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10 most important facts about the Aztecs and their empire

The Aztecs, whose real name was Mexica, were one of the most important and well-known cultures in the Americas. During the Postclassic era, they moved to central Mexico as immigrants and made Mexico City their capital.

View of Ancient ruins of the Aztec and Pyramid of the Sun seen from Pyramid of the Moon at Teotihuacan, Mexico. © CYSUN/Shutterstock

In just a few hundred years, they built an empire and controlled most of what is now Mexico. Whether you are a student, a fan of Mexico, a tourist, or want to learn more about the Aztecs, you will find everything you require to know about them here.

Where are the Aztecs originating?

View of the island of Aztlán. © Wikimedia Commons

The Aztecs and Mexicas did not come from central Mexico. Instead, the Aztec creation myth says they came from a mythical land called Aztlan. In history, they were the last of nine Nahuatl-speaking Chichimeca tribes that moved south from what is now northern Mexico or the southwestern United States because of a long drought. Around 1250 CE, after almost 200 years of traveling, the Mexica arrived in the Valley of Mexico and settled on the shore of Lake Texcoco.

Where was the Aztecs’ capital?

Drawing of what part of Tenochtitlan may have looked like. © Wikimedia Commons

Tenochtitlan was the designation of the Aztec capital city. It was built in 1325 CE. The Aztec god Huitzilopochtli told his people to settle where they would see an eagle sitting on a cactus and eating a snake. This is how the place was chosen.

A swampy area around the lakes of the Valley of Mexico turned out to be a very discouraging place. The Aztecs had to build causeways and islands to make their city bigger. Tenochtitlan grew quickly because it was in a good spot and because the Mexica were good at war. Tenochtitlan was one of the biggest and best-run cities in the world when the Europeans arrived.

How did the Aztec Empire rise to power?

Mural by Diego Rivera of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan and life in Aztec times. © Wikimedia Commons

The Mexica joined forces with Azcapotzalco, one of the most powerful cities in the valley of Mexico, because they were good at war and had a good location. After several successful military campaigns, they got rich by collecting tributes.

The Mexica became known as a kingdom when they chose Acamapichtli, a member of the government of Culhuacan, a powerful Basin of Mexico city-state, to be their first leader. Most importantly, in 1428, they formed the famous Triple Alliance with the cities of Texcoco and Tlacopan. This political force was behind the Mexica’s growth in the Basin of Mexico and beyond, leading to the Aztec empire’s rise.

What was the Aztecs’ economy like?

Tlatelolco Marketplace as depicted at Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago. The largest Aztec market was located in Tenochtitlan’s neighbouring town, Tlatelolco. © Wikimedia Commons

The Aztec economy was based on trade at the market, paying tribute, and farming. Both local and long-distance trade took place in the famous Aztec market system. Craft specialists from the countryside brought their goods into the cities to sell at markets held often.

Pochteca were merchant traders who traveled all over the Aztec empire and brought goods like macaws and feathers from far away. At the time of the conquest, the Spanish said that Mexico-sister Tenochtitlan’s city, Tlatelolco, had the most important market.

One of the major reasons the Aztecs had to take over a neighboring area was to collect tributes. Depending on a city’s location and importance, its tributes were usually goods or services. In the Valley of Mexico, the Aztecs built complex ways to farm, such as irrigation systems, flying fields called chinampas, and terrace systems on the sides of hills.

What was the Aztec society like?

Aztec society. © socialblogginforsocialthings

There were different classes in Aztec society. The people were split into nobles, called pipelines, and commoners, macehualtin. The nobles had important jobs in the government and didn’t have to pay taxes. On the other hand, the commoners had to pay taxes in the form of goods and labor.

Commoners were put together into groups called calpulli, which were like clans. People who were enslaved were at the bottom of Aztec society. These people were criminals, tax cheats, and prisoners. The ruler, or Tlatoani, of each city-state and his family, were at the very top of Aztec society.

He was also known as the supreme king. The cihuacoatl, a ruler or prime minister, was the second most important person in the empire’s government. The position of emperor was not passed down from parent to child. Instead, a council of nobles chose who would be emperor.

How did the Aztecs rule their people?

Itzcóatl, the Fourth Aztec King (Reigned 1427–40). © John Carter Brown Library

The city-state, or altepetl, was the most important government unit for the Aztecs and other people in the Basin of Mexico. Each altepetl was a kingdom run by a tlatoani from the area. Each altepetl was in charge of a rural area around the city that gave food and money to the city.

The Aztecs grew their power mainly through war and marriage alliances. The Aztec government could keep control of its large empire and quickly put down frequent uprisings because it had a large network of informants and spies, especially among the pochteca traders.

What role did warfare play in Aztec society?

The flower war took place in the 15th and 16th centuries between the Aztecs, Tlaxcalans and others in central mexico. © Wikimedia Commons

The Aztecs went to war to grow their empire, get tribute, and take prisoners. Then, these people were either sold into slavery or killed as a sacrifice. The Aztecs didn’t have a permanent army, but they picked them from the common people when they needed soldiers.

In theory, anyone who did well in battle could get a job in the military and join higher military orders like the Orders of an Eagle and Jaguar. In reality, though, these high ranks were usually only reached by nobles. There were battles with neighboring groups, flowery wars aimed to capture enemy soldiers to use as sacrifices, and coronation wars.

In battle, offensive and defensive weapons, such as spears, atlatls, swords, and clubs called macuahuitl, were used. Shields, armor, and helmets were also used. Wood and the volcano’s glass obsidian were used to make weapons, but not metal.

What was the religion of the Aztecs?

From the Codex Fejérváry-Mayer, an Aztec cosmological drawing with the god Xiuhtecuhtli, the lord of fire, and the calendar in the center with the other important gods around him each in front of a sacred tree. © Wikimedia Commons

Like other Mesoamerican cultures, the Aztecs and Mexicas believed in many gods who represented different parts and forces of nature. The Aztecs used the word teotl, often part of a god’s name, to describe the idea of a god or supernatural power.

The Aztecs put their gods into three groups. Each group was in charge of a different part of the world: the sky and the gods of the heavens, the rain and farming, and war and sacrifices. They used a calendar to keep track of their festivals and figure out what would happen in the future.

What was the nature of Aztec art and architecture?

Aztec Empire. © DviantArt/SkoldArt

The Mexica were good at making things, making art, and building. When the Spanish came, they were amazed by the buildings the Aztecs had built. Tenochtitlan was related to the rest of the country by elevated, paved roads. Bridges, dikes, and aqueducts controlled the level and flow of water in the lakes, separating fresh water from salt water and giving the city fresh, drinkable water.

Buildings for government and religion were brightly colored and had stone sculptures on them. Most people know Aztec art for its large stone sculptures, some of which are very big. The Aztecs were also very good at making feather and fabric art, pottery, sculptures made of wood, and works made of obsidian and other stones.

The Mexica, on the other hand, was just getting started with metal work when the Europeans arrived. On the other hand, metal goods were brought in through trade and conquest. Metalworking probably came to Mesoamerica from South America and societies in western Mexico, like the Tarascans, who knew how to do it before the Aztecs did.

What caused the Aztecs’ destruction?

Aztec Worship Temple. © Public Domain

Shortly after the Spanish arrived, the Aztec empire came to an end. Even though it was made in a short time, the conquest of Mexico and the defeat of the Aztecs was a complicated process involving many people. When Hernan Cortes and his soldiers got to Mexico in 1519, they found important allies among the local people who had been ruled by the Aztecs, like the Tlaxcallans.

The second group saw the newcomers as a way to escape the Aztecs. European germs and diseases that got to Tenochtitlan before the invasion killed off most indigenous people and made it easier for the Spanish to take manage of the land. Under Spanish rule, whole communities were forced to leave their homes, and the Spanish nobility built and ran new villages.

Local leaders were left in place but didn’t really have any power. During the Inquisition, Spanish friars destroyed pre-Hispanic temples, idols, and books in central Mexico, just like in other parts of the world. A few of the Aztec books, called codices, were saved by religious orders. They talked to the Aztecs and wrote down a huge amount of information about their culture, ways of life, and beliefs as they were being destroyed.