Aztecs or Mexica

What is the Proper Name for the Ancient Empire?

Tapestry of an Eagle holding a snake, from The Founding of Tenochtitlan.
The Founding of Tenochtitlan, from the Codex Duran.

Jedi Knight 1970 / CC / Wikimedia Commons

Despite its popular use, the term "Aztec" when used to refer to the Triple Alliance founders of Tenochtitlan and the empire that ruled over ancient Mexico from AD 1428 to 1521, is not quite correct.

None of the historical records of the participants in the Spanish Conquest refer to the "Aztecs"; it is not in the writings of the conquistadors Hernán Cortés or Bernal Díaz del Castillo, nor can it be found in the writings of the famed chronicler of the Aztecs, Franciscan friar Bernardino Sahagún. These early Spanish called their conquered subjects "Mexica" because that is what they called themselves.

The Origins of the Aztec Name

"Aztec" has some historical foundations, however, the word or versions of it can be found in occasional use in a handful of surviving 16th-century documents. According to their origin mythology, the people who founded the Aztec Empire capital city of Tenochtitlan originally called themselves the Aztlaneca or Azteca, the people from their legendary home Aztlan.

When the Toltec empire crumbled, the Azteca left Aztlan, and during their wanderings, they arrived in Teo Culhuacan (old or Divine Culhuacan). There they met eight other wandering tribes and acquired their patron god Huitzilopochtli, also known as Mexi. Huitzilopochtli told the Azteca that they should change their name to Mexica, and since they were his chosen people, they should leave Teo Culhuacan to continue their journey to their rightful location in central Mexico.

Support for the main plot points of the Mexica origin myth is found in archaeological, linguistic, and historical sources. Those sources say the Mexica were the last of several tribes who left northern Mexico between the 12th and 13th centuries, moving southward to settle in Central Mexico.

History of the Use of "Aztecs"

The first influential published record of the word Aztec occurred in the 18th century when the Creole Jesuit teacher of New Spain Francisco Javier Clavijero Echegaray [1731-1787] used it in his important work on the Aztecs called La Historia Antigua de México, published in 1780.

The term reached popularity in the 19th century when it was used by the famous German explorer Alexander Von Humboldt. Von Humboldt used Clavijero as a source, and in describing his own 1803-1804 expedition to Mexico called Vues des cordillères et monuments des peuples indigènes de l'Amerique, he referred to the "Aztècpies", which meant more or less "Aztecan". The term became cemented into the culture in the English language in William Prescott’s book The History of the Conquest of Mexico, published in 1843.

Names of the Mexica

The use of the word Mexica is somewhat problematic as well. There are numerous ethnic groups who could be designated as Mexica, but they mostly called themselves after the town they resided in. The inhabitants of Tenochtitlan called themselves the Tenochca; those of Tlatelolco called themselves Tlatelolca. Collectively, these two main forces in the Basin of Mexico called themselves the Mexica.

Then there are the founding tribes of the Mexica, including the Aztecas, as well as the Tlascaltecas, Xochimilcas, Heuxotzincas, Tlahuicas, Chalcas, and Tapanecas, all of whom moved into the Valley of Mexico after the Toltec Empire crumbled.

Aztecas is the proper term for the people who left Aztlan; Mexicas for the same people who (combined with the other ethnic groups) in 1325 founded the twin settlements of Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco in the Basin of Mexico. From then on, the Mexica included the descendants of all these groups who inhabited these cities and that from 1428 were the leaders of the empire which ruled over ancient Mexico until the arrival of the Europeans.

Aztec, therefore, is an ambiguous name which doesn't truly define historically either a group of people or a culture or a language. However, Mexica isn't precise either--although Mexica is what 14th-16th-century inhabitants of the sister-cities of Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco called themselves, the people of Tenochtitlan also referred to themselves as Tenochca and occasionally as Culhua-Mexica, to reinforce their marriage ties to the Culhuacan dynasty and legitimize their leadership status.

Defining Aztec and Mexica

In writing broad-sweeping histories of the Aztecs meant for the general public, some scholars have found the space to define Aztec/Mexica precisely as they plan to use it.

In his introduction to the Aztecs, American archaeologist Michael Smith (2013) has suggested that we use the term Aztecs to include the Basin of Mexico Triple Alliance leadership and the subject people who lived in the nearby valleys. He chose to use Aztecs to refer to all of the people who claimed to have come from the mythical place of Aztlan, which include several million people divided into about 20 or so ethnic groups including the Mexica. After the Spanish Conquest, he uses the term Nahuas for the conquered people, from their shared language Nahuatl.

In her Aztec overview (2014), American archaeologist Frances Berdan (2014) suggests that the Aztec term could be used to refer to the people who lived in the Basin of Mexico during the Late Postclassic, specifically the people who spoke the Aztec language Nahuatl; and a descriptive term to attribute imperial architecture and art styles. She uses Mexica to refer specifically to the inhabitants of Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco.

The Most Recognizable Name

We can't really let go of the Aztec terminology: it's simply too ingrained in the language and history of Mexico to be discarded. Furthermore, Mexica as a term for the Aztecs excludes the other ethnic groups that made up the empire's leadership and subjects. 

We need a recognizable shorthand name for the amazing people who ruled the basin of Mexico for nearly a century, so we can get on with the delightful task of examining their culture and practices. And Aztec seems to be the most recognizable, if not, precisely, precise. 

Edited and updated by K. Kris Hirst


  • Barlow RH. 1945. Some Remarks on the Term "Aztec Empire". The Americas 1(3):345-349.
  • Barlow RH. 1949. The Extent of the Empire of the Culhua Mexica. Berkeley: University of Califiornia Press.
  • Berdan FF. 2014. Aztec Archaeology and Ethnohistory. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Clendinnen I. 1991. Aztecs: An Interpretation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • López Austin A. 2001. Aztecs. In: Carrasco D, editor. Oxford Encyclopedia of Mesoamerican Cultures. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. p 68-72.
  • Smith ME. 2013. The Aztecs. New York: Wiley-Blackwell.
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Maestri, Nicoletta. "Aztecs or Mexica." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Maestri, Nicoletta. (2023, April 5). Aztecs or Mexica. Retrieved from Maestri, Nicoletta. "Aztecs or Mexica." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 6, 2023).