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The Rise and Fall of the Aztec Empire

By SC    10/10/04

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Introduction

Native American state that ruled much of what is now Mexico from about 1428 until 1521 was called Aztec Empire. Finally the Spaniards conquered the empire. The empire represented the highest point in the development of the rich Aztec civilization that had begun more than a century earlier. At the height of their power, the Aztec controlled a region stretching from the Valley of Mexico in central Mexico, east to the Gulf of Mexico and south to Guatemala.

The Aztec built great cities and developed a complex social, political, and religious structure. Their capital, Tenochtitlan, was located on the site of present-day Mexico City. An elaborate metropolis built on islands and reclaimed marsh land, Tenochtitlán was possibly the largest city in the world at the time of the Spanish conquest. It featured a huge temple complex, a royal palace, and numerous canals.

After the Spanish conquest, the empire of the Aztec was destroyed, but their civilization remained an important influence on the development of Mexican culture. Many contemporary Mexicans are descended from the Aztec, and more than 1 million Mexicans speak Nahuatl, the native Aztec language, as their primary language. In Mexico City, excavations continue to uncover temple foundations, statues, jewelry, and other artifacts of the Aztec civilization.

Aztec refers both to the people who founded the empire, who called themselves Mexica, or Tenochca, and, more generally, to all of the many other Nahuatl-speaking ethnic groups that lived in the Valley of Mexico at the time of the Spanish conquest. The name Aztec is derived from Aztlán, the mythical homeland of the Mexica; according to tradition, Aztlán was located northwest of the Valley of Mexico, possibly in west Mexico. The name Mexico is derived from Mexica.

Early History

Long before the rise of the Aztec, the Valley of Mexico was the center of a highly developed civilization. A fertile basin, the valley was located 2400 m (7800 ft) above sea level. In its center lay five interconnected lakes dotted with marshy islands. From about ad 100 to 650 the valley was dominated by the city of Teotihuacan, center of a powerful religious, economic, and political state.

After the decline of Teotihuacán, the Toltec people migrated into central Mexico from the north and established a conquest state there. The Toltec civilization reached its height in the 10th and 11th centuries. In the 13th century wandering bands of Nahuatl-speaking warriors, often called Chichimec, invaded the valley. They took over Toltec cities, such as Atzcapotzalco, and founded new ones, such as Texcoco de Mora. The Chichimec combined their own cultural traditions with those of the Toltec to form the early Aztec civilization, whose social structure, economy, and arts would reach their height under the rule of the later empire.

Origins and the Growth of the Empire

The group that eventually founded the Aztec Empire, the Mexica, migrated to the Valley of Mexico in the middle of the 13th century. As late arrivals, the Mexica, a hunter-gatherer people, were forced by other groups in the valley to take refuge on two islands near the western shore of Lake Texcoco (one of the five lakes in the area). The Mexica believed in a certain legend, which held that they would establish a great civilization in a marshy area, where they would first see a cactus growing out of a rock with an eagle perched on the cactus. After the Mexica arrived at the swampy site on the shore of Lake Texcoco, their priests proclaimed that they had seen the promised omen. The site turned out to be a strategic location, with abundant food supplies and waterways for transportation.

The Mexica began farming for a living, and in 1325 they founded the city of Tenochtitlán on one of the lake islands. For the next 100 years they paid tribute to stronger neighboring groups, especially the Tepaneca of the city-state of Azcapotzalco, whom they served as mercernaries.

As the Mexica grew in number, they established superior military and civil organizations. The Mexica of Tenochtitlán formed a triple alliance with the city-states of Texcoco and Tlacopan. In 1428 the triple alliance defeated the Tepaneca. Under the Mexica ruler Itzcoatl, his successor Montezuma I, and the Texcocan ruler Netzahualcóyotl, the three states waged a series of conquests. They eventually established an empire that extended from central Mexico to the Guatemalan border and included many different states and ethnic groups, who were forced to pay tribute to the alliance. Tenochtitlán became the dominant power within the alliance.

Aztec Civilization

Aztec society was highly structured, based on agriculture, and guided by a religion that pervaded every aspect of life. The Aztec worshiped gods that represented natural forces that were vital to their agricultural economy. Aztec cities were dominated by giant stone pyramids topped by temples where human sacrifices were dedicated to the gods. Aztec art was primarily an expression of religion, and even warfare, which increased the empire’s wealth and power, served the religious purpose of providing captives to be sacrificed.

Social Organization

The basic unit of Aztec society was the calpulli, sometimes, at least for early Aztec history, thought of as a clan, or group of families who claimed descent from a common ancestor. Each calpulli regulated its own affairs, electing a council and officers to keep order, lead in war, dispense justice, and maintain records. Calpulli ran schools in which boys were taught citizenship, warfare, history, crafts, and religion. Each calpulli also had a temple, an armory to hold weapons, and a storehouse for goods and tribute that were distributed among its members. Within each calpulli, land was divided among the heads of families according to their needs. Each family had a right to use the land but owned only the goods that it produced.

In Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital, calpulli fulfilled the same functions but gradually took a different form. As the city grew large and complex, the calpulli were no longer based on family relationships, but became wards, or political divisions, of the city. Each calpulli still had its own governing council, school, temple, and land, but its members were not necessarily related. There were 15 calpulli in Tenochtitlán when the city was founded in 1325; by the 16th century there were as many as 80.

In Tenochtitlán and other Aztec city-states, the most capable leaders of each calpulli together composed a tribal council, which elected four chief officials. One of these four officials was selected as the tlatoani (ruler). After Tenochtitlán became the center of Aztec civilization, its ruler became the supreme leader of the empire, to whom lesser rulers paid tribute. This ruler was considered semidivine, a descendant of the Aztec gods, and served as both military leader and high priest. His title was huey tlatoani, meaning “great lord” or “great speaker.”

The ruler was supported by a noble class of priests, warriors, and administrators. Below these nobles were the common people, including merchants, artisans, soldiers, peasant farmers, and laborers. Aztec merchants formed a hereditary class, called pochteca. They lived in special quarters in the cities, formed guilds, and had many privileges.

Aztec rulers and nobles owned land on private estates. Most land for commoners was owned by a calpulli, which assigned its members plots to use. Landholders paid tribute to the empire in agricultural products, which were used to finance public projects. All able-bodied men owed military service to the empire. Citizens could also be drafted to work on public lands or build temples, dikes, aqueducts, and roads.

Although Aztec society had strict classes, a person’s status could change based on his or her contribution to society. Commoners could improve their rank, especially by performing well in battle, and become prosperous landowners. Young people of some classes could study to become priests or warriors. Warriors who captured many prisoners gained prestige and wealth and might be admitted into one of several elite military orders. A person who committed a crime or did not pay his debts became a slave; however, such slaves could eventually regain their freedom, and their children were born free.

Tenochtitlán

Tenochtitlán was the center of the Aztec world. The marvels of the island city were described at length by the Spanish conquistadors (conquerors), who called it the “Venice of the New World” (in reference to Venice, Italy) because of its many canals. At its height, the city had a population of about 200,000, according to modern estimates, making it one of the most populous cities in the ancient world.

Tenochtitlán was connected to the mainland by three well-traveled causeways, or raised roads. During the rainy season, when the lake waters rose, the causeways served as protective dikes. Stone aqueducts brought fresh drinking water into the city from the mainland. Tenochtitlán’s canals served as thoroughfares and were often crowded with canoes made from hollowed logs. The canoes were used to carry produce to the public market in the city’s main plaza.

At the center of Tenochtitlán was a ceremonial plaza paved with stone. The plaza housed several large government buildings and the palace of the Aztec ruler, which was two stories high and contained hundreds of rooms. The most important structure in the plaza was a large, terraced pyramid crowned with two stone temples dedicated to the most important Aztec gods—the sun god (also the god of war) and the rain god. A surrounding enclosure contained buildings for priests and elite military groups, courts for sacred games, and smaller pyramids topped by temples where incense and sacrificial fires burned before enormous idols. Other temple pyramids were built in every section of the city.

Residents of Tenochtitlán lived in houses built around open courts, or patios. Houses of the nobility were made of plastered brick or stone and painted bright shades of red or white. The houses of the common people were smaller, made of interwoven twigs and mud, and thatched with grass.

Agriculture

Farming provided the basis of the Aztec economy. The land around the lakes was fertile but not large enough to produce food for the population, which expanded steadily as the empire grew. To make more land suitable for farming, the Aztec developed irrigation systems, formed terraces on hillsides, and used fertilizer to enrich the soil. Their most important agricultural technique, however, was to reclaim swampy land around the lakes by creating chinampas, or artificial islands that are known popularly as “floating gardens.” To make the chinampas, the Aztec dug canals through the marshy shores and islands, then heaped the mud on huge mats made of woven reeds. They anchored the mats by tying them to posts driven into the lake bed and planting trees at their corners that took root and secured the islands permanently. On these fertile islands they grew corn, squash, vegetables, and flowers.

Aztec farmers had no plows or work animals. They planted crops in soft soil using pointed sticks. Corn was their principal crop. Women ground the corn into a coarse meal by rubbing it with a grinding stone called a mano against a flat stone called a metate. From the corn meal, the Aztec made flat corn cakes called tortillas, which was their principal food. Other crops included beans, squash, chili peppers, avocados, and tomatoes. The Aztec raised turkeys and dogs, which were eaten by the wealthy; they also raised ducks, geese, and quail.

Aztec farmers had many uses for the maguey plant (also known as the agave), which grew in the wild to enormous size. The sap was used to make a beerlike drink called pulque, the thorns served as needles, the leaves were used as thatch for the construction of dwellings, and the fibers were twisted into rope or woven into cloth.

Trade

In the Aztec empire, some manufactured goods were produced for the ruler or sold in the local markets. These included pottery, tools, jewelry, figurines, baskets, and cloth. Other goods, especially prized luxury items such as lake salt, gold ornaments, and rich garments, were carried by traveling traders to distant peoples in the lowlands along the Gulf coast and south toward what is now Guatemala. There they were exchanged for luxury items native to those regions, such as tropical-bird feathers, jaguar skins, cotton, rubber, and cacao beans for chocolate. The Aztec had no metal coins. They used cacao beans, cotton cloth, and salt as a form of money.

The Aztec had no wheeled vehicles or draft animals, so trading goods were carried by canoe or on the backs of porters, who marched in long caravans led by merchants. In dangerous areas, Aztec warriors would protect the caravans. Merchants would often act as spies for the empire when trading in towns that had not been conquered by the Aztec.

Religion

As an agricultural people, the Aztec depended heavily on the forces of nature and worshiped them as gods. Most important was their patron deity, the sun god, Huitzilopochtli, who was also considered to be the god of war. Other important gods were Tlaloc (the god of rain) and Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent (the god of wind and learning, also associated with resurrection). The Aztec believed that the benevolent gods must be kept strong to prevent the evil gods from destroying the world. For this purpose they conducted human sacrifices. Victims of sacrifice were usually prisoners of war, although Aztec warriors would sometimes volunteer for the more important sacrificial rituals. The god Tlaloc was believed to prefer children as sacrificial victims.

The sacrificial rituals were elaborate in form, calculated according to the stars to please specific gods at specific times. A victim would ascend the steps of the pyramid. At the top, a priest would stretch the victim across a stone altar and cut out the victim’s heart. The priest would hold the heart aloft to the god being honored and then fling it into a sacred fire while it was still beating. Often many victims were killed at once. In 1487, according to legend, Aztec priests sacrificed more than 80,000 prisoners of war at the dedication of the reconstructed temple of the sun god in Tenochtitlán.

Aztec priests sought to win favor with the gods by fasts and self-inflicted bloodletting. Some of them ran schools called calmecacs in which they taught religious rituals to boys studying for the priesthood. One of the most important functions of the priests was to determine which days would be lucky for engaging in activities such as war and baptism. A religious calendar of 260 days provided this information. The dates of ceremonies to honor the gods were determined by a solar calendar of 365 days. Variants of both calendars were developed by earlier Mesoamerican civilizations such as the Maya, Olmec, and Zapotec. The meshing of the two calendars produced a 52-year cycle, at the end of which the Aztec would let their hearth fires go out. To begin the next cycle, they would hold the important “new fire ceremony,” in which priests lit a sacred fire in the chest cavity of a sacrificial victim, and the people rekindled their hearth fires and began feasting.

Art

Most of the art produced by the Aztec expressed aspects of their religion. Brilliantly colored paintings, done mainly on walls and amatl (paper made of pounded bark), depicted religious ceremonies and stiff, angular gods. The Aztec carved freestanding idols and bas-relief wall sculptures on their temple-pyramids. Stone sculptures were often made to represent gods and sacrificial victims.

One of their most famous surviving Aztec sculptures is the so-called calendar stone, which weighs 22 metric tons and measures 3.7 m (12 ft) in diameter. The calendar stone represents the Aztec universe. The face of the Aztec sun god is carved in the center. Surrounding it are circular bands of designs that symbolize the days and the heavens. The Aztec also carved small, realistic figures of people and animals out of quartz, obsidian (volcanic glass), and jade.

The Aztec wrote in pictographs, or small pictures symbolizing objects or the sounds of syllables. They also used pictographs in their counting system, which was based on the number 20. A picture of a flag indicated 20 items; a fir tree represented 20 times 20 items, or 400; and a pouch indicated 400 times 20 items, or 8000. Pictographs could not express abstract ideas but were useful for recording history, conducting business, and maintaining genealogy and landholding records.

Tools and Crafts

Although the Aztec had only simple hand tools to work with, they were expert craftspeople. Women spun cotton and maguey fibers into thread by twisting them onto a stick weighted by a clay spindle whorl. They dyed the thread in vivid colors and wove it into cloth with elaborate geometric designs. From this cloth they made clothing—loincloths and capes for men and long skirts and sleeveless blouses for women. Specially trained craftsmen knotted feathers into webs to make mantles (cloaks), headdresses, and banners.

The Aztec layered strips of clay to make storage jars, griddles, goblets, and other kinds of vessels, which were fired in open kilns. These clay vessels were generally red or white, with finely drawn black-and-white geometric designs. Unlike the early civilized peoples of the Middle East, the Aztec had no iron or bronze. Their cutting tools were made of obsidian and chert, and by the time of the Spanish conquest, they had begun to experiment with tools made of copper. The Aztec fashioned jewelry using gold, silver, copper, emerald, turquoise, and a kind of jade that they prized above all other materials. They cut stone for use in construction using rawhide cord and an abrasive of sand and water. Axes were made of blades of stone or copper, set in wooden handles. Drills were made of bone or reed.

Spanish Conquest

In 1519 Spanish explorer H. Cortés and more than 500 Spaniards landed in eastern Mexico in search of land and gold. Advised by Malinche, his Native American mistress, Cortés formed an alliance with one of the rivals of the Aztec, the Tlaxcalans, and set out for Tenochtitlán. After wavering about how to respond to the Spanish force, Aztec ruler Montezuma II allowed Cortés to enter the city in order to learn more about him and his intentions.

Finding large amounts of gold and other treasure, and fearful that the Aztec would attack his vastly outnumbered Spanish force, Cortés seized Montezuma as a hostage and demanded a ransom of treasure The Spaniards melted down the intricate gold ornaments of the Aztec for shipment to Spain and forced Montezuma to swear allegiance to the king of Spain. The Spaniards remained in the city without opposition until about six months later, when, in Cortés’s absence, Spanish officer Pedro massacred 200 Aztec nobles who had gathered for a religious ceremony. After Cortés returned, the Aztec rebelled, fighting to drive the Spaniards out of Tenochtitlán. The Aztec warriors tore up the city’s bridges and chased the Spaniards into the canals, where three-fourths of them, weighted down with stolen gold, quickly drowned. Montezuma was killed during the revolt. Montezuma’s successor, Cuitlahuac, ruled only a few months before dying of disease. Montezuma’s nephew Cuauhtemoc became the next Aztec ruler.

Cortés retreated to Tlaxcala and gathered more Native American allies for a siege of Tenochtitlán. The Aztecs’ crude weapons were no match for the iron, steel, and gunpowder of the Spaniards, who also had the advantage of a large number of indigenous allies. After three months of desperate and bloody fighting, Cuauhtémoc surrendered in August 1521. Cortés tortured and hanged him while on an expedition to Honduras in 1525. The Spaniards conquered the remaining Aztec peoples, whose population was decimated by about a third due to a smallpox epidemic triggered by one of the Spanish soldiers, and took over their lands, forcing them to work in gold mines and on Spanish estates.

The fall of Tenochtitlán marked the end of the Native American civilizations that had existed in Mesoamerica since the first human settlement of the region. On the ruins of Tenochtitlán, the Spaniards built Mexico City. The city’s present-day cathedral rises over the ruins of an Aztec temple, and the palace of the Mexican president stands on the site of the palace of Montezuma.

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