Aztecs or Mexica? What is the Proper Name for the Ancient Empire?

Why We Shouldn't Call Mexico's Ancient Civilization the Aztec Empire

The Founding of Tenochtitlan, from the Codex Duran
The Founding of Tenochtitlan, from the Codex Duran. Jedi Knight 1970

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 sadly incorrect.

History of the Use of "Aztecs"

None of the historical records of the participants in the Spanish Conquest refer to "Aztecs"; not the conquistadors Hernán Cortés or Bernal Díaz del Castillo, not even the famed chronicler of the Aztecs, Franciscan friar Bernardino Sahagún.

Instead, this word was first used by the 18th century Jesuit teacher of New Spain, Francisco Javier Clavijero Echegaray, who wrote an important work on the Aztecs called La Historia Antigua de México.

The term reached popularity in the 19th century when it was used by the famous German explorer Alexander Von Humboldt in his adventures published after his 1804 journey to Mexico. 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.

The Origins of the Aztec Name

The term Aztecs has some historical foundation, however, since it derives from Aztlan, the legendary homeland of the Mexica people. According to Mexica origin mythology, the Mexica originally called themselves the Aztlaneca or Azteca, the people from 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--central Mexico.

Support for the main plot points of the Mexica origin myth is found in archaeological, linguisitic 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.

Names of the Mexica

There are numerous ethnic groups who could be designated as Mexica, mostly named from their towns. The inhabitants of Tenochtitlan called themelves the Tenochca; those of Tlateloloco 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.

So--What Does Aztec Mean?

Aztec, therefore, is an ambiguous name which doesn't truly define historically either a group of people or a culture or a language. Mexica is the proper term that should be used to refer to the people who left Aztlan and in 1325 founded the twin settlements of Tenonchtitlan and Tlatelolco in the Basin of Mexico, or the descendants​ of this group, 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.

But 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. We can use Mexica to refer to inhabitants of the Basin of Mexico, or, less precisely, the heart of the ruling cities of the Aztec Empire itself. Smith (2013) has suggested that we use the term Aztecs to include not just the Basin of Mexico Triple Alliance leadership but also 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. After the Spanish Conquest, he switches to the term Nahuas, from the shared language Nahuatl.


This glossary entry is a part of the guide to Aztec Civilization, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

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.

Updated by K. Kris Hirst