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History of the Aztecs

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History of the Aztecs

The Aztecs were a Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican people of central Mexico in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries. They called themselves Mexica (pronounced [meˈʃikaʔ]). The Republic of Mexico and its capital, Mexico City, derive their names from the word "Mexica".

The capital of the Aztec empire was Tenochtitlan, built on a raised island in Lake Texcoco. Modern Mexico City is built on the ruins of Tenochtitlan. The Spanish colonisation of the Americas reached the mainland during the reign of Huey Tlatoani Moctezuma II (Montezuma II). In 1521 Hernán Cortés, and an allied army of other Native Americans which far outnumbered the defending Aztecs, conquered the Aztecs through germ warfare, siege warfare, psychological warfare, and direct combat.

From 1376 until 1427, the Mexica were a tributary of Azcapotzalco. The Aztec rulers Acamapichtli, Huitzilihuitl and Chimalpopoca were, in fact, vassals of Tezozomoc, the Tepanec ruler of Azcapotzalco.

When Tezozomoc died in 1425, his son Maxtla ascended to the throne of Azcapotzalco. Matla sought to tighten Azcapotzalco's grip on the nearby city-states in the Valley of Mexico. In the process, Chimalpopoca, tlatoani of Tenochtitlan, was assassinated by Maxtla's agents while Nezahualcoyotl of Texcoco was forced into exile.[1]


  • Arrival in the Valley of Mexico 1
  • Rise of the Aztecs 2
  • Aztec Triple Alliance 3
    • The reign of Itzcoatl 1427–1440 3.1
    • Moctezuma I and Tlacaelel 1440–1469 3.2
      • Tlacaelel 3.2.1
    • The reigns of Axayacatl 1469–1481 and Tizoc 1481–1486 3.3
    • The reign of Moctezuma II Xocoyotzin 3.4
  • Fall of the Aztec Empire 4
    • The fate of the Aztec empire under Spanish rule 4.1
  • Footnotes 5
  • See also 6
  • References 7

Arrival in the Valley of Mexico

In the Valley of Mexico (c. AD 1250), there existed numerous city-states, including Chalco, Xochimilco, Tlacopan, Culhuacan, and Atzcapotzalco. The most powerful were Culhuacan on the south shore of Lake Texcoco and Azcapotzalco on the west shore.

As a result, when the Mexica arrived in the Valley of Mexico as a semi-nomadic tribe, they found most of the area already occupied. In roughly 1248,[2] they first settled on Chapultepec, a hill on the west shore of Lake Texcoco, the site of numerous springs.

In time, the Tepanecs of Azcapotzalco ousted the Mexica from Chapultepec and the ruler of Culhuacan, Cocoxtli, gave the Mexica permission to settle in the empty barrens of Tizaapan in 1299. There they married and assimilated into Culhuacan culture.

In 1323, they asked the new ruler of Culhuacan, Achicometl, for his daughter, in order to make her the goddess Yaocihuatl. Unknown to the king, the Mexica actually planned to sacrifice her. The Mexica believed that by doing this the princess would join the gods as a deity. As the story goes, during a festival dinner, a priest came out wearing her flayed skin as part of the ritual. Upon seeing this, the king and the people of Culhuacan were peeved and expelled the Mexica.

Forced to flee, in 1325 they went to a small island on the west side of Lake Texcoco where they began to build their city Tenochtitlan, eventually creating a large artificial island. It is said that the Aztec god, Huitzlipochtli, instructed the Aztecs to found their city at the location where they saw an eagle, on a cactus, with a snake in its talons(which is on the current Mexican flag). The Aztecs, apparently, saw this vision on the small island where Tenochtitlan was founded.

Another Mexica (meːˈʃiʔkaʔ) group settled on the north side of this island: this would become the city of Tlatelolco. Originally, this was an independent Mexica kingdom, but eventually it was absorbed by Tenochtitlan, and treated as a "fifth" quadrant. The famous marketplace described by Hernán Cortés and Bernal Diaz del Castillo was actually located in Tlatelolco.

In 1376 the Mexica elected their first tlatoani, Acamapichtli, following customs learned from the Culhuacan. These customs required cleaning daily nonstop as a ritual.

Rise of the Aztecs

Map showing the expansion of the empire showing the areas conquered by the rulers following the reign of Itzcoatl[3] Initially, the Mexica hired themselves out as mercenaries in wars between the different Nahua states.

From 1376 until 1427, the Mexica were a tributary of Azcapotzalco. The Aztec rulers Acamapichtli, Huitzilihuitl and Chimalpopoca were, in fact, vassals of Tezozomoc, the Tepanec ruler of Azcapotzalco.

When Tezozomoc died in 1425, his son Maxtla ascended to the throne of Azcapotzalco. Maxtla sought to tighten Azcapotzalco's grip on the nearby city-states in the Valley of Mexico. In the process, Chimalpopoca, tlatoani of Tenochtitlan, was assassinated by Maxtla's agents while Nezahualcoyotl of Texcoco was forced into exile.[4]

Aztec Triple Alliance

The Triple Alliance of Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan would, in the next 100 years, come to dominate the Valley of Mexico and extend its power to both the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific shores. From the beginning of the Triple Alliance, Tenochtitlan was mostly in charge of the military and conquest, whereas the other two cities had other responsibilities. This military dominance of Tenochtitlan gradually led to this city becoming the dominant power in the alliance. When the alliance received tributes 2/5 went to Tenochitlan, 2/5 to Texcoco, and 1/5 to Tlacopan.[2]

The reign of Itzcoatl 1427–1440

The first Tlatoani of the Triple Alliance was Itzcoatl and he, along with his Texcocan co-ruler Nezahualcoyotl, began expanding the territory dominated by the alliance towards the south, conquering Nahua-speaking cities like Cuauhnahuac (now Cuernavaca), and towards Huexotla, Coatlinchan, and Tepoztlan in the modern-day state of Morelos which was then dominated by the Tlahuica. During this period the Nahuan cities immediately on the lakeside, such as Xochimilco, Culhuacan and Mixquic were also subdued.

Moctezuma I and Tlacaelel 1440–1469

Two of the primary architects of the Aztec empire were the half-brothers Tlacaelel and Moctezuma I. They were sons of Huitzilíhuitl, the 3rd Hueyi Tlatoani, half-brothers to have they were called ---> Chimalpopoca, the 4th Hueyi Tlatoani, and nephews of Itzcoatl, the 5th. Moctezuma I succeeded Itzcoatl as the 6th Hueyi Tlatoani in 1449. Tlacaelel became the power behind the throne and reformed both the Aztec state and the Aztec religion.

Moctezuma I began the expansion in earnest. First he had to reconquer towns which were first conquered by Itzcoatl, but had since rebelled. He asked a number of smaller cities to contribute to the construction of a new Great Temple, and only Chalco refused, which caused Moctezuma to start a war against them which lasted for several years. He then conquered Huastec territory under a pretext of securing Aztec merchants in that area, and then he went to war against the Mixtecs of Coixtlahuaca. Coixtlahuaca was successfully conquered although the Mixtec ruler Atonal received military assistance from the Nahua states of Tlaxcala and Huexotzinco, by now enemies of the Aztecs. After the defeat of Coixtlahuaca many Mixtec artisans were relocated to the Aztec capital.[3] Later Moctezuma marched upon the Totonacan cities of Vera Cruz and conquered Xalapa, Cosamaloapan, Cotaxtla (modern day Cuetlachtlan), Ahuilizapan (Modern day Orizaba) and north into Huastec territory conquering Tuxpan and Xilotepec.


Tlacaelel was one of the primary architects of the Aztec empire. Rising to prominence during the war against the Tepanec in the late 1420s, Tlacaelel wielded power as something of a Grand Vizier during the reigns of four Hueyi Tlatoani, until his death in 1487.

Tlacaelel recast or strengthened the concept of the Aztecs as a chosen people and elevated the tribal god/hero Huitzilopochtli to the top of the pantheon of gods. In tandem with this, Tlacaelel increased the level and prevalence of human sacrifice, particularly during a period of natural disasters that started in 1446 (according to Durán). During the reign of Moctezuma I, he instigated the flower wars in which the Aztecs fought Tlaxcala and other Nahuan city-states.

To strengthen the Aztec nobility, he helped create and enforce sumptuary laws, prohibiting commoners from wearing certain adornments such as lip plugs, gold armbands, and cotton cloaks.

At the start of Tlacaelel's tenure, the Mexica were vassals. By the end, they had become the Aztecs, rulers of a socially stratified and expansionistic empire.

The reigns of Axayacatl 1469–1481 and Tizoc 1481–1486

Moctezuma I's son, Axayacatl, ascended to the throne in 1469. During his reign, Tenochtitlan absorbed the kingdom of Tlatelolco. Axayacatl's sister was married to the tlatoani of Tlatelolco, and, as a pretext for war, Axayacatl declared that she was mistreated.

He went on to conquer the Matlatzinca and Mazahua cities of Tollocan, Ocuillan, and Malinalco west of the Valley of Mexico.

At this point Tenochtitlan experienced a brief "civil war" when the small city of Tlatelolco, considered a part of Tenochtitlan by the Aztecs, rebelled under their Tlatoani Moquihuix, who sought to ally himself with the longstanding enemies of the Tenochca, the Chalca, Tlaxcalteca, Chololteca and Huexotzinca. The Tlatelolca were defeated and Axayacatl then ordered the execution of all the rulers who had aided him, including the ruler of Xochimilco.

Continuing campaigns in the west in 1479, he suffered an unprecedented defeat by the Purépechas at Tzintzuntzan. This was the Aztecs' first great defeat; once recovered he had to consolidate control of the Huasteca region which had already been conquered by his predecessor.

In 1481 Axayacatl's brother Tizoc ruled briefly, but his rule was marred by the humiliation he received in his coronation war: fighting the Otomies at Metztitlan he brought home only 40 prisoners for sacrifice at his coronation ceremony.[4] After this defeat Tizoc had to fight principally to maintain control of the already conquered territories, and failing to subdue new towns he was replaced, possibly poisoned, by his younger brother Ahuitzotl.

The reign of Moctezuma II Xocoyotzin

Moctezuma II was, although many sources depict him otherwise, a notable warrior who extended the tributary system, and consolidated the conquests made by his predecessors as well as conquering new territories. His campaigns reached as far south as Tapachula in the Soconusco region and the Chontal Maya states of Xicallanco in Tabasco. Only the Aztec archenemies of Tlaxcala, Huexotzinco and the Purépecha remained undefeated, as well as the Mixtec kingdoms of Tututepec and Yopitzinco which didn't interest the Aztecs. Thus the Aztec Empire had its largest geographical extent when the Spaniards arrived in 1519. In some sources, it claims that Moctezuma II, and the Aztecs, believed the arriving Spanish to linked to the supposed return of an exiled god, Quetzlcoatl, who was supposed to return pale and bearded.

Fall of the Aztec Empire

For more on the conquest of Mexico by Spain, see also Spanish Conquest of Mexico, Siege of Tenochtitlan, and Hernán Cortés.

The Aztecs were conquered by Spain in 1521 after a long siege of the capital, Tenochtitlan, where much of the population died from hunger and smallpox. Cortés, with 508 Spaniards, did not fight alone but with as many as 150,000 or 200,000 allies from Tlaxcala, and eventually other Aztec tributary states. It was not difficult for Cortes to find allies to fight with him, the Aztecs were not generally liked by the neighbouring city-states. Cuauhtémoc, the last Hueyi Tlatoani surrendered to Cortés on August 13, 1521.

It took nearly another 60 years of war before the Spaniards completed the conquest of Mesoamerica (the Chichimeca wars), a process that could have taken longer were it not for three separate epidemics that took a heavy toll on the Native American population. The Spanish conquest of Yucatán took almost 170 years.

After the fall of Tenochtitlan, most of the other Mesoamerican cultures remained intact. In fact, the conquest of the Aztec empire did not have an immediate impact on other Mesoamerican cultures.

As allies of the Spaniards, the Tlaxcalans gained the most. The Spaniards would eventually break the alliance, but not until decades later.

The fate of the Aztec empire under Spanish rule

Cortés's stated intention was to maintain the structure of the Aztec empire. Initially, it seemed that the Aztec empire could survive under Spanish rule. The upper classes of the Aztec empire were initially considered as noblemen (to this day, the title of Duke of Moctezuma is held by a Spanish noble family). The upper classes learned Spanish, and several learned to write in Roman characters. Some of their surviving writings are crucial to our knowledge of the Aztecs. In addition, the first missionaries tried to learn Nahuatl and some, like Bernardino de Sahagún, set out to learn as much as they could of the Aztec culture.


  1. ^
  2. ^ Ancient Mexico and Central America
  3. ^ According to Richard Townsends "The Aztecs" pp88. Thames and Hudson 1992.
  4. ^ Townsend, Richard 1992. pp 96.

See also


  • Berdan, Frances F. (2005) The Aztecs of Central Mexico: An Imperial Society. 2nd ed. Thomson-Wadsworth, Belmont, CA.
  • Berdan, Frances F., Richard E. Blanton, Elizabeth H. Boone, Mary G. Hodge, Michael E. Smith and Emily Umberger (1996) Aztec Imperial Strategies. Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, DC.
  • Boone, Elizabeth H. 1989. "Incarnations of the Aztec Supernatural: The Image of Huitzilopochtli in Mexico and Europe." Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, New Ser., Vol. 79, No. 2., pp. i–iv+1-107.
  • Boone, Elizabeth H. (2000) Stories in Red and Black: Pictorial Histories of the Aztecs and Mixtecs. University of Texas Press, Austin.
  • Carrasco, Davíd (1999) City of Sacrifice: The Aztec Empire and the Role of Violence in Civilization. Beacon Press, Boston.
  • Carrasco, Pedro (1999) The Tenochca Empire of Ancient Mexico: The Triple Alliance of Tenochtitlan, Tetzcoco, and Tlacopan. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.
  • Clendinnen, Inga (1991) Aztecs: An Interpretation. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.
  • Davies, Nigel (1973) The Aztecs: A History. University of Oklahoma, Norman.
  • Gillespie, Susan D. (1989) The Aztec Kings: The Construction of Rulership in Mexica History'. University of Arizona Press, Tucson.
  • Graulich, Michel (1997) Myths of Ancient Mexico. Translated by Bernard R. Ortiz de Montellano and Thelma Ortiz de Montellano. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.
  • Guggenheim Museum (editor) (2004) The Aztec Empire (Curated by Felipe Solís). Guggenheim Museum, New York.
  • Hassig, Ross (1988) Aztec Warfare: Imperial Expansion and Political Control. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.
  • León-Portilla, Miguel (1963) Aztec Thought and Culture: A Study of the Ancient Náhuatl Mind. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.
  • López Luján, Leonardo (2005) The Offerings of the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan. Revised ed. Translated by Bernard R. Ortiz de Montellano and Thelma Ortiz de Montellano. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.
  • Matos Moctezuma, Eduardo (1988) The Great Temple of the Aztecs. Thames and Hudson, New York.
  • Matos Moctezuma, Eduardo and Felipe R. Solís Olguín (editors) (2002) Aztecs. Royal Academy of Arts, London.
  • Ortiz de Montellano, Bernard R. (1990) Aztec Medicine, Health, and Nutrition. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick.
  • 31(3): 153 – 186.EthnohistorySmith, Michael E. (1984); "The Aztlan Migrations of Nahuatl Chronicles: Myth or History?", in
  • Smith, Michael E. (2003) The Aztecs. 2nd ed. Blackwell Publishers, Oxford.
  • .Scientific AmericanSmith, Michael E, "Life in the Provinces of the Aztec Empire",
  • Soustelle, J., (1961) The Daily life of the Aztecs, London, WI
  • Woods, M., (2000) "Conquistadors", Ubuversity of California Press Berkeley and Los Angeles, California.
  • Townsend, Richard F. (2000) The Aztecs. revised ed. Thames and Hudson, NY.
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