Aztec Empire – Rise and Fall

Dig into the mysteries of Aztec history right here!  What was ancient Aztec art and culture like?  What about the Aztec religion?  And the legendary Aztec sacrifices?

The Aztec Empire was peopled by a group that was once nomadic, the Mexicas.  Their chroniclers told them that after their long journey from Aztlán, they found themselves to be outcasts, until they found the sign sent to them by their god Huitzilopochtli, and began to build their city.  And so the Mexica peoples continued, and the Aztec Empire began.

The city of Tenochitlan was soon to become one of the largest cities in the world.  The power of the Mexica peoples became more consolidated, and they began to form alliances.  Their military power grew as well, and they began to conquer peoples in the surrounding areas.

At the height of its power, the Aztec Empire was organized and strong, but ruled with fear.  In 1519, a clash of cultures was to take place, unlike anything before it.  Although there was much tragedy in both the Spanish and Aztec empires before this, the meeting of the two civilizations was disastrous.  In a few short years, the culture and structure of one of histories greatest empires would have virtually vanished.


Most people today are somewhat familiar with the Aztec empire. But it may surprise you to know that there is a great deal of disagreement over what kind of an “empire” it really was. This Aztec empire history may surprise you.Of course, even the term Aztec is a bit misleading. It’s a name that is used for a group of peoples in Central Mexico, but really there wasn’t any one people group that was “Aztec”. The Mexica people were at the heart of the empire, but there were many other cultures that formed the civilization that the Spanish were to discover.

Estimated Extent of the Aztec Empire

Many years after the Mexica people first built their proud city, Tenochtitlan (later to become Mexico City), they formed an alliance with two other cities – Texcoco (Tetzcoco) and Tlacopan (these three cities are shown as yellow dots in the map above). This Triple Alliance was to rule the Valley of Mexico until the Spanish arrived. However, over time one city become the most powerful – Tenochtitlan. It would become the heart of the Aztec civilization.

Essentially, the history of the empire is a history of city-states. As the empire expanded (which it began to do in earnest around 1428) it conquered more cities. Some cities resisted. Others were conquered and began to pay tribute.

How the empire was ruled

The city of Tenochtitlan was the military power, which spearheaded the conquest of new territory. But the Aztec emperor didn’t rule every city state directly. Local governments would remain in place, but would be forced to pay varying amounts of tribute to the Triple Alliance (with most of the tribute going to Tenochtitlan).

For this reason scholar Alexander J. Motyl would call this empire a informal or hegemonic empire.

You also need to remember that the Aztecs didn’t necessarily rule connected territories. Because they were conquering cities, they sometimes had power in “pockets” over an area.

But don’t think that this was a weak empire. Ruling through a local government ensured that the locals would keep the people happy, and that there would be stability and continuity. This system worked very well for the peoples of the empire.

At its height

The empire might have continued to grow had not the Europeans arrived in 1519. At this time it was at its height, reaching from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico, from Central Mexico all the way to Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. See this map of the Aztec empire for a visual idea. Here’s another conception:

Aztec Empire circa 1519

They originally formed an alliance with two other cities in the area, called Texcoco and Tlacopan, called the Triple Alliance.  However, Tenochtitlan eventually became the most powerful, and began conquering other cities.  Cultures in the area at the time the Mexicas arrived in the valley of Mexico included the Tepanecs, Cholcos, Xochimilcos, Tlaxcalans and others, all attempting to gain ascendancy in the valley itself.

Each state in the empire was ruled by its local government, which paid tribute and followed a number of laws dictated by the Triple Alliance.  Most of the tribute went to Tenochtitlan, since it had most of the power.  This type of empire is called a hegemonic or informal empire.

The territories ruled by the Aztec civilization weren’t entirely connected, either.  Since some city-states successfully resisted, maps of the Aztec empire often have “holes” in them.  This doesn’t appear to have affected the strength of the empire, however.

Had Europeans not appeared, the empire may have kept on growing.  At its height, the Aztec civilization reached east and west from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico.  North-south, the empire stretched from Central Mexico to modern day Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

Ruling an Empire

Groups of families were the basic unit of government in the empire.  These groups, called calpulli, had existed long before the Aztec civilization, and were set up to own land.  The leaders of the calpulli set up schools for common citizens, collected taxes, and took care of basic group needs.  Later calpullis were less family related and more regional, but operated in much the same way.

Leaders of the calpullis formed a city council – possibly the unit with the most power in the ancient Aztec government.  Each city council had another council within it – an executive council made of four members.  One of them would be the leader of the city, or tlatcani.

The council of Tenochtitlan led the empire itself, and has been compared to the senate of Rome.  The leader of this group was the Huey Tlatcani, or the emperor.  He was worshiped as a god, and had the support of the city council, major government officials, and the priesthood.  The most famous of the Aztec emperors was Montezuma II, ruler when Cortes reached the Aztecs.

The famous human sacrifices of the Aztecs were originally infrequent, grotesque to modern eyes.  It seems that, during the mid fifteenth century, a series of natural disasters convinced the Mexica that massive sacrifice was needed to satiate their gods.  These practices were among the excuses that the Spanish used to attempt to destroy the empire so completely

Many people in Mexico today can trace their ancestry and some culture back to the Aztec civilization, including the language of the empire (Nahuatl) which is still spoken.  If you visit the country today, you’ll see a lot of relics of Aztec culture there, including elaborate stone architecture, pottery, jewelry, paintings and more.  Place names, religion – even ways of thinking that were seen in the Aztec civilization are still very much a part of Mexico today.



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