and is considered to be very prestigious.

The Downfall
By 1500AD, the Valley of Mexico housed almost one and a half million people and was facing floods and severe problems in its current infrastructure. And then in 1519AD, Hernan Cortes landed near Veracruz and established many alliances with various populations in the area. Between 1519AD and 1520AD, the balance of powers in the region kept changing constantly as the Spanish tried to conquer it, temporarily lost control of it, till finally in 1521AD, the Spanish finally toppled the Aztec tributary empire.

Economics, War and Religion
Tenochtitlan as the urban seat or the capital of the empire saw great growth during the height of the Aztec civilization. As tributary states were added on, the nobility and the urban population saw additional wealth in the form of collected taxes four times a year. This was in addition to an existing flourishing production, trade and agriculture. A strong focus was initially seen on grain production and looming; however by the end of the Aztec civilization, the pressure of providing sustenance to over a million inhabitants led to the inevitable abandonment of many industries to produce more and more grain. This economic prosperity, parallel to current models, drew citizens from surrounding areas with the promise of better futures.
The amassing of wealth was also reflected in the art and architecture of the Aztecs. The Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan and the temple of Teopanzolco reflected not only architectural advancements but also the conceptual, aesthetic and technical influence of early Aztec styles. Huge pyramids were symbolic of the power of each king that commissioned it. Stone sculptures, ceramic vessels, effigy vessels and precious and semi precious jewelry all were part of the elite noble culture and reflected a shared history. Across the Aztec culture, urban or rural, nobles or farmers; a similar aesthetic, technique, material and study can be seen. Markets, trade or travel, the Aztec culture shared many similarities and these can also be traced to the origin of most occupants of region to the semi mythic Aztlan.

The wars that led to tributary states and eventually an empire reflect the psyche and native expression of the Aztecs. Schools run by the priests taught children of nobility, that war was honorable for boys and equal to that was childbearing and rearing for girls. The honor of death on the battlefield was equivalent to dying in childbirth. Conscription of all men was a part of their allegiance to the king. War was also means of progression in society for the warriors; senior or meritorious warriors wore more decorated dresses and were respected amongst their settlements. Prisoners of war were brought back for human sacrifice and warriors moved up in rank for high numbers of captured enemies. War games were enacted in arenas where victims were left to the mercy of armed warriors. Celebration of military strength can be witnessed in Aztec relics. War was fought against the dark and was sanctioned by the gods.

The religion of the Aztec people consisted of the ancient philosophies of light and dark, and the inner and the outer world. Huitzilopochtli was the god of sun and war, a deity the Mexica carried from Aztlan. Human sacrifice was essential for the supplication of Huitzilopochtli and for the continuance of the sun. Quetzalcoatl, another central deity associated with grain yield, required the sacrifice of a young girl, to ensure the god bestow a healthy new crop.
Priesthood was not dependant on nobility or class, but priests were trained and tested as children, as students of priests. A warrior might be admitted into the elite, a slave could buy his freedom, but a priest had to be carefully picked for his endurance and learning. Priests were male and female: the females in the religious structure maintained temples, made woven adornments, and had healing knowledge. Another religious category was those to whom gods sent prophecies and visions.


The Oracle ThinkQuest provides a comprehensive guide to the Aztec civilization, using simple tables and images.
Useful links:
The Aztecs: A Pre-Columbian History , by Silvorio A. Barroqueiro, provides an educational guide including lesson plans for teachers.

The Aztec Empire, by Michael Smith: a rich, visual exploratory paper on the Aztec culture, social structure, warfare and economy.
Powerpoint presentations on Aztecs: topics ranging from Aztec Gods, Aztec daily life, Aztec codices or picture writing, and general information about Mesoamerican civilizations.

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