The Aztec Empire

Categories: AztecMexico

The Aztec Indians originated from a place called Aztlan, somewhere in north or northwest Mexico. At that time the Aztecs were a small, nomadic tribe living in the border territory on the margins of civilized Mesoamerica.  In the 13th century they settled in the valley of central Mexico. The Aztecs finally found refuge on a small island in Lake Texcoco, where about 1345, they founded the town of Tenochtitlan. The island was found through a prophecy which said they would settle where they found an eagle perched on a cactus.

During the next century the Aztecs grew to be greatest power in Mexico. As they grew in political status they became sophisticated and civilized, learning from established peoples who had been town dwellers for more than 1,000 years. (Ekholm, Gordon F.) The Aztec empire consisted of numerous, loosely connected urban communities. Land ownership was communal. Each local group was composed of a few families that jointly owned a piece of land. Part of the yield of cultivated land was given to the state as a kind of tax.

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Technology depended more on human skills than on mechanical devices. Iron and steel were unknown, although copper and bronze were used for tools and Mexican jewelers made ornaments from gold, silver, and their alloys. Wheat, barley, cattle, horses, sheep, and goats were unknown until introduced from Europe and the Mexicans were efficient farmers who made full use of irrigation, terracing, and fertilization of the fields. Aztec Mexico was rich and civilized. The state controlled every aspect of life.

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Schooling and training in the martial arts were compulsory for all boys, while the girls were trained in gathering, cooking, and the sewing arts. A centralized bureaucracy looked after the collection and storage of taxes, matters of legislation and punishment. (Peterson, Frederick) Life for the Aztec’s was good. Because of the complexity of their government all were happy.

Then in 1519 Spanish conquistador, Hernan Cortes, met the Aztec leader Montezuma in Tenochtitlan. Montezuma believed that the Spaniards had come in peace, but he is proven wrong in 1521 when the Spanish, lead by Cortes, violently conquered the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. The purpose of this report is to answer the question “Did the Expansion of the Aztec Empire Lead to Their Downfall ?” I feel that it most likely did. This is because when the Aztec’s were conquered they were the most powerful civilization in the New World. The Spaniards saw them as “the ones to beat” to gain supreme power in the Americas. To understand why the Spaniards wanted to conquer the Aztec Empire you have to be well aware of the power which they possessed in the Americas.

The Aztec power did not come quickly. They started off as a poor, nomadic tribe and grew in power over time. First they conquered the Huastecs, a small tribe of people to the north. Then the Mixtecs and Zapotecs to the south were conquered. The subjugating of these two tribes holds great significance because they were both powerful tribes at the time. The Mixtecs excelled in the arts including stonework, metalwork, and wood carving. It is believed that theses people were of great influence to the Aztecs in this way. The Zapotecs were also powerful people yet had no traditions or migration legends, but believed themselves born directly from rocks, trees, and jaguars. (Brandenburg, Frank R.)

The Aztecs conquered these people but did not destroy them. They remained autonomous until joining the Aztecs to better their chances when fending off the Spaniards. After these two great conquests the Aztecs power grew rapidly and they continued to conquer all the surrounding tribes including the Otomis, Totonacs, Tarascans and Tlaxcalans. The defeated tribes retained their own government though they often had to accept Aztec garrisons and give lands to Aztec nobles. All the conquered tribes were required to provide sacrificial victims for the glory of Huizilopochtil, and to pay tribute in curious birds and animals, turquoises, gold and other precious metals, all of which were used for pleasure among the Aztec nobles and adornment of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital.

Tenochtitlan had been gradually expanding off the island by the invention of floating gardens and by driving piles into the shallow waters of the lake. Two stone aqueducts provided the city drinking water from a nearby spring. Three concrete causeways thirty feet broad connected it with the main land, while to the east of the islands a dike seven miles long had been built across Lake Texcoco, cutting the lake in two and preventing Tenochtitlan from being flooded by any sudden rise in water level. (Soustelle, Jacques) On the southern side of the city was a broad embankment, lit at night by torches, to which came the peasants of the surrounding towns bringing their tribute of maize and fruits and flowers.

The Aztec nobles lived in houses of red or white stone which were built around open patios. In Tlateloco, the northern part of the city, was a great marketplace with a paved floor, where the Aztec merchants displayed products from the other peoples of Mexico. Here were honey and vanilla, rubber and cochineal, pottery and textiles, slaves and animals, and carved jewels made of gold and jade from the country of the Zapotecs. The ruler of Tenochtitlan and the Aztec Empire was Montezuma. Montezuma occupied the throne when the Spaniards under Hernan Cortes landed (1519) in Mexico.

Under a commission of the Cuban governor, Diego de Velazquez, Cortes sailed from Cuba in 1519 to conquer the Aztec empire. He founded the city of Vera Cruz, burned his ships to prevent his forces from turning back, and enlisted the help of the defeated Tlaxcalans. Velazquez tried to recall Cortes, who defeated a force sent to retrieve him. (Gibson, Charles) Unlike previous Aztec rulers, who were great warriors, Montezuma was a weak and indecisive man, more interested in sorcery and philosophy than in war. (Leon-Portilla, Miguel) He was at first unsure whether the Spaniards were gods or men, and when a study of omens and prophecies convinced him that they were gods he concluded that he was doomed. Coincidentally, Cortes landed in Mexico on the day of Quetzalcoatl birth according to the Aztec calendar. This lead Montezuma to believe that Cortes was Quetzalcoatl, the sun god or god of good and light. Instead of fighting the Europeans he tried to deter them by trickery, magic, and offering gifts.

When that failed, Montezuma allowed Cortes to enter Tenochtitlan without a battle and received him in his court. Montezuma was taken prisoner without resistance, but the brutal conduct of the invaders aroused the anger of the Tenochtitlan inhabitants. The Aztecs managed to drive the foreigners out for a short while, but during the ensuing battle Montezuma died under mysterious circumstances. He was killed either by the Spaniards or by his own people. In conclusion I believe that the expansion of the Aztec empire did in fact lead to their downfall. This is because when the Spaniards went to Mexico they saw the Aztec empire as the supreme governing body. The Aztecs were the most advanced, civilized and powerful people in Mexico.

They were also the richest of any other tribe. This was because all the other tribes were governed by the Aztecs so all of the wealth of Mexico was in Tenochtitlan. Another attribute which encouraged the Europeans to conquer Mexico was the Aztecs leader Montezuma. Montezuma saw Cortes and his army as an army of gods so he backed down and surrendered without a fight. This upset the people so much that they lost faith in the government and anarchy was created. The Aztecs had no plan of attack because their supreme ruler, Montezuma, was imprisoned by the Spaniards. Overall I would have to say that because of the size of the Aztec empire and the weakness of their government they were conquered by Hernan Cortes and his power-monger conquistadors.

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The Aztec Empire. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from

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