By Tim Lambert
THE AZTEC EMPIRE
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 place of the cactus. At first they were an 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 from one city. The Aztecs conquered the surrounding peoples. However the Aztecs did not usually 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 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 centre was 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 their were public lavatories. The sewage was used for fertiliser. 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 jewellery 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 worshipped many gods. The Aztecs 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, 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 babies tears would bring rain) and Quetzalcoatl (whose name means feathered snake), the god of learning and wind.
The Aztecs believed that warriors who died in battle and people who were sacrificed and women who died in childbirth went to join the sun god in paradise. For everyone else there were 13 Heavens and 9 Hells. After your death you went to the one most suitable for you.
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 salt water 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 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.
To read a history of weapons click here.
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.
Also maize was 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 fruit such as limes and cactus fruits.
The Aztecs 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 Aztec nobles drank an alcoholic drink called octli, from fermented maguey juice. Upper class Aztecs drank chocolate made from cocoa beans. It was flavoured with vanilla and honey.
Poor people drank water or sometimes an alcoholic drink called pulque.
To grow food Aztec farmers did not have ploughs. 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. The Aztecs planted willows around the edges of chinampas to make them more secure. Aztecs also fished in the lakes and caught water birds.
To read a history of food click here.
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.
Aztec 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 storey. 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 an Aztec inside the steam bath threw water on the wall it turned to steam.
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Different classes of Aztecs wore different clothes. Upper class Aztecs wore cotton clothes and feather headdresses. Ordinary people wore clothes made from maguey plant fibre. Men wore loin cloths 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.
Aztec women wove clothes in their own homes.
The Aztecs like bright dyes. A red dye was made from the cochineal beetle. It took about 70,000 beetles to make half a kilo of dye.
Aztec 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 chillies 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 schools. (Although they were taught separately). The ordinary Aztec children went to a school called a telpochalli. They learned about history and religion but also about 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.
To read a history of children click here.
The Spanish Conquest of the Aztecs
In 1492 the Spaniards discovered the new world. The end for 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 armour and weapons (steel was unknown to the Aztecs). Furthermore the Aztecs were handicapped by their unwillingness to kill the Spaniards. They wanted to capture, their enemies not kill them in battle, so they could be sacrificed later. Worse, the people the Aztecs ruled hated their masters. They were willing to join the Spaniards in order to destroy the Aztecs.
Most of all the Aztecs were handicapped by their beliefs. They believed that their god Quetzalcoatl had once left Mexico by sea and promised to return one day. According to legend Quetzalcoatl would return from the east in the year one reed. (The Aztecs measured time in cycles of 52 years. One year of the cycle was one reed). By an astonishing coincidence one reed fell on 1519 - the year Cortes arrived.
The Aztec emperor Motecuhzoma feared that Cortes was Quetzalcoatl. He dared not attack a god and so took no action against the Aztecs. By the time the Aztecs realised the truth it was too late.
Motecuhzoma sent Cortes presents including gold and warned him not to approach Tenochtitlan. However the rich gifts merely whetted the Spaniards appetite. They made Cortes determined to capture the capital and take its treasures.
When the Spaniards arrived Motecuhzoma welcomed them as friends and housed them in a palace in the city. However after a week Cortes took the emperor hostage. Cortes demanded that Motecuhzoma come with him and stay with the Spaniards - or face death. The emperor gave in and from that moment he was a Spanish puppet.
Although the Spaniards were very impressed by the engineering and architecture of Tenochtitlan they strongly disapproved of the idolatry and human sacrifice. Cortes ordered the Aztecs to stop the sacrifices, which made them very angry.
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 when they tried to stop an important ceremony.
Cortes rushed back to Tenochtitlan and he found the Spaniards there besieged in their palace. Cortes made Motecuhzoma go out to talk to his people but they stoned him. 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 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 and 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 2012