- The Aztec Empire is a famous culture that thrived in Mexico before Europeans arrived in the early 1600s.
- This empire controlled the region for almost 100 years.
- Many aspects of Mexican culture are Hispanic, but there are also ties to Aztec civilization and other Mesoamerican cultures.
The founding of Tenochtitlan
The Aztec people were nomads that came from the south of what is today the US. They did not come to Mesoamerica until around 1300. The locals did not like them because they were different and had no money or power.
When the Aztecs arrived at Texcoco, they saw an eagle was sitting on the cactus eating a snake. They saw this as a prophecy and so they decided to found Tenochtitlan here. The eagle and the serpent sit today as a symbol on the Mexican flag
The Aztecs founded Tenochtitlan in 1325. In a few years, they became the most powerful empire in America before the Europeans arrived.
By 1430 CE, the Mexica (or Aztec) society had already organized itself and was very powerful. They fought with their military and they won.
They created an alliance with two other tribes called the Triple Alliance, meaning that they were very powerful now too.
The Aztec capital
In Tenochtitlan, some roads connected the islands. The people had water made from a river to drink and had sewers in their city.
There was a king and nobles who ruled, priests who worshipped their god, warriors who protected them from danger, and merchants who sold things.
When the Spanish came to Tenochtitlan in 1519 AD, it already had pyramids, temples, and palaces with markets by then.
Not only was Tenochtitlán the capital of the Aztec Empire, but it was also a trading center with many people from other places.
Aztecs created some of the largest markets in the world. They exist today and they are called tianguis.
In a tianguis, people traded things like gold and greenstone as well as cotton, chili sauces, and even insects. When the Spanish invaders came to Tenochtitlán, they were impressed by these markets and the variety of articles offered in them.
Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, had a lot of people living in it. Food and water were not easy to get.
A special kind of garden was built. These gardens were on the land but with water around them like an island. In them, Aztecs grew maize, squash, and beans. These are the three food staples for Mexicans even today.
You can still see this kind of garden today called chinampas at Xochimilco if you visit there; people still use it for growing food.
Chocolate comes from Mesoamerica. The Mexica people used it as a gift from their god of wisdom. But the way they made chocolate was different from what is done today. They would crush the seeds and mix them with spices and drink it as a bitter, frothy drink.
They also used cacao seeds to pay for things. After Europe got chocolate, they sweetened it with sugar.
The empire wasn’t strictly an empire as we might think. The Aztecs didn’t directly rule their subjects in the same way a European empire like the Romans did.
Rather than direct control, the Aztecs subjugated nearby city-states but left the local rulers in charge, then demanded regular tribute – leading to great wealth for Tenochtitlan.
The Mexica ruler was known as the Huey tlatoani. They were the “chief speaker.”
The Huey tlatoani was in charge of maintaining the city, participating in important rituals, and overseeing military operations. They lived in large, sumptuous palaces.
The royal palaces had rooms for living quarters, meetings, and storage. They were in the navel of the universe (or center of everything). That is the real meaning of the word “Mexico”.
The palaces also had gardens, a zoo, and an aviary. The zoo had ocelots, bears, mountain lions, and mountain cats. Eagles were there too in the aviary.
War and the military
The Aztecs used to fight in battles. They had a large, powerful military. They controlled many people in Mesoamerica.
The Mexica got tribute from those peoples. The tribute lists show items like bird feathers, greenstone or jade, and textiles that the people sent back to Tenochtitlan.
The Aztecs had a ritual called a “flowery war” against their enemies. They could have conquered the cities. Instead, they just wanted to get training for their soldiers.
From the mid-1450s they stopped fighting and started capturing people for sacrifices. The nobles would wear nice clothes to war. War was more a sport where they would try to make their enemies surrender instead of killing them.
The constant wars were also good for getting sacrifices for religious rituals.
Aztec kids learned a lot about how to behave from their parents. They learned about manners, good behavior, honesty, discipline, respect, and the importance of listening. They also learned how to work by helping with household jobs like fetching water from the age of four.
Moms taught their daughters to do housework, like sweeping the house and grinding maize. Dads taught their sons to do things outside of the house, like carrying loads and catching fish.
Aztec children started going to school at five years old, but they didn’t go full-time until 15. Boys and girls went to different schools.
There were two types of schools: one for nobles and one for commoners.
The calmecac was a religious academy that the sons of nobles attended. You could get in if you showed talent at a young age.
At this school, you studied science and astronomy, art and writing, calendars, and math. You learned about medicine and law too, plus history and architecture.
Boys who were trainee priests had to work hard. They had to sweep, do farm work, gather firewood, and prepare meals for themselves.
Then they would go out at night alone and pray. The boys would wake up in the middle of the night and take a cold bath in a pool. Trainee priests had to do penance as well.
The other school was called telpochcalli. Here there was hard work, military training for boys, and no comforts. But it was freer than the calmecac. Boys and girls had fun in the evening at the House of Song (cuicacalli) by playing music or singing songs together.
The Mexica had many gods and goddesses in their religious pantheon.
The two most important deities were Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc, the god of rain and the god of agriculture. They were symbolized by twin temples atop the Templo Mayor in Tenochtitlan.
The Templo Mayor was the most important temple in the empire. It had two sides, one for Tlaloc and one for Huitzilopochtli.
The side that symbolized Tlaloc included objects, symbols, and colors (like blue-green) from the rain god. The other side symbolized Huitzilopochtli and used a variety of means to convey his warrior and solar associations.
The Aztec calendar
The Aztecs had two different calendars.
One is called the tonalpohualli and it is 260 days long. The other one is called the xiuhpohualli and it has 360 days in a year, plus 5 extra days. There are 18 months of 20 days each in this calendar and every month honors a specific deity or deities.
One of the most important archeological findings in Mexico City was a huge carved stone called the Aztec Calendar.
The stone was carved with symbols for the 4 directions, a date cycle of 52 years, and 5 eras of time. At the center of the stone, we see the sun god: Tonatiuh. Experts have interpreted other parts of it, and they believe they represent months, each one related to a deity.
Day of the Dead or Día de los Muertos
One of the traditions inherited from the Aztecs is the celebration of the Day of the Dead. Every year, near Halloween, Mexicans celebrate this day by setting up an altar for their deceased family members. This altar is very colorful and is decorated with a perfumed marigold called cempasúchil.
They also put water, salt, and a cross on it. Sometimes they prepare their ancestors’ favorite food too. They also add sugar skulls which are decorated with designs and glittering white sugar.
Call them Mexicas
The word “Aztec” is a name that people gave to the people of Aztlán. The people of Aztlan are thought to have been in Northern Mexico or the Southwestern United States, but they called themselves the Mexica and spoke Nahuatl.
There are still three million Mexicans who speak Nahuatl today. Nahuatl words we use today include coyote, chipotle, chocolate, tomato, and avocado.
Aztecs did not have an alphabet as we do. They used pictures and symbols to write things down.
For example, a hill was shown using a picture of a hill, and the specific place was shown by adding another picture of what is there, like in Chapultepec.
To show speech or talking they would use an arrow with someone’s mouth drawn on it, like the ones used in today’s comic books.
The Spanish Conquest
Spain’s conquistadors arrived in Mexico in 1519, led by Hernán Cortés. They were looking for gold and riches, and they found these when the Mexica ruler gave them gifts.
The conquistadors took the emperor Moctezuma prisoner after arriving in Tenochtitlan, but it did not go well. When Cortés fled the city of Tenochtitlan, he left behind a large group of Spaniards wounded by Aztec warriors.
The Spanish conquistadors were then helped by other Mesoamerican tribes who were tired of the Aztec rulers.
Diseases killed many Aztecs. They died from things like measles, mumps, and smallpox. This also led to the fall of the empire.
A lot of Tenochtitlan was destroyed after the Aztecs surrendered. Cortés started building Mexico City on top of what was left of Tenochtitlan.
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