The Aztecs (//), were a Mesoamerican culture that flourished in central Mexico in the post-classic period from 1300 to 1521, during the time in which a triple alliance of the Mexica, Texcoca and Tepaneca tribes established the Aztec empire. The Aztec people were certain ethnic groups of central Mexico, particularly those groups who spoke the Nahuatl language and who dominated large parts of Mesoamerica from the 14th to the 16th centuries.
Aztec culture is the culture of the people referred to as Aztecs, but since most ethnic groups of central Mexico in the postclassic period shared basic cultural traits, many of the traits that characterize Aztec culture cannot be said to be exclusive to the Aztecs. For the same reason, the notion of "Aztec civilization" is best understood as a particular horizon of a general Mesoamerican civilization. The culture of central Mexico includes maize cultivation, the social division between pipiltin nobility and macehualtin commoners, a pantheon (featuring Tezcatlipoca, Tlaloc and Quetzalcoatl), and the calendric system of a xiuhpohualli of 365 days intercalated with a tonalpohualli of 260 days. Particular to the Aztecs of Tenochtitlan was the Mexica patron God Huitzilopochtli, twin pyramids, and the ceramic ware known as Aztec I to III.
From the 13th century, the Valley of Mexico was the heart of Aztec civilization: there the city of Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec Triple Alliance, was built upon raised islets in Lake Texcoco. The Triple Alliance formed the Aztec Empire, a tributary empire that expanded its political hegemony far beyond the Valley of Mexico, conquering other city states throughout Mesoamerica in the late postclassic period. It originated in 1427 as an alliance between the city-states Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan; these allied to defeat the Tepanec state of Azcapotzalco, which had previously dominated the Basin of Mexico. Soon Texcoco and Tlacopan became junior partners in the alliance, of which the Mexica of Tenochtitlan were the de facto leaders. The empire extended its power by a combination of trade and military conquest. It was never a true territorial empire controlling a territory by large military garrisons in conquered provinces, but rather controlled its client states primarily by installing friendly rulers in conquered cities, by constructing marriage alliances between the ruling dynasties, and by extending an imperial ideology to its client states. Client states paid tribute to the Aztec emperor, the Huey Tlatoani, in an economic strategy limiting communication and trade between outlying polities, making them dependent on the imperial center for the acquisition of luxury goods. The political clout of the empire reached far south into Mesoamerica conquering cities as far south as Chiapas and Guatemala and spanning from the Pacific to the Atlantic oceans. The empire reached its maximal extent in 1519, just prior to the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors led by Hernán Cortés, who managed to topple the Aztec empire by allying with some of the traditional enemies of the Aztecs, the Nahuatl-speaking Tlaxcalteca. Subsequently, the Spanish founded the new settlement of Mexico City on the site of the ruined Aztec capital, from where they proceeded with the process of colonizing Central America.
Aztec culture and history is primarily known through archaeological evidence found in excavations such as that of the renowned Templo Mayor in Mexico City; from indigenous bark paper codices; from eyewitness accounts by Spanish conquistadors such as Cortés and Bernal Díaz del Castillo; and especially from 16th- and 17th-century descriptions of Aztec culture and history written by Spanish clergymen and literate Aztecs in the Spanish or Nahuatl language, such as the famous Florentine Codex compiled by the Franciscan monk Bernardino de Sahagún with the help of indigenous Aztec informants. At its height, Aztec culture had rich and complex mythological and religious traditions, as well as achieving remarkable architectural and artistic accomplishments.
The Nahuatl words aztecatl [asˈtekat͡ɬ] (singular) and aztecah [asˈtekaʔ] (plural) mean "people from Aztlan", a mythological place for the Nahuatl-speaking culture of the time, and later adopted as the word to define the Mexica people. Often the term "Aztec" refers exclusively to the Mexica people of Tenochtitlan (now the location of Mexico City), situated on an island in Lake Texcoco, who referred to themselves as Mēxihcah Nahuatl pronunciation: [meːˈʃiʔkaʔ] (a tribal designation that included the Tlatelolca), Tenochcah (referring only to the Mexica of Tenochtitlan, excluding Tlatelolco) Nahuatl pronunciation: [teˈnot͡ʃkaʔ] or Cōlhuah Nahuatl pronunciation: [ˈkoːlwaʔ] (referring to their royal genealogy tying them to Colhuacan).
Sometimes the term also includes the inhabitants of Tenochtitlan's two principal allied city-states, the Acolhuas of Texcoco and the Tepanecs of Tlacopan, who together with the Mexica formed the Aztec Triple Alliance that controlled what is often known as the "Aztec Empire". The usage of the term "Aztec" in describing the empire centered in Tenochtitlan, has been criticized by Robert H. Barlow who preferred the term "Culhua-Mexica", and by Pedro Carrasco who prefers the term "Tenochca empire". Carrasco writes about the term "Aztec" that "It is of no use for understanding the ethnic complexity of ancient Mexico and for identifying the dominant element in the political entity we are studying".
In other contexts, Aztec may refer to all the various city states and their peoples, who shared large parts of their ethnic history and cultural traits with the Mexica, Acolhua and Tepanecs, and who often also used the Nahuatl language as a lingua franca. In this meaning, it is possible to talk about an "Aztec civilization" including all the particular cultural patterns common for most of the peoples inhabiting central Mexico in the late postclassic period.
When used to describe ethnic groups, the term "Aztec" refers to several Nahuatl-speaking peoples of central Mexico in the postclassic period of Mesoamerican chronology, especially the Mexica, the ethnic group that had a leading role in establishing the hegemonic empire based at Tenochtitlan. The term extends to further ethnic groups associated with the Aztec empire, such as the Acolhua, the Tepanec and others that were incorporated into the empire. In older usage the term was commonly used about modern Nahuatl-speaking ethnic groups, as Nahuatl was previously referred to as the "Aztec language". In recent usage, these ethnic groups are referred to as the Nahua peoples. Linguistically, the term "Aztecan" is still used about the branch of the Uto-Aztecan languages (also sometimes called the yuto-nahuan languages) that includes the Nahuatl language and its closest relatives Pochutec and Pipil.
To the Aztecs themselves the word "aztec" was not an endonym for any particular ethnic group. Rather, it was an umbrella term used to refer to several ethnic groups, not all of them Nahuatl-speaking, that claimed heritage from the mythic place of origin, Aztlan. In the Nahuatl language "aztecatl" means "person from Aztlan". Alexander von Humboldt originated the modern usage of "Aztec" in 1810, as a collective term applied to all the people linked by trade, custom, religion, and language to the Mexica state and the Triple Alliance. In 1843, with the publication of the work of William H. Prescott, the term was adopted by most of the world, including 19th-century Mexican scholars who saw it as a way to distinguish present-day Mexicans from pre-conquest Mexicans. This usage has been the subject of debate in more recent years, but the term "Aztec" is still more common.
Sources of knowledge
Knowledge of Aztec society rests on several different sources: The many archeological remains of everything from temple pyramids to thatched huts, can be used to understand many of the aspects of what the Aztec world was like. However, arhceologists often myst rely on knowledge from other sources to interpret the historical context of artefacts. Here the many historical sources produced in the early colonial period are invaluable sources of information about precolonial Aztec history, providing much information about political histories of different Aztec city states, and their ruling lineages. Such histories were produced both in painted codices in written in the Latin script by either by literate Aztecs or by Spanish friars who interviewed the native people about their customs and histories. Many written annals exist, written by local Nahua historians recording the histories of their towns - often translating from pictorial histories into textual annals in Latin script. Well-known native chroniclers and annalists are Chimalpahin, Fernando Alvarado Tezozomoc and Ixtlilxochitl. There are also many accounts by Spanish soldiers who participated in thee conquest, for example Bernal Díaz del Castillo who wrote a full history of the conquest. Many Spanish friars also produced different form of documentation in chronicles or other types of accounts - notably the dominican Diego Durán. A major source of information about all aspect of Aztec society is the Florentine Codex. Produced between 1545-1590 in the form of an ethnographic encyclopedia written bilingually in Spanish and Nahuatl, by Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún and a team of indigenous assistants, it contains knowledge about all aspects of pre-colonial society from religion, calendrics, botany, zoology, trades and crafts and history. Another source of knowledge is the cultures and customs of the contemporary Nahuatl speakers who can often provide insights into what pre-columbian ways of life may have been like. Scholarly study of Aztec civilization is most often based on scientific and multidisciplinary methodologies, combining archeological knowledge with ethnohistorical and ethnographic infornmation.
Central Mexico in the classic and post-classic
It is a matter of debate whether the enormous city of Teotihuacan was inhabited by speakers of Nahuatl, or whether Nahuas had not yet arrived in central Mexico in the classic period. It is generally agreed that the Nahua peoples were not indigenous to the highlands of central Mexico, but that they gradually migrated into the region from somewhere in northwestern Mexico. At the fall of Teotihuacan in the 6th century CE, a number of city states rose to power in central Mexico, some of them, including Cholula and Xochicalco, probably inhabited by Nahuatl speakers. One study has suggested that Nahuas originally inhabited the Bajío area around Guanajuato which reached a population peak in the 6th century, after which the population quickly diminished during a subsequent dry period. This depopulation of the Bajío coincided with an incursion of new populations into the Valley of Mexico, which suggests that this marks the influx of Nahuatl speakers into the region. These populated central Mexico, dislocating speakers of Oto-Manguean languages as they spread their political influence south. As the former nomadic hunter-gatherer peoples mixed with the complex civilizations of Mesoamerica, adopting religious and cultural practices, the foundation for later Aztec culture was laid. After 900 CE, during the Postclassic period, a number of sites almost certainly inhabited by Nahuatl speakers became powerful. Among them the site of Tula, Hidalgo, and also city states such as Tenayuca, and Colhuacan in the valley of Mexico and Cuauhnahuac in Morelos.
Migrational period and foundation of Tenochtitlan
In the ethnohistorical sources from the colonial colonial period, Aztecs themselves describe their arrival in the Valley of Mexico. The ethnonym Aztec (Nahuatl Aztecah) means “people from Aztlan”, Aztlan being a mythical place of origin toward the north. Hence the term applied to all those peoples who claimed to carry the heritage from this mythical place. The migration stories of the Mexica tribe tell how they traveled with other tribes, including the Tlaxcalteca, Tepaneca and Acolhua, but that eventually their tribal deity Huitzilopochtli told them to split from the other Aztec tribes and take on the name “Mexica”. At the time of their arrival, there were many Aztec city-states in the region. The most powerful were Colhuacan to the south and Azcapotzalco to the west. The Tepanecs of Azcapotzalco soon expelled the Mexicas from Chapultepec. In 1299, Colhuacan ruler Cocoxtli gave them permission to settle in the empty barrens of Tizapan, where they were eventually assimilated into Culhuacan culture. The noble lineage of Colhuacan traced its roots back to the legendary city state of Tula, and by marrying into Colhua families, the Mexica now also adopted this heritage. After living in Colhuacan, the Mexica were again expelled and moved on.
According to Aztec legend, in 1323 the Mexicas were shown a vision of an eagle perched on a prickly pear cactus, eating a snake. The vision indicated the location where they were to build their home. The Mexica founded the town of Tenochtitlan on a small swampy island in Lake Texcoco. The year of foundation is usually given as 1325. In 1376 the Mexica royal dynasty was founded when Acamapichtli, son of a Mexica father and a Colhua mother, was elected as the first ‘'Huey Tlatoani of Tenochtitlan.
In the first 50 years after the founding of the Mexica dynasty, the Mexica were a tributary of Azcapotzalco, which had become a major regional power under the ruler Tezozomoc. The Mexica supplied the Tepaneca with warriors for their successful conquest campaigns in the region and received part of the tribute from the conquered city states. In this way, the prestige and economy of Tenochtitlan gradually grew.
In 1396, at Acamapichtli's death, his son Huitzilihhuitl (Nahuatl: "Hummingbird feather") became ruler; married to Tezozomoc's daughter, the relation with Azcapotzalco remained close. Chimalpopoca (Nahuatl: "She smokes like a shield"), son of Huitzilihhuitl, became ruler of Tenochtitlan in 1417. In 1418, Azcapotzalco initiated a war against the Acolhua of Texcoco and killed their ruler Ixtlilxochitl. Even though Ixtlilxochitl was married to Chimalpopoca's daughter, the Mexica ruler continued to support Tezozomoc. Tezozomoc died in 1426, and his sons began a struggle for rulership of Azcapotzalco. During this struggle for power, Chimalpopoca died, probably killed by Tezozomoc's son Maxtla who saw him as a competitor.
Itzcoatl, brother of Huitzilihhuitl and uncle of Chimalpopoca, was elected the next Mexica tlatoani. The Mexica were now in open war with Azcapotzalco and Itzcoatl petitioned for an alliance with Nezahualcoyotl, son of the slain Texcocan ruler Ixtlilxochitl against Maxtla. Itzcoatl also allied with Maxtla's brother Totoquihuaztli ruler of the Tepanec city of Tlacopan. The Triple Alliance of Tenochtitlan, Texcoco and Tlacopan besieged Azcapotzalco, and in 1428 they destroyed the city and sacrificed Maxtla. Through this victory Tenochtitlan became the dominant city state in the Valley of Mexico, and the alliance between the three cities provided the basis on which the Aztec Empire was built.
Itzcoatl proceeded by securing a power basis for Tenochtitlan, by conquering the city-states on the southern lake – including Colhuacan, Xochimilco, Cuitlahuac and Mizquic. These states had an economy based on highly productive chinampa agriculture, cultivating floating gardens in the shallow lake Xochimilco. Itzcoatl then undertook further conquests in the valley of Morelos, subjecting the city state of Cuauhnahuac (today Cuernavaca).
Motecuzoma I Ilhuicamina
In 1440, Motecuzoma I Ilhuicamina[nb 1] (Nahuatl: "he frowns like a lord, he shoots the sky"[nb 2]) was elected tlatoani; he was son of Huitzilihhuitl, brother of Chimalpopoca and had served as the war leader of his uncle Itzcoatl in the war against the Tepanecs. The accession of a new ruler in the dominant city state was often an occasion for subjected cities to rebel by refusing to pay tribute. This meant that new rulers began their rule with a coronation campaign, often against rebellious tributaries, but also sometimes demonstrating their military might by making new conquests. Motecuzoma tested the attitudes of the cities around the valley by requesting laborers for the enlargement of the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan. Only the city of Chalco refused to provide laborers, and hostilities between Chalco and Tenochtitlan would persist until the 1450s. Motecuzoma then reconquered the cities in the valley of Morelos and Guerrero, and then later undertook new conquests in the Huaxtec region of northern Veracruz, and the Mixtec region of Coixtlahuaca and large parts of Oaxaca, and later again in central and southern Veracruz with conquests at Cosamalopan, Ahuilizapan and Cuetlaxtlan. During this period the city states of Tlaxcallan, Cholula and Huexotzinco emerged as major competitors to the imperial expansion, and they supplied warriors to several of the cities conquered. Motecuzoma therefore initiated a state of low-intensity warfare against these three cities, staging minor skirmishes called "Flower Wars" (Nahuatl xochiyaoyotl) against them, perhaps as a strategy of exhaustion.
Motecuzoma also consolidated the political structure of the Triple Alliance, and the internal political organization of Tenochtitlan. His brother Tlacaelel served as his main advisor (Nahuatl Cihuacoatl) and he is considered the architect of major political reforms in this period, consolidating the power of the noble class (Nahuatl pipiltin) and instituting a set of legal codes, and the practice of reinstating conquered rulers in their cities bound by fealty to the Mexica tlatoani.
Axayacatl and Tizoc
In 1469, the next ruler became Axayacatl (Nahuatl: "Water mask"), son of Itzcoatl's son Tezozomoc and Motecuzoma I's daughter Atotoztli.[nb 3] He undertook a successful coronation campaign far south of Tenochtitlan against the Zapotecs in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Axayacatl also conquered the independent Mexica city of Tlatelolco, located on the northern part of the island where Tenochtitlan was also located. The Tlatelolca ruler Moquihuix was married to Axayacatl's sister, and his alleged mistreatment of her was used as an excuse to incorporate Tlatelolco and its important market directly under the control of the tlatoani of Tenochtitlan.
Axayacatl then conquered areas in Central Guerrero, the Puebla Valley, on the gulf coast and against the Otomi and Matlatzinca in the Toluca valley. The Toluca valley was a buffer zone against the powerful Tarascan state in Michoacan, against which Axayacatl turned next. In the major campaign against the Tarascans (Nahua Michhuahqueh) in 1478–79 the Aztec forces were repelled by a well organized defense. Axayacatl was soundly defeated in a battle at Tlaximaloyan (today Tajimaroa), losing most of his 32,000 men and only barely escaping back to Tenochtitlan with the remnants of his army.
In 1481 at Axayacatls death, his older brother Tizoc was elected ruler. Tizoc's coronation campaign against the Otomi of Metztitlan failed as he lost the major battle and only managed to secure 40 prisoners to be sacrificed for his coronation ceremony. Having shown weakness, many of the tributary towns rebelled and consequently most of Tizoc's short reign was spent attempting to quell rebellions and maintain control of areas conquered by his predecessors. Tizoc died suddenly in 1485, and it has been suggested that he was poisoned by his brother and war leader Ahuitzotl who became the next tlatoani. Tizoc is mostly known as the namesake of the Stone of Tizoc a monumental sculpture (Nahuatl ‘'temalacatl), decorated with representation of Tizoc's conquests.
The next ruler was Ahuitzotl (Nahuatl: "Water monster"), brother of Axayacatl and Tizoc and war leader under Tizoc. His successful coronation campaign suppressed rebellions in the Toluca valley and conquered Jilotepec and several communities in the northern Valley of Mexico. A second campaign to the gulf coast was also highly successful. He began an enlargement of the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan, inaugurating the new temple in 1487. For the inauguration ceremony the Mexica invited the rulers of all their subject cities, who participated as spectators in the ceremony in which an unprecedented number of war captives were sacrificed – some sources giving a figure of 84,000 prisoners sacrificed over four days. Probably the actual figure of sacrifices was much smaller, but still numbering several thousands. Ahuitzotl also constructed monumental architecture in sites such as Calixtlahuaca, Malinalco and Tepoztlan. After a rebellion in the towns of Alahuiztlan and Oztoticpac in Northern Guerrero he ordered the entire population executed, and repopulated with people from the valley of Mexico. He also constructed a fortified garrison at Oztuma defending the border against the Tarascan state.
Motecuzoma II Xocoyotzin
At the death of Ahuitzotl the reign passed to his war leader Motecuzoma Xocoyotzin (Nahuatl "He frowns like a lord, the youngest child"), a son of Axayacatl. His successful coronation campaign attacked the fortified city of Nopallan in Oaxaca and subjected the adjacent region to the empire. An effective warrior, Motecuzoma II maintained the pace of conquest set by his predecessor and subjected large areas in Guerrero, Oaxaca, Puebla and even far south along the Pacific and Gulf coasts, conquering the province of Xoconochco in Chiapas. he also intensified the flower wars waged against Tlaxcallan and Huexotzinco, and secured an alliance with Cholula. He also consolidated the class structure of Aztec society, by making it harder for commoners (Nahuatl macehualtin) to accede to the privileged class of the pipiltin through merit in combat, and instituted a strict sumptuary code limiting the types of luxury goods that could be consumed by commoners.
In 1517, Motecuzoma received the first news of ships with strange warriors having landed on the Gulf Coast near Cempoallan and he dispatched messengers to greet them and find out what was happening, and he ordered his subjects in the area to keep him informed of any new arrivals. In 1519, he was informed of the arrival of the Spanish fleet of Hernán Cortés, who soon marched towards Tlaxcallan where he formed an alliance with the traditional enemies of the Aztecs. On November 8, 1519, Motecuzoma II received Cortés and his troops and Tlaxcalan allies on the causeway south of Tenochtitlan, and he invited the Spaniards to stay as his guests in Tenochtitlan. When Aztec troops destroyed a Spanish camp on the gulf coast, Cortés ordered Motecuzoma to execute the commanders responsible for the attack, and Motecuzoma complied. At this point the power balance had shifted towards the Spaniards who now held Motecuzoma as a prisoner in his own palace. As this shift in power became clear to Motecuzoma's subjects the Spaniards became increasingly unwelcome guests in the capital city, and in June 1520, hostilities broke out, culminating in the massacre in the Great Temple, and a major uprising of the Mexica against the Spanish. During the fighting Motecuzoma was killed, either by the Spaniards who killed him as they fled the city or by the Mexica themselves who considered him a traitor.
The Spaniards fled the town on July 1, an episode later characterized as La Noche Triste (the Sad Night), which was a major victory for the Aztecs. The Spaniards nevertheless reached Tlaxcallan where they regrouped and received reinforcements, and began to prepare a campaign of conquest in collaboration with the Tlaxcalteca. In Tenochtitlan a new tlatoani was chosen, Motecuzoma's brother Cuitlahuac, but as an epidemic of smallpox swept through the city he died having ruled less than a year. At his death Cuauhtemoc, son of Ahuitzotl was elected tlahtoani. The Spaniards and thousands of Tlaxcalteca allies returned in the spring of 1521 to lay siege to Tenochtitlan, beginning by conquering the altepetl on the lake bank, cutting off communications and provisions to the island. They then besieged the island of Tenochtitlan from the land side, also attacking from the lakeside with ships built for the purpose. The battle ended on August 13 with the destruction of the city, and the imprisonment of Cuauhtemoc, who was later executed along with the rulers of Tlacopan and Texcoco.
Through the colonial period, Mexico City was built on the ruins of Tenochtitlan, gradually replacing and covering the lake, the island and the architecture of Aztec Tenochtitlan. After the fall of Tenochtitlan, Aztec warriors were enlisted as auxiliary troops alongside the Spanish Tlaxcalteca allies, and Aztec forces participated in all of the subsequent campaigns of conquest in northern and southern Mesoamerica. This meant that aspects of Aztec culture and the Nahuatl language continued to expand during the early colonial period as Aztec auxiliary forces made permanent settlements in many of the areas that were put under the Spanish crown.
The Aztec ruling dynasty continued to govern the "indian republic" of Tenochtitlan, but the subsequent rulers were mostly puppets installed by the Spanish, such as Andrés de Tapia Motelchiuh, installed by the Spanish. Other Aztec city states likewise came to be governed as "Indian republics" with a local indigenous gobernador in charge of the political organization of the Indians, and of providing the Spanish landowners with tribute and corvee labor. Some indigenous governors became quite rich and influential and were able to maintain positions of power comparable to that of Spanish encomenderos.
a After the arrival of the Europeans in Mexico and the conquest, indigenous populations declined significantly. This was largely the result of the epidemics of viruses brought to the continent against which the natives had no immunity. In 1520–1521, an outbreak of smallpox swept through the population of Tenochtitlan and was decisive in the fall of the city; further significant epidemics struck in 1545 and 1576.
There has been no general consensus about the population size of Mexico at the time of European arrival. Early estimates gave very small population figures for the Valley of Mexico, in 1942 Kubler estimated a figure 200,000. In 1963 Borah and Cook used pre-Conquest tribute lists to calculate the number of tributaries in central Mexico, estimating over 18-30 million. Their very high figure has been highly criticized for relying un unwarranted assumptions. Archeologist William Sanders based an estimate on archeological evidence of dwellings, arriving at an estimate of 1-1.2 million inhabitants in the Valley of Mexico. Whitmore used a computer simulation model based on colonial censuses to arrive at an estimate of 1.5 million for the Basin in 1519, and an estimate of 16 million for all of Mexico. Depending on the estimations of the population in 1519 the scale of the decline in the 16th century, range from around 50% to around 90% - with Sanders' and Whitmore's estimates being around 90%.
Social and political change
The different Nahua peoples, just as other indigenous peoples in colonial New Spain, were able to maintain many aspects fo their social and political structure under the colonial rule. Their Altepetl city-states continued to be the main unit of political organization, now often in the form of so-called repúblicas de indios "Indian Republics". These republics were politically modeled after the Spanish city government with a cabildo and led by an elected governor - but in practice they oftened continued to function as hereditary monarchies, with distinctions between indigenous noble landed families and commoners. Nevertheless the population decline resulted in many population shifts away from depopulated areas, and the formation of new population centers. This was partly achieved by the Spanish policy of congregación under which indigenous populations living in sparsely populated areas were moved together to form new communities, making it easier for them to brought within range of evangelization efforts, and easier foir the colonial state to exploit their labor.
Nobles and commoners
The highest class were the pīpiltin[nb 4] or nobility. The pilli status was hereditary and ascribed certain privileges to its holder, such as the right to wear particularly fine garments and consume luxury goods, as well as to own land and direct corvée labor by commoners. The most powerful nobles were called lords (Nahuatl teuctin) and they owned and controlled noble estates or houses, and could serve in the highest government positions or as military leaders. Nobles made up about 5% of the population.
The second class were the mācehualtin, originally peasants, but later extended to the lower working classes in general. Eduardo Noguera 1974, p. 56 estimates that in later stages only 20% of the population was dedicated to agriculture and food production. The other 80% of society were warriors, artisans and traders. Eventually, most of the mācehuallis were dedicated to arts and crafts. Their works were an important source of income for the city. Macehualtin could become enslaved, (Nahuatl tlacotin) for example if they had to sell themselves into the service of a noble due to debt or poverty, but enslavement was not an inherited status among the Aztecs. Some macehualtin were landless and worked directly for a lord (Nahuatl mayehqueh), whereas the majority of commoners were organized into calpollis which gave them access to land and property.
Commoners were able to obtain privileges similar to those of the nobles by demonstrating prowess in warfare. When a warrior took a captive he accrued the right to use certain emblems, weapons or garments, and as he took more captives his rank and prestige increased.
Family and gender
The Aztec family pattern was bilateral, counting relatives on the fathers and mothers side of the family equally, and inheritance was also passed both to sons and daughters. This meant that women could own property just as men, and that women therefore had a good deal of economic freedom from their spouses. Nevertheless, Aztec society was highly gendered with separate gender roles for men and women. Men were expected to work outside of the house, as farmers, traders, craftsmen and warriors, whereas women were expected to take the responsibility of the domestic sphere. Women could however also work outside of the home as small-scale merchants, doctors, priests and midwives. Warfare was highly valued and a source of high prestige, but women's work was metaphorically conceived of as equivalent to warfare, and as equally important in maintaining the equilibrium of the world and pleasing the gods. This situation has led some scholars to describe Aztec gender ideology as an ideology not of a gender hierarchy, but of gender complementarity, with gender roles being separate but equal.
Among the nobles, marriage alliances were often used as a political strategy with lesser nobles marrying daughters from more prestigious lineages whose status was then inherited by their children. Nobles were also often polygamous, with lords having many wives. Polygamy was not very common among the commoners and some sources describe it as being prohibited.
Altepetl and calpolli
The main unit of Aztec political organization was the city state, in Nahuatl called the altepetl, meaning "water-mountain". Each altepetl was led by a ruler, a tlatoani, with authority over a group of nobles and a population of commoners. The altepetl included a capital which served as a religious center, the hub of distribution and organization of a local population which often lived spread out in minor settlements surrounding the capital. Altepetl were also the main source of ethnic identity for the inhabitants, even though Altepetl were frequently composed of groups speaking different languages. Each altepetl would see itself as standing in a political contrast to other altepetl states, and war was waged between altepetl states. In this way Nahuatl speaking Aztecs of one Altepetl would be solidary with speakers of other languages belonging to the same altepetl, but enemies of Nahuatl speakers belonging to other competing altepetl states. In the valley of Mexico altepetl was composed of subdivisions called calpolli, which served as the main organizational unit for commoners. In Tlaxcala and the Puebla valley, the altepetl was organized into teccalli units headed by a lord (Nahuatl tecutli), who would hold sway over a territory and distribute rights to land among the commoners. A calpolli was at once a territorial unit where commoners organized labor and land use, since land was not in private property, and also often a kinship unit as a network of families that were related through intermarriage. Calpolli leaders might be or become members of the nobility, in which case they could represent their calpollis interests in the altepetl government.
In the valley of Morelos, archeologist Michael E. Smith estimates that a typical altepetl had from 10,000 to 15,000 inhabitants, and covered an area between 70 and 100 square kilometers. In the Morelos valley, altepetl sizes were somewhat smaller. Smith argues that the altepetl was primarily a political unit, made up of the population with allegiance to a lord, rather than as a territorial unit. He makes this distinction because in some areas minor settlements with different altepetl allegiances were interspersed.
The Aztec Empire was ruled by indirect means. Like most European empires, it was ethnically very diverse, but unlike most European empires, it was more of a system of tribute than a single system of government. Ethnohistorian Ross Hassig has argued that Aztec empire is best understood as an informal or hegemonic empire because it did not exert supreme authority over the conquered lands; it merely expected tributes to be paid and exerted force only to the degree it was necessary to ensure the payment of tribute. It was also a discontinuous empire because not all dominated territories were connected; for example, the southern peripheral zones of Xoconochco were not in direct contact with the center. The hegemonic nature of the Aztec empire can be seen in the fact that generally local rulers were restored to their positions once their city-state was conquered, and the Aztecs did not generally interfere in local affairs as long as the tribute payments were made and the local elites participated willingly. Such compliance was secured by establishing and maintaining a network of elites, related through intermarriage and different forms of exchange.
Nevertheless, the expansion of the empire was accomplished through military control of frontier zones, in strategic provinces where a much more direct approach to conquest and control was taken. Such strategic provinces were often exempt from tributaryy demands. The Aztecs even invested in those areas, by maintaining a permanent military presence, installing puppet-rulers, or even moving entire populations from the center to maintain a loyal base of support. In this way, the Aztec system of government distinguished between different strategies of control in the outer regions, of the empire, far away from the core in the Valley of Mexico. Some provinces were treated as tributary provinces, which provided the basis for economic stability for the empire, and strategic provinces, which were the basis for further expansion.
Although the form of government is often referred to as an empire, in fact most areas within the empire were organized as city-states, known as altepetl in Nahuatl. These were small polities ruled by a king (tlatoani) from a legitimate dynasty. The Early Aztec period was a time of growth and competition among altepetl. Even after the empire was formed in 1428 and began its program of expansion through conquest, the altepetl remained the dominant form of organization at the local level. The efficient role of the altepetl as a regional political unit was largely responsible for the success of the empire's hegemonic form of control.
Agriculture and subsistence
As all Mesoamerican peoples Aztec society was organized around maize agriculture. The humid environment in the Valley of Mexico with its many lakes and swamps permitted intensive agriculture. The main crops in addition to maize were beans, squashes, chilies and amaranth. Particularly important for agricultural production in the valley was the construction of chinampas on the lake, artificial islands that allowed the conversion of the shallow waters into highly fertile gardens that could be cultivated year round. Chinampas are areas of raised land, created from alternating layers of mud from the bottom of the lake, and plant matter/other vegetation. These “raised beds” were separated by narrow canals, which allowed farmers to move between them by canoe. The chinampas were extremely fertile pieces of land, and yielded, on average, seven crops annually. On the basis of current chinampa yields, it has been estimated that 1 hectare of chinampa would feed 20 individuals and 9,000 hectares of chinampas could feed 180,000.
The Aztecs further intensified agricultural production by constructing systems of artificial irrigation. While most of the farming occurred outside the densely populated areas, within the cities there was another method of (small scale) farming. Each family had their own garden plot where they grew maize, fruits, herbs, medicines and other important plants. When the city of Tenochtitlan became a major urban center, water was supplied to the city through aqueducts from springs on the banks of the lake, and they organized a system that collected human waste for use as fertilizer. Through intensive agriculture the Aztecs were able to sustain a large urbanized population. The lake was also a rich source of proteins in the form of aquatic animals such as fish, amphibians, shrimp, insects and insect eggs, and water fowl. The presence of such varied sources of protein meant that there was little use for domestic animals for meat (only turkeys and dogs were kept), and scholars have calculated that there was no shortage of protein among the inhabitants of the Valley of Mexico.
Crafts and trades
The excess supply of food products allowed a significant portion of the Aztec population to dedicate themselves to trades other than food production. Apart from taking care of domestic food production women weaved textiles from agave fibers and cotton. Men also engaged in craft specializations such as the production of ceramics and of obsidian and flint tools, and of luxury goods such as beadwork, featherwork and the elaboration of tools and musical instruments. Sometimes entire calpollis specialized in a single craft, and in some archeological sites large neighborhoods have been found where apparently only a single craft speciality was practiced.
The Aztecs did not produce much metal work, but did have knowledge of basic smelting technology for gold, and they combined gold with precious stones such as jade and turquoise. Copper products were generally imported from the Tarascans of Michoacan.
Trade and distribution
Products were distributed through a network of markets; some markets specialized in a single commodity (for example the dog market of Acolman) and other general markets with presence of many different goods. Markets were highly organized with a system of supervisors taking care that only authorized merchants were permitted to sell their goods, and punishing those who cheated their customers or sold substandard or counterfeit goods. A typical town would have a weekly market (every 5 days), while larger cities held markets every day. Cortés reported that the central market of Tlatelolco, Tenochtitlan's sister city, was visited by 60,000 people daily. Some sellers in the markets were petty vendors; farmers might sell some of their produce, potters sold their vessels, and so on. Other vendors were professional merchants who traveled from market to market seeking profits.
The pochteca were specialized long distance merchants organized into exclusive guilds. They made long expeditions to all parts of Mesoamerica bringing back exotic luxury goods, and they served as the judges and supervisors of the Tlatelolco market. Although the economy of Aztec Mexico was commercialized (in its use of money, markets, and merchants) land and labor were not commodities for sale. In the commercial sector of the economy several types of money were in regular use. Small purchases were made with cacao beans, which had to be imported from lowland areas. In Aztec marketplaces, a small rabbit was worth 30 beans, a turkey egg cost 3 beans, and a tamal cost a single bean. For larger purchases, standardized lengths of cotton cloth called quachtli were used. There were different grades of quachtli, ranging in value from 65 to 300 cacao beans. One source stated that 20 quachtli could support a commoner for one year in Tenochtitlan. A small gold statue approximately 0.62 kg (1.37 lb) cost 250 beans.
Another form of distribution of goods was through the payment of tribute. When an altepetl was conquered the victor imposed a yearly tribute, usually paid in the form of whichever local product was most valuable or treasured. Several pages from the Codex Mendoza list tributary towns along with the goods they supplied, which included not only luxuries such as feathers, adorned suits, and greenstone beads, but more practical goods such as cloth, firewood, and food. Tribute was usually paid twice or four times a year at differing times.
Archaeological excavations in the Aztec-ruled provinces show that incorporation into the empire had both costs and benefits for provincial peoples. On the positive side, the empire promoted commerce and trade, and exotic goods from obsidian to bronze managed to reach the houses of both commoners and nobles. Trade partners also included the enemy Purépecha (also known as Tarascans), a source of bronze tools and jewelry. On the negative side, imperial tribute imposed a burden on commoner households, who had to increase their work to pay their share of tribute. Nobles, on the other hand, often made out well under imperial rule because of the indirect nature of imperial organization. The empire had to rely on local kings and nobles and offered them privileges for their help in maintaining order and keeping the tribute flowing.
Aztec society combined a relatively simple agrarian rural tradition with the development of truly urbanized society with a complex system of institutions, specializations and hierarchies. The urban tradition in Mesoamerica was developed during the classic period with major urban centers such as Teotihuacan with a population well above 100,000, and at the rise of the Aztec the urban tradition was ingrained in Mesoamerican society, with urban centers serving major religious, political and economic functions for the entire population.
The capital city of the Aztec empire was Tenochtitlan, now the site of modern-day Mexico City. Built on a series of islets in Lake Texcoco, the city plan was based on a symmetrical layout that was divided into four city sections called campan (directions). Tenochtitlan was built according to a fixed plan and centered on the ritual precinct, where the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan rose 50 m (164.04 ft) above the city. Houses were made of wood and loam, roofs were made of reed, although pyramids, temples and palaces were generally made of stone. The city was interlaced with canals, which were useful for transportation. Anthropologist Eduardo Noguera estimated the population at 200,000 based in the house count and merging the population of Tlatelolco (once an independent city, but later became a suburb of Tenochtitlan). If one includes the surrounding islets and shores surrounding Lake Texcoco, estimates range from 300,000 to 700,000 inhabitants. Michael E. Smith gives a somewhat smaller figure of 212,500 inhabitants of Tenochtitlan based on an area of 1,350 hectares and a population density of 157. The second largest city in the valley of Mexico in the Aztec period was texcoco with some 25,000 inhabitants dispersed over 450 hectares.
The center of Tenochtitlan was the sacred precinct, a walled-off square area which housed the Great Temple, temples for other deities, the ballcourt, the calmecac (a school for nobles), a skull rack ‘'tzompantli, displaying the skulls of sacrificial victims, houses of the warrior orders, a penitential palace of the tlatoani and a merchants palace. Around the sacred precinct were the royal palaces of the rulers.
The Great Temple
The centerpiece of Tenochtitlan was the Templo Mayor, the Great Temple, a large stepped pyramid with a double stair case leading up to two twin shrines – one dedicated to Tlaloc, the other to Huitzilopochtli. This was where most of the human sacrifices were carried out during the ritual festivals and the bodies of sacrificial victims were thrown down the stairs. The temple was enlarged in several stages, and most of the Aztec rulers made a point of adding a further stage, each with a new dedication and inauguration. The temple has been excavated in the center of Mexico City and the rich dedicatory offerings are displayed in the Museum of the Templo Mayor.
Archaeologist Eduardo Matos Moctezuma, in his essay "Symbolism of the Templo Mayor," posits that the orientation of the temple is indicative of the totality of the vision the Mexica had of the universe (cosmovision). He states that the "principal center, or navel, where the horizontal and vertical planes intersect, that is, the point from which the heavenly or upper plane and the plane of the Underworld begin and the four directions of the universe originate, is the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan." Matos Moctezuma supports his supposition by claiming that the temple acts as an embodiment of a living myth where "all sacred power is concentrated and where all the levels intersect."
Other major Aztec cities were some of the previous city state centers around the lake including Tenayuca, Azcapotzalco, Texcoco, Colhuacan, Tlacopan, Chapultepec, Coyoacan, Xochimilco, and Chalco. In the Puebla valley, Cholula was the largest city with the largest pyramid temple in Mesoamerica, while the confederacy of Tlaxcala consisted of four smaller cities. In Morelos, Cuahnahuac was a major city of the Nahuatl speaking Tlahuica tribe, and Tollocan in the Toluca valley was the capital of the Matlatzinca tribe which included Nahuatl speakers as well as speakers of Otomi and the language today called Matlatzinca. Most Aztec cities had a similar layout with a central plaza with a major pyramid with two staircases and a double temple oriented towards the west.
Aztec religion was organized around the practice of calendar rituals dedicated to a pantheon of different deities. Similar to other Mesoamerican religious systems it has generally been understood as a polytheist agriculturalist religion with elements of animism. Central in the religious practice was the offering of sacrifices to the deities, as a way of thanking or paying for the continuation of the cycle of life.
The main deities worshipped by the Aztecs were Tlaloc, a rain and storm deity, Huitzilopochtli a solar and martial deity and the tutelary deity of the Mexica tribe, Quetzalcoatl, a wind, sky and star deity and cultural hero, Tezcatlipoca, a deity of the night, magic, prophecy and fate. The Great Temple in Tenochtitlan had two shrines on its top, one dedicated to Tlaloc, the other to Huitzilopochtli. Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca each had separate temples within the religious precinct close to the Great Temple, and the high priests of the Great Temple were named “Quetzalcoatl Tlamacazqueh”. Other major deities were Tlaltecutli or Coatlicue a female earth deity, the deity couple Tonacatecuhtli and Tonacacihuatl were associated with life and sustenance, Mictlantecutli and Mictlancihuatl, a male/female couple of deities of the underworld and death, Chalchiutlicue, a female deity of lakes and springs, Xipe Totec, a deity of fertility and the natural cycle, Huehueteotl or Xiuhtecuhtli a fire god, Tlazolteotl a femal deity tied to childbirth and sexuality, and a Xochipilli and Xochiquetzal gods of song, dance and games. In some regions, particularly Tlaxcala, Mixcoatl or Camaxtli was the main tribal deity. A few sources mention a deity Ometeotl who may have been a god of the duality between life and death, male and female and who may have incorporated Tonacatecuhtli and Tonacacihuatl. Apart from the major deities there were dozens of minor deities each associated with an element or concept, and as the Aztec empire grew so did their pantheon because they adopted and incorporated the local deities of conquered people into their own. Additionally the major gods had many alternative manifestations or aspects, creating small families of gods with related aspects.
Mythology and worldview
Aztec mythology is known from a number of sources written down in the colonial period. One set of myths, called Legend of the Suns, describe the creation of four successive suns, or periods, each ruled by a different deity and inhabited by a different group of beings. Each period ends in a cataclysmic destruction that sets the stage for the next period to begin. In this process, the deities Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl appear as adversaries, each destroying the creations of the other. The current Sun, the fifth, was created when a minor deity sacrificed himself on a bonfire and turned into the sun, but the sun only begins to move once the other deities sacrifice themselves and offers it their life force.
In another myth of how the earth was created Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl appear as allies, defeating a giant crocodile Cipactli and requiring her to become the earth, allowing humans to carve into her flesh and plant their seeds, on the condition that in return they will offer blood to her. And in the story of the creation of humanity Quetzalcoatl travels with his twin Xolotl to the underworld and brings back bones which are then ground like corn on a metate by the goddess Cihuacoatl, the resulting dough is given human form and comes to life when Quetzalcoatl imbues it with his own blood.
Huitzilopochtli is the deity tied to the Mexica tribe and he figures in the story of the origin and migrations of the tribe. On their journey, Huitzilopochtli, in the form of a deity bundle carried by the Mexica priest, continuously spurs the tribe on by pushing them into conflict with their neighbors whenever they are settled in a place. In another myth Huitzilopochtli defeats and dismembers his sister the lunar deity Coyolxauhqui and her four hundred brothers at the hill of Coatepetl. The southern side of the Great Temple, also called Coatepetl, was a representation of this myth and at the food of the stairs lay a large stone monolith carved with a representation of the dismembered goddess.
Aztec religious life was organized around the calendars. As most Mesoamerican people, the Aztecs used two calendars simultaneously: a ritual calendar of 260 days called the tonalpohualli and a solar calendar of 365 days called the xiuhpohualli. Each day had a name and number in both calendars, and the combination of two dates were unique within a period of 52 years. The tonalpohualli was mostly used for divinatory purposes and it consisted of 20 day signs and number coefficients of 1–13 that cycled in a fixed order. The xiuhpohualli was made up of 18 “months” of 20 days, and with a remainder of 5 “void” days at the end of a cycle before the new xiuhpohualli cycle began. Each 20-day month was named after the specific ritual festival that began the month, many of which contained a relation to the agricultural cycle. Whether, and how, the Aztec calendar corrected for leap year is a matter of discussion among specialists. The monthly rituals involved the entire population as rituals were performed in each household, in the calpolli temples and in the main sacred precinct. Many festivals involved different forms of dancing, as well as the reenactment of mythical narratives by deity impersonators and the offering of sacrifice, in the form of food, animals and human victims.
Every 52 years the two calendars reached their shared starting point and a new calendar cycle began. This calendar event was celebrated with a ritual known as Xiuhmolpilli or the New Fire Ceremony. In this ceremony old pottery was broken in all homes and all fires in the Aztec realm were put out. Then a new fire was drilled over the breast of a sacrificial victim and runners brought the new fire to the different ‘'calpolli communities where fire was redistributed to each home. The night without fire was associated with the fear that star demons, ‘'tzitzimime, might descend and devour the earth ending the fifth period of the sun.
To the Aztecs, death was instrumental in the perpetuation of creation, and gods and humans alike had the responsibility of sacrificing themselves in order to allow life to continue. As described in the myth of creation above, humans were understood as responsible for the sun's continued revival, as well as for the paying the earth for its continued fertility. Blood sacrifice in various forms were conducted. Both humans and animals were sacrificed, depending on the god to be placated and the ceremony being conducted, and priests of some gods were sometimes required to provide their own blood through self-mutilation. It is known that some rituals included acts of cannibalism, with the captor and his family consuming part of the flesh of their sacrificed captives, but it is not known how widespread this practice was.
While human sacrifice was practiced throughout Mesoamerica, the Aztecs, if their own accounts are to be believed, brought this practice to an unprecedented level. For example, for the reconsecration of the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan in 1487, the Aztecs reported that they sacrificed 80,400 prisoners over the course of four days, reportedly by Ahuitzotl, the Great Speaker himself. This number, however, is not universally accepted and may have been exaggerated.
The scale of Aztec human sacrifice has provoked many scholars to consider what may have been the driving factor behind this aspect of Aztec religion. In the 1970s, Michael Harner and Marvin Harris argued that the motivation behind human sacrifice among the Aztecs was actually the cannibalization of the sacrificial victims. Harner claimed that very high population pressure and an emphasis on maize agriculture, without domesticated herbivores, led to a deficiency of essential amino acids amongst the Aztecs. While there is universal agreement that the Aztecs practiced sacrifice, there is a lack of scholarly consensus as to whether cannibalism was widespread. Harris, author of Cannibals and Kings (1977), has propagated the claim, originally proposed by Harner, that the flesh of the victims was a part of an aristocratic diet as a reward, since the Aztec diet was lacking in proteins. These claims have been refuted by Bernard Ortíz Montellano who, in his studies of Aztec health, diet, and medicine, demonstrates that while the Aztec diet was low in animal proteins, it was rich in vegetable proteins. Ortiz also points to the preponderance of human sacrifice during periods of food abundance following harvests compared to periods of food scarcity, the insignificant quantity of human protein available from sacrifices and the fact that aristocrats already had easy access to animal protein. Today many scholars point to ideological explanations of the practice, noting how the public spectacle of sacrificing warriors from conquered states was a major display of political power, supporting the claim of the ruling classes to divine authority. It also served as an important deterrent against rebellion by subjugated polities against the Aztec state, and such deterrents were crucial in order for the loosely organized empire to cohere.
Art and cultural production
The Aztecs greatly appreciated the arts and fine craftsmanship which they called toltecayotl which referred to the Toltecs, who had inhabited central Mexico prior to the rise of the Aztec city states in the Basin of Mexico and whom the Aztecs considered to represent the finest state of culture. The fine arts included writing and painting, singing and composing poetry, carving sculptures and producing mosaic, making fine ceramics, producing complex featherwork, and working metals, including copper and gold. All artisans of these fine arts were referred to collectively as tolteca "Toltecs".
Writing and iconography
The Aztecs did not have a fully developed writing system like the Maya did, but like the Maya and Zapotec they did use a writing system that combined logographic signs with phonetic syllable signs. Logograms would for example be the use of an image of a mountain to signify the word tepetl "mountain", whereas a phonetic syllable sign would be the use of an image of a tooth tlantli to signify the syllable tla in words unrelated to teeth. The combination of these principles allowed the Aztecs to represent the sounds of names of persons and places. Narratives tended to be represented through sequences of images, using different iconographic conventions such as footprints to show paths, temples on fire to show conquest events etc.
Epigrapher Alfonso Lacadena has demonstrated that the different syllable signs used by the Aztecs almost enabled the representation of all the most frequent syllables of the Nahuatl language (with some notable exceptions), but some scholars have argued that such a high degree of phoneticity was only achieved after the conquest when the Aztecs had been introduced to the principles of phonetic writing by the Spanish. Other scholars, notably Gordon Whittaker, have argued that the syllabic and phonetic aspects of Aztec writing were considerably less systematic and more creative than Lacadena's proposal suggests, arguing that Aztec writing never coalesced into a strictly syllabic system such as the Maya writing, but rather used a wide range of different types of phonetic signs.
The image to right demonstrates the use of phonetic signs for writing place names in the colonial Aztec Codex Mendoza. The uppermost place is "Mapachtepec", meaning literally "On the Hill of the Raccoon ", but the glyph includes the phonetic signs "MA" (hand) and "PACH" (moss) over a mountain "TEPETL" spelling the word "mapach" ("raccoon") phonetically instead of logographically. The other two placenames Mazatlan ("Place of Many Deer") and Huitztlan ("Place of many thorns") use the phonetic element "TLAN" represented by a tooth (tlantli) combined with a deer head to spell "MAZA" (mazatl = deer) and a thorn (huitztli) to spell "HUITZ".
Music, song and poetry
Song and poetry were highly regarded; there were presentations and poetry contests at most of the Aztec festivals. There were also dramatic presentations that included players, musicians and acrobats. There were several different genres of cuicatl (song): Yaocuicatl was devoted to war and the god(s) of war, Teocuicatl to the gods and creation myths and to adoration of said figures, xochicuicatl to flowers (a symbol of poetry itself and indicative of the highly metaphorical nature of a poetry that often utilized duality to convey multiple layers of meaning). "Prose" was tlahtolli, also with its different categories and divisions.
A key aspect of Aztec poetics was the use of parallelism, using a structure of embedded couplets to express different perspectives on the same element. Some such couplets were diphrasisms, conventional metaphors whereby an abstract concept was expressed metaphorically by using two more concrete concepts. For example, the Nahuatl expression for "poetry" was in xochitl in cuicatl a dual term meaning "the flower, the song".
A remarkable amount of this poetry survives, having been collected during the era of the conquest. In some cases poetry is attributed to individual authors, such as Nezahualcoyotl, tlatoani of Texcoco, and Cuacuauhtzin, Lord of Tepechpan, but whether these attributions reflect actual authorship is a matter of opinion. Important collection of such poems are Romances de los señores de la Nueva España, collected (Tezcoco 1582), probably by Juan Bautista de Pomar,[nb 5] and the Cantares Mexicanos.
The Aztecs produced ceramics of different types. Common are orange wares, which are orange or buff burnished ceramics with no slip. Red wares are ceramics with a reddish slip. And polychrome ware are ceramics with a white or orange slip, with painted designs in orange, red, brown, and/or black. Very common is "black on orange" ware which is orange ware decorated with painted designs in black.
Aztec black on orange ceramics are chronologically classified into four phases: Aztec I and II corresponding to ca, 1100-1350 (early Aztec period), Aztec II ca. (1350-1520), and the last phase Aztec IV was the early colonial period. Aztec I is characterized by floral designs and day- name glyphs; Aztec II is characterized by a stylized grass design above calligraphic designs such as s-curves or scrolls; Aztec III is characterized by very simple line designs; Aztec four continues some pre-columbian designs but adds European influenced floral designs. There were local variations on each of these styles, and archeologists continue to refine the ceramic sequence.
Typical vessels for everyday use were clay griddles for cooking (comalli), bowls and plates for eating (caxitl), pots for cooking (comitl) molcajetes or mortar-type vesses with slashed bases for grinding chile(molcaxitl), and different kinds of braziers, tripod dishes and biconical goblets. Vessels were fired in simple updraft kilns or even in open firing in pit kilns at low temperatures. Poluchrome ceramics were imported from the Cholula region (also known as Mixteca-Puebla style), and these weres were highly prized as a luxury ware, whereas the local block on orange styles were also for everyday use.
Aztec painted art was produced on animal skin (mostly deer), on cotton lienzos and on amate paper made from bark (e.g. from Trema micrantha or Ficus aurea), it was also produced on ceramics and carved in wood and stone. The surface of the material was often first treated with gesso to make the images stand out more clearly. The art of painting and writing was known in Nahuatl by the metaphor in tlilli, in tlapalli - meaning "the black ink, the red pigment".
There are few extant Aztec painted books. Of these none are conclusively confirmed to have been created before the conquest, but several codices must have been painted either right before the conquest or very soon after - before traditions for producing them were much disturbed. Even if some codices may have been produced after the conquest, there is good reson to think that they may have been copied from pre-columbian originals by scribes. The Codex Borbonicus is considered by some to be the only extant Aztec codex produced before the conquest - it is a calendric codex describing the day and month counts indicating the patron deities of the different time periods. Others consider it to have stylistic traits suggesting a post-conquest production.
Some codices were produces post-conquest, sometimes commissioned by the colonial government, for example Codex Mendoza, were painted by Aztec tlacuilos (codex creators), but under the control of Spanish authorities, who also sometimes commissioned codices describing pre-colonial religious practices , for example Codex Ríos. After the conquest, codices with calendric or religious information were sought out and systematically destroyed by the church - whereas other types of painted books, particularly historical narratives and tribute lists continued to be produced. Although depicting Aztec deities and describing religious practices also shared by the Aztecs of the Valley of Mexico, the codices produced in Southern Puebla near Cholula, are sometimes not considered to be Aztec codices, because they were preoduced outside of the Aztec "heartland". Karl Anton Nowotny, nevertheless considered that the Codex Borgia, painted in the area around Cholula and using a Mixtec style, was the "most significant work of art among the extant manuscripts".
Sculptures were carved in stone and wood, but few wood carvings have survived. Aztec stone sculptures exist in many sizes from small figurines and masks to large monuments, and are characterized by a high quality of craftmanship. Many sculptures were carved in highly realistic styles, for example realistic sculpture of animals such as rattlesnakes, dogs, jaguars, frogs, turtle and monkeys.
In Aztec artwork a number of monumental stone sculptures have been preserved, such sculptures usually functioned as adornments for religious architecture. Particularly famous monumental rock sculpture includes the socalled Aztec "Sunstone" or Calendarstone discovered in 1790; the Coyolxauhqui Stone which represents the dismembered goddess Coyolxauhqui, and which was placed at the foot of the staircase leading up to the Great Temple in Tenochtitlan; the 2,7 metres tall andesite Coatlicue statue representing a serpentine chtonic goddess with a skirt made of rattlesnakes. Two important types of sculpture are unique to the Aztecs, and related to the context of ritual sacrifice: the cuauhxicalli or "eagle vessel", large stone bowls often shaped like eagles or jaguars used as a recepticle for extracted human hearts; the temalacatl, a monumental carved stone disk to which warcaptives were tied and sacrificed in a form of gladitorial combat. The most well known examples of this type of sculpture are the Stone of Tizoc and the Stone of Motecuzoma I, both carved with images of warfare and conquest by specific Aztec rulers. Many smaller stone sculptures depicting deities also exist. The style used in religious sculpture was rigid stances likely meant to create a powerful experience in the onlooker. Although Aztec stone sculptures are now displayed in museums as naked rock, they were originally painted in vivid polychrome colour, sometimes covered first with a base coat of plaster. Early conquistador accounts also describe stone sculptures as having been decorated with precious stones and metals, inserted into the plaster.
An especially prized artform among the Aztecs was featherwork - the creation of colorful mosaics of feathers, and their use in garments as well as decoration on weaponry, war banners, and warrior suits. The class of craftsmen who created feather objects was called the amanteca, named after the Amantla neighborhood in Tenochtitlan where they lived and worked. They did not pay tribute nor were required to perform public service. The Florentine Codex gives information about how feather works were created. The amantecas had two ways of creating their works. One was to secure the feathers in place using agave cord for three-dimensional objects such as fly whisks, fans, bracelets, headgear and other objects. The second and more difficult was a mosaic type technique, which the Spanish also called "feather painting." These were done principally on feather shields and cloaks for idols.Feather mosaics were arrangements of minute fragments of feathers from a wide variety of birds, generally worked on a paper base, made from cotton and paste, then itself backed with amate paper, but bases of other types of paper and directly on amate were done as well. These works were done in layers with "common" feathers, dyed feathers and precious feathers. First a model was made with lower quality feathers and the precious feathers found only on the top layer. The adhesive for the feathers in the Mesoamerican period was made from orchid bulbs. Feathers from local and faraway sources were used, especially in the Aztec Empire. The feathers were obtained from wild birds as well as from domesticated turkeys and ducks, with the finest quetzal feathers coming from Chiapas, Guatemala and Honduras. These feathers were obtained through trade and tribute. Due to the difficulty of conserving feathers, fewer than ten pieces of original Aztec featherwork exist today.
Today the legacy of the Aztecs lives on in Mexico in many forms. Archeological sites are excavated and opened to the public and their artefacts are prominently displayed in museums. Placenames and loanwords from the Aztec language Nahuatl permeate the Mexican landscape and vocabulary, and Aztec symbols and mythology have been integrated into contemporary Mexican nationalism as emblems of the nation.
Aztec culture and history has been central to the formation of a Mexican national identity after Mexican independence in 1821. In the 17th and 18th century Europe the Aztecs were generally described as barbaric, gruesome and culturally inferior. During the 19th century, as Mexican nationalism and dreams of independence budded and came to fruition, these images of the Aztecs as uncivilized barbarians were replaced with romanticized visions of the Aztecs as original sons of the soil, with a highly developed culture rivaling the ancient European civilizations. When Mexico became independent Aztec culture the romanticizied view of Aztec civilization became a source of images that could be used to ground the new nation as a unique blend of European and American.
When New Spain achieved independence in 1821 and became a monarchy, First Mexican Empire, its flag had the traditional Aztec eagle on a nopal cactus, with the eagle wearing a crown, symbolizing the new Mexican monarchy.
Since 1865, the Mexican national flag bears the emblem of the Mexica migration story, an eagle poised on a cactus. This emblem has also been adopted as Mexico's national Coat of Arms, and is emblazoned onto official buildings, seals, and signs. Throughout Mexico statues of Aztec rulers, references to Aztec history, and reproductions of Aztec art are found, and are actively used as a stock of symbols representing the national cultural heritage.
In the Mexican post-revolutionary period indigenista artists such as Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, adopted many elements of Aztec culture in their work, in efforts to express Mexican national identiy, and integrate the indigenous cultural heritage into the national culture.
In their works, Mexican authors such as Octavio Paz and Agustin Fuentes have analyzed the use Aztec symbols by the Mexican state, critiqueing the way it adopts and adapts indigenous culture to political ends, yet they have also in their works made use of the symbolic idiom themselves. Paz for example critiqued the architectuaral layout of the National Museum of Anthropology and History, which constructs a view of Mexican history as culminating with the Aztecs, as an expression of a nationalist appropriation of Aztec culture.
Language and placenames
The Nahuatl language is today spoken by 1.5 million people, mostly in mountainous areas in the states of central Mexico. Mexican Spanish today incorporates hundreds of loans from Nahuatl, and many of these words have passed into general Spanish use, and further into other world languages.
In Mexico, Aztec placenames are ubiquituous, particularly in central Mexico where the Aztec empire was centered, but also in other regions where many towns, cities and regions were established under their Nahuatl names, as Aztec auxiliary troops accompanied the Spanish colonizers on the early expeditions that mapped New Spain. In this way even towns, that were not originally Nahuatl speaking came to be known by their Nahuatl names.
Mexican cuisine continues to be based on staple elements of Mesoamerican cooking, an particularly of Aztec cuisine: corn, chili, beans, squash, tomato, avocado. Many of these staple products continue to be known by their Nahuatl names, carrying in this way ties to the Aztec people who introduced these foods to the Spaniards and to the world. Through spread of ancient Mesoamerican food elements, particularly plants, Nahuatl words (for example chocolate, tomato, chili, avocado, tamale, taco, pupusa, chipotle, pozole, atole) have been borrowed through Spanish into other languages around the world. Through the spread and populatiry of Mexican cuisine, the culinary legacy of the Aztecs can be said to have a global reach. Today Aztec images and Nahuatl words are often used to lend an air of authenticism or exoticism in the marketing of Mexican cuisine.
In popular culture
The idea of the Aztecs has captivated the imaginations of Europeans since the first encounters, and has provided many iconic symbols to Western popular culture. In his book The Aztec Image in Western Thought, Benjamin Keen argued that Western thinkers have usually viewed Aztec culture through a filter of their own cultural interests.
The Aztecs, and figures from Aztec mythology feature in Western culture. The name of Quetzalcoatl, a feathered serpent god, has been used for a genus of pterosaurs, Quetzalcoatlus, a large flying reptile with a wingspan of as much as 11 metres (36 ft). Quetzalcoatl has appeared as a character in many books, films and video games. D. H. Lawrence gave the name Quetzalcoatl to an early draft of his novel The Plumed Serpent but his publisher, Alfred A. Knopf insisted on a change of title. American author Gary Jennings wrote two acclaimed historical novels set in Aztec period Mexico, Aztec (1980) and Aztec Autumn.The novels were so popular that four more novels in the Aztec series was written after his death.
Aztec society has also been depicted in cinema: The Mexican feature film The Other Conquest (Spanish: La Otra Conquista) from 2000 was directed by Salvador Carrasco, and illustrated the colonial aftermath of the 1520s Spanish Conquest of Mexico. It adopted the perspective of an Aztec scribe, Topiltzin, who survived the attack on the temple of Tenochtitlan. The 1989 film Retorno a Aztlán by Juan Mora Catlett is a historical fiction set during the rule of Motecuzoma I, filmed in Nahuatl and with the alternative Nahuatl title Necuepaliztli in Aztlan. In Mexican exploitation B movies of the 1970s, a recurring figure was the "Aztec mummy" as well as Aztec ghosts and sorcerers.
- The name of the two Aztec rulers which in this article is written as "Motecuzoma" has several variants, due to alterations to the original Nahuatl word by speakers of English and Spanish, and due to different orthographical choices for writing Nahuatl words. In English the variant "Montezuma" was originally the most common, but has now largely been replaced with "motecuhzoma" and "moteuczoma", in Spanish the term "moctezuma" which inverts the order of t and k has been predominant and is a common surname in Mexico, but is now also largely replaced with a form that respects the original Nahuatl structure, such as "motecuzoma". IN Nahuatl the word is /motekʷso:ma/, meaning "he frowns like a lord".Hajovsky 2015, pp. ix, 147:n#3
- Gillespie 1989 argues that the name "Motecuzoma" was a later addition added to make for a parallel to the later ruler, and that his original name was only "Ilhuicamina".
- Some sources, including the Relación de Tula and the history of Motolinia, suggest that Atotoztli functioned as ruler of Tenochtitlan succeeding her father. Indeed no conquests are recorded for Motecuzoma in the last years of his reign, suggesting that he may have been incapable of ruling, or even dead (Diel 2005).
- singular form pilli
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- Sanders, William T. (1971). "Settlement Patterns in Central Mexico". Handbook of Middle American Indians. 3. pp. 3–44.
- Schroeder, Susan (1991). Chimalpahin and the Kingdoms of Chalco. Tucson: University of Arizona Press. ISBN 0-8165-1182-9. OCLC 21976206.
- Smith, Michael E. (1984). "The Aztlan Migrations of Nahuatl Chronicles: Myth or History?" (PDF online facsimile). Ethnohistory. Columbus, OH: American Society for Ethnohistory. 31 (3): 153–86. doi:10.2307/482619. ISSN 0014-1801. JSTOR 482619. OCLC 145142543.
- Smith, Michael E. (2000). "Aztec City-States". In Mogens Herman Hansen. A Comparative Study of Thirty City-State Cultures. Copenhagen: The Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters. pp. 581–95.
- Smith, Michael E. (1996). "The Strategic Provinces". In Frances Berdan, Richard Blanton, Elizabeth Hill Boone, Mary G. Hodge, Michael E. Smith, Emily Umberger. Aztec Imperial Strategies. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection. pp. 137–151. ISBN 0-88402-211-0. OCLC 27035231.
- Smith, Michael E. (1997). The Aztecs (first ed.). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 0-631-23015-7. OCLC 48579073.
- Smith, Michael E. (2008). Aztec City-State Capitals. University Press of Florida.
- Smith, Michael E.; Montiel, Lisa (2001). "The Archaeological Study of Empires and Imperialism in Pre-Hispanic Central Mexico". Journal of Anthropological Archaeology. 20 (3): 245–84. doi:10.1006/jaar.2000.0372.
- Smith, Michael E. (2005b). "Life in the Provinces of the Aztec Empire" (PDF). Scientific American.
- Soustelle, Jacques (1970). Daily Life of the Aztecs, on the Eve of the Spanish Conquest. Stanford University Press.
- Taube, Karl A. (1993). Aztec and Maya Myths (4th University of Texas printing ed.). Austin: University of Texas Press. ISBN 0-292-78130-X. OCLC 29124568.
- Taube, Karl (2012). "Creation and Cosmology:Gods and Mythic Origins in Ancient Mesoamerica". In Deborah L. Nichols; Christopher A. Pool. The Oxford Handbook of Mesoamerican Archaeology. Oxford University Press. pp. 741–752.
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- Whitmore, Thomas M. (1992). Disease and Death in Early Colonial Mexico: Simulating Amerindian Depopulation. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
- Wolfe, Bertram D. (2000). The Fabulous Life of Diego Rivera. Cooper Square Press.
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Primary sources in English
- Berdan, Frances F. and Patricia Reiff Anawalt (1997) The Essential Codex Mendoza. University of California Press, Berkeley. ISBN 0-520-20454-9.
- Cortés, Hernan (1987) Letters from Mexico. New Ed. edition. Translated by Anthony Pagden. Yale University Press, New Haven. ISBN 0-300-03724-4.
- Díaz del Castillo, Bernal (1963) . The Conquest of New Spain. Penguin Classics. J. M. Cohen (trans.) (6th printing (1973) ed.). Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-044123-9. OCLC 162351797.
- Durán, Diego (1971) [1574–79]. Fernando Horcasitas; Doris Heyden, eds. Book of the Gods and Rites and The Ancient Calendar. Civilization of the American Indian series. Translated by Fernando Horcasitas; Doris Heyden. Foreword by Miguel León-Portilla (translation of Libro de los dioses y ritos and El calendario antiguo, 1st English ed.). Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 0-8061-0889-4. OCLC 149976.
- Durán, Diego (1994) [c.1581]. The History of the Indies of New Spain. Civilization of the American Indian series, no. 210. Doris Heyden (trans., annot., and introd.) (Translation of Historia de las Indias de Nueva-España y Islas de Tierra Firme, 1st English ed.). Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 0-8061-2649-3. OCLC 29565779.
- Ruiz de Alarcón, Hernando (1984) . Treatise on the Heathen Superstitions and Customs That Today Live Among the Indians Native to This New Spain, 1629. Civilization of the American Indian series. translated & edited by J. Richard Andrews and Ross Hassig (original reproduction and translation of: Tratado de las supersticiones y costumbres gentílicas que oy viven entre los indios naturales desta Nueva España, first English ed.). Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 0-8061-1832-6. OCLC 10046127. (in Nahuatl) (in English)
- Sahagún, Bernardino de (1950–82) [c. 1540–85]. Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain, 13 vols. in 12. vols. I–XII. Charles E. Dibble and Arthur J.O. Anderson (eds., trans., notes and illus.) (translation of Historia General de las Cosas de la Nueva España ed.). Santa Fe, NM and Salt Lake City: School of American Research and the University of Utah Press. ISBN 0-87480-082-X. OCLC 276351.
- Sahagún, Bernardino de (1997) [c.1558–61]. Primeros Memoriales. Civilization of the American Indians series. 200, part 2. Thelma D. Sullivan (English trans. and paleography of Nahuatl text), with H.B. Nicholson, Arthur J.O. Anderson, Charles E. Dibble, Eloise Quiñones Keber, and Wayne Ruwet (completion, revisions, and ed.). Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 978-0-8061-2909-9. OCLC 35848992.
- Durán, Fray Diego (1994) The History of the Indies of New Spain. Translated by Doris Heyden. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman. ISBN 0-8061-2649-3.
- Chimalpahin Quauhtlehuanitzin, Domingo de San Antón Muñón (1997) [c. 1621]. Arthur J.O. Anderson; Susan Schroeder, eds. Codex Chimalpahin, vol. 1: society and politics in Mexico Tenochtitlan, Tlatelolco, Texcoco, Culhuacan, and other Nahua altepetl in central Mexico; the Nahuatl and Spanish annals and accounts collected and recorded by don Domingo de San Antón Muñón Chimalpahin Quauhtlehuanitzin. Civilization of the American Indian series. Translated by Arthur J.O. Anderson; Susan Schroeder. Susan Schroeder (general ed.), Wayne Ruwet (manuscript ed.). Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 978-0-8061-2921-1. OCLC 36017075.
- Chimalpahin Quauhtlehuanitzin, Domingo de San Antón Muñón (1997) [c. 1621]. Arthur J.O. Anderson; Susan Schroeder, eds. Codex Chimalpahin, vol. 2: society and politics in Mexico Tenochtitlan, Tlatelolco, Texcoco, Culhuacan, and other Nahua altepetl in central Mexico; the Nahuatl and Spanish annals and accounts collected and recorded by don Domingo de San Antón Muñón Chimalpahin Quauhtlehuanitzin (continued). Civilization of the American Indian series. Translated by Arthur J.O. Anderson; Susan Schroeder. Susan Schroeder (general ed.), Wayne Ruwet (manuscript ed.). Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 978-0-8061-2950-1. OCLC 36017075.
- Zorita, Alonso de (1963) Life and Labor in Ancient Mexico: The Brief and Summary Relation of the Lords of New Spain. Translated by Benjamin Keen. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick. ISBN 0-8061-2679-5 (1994 paperback).
|Wikisource has the text of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article Aztecs.|
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Aztec.|
- Aztecs at Mexicolore: constantly updated educational site specifically on the Aztecs, for serious students of all ages.
- Aztec Architecture
- Aztecs / Nahuatl / Tenochtitlan: Ancient Mesoamerica resources at University of Minnesota Duluth
- Aztec history, culture and religion B. Diaz del Castillo, The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico (tr. by A. P. Maudsley, 1928, repr. 1965)
- Demographic Disaster in Mexico 1519-1595 at the Department of History at the University of Minnesota
- Michael E. Smith's student bibliography on the Aztecs.
- "Article: "Life in the Provinces of the Aztec Empire"" (PDF). (538 KiB)
- Tlahuica Culture Home Page (an Aztec group from Morelos, Mexico)
- "The Aztecs-looking behind the myths" on BBC Radio 4's In Our Time featuring Alan Knight, Adrian Locke and Elizabeth Graham
- Pre-columbian Aztec Collection: photographs of Aztec tools and weapons