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Aztec ruins of the former city-state of Tlatelolco foreground and the Church of Santiago de Tlatelolco background , Mexico City.
Get exclusive access to content from our First Edition with your subscription. Subscribe today. The writings preserve a record of the Aztec culture and Nahuatl language.
Learn More in these related Britannica articles:. The Aztec s are also known as Mexica or Tenochca. A major characteristic of the Postclassic, in contrast to the Classic, is the abundant historical documentation.
The Aztec record is particularly rich, and much of it is undoubtedly genuine, although there is always the possibility that records were rewritten or tampered with for political….
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About Us. After living in Colhuacan, the Mexica were again expelled and were forced to move. According to Aztec legend, in , the Mexica were shown a vision of an eagle perched on a prickly pear cactus , eating a snake.
The vision indicated the location where they were to build their settlement. The year of foundation is usually given as In the Mexica royal dynasty was founded when Acamapichtli , son of a Mexica father and a Colhua mother, was elected as the first Huey Tlatoani of Tenochtitlan.
In the first 50 years after the founding of the Mexica dynasty, the Mexica were a tributary of Azcapotzalco, which had become a major regional power under the ruler Tezozomoc.
The Mexica supplied the Tepaneca with warriors for their successful conquest campaigns in the region and received part of the tribute from the conquered city states.
In this way, the political standing and economy of Tenochtitlan gradually grew. In , at Acamapichtli's death, his son Huitzilihhuitl lit.
Chimalpopoca lit. In , Azcapotzalco initiated a war against the Acolhua of Texcoco and killed their ruler Ixtlilxochitl.
Even though Ixtlilxochitl was married to Chimalpopoca's daughter, the Mexica ruler continued to support Tezozomoc. Tezozomoc died in , and his sons began a struggle for rulership of Azcapotzalco.
During this struggle for power, Chimalpopoca died, probably killed by Tezozomoc's son Maxtla who saw him as a competitor.
The Mexica were now in open war with Azcapotzalco and Itzcoatl petitioned for an alliance with Nezahualcoyotl , son of the slain Texcocan ruler Ixtlilxochitl against Maxtla.
Itzcoatl also allied with Maxtla's brother Totoquihuaztli ruler of the Tepanec city of Tlacopan. The Triple Alliance of Tenochtitlan, Texcoco and Tlacopan besieged Azcapotzalco, and in they destroyed the city and sacrificed Maxtla.
Through this victory Tenochtitlan became the dominant city state in the Valley of Mexico, and the alliance between the three city-states provided the basis on which the Aztec Empire was built.
Itzcoatl proceeded by securing a power basis for Tenochtitlan, by conquering the city-states on the southern lake — including Culhuacan , Xochimilco , Cuitlahuac and Mizquic.
These states had an economy based on highly productive chinampa agriculture, cultivating human-made extensions of rich soil in the shallow lake Xochimilco.
Itzcoatl then undertook further conquests in the valley of Morelos , subjecting the city state of Cuauhnahuac today Cuernavaca.
In , Motecuzoma I Ilhuicamina [nb 4] lit. The accession of a new ruler in the dominant city state was often an occasion for subjected cities to rebel by refusing to pay tribute.
This meant that new rulers began their rule with a coronation campaign, often against rebellious tributaries, but also sometimes demonstrating their military might by making new conquests.
Motecuzoma tested the attitudes of the cities around the valley by requesting laborers for the enlargement of the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan. Only the city of Chalco refused to provide laborers, and hostilities between Chalco and Tenochtitlan would persist until the s.
Motecuzoma therefore initiated a state of low-intensity warfare against these three cities, staging minor skirmishes called " Flower Wars " Nahuatl xochiyaoyotl against them, perhaps as a strategy of exhaustion.
Motecuzoma also consolidated the political structure of the Triple Alliance, and the internal political organization of Tenochtitlan.
His brother Tlacaelel served as his main advisor Nahuatl languages: Cihuacoatl and he is considered the architect of major political reforms in this period, consolidating the power of the noble class Nahuatl languages: pipiltin and instituting a set of legal codes, and the practice of reinstating conquered rulers in their cities bound by fealty to the Mexica tlatoani.
In , the next ruler was Axayacatl lit. Axayacatl also conquered the independent Mexica city of Tlatelolco, located on the northern part of the island where Tenochtitlan was also located.
The Tlatelolco ruler Moquihuix was married to Axayacatl's sister, and his alleged mistreatment of her was used as an excuse to incorporate Tlatelolco and its important market directly under the control of the tlatoani of Tenochtitlan.
Axayacatl then conquered areas in Central Guerrero, the Puebla Valley, on the gulf coast and against the Otomi and Matlatzinca in the Toluca valley.
The Toluca valley was a buffer zone against the powerful Tarascan state in Michoacan , against which Axayacatl turned next. In the major campaign against the Tarascans Nahuatl languages: Michhuahqueh in —79 the Aztec forces were repelled by a well organized defense.
Axayacatl was soundly defeated in a battle at Tlaximaloyan today Tajimaroa , losing most of his 32, men and only barely escaping back to Tenochtitlan with the remnants of his army.
In at Axayacatls death, his older brother Tizoc was elected ruler. Tizoc's coronation campaign against the Otomi of Metztitlan failed as he lost the major battle and only managed to secure 40 prisoners to be sacrificed for his coronation ceremony.
Having shown weakness, many of the tributary towns rebelled and consequently most of Tizoc's short reign was spent attempting to quell rebellions and maintain control of areas conquered by his predecessors.
Tizoc died suddenly in , and it has been suggested that he was poisoned by his brother and war leader Ahuitzotl who became the next tlatoani.
Tizoc is mostly known as the namesake of the Stone of Tizoc a monumental sculpture Nahuatl temalacatl , decorated with representation of Tizoc's conquests.
The next ruler was Ahuitzotl lit. His successful coronation campaign suppressed rebellions in the Toluca valley and conquered Jilotepec and several communities in the northern Valley of Mexico.
A second campaign to the gulf coast was also highly successful. He began an enlargement of the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan, inaugurating the new temple in For the inauguration ceremony the Mexica invited the rulers of all their subject cities, who participated as spectators in the ceremony in which an unprecedented number of war captives were sacrificed — some sources giving a figure of 80, prisoners sacrificed over four days.
Probably the actual figure of sacrifices was much smaller, but still numbering several thousand. Ahuitzotl also constructed monumental architecture in sites such as Calixtlahuaca, Malinalco and Tepoztlan.
After a rebellion in the towns of Alahuiztlan and Oztoticpac in Northern Guerrero he ordered the entire population executed, and repopulated with people from the valley of Mexico.
He also constructed a fortified garrison at Oztuma defending the border against the Tarascan state. Moctezuma II Xocoyotzin is known to world history as the Aztec ruler when the Spanish invaders and their indigenous allies began their conquest of the empire in a two-year-long campaign — His early rule did not hint at his future fame.
He succeeded to the rulership after the death of Ahuitzotl. Moctezuma Xocoyotzin lit. He began his rule in standard fashion, conducting a coronation campaign to demonstrate his skills as a leader.
He attacked the fortified city of Nopallan in Oaxaca and subjected the adjacent region to the empire. An effective warrior, Moctezuma maintained the pace of conquest set by his predecessor and subjected large areas in Guerrero, Oaxaca, Puebla and even far south along the Pacific and Gulf coasts, conquering the province of Xoconochco in Chiapas.
He also consolidated the class structure of Aztec society, by making it harder for commoners Nahuatl languages: macehualtin to accede to the privileged class of the pipiltin through merit in combat.
He also instituted a strict sumptuary code limiting the types of luxury goods that could be consumed by commoners. In , Moctezuma received the first news of ships with strange warriors having landed on the Gulf Coast near Cempoallan and he dispatched messengers to greet them and find out what was happening, and he ordered his subjects in the area to keep him informed of any new arrivals.
At this point, the power balance had shifted towards the Spaniards who now held Motecuzoma as a prisoner in his own palace. As this shift in power became clear to Moctezuma's subjects, the Spaniards became increasingly unwelcome in the capital city, and in June , hostilities broke out, culminating in the massacre in the Great Temple , and a major uprising of the Mexica against the Spanish.
During the fighting, Moctezuma was killed, either by the Spaniards who killed him as they fled the city or by the Mexica themselves who considered him a traitor.
He ruled only 80 days, perhaps dying in a smallpox epidemic, although early sources do not give the cause. The Aztecs were weakened by disease, and the Spanish enlisted tens of thousands of Indian allies, especially Tlaxcalans , for the assault on Tenochtitlan.
His death marked the end of a tumultuous era in Aztec political history. The most powerful nobles were called lords Nahuatl languages: teuctin and they owned and controlled noble estates or houses, and could serve in the highest government positions or as military leaders.
Their works were an important source of income for the city. Some macehualtin were landless and worked directly for a lord Nahuatl languages: mayehqueh , whereas the majority of commoners were organized into calpollis which gave them access to land and property.
Commoners were able to obtain privileges similar to those of the nobles by demonstrating prowess in warfare.
When a warrior took a captive he accrued the right to use certain emblems, weapons or garments, and as he took more captives his rank and prestige increased.
The Aztec family pattern was bilateral, counting relatives on the father's and mother's side of the family equally, and inheritance was also passed both to sons and daughters.
This meant that women could own property just as men, and that women therefore had a good deal of economic freedom from their spouses.
Nevertheless, Aztec society was highly gendered with separate gender roles for men and women. Men were expected to work outside of the house, as farmers, traders, craftsmen and warriors, whereas women were expected to take the responsibility of the domestic sphere.
Women could however also work outside of the home as small-scale merchants, doctors, priests and midwives. Warfare was highly valued and a source of high prestige, but women's work was metaphorically conceived of as equivalent to warfare, and as equally important in maintaining the equilibrium of the world and pleasing the gods.
This situation has led some scholars to describe Aztec gender ideology as an ideology not of a gender hierarchy, but of gender complementarity, with gender roles being separate but equal.
Among the nobles, marriage alliances were often used as a political strategy with lesser nobles marrying daughters from more prestigious lineages whose status was then inherited by their children.
Nobles were also often polygamous, with lords having many wives. Polygamy was not very common among the commoners and some sources describe it as being prohibited.
The names for these gender identities are deeply connected to the religious customs of the Aztecs, and as such, did play a large role in Aztec society.
Nahuas was of the Aztec and Toltec culture. Nahuas identified as Xochiquetzal; Xochiquetzal is connected with sexual desires.
Unkempt hair, and signified disarray is a sign that women are connected with sexual desires and prostitutes, this is because the Xochiquetzal looked like that on her throne.
Xochiquetzal is known as the goddess that seduces men, this deity was related to sexual desires and sexual activities.
Nahus sexual and gender disorder is symbolized by head and feet turned. Another gender identity is recognised by its Nahuatl word cuiloni.
It is difficult to translate the word cuiloni as the documents from the Aztec Empire mainly are from the Spanish, who viewed homosexuality as sinful behavior, and thus wrote about these unfamiliar gender identities in a negative way, oftentimes employing discriminatory and vulgar language.
What is known for sure is that the cuiloni were biological males who acted in a submissive way both sexually and in other aspects of life.
For example, religiously speaking, they were associated with being sacrificed and eaten. It also transcended sexuality as passiveness, in general, was the main quality associated with the cuiloni.
The main unit of Aztec political organization was the city state, in Nahuatl called the altepetl , meaning "water-mountain". Each altepetl was led by a ruler, a tlatoani , with authority over a group of nobles and a population of commoners.
The altepetl included a capital which served as a religious center, the hub of distribution and organization of a local population which often lived spread out in minor settlements surrounding the capital.
Altepetl were also the main source of ethnic identity for the inhabitants, even though Altepetl were frequently composed of groups speaking different languages.
Each altepetl would see itself as standing in a political contrast to other altepetl polities, and war was waged between altepetl states.
In this way Nahuatl speaking Aztecs of one Altepetl would be solidary with speakers of other languages belonging to the same altepetl, but enemies of Nahuatl speakers belonging to other competing altepetl states.
In the basin of Mexico, altepetl was composed of subdivisions called calpolli , which served as the main organizational unit for commoners.
In Tlaxcala and the Puebla valley, the altepetl was organized into teccalli units headed by a lord Nahuatl languages: tecutli , who would hold sway over a territory and distribute rights to land among the commoners.
A calpolli was at once a territorial unit where commoners organized labor and land use, since land was not in private property, and also often a kinship unit as a network of families that were related through intermarriage.
Calpolli leaders might be or become members of the nobility, in which case they could represent their calpollis interests in the altepetl government.
In the valley of Morelos, archeologist Michael E. Smith estimates that a typical altepetl had from 10, to 15, inhabitants, and covered an area between 70 and square kilometers.
In the Morelos valley, altepetl sizes were somewhat smaller. Smith argues that the altepetl was primarily a political unit, made up of the population with allegiance to a lord, rather than as a territorial unit.
He makes this distinction because in some areas minor settlements with different altepetl allegiances were interspersed.
The Aztec Empire was ruled by indirect means. Like most European empires, it was ethnically very diverse, but unlike most European empires, it was more of a system of tribute than a single system of government.
Ethnohistorian Ross Hassig has argued that Aztec empire is best understood as an informal or hegemonic empire because it did not exert supreme authority over the conquered lands; it merely expected tributes to be paid and exerted force only to the degree it was necessary to ensure the payment of tribute.
The hegemonic nature of the Aztec empire can be seen in the fact that generally local rulers were restored to their positions once their city-state was conquered, and the Aztecs did not generally interfere in local affairs as long as the tribute payments were made and the local elites participated willingly.
Such compliance was secured by establishing and maintaining a network of elites, related through intermarriage and different forms of exchange.
Nevertheless, the expansion of the empire was accomplished through military control of frontier zones, in strategic provinces where a much more direct approach to conquest and control was taken.
Such strategic provinces were often exempt from tributary demands. The Aztecs even invested in those areas, by maintaining a permanent military presence, installing puppet-rulers, or even moving entire populations from the center to maintain a loyal base of support.
Some provinces were treated as tributary provinces, which provided the basis for economic stability for the empire, and strategic provinces, which were the basis for further expansion.
Although the form of government is often referred to as an empire, in fact most areas within the empire were organized as city-states, known as altepetl in Nahuatl.
These were small polities ruled by a hereditary leader tlatoani from a legitimate noble dynasty. The Early Aztec period was a time of growth and competition among altepetl.
Even after the confederation of the Triple Alliance was formed in and began its expansion through conquest, the altepetl remained the dominant form of organization at the local level.
The efficient role of the altepetl as a regional political unit was largely responsible for the success of the empire's hegemonic form of control.
As all Mesoamerican peoples, Aztec society was organized around maize agriculture. The humid environment in the Valley of Mexico with its many lakes and swamps permitted intensive agriculture.
The main crops in addition to maize were beans, squashes, chilies and amaranth. Particularly important for agricultural production in the valley was the construction of chinampas on the lake, artificial islands that allowed the conversion of the shallow waters into highly fertile gardens that could be cultivated year round.
Chinampas are human-made extensions of agricultural land, created from alternating layers of mud from the bottom of the lake, and plant matter and other vegetation.
These raised beds were separated by narrow canals, which allowed farmers to move between them by canoe. Chinampas were extremely fertile pieces of land, and yielded, on average, seven crops annually.
On the basis of current chinampa yields, it has been estimated that one hectare 2. The Aztecs further intensified agricultural production by constructing systems of artificial irrigation.
While most of the farming occurred outside the densely populated areas, within the cities there was another method of small-scale farming.
Each family had their own garden plot where they grew maize, fruits, herbs, medicines and other important plants. When the city of Tenochtitlan became a major urban center, water was supplied to the city through aqueducts from springs on the banks of the lake, and they organized a system that collected human waste for use as fertilizer.
Through intensive agriculture the Aztecs were able to sustain a large urbanized population. The lake was also a rich source of proteins in the form of aquatic animals such as fish, amphibians, shrimp, insects and insect eggs, and water fowl.
The presence of such varied sources of protein meant that there was little use for domestic animals for meat only turkeys and dogs were kept , and scholars have calculated that there was no shortage of protein among the inhabitants of the Valley of Mexico.
The excess supply of food products allowed a significant portion of the Aztec population to dedicate themselves to trades other than food production.
Apart from taking care of domestic food production, women weaved textiles from agave fibers and cotton. Men also engaged in craft specializations such as the production of ceramics and of obsidian and flint tools , and of luxury goods such as beadwork , featherwork and the elaboration of tools and musical instruments.
Sometimes entire calpollis specialized in a single craft, and in some archeological sites large neighborhoods have been found where apparently only a single craft speciality was practiced.
The Aztecs did not produce much metal work, but did have knowledge of basic smelting technology for gold , and they combined gold with precious stones such as jade and turquoise.
Copper products were generally imported from the Tarascans of Michoacan. Products were distributed through a network of markets; some markets specialized in a single commodity for example the dog market of Acolman and other general markets with presence of many different goods.
Markets were highly organized with a system of supervisors taking care that only authorized merchants were permitted to sell their goods, and punishing those who cheated their customers or sold substandard or counterfeit goods.
A typical town would have a weekly market every five days , while larger cities held markets every day. Some sellers in the markets were petty vendors; farmers might sell some of their produce, potters sold their vessels, and so on.
Other vendors were professional merchants who traveled from market to market seeking profits. The pochteca were specialized long distance merchants organized into exclusive guilds.
They made long expeditions to all parts of Mesoamerica bringing back exotic luxury goods, and they served as the judges and supervisors of the Tlatelolco market.
Although the economy of Aztec Mexico was commercialized in its use of money, markets, and merchants , land and labor were not generally commodities for sale, though some types of land could be sold between nobles.
In Aztec marketplaces, a small rabbit was worth 30 beans, a turkey egg cost 3 beans, and a tamal cost a single bean.
For larger purchases, standardized lengths of cotton cloth, called quachtli, were used. There were different grades of quachtli, ranging in value from 65 to cacao beans.
About 20 quachtli could support a commoner for one year in Tenochtitlan. Another form of distribution of goods was through the payment of tribute.
When an altepetl was conquered, the victor imposed a yearly tribute, usually paid in the form of whichever local product was most valuable or treasured.
Several pages from the Codex Mendoza list tributary towns along with the goods they supplied, which included not only luxuries such as feathers, adorned suits, and greenstone beads, but more practical goods such as cloth, firewood, and food.
Tribute was usually paid twice or four times a year at differing times. Archaeological excavations in the Aztec-ruled provinces show that incorporation into the empire had both costs and benefits for provincial peoples.
On the positive side, the empire promoted commerce and trade, and exotic goods from obsidian to bronze managed to reach the houses of both commoners and nobles.
On the negative side, imperial tribute imposed a burden on commoner households, who had to increase their work to pay their share of tribute.
Nobles, on the other hand, often made out well under imperial rule because of the indirect nature of imperial organization.
The empire had to rely on local kings and nobles and offered them privileges for their help in maintaining order and keeping the tribute flowing.
Aztec society combined a relatively simple agrarian rural tradition with the development of a truly urbanized society with a complex system of institutions, specializations and hierarchies.
The urban tradition in Mesoamerica was developed during the classic period with major urban centers such as Teotihuacan with a population well above ,, and at the time of the rise of the Aztec, the urban tradition was ingrained in Mesoamerican society, with urban centers serving major religious, political and economic functions for the entire population.
The capital city of the Aztec empire was Tenochtitlan , now the site of modern-day Mexico City. Built on a series of islets in Lake Texcoco , the city plan was based on a symmetrical layout that was divided into four city sections called campan directions.
Houses were made of wood and loam , roofs were made of reed, although pyramids, temples and palaces were generally made of stone.
The city was interlaced with canals, which were useful for transportation. Anthropologist Eduardo Noguera estimated the population at , based on the house count and merging the population of Tlatelolco once an independent city, but later became a suburb of Tenochtitlan.
Michael E. Smith gives a somewhat smaller figure of , inhabitants of Tenochtitlan based on an area of 1, hectares 3, acres and a population density of inhabitants per hectare.
The second largest city in the valley of Mexico in the Aztec period was Texcoco with some 25, inhabitants dispersed over hectares 1, acres.
The center of Tenochtitlan was the sacred precinct, a walled-off square area which housed the Great Temple, temples for other deities, the ballcourt , the calmecac a school for nobles , a skull rack tzompantli , displaying the skulls of sacrificial victims, houses of the warrior orders and a merchants palace.
Around the sacred precinct were the royal palaces built by the tlatoanis. The centerpiece of Tenochtitlan was the Templo Mayor , the Great Temple, a large stepped pyramid with a double staircase leading up to two twin shrines — one dedicated to Tlaloc , the other to Huitzilopochtli.
This was where most of the human sacrifices were carried out during the ritual festivals and the bodies of sacrificial victims were thrown down the stairs.
The temple was enlarged in several stages, and most of the Aztec rulers made a point of adding a further stage, each with a new dedication and inauguration.
The temple has been excavated in the center of Mexico City and the rich dedicatory offerings are displayed in the Museum of the Templo Mayor.
Archaeologist Eduardo Matos Moctezuma , in his essay Symbolism of the Templo Mayor , posits that the orientation of the temple is indicative of the totality of the vision the Mexica had of the universe cosmovision.
He states that the "principal center, or navel, where the horizontal and vertical planes intersect, that is, the point from which the heavenly or upper plane and the plane of the Underworld begin and the four directions of the universe originate, is the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan.
Other major Aztec cities were some of the previous city state centers around the lake including Tenayuca , Azcapotzalco , Texcoco , Colhuacan , Tlacopan , Chapultepec , Coyoacan , Xochimilco , and Chalco.
In the Puebla valley, Cholula was the largest city with the largest pyramid temple in Mesoamerica, while the confederacy of Tlaxcala consisted of four smaller cities.
In Morelos, Cuahnahuac was a major city of the Nahuatl speaking Tlahuica tribe, and Tollocan in the Toluca valley was the capital of the Matlatzinca tribe which included Nahuatl speakers as well as speakers of Otomi and the language today called Matlatzinca.
Most Aztec cities had a similar layout with a central plaza with a major pyramid with two staircases and a double temple oriented towards the west.
Aztec religion was organized around the practice of calendar rituals dedicated to a pantheon of different deities.
Similar to other Mesoamerican religious systems, it has generally been understood as a polytheist agriculturalist religion with elements of animism.
Central in the religious practice was the offering of sacrifices to the deities, as a way of thanking or paying for the continuation of the cycle of life.
The main deities worshipped by the Aztecs were Tlaloc , a rain and storm deity , Huitzilopochtli a solar and martial deity and the tutelary deity of the Mexica tribe, Quetzalcoatl , a wind , sky and star deity and cultural hero, Tezcatlipoca , a deity of the night, magic, prophecy and fate.