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Top 10 Things to Know about the Aztecs


Whether you are a student, an afficionado of Mexico, a tourist, or simply moved by curiosity, here you will find an essential guide to what you need to know about Aztec civilization

1. Who were the Aztecs?

The Aztecs, who should be more properly called Mexica, are one of the most important and famous civilizations of Mesoamerica. In the Postclassic period they reached Central Mexico and established their capital there. In few centuries they managed to control almost all Mexico through an extended empire.

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2. Where did they live?

The Aztec/Mexica were not native of Central Mexico but migrated from north, from a mythical land called Aztlan. Historically, they were the last of many Nahuatl speaking tribes, generally called Chichimeca, who migrated towards south from what is now Northern Mexico or the Southwest of the United States due to a period of great drought. After almost two centuries of migration, at around A.D. 1250, the Mexica arrived in the Valley of Mexico, and established themselves on the shore of lake Texcoco.

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3. Mexico-Tenochtitlan, the Aztec Capital

Mexico-Tenochtitlan is the name of the Aztec capital. The city was founded in AD 1325. The place was chosen following an omen of the god Huitzilopochtli, who commanded his people to settle where they would have found an eagle perching on a cactus and devouring a snake. The place was very discouraging: a swampy area around the lakes of the Valley of Mexico. Tenochtitlan grew rapidly thanks to its strategic position and the Mexica military skills. When the European arrived, Tenochtitlan was one of the largest and better organized cities of the world.

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4. Origin of the Aztec Empire

Thanks to their military skills and strategic position, the Mexica became allies of the most powerful cities of the Valley, Azcapotzalco, and obtained tributes from these military campaigns. They then obtained recognition as a kingdom, electing as their first ruler Acamapichtli, a member of the royal family of Culhuacan, a powerful city-state in the Basin of Mexico. Finally, in 1428, they allied themselves with the cities of Texcoco and Tlacopan, forming the Triple Alliance. This event starts the Mexica expansion in the Basin of Mexico and beyond, and the birth of the empire.

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5. Aztec Economy

Pochteca Traders with Their Cargo
Illustration from the Florentine Codex, Late 16th century.

Aztec economy was based on three things: market exchange, tribute payment and agricultural production. The famous Aztec market system included both local and long-distance trade. Markets were held on a regular basis and a high degree of specialization existed. The most important market was that of Tlatelolco, sister city of Mexico-Tenochtitlan. Tribute collection was among the main reasons for the Aztecs to conquest a region. Tributes paid to the empire usually include goods or services, depending on the distance and status of the tributary city. In the Valley of Mexico, the Aztecs developed sophisticated agricultural systems which include: irrigation systems, floating fields, called chinampas, and hillside terrace systems

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6. Aztec Society

Aztec society was highly stratified. The population was divided into nobles, pipiltin, and the commoners, macehualtin. The nobles were exempted from taxes and covered government position, whereas the commoners paid tributes in form of taxes and labor. These people were grouped into sorts of clan, called calpulli. At the bottom of Aztec society there were the slaves. These were criminals, people who couldn’t pay taxes, and prisoners. At the top of Aztec society stood the ruler, or Tlatoani, of each city-state, and his family. The supreme king, or Huey Tlatoani, was the emperor, and king of Tenochtitlan. The second most important political position of the empire was that of the cihuacoatl, a sort of viceroy or prime minister. The position of emperor was not hereditary, but elective. He was chosen by a council of nobles.

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7. Aztec Politics

The basic political unit for the Aztecs and in the Basin of Mexico in general, was the city-state, or altepetl. Each altepetl was a kingdom, ruled by a tlatoani. Each altepetl controlled a surrounding rural area that fed the community. Warfare and marriage alliances were the mean through which Aztec politics expanded. An intense net of informants and spies helped the Mexica government maintain control over a large empire and intervene rapidly in case of uprising.

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8. Aztec Warfare

Warfare was the mean to obtain tributes and captives for sacrifices. The Aztec didn’t have a standing army but soldiers were drafted among the macehualtin. In theory, a military career and the access to higher military orders, such as the one of the eagle and jaguar, were open to everybody who distinguished himself in battle. However, in reality, these high ranks were often reached only by noblemen. War actions included battles against neighboring groups, flower wars - aimed to obtain captives - and coronation wars. Type of weapons included both offensive and defensive tools, such as spears, bows and arrows, swords, clubs, as well as shields, armories, and helmets. Weapons were made out of stones, wood and obsidian, but not metal.

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9. Aztec Religion

As other Mesoamerican cultures, the Aztec/Mexica worshipped many gods who represented the different forces and manifestations of nature. The term used by the Aztec to define the idea of a deity or a supernatural power is teotl, which is often part of a god name. The Aztecs divided their gods into three groups which supervised different aspect of the world: the sky and celestial beings, the rain and agriculture, and the war and sacrifices.

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10. Aztec Art and Architecture

The Mexica had skilled artisans, artists and architects. When the Spaniards arrived, they were surprised by these people architectural accomplishments. Raised, paved roads connected Tenochtitlan to the mainland; bridges, dikes and aqueducts regulated water level and flow in the lakes, allowed to separate fresh from salt water, and provide fresh, drinkable water to the city. Administrative and religious buildings were brightly colored and decorated with stone sculptures. Aztec art is best known for its example of monumental stone sculptures, some of which of impressive size.

Other arts in which the Aztec excelled are feather and textile works, ceramic production, wooden art, obsidian and lapidary works. Metallurgy, by contrast, was in its infancy among the Mexica when the European arrived. However, metal products were imported through trade and conquest. Metallurgy in Mesoamerica probably arrived from South America and people of Western Mexico, among whom the Tarascans, mastered its techniques.

11. The Aztecs and the Spanish Conquest

The Conquest of Mexico and the subjugation of the Aztecs, although completed in few years, was a complicated process which involved many actors. When Hernan Cortes reached Mexico in 1519 he and his soldiers found important allies among the local communities subjugated by the Aztecs, for example the Tlaxcalans, who saw in the newcomers a way to free themselves from the Aztecs. The introduction of germs and diseases, which preceeded the actual invasion, decimated the native population, and therefore facilitated the control over the new land. Entire communities were forced to abandon their homes and new villages were created and controlled by Spanish nobility. A least formally, local leaders were left in place but they had no real powers. Christianization proceeded through the destruction of pre-Hispanic temples, idols and books by Spanish friars, but at the same time these religious orders collected, in the so called codices, an incredible amount of information about Aztec culture, practices and beliefs.

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