The Aztecs | History and Culture

The Aztec empire was a powerful, complex, and important civilization in Mesoamerica. Their empire lasted from the 13th to the 16th centuries, and Aztec history is still being discovered and studied today. The Aztecs lived in the area now occupied by the country of Mexico. Their own name for themselves, the Mexica, is the origin of the name of the country Mexico.

The Aztec civilization thrived for over three hundred years, becoming the dominant culture in the entire region. They built a large and populous city on artificial islands in a lake where Mexico City now stands. At its height, the city of Tenochtitlan was one of the biggest cities in the world with a population of 150,000 people.

Depiction of Tenochtitlan

© La ciudad más hermosa México D.F. - Depiction of Tenochtitlan by Diego Rivera

Aztec history and culture came to an end shortly after their land was invaded by the Spanish Conquistadors in 1519. The history of the Aztec people is an important part of the history of Mexico and the world.

Migration Period

The Aztec people were not always powerful and prosperous. Their legends tell of a long migration period when they traveled from a land called Aztlán in the North to their final home in central Mexico.

Depiction of the founding myth, Mendoza Codex

Depiction of the founding myth, Mendoza Codex

During this period, they lived a nomadic life. Their oral history says they were treated as outcasts by other groups of people they encountered during this time.

In the early 13th century, the Aztec people finally reached the area where Mexico City is today. Aztec legends say they saw a sign from their god, Huitzilopochtli, showing them an eagle with a serpent in its mouth sitting on a cactus. From this they understood they had arrived at their new home, and they built their great city of Tenochtitlan on the site in 1325.

The Triple Alliance

When the Aztecs first arrived in the valley of Mexico, the area was ruled by the powerful Toltec people. Toltec culture declined and then disappeared soon after. Although Toltec culture vanished, there were many other smaller nations of people who survived. The Aztecs fought with some of these people and created alliances with others as they established themselves in the area.

Once the Aztecs became settled in their city of Tenochtitlan, they built a powerful and well-organized military. There were other neighboring cultures who also had strong armies, and two of them formed a military and political alliance with the Aztecs in 1428 called the Triple Alliance.

The two other nations forming the alliance were the Texcoco and Tacubans. Together under the leadership of a man named Itzcoatl they overpowered the Tepanec people and their capital city of Azcapotzalco, becoming rulers of the entire region. The Triple Alliance military accord lasted until the Spanish invasion of 1521, keeping the Aztecs and their allies in power for almost one hundred years.

Reach of the Aztec Empire

© Badseed - Reach of the Aztec Empire

Spanish Conquest

In 1517, the first European explorers arrived on the east coast of Mexico. Two years later in 1519, the conquistador Hernán Cortés landed near the town of Tabasco and then established the city of Veracruz to the North.

Shortly after he landed in Tobasco, Cortés learned about the Aztec empire and its leader Montezuma. Cortés found a woman translator named Malinche, and with her assistance formed an alliance with the Talscalan people who were the enemies of the Aztecs. He trained his army in Veracruz and soon marched with his men and Malinche towards Tenochtitlan and the Aztec Empire with the aim of conquest.

Route of Spanish Conquest

© Yavidaxiu - Route of Spanish Conquest

The Conquistadors had several advantages over the Aztec empire, even though they only had about 600 men in their army. They had both guns and horses, and the Aztec had never seen either. The Aztecs also had a legend about a god named Quetzalcoatl who would arrive from the east to rule them, just as Cortés had done.

The Spanish also arrived in the empire of the Aztecs at a time when there was political strife and war between the Aztecs and their neighbors. This made it easier for the Spanish to form pacts with local tribes who wanted to fight the Aztecs.

Conquest of Tenochtitlan

Conquest of Tenochtitlan

Montezuma and the Aztec people did not understand the intentions of the Spanish troupes when they reached Tenochtitlan. At first, the Aztecs treated the Spanish soldiers like honored guests, thinking they were the god Quetzalcoatl and his army. They were then surprised when the Spaniards took their leader Montezuma as a prisoner, along with all his royal household and noblemen.

With their superior weapons, the use of horses for battle, and the element of surprise, Cortés’ army was able to defeat the Aztec empire by August 13, 1521. As many as 250,000 people in Tenochtitlan and the surrounding area were killed during the fierce and bloody battles, while the Spanish lost only a few men. In the end, the Aztec empire lay in ruins, and Mexico was claimed by the Spanish empire.


Monument at the meeting place of Cortez and Montezuma

© Fabioj - Meeting place of Cortez and Montezuma


Aztec Culture

Before the conquest, Aztec society had been a complex mixture of traditions, technologies, and industries developed over many hundreds of years by the local people. The culture developed a division of social classes similar to Europe during the same time period.

At the bottom of Aztec society were slaves, but it was possible for slaves to become free by buying their freedom. There was also a middle class of common people called the macehualli. These were free people who farmed crops, worked at trades like weaving, or had shops in the marketplace. At the top of society was the noble class called the pilli who ruled over everyone else and were regarded as gods.

The Aztecs were excellent farmers. They grew corn, beans, squash, tomatoes, avocados and many other crops in irrigated fields near the shores of Lake Tenochtitlan. They drained areas of the lake, exposing rich soil for cultivation. They also built artificial islands on the lake itself where people lived and had businesses.

An enormous marketplace called Tlatelolco developed in the center of the city of Tenochtitlan. People traveled to this market from many miles away to sell and buy products like food, clothing, textiles, clay pots for cooking, jewelry and many other wares. When Hernán Cortés visited this marketplace, he saw as many as 50,000 people there buying and selling. This market was the center of Aztec society, providing the wealth that fueled their economy and political power.

The Market of Tlatelolco

© Joe Ravi - Market of Tlatelolco, as shown at Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago

The Aztecs also had a very accurate calendar for keeping track of the seasons. Their calendar helped them plan when to plant and harvest their crops, and it also guided them in their religious practices.

Aztec religion included human sacrifice, as was common in many Mesoamerican cultures at that time. Priests who lived in the temples killed the sacrificial victims and offered their bodies to their gods, hoping this would bring favorable weather for crops or positive outcomes in battles. Prisoners of war were the most common victims of human sacrifice.

The Aztecs had a mandatory public school system for both boys and girls. This was very uncommon at this time of history, putting the Aztecs well ahead of the times. Boys learned trades, business skills, and received military training. Girls learned cooking, weaving, and other domestic skill, but they were also trained in business skills, because women played a prominent role in the busy marketplaces like Tlatelolco. Women in Aztec culture had more power in society than women in many other places at that time.

Woman cooking maize

Aztec Woman Cooking Maize, Florentine Codex

Relationship with Other American Civilizations

The Aztecs incorporated many elements from the cultures around them into their traditions. Their calendar was in use by others in the area before they arrived, but they refined and recorded it on huge, carved stones. Their calendar was based on a 365 day solar cycle they had learned about from earlier cultures. They also developed a second, 260 day calendar for their religious rituals which became widely used by neighboring people.

Aztec Relief

© Justin Ennis - Aztec Relief

Before the Aztecs civilization, the Toltec people had lived in the area and built pyramids, temples, and small cities. When the Aztecs took over, they continued using the pyramids and temples built by the Toltec culture, and they began worshiping some of the Toltec gods.

The Aztecs had a complex relationship with other groups of people in central Mexico. They adopted some of the ways of the older cultures who had been there before them. They also transformed traditions, religious beliefs, and technologies over time, creating a unique culture of their own.

Facts about the Aztecs

  • Like other many other Native American cultures, the Aztecs valued personal cleanliness, and houses for both rich and poor contained a steam bath.
  • The Aztecs created art, but only the upper classes were allowed to enjoy and possess artworks. Average people were allowed to play music, go to plays, play sports, and to sing and dance.
  • The average person lived in a mud-brick house with four rooms: A bedroom, a room for worship, a living room for cooking, eating, and doing work, and the steam bath.
  • The Aztecs liked sports. They had big stadiums where athletes played ball games while huge crowds watched and cheered for their favorite players. The best athletes became famous celebrities in Aztec society.
  • A number of English words come to us from the Aztec language of Nahuatl, including the words chili, chocolate, guacamole, avocado, and ocelot.
  • While the Aztec civilization disappeared soon after the arrival of the Spanish, there are still many people of Aztec ancestry in Mexico today. Many Aztec artifacts, temples, and pyramids still exist and are visited by thousands of tourists every year.