Skip to main content

Aztec Empire

Aztec Empire

In 1790, laborers paving the streets in downtown Mexico City came across an extraordinary piece of stone. The workers were descendents of the Aztecs (or Mexica, as they called themselves; pronounced Me-sheeka) who had built the city upon which Mexico City stood, the Aztec imperial capital of Tenochtitlán. The piece of stone, nearly twelve feet in diameter, had been buried in rubble when the city was destroyed in 1521. The date on the stone indicates that it was placed in the city's center in 1427. Called the Sun Stone or Calendar Stone, the carving depicted a face at its center, probably that of Tlaltecuhtli, the monstrous Earth god.

Just as Tlaltecuhtli was presented in the stone as the monstrous center of the Earth, so was Tenochtitlán hereby conceived as the fearsome center of its world. Tlaltecuhtli's tongue was carved as a flint knife, the symbol for war in the Aztec writing system, and extending from his ears were claws grasping human hearts. The concentric circles that surround this image represent the five creations of the world, extending back in time, as well as the twenty day signs making up a month, and a set of icons depicting the unceasing and all-important motion of the sun. Thus Tenochtitlán's position in time and space was more than significant; it was sacred, it sanctioned and even required warfare and sacrifice, and it indicated an awesome destiny.

What happened before 1427 that led to the carving of this stone and the development of this ideology? And in what ways did the Mexica of Tenochtitlán realize this destiny in the century that followed?

Like many cultures, the Mexica had turned the history of their ancient semisedentary lifestyle and migration into an origin myth. According to that myth, the original nomadic Mexica lived on the shores of a mythical Lake Aztlán (hence the modern name Aztec, which first came into vogue in the eighteenth century). Here they wandered until their patron god Huitzilopochtli told them to migrate south and to settle where they saw an eagle with a snake in its mouth alight on a prickly pear cactus (an image preserved today on the Mexican national flag). According to Mexica legend, this omen was sighted in 1325 on an island in Lake Texcoco, where the twin cities of Tlatelolco and Tenochtitlán were then founded.

This lake was in the center of the Valley of Mexico (the lake is now covered by Mexico City), where the Mexica had been living as mercenaries on marginal marshlands for about a century, according to their own history. After 1325 they continued to sell their military services and to pay tribute to the dominant city-state in the valley, Azcapotzalco, while also slowly building their own network of tribute-paying subject towns and pursuing an aggressive policy of marrying Mexica nobles into the ruling families of the valley.

The turning point in Mexica history came in 1427, the year Itzcoatl (1360–1440), the fourth Mexica king, took the throne and set the Calendar Stone in Tenochtitlán's plaza. The following year Itzcoatl formed an alliance with two lakeside cities, Texcoco and Tlacopan, and led a successful war against Azcapotzalco. This was not just the rise to regional dominance of the Mexica, but the birth of the Aztec Empire. For the next century, until stopped by the Spanish invasion, the Mexica engaged in an aggressive imperial expansion across Central Mexico and to its southeast. The Aztec method of imperial rule was not direct; local elites were confirmed in office, providing they were willing to accept client status within the empire. But the Mexica did require significant tribute payments in the form of labor and a wide variety of goods—from bulk food products to luxury items.

Thus the empire was not built upon territorial acquisition and colonization (unlike the Spanish Empire). But it was augmented through a stepping-stone method, with each conquered town providing resources (even warriors) for the next conquest, and with local rivalries exploited and intimidation tactics employed wherever possible (all methods subsequently imitated by the Spaniards). The Aztec Empire's control of trade routes and local resources through the tribute system allowed Tenochtitlán to grow into a populous, prosperous, and powerful capital city. The first Europeans to set eyes on the Aztec capital were amazed at its size, setting, and beauty. The twin island cities of Tlatelolco and Tenochtitlán—with their grid of canals, busy streets, and two plazas bounded by pyramids and plazas—seemed to float on shimmering Lake Texcoco.

Divided by a great dike to keep salt water from the city and prevent flooding, the lake was covered in canoes, its shores were studded with more cities, each with their own plazas and pyramids. There were about a quarter of a million people living in Tenochtitlán, and several million in the whole valley (with the Central Mexican population at an estimated 15 million or more). Visitors to the city approached it either by canoe or along one of the three great causeways that connected it to the lakeshore and held the aqueducts that brought in fresh water. One first passed some of the small elevated corn fields that bordered the lake and city, passing through the outer neighborhoods (calpulli) before reaching the center, where the royal family lived in palaces and where imperial administrators worked; one of the palatial compounds included a large zoo. At the heart of the city was the great plaza, dominated by twin pyramids devoted to Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc.

In 1428, Itzcoatl and his chief minister and general, a nephew named Tlacaelel, collected and burned all hieroglyphic books that recorded the history of the region. That history was then rewritten with the Mexica at its center, as the heirs to the cultural and imperial legacy of the Toltecs (whose city of Tula had dominated the valley four centuries earlier), and as the divinely sanctioned rulers of the known world. More political and economic authority was now concentrated in the hands of Mexica royalty, as a relatively weak monarchy was transformed into an imperial dynasty. The power that emperors would exercise for 100 years over the Mexica themselves and their neighbors was justified by the claim of privileged access both to the regional great tradition of the Toltecs and to the will of the gods, especially Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc.

A century after Itzcoatl became emperor, the Aztec rulers that had either survived the Spanish invasion or assumed office in its wake, met "the Twelve," the first Franciscan friars to reach Mexico. An exchange of speeches took place, and the words of the Aztec lords (written down sixty years later by Bernardino de Sahagún in his Coloquios y doctrina cristiana) give us some sense of a division of responsibility among religious and civil leaders in the Aztec Empire:

We have priests who guide us and prepare us in the culture and service of our gods. There are also many others with distinct names who serve in the temples day and night, who are wise and knowledgeable about the movement of the heavenly bodies as well as about our ancient customs. They have the books of our forebears which they study and peruse day and night. These guide us and prepare us in counting the years, days, months, and feasts of our gods, which are celebrated every twenty days. These same priests are in charge of the histories of our gods and the rules about serving them, because we are in charge only of warfare, collection of tribute, and justice.

This is not to say that the division of responsibility between those governing religious and calendrical matters, and those managing the empire through military campaigns and tribute collection, did not amount to anything like a separation of church and state. On the contrary, the Aztec ideology of empire was profoundly interwoven with religious ideas and beliefs. The ritual execution of war captives and other carefully chosen victims had been practiced in Mesoamerican societies for thousands of years, but in the fifteenth century the Mexica appear to have taken human sacrifice to new levels, both in terms of meaning and scale. Huitzilopochtli, the patron god of war and of the imperial capital, was the divine audience for the killing of war captives, who typically had their hearts removed and their heads placed on the skull rack in the plaza of Tenochtitlán. Children were sacrificed to Tlaloc, the rain god, who needed their tears. The annual sacrifice to Tezcatlipoca was a specially chosen young man, who led a life of luxury and privilege for a year before his execution. At some festivals, there was a single victim; at others, there may have been thousands.

To a lesser extent, other Nahuas (Nahuatl-speaking people of Central Mexico) also embraced this culture of ritualized violence. The Tlaxcalans, for example, who had always resisted the Aztec Empire that surrounded their city and its lands, likewise cut out the hearts of prisoners of war. In fact, Tlaxcala and Tenochtitlán had extended this ritual to the battlefield itself, where conventional warfare had been partially replaced by the Flowery Wars (xochiyaoyotl), in which red blossoms were scattered on the ground to represent the blood of warriors, and selected warriors then exchanged as captives to be sacrificed. Tlaxcala remained independent, but its life was overshadowed in numerous ways by the existence of Mexica hegemony across Central Mexico, breeding generations of resentment. This resentment would prove crucial to the outcome of the Spanish invasion in 1519, for without Tlaxcalan assistance the Spaniards would almost certainly have been defeated in 1520 and Tenochtitlán would not have fallen the following year.

Tlaxcala was not the only city-state to resist Mexica expansion. To the west of the Mexica imperial capital lay the city of Tzintzuntzan, the center of the Tarascan kingdom, a modest empire in its own right. Lesser kingdoms and cities also resisted the Aztecs, a couple of which became surrounded by the empire's clients, as Tlaxcala was. But more often than not, the campaigns of Itzcoatl and the five emperors who followed him further augmented Aztec control—from Moctezuma Ilhuicamina (1390–1464), who succeeded his uncle Itzcoatl in 1440, through three of the first Moctezuma's sons, Axayácatl (r. 1469–1481), Tizoc (r. 1481–1486), and Ahuitzotl (ruled from 1486–1502). According to the early colonial account compiled by Diego Durán, the rulers of tributary cities from throughout the empire, who attended Ahuitzotl's coronation in 1486, "saw that the Aztecs were masters of the world, their empire so wide and abundant that they had conquered all the nations and that all were their vassals. The guests, seeing such wealth and opulence and such authority and power, were filled with terror" (Duran 1994, p. 336).

After the reigns of his three sons, the first Moctezuma's grandson and namesake, Moctezuma Xocoyotl (1466–1520), became emperor. From 1502, until his murder by Spanish invaders in 1520, he aggressively consolidated his authority and extended the empire of his ancestors. Long after his death, both Spaniards and natives unfairly blamed the second Moctezuma for the destruction of his empire. In fact, the arrival of Spaniards set loose a chain of events beyond Moctezuma's control, whereas for the previous eighteen years the emperor had been very much in control, increasing the authority and influence of Tenochtitlán and the Mexica as much, if not more, than any of his predecessors.

see also Mexico City.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Berdan, Frances F. Aztec Imperial Strategies. Washington DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1996.

Carrasco, Pedro. The Tenochca Empire of Ancient Mexico: The Triple Alliance of Tenochtitlan, Tetzcoco, and Tlacopan. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999.

Clendinnen, Inga. Aztecs: an Interpretation. Cambridge, MA; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Duran, Fray Diego. The History of the Indies of New Spain. Translated by Doris Heyden. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994.

Gillespie, Susan D. The Aztec Kings: The Construction of Rulership in Mexica History. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1989.

Gruzinski, Serge. The Aztecs: The Rise and Fall of an Empire. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1992.

Hassig, Ross. Aztec Warfare; Imperial Expansion and Political Control. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988.

Lanyon, Anna. Malinche's Conquest. Melbourne, Australia: Allen & Unwin, 1999.

Moctezuma, Eduardo Matos and Felipe Solis Olguin, eds. Aztecs. London: Royal Academy Books, 2002.

Oudijk, Michel R., and Matthew Restall. "Mesoamerican Conquistadors in the Sixteenth Century." In Native Militaries in the Conquest of Mesoamerica, edited by Michel R. Oudijk and Laura Matthew. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, forthcoming.

Restall, Matthew. Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Sahagun, Bernardino de. Coloquios y doctrina cristiana. Mexico City: UNAM, 1986.

Solis, Felipe. The Aztecs: Catalogue of the Exhibition. New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 2004.

Thomas, Hugh. Conquest: Montezuma, Cortes, and the Fall of Old Mexico. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Aztec Empire." Encyclopedia of Western Colonialism since 1450. . Encyclopedia.com. 17 Oct. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Aztec Empire." Encyclopedia of Western Colonialism since 1450. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 17, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/aztec-empire

"Aztec Empire." Encyclopedia of Western Colonialism since 1450. . Retrieved October 17, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/aztec-empire

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.