Top 10 Things to Know About the Aztecs and Their Empire

The Aztec Empire's Society, Art, Economy, Politics, and Religion

The Aztecs, who should be more properly called Mexica, were one of the most important and famous civilizations of the Americas. They arrived in central Mexico as immigrants during the Postclassic period and established their capital at what is today Mexico City. Within a few centuries, they managed to grow an empire and extend their control throughout much of what is Mexico.

Whether you are a student, an aficionado of Mexico, a tourist, or simply moved by curiosity, here you will find an essential guide to what you need to know about the Aztec civilization. 

This article was edited and updated by K. Kris Hirst.

01
of 10
Where did they come from?

All Roads Lead to Tenochtitlan
All Roads Lead to Tenochtitlan: Uppsala Map of Mexico City (Tenochtitlan), 1550. United States Library of Congress, Uppsala University Library

The Aztec/Mexica were not native to central Mexico but are thought to have migrated from the north: the Aztec creation myth reports they came from a mythical land called Aztlan. Historically, they were the last of the Chichimeca, nine Nahuatl-speaking tribes who migrated south from what is now northern Mexico or the southwestern United States after a period of great drought. After almost two centuries of migration, at around 1250 AD, the Mexica arrived in the Valley of Mexico and established themselves on the shore of lake Texcoco.

02
of 10
Where was the Aztec capital?

Ruins of Tenochtitlan in Mexico City
Ruins of Tenochtitlan in Mexico City. Jami Dwyer

Tenochtitlan is the name of the Aztec capital, which was founded in the year 1325 AD. The place was chosen because the Aztec god Huitzilopochtli commanded his migrating people to settle where they would find an eagle perched on a cactus and devouring a snake.

That place turned out to be very discouraging: a swampy area around the lakes of the Valley of Mexico: the Aztecs had to construct causeways and islands to expand their city. Tenochtitlan grew rapidly thanks to its strategic position and the Mexica military skills. When the Europeans arrived, Tenochtitlan was one of the largest and better-organized cities of the world.

03
of 10
How did the Aztec Empire arise?

Map of the Aztec Empire, circa 1519
Map of the Aztec Empire, circa 1519. Madman

Thanks to their military skills and strategic position, the Mexica became allies of one of the most powerful cities in the valley of Mexico, called Azcapotzalco. They obtained wealth by collecting tributes after a series of successful military campaigns. The Mexica achieved recognition as a kingdom by electing as their first ruler Acamapichtli, a member of the royal family of Culhuacan, a powerful city-state in the Basin of Mexico.

Most importantly, in 1428 they allied themselves with the cities of Texcoco and Tlacopan, forming the famous Triple Alliance. This political force drove the Mexica expansion in the Basin of Mexico and beyond, creating the Aztec empire.

04
of 10
What was the Aztec economy like?

Pochteca Traders with Their Cargo
Pochteca Traders with Their Cargo. Illustration from the Florentine Codex, Late 16th century.

The Aztec economy was based on three things: market exchange, tribute payment, and agricultural production. The famous Aztec market system included both local and long-distance trade. Markets were regularly held, where a great number of craft specialists brought produce and wares from the hinterlands into the cities. Aztec merchant-traders known as pochtecas traveled throughout the empire, bringing exotic goods such as macaws and their feathers long distances. According to the Spanish, at the time of​ conquest, the most important market was at Tlatelolco, the sister city of Mexico-Tenochtitlan. 

Tribute collection was among the main reasons the Aztecs needed to conquer a neighboring region. Tributes paid to the empire usually included goods or services, depending on the distance and status of the tributary city. In the Valley of Mexico, the Aztecs developed sophisticated agricultural systems which included irrigation systems, floating fields called chinampas, and hillside terrace systems.

05
of 10
What was the Aztec society like?

Moctezuma I, Aztec Ruler 1440-1468
Moctezuma I, Aztec Ruler 1440-1468. Tovar Codex, ca. 1546-1626

Aztec society was stratified into classes. The population was divided into nobles called pipiltin, and the commoners or macehualtin. The nobles held important government positions and were exempt from taxes, while the commoners paid taxes in the form of goods and labor. Commoners were grouped into a type of clan organization, called calpulli. At the bottom of Aztec society, there were slaves. These were criminals, people who couldn’t pay taxes, and prisoners. 

At the very top of Aztec society stood the ruler, or Tlatoani, of each city-state, and his family. The supreme king, or Huey Tlatoani, was the emperor, the king of Tenochtitlan. The second most important political position of the empire was that of the cihuacoatl, a sort of viceroy or prime minister. The position of emperor was not hereditary, but elective: he was chosen by a council of nobles.

06
of 10
How did the Aztecs govern their people?

Aztec Glyphs for the Triple Alliance
Aztec Glyphs for the Triple Alliance: Texcoco (left), Tenochtitlan (middle), and Tlacopan (right). Goldenbrook

The basic political unit for the Aztecs and other groups within the Basin of Mexico was the city-state or altepetl. Each altepetl was a kingdom, ruled by a local tlatoani. Each altepetl controlled a surrounding rural area that provided food and tribute to the urban community. Warfare and marriage alliances were important elements of Aztec political  expansion.

An extensive network of informants and spies, especially among the pochteca traders, helped the Aztec government maintain control over its large empire, and intervene rapidly in frequent uprisings.

07
of 10
What role did warfare have among Aztec society?

Aztec Warriors, from the Codex Mendoza
Aztec Warriors, from the Codex Mendoza. ptcamn

The Aztecs conducted warfare to expand their empire, and to obtain tribute and captives for sacrifices. The Aztecs had no standing army, but soldiers were drafted as needed among the commoners. In theory, a military career and access to higher military orders, such as the Orders of the Eagle and Jaguar, were open to anyone who distinguished himself in battle. However, in reality, these high ranks were often reached only by nobles.

War actions included battles against neighboring groups, flowery wars-- battles conducted specifically to capture enemy combatants as sacrificial victims--and coronation wars. The types of armaments used in battle included both offensive and defensive weapons, such as spears, atlatls, swords, and clubs known as macuahuitl, as well as shields, armor, and helmets. Weapons were made out of wood and the volcanic glass obsidian, but not metal.

08
of 10
What was Aztec religion like?

Quetzalcoatl, the Toltec and Aztec god; the plumed serpent, god of the wind, learning and the priesthood, master of life, creator and civiliser, patron of every art and inventor of metallurgy (manuscript)
Quetzalcoatl, the Toltec and Aztec god; the plumed serpent, god of the wind, learning and the priesthood, master of life, creator and civiliser, patron of every art and inventor of metallurgy (manuscript). Bridgeman Art Library / Getty Images

As with other Mesoamerican cultures, the Aztec/Mexica worshiped many gods who represented the different forces and manifestations of nature. The term used by the Aztec to define the idea of a deity or supernatural power was teotl, a word which is often part of a god name.

The Aztecs divided their gods into three groups which supervised different aspects of the world: the sky and celestial beings, the rain and agriculture, and war and sacrifices. They used a calendrical system that tracked their festivals and predicted their futures.

09
of 10
What do we know of Aztec art and architecture?

Aztec Mosaic at the Museum of Tenochtitlan, Mexico City - Detail
Aztec Mosaic at the Museum of Tenochtitlan, Mexico City - Detail. Dennis Jarvis

The Mexica had skilled artisans, artists, and architects. When the Spanish arrived, they were astonished by the Aztec architectural accomplishments. Elevated paved roads connected Tenochtitlan to the mainland; and bridges, dikes, and aqueducts regulated water level and flow in the lakes, enabling the separation of fresh from salt water, and providing fresh, drinkable water to the city. Administrative and religious buildings were brightly colored and decorated with stone sculptures. Aztec art is best known for its monumental stone sculptures, some of which are of impressive size.

Other arts in which the Aztec excelled are feather and textile works, pottery, wooden sculptural art, and obsidian and other lapidary works. Metallurgy, by contrast, was in its infancy among the Mexica when the Europeans arrived. However, metal products were imported through trade and conquest. Metallurgy in Mesoamerica likely arrived from South America and societies in western Mexico, such as the Tarascans, who mastered metallurgical techniques before the Aztecs did.

10
of 10
What brought about the end of the Aztecs?

Hernan Cortes
Hernan Cortes. Mcapdevila

The Aztec empire ended shortly afer the arrival of the Spanish. The conquest of Mexico and the subjugation of the Aztecs, although completed in few years, was a complicated process which involved many actors. When Hernan Cortes reached Mexico in 1519, he and his soldiers found important allies among the local communities subjugated by the Aztecs, such as the Tlaxcallans, who saw in the newcomers a way to free themselves from the Aztecs.

The introduction of new European germs and diseases, which arrived in Tenochtitlan before the actual invasion, decimated the native population and facilitated Spanish control over the land. Under Spanish rule entire communities were forced to abandon their homes, and new villages were created and controlled by Spanish nobility.

Although local leaders were formally left in place, they had no real power. Christianization of central Mexico proceeded as elsewhere throughout the Inquisition, through the destruction of pre-Hispanic temples, idols, and books by Spanish friars. Fortunately, some of the religious orders collected a few of the Aztec books called codices and interviewed the Aztec people, documenting in the process of the destruction an incredible amount of information about Aztec culture, practices, and beliefs.