Introduction to Aztecs

Aztecs, an Indian people who dominated Mexico at the time of the Spanish conquest in 1521. Their capital city was Tenochtitlán (now Mexico City). They called themselves Tenochcas or Mexica. The term "Aztec" comes from the name of their legendary home. In a broader sense, "Aztec" is applied to their civilization, which flourished in Mexico during the 14th, 15th, and early 16th centuries.

The Aztecs were short, sturdy people with almond-shaped eyes, dark, coarse hair, and brown skin. They spoke Nahuatl, a language of the Uto-Aztecan family. Descendants of the Aztecs form a large part of the Indian population in and around Mexico City, and the Nahuatl language is still spoken.

Aztec Civilization

Aztec culture was largely derived from that of the Toltecs, Mayas, and other early peoples of Mexico. The Aztecs had an accurate calendar, paper made from fig-tree bark, and a system of hieroglyphics (picture writing). Skilled craftsmen made pottery, wove, carved stone sculptures, cut gems, worked metals, and created intricate designs on clothes and banners by tying feathers into fabrics during weaving. Master architects designed aqueducts, dikes, and huge stone pyramids topped by temples. City planners laid out the streets and canals of the capital in an orderly grid pattern.

Most boys attended local schools where they studied history, religion, and crafts and received military training. Some boys and girls attended special religious schools, studying to be priests and priestesses.

Like earlier Mexican peoples, the Aztecs never made use of the wheel (except on children's toys) and did not use animals to pull or carry loads. Their only domesticated animals were dogs, turkeys, and perhaps ducks, geese, and quail. Trade was by barter. Sometimes cacao beans were used as "small change" in major transactions to balance the exchange. Most tools and weapons were made of stone or wood. Gold, silver, and copper were used mainly for ornaments, along with jade, turquoise, emeralds, and shells.


At the time of the Spanish invasion in 1519, the Aztecs dominated an area extending east to the Gulf of Mexico, southwest to the Pacific Ocean and southeast to the present Mexico-Guatemala border. The northern boundary ran approximately through the present cities of Tampico and Guadalajara. The population of the Aztec Empire is estimated to have been 5,000,000 to 11,000,000. The Aztec Empire was a loose organization of independent towns rather than a united kingdom. Subject cities were allowed to rule themselves and retain their own gods and customs. Every six months, tax collectors from the capital gathered tribute in clothing, precious stones, cotton, rubber, chocolate, food, and feathers.

The Capital,

Tenochtitlán, was built on an island in Lake Texcoco, one of five small lakes in the hollow of the Valley of Mexico. Its population probably was at least several hundred thousand. The city had few streets or open spaces, but was crisscrossed by hundreds of canals generally crowded with canoes bringing goods from other cities on the lake. Three causeways led from the mainland to the central plaza of the capital. Here were the largest public buildings, temples, and palaces. Nearby were a ball court (used for a ceremonial ball game that had religious significance), a rack for the skulls of sacrificial victims, and one of the city's five markets. Two aqueducts built on earth dikes brought freshwater to the plaza from springs on the mainland.

Surrounding the central square were the adobe homes of well-to-do Aztecs, each with an inner courtyard. At the outskirts of the city were the thatched huts of the farmers. The island was fringed with chinampas (floating gardens); these were artificial islands, built by piling earth on woven rafts. Here farmers grew corn, beans, peppers, squash, and tomatoes. Women ground the corn into meal for tortillas (flat cakes of unleavened bread), the principal food.

Social Organization

Aztec society was composed of 20 groups called calpullis, which were something like clans or extended families. Land was owned by the calpullis rather than by individuals. Calpulli representatives formed a council that selected two men as rulers. The emperor, the "chief of men," was responsible for external affairs, such as wars and alliances. The vice-emperor, who was called Snake Woman after a goddess, supervised internal affairs. Both also had religious duties.

Aztec society was divided into a number of classes. Although people could advance to a higher level, most often by distinguishing themselves in battle, the usual pattern was for individuals to live out their lives in the class into which they had been born. At the top of the social order were government officials and priests. Next came traders and craftsmen. A special group of traders called pochteca brought luxuries such as gold, gems, and exotic feathers from distant areas and served as military spies. Below these groups were the farmers, who composed most of the population. Lowest in society were the slaves. Some slaves were captives or criminals, but most of the slaves were poor people who gave up their freedom in exchange for food, shelter, and clothing. They usually served as slaves for only a short period of time and were well treated.


The Aztecs worshiped many gods. The most important were Tezcatlipoca, the god of warriors and the night; Huitzilopochtli (Hummingbird-on-the-Left), a god of war and the sun; and Tlaloc, the rain god. There were shrines to Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc in the Great Temple in Tenochtitlán.

The Aztecs believed that the gods needed human hearts and blood for nourishment, so human sacrifice was an important part of Aztec religion. Priests generally sacrificed victims by cutting open their chests and pulling out their hearts. The Aztecs practiced human sacrifice on a massive scale; in 1487, at the dedication of the Great Temple in Tenochtitlán, tens of thousands of people were put to death. To get captives for sacrifices, the Aztecs waged war almost continuously. Every man served in the army and considered it a sacred duty to capture enemies, rather than to kill them.

Worship was regulated by two calendars. Daily worship was determined by a calendar of 260 days, divided into 20 weeks of 13 days. Each hour, day, and week was ruled by a certain god. The great religious ceremonies and festivals were regulated by a calendar of 365 days. It was composed of 18 months of 20 days and an additional five-day period, which was considered an unlucky time. Each month was dedicated to a major god. Both calendars began on the same day once every 52 years. To mark this occasion the Aztecs extinguished all fires and destroyed their furniture. In the open chest of a sacrificial victim, priests kindled a new fire that runners carried on torches to the hearths and altars of the empire.


The legendary original home of the Aztecs was called Aztlán, or "place of the seven legendary caves." According to their records, the Aztecs left Aztlán in 1168 A.D. and wandered through much of Mexico until they settled in the Valley of Mexico in the 13th century. The main body of the Aztecs founded the city of Tenochtitlán about 1325; a smaller group founded the city of Tlateloco nearby.

The Aztecs were under the control of more powerful tribes until the reign of Itzcóatl (1428–40). Under his leadership, Tenochtitlán joined nearby towns to overthrow the Tepanecs, who were then dominating the valley. The Aztecs formed an alliance with two of the towns, Texcoco and Tlacopán (now Tacuba) and began to conquer the surrounding territory. Between 1460 and 1519, the Aztecs became the chief power in the alliance and their empire reached its greatest extent. In 1473 Tenochtitlán conquered and annexed Tlateloco.

In 1519 the Aztec Empire was invaded by a small Spanish army led by Hernando Cortez. As the Spaniards marched to the capital, they gained allies among tribes resenting Aztec power. Montezuma II, the Aztec emperor, welcomed Cortez to Tenochtitlán, but was seized as a hostage by the Spaniards.

In the spring of 1520, an army of Spaniards landed in Mexico to arrest Cortez because he had launched his campaign to conquer Mexico without proper authorization. Cortez withdrew his main army from the capital, and went to the coast to meet the threat. The Aztecs revolted against the small force that had been left in Tenochtitlán. Cortez was able to seize the officers of the army that had been sent against him and gain the allegiance of most of the soldiers. He then returned to Tenochtitlán with his army, but was unable to quell the uprising. When Montezuma tried to calm his people, they attacked him with stones and arrows. He died soon afterwards. ( On June 30, 1520, the "dismal night," the Spaniards retreated to the mainland, losing about half their number to fierce Aztec attacks.

Montezuma was succeeded in turn by a brother and a nephew. In May, 1521, Cortez returned with reinforcements and laid siege to the capital. He used a small fleet of boats, constructed with the help of Indian allies, to clear the lake of canoes while the army advanced along the causeways. For three months the Aztecs, led by their emperor Cuauhtémoc (or Guatemotzin), fiercely defended the city. Finally, weakened by starvation and plague, they surrendered on August 13, 1521.

The Spaniards tore down the buildings and filled in the canals, completely destroying the city. They built Mexico City on its ruins and began to develop the territory as a colony. During the 16th century, the Indians were protected from abuse by special laws enacted by the Spanish government. Missionaries educated and Christianized many natives. Gradually, however, the Spaniards reduced the Indians to serfdom. Many lost their lands and were forced to work in mines. Others died of tuberculosis, measles, and smallpox.

Remains of the Aztec Civilization

Many descriptions of Aztec life exist. Some Aztec records survived the Spanish conquest. Other accounts were written shortly after the conquest by Aztecs, conquistadores, and missionaries. Much of this information was ignored until William H. Prescott rekindled interest in the Aztecs with his History of the Conquest of Mexico (1843). Since then archeologists and historians have learned much about the Aztecs. Among the best-known Aztec ruins are Tenayuca, Tepotzitlán, Teopanzolco, Calixtlahuaca, and Malinalco.

Many archeological excavations have been made in Mexico City. The city's main plaza, known as the Zócalo, covers what was the main square of Tenochtitlán. The Aztec Stone, one of the most famous examples of Aztec stone carving, was found there in 1790. (It was originally called the Aztec Calendar Stone because it was mistakenly assumed to be a calendar.) In 1926 a stone model of a temple was found beneath the National Palace, built on the ruins of Montezuma II's palace. Archeologists recovered thousands of additional objects during excavations for a Mexico City subway system, which were begun in the late 1960's.

Many artifacts have been unearthed over the years at the site of the main Aztec temple, located behind the Cathedral of Mexico City. These finds were usually made accidentally in the course of excavations for construction projects. In 1978, however, archeologists began a comprehensive excavation on the site of the temple's ruins. Many sculptures, sacrificial offerings, and other artifacts were discovered. Many of these and other relics are preserved in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.