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Directions: Use this reading to identify the following details: Agriculture, Trade, Social Class, Culture, and the
Demise of the Civilization. You should label the appropriate sections of reading with these labels.
15.2 The Aztec Empire
How did the Aztec Empire become so powerful with such speed?
The Earliest Days of Mexico
Who were the Aztec people?
The beginnings of the Aztec civilization occurred in the desert of modern-day Mexico. As you will read later,
eventually the Aztec civilization grew to become a great empire after King Itzcóatl took power in 1428 CE.
The origins of the Aztec people are uncertain. None of the earliest people of Latin America called themselves
the Aztec; this name appeared only later, after the Spanish conquest. According to Aztec legend, the Toltec
Empire started around 800 CE and spanned most of what is now Mexico and Central America. One group of
people ruled by the Toltecs was the Mexica. When the Toltec Empire collapsed, around 1150 CE, the Mexica
were forced out of their homeland, which they called Aztlán. The name Aztec developed in part from Aztlán,
the name of their homeland. Though part of Aztec legend, historians believe that these events are historically
The Mexica or Aztec had a reputation for savage warfare and therefore were unwelcome wherever they went.
As a result, they lived as nomads, looking for a permanent place to settle.
Another Aztec legend was the story of Copil and his uncle, the god Huitzilopochtli. Copil resented and
tormented the Aztec because they were Huitzilopochtli’s chosen people. Copil was also angry at Huitzilopochtli
because he believed the god had treated his mother unfairly. Copil planned to ambush Huitzilopochtli, but
before he could do so, Huitzilopochtli killed Copil. Huitzilopochtli cut out Copil’s heart and threw it into a lake.
Later, Huitzilopochtli told the Aztecs to settle where Copil’s heart could be found. They would know the place
when they saw an eagle perched on a cactus, eating a snake.
While the Aztec were roaming around the marshes surrounding Lake Texcoco, they saw the cactus and eagle
and stopped on the spot to build their empire. In 1325, they settled on an island in the southwestern portion of
Lake Texcoco. They named this place Tenochtitlán.
Today, the ruins of Tenochtitlán lie in Mexico City, the capital of modern-day Mexico. During the time of the
Aztec Empire, Tenochtitlán was a large city that had layers of defenses protecting it from any invading tribes. In
the end, however, these defenses would be overcome by the Spanish conquistadores, or conquerors.
The Aztec Build an Empire
How did the Aztec people become united?
Itzcóatl was the fourth leader of the Mexica, or Aztec, people. The Mexica called their leaders tlatoani, which
means emperor. Itzcóatl came to power in 1428 CE and created a powerful empire by joining with two
neighboring peoples to form the Triple Alliance. The three allies were the leaders of the cities of Tenochtitlán,
Texcoco, and Tlacopan. Rather than fight each other for supreme power over other local towns and peoples,
they agreed to share power. The three rulers worked together to defeat the powerful Tepanec Empire from
Atzcapotzalco in central Mexico, which had previously controlled the Aztec. During their empire, the Tepanec
had a large city located on the northern side of Lake Texcoco. Since Itzcóatl’s city of Tenochtitlán was on the
southern side, defeating the Tepanec meant that the two sides of the lake were united politically under one ruler.
The Aztec, or Mexica, gained large areas of land with the defeat of the Tepanec. This gave Itzcóatl much power
in the region, and the empire became centralized under his rule. Conquered peoples could choose to leave the
land in search of a new home, or they could pay tribute, a special tax paid to the Aztec emperor. This tribute
helped to increase the wealth and resources available to Itzcóatl. These resources helped him to continue the
conquests of new lands, which in turn brought further wealth and resources
Further Expansion
How did the Aztec Empire continue to expand under the rule of Itzcóatl?
The tributes collected from the conquered lands made Itzcóatl a powerful and wealthy man. As part of the
tribute, every six months, 800 large white mantas, or woven blankets, had to be delivered to Itzcóatl.
Additionally, every year, a tribute of two warrior costumes and shields, six bins of maize (corn), two bins of
beans, and four bins of herbs were also given to the emperor. Conquered regions also sent gold and enslaved
people, the latter to be used as labor or as human sacrifices, to the Aztec leader as tribute. While the Triple
Alliance divided material goods and resources taken during the conquests of new lands, only the Aztec were
given the tributes.
As the empire continued to expand and Itzcóatl’s power increased, he ordered that the existing history of the
Aztec be destroyed, because he believed it was inaccurate and contained lies. As a result, the empire was given
a shared history that was more closely related to the legends of the Aztec. This new history presented the Aztec
as a culture that had always been powerful and emphasized Itzcóatl’s importance.
Itzcóatl spent his reign expanding his empire beyond the Valley of Mexico and into the surrounding areas by
adopting the conquered tribes into his territory. Under his leadership the empire spread quickly. The leaders
following Itzcóatl took over additional territory, making the Aztec Empire the central block of Mexico and a
powerful entity.
Religion of the Aztec
What role did religion play in Aztec society?
Religion played a large role in the daily life of the Aztec people. The Aztec religion was a combination of many
beliefs and practices from other Mesoamerican cultures. The Aztec believed that the current world was one in a
series of four worlds, called suns, which had existed before it. They believed that each of these worlds had been
completely destroyed before the new world began.
Aztec religion was polytheistic, meaning the Aztec believed in many gods. Chief among these gods were
Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec god of war; Quetzalcóatl, the feathered serpent; and Tonatiuh, the sun god.
Considerable time and resources in the form of religious ceremonies were devoted to worshipping these gods.
These religious ceremonies were dictated by the Aztec calendar, which was the one used in much of
Mesoamerica, and was made up of separate calendars containing 365 days and 260 days.
Many of the religious ceremonies performed by Aztec priests were intended to please the gods in an attempt to
protect their civilization. For example, the Aztec believed that the sun god needed sacrifices of human hearts to
ensure that the sun rose each day. Some of the sacrificial victims were enslaved people, but most were prisoners
of war. Many of those chosen for sacrifice were believers in the religion and thought that they would go to the
gods. The important role that priests played in these ceremonies meant that they held a high position within the
rigid social structure of Aztec society.
Daily Life in the Empire
What was life like in the Aztec Empire?
As the Aztec expanded their empire and centralized control, a class system developed. As new lands were
conquered, control of that land was removed from the conquered people. Itzcóatl gave large areas of land to his
allies and friends. This class system greatly affected the daily lives of people in the empire. Classes were strictly
divided—and the upper and lower classes of society never mixed. As the empire grew with each new conquest,
the divide between the classes grew larger as emperor gave more lands to the nobles and wealthy members of
society. When the Spanish explorers arrived in the 1500s, they found that the lower classes of the Aztec society
were not even allowed to enter the palace.
All Aztec children, male and female, attended school in some form. However, school and the type of education
the children received were different for each social class and gender.
The education of males in Aztec society depended on their class. All boys received training as warriors. They
learned fighting techniques and strategy, history, and religion and important rituals, as well as the correct social
behaviors for their class. Children whose parents were skilled warriors or wealthy merchants were allowed to
join the upper class school. Members of the upper classes were trained to become temple priests or government
officials and were responsible for leading the next generation of Aztec people. As a result of this, they learned
the laws of the culture. Upper-class boys also learned writing, medicine, engineering, and religion, including
important songs and dances.
School for young women of all classes in Aztec society was different from that for young men. Young women
were educated for their roles in the home. They learned how to weave, sew, and cook. They also learned about
their religion and how to sing and dance.
Despite the increasing size and wealth of the empire, there was unrest within the Aztec civilization. The poor
classes did not like the restrictions placed on them by the emperor, such as the need to pay taxes and tribute to
members of the upper classes. There were also many tribes who were unhappy about being a part of the empire,
and as a result, there were often rebellions against the Aztec emperor. The tribes did not like having to pay
tribute, because it meant they had fewer resources for their own people. This restlessness in the empire paved
the way for the Spanish conquest of the region.
Montezuma and Cortés
How were the Spanish explorers initially received by the new emperor?
In the early 1500s CE, the Aztec Empire stretched from the Pacific Ocean to the coast of the Gulf of Mexico.
All of central Mexico was ruled from the capital city of Tenochtitlán.
Moctezuma Xocoyotl or Montezuma II, the king we know today as Montezuma, came to power in 1502. He
ruled over a vast empire. Over 15 million people in 38 provinces paid tribute to the new ruler in Tenochtitlán.
Montezuma would be the last emperor of the Aztec Empire. He followed his uncle to the throne after being
schooled in religion, science, and art. Like the leaders before him, Montezuma worked on expanding the Aztec
Empire. He also led improvements in Tenochtitlán, enlarging the palace and creating a zoo.
In 1519, Spanish soldiers led by the explorer and conqueror Hernán Cortés landed on the shores of
Montezuma’s empire. Montezuma sent messengers to Cortés with gifts. Some historians believe Montezuma
was convinced by the Spanish sailing ships and pale skin that the newcomers were gods. However, he also had
his messengers warn the Spanish to stay away from Tenochtitlán and asked the temple priests to use charms to
send them away. Montezuma was concerned that the men would endanger his throne.
As Cortés arrived in Tenochtitlán, Montezuma remained undecided on whether to treat the Spanish as enemies
or potential allies. In the end, Montezuma decided to welcome the Spanish and invited them into his palace.
This invitation set in motion events that would end in the conquest of the Aztec Empire by Spanish
conquistadores. Despite its eventual fall, the Aztec Empire had been a powerful force in the region. The Aztec
conquered and controlled large areas of the regions, established a lasting culture, and built advanced cities.
Their impact can still be felt in the region today.