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12.8: The Aztec People

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    Learning Objective

    • Describe distinguishing factors of Aztec life

    Key Points

    • The Aztec “empire” was more of a collection of city-states than an empire.
    • Mexico City today is built on the ruins of Tenochtitlan, which was the capital of the Aztec empire.
    • Agriculture played a key role in the Aztec civilization. Irrigation and floating garden beds allowed people to grow several crops a year.



    Small, mostly independent city-states that often paid tribute to the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan.


    The language spoken by the Mexica people who made up the Aztec Triple Alliance, as well as many city-states throughout the region.

    flower wars

    The form of ritual war where warriors from the Triple Alliance fought with enemy Nahua city-states.

    The Aztecs were a pre-Columbian Mesoamerican people of Central Mexico in the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries. They called themselves Mexica. 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.

    From the 13th century, the Valley of Mexico was the heart of Aztec civilization; here the capital of the Aztec Triple Alliance, the city of Tenochtitlan, was built upon raised islets in Lake Texcoco. The Triple Alliance was comprised of Tenochtitlan along with their main allies of Acolhuas of Texcoco and Tepanecs of Tlacopan. They formed a tributary empire expanding its political hegemony far beyond the Valley of Mexico, conquering other city-states throughout Mesoamerica. At its pinnacle, Aztec culture had rich and complex mythological and religious traditions, and reached remarkable architectural and artistic accomplishments. In 1521 Hernán Cortés, along with a large number of Nahuatl-speaking indigenous allies, conquered Tenochtitlan and defeated the Aztec Triple Alliance under the leadership of Hueyi Tlatoani Moctezuma II. Subsequently the Spanish founded the new settlement of Mexico City on the site of the ruined Aztec capital, from where they proceeded to colonize Central America.

    Basin in the Valley of Mexico. Circa 1519, at the time of the arrival of the Spanish.


    The Aztec empire was an example of an empire that ruled by indirect means. Like most European empires, it was ethnically very diverse, but unlike most European empires, it was more of a system of tribute than a single system of government. Although the form of government is often referred to as an empire, in fact most areas within the empire were organized as city-states, known as “altepetl” in Nahuatl. These were small polities ruled by a king (tlatoani) from a legitimate dynasty.

    Two of the primary architects of the Aztec empire were the half-brothers Tlacaelel and Montezuma I, nephews of Itzcoatl. Moctezuma I succeeded Itzcoatl as Hueyi Tlatoani (or king) in 1440. Although he was also offered the opportunity to be tlatoani, Tlacaelel preferred to operate as the power behind the throne. Tlacaelel focused on reforming the Aztec state and religious practices. According to some sources, he ordered the burning of most of the extant Aztec books, claiming that they contained lies. He thereupon rewrote the history of the Aztec people, thus creating a common awareness of history for the Aztecs. This rewriting led directly to the curriculum taught to scholars, and promoted the belief that the Aztecs were always a powerful and mythic nation—forgetting forever a possible true history of modest origins. One component of this reform was the institution of ritual war (the flower wars) as a way to have trained warriors, and the necessity of constant sacrifices to keep the Sun moving.


    The Aztec economy can be divided into a political sector, under the control of nobles and kings, and a commercial sector that operated independently of the political sector. The political sector of the economy centered on the control of land and labor by kings and nobles. Nobles owned all land, and commoners got access to farmland and other fields through a variety of arrangements, from rental through sharecropping to serf-like labor and slavery. These payments from commoners to nobles supported both the lavish lifestyles of the high nobility and the finances of city-states. Many luxury goods were produced for consumption by nobles. The producers of featherwork, sculptures, jewelry, and other luxury items were full-time commoner specialists who worked for noble patrons.

    Several forms of money were in circulation, most notably the cacao bean. These beans could be used to buy food, staples, and cloth. Around thirty beans would purchase a rabbit, while one father was recorded as selling his daughter for around 200 cacao beans. The Aztec rulers also maintained complex road systems with regular stops to rest and eat every ten miles or so. Couriers walked these roads regularly to ensure they were in good working order and to bring news back to Tenochtitlan.

    Aztec headdress. The feathers most likely came from a tropical rainforest far away, and the headdress was probably owned by an elite or noble.

    Trade also formed a central part of Aztec life. While local commoners regularly paid tribute to the nobles a few times a year, there was also extensive trade with other regions in Mesoamerica. Archeological evidence shows that jade, obsidian, feathers, and shells reached the capital through established trade routes. Rulers and nobles enjoyed wearing these more exotic goods and having them fashioned into expressive headdresses and jewelry.

    Architecture and Agriculture

    The capital of Tenochtitlan was divided into four even sections called campans. All of these sections were interlaced together with a series of canals that allowed for easy transportation throughout the islets of Lake Texcoco. Commoner housing was usually built of reeds or wood, while noble houses and religious sites were constructed from stone.

    Agriculture played a large part in the economy and society of the Aztecs. They used dams to implement irrigation techniques in the valleys. They also implemented a raised bed gardening technique by layering mud and plant vegetation in the lake in order to create moist gardens. These raised beds were called chinampas. These extremely fertile beds could harvest seven different crops each year. Some of the most essential crops in Aztec agriculture included:

    • Avocados
    • Beans
    • Squash
    • Sweet Potatoes
    • Maize
    • Tomatoes
    • Amarinth
    • Chilies
    • Cotton
    • Cacao beans

    Most farming occurred outside of the busy heart of Tenochtitlan. However, each family generally had a garden where they could grow maize, fruits, herbs, and medicinal plants on a smaller scale.

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