Geography: From Nomads to an Empire

Awaiting a sign

The nomadic people who eventually became the Aztec claimed that they originally wandered from Aztlan, a sacred ground somewhere in Northern Mexico. Their nomadic lifestyle and unique language, Nahuatlm, kept them separated from other Mesoamerican civilizations. In 1250 CE, they arrived in the Valley of Mexico, but warring among the surrounding city-states eventually cast out the Aztec people. In 1325 CE, they  witnessed their greatest leader’s prophecy of an eagle perched on a prickly pear eating a snake at Lake Texcoco. This sign told them that they could build their forever home, and so they began laying the foundation of their greatest city, Tenochtitlan.

A lake becomes a mighty capital

The Aztecs settled on the swampy center island of Lake Texcoco. In order to live there, they adapted by creating “floating gardens” or chinampas, by building and sinking log boxes filled with dirt and decaying plants into the lake’s marshes. Between these gardens, canals and walkways offered transportation as the city grew. Thirty foot-wide bridges connected to the main land and could be drawn in if an enemy was attacking, to protect Tenochtitaln’s population. A vast temple centered Tenochtitlan, and the king’s six-hundred-plus servants and household, zoo, and aviary stood close by. Just outside the palace’s eight-foot wall were the houses of the city’s nobles, and beyond that, the homes and farms of the common population. Eventually, the grand city spanned five square miles and connected to a neighboring island.

The Aztecs became a fierce people with a strong army, and conquered many of their neighboring tribes, making Tenochtitlan the mightiest empire of central Mexico. The empire spanned from the shores of the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico, and stretched south all the way to the modern border of Guatemala at its peak size. This sprawling empire’s center is now known as Mexico City.


Achievements: Laws, Traditions, and Infastructure

Leadership/ Government – How a civilization creates an organized way of leadership.

Achievements — The lasting contributions of a civilization.

A lasting legacy

As the Aztecs empire grew, its major achievements came to fruition.  When Moctezuma I reigned, he finished the building of a double aqueduct system and a levee to the east of Lake Texcoco. This infrastructures supplied fresh water to the lake for crops and quenched the thirsts of their growing population. At its peak it was estimated that the Aztec citizens numbered over of 200,000 people.

In addition to its status as a dominating civilization, the Aztecs had other significant accomplishments.  A codex of laws were written to maintain order, and the laws were very specific on how to behave in every situation. They also transcribed the Aztecs prestigious oral traditions, stories used to teach lessons about their Gods and their families. Oral performers did public displays of these stories as well. The laws and stories were recorded in hieroglyphs, a writing system where a picture represented a sound and/or an object.  There were some hieroglyphs called logograms that stood for complete ideas, including happiness, life, or sadness. Poetry was also written with these pictures, and usually featured life, death, and the beauty of nature.

They also created two calendars similar to those of the Maya. One held 365 days and marked when to plant and harvest their many crops, including beans, squash, corn, cocoa, and avocado. Their other calendar had 120-day cycle, marked with significant events and proper times for sacrifices for their many gods.

Government: Hinged on Religion and Wealth

Leadership/ Government – How a civilization creates an organized way of leadership.

Social Classes – How a civilization is divided into classes that have different roles, responsibilities, and privileges.

Upper classes rule by fear of the divine

The leadership of the Aztec people, both before and after their empire was erected was based on religion or the accomplishments in war. The ruler, called emperor or king, depending on the era, was considered a spokesperson for the Gods and therefore, was more than just a man in the eyes of his people. This semidivine status meant that no one challenged his right to rule. In addition to creating laws, he also had the power to declare war and send out his warriors to conquer neighboring tribes. The kingship of the Aztecs was not necessarily hereditary. When the current leader died, his son was not automatically appointed to rule after him, but had to be chosen by a group of the king’s providers to do so. Sometimes, another male in the king’s family would be chosen instead. The chosen person didn’t receive all the previous king’s possessions, and instead had to acquire his own wealth through warfare.

Nobility and Priests share the king’s splendor

Just under the king, a social class of government advisors, religious leaders, and military leaders governed the wealth and welfare of the empire. The main city of the Empire, Tenochtitlan, was divided into four districts that needed judges, tribute (tax) collectors, and architects that maintained roads and public buildings. The emperor was aided by counselors, judges, and military leaders. These leaders were appointed by the Emperor and served until death. They weren’t always nobles, but most nobles were able to attend the schools for the necessary skills to be considered.

Another very important position in society, nearly as much as kingship, were the priests to the Aztecs many fierce gods. Each priest was dedicated to a particular god. They could serve to train young people in schools for government jobs and the priesthood, or focus their attention on signs and wonders of their gods, advising the leaders of their society. They also carried out sacrificial rites and offered their own blood to strengthen their gods. Lower class citizens and women could also become priests and priestesses depending on circumstances.

Economy: The Trading and Tribute

Economy – How a Civilization makes money by the buying and selling of goods and services.

Leadership/ Government – How a civilization creates an organized way of leadership.

Religion — A belief system that influences the development of a civilization.

Social Classes – How a civilization is divided into classes that have different roles, responsibilities, and privileges.

Given unto the Gods

The life of the Aztec people hinged on their religion. Everything in the day to day life, government, and even war had to do with the gods they served. Economy, or the buying and selling of goods in a civilization, looped back to their belief system. Priests of the Aztec religion regularly gave material items to their gods in fires as often as they gave blood sacrifices. Items were measured by the amount of tribute it would make to a god, and traded accordingly. Tribute was also collected from neighboring tribes with the promise that if paid, the Aztecs would not attack them in the future. Tax collectors of the Aztec government received goods as payment for protection and to show loyalty, and these were then carted back to the capital city for distribution to temples as tribute, to the upper class leadership as payment for their work, and to the king’s household. As the population grew, the wealth of the empire increased and was needed to care for the ever growing population of the capital city.

How Tribute Affected one social class

Rare items had increased value when given to the government or the temples as tribute. Some crops that Aztec farmers were unable to grow were especially valuable. Also, the warlords discovered unique items during expansion. Trading with other tribes from Central America and returning with exotic fare offered members of the merchant class prestige and artisans new materials to create their masterpieces. Though barter was more common, occasionally three items were used as currency: hoe money, a specifically sized rod of copper, delicious cacao beans, and quachtli, a highly quality type of cloth of a certain measurement. Children were often traded into slavery for needed items as well.

Social Class: Five Levels of the Religious Pyramid

Leadership/ Government – How a civilization creates an organized way of leadership.

Religion — A belief system that influences the development of a civilization.

Social Classes – How a civilization is divided into classes that have different roles, responsibilities, and privileges.

The top of Aztec society

The hierarchy of Aztec society, like many other aspects of the culture, depended on the importance of a member’s job in relation to the religious practices. An emperor or king was appointed by counselors of the government who determined he’d shown his semidivinity, or part-god, part-man nature, in battle or in religious practices. The new leader was often  related to the previous emperor. The king was considered the mouthpiece of the gods, and his power was believed to be a gift in order to rule.

Below the king in the Aztec castes were nobles, war leaders, and government officials on equal footing with the priests of the temples throughout the empire. Each of these leader types controlled an important part of Aztec society: religion, government, conquest and expansion, and tribute collection. Sons of noblemen, leaders and common people could attend the schools necessary to become a leader. Women could also attend to become priestesses.

The inbetween-ers

Although merchants and artisans were considered lower classes than leadership, often their unique items could lift them up in society. This was especially true as the empire expanded, and merchants brought back foreign treasures to share. Artisans could earn favor from nobles and reputations that earned them enough money to be allowed into society.

The bottom of the barrel

The common people of the Aztec empire were often farmers from outlying villages that were conquered by the fierce Aztec warriors. They were forced to pay tribute to the government, but were able to keep their own tribes’ religious and cultural practices. Below these villagers, slaves or captured enemy warriors were considered worthy only to be sacrificed to the gods after serving their Aztec owners.


Religion: Blood and Strength to the Gods

Religion — A belief system that influences the development of a civilization.

Pleasing the gods

The Aztec religion was polytheistic, meaning they worshipped many gods. Originally, the tribe that became the Aztecs focused on a handful of gods, with the primary gods being the god of creation, Quetzalcoatl, and sun and war god Huitzilopochtli. Aztecs believed Huitzilopochtli was a warrior who fought the darkness each night to rise each day. If their chief god ever lost his battle, the world would go to chaos and his “people of the sun” wouldn’t survive. As the empire grew, gods of the tribes they conquered mingled, in and soon temples were built for them too. The most prominent of these gods when the Spanish finally reached the empire in the 1400s was the god of rain Tlaloc.  These two major gods, and the other lesser gods, needed to be pleased with ceremonies rich with tributes, flowers, and dancing. They also needed nourishment to maintain good harvests and prosperity in the empire. The Aztecs believed that strength came from the sacrifice of blood.

A bloody ritual

Blood was believed to be the best way to nourish the gods so that they would stay strong and keep the world safe. Priests would use cactus quills and pierce their skin to make blood sacrifices over altars and animals would be thrown into fires to appease the gods. While these offered some favor and health, human sacrifice was believed to be the best offering for any god. Prisoners of war, slaves, and even willing priests were slaughtered for this religious practice. The Aztecs killed more people for religious purposes than any other Mesoamerican tribe, as many as 2,000 per year.

Achievements- An Ancient Writing System The Power of Pictographs

The art of hieroglyphs

In addition to oral traditions in which the Aztec people passed on stories and lessons, they also developed a complex writing system consisting of hieroglyphs, pictures with specific meaning or sounds, like those you see to the left and below. They wrote these pictographs in books called codices, with pages made from animal skins and tree bark. These books recorded tribute, gave guidelines for social behavior, and laid down laws. Hieroglyphs were also used to record the oral history and write poetry.


Decline: Foreigners Bring Downfall

Tricked by strangers

The Aztec Empire’s downfall came just as its population and wealth had peaked. In 1519, Spanish conquistadors, or soldiers, came to Mexico looking for gold and inspired to share their Catholic religion. Hernan Cortes led the expedition. That same year, the Aztecs predicted that their  god of creation, Quetzalcoatl, would appear to them. Cortes, who was bearded, on horseback and covered head to toe in armor, appeared otherworldly to the Aztecs, so they hastily believed he was a god. The Aztec leader Moctezuma II welcomed Cortes into the capital city of Tenochtitlan. Cortes took advantage of this, imprisoning Montezuma II. The Aztecs attacked and pushed the Spanish explorers out of their capital city, but not before Montezuma II was accidently killed and the smallpox virus has taken hold in the community.

Two years later the Spaniards returned, determined to destroy the Aztec empire. Wisely, the Spanish army gathered allies and supplies from the tribes that were tired of paying tribute to the Aztecs and wanted to be free. Together the allies used the mighty city’s infrastructure against the Aztec population, destroying the aqueducts, roadways, and canals so no fresh water or supplies could make it inside.  By the time the final attack was made, the majority of the Aztec population had already been decimated by smallpox. Furthermore, the horses and weapons that the Spanish had brought proved superior to Aztec resources. They defeated the Aztecs in hours.