History of Mexico: The Aztec Empire

Aztec Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacan, Mexico

by Roxanna Brock McDade

The Aztec Empire was an ancient civilization located in the Valley of Mexico hundreds of years ago. We've uncovered incredible relics from this advanced society, and through these, we have learned about their amazing 300-year existence. Exploring Aztec culture is one major reason for tourism in Mexico, as people look to get an up-close view of what the civilization left behind.

Timeline of the Aztec Empire

The Aztecs used to be nomads before settling around the year 1200. By 1325, they had founded their capital city, Tenochtitlan, and they began to farm crops such as corn, beans, squash, and potatoes. By the 1400s, the Aztecs had begun to make alliances with other groups in the area, extending their military might. Unfortunately, the growth of the empire was halted in the early 1500s by the Spanish explorer and conqueror Hernan Cortes. He allied with the enemies of the Aztecs, the Tlaxcalans, and attacked the Aztecs in 1520. By 1521, the vast civilization had been defeated. Soon after, the city was rebuilt as Mexico City, which remains a huge city today.

 

Religion and Government

The religion of the Aztecs included a large number of gods, many linked to nature. For instance, corn had four gods, one for each type of corn. They believed that gods needed rest just like humans, so some gods governed the daytime, while others governed the night. They also believed that if they worshipped the gods enough, then after they die, they could help the gods carry out their purpose in the world. Priests were very high-ranking people in Aztec society for this reason. Aztecs also believed in human sacrifice and would kill people in order to worship their gods and keep them happy. Usually, the victims were prisoners of war, but sometimes, if they didn't have any prisoners, they would sacrifice their own people in order to keep the gods happy.

Their civilization was ruled by an emperor living in a palace. Underneath him was many nobles, hand-picked by the emperor, to rule different cities in the empire. Aztec laws were harsh and often came with the penalty of death. However, the Aztecs had a forgiveness law: If you used that law, you could be forgiven for a crime. But you had to confess your crime to the priests to be forgiven, and you could only use this law once in your entire life.

 

Technology

Aztec technology was all built without the use of iron and bronze, unlike the things made and used by European settlers. This proved to be a disadvantage to the Aztecs when the Spanish arrived. However, they had a huge amount of advanced technology for the time, such as canals. They would build canals so they could travel; they didn't use wheels or horses. Each canal would have canoes moving up and down for quick travel. The Aztecs also had advanced knowledge of mathematics, with their own number system based around the number 20. They even had taxes!

One famous remnant of Aztec science and technology is the Aztec calendar. Their solar year was 365 days long, just like ours, and their calendar continued for hundreds of years. There was also a sacred calendar that included all of their religious rituals, and this calendar had 260 days in a year. These two calendars coincided only once every 52 years.

 

Daily Life

The Aztecs were family-oriented. The husband would be a warrior or farmer, working outside the house to provide for the family. The wife would often cook, weave, or brew. One of the most unique aspects of their daily life was required schooling: All children had to go to school, which was very rare in that time, especially since this rule included both girls and slaves.

Aztecs used their clothing to signify their rank in society. Different colors and decorations were only allowed if you were from a certain class; for example, nobles were the only people allowed to use feathers on their clothes.

 

Art

The art in the Aztec Empire was varied and beautiful. They painted, made music, wrote poetry, and even sculpted. They often created art to please the gods. Above all, poetry was their highest form of art. This was easier to pass down through the generations, as poems could be short and memorable. One of the most respected forms of art, however, was the feather art that adorns the clothes of nobles.