Aztec Empire (1300 – 1521 AD)

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

The Aztecs were a Mesoamerican people living in Mexico from 1300 to 1521 AD, before the Spanish conquest of the 16th century. They originated from an alliance of hunter-gatherers in the Valley of Mexico who became the dominant force in the region. The Aztecs were also primarily an agricultural people who lived off of the land. The grew the likes of maize, beans, squashes, potatoes, tomatoes, and avocadoes, and regularly engaged in the hunting and fishing of the local game.

The heart of the Aztec empire was their capital city Tenochtitlan. Prior to the founding of Tenochtitlan, central Mexico consisted of city-states that competed for dominance in the region. Tenochtitlan, founded in 1325 on a small island, would become the most powerful, and its ruins can even be seen at the center of Mexico City today. The city expanded to such an extent that it became the largest in the Pre-Columbian Americas, and it possessed a complex social system consisting of numerous social classes from slaves to ordinary commoners, nobles, merchants, and the king.

Rulers were believed to be representatives of God and therefore ruled with divine right, and the social class of a citizen could be identified by where they lived in the city. It also boasted a lively market place as many tens of thousands of visitors would descend on the city on major market days. At Tenochtitlan’s height, and at the time the Spanish arrived, it had a population well over 100 000.

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The Aztec Empire grew powerful primarily because of their military power. Their army encompassed a range of combatants, including elitist warriors, as well as the available men from captured city states. These other city states, although under Aztec rule, were still allowed to have their own rulers although they were required to pay a tribute and supply soldiers to the Aztec Empire if needed.

The Aztecs are remembered for their art and archeology, some of which were the most sophisticated in the region. They constructed elaborate structures including palaces, plazas, temples, and statues, many of which were dedicated to the Aztec gods. In their religious beliefs, the Aztecs were both polytheistic and animistic. They believed in a pantheon of major and minor deities. They believed in two principal gods Huitzilopochtli (the war and sun god) and Tlaloc (the rain god), and believed in many others including, although not limited to, Quetzalcoatl (the feathered serpent god), Xipe Totec (god of Spring and agriculture), Ometeotl (the creator god), and more.

The Aztecs also had a fascination with the sun which they incorporated into their mythologies. This included the rite of human sacrifice as they believed that for the continual revival of the sun as well as the continual fertility of the Earth, blood sacrifices were required. Sacrifices included both animals and humans during ceremonies and often the priests were required to self-mutilate. The sacrifices, mostly of war prisoners and captives, were sometimes eaten thus suggesting that cannibalism was part of at least some of the ceremonies. These rituals were intended to be displays of power, divine authority, and a warning to others what would happen if they rebelled.

The Aztec Empire came to an end when the Spanish, under the leadership of Hernan Cortes, overthrew them and captured Tenochtitlan in 1521 AD.



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