By Tim Lambert
The ancestors of the Aztecs settled on a marshy island in Lake Texcoco in either 1325 or 1345. According to legend, the Aztecs settled at a place where they saw an eagle perched on a cactus with a snake in its mouth. They took this as a sign from their god that they should settle there. The Aztecs called the place Tenochtitlan, which means the place of the cactus.
At first, they were unimportant people but in the 15th century, the Aztecs gradually built up a large empire.
However, the Aztec Empire was not an ’empire’ like the Roman Empire, which was ruled by one city. The Aztecs conquered the surrounding peoples. However, they did not usually directly rule other nations. Instead, they forced them to pay tribute (goods like gold, feathers, weapons, and precious stones). The Aztec ’empire’, was more like a collection of states dominated by the Aztecs.
Furthermore, the conquered people had to send soldiers to serve the Aztec emperor when they were needed.
Meanwhile, the Aztecs built up the island in the lake by driving wooden stakes into the bed of the lake and then laying earth and rocks. They turned Tenochtitlan into a great city, with a population of over 100,000. The city was laid out in a grid pattern with marketplaces. In the center were the emperor’s palace and the great temple, which was a step pyramid.
Tenochtitlan was intersected with canals for moving goods. The streets of Tenochtitlan were regularly cleaned and there were public lavatories. The sewage was used for fertilizer. Furthermore, the great city on an island was joined to the mainland by four causeways. Two aqueducts brought water into the city.
Aztec Daily Life
Aztec society was divided into classes. At the very top was the emperor. Below him were the nobles and priests. Below them were merchants, craftsmen, peasants, and then slaves.
Merchants formed a class of their own. They lived in their own areas of cities and their children usually married the children of other merchants. Merchants who carried out long-distance trade were called pochteca.
There were also many craftsmen in Aztec society. Although the Aztecs did not use iron and bronze some craftsmen made jewelry from gold, silver, and copper. Other craftsmen made objects of obsidian, jade, and semi-precious stones. There were also feather workers who made things like headdresses from feathers.
Most of the slaves were people who had committed a crime and been sentenced to slavery or very poor people who sold themselves into slavery. However Aztec slaves did have some rights. They could own property and marry. Any children they had were born free. A master had to punish his slave 3 times, in front of witnesses before he could sell him. However, if a slave was sold 3 times by 3 different masters he could then be sold for sacrifice.
Aztecs were polytheists. That is they worshiped many gods. They believed that the gods needed to be ‘fed’ with human hearts and blood. So prisoners were sacrificed by having their hearts cut out.
Among the most important gods were Huitzilopochtli, the god of war and the sun, Tlaloc the god of rain (if there was a drought the Aztecs sacrificed babies to the rain god, believing their baby’s tears would bring rain) and Quetzalcoatl (whose name means feathered snake), the god of learning and wind.
The Aztecs believed that the manner of your death determined where you went rather than how you had lived your life. Warriors who died in battle, and women who died in childbirth went to paradise. People who drowned or were struck by lightning also went to paradise. However, people who died of old age went to a dreary underworld called Mictlan.
War was very important to the Aztecs – partly because they needed prisoners to sacrifice. Aztecs fought with bows and arrows. They also used wooden spears. The wooden head of the spear was lined with sharp stones. Aztec warriors also used wooden clubs lined with sharp blades of obsidian (a form of hard volcanic glass). Warriors wore costumes made of quilted cotton soaked in saltwater to make it stiff. They carried wicker shields for protection.
All Aztec boys were expected to serve in the army when they were old enough. However, the aim of the war was not to kill the enemy but to take as many captives as possible.
Elite warriors were the jaguar warriors who wore fur costumes and eagle warriors who wore costumes and helmets with feathers.
Maize was the staple crop of the Aztecs. Aztec women ground the maize into flour on a stone slab with a stone roller. It was then made into flour and baked into a kind of pancake called a tortilla. Aztec women cooked on a clay disc called a comal, which stood on stones above a fire.
Maize was also made into a kind of porridge called atole. The Aztecs ate ‘envelopes’ of steamed maize called tamales stuffed with vegetables, meat, or eggs.
The Aztecs also ate tomatoes, avocados, beans, and peppers, as well as pumpkins, squashes, peanuts, and amaranth seeds. They also ate fruits such as limes and cactus fruits.
The Aztec diet also included rabbits, turkeys, and armadillos. They also ate dogs. However, meat was a luxury for the Aztecs and ordinary people only ate it infrequently.
The nobles drank an alcoholic drink called octli, from fermented maguey juice. Upper-class Aztecs drank chocolate made from cocoa beans. It was flavored with vanilla and honey.
Poor people drank water or sometimes an alcoholic drink called pulque.
To grow food Aztec farmers did not have plows. However, they did use tools like a digging stick, clod breaker, and hoe.
The Aztecs created small islands on marshy lakes. These were called chinampas. First plots of land were staked out with canals between them so they could be reached by canoe. The chinampa was built up in layers made of plants from the lake and mud from its bottom. They planted willows around the edges of chinampas to make them more secure. They also fished in the lakes and caught water birds.
Ordinary Aztecs lived in simple huts, often of just one room. The huts were made of adobe and any furniture was very simple such as reed mats to sleep on or sit on and low tables. Wooden chests were used to store clothes.
Nobles lived in much grander houses with many rooms. They were usually shaped like a hollow square with a central courtyard. It often contained gardens and fountains.
By law, only upper-class Aztecs could build a house with a second story. If ordinary Aztecs did they could be executed.
Aztecs were clean people. Many homes had steam baths next to them. They were small rooms with a furnace outside. The furnace heated the walls of the steam bath. When a person inside the steam bath threw water on the wall it turned to steam.
Different classes of Aztecs wore different clothes. The upper class wore cotton clothes and feather headdresses. Ordinary people wore clothes made from maguey plant fiber. Men wore loincloths and cloaks tied with a knot at one shoulder. Women wore wrap-around skirts and tunics with short sleeves. Married women coiled their hair on top of their heads.
By law, only upper-class Aztecs could wear cotton. If commoners wore cotton clothes they could be put to death. n Women wove clothes in their own homes. The Aztecs liked bright dyes. A red dye was made from the cochineal beetle. It took about 70,000 beetles to make half a kilo of dye.
The nobles played a ball game called Tlachtli. It was played with a solid rubber ball. Players were not allowed to use their hands or feet. They could only touch the ball with their hips, knees, and elbows. Players tried to knock the ball through a stone hoop. The Aztecs also played a board game called patolli.
Aztec children were treated very harshly. If they misbehaved they could have cactus spines pushed into their skin or they were held over a fire containing chilies and were forced to inhale the smoke.
However, the Aztecs believed education was important. Boys learned jobs like farming and fishing from their fathers and girls learned skills like cooking and weaving from their mothers. However, both boys and girls attended school. (Although they were taught separately). The ordinary children went to a school called a telpochcalli. They learned about history and religion but also music and dance. When they were older boys learned to fight.
Noble children went to a school called a calmecac. They learned to read and write. (The Aztecs made paper from the bark of fig trees. Their writing consisted of pictograms or pictures that represented sounds). Upper-class children also studied religion, mathematics, and astrology.
The Spanish Conquest of the Aztecs
In 1492 the Spaniards discovered the new world. The end of the Aztec Empire came when the governor of Cuba sent an army under Hernan Cortes (1485-1547) to conquer Mexico.
Cortes only had about 600 men yet he managed to conquer the Aztecs. The Spaniards had several advantages. They had guns. They also had horses (animals unknown to the Aztecs). The sight of a Spanish cavalry charge was terrifying. Also, the Spanish had steel armor and weapons (steel was unknown to the Aztecs).
Worse, the people the Aztecs ruled hated their masters and many were willing to join the Spaniards to destroy them.
When the Spaniards arrived at the capital, Tenochtitlan Montezuma allowed them to enter. However, after a week Cortes took the emperor hostage.
Then the governor of Cuba sent a force to Mexico to arrest Cortes. So Cortes went to the coast to meet them. Cortes managed to deal with this threat but meanwhile, in Tenochtitlan, Spanish soldiers provoked a rebellion.
Cortes rushed back to Tenochtitlan but the Conquistadors were forced to retreat from the city at night. So many Spaniards died in the retreat that they called it la Noche triste (the night of sadness). However, the Spaniards eventually reached the coast.
Cortes gathered reinforcements and then marched on Tenochtitlan again. When he reached Lake Texcoco Cortes built boats and armed them with cannons. The boats then sailed across the lake to attack the city (which was built on an island). The Spaniards were also helped by smallpox, which broke out among the Aztecs. (The Spaniards brought European diseases to which the Aztecs had no resistance). Eventually, the Spaniards captured Tenochtitlan and burned it.
The Spaniards were now in control of Mexico, which they called New Spain. Cortes was appointed its first governor.
Last Revised 2024