The Aztecs were a Mesoamerican society whose empire extended across a vast portion of modern-day Mexico and Central America. The Aztec Empire thrived between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries. At its largest, its population was more than eleven million people. The Aztecs were highly skilled farmers and traders, which allowed their communities to thrive over the centuries. The Aztec Empire also produced some of the finest works of art and architecture in the region during this period. The Aztec lifestyle was well documented by its people and explorers from other continents. European exploration eventually led to the death of the empire, however. The great civilization came to an end shortly after the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors.
Aztecs did not refer to themselves as Aztec. They called themselves the Mexica people. The Mexica originated from a group of native people of Asian ancestry who came to northern America during the Ice Age. They spoke a language called Nahuatl. The Mexica eventually migrated south to the Mesoamerican area. According to their mythology, the Mexica people once inhabited a legendary city called Aztlán (“Land of White Herons” and the root of the Aztec name). The god Huitzilopochtli sent an eagle to help guide their ancestors to the Valley of Mexico. The Mexica and several other nearby ethnic groups made up the Pre-Columbian civilization that would later be known as the Aztec people.
Emergence of an Empire
By the twelfth century, central America was home to many separate city-states. Each city-state had its own leaders and unique cultures. These cities began to expand as their populations and resources grew. By 1400, several small empires existed in the region called the Valley of Mexico. The most populous communities included the city of Texcoco, the capital of the Acholhua region; the city of Tenochtitlan, capital of the Mexica peoples; and Azcapotzalco, capital city of the Tepenec area.
These smaller empires began to fight each other over territory. Joint forces from Texcoco and Tenochtitlan eventually conquered the Azcapotzalco region. Texcoco and Tenochtitlan later added the Tepenec city of Tlacopan to its alliance and continued to seize control of surrounding lands. Tenochtitlan became the dominant city of the alliance and was named the capital of what became the Aztec Empire. The leader at Tenochtitlan was named supreme ruler. By 1430 the Aztec Empire covered more than 50,000 square miles of northern Mexico.
The Aztec Empire continued expanding throughout the fifteenth century as its army grew bigger and stronger. Aztec warriors wore elaborate padded armor and wooden shields. They carried weapons such as bladed wooden swords, spears, bows and arrows, and dart throwers. When the Aztecs conquered a city, they took some of the captives to Tenochtitlan and sacrificed them as tribute to the gods.
The intimidating Aztec army kept order among seized regions. Aztec rulers were very diplomatic to those cities conquered, offering gifts to the leaders, inviting them to important ceremonies, and arranging marriages between cultures. Aztec leaders also strategically placed monuments and artwork within conquered regions to promote Aztec belief systems. Most of the conquered peoples accepted the Aztec victory and abided by their laws. Several regions farther away from the capital resisted Aztec rule, however. These areas often served as a safety net for enemy civilizations such as the Tarascans of western Mexico.
Collapse of an Empire
By the early sixteenth century, the Aztec Empire consisted of more than eleven million citizens. Minor rebellions were a common occurrence, but no true threat to the Aztec power existed before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors. In 1515, the Tlaxcala and Huexotzingo peoples defeated the invading Aztecs seeking to conquer their territory. The loss was a setback for the Aztec forces. Such rebellions also served as an omen to the Aztec people, and they began to believe their way of life was at risk.
When the Spaniards arrived in Central America in 1519, the Aztecs greeted them with gifts and ceremonies. King Montezuma II was friendly with Spanish leader Hernan Cortes and the groups traded goods and learned about each other’s cultures. Relations began to deteriorate when some of Cortes’ men were killed at Tenochtitlan in his absence. The Spaniards were also appalled to discover the Aztecs practiced human sacrifice.
Alongside the Spanish threat, the Aztecs were also suffering from political conflict. A rebellion within Tenochtitlan dethroned Montezuma shortly after the Spaniards arrived. In 1521, Cortes teamed up with forces from several rebel nations including the Tlaxcala to attack Tenochtitlan. The Spaniards successfully laid siege to the city, cutting off the Aztecs from their food and water supplies. Within weeks, the Aztecs were dying of starvation and diseases brought from Europe.
The city collapsed on August 13, 1521. Spanish forces entered the city and destroyed many monuments and buildings. The Spaniards set up the colony of New Spain on top of Tenochtitlan’s ruins, marking the end of the Aztec Empire. European sicknesses continued to ravage the remaining Aztec population following colonization. Within a few decades, millions of Aztecs had died from diseases such as smallpox.