Aztec 1300-1530

Major Accomplishments: dominated central America for two hundred years; powerful warlike nation; built the island city Tenochtitlan which became Mexico City

Aztec Video:

Aztec Background


The Aztec Empire was built in the areas around the Gulf of Mexico, with their capital city,

Tenochtitlan, seated on the western side of Lake Texcoco.  Their empire was established in about 1325

by native tribes from the north. The Aztecs are known for their warlike nature and their brutal

human sacrifices. These two go hand in hand because when the Aztecs were fighting their various

foes, they would capture their enemies and use them in their religious human sacrifices. Their sacrifices

and warlike tendencies are important because when their civilization was conquered by the Spaniards,

the Aztecs' religion was considered barbaric and they were not allowed to continue their traditional

ways.  The northern tribes that established the capital city of the Aztecs said that there was an ancient

prophecy stating that the wandering tribes would find the destined site for a great city when they saw

an eagle eating a snake while perched on a cactus. They found said eagle on the western side of Lake

Texcoco and built a great city there, calling it Tenochtitlan. The Aztecs had very advanced art,

economic system, and social structure. There were two main types of Aztecan economy: commercial

and political. In the commercial branch of economics, small cities would have markets weekly, but

large cities would have local markets every day where farmers could sell some of their produce and

professional merchants who traveled from market to market could sell their items. Cacao beans were

used as currency.


Aztec Social Status

In the political economy; nobles owned all of the land and commoners got access to

farmlands through a variety of arrangements, from sharecropping to serf-like labor. Since the nobles

owned all of the land, this led to only three main categories of people: the nobles, the peasants and the

slaves. According to Eduardo Noguera, only twenty percent of the peasants were farmers; the other

eighty percent were warriors, traders, and artisans. An Aztec person could become a slave by debts,

punishment, or because they were a war captive. Slaves, however, were able to buy their freedom and

were set free if they had children with or married their master.


Aztec Poetry

In the Aztec culture, song and poetry were highly valued. There were also several genres of poetry: Yaocuicatl poetry was devoted to war and the various gods of war, Teocuicatl poetry was dedicated to the gods and adoration to the gods, Xochicuicatl was written about flowers and life's deeper meanings, and Tlahtolli was prose. There were presentations and poetry contests at many Aztec festivals as well as shows that included acrobats, actors, and musicians. When the Spaniards landed on the Gulf Coast in 1519, their leader, Cortes, allied himself with the Aztecs' long time nemesis, the Confederacy of Tlaxcala.


The Aztec and the Spanish

The Spaniards and their new allies became increasingly dangerous and in June of 1520, hostilities broke out, causing a massacre in the Main Temple and the death of Moctezuma II, the leader of the Tlaxcalas. The

Spaniards fled the town, but returned with their Tlaxcallan allies in the spring of 1521. This battle

ended on August 13, when Tenochtitlan was destroyed. After this, the nearly-ruined empire went

through many rulers, eventually being ruled by leaders installed by the Spanish, leading to the Spanish

colonization of Central America.


Flower Wars

The Aztecs' warlike nature effected aspects of their culture, such as childbirth, and the unusual “Flower Wars”. Aztec fighting techniques were clever and well organized, showing how much

thought the Aztecs put into wars. When a woman was in labor, she was attended to by a midwife. The

act of childbirth itself was thought of as a war between the mother and her child. When the baby was

born, the midwife would shriek a series of battle cries to symbolize that the “war” between the mother

and baby was over. Dying in childbirth was equated to dying in battle. The Aztecs also participated in “Flower Wars”. These mini-wars were fought between the Aztecs and a smaller army after both sides agreed to this preplanned battle. The “Flower War” was not aimed at conquering the enemy's city-state but instead gave each side a chance to give young warriors a chance to fight in real combat and to give each side a chance to capture enemy soldiers for ritual sacrifice ceremonies. The Aztecs almost

always won these small wars because of their superior army and fighting styles. According to Ross

Hassig, the “Flower Wars” allowed the Aztecs to take sacrificial captives, demonstrate their military

power, and to make the opposing army's force smaller. The war also served as a propaganda towards

other city-states and to the Aztec people themselves by allowing Aztecan rulers to flaunt their power

with a constant flow of war captives and victories. The signal to attack was given by a drummer and a conch-shell trumpeter. The war usually

began with projectile fire shot by commoners armed with bows and slings. Warriors then advanced to

“meelee” combat. This combat primarily used missile weapons. First to enter “meelee” were the

distinguished warriors, followed by the Eagle and Jaguar warriors, the commoners and unpracticed

youth, and lastly, the allies. The youngest Aztecan fighters were not allowed to fight until it was

obvious that the Aztecs were going to win. Aztecan warriors would try to capture their foes to be used

as religious sacrifices instead of killing them. The Aztecs would sometimes fake retreats and ambushes

by having a small portion of the Aztecan army would attack and then fall back, luring the enemy into a

trap where more warriors were hidden.


Aztec Human Sacrifice

The practice of religious human sacrifice was a very important part in the Aztec culture in

three main ways: sacrifice repaid debt, sustained the world, and apologized for the wrongdoings of the

Aztec civilization. According to Aztecan legend, the gods sacrificed themselves so that the Aztecs might

have life. The Aztecs believed that they must sacrifice some of their people and prisoners of war as a

way to repay and thank the gods for their sacrifice. In a cosmological sense, the Aztecs thought that the

universe ran on blood, and if they stopped sacrificing people then the world would explode. Heart

extraction was a common form of human sacrifice and the Aztecs believed that the heart was a

fragment of the sun's heat. In the Aztecs' point of view, a human's “divine sun fragments” were

considered “trapped” by their body. Heart removal was considered liberating the heart and reuniting it

with the sun. Sacrifice was also viewed as a way to apologize for the wrongdoings of the Aztecs.

Society considered even the littlest sin as an extremely evil supernatural force. Some Aztecan hymns

say that the victim was sent to death to plead for them and their forgiveness.


Aztecs – c. 1350- 1550

  • A Continuation of the Olmec and Maya cultures

Location / Geography

  • Central Mexico (not the Yucatan)
  • Capital at Tenochtitlan (island)þ 500,000 people
  • Total Pop: 10-20 million

Aztecs Politics

  • Theocracy led by divine king/Priest
  •  Military – nearly constant brutal wars for conquest, collect tribute, captives for slaves and sacrifice

Aztecs Economics

  • Agriculturally based
  • merchants are limited by what they can carry since they don’t have large pack animals
  • Chinampas – huge floating islands for agriculture
  • The great market – daily trade in the merchant section of large cities

Aztecs Religion

  • Polytheistic
  • Many Temples based on astronomy for worship, agricultural planning and sacrifice
  • Each holiday included ceremonies involving human sacrifice/cannibalism
  • Fatalistic and cyclical view of the world

Aztecs Social

  • Large gap between upper/lower classes
  • Role of Women – decide fate of prisoners, domestic chores (grinding maize), can inherit land
  • Common people in constant fear of war/sacrifice/slavery

Aztecs Intellectual

  • calendar, numbers and pictorial writing similar but not identical to Maya
  • Capital built on an island required great planning and coordination

Aztecs Art

  • Temples
  • Gold objects
  • Sculpture
  • Skull racks

Aztecs Decline and Fall

  • Conquered by Spanish
  • Spanish conquistadors led by Cortes crush the Aztecs during the 1530s

Aztec Dyanasty Multiple Choice Questions:

1. The Aztecs and the Mayans:

a.      Were both ruling central America during the same time period

b.      Both conquered the Incas and then divided their land

c.      Both were polytheist civilizations who valued animal sacrifice but not human sacrifice

d.      Both settled primarily in today’s Mexico but during different time periods.


2. Which of the following is true concerning Aztec women?

 a.      women often decided the fate of prisoners captured by warriors 

 b.      Aztec women could own and inherit property. 

 c.      Aztec women could enter into contracts. 

 d.      Aztec women frequently became warriors.


3. ________ were man-made, swampy islands that were crisscrossed by canals.

 a.      Pulque 

 b.      Chinampas 

 c.      Tikals 

 d.      Agave


4. The Spaniards who conquered the Aztecs were aided by which of the following?

a.       contagious disease

b.       his brother Hernando

c.       the use of the steam engine

d.       the use of a railroad system


5. Who was the conqueror of the Aztecs?

 a.      Hernán Cortés 

 b.      Bernal Díaz 

 c.      Gabriela de Vega 

 d.      Francisco Pizarro