The Aztec Empire – 14 to 16 Centuries AD

A map illustrating the origins and territorial expansion of the Aztec Empire in Mesoamerica between the 14th and 16th centuries. 360 on History
A map illustrating the origins and territorial expansion of the Aztec Empire in Mesoamerica between the 14th and 16th centuries. World History Encyclopaedia
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The featured map depicts the origins and territorial expansion of the Aztec Empire in Mesoamerica between the 14th and 16th centuries. This Mesoamerican culture flourished in Mexico between 1300 to 1521 and included different ethnic groups of central Mexico, particularly those who spoke the Nahuatl language. The term Aztec is used to refer to the Mexica of Tenochtitlan, as well as the broader Nahuatl speaking people of central Mexico before and after the Spanish colonial era. It was scientist Alexander von Humboldt, who established the common usage of the term Aztec in the early nineteenth century. Aztec means “people from Aztlan” a mythical place of their origin in the north. According to their migration stories, they travelled with other groups but eventually, their tribal diety told them to separate from the other tribes and take the name Mexica. As the legend goes, in 1323, the Mexica were shown a vision of an eagle atop a prickly pear cactus eating a snake. This indicated the location where they were to build their settlement. They founded Tenochtitlan on a small swampy island in Lake Texcoco around 1325. In 1376, the Mexica royal dynasty was established, when the first ruler of Tenochtitlan was elected.

The Aztecs were organised into city states (altepetl) and three of these formed an alliance (the Triple Alliance) in 1427 to create the Aztec empire: these were Tenochtitlan (city-state of the Mexica or Tenochca) Texcoco and Tlacopan. Tenochtitlan and Tlacopan were situated around what is Mexico City today, while Texcoco was on the eastern bank of Lake Texcoco in the Valley of Mexico. The empire expanded its political hegemony far beyond the Valley of Mexico, conquering other city states throughout Mesoamerica. Eventually, Tenochtitlan became the dominant power amongst the three. The empire was expanded through a combination of trade and military conquests, dominating its client city-states by installing friendly rulers in conquered territories, by forming alliances through marriage and by promoting an imperial ideology to its client city-states. The client states paid tribute to the emperor and were dependent on the imperial centre due to a strategy of limiting trade and communication amongst them by the central power. The political influence of the empire reached as far south as Chiapas and Guatemala, and spanned Mesoamerica from the Pacific to the Atlantic.

The Aztec empire reached its maximum extent in 1519, but then a small group of Spanish conquistadors led by Hernán Cortés arrived in 1521. Cortes made alliances with those city states that opposed the Nahuatl speaking Mexica, and other central Mexican states. Tenochtitlan fell to the conquistadors in August 13, 1521 and the Spanish founded Mexico City on its ruins. From there they brought the rest of Mesoamerica under Spanish colonial rule, decimating populations, destroying culture and almost annhilating languages.

New Mexico City and Old Tenochtitlan - Templo Mayor.

New Mexico City and Old Tenochtitlan – Templo Mayor. Image:

Templo Mayor Ciudad De Mexico

Templo Mayor Ciudad De Mexico. Image:




What we now know of Aztec culture has been gleaned from archaeological evidence found in excavations such as that of the renowned Templo Mayor in Mexico City but also from indigenous writings and written accounts by the conquistidors, clergymen, and Aztec people. Like all of Mesoamerica, Aztec society was organised around maize agriculture, as well as beans, squashes, chilies and amaranth. The Aztecs constructed chinampas on the lake, which were artificial islands that converted the shallow waters of the lake into highly fertile gardens that could be cultivated year round. They were created from alternating layers of mud from the bottom of the lake and plant matter. Textiles were made from agave fibres and cotton and metal work included combining gold with precious stones such as jade and turquoise. All products were distributed through a network of markets.

Aztec religion was organised around two calenders ( a ritual calendar of 260 days and a solar calendar of 365 days) based on which different rituals were performed for a pantheon of dieties. Each day had a name and number in both calendars. The religion has been understood as polythiestic agriculturist with elements of animism – just like other religions in Mesoamerica. Offering sacrifices as a means of thanks, to placate the gods or to pay for a continuation of the life-cycle, was an important aspect of the religion.

Death was perceived as instrumental in the continuation of life and creation. Both Gods and humans therefore had the responsibility of sacrificing themselves in order for life to continue. Blood sacrifice included both animals and humans, depending on the diety to whom it was offered – even the priests were required to self-multilate for certain rituals. Some rituals also included cannibalism, though how widespread this practice was is unclear.

The Aztec Pyramid at St Cecilia Acatitlan Mexico State

The Aztec Pyramid at St Cecilia Acatitlan Mexico State. Wikimedia Commons

After the arrival of the conquistadors, the Aztec population declined significantly, primarily due to the viruses brought by the colonists, against which the populations had no immunity. An outbreak of smallpox in Tenochtitlan in 1520-1521, was instrumental in its fall. There are varying accounts of the population of the Aztecs at the time of the arrival of Cortes and depending on which one you consider, the population fell by about 50% to 90% after the colonial period began.

Moctezuma II Xocoyotzin (also known as Montezuma) was the Aztec emperor when the Spanish arrived and he received the news of ships arriving with strange warriors in 1517. He sent messengers to greet them. Eventually, he received cortes and his men on the causeway south of Tenochtitlan and invited them to stay as his guests. However, Aztec troops destroyed a Spanish camp on the Gulf Coast and Cortes ordered Moctezuma to execute the culprits, which he did. But now the balance of power had shifted and the Spandiards imprisoned Moctezuma in his own palace. In June 1520, fighting broke out culminating in the massacre in the Great Temple – Moctezuma was killed. Two others succeeded him and the latter (and final ruler) was captured by the Spaniards in August 13, 1521 and executed in 1525.

From August 1521, Spanish hegemony began over the Aztec empire and Mesoamerica.


Aztec calendar stone or Sun Stone unearthed in 1790 in Mexico City depicting 5 eras of Aztec mythical history

Aztec calendar stone or Sun Stone unearthed in 1790 in Mexico City depicting 5 eras of Aztec mythical history

Aztec culture and history has been central to the formation of a Mexican national identity after Mexican independence in 1821. The Mexican flag has the Aztec eagle atop a nopal (prickly pair) cactus. Nahuatl words such as chocolatetomatochiliavocadotamaletacopupusachipotlepozoleatole have been borrowed through Spanish into other languages around the world.








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