Aztec Empire (1300 – 1521)

The union of three city-states that dominated early modern Mesoamerica.

14th century
Lake Texcoco
Flowery Wars
500 men and 11 ships

Who were the Aztecs?

The Aztecs were a Mesoamerican people who rose to power in the 14th century, around the same time that the Ottoman Empire was rising in Anatolia.

Just like the Ottomans, the Aztecs began as a small, nomadic tribe, before establishing an empire that stretched across much of Central America. This was before the first Europeans arrived on the continent – the Aztecs were the most powerful force in their part of the known world.

Religion played an important role in Aztec society, including violent human sacrifices, but this was only one aspect of Aztec culture. They were also skilful farmers, expressive poets, and the people who introduced chocolate, tomatoes, avocados and chillies to the rest of the world.

The origins of the Aztecs


The Aztecs started life as a roaming tribe in northern Mexico. Supposedly, in 1323, the tribe saw a vision of an eagle sitting on a cactus, eating a snake. This vision told them where to build their future home.

The Aztecs headed south, until they reached the marshy shores of Lake Texcoco. There, they saw an eagle perched atop a cactus with a snake in its beak – just as their vision predicted. This famous image is featured on the modern Mexican flag.

The Aztecs decided to settle at Lake Texcoco, where they founded the city of Tenochtitlán. The lake provided them with fertile soil for agriculture and abundant fish stocks, while the surrounding swamps made it difficult for enemies to attack them. Over time, the city began to thrive.

The city of Tenochtitlán

The Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán grew into one of the most populous cities on the planet, with an estimated 350,000 inhabitants. In the rest of the world, only Paris, Venice and Constantinople would have rivaled it.

The city was renowned for its grandeur, with impressive architecture such as temple-pyramids, and even a zoo within the walls of the emperor’s palace. This zoo had many exotic animals, including ocelots, bears and eagles.

Tenochtitlán was also home to many public works projects such as aqueducts, bridges and canals. The streets were kept clean by an army of street cleaners who swept them daily.

Imperial expansion

The Aztecs began to build an empire in the early 15th century, taking control of many other city states in the region. Sometimes, they used diplomacy to form alliances, but at other times they used military force.

The city-states of Mesoamerica had an unusual way of fighting. Instead of killing enemy soldiers, the aim of the battle was to take them hostage.

Aztec soldiers did not wear much armor. Instead, they would dress in animal skins. The Aztecs had elite units of jaguar warriors and eagle warriors, who dressed in the skins of these specific animals; these elite units were feared and respected, and captured higher numbers of enemy soldiers than anyone else.

Human sacrifice

The Aztecs took enemy soldiers captive because they wanted to sacrifice them later. This was an important function of military conflict: to collect enough sacrifices to appease the Aztec gods.

The most common type of sacrifice was heart-extraction. A priest would pull the heart from a person’s chest, then throw the body down the temple steps. Modern historians have found hundreds of skeletons at Aztec temples, which show how common this practice was.

When Aztec cities were running low on sacrifices, they would sometimes engage in Flowery Wars. This was when two allied cities would hold a mock battle, which had no political or military purpose, but which allowed both sides to collect some new sacrifices from the enemy army.

Food and farming

The Aztecs were mainly vegetarian, with their diet consisting of local crops like maize, beans and squash. They farmed these crops on chinampas – small, floating fields that they built on the surface of Lake Texcoco.

They also ate meat products, including fish and shrimp from the lake, and sometimes insects and insect eggs. They did not have many domesticated livestock, because everything they needed was available in the local environment.

The wealthier members of Aztec society often took part in religious feasts. The highlights of these feasts would be cups of drinking chocolate, and teonanácatl – a type of hallucinatory mushroom. These mushrooms brought visions to the Aztecs, and were mainly used by priests.

Codices and poetry


The Aztecs kept records of their history and religion on painted sheets of bark or deerhide. These manuscripts are often referred to as codices by modern historians.

Unlike most European manuscripts at the same time, the Aztec codices were dominated by pictures as opposed to written words. Historians have long debated whether these pictures should count as a writing system, or if the stories they tell would be better classified as visual artwork.

The Aztecs were also keen poets, but these works were performed orally, as opposed to being written down. Their poems often included words paired together to express a more specific concept. Their term for poetry was an example of this: they called it in xochitl in cuicatl, which roughly translates as “flower song.”

The arrival of Europeans

In 1519, when the Aztecs were at the height of their power, a strange race of people arrived at the edge of the empire. These were Spanish conquistadors led by Hernán Cortés, who had sailed from Cuba with just 500 men and 11 ships.

This was the first time in history that Aztecs and Europeans had met. The Aztec Emperor – Moctezuma II – was initially suspicious, but decided to invite the Spaniards to visit Tenochtitlán. The Spanish toured the city and saw the many Aztec temples, markets and palaces, while Moctezuma gave them expensive gifts.

It is hard to know why Moctezuma was so welcoming. A common story states that he mistook the Spaniards for gods, but this was probably invented by the Spaniards themselves as a way to flatter themselves. In reality, Moctezuma probably hoped that befriending the Spanish would bring diplomatic advantages.

The collapse of the Aztecs

Moctezuma’s decision to invite the Spaniards into Tenochtitlán was a mistake. The Spanish killed him, then fled the city with as much gold as they could carry. Hundreds of them were killed on the way out, but a few of them, including Hernán Cortés, made it out alive.

The Spaniards regrouped, and a year later, they returned to lay siege to Tenochtitlán. Their army now consisted of a thousand Spaniards armed with cannons and explosives, plus tens of thousands of local warriors who wanted to see the Aztecs fall.

As powerful as they were, the Aztecs could not cope with such a large and technologically sophisticated force. After 93 days, their defenses collapsed. The Spaniards surged into the city, destroying temples and burning districts, killing 3 million Aztecs along the way. This marked the official end of the Aztec Empire.

The legacy of the Aztecs

The Aztecs left a lasting legacy on the modern world, particularly in terms of food. Chocolate is one of the most popular foods in the modern world, while other Aztec staples like tomatoes and chillies are also vital components of many modern cuisines.

Unfortunately, the rest of the Aztec legacy was wiped away by the Spaniards. As well as burning down the once-glorious capital of Tenochtitlán, they set about destroying Aztec codices, and stamping out all traces of Aztec religion.

They also imposed their own language and culture on the people of Mexico. In the modern day, this part of the world still speaks Spanish, and practices Christianity. Looking at the country now, it is hard to believe that the Aztecs ruled there just a few hundred years in the past.

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