2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Ancient History, Classical History and Mythology

Aztec Empire
The Aztec empire in Mesoamerica
Capital 1248- 1325 Unknown (Nomads)
1325- 1521 Tenochtitlan
( Tenochtitlan founded)-( Tenochtitlan lost in war)
Official language Náhuatl
Head of Nation
High councilor
Electing council
Approving Council
Tributary Empire
Hueyi Tlatoani (non-hederitary autocrat)
Cihuacóatl ( snake woman)
Oligarchs ( military, religious, nobility)
80+ calpulli leaders ( elder)
Population 1520
est. -10,000,000
The Aztec world
Aztec society

Nahuatl language
Aztec philosophy
Aztec calendar
Aztec religion
Aztec mythology
Aztec entheogenic complex
Human sacrifice in Aztec culture

Aztec history

Aztec army
Aztec codices
Aztec Triple Alliance
Spanish conquest of Mexico
Siege of Tenochtitlan
La Noche Triste
Hernán Cortés

Hueyi Tlatoani

Tenoch ( 1325– 1376)
Acamapichtli ( 1376– 1395)
Huitzilíhuitl ( 1395– 1417)
Chimalpopoca ( 1417– 1427)
Itzcóatl ( 1427– 1440)
Moctezuma I ( 1440– 1469)
Axayacatl ( 1469– 1481)
Tízoc ( 1481– 1486)
Auítzotl ( 1486– 1502)
Moctezuma II ( 1502– 1520)
Cuitláhuac ( 1520)
Cuauhtémoc ( 1520– 1521)

The Aztecs were a Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican people of central Mexico in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries who built an extensive empire in the late Postclassic period of Mesoamerican chronology. They called themselves Mexicas ( Classical Nahuatl: Mexìcâ, IPA: [meˈʃiʔkaʔ]).

The nucleus of the Aztec Empire was the Valley of Mexico, where their capital Tenochtitlan was built upon raised islets in Lake Texcoco. After the 1521 conquest and fall of Tenochtitlan by Spanish forces and their allies which brought about the effective end of Aztec dominion, the Spanish founded the new settlement of Mexico City on the site of the now-ruined Aztec capital. The capital of the modern-day nation of Mexico, the greater metropolitan area of Mexico City now covers much of the Valley of Mexico and the now-drained Lake of Texcoco.

Aztec civilization and society possessed a vibrant culture which included mandatory education and rich and complex mythological and religious traditions. For Europeans, the most striking element of the Aztec culture was the practice of human sacrifice which was conducted throughout Mesoamerica prior to the Spanish conquest.

In what is probably the most widely known episode in the Spanish colonization of the Americas, Hernán Cortés conquered the Aztecs in 1521 thus immortalizing himself and the Aztec Hueyi Tlatoani, Moctezuma II (Montezuma II).

The Aztecs spoke Classical Nahuatl as did some of the other peoples under the domination of the Aztec Empire. Although some contemporary Nahuatl speakers identify themselves as Aztecs, the word is normally only used as a historical term referring to the empire of the Mexicas, as distinguished from the Mexicas alone. This article deals with the historical Aztec civilization, not with modern-day Nahuatl speakers.


Sculpture commemorating the moment when Aztecs found the omen from the god Huitzilopochtli.
Sculpture commemorating the moment when Aztecs found the omen from the god Huitzilopochtli.

According to the Aubin codex, the seven Nahua tribes lived in Aztlán under the rule of a powerful elite. The seven tribes fled Aztlán, to seek new lands. The Mexicas were the last group to leave, guided by their priest "Huitzil". The Aubin Codex relates that after leaving Aztlán, Huitzilopochtli ordered his people to never identify themselves as Azteca, the name of their former masters. Instead they should henceforth call themselves Mexìcâ.

The Spanish conquistadors referred to them as "Mexicas". In Mexico, archeologists and museums use the term Mexicas. The wider population in and outside Mexico generally speaks of Aztecs. In this article, the term "Mexica" is used to refer to the Mexica people up until the time of the formation of the Triple Alliance. After this, the term "Aztecs" is used to refer to the peoples who made up the Triple Alliance.


Mexìcâ ( IPA: [meʃiʔkaʔ]) is a term of uncertain origin. Very different etymologies are proposed: the old Nahuatl word for the sun, the name of their leader Mexitli, or a type of weed that grows in Lake Texcoco. Mexican scholar Miguel León-Portilla suggests that it is derived from mexictli, "navel of the moon", from Nahuatl metztli (moon) and xictli (navel). Alternatively, mexictli could mean "navel of the maguey" using the Nahuatl metl and the locative "co". This definition could be correct; others sources tell us that the name comes from the word Mexitli (the weed that grows in Lake Texcoco), because at the time the Mexicas originally arrived in the Mexico Basin, the only place to settle was the island in the centre of the lake. The fishing and hunting permissions issued by ancient rulers of the basin were denied to the Mexicas and to avoid starvation they had to eat the weed (a nutritive but not very attractive food). So the name Mexica could come from mexìcatl meaning "weed people".


In Nahuatl, the native language of the Mexicas, Aztecatl means "someone who comes from Aztlán". In 1810 Alexander von Humboldt originated the modern usage of "Aztec" 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, it 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, and the term "Mexica" is becoming more common.


Classical Nahuatl (also known as Aztec, and simply Nahuatl) is a term used to describe the variants of the Nahuatl language that were spoken in the Valley of Mexico -- and used throughout central Mexico as a lingua franca -- at the time of the Spanish conquest of Mexico. Other variants of the language "Nahuatl" were spoken by many of the central Mexican city states under the domination of the Aztec Empire.


Rise of the Aztecs

The true origin of the Mexica is uncertain. According to their legends, the Mexica's place of origin was Aztlán. It is generally thought that Aztlán was somewhere to the north of the Valley of Mexico; some experts have placed it as far north as the Southwestern United States. Others however suggest it is a mythical place, since Aztlán can be translated as "the place of the origin". The mythical story of these travels is recorded in a number of codices from the Spanish colonial era, most prominently the Aubin Codex and the Boturini Codex.

Based on these codices as well as other histories, it appears that the Mexicas arrived at Chapultepec in or around the year 1248.

At the time of their arrival, the Valley of Mexico contained many city-states, the most powerful of which were Culhuacan to the south, and Azcapotzalco to the west. The Tepanecs of Azcapotzalco soon expelled the Mexicas from Chapultepec. In 1299, Culhuacan ruler Cocoxtli gave them permission to settle in the empty barrens of Tizapan, where they were eventually assimilated into Culhuacan culture.

The Valley of Mexico at the time of the Spanish Conquest.
The Valley of Mexico at the time of the Spanish Conquest.

In 1323, the Mexica asked the new ruler of Culhuacan, Achicometl, for his daughter, in order to make her the goddess Yaocihuatl. Unbeknownst to the king, the Mexicas actually planned to sacrifice her. As the story goes, during a festival dinner, a priest came out wearing her flayed skin as part of the ritual. Upon seeing this, the king and the people of Culhuacan were horrified and expelled the Mexicas.

According to Aztec legend, the Aztecs were shown a vision of an eagle perched on a prickly pear cactus, clutching a snake in its talons. This vision indicated that this was the location where they were to build their home. In any event, the Aztecs eventually arrived on a small swampy island in Lake Texcoco where they founded the town of Tenochtitlan in 1325. In 1376, the Mexicas elected their first Huey Tlatoani, Acamapichtli, who was living in Texcoco at the time.

For the next 50 years, until 1427, the Mexica were a tributary of Azcapotzalco, which had become a regional power, perhaps the most powerful since the Toltecs, centuries earlier. When Tezozomoc, the tlatoani of Azcapotzalco, died in 1426, his son Maxtla ascended to the throne. Shortly thereafter, Maxtla assassinated Chimalpopoca, the Aztec ruler. In an effort to defeat Maxtla, Chimalpopoca's successor, Itzcoatl, allied with the exiled ruler of Texcoco, Nezahualcoyotl. This coalition became the foundation of the Aztec Triple Alliance.

The Triple Alliance of Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan would, in the next 100 years, come to dominate the Valley of Mexico and extend its power to both the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific shore. Over this period, Tenochtitlan gradually became the dominant power in the alliance, and the Triple Alliance territories became known as the Aztec Empire.

Two of the primary architects of the Aztec empire were the half-brothers Tlacaelel and Moctezuma I, nephews of Itzcoatl. Moctezuma I succeeded Itzcoatl as Hueyi Tlatoani in 1449. Although he was also offered the opportunity to be tlatoani, Tlacaelel preferred to operate as the power behind the throne. Tlacaelel reformed the Aztec state and religion. According to some sources, he ordered the burning of most of the extant Aztec books claiming that they contained lies. He thereupon rewrote the history of the Aztec people, thus creating a common awareness of history for the Aztecs. This rewriting led directly to the curriculum taught to scholars and promoted the belief that the Aztecs were always a powerful and mythic nation; forgetting forever a possible true history of modest origins. One component of this reform was the institution of ritual war (the flower wars) as a way to have trained warriors, and created the necessity of constant sacrifices to keep the Sun moving.

Jaguar warrior, from the Codex Magliabechiano
Jaguar warrior, from the Codex Magliabechiano

Spanish conquest

The empire reached its height during Ahuitzotl's reign, 1486 until 1502. His successor, Motecuzōma Xocoyotzin (better known as Montezuma or Moctezuma II), had been Hueyi Tlatoani for 17 years when Hernan Cortés and the Spaniards landed on the Gulf Coast in the spring of 1519.

Despite some early battles between the two, Cortés allied himself with the Aztecs’ long-time enemy, the Confederacy of Tlaxcala, and arrived at the gates of Tenochtitlan on November 8, 1519, guests of the Aztecs.

The Spaniards and their Tlaxcallan allies became increasingly dangerous and unwelcome guests in capital city. In June, 1520, hostilities broke out, culminating in the massacre in the Main Temple and the death of Moctezuma. The Spaniards fled the town on July 1, an episode later characterized as La Noche Triste. They and their native allies returned in the spring of 1521 to lay siege to Tenochtitlan, a battle that ended that August 13 with the destruction of the city.

Most of the Mesoamerican cultures were intact after the fall of Tenochtitlan. Indeed, the freedom from Aztec domination may have been considered a positive development by most of the other cultures. The upper classes of the Aztec empire were considered noblemen by the Spaniards and generally treated as such initially. All this changed rapidly and the native population were soon forbidden to study by law, and had the status of minors.

Population decline

In 1520-1521, an outbreak of smallpox swept through the population of Tenochtitlan and was decisive in the fall of the city. It is estimated that between 10% and 50% of the population fell victim to this epidemic.

Subsequently, the Valley of Mexico was hit with two more epidemics, smallpox (1545-1548) and typhus (1576-1581). The Spaniards, trying to make more of the diminishing population, merged the survivors from small towns into the bigger ones. This broke the power of the upper classes and dissolved the coherence of the indigenous society. Collected in larger towns, the people were more susceptible to epidemics due to the higher population density.

The population before the time of the conquest is estimated at 15 million; by 1550, the estimated population was 4 million and by 1581 less than two million. Thus, the indigenous population of the Central Mexico Valley is estimated to have declined by more than 80% in the course of about 60 years.

The "New Spain" of the 17th century was a depopulated country and many Mesoamerican cultures were wiped out. Because of the fall of their social structure, the population had to resort to the Spanish to maintain some order. In order to have an adequate supply of labor, the Spaniards began to import black slaves; most of them eventually merged with the local population.

The Aztec Empire, on the eve of the Spanish Conquest.
The Aztec Empire, on the eve of the Spanish Conquest.


The Aztec Empire was an example of an empire that ruled by indirect means. Like most European empires, it was ethnically very diverse, but unlike most European empires, it was more a system of tribute than a single system of government. In the theoretical framework of imperial systems posited by Alexander J. Motyl the Aztec empire was an informal or hegemonic empire because it did not exert supreme authority over the conquered lands, it merely expected tributes to be paid. It was also a discontinuous empire because not all dominated territories were connected, for example the southern peripheral zones of Soconosco was not in direct contact with the centre. 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 interfere in local affairs as long as the tribute payments were made.

Although the Aztec 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 (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.

Tribute and trade

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 included the enemy Tarascan, 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.


The main contribution of the Aztec rule was a system of communications between the conquered cities. In Mesoamerica, without draft animals for transport (nor, as a result, wheeled vehicles), the roads were designed for travel on foot. Usually these roads were maintained through tribute, and travelers had places to rest and eat and even latrines to use at regular intervals, roughly every 10 or 15 km. Couriers (paynani) were constantly traveling along those ways, keeping the Aztecs informed of events, and helping to monitor the integrity of the roads. Due to the steady surveillance, even women could travel alone, a fact that amazed the Spaniards since that was not possible in Europe at that time.

After the conquest those roads were no longer subject to maintenance and were tragically lost to the test of time.

The emperor

The most important official of Tenochtitlan government is often referred to as the Aztec Emperor. The Nahuatl title, Huey Tlatoani (plural Huey Tlatoque), translates roughly as "Great Speaker" or "Revered Speaker". This office gradually took on more power with the rise of Tenochtitlan. By the time of Auitzotl, the title of Emperor had become a more appropriate analogy for this office, although as in the Holy Roman Empire, the title was not hereditary. The Emperor was still chosen by the elders --although they preferred to keep the title within one family, they also could remove it.

The title has some resemblance to the Roman Emperor's title during the Principate (Princeps Senatus, or "First Citizen of the Senate"): both titles started as a "speaker of the house", but later coalesced more power into an "Emperor" type of office.

It is doubted whether Hernán Cortés understood the nuances of this role and overestimated the influence of Moctezuma on his people, perhaps assuming he wielded power similar to Charles V, King of Spain.

Each day, the Huey Tlatoani met with the elders and the priest of the different precincts of the city (calpōlli) to discuss the government. Originally the elders had to sanction every decision of the Huey Tlàtoani . When Moctezuma assumed the office, he replaced the counsellors, priests and administrators with his former students, thereby gaining more independence than former Tlatoanis. Yet his orders still could be questioned by the elders.

Mythology and religion

The Coat of Arms of Mexico, from Aztec mythology
The Coat of Arms of Mexico, from Aztec mythology

The Mexica made reference to at least two manifestations of the supernatural: tēōtl and tēixiptla. Tēōtl, which the Spaniards and European scholars routinely mistranslated as "god" or "demon", referred rather to an impersonal force that permeated the world. Tēixiptla, by contrast, denoted the physical representations ("idols", statues and figurines) of the tēōtl as well as the human cultic activity surrounding this physical representation. The Mexica "gods" themselves had no existence as distinct entities apart from these tēixiptla representations of tēōtl (Boone 1989).

Veneration of Huitzilopochtli (literally, "hummingbird of the south"), the personification of the sun and of war, was central to the religious, social and political practices of the Mexicas. Huitzilopochtli attained this central position after the founding of Tenochtitlan and the formation of the Mexica city-state society in the 14th century. Prior to this, Huitzilopochtli was associated primarily with hunting, presumably one of the important subsistence activities of the itinerant bands that would eventually become the Mexica.

According to myth, Huitzilopochtli directed the wanderers to found a city on the site where they would see an eagle devouring a snake perched on a fruit-bearing nopal cactus. (It was said that Huitzilopochtli killed his nephew, Cópil, and threw his heart on the lake. Huitzilopochtli honoured Cópil by causing a cactus to grow over Cópil´s heart.) Legend has it that this is the site on which the Mexicas built their capital city of Tenochtitlan. This legendary vision is pictured on the Coat of Arms of Mexico.

According to their own history, when the Mexicas arrived in the Anahuac valley ( Valley of Mexico) around Lake Texcoco, they were considered by the groups living there as uncivilized. The Mexicas borrowed much of their culture from the ancient Toltec whom they seem to have at least partially confused with the more ancient civilization of Teotihuacan. To the Mexicas, the Toltecs were the originators of all culture; "Toltecayōtl" was a synonym for culture. Mexica legends identify the Toltecs and the cult of Quetzalcoatl with the mythical city of Tollan, which they also identified with the more ancient Teotihuacan.

Human sacrifice

Aztec human sacrifice, from Codex Magliabechiano
Aztec human sacrifice, from Codex Magliabechiano

For most people today, and for the European Christians who first met the Aztecs, human sacrifice was and is the most striking feature of Aztec civilization. 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 Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan in 1487, the Aztecs reported that they sacrificed 84,400 prisoners over the course of four days, reportedly by Ahuitzotl, the Great Speaker himself.

However, most experts consider these numbers to be vastly overstated. For example, the sheer logistics associated with sacrificing 84,000 victims would be overwhelming. A similar consensus has developed on reports of cannibalism among the Aztecs: although it is possible that instances of ritual cannibalism were a feature of Aztec culture, it is doubtful that the practice was widespread.

In the writings of Bernardino de Sahagún, Aztec "anonymous informants" defended the practice of human sacrifice by asserting that it was not very different from the European way of waging warfare: Europeans killed the warriors in battle, Aztecs killed the warriors after the battle.

Accounts by the Tlaxcaltecas, the primary enemy of the Aztecs at the time of the Spanish Conquest, show that at least some of them considered it an honour to be sacrificed. In one legend, the warrior Tlahuicole was freed by the Aztecs but eventually returned of his own volition to die in ritual sacrifice. Tlaxcala also practiced the human sacrifice of captured Aztec warriors.

In the period after the conquest, under the Mexican Inquisition "religious sacrifices" continued with the burnings at the stake of indigenous people who relapsed from the Christian religion.

Aztec society

Class structure

The highest class were the pilli or nobility. Originally this was not hereditary, although the sons of pillis had access to better resources and education, so it was easier for them to become pillis. Later the class system took on hereditary aspects.

The second class were the mācehualli, originally peasants. Eduardo Noguera 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.

Slaves or tlacotin also constituted an important class. Aztecs could become slaves because of debts, as a criminal punishment or as war captives. Slavery was not hereditary: a slave's children were free. A slave could have possessions and even own other slaves. Slaves could buy their liberty, and slaves could be set free if they were able to show they had been mistreated or if they had children with or were married to their masters. Typically, upon the death of the master, slaves who had performed outstanding services were freed. The rest of the slaves were passed on as part of an inheritance.

A painting from Codex Mendoza showing elder Aztecs being given intoxicants.
A painting from Codex Mendoza showing elder Aztecs being given intoxicants.

Traveling merchants called pochteca were a small, but important class as they not only facilitated commerce, but also communicated vital information across the empire and beyond its borders. They were often employed as spies.


The Aztec staple foods included maize, beans and squash to which were often added chilies and tomatoes, all prominent parts of the Mexican diet to this day. They harvested acocils, a small and abundant shrimp of Lake Texcoco, as well as spirulina algae, which was made into a sort of cake rich in flavonoids. Although the Aztec's diet was mostly vegetarian, the Aztecs consumed insects such as crickets (chapulines), maguey worm, ants, larvae, etc. Insects have a higher protein content than meat, and even now they are considered a delicacy in some parts of Mexico.

Aztecs also used maguey extensively; from it they obtained food, sugar (aguamiel–honey water), fibers for ropes and clothing, and drink ( pulque, a fermented beverage with an alcoholic content equivalent to beer). Getting drunk before the age of 60 however was forbidden. First offenses drew relatively light punishment but repeat offenses could be punished by death.

Cocoa beans were used as money and also to make xocolatl, a frothy and bitter beverage, lacking the sweetness of modern chocolate drinks. The Aztecs also kept beehives and harvested honey.

A study by Montellano shows a mean life expectancy of 37 (±3) years for the population of Mesoamerica. After the Spanish conquest, some foods were outlawed, particularly amaranth because of its central role in religious rituals. There was less diversity of food which led to chronic malnutrition in the general population.


As with all Mesoamerican cultures, the Aztecs played a variant of the Mesoamerican ballgame named tlachtli. The game was played with a ball of solid rubber, called an olli, whence derives the Spanish word for rubber, hule. The players hit the ball with their hips, knees, and elbows and had to pass the ball through a stone ring to automatically win.

The Aztecs also enjoyed board games, like patolli and totoloque. Bernal Diaz records that Cortés and Moctezuma II played totoloque together.


Representation of Aztec education.
Representation of Aztec education.

Until the age of fourteen, the education of children was in the hands of their parents, but supervised by the authorities of their calpōlli. Part of this education involved learning a collection of sayings, called huēhuetlàtolli ("sayings of the old"), that embodied the Aztecs' ideals. Judged by their language, most of the huēhuetlatolli seemed to have evolved over several centuries, predating the Aztecs and most likely adopted from other Nahua cultures.

At 15, all boys and girls went to school. The Mexica, one of the Aztec groups, were one of the first people in the world to have mandatory education for nearly all children, regardless of gender, rank, or station. There were two types of schools: the telpochcalli, for practical and military studies, and the calmecac, for advanced learning in writing, astronomy, statesmanship, theology, and other areas. The two institutions seem to be common to the Nahua people, leading some experts to suggest that they are older than the Aztec culture.

Aztec teachers (tlatimine) propounded a spartan regime of education with the purpose of forming a stoical people.

Girls were educated in the crafts of home and child raising. They were not taught to read or write. All women were taught to be involved in religion; there are paintings of women presiding over religious ceremonies, but there are no references to female priests.


This ornament features a turquoise mosaic on a carved wooden base, with red and white shells used for the mouths.  Probably worn across the chest, this ornament measures 20 cm by 43 cm (8 in by 17 in).  It was likely created by Mixtec artisans from an Aztec tributary state.  1400-1521, from the British Museum[1].
This ornament features a turquoise mosaic on a carved wooden base, with red and white shells used for the mouths. Probably worn across the chest, this ornament measures 20 cm by 43 cm (8 in by 17 in). It was likely created by Mixtec artisans from an Aztec tributary state. 1400-1521, from the British Museum .

Song and poetry were highly regarded; there were presentations and poetry contests at most of the Aztec festivals. Also there was a kind of dramatic presentation that included players, musicians and acrobats.

Poetry was the only occupation worthy of an Aztec warrior in times of peace. 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 Netzahualcoyotl, tlatoani of Texcoco, and Cuacuatzin, Lord of Tepechpan, but whether these attributions reflect actual authorship is a matter of discussion. Miguel León-Portilla, a well respected Aztec scholar of Mexico, has stated that it is in this poetry where we can find the real thought of the Aztecs, independent of "official" Aztec ideology.

It is also important to note that the Spanish classified many aspects of the Aztec/Nahuatl culture according to the lexicon and organizational categories with which they would distinguish in Europe. In the same way that the second letter of Cortez made a mention of "mesquitas", or in english, "mosques", when trying to convey his impression of aztec arquitecture, early colonists and missionaries divided the principal bodies of nahuatl literature as "poetry" and "prose". "Poetry" was in xochitl in cuicatl a dual term meaning "the flower and the song" and was divided into different genres. 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 (Garganigo et. al).

Turquoise mask. Mixtec-Aztec. 1400-1521.
Turquoise mask. Mixtec-Aztec. 1400-1521.

The most important collection of these poems is Romances de los señores de la Nueva España, collected (Tezcoco 1582), probably by Juan Bautista de Pomar. Bautista de Pomar was the great-grandson of Netzahualcoyotl. He spoke Nahuatl, but was raised a Christian and wrote in Latin characters. (See also: " Is It You?", a short poem attributed to Netzahualcoyotl, and " Lament on the Fall of Tenochtitlan", a short poem contained within the " Unos Anales Históricos de la Nación Mexicana" manuscript.)

The Aztec people also enjoyed a type of dramatic presentation, a kind of theatre. Some plays were comical with music and acrobats, others were staged dramas of their gods. After the conquest, the first Christian churches had open chapels reserved for these kinds of representations. Plays in Nahuatl, written by converted Indians, were an important instrument for the conversion to Christianity, and are still found today in the form of traditional pastorelas, which are played during Christmas to show the Adoration of Baby Jesus, and other Biblical passages.

Relationship to other Mesoamerican cultures

Aztecs admired Mixtec craftsmanship so much that they imported artisans to Tenochtitlan and requested work to be done in certain Mixtec styles. The Aztecs also admired the Mixtec codices, so some of them were made to order by Mixteca for the Aztecs. In the later days, high society Aztec women started to wear Mixtec clothing, specifically the quexquemetl. It was worn over their traditional "huipil", and much coveted by the women who could not afford such imported goods.

The situation was analogous in many ways to the Phoenician culture which imported and duplicated art from other cultures that they encountered. For this reason, archeologists often have trouble identifying which artifacts are genuinely Phoenician and which are imported or copied from other cultures.

Archaeologists usually do not have a problem differentiating between Mixtec and Aztec artifacts. However, some products were made by the Mixtec for "export" and that makes classification more problematic. In addition, the production of craft was an important part of the Mexica economy, and they also made pieces for "export".

City-building and architecture

Tenochtitlán, looking east.  From the mural painting at the National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City. Painted in 1930 by Dr. Atl.
Tenochtitlán, looking east. From the mural painting at the National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City. Painted in 1930 by Dr. Atl.

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 campans. The city was interlaced with canals which were useful for transportation.

Tenochtitlan was built according to a fixed plan and centered on the ritual precinct, where the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan rose 60 m 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.

Around the island, chinampa beds were used to grow foodstuffs as well as, over time, to increase the size of the island. Chinampas, misnamed "floating gardens", were long raised plant beds set upon the shallow lake bottom. They were a very efficient agricultural system and could provide up to seven crops a year. 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.

Anthropologist Eduardo Noguera estimates 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.


Most modern Mexicans are of mixed Spanish and indigenous ancestry, descendants of the Mexicas or of the many other indigenous peoples of the Aztec Empire and Mesoamerica.

Nahuatl is spoken by Mexican Indians (many of whom call their language "Mexicano"), mostly in mountainous areas in the states surrounding Mexico City. Moreover, Nahuatl survives among the entire Mexican population, comprising a significant part of the Mexican Spanish dialect, some of which has even come into American English (e.g. the word Coyote, who comes from the Nahuatl word 'Coyotl').

Mexico City was built on the ruins of Tenochtitlan, making it one of the oldest living cities of America. Many of its districts and natural landmarks retain their original Nahuatl names. Many other cities and towns in Central Mexico were also originally Mexica towns, also often retaining their original Nahuatl names, or combining them with Spanish.

Mexican cuisine continues to be based on and flavored by agricultural products contributed by the Mexicas/Aztecs and Mesoamerica, most of which retain some form of their original Nahuatl names. The cuisine has also become a popular part of the cuisine of the United States and other countries around the world, typically altered to suit various national tastes.

The modern Mexican flag bears the emblem of the Mexica's migration legend.

Mexico's premier religious icon, the Virgin of Guadalupe has certain similarities to the Mexica earth mother goddess Tonantzin.

For the 1986 FIFA World Cup Adidas designed the official match ball showing in its "triades" aztecs architect and mural designs and called "Azteca Mexico" .

Views of the Aztec culture

Laurette Séjourné, a French anthropologist, wrote about Aztec and Mesoamerican spirituality. Her depiction of the Aztecs as a spiritual people was so compelling that new religions have been formed based on her writings. Some parts of her work have been adopted by esoteric groups, searching for occult teachings of the pre-Columbian religions. Séjourné never endorsed any of these groups.

Miguel León-Portilla also idealizes the Aztec culture, especially in his early writings.

Writings by Sejourné and Portilla have been transformed by others such as Antonio Velazco into a religious movement. Antonio Velasco Piña has written three books, Tlacaelel, El Azteca entre los Aztecas, La mujer dormida debe dara a luz, and Regina. When mixed with the currents of Neopaganism, these books resulted in a new religious movement called "Mexicanista". This movement called for a return to the spirituality of the Aztecs. It is argued that, with this return, Mexico will become the next centre of power. This religious movement mixes Mesaomerican cults with Hindu esoterism. The Mexicanista movement reached the peak of its popularity in the 1990s.

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