The Aztec Empire: Society, Politics, Religion, and Agriculture

(See Main Article: The Aztec Empire: Society, Politics, Religion, and Agriculture)

The Aztec Empire was the last of the great Mesoamerican cultures. Between A.D. 1345 and 1521, the Aztecs forged an empire over much of the central Mexican highlands.


At its height, the Aztecs ruled over 80,000 square miles throughout central Mexico, from the Gulf Coast to the Pacific Ocean, and south to what is now Guatemala. Millions of people in 38 provinces paid tribute to the Aztec ruler, Montezuma II, prior to the Spanish Conquest in 1521.

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Aztec Empire Overview

The Aztecs didn’t start out as a powerful people. The Nahuatl speaking peoples began as poor hunter-gatherers in northern Mexico, in a place known to them as Aztlan. Sometime around A.D. 1111, they left Aztlan, told by their war god Huitzilopochtli that they would have to find a new home. The god would send them a sign when they reached their new homeland.

Scholars believe the Aztecs wandered for generations, heading ever southward. Backward and poor, other more settled people didn’t want the Aztecs to settle near them and drove them on. Finally, around A.D. 1325, they saw the god’s sign—the eagle perched on a cactus eating a serpent on an island in Lake Texcoco, or so the legend has it. The city established by the Aztecs, Tenochtitlan, grew to become the capital of their empire.

Fortunately, the site was a strong, strategic area with good sources of food and clean water. The Aztecs began to build the canals and dikes necessary for their form of agriculture and to control water levels. They build causeways linking the island to the shore. Because of the island location, commerce with other cities around the lakes was easily be carried out via canoes and boats.

Through marriage alliances with ruling families in other city states, the Aztecs began to build their political base. They became fierce warriors and skillful diplomats. Throughout the late 1300s and early 1400s, the Aztecs began to grow in political power. In 1428, the Aztec ruler Itzcoatl formed alliances with the nearby cities of Tlacopan and Texcoco, creating the Triple Alliance that ruled until the coming of the Spanish in 1519.

The last half of the 15th century saw the Aztec Triple Alliance dominating the surrounding areas, reaping a rich bounty in tribute. Eventually, the Aztecs controlled much of central and southern Mexico. Thirty-eight provinces sent tribute regularly in the form of rich textiles, warrior costumes, cacao beans, maize, cotton, honey, salt and slaves for human sacrifice. Gems, gold and jewelry came to Tenochtitlan as tribute for the emperor. Wars for tribute and captives became a way of life as the empire grew in power and strength. While the Aztecs successfully conquered many, some city states resisted. Tlaxcalla, Cholula and Huexotzinco all refused Aztec dominance and were never fully conquered.

The Aztec Empire was powerful, wealthy and rich in culture, architecture and the arts. The Spanish entered the scene in 1519 when Hernan Cortes landed an exploratory vessel on the coast. Cortes was first welcomed by Montezuma II, but Cortes soon took the emperor and his advisors hostage. Though the Aztecs managed to throw the conquistadors out of Tenochtitlan, the Spanish regrouped and made alliances with the Aztec’s greatest enemy, the Tlaxcalans. They returned in 1521 and conquered Tenochtitlan, razing the city to the ground and destroying the Aztec empire in the process.

Governance of the Aztec Empire

The Aztec Empire had a hierarchical government with power and responsibility running from the top down. The empire’s rule was indirect over its provinces. That is, as long as the province or territory paid the tribute it owed the empire in full and on time, the empire left the local leaders alone.

The foundation of the empire’s hierarchical structure was the family. A group of interrelated families then formed a calpulli, a sort of neighborhood or guild. The calpullis organized local schools and shrines and took care of the group as a whole. Each calpulli elected a headman to oversee the calpulli’s responsibilities. Most Aztec cities contained many calpulli.

The headman of each calpulli was a member of the city council. The city councils had a good deal of power; they made sure the city ran smoothly. Each council had an executive council of four members. These four members were nobles and usually a member of a military society.

One of the four executive council members would be elected the leader of the city, the tlatcani, who oversaw not only the city but the surrounding countryside as well. These city councils and leaders formed the provincial network of the empire.

At the center of the empire were the main Aztec altepetls, or city states, of Texcoco, Tlacopan and Tenochtitlan. Of the three, Tenochtitlan gradually muscled its way to dominate over the others.

The pinnacle of power centered in the Huey Tlatoani, the Reverend Speaker or emperor. The emperor had absolute power and was worshipped as a god. By the emperor’s side was his Snake Woman or Cihuacoatl, who functioned as a grand vizier or prime minister. Although Snake Woman was the title of this position, it was always held by a man, usually the emperor’s brother or cousin. While the Huey Tlatoani dealt with issues of diplomacy, tribute, war and expansion of the empire, the Snake Woman’s responsibility was Tenochtitlan itself.

Directly under the emperor were his advisors, the Council of Four. These advisors were generals from the military societies. If something were to happen to the emperor, one of these four men would be the next Huey Tlatoani. The council advised the emperor in his decisions.

The empire required a host of other government offices, which were filled by a city’s noble families. Each city had a court system with Special Courts, Appellate Courts and a Supreme Court. The city’s merchant class, the pochteca, had their own court to consider matters of trade.

Managing the constant incoming tribute goods from far-flung provinces required another power structure, both central and provincial. Government officials also oversaw the markets, from the central markets of the cities to the smaller markets of town and country.

All of the priesthood and government officials reported to the emperor and his Council of Four. All supported the emperor. Although the Aztec Empire’s grip on its provinces was light, the tribute flowed into the central coffers.


Weapons of the Aztec Empire

As Aztec warriors showed their courage and craftiness in battle and skill at capturing enemy soldiers for sacrifice, they gained in military rank. The Aztec emperors honored the higher ranks with weapons and distinctive garb that reflected their status in the military.

Aztecs warriors carried projectile weapons such as bow and arrows to attack the enemy from afar. They also carried weapons for the melee when armies came together. The lowest ranks of warriors carried a club and shield. Higher ranks were awarded finer weapons. Each rank in the army wore special clothing that denoted the honors they had won.

Projectile Weapons of Aztec Warriors


The atlatl was a spear thrower, which produced greater force from a greater distance. Only the highest ranks were allowed these weapons as they were in the front lines of the battle. Each warrior carrying the atlatl also carried many tlacochtli, 5.9 foot long spears tipped with obsidian.

War Bow and Arrows

The tlahhuitolli was a five foot long war bow strung with animal sinew. Warriors carried their arrows, barbed with obsidian, flint or chert and fletched with turkey feathers in a micomitl or quiver. Quivers could hold about 20 arrows.


Aztec warriors and hunters carried slings made of maguey cactus fiber. The warriors collected rocks as they marched. They also made clay balls spiked with obsidian and full of obsidian flakes. Even well armored enemies could be wounded by these.


Blowguns and poisoned darts were more often used in hunting, but Aztec warriors trained in ambush would bring along their tlacalhuazcuahuitl and darts tipped with poisonous tree frog secretions.

Melee Weapons


Aztec warriors carried different types of clubs. The macuahuitl club was edged with obsidian blades. While the obsidian shattered easily, it was razor sharp. A macuahuitl could easily decapitate a man. A macuauitzoctli was a long club made of hardwood with a knob on each side. A huitzauhqui was a baseball bat type club, although some of these were studded with obsidian or flint. A cuahuitl was a club shaped like a baton, made of oak. A cuauololli was basically a mace, a club topped with a rock or copper sphere.

Tepoztopilli were spears with obsidian points.

Itztopilli were axes shaped like a tomahawk with a head of either copper or stone. One edge was sharpened, the other blunt.

Tecaptl were daggers with handles seven to nine inches long. They had a double sided blade made of flint. Aztec warriors drew their tecaptl for hand-to-hand combat.


Aztec warriors carried round shield made of wood that was either plain or decorated with their military insignia called a chimalli. The higher rank warriors had special chimalli with a mosaic of feathers denoting their society or rank.

Basic Aztec armor was quilted cotton of two to three thicknesses. The cotton was soaked in salt brine then hung to dry. The salt crystallized in the material, which gave it the ability to resist obsidian blades and spears. An extra layer of armor, a tunic, was worn by noble Aztec warriors. Warrior societies also wore a helmet made of hardwood, carved to represent their society or different animals like birds or coyotes.

Tlahuiztli were special suits awarded to various ranks of the military. Each rank wore different colored and decorated tlahuiztli to make them easily distinguished on the battlefield. Each rank also wore pamitl or military emblems.

Warriors of the Aztec Empire

The Aztec warrior was highly honored in society if he was successful. Success depended on bravery in battle, tactical skill, heroic deeds and most of all, in capturing enemy warriors. Since every boy and man received military training, all were called for battle when war was in the offing. Both commoners and nobles who captured enemy warriors moved up in military rank or became members of military orders. Many nobles joined the army professionally and functioned as the command core of the army.

While the Aztec economy depended on trade, tribute and agriculture, the real business of the empire was war. Through war, the Aztec Empire gained tribute from conquered enemies. People captured during war became slaves or sacrifices in the Aztec’s religious ceremonies. Expanding the empire through further conquests strengthened the empire and brought more riches in tribute. For this reason, the emperor rewarded successful warriors of both classes with honors, the right to wear certain garments in distinctive colors, nobility for the commoners and higher status for nobles and land. Every Aztec warrior could, if he captured enemy warriors, advance far in society.

Aztec Warrior Societies

Rank in the military required bravery and skill on the battlefield and capture of enemy soldiers. With each rank, came special clothing and weapons from the emperor, which conveyed high honor. Warrior clothing, costumes and weaponry was instantly recognizable in Aztec society.

  • Tlamani: One captive warriors. Received an undecorated obsidian-edged club and shield, two distinctive capes and a bright red loincloth.
  • Cuextecatl: Two captive warriors. This rank enabled the warrior to wear the distinguishing black and red suit called a tlahuiztli, sandals and a conical hat.
  • Papalotl: Three captive warriors. Papalotl (butterfly) were awarded with a butterfly banner to wear on his back, conferring special honor.
  • Cuauhocelotl: Four or more captive warriors. These Aztec warriors reached the high rank of Eagle and Jaguar knights.

Eagle and Jaguar Knights

Eagle and Jaguar warriors were the two main military societies, the highest rank open to commoners. In battle they carried atlatls, bows, spears and daggers. They received special battle costumes, representing eagles and jaguars with feathers and jaguar pelts. They became full-time warriors and commanders in the army. Great physical strength, battlefield bravery and captured enemy soldiers were necessary to obtain this rank.

Commoners who reached the vaunted Eagle or Jaguar rank were awarded the rank of noble along with certain privileges: they were given land, could drink alcohol (pulque), wear expensive jewelry denied to commoners, were asked to dine at the palace and could keep concubines. They also wore their hair tied with a red cord with green and blue feathers. Eagle and jaguar knights traveled with the pochteca, protecting them, and guarded their city. While these two ranks were equal, the Eagle knights worshipped Huitzilopochtli, the war god and the Jaguars worshipped Tezcatlipocha.

Otomies and the Shorn Ones

The two highest military societies were the Otomies and the Shorn Ones. Otomies took their name from fierce tribe of fighters. The Shorn Ones was the most prestigious rank. They shaved their heads except for a long braid of hair on the left side and wore yellow tlahuiztli. These two ranks were the shock troops of the empire, the special forces of the Aztec army, and were open only to the nobility. These warriors were greatly feared and went first into battle.

Religion of the Aztec Empire

While many other Aztec art works were destroyed, either by the Spanish or by the degradations of time, Aztec stone carvings remain to give us a glimpse into the worldview of this supreme Mesoamerican culture. These masterpieces were discovered in Mexico City in the buried ruins of the former Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan and its grand pyramid, Templo Mayor.

Statue of Coatlicue

Coatlicue was the Aztec’s earth mother goddess, although a fearsome one. Goddess of the earth, childbirth, fertility and agriculture, she represented the feminine power of both creation and destruction. A massive stone statue of Coatlicue was discovered in Mexico City in 1790. Almost 12 feet tall and 5 feet broad, the statue shows the goddess as much a goddess of death as of birth. With two facing serpents as her head, claws on her hands and feet, a skirt of serpents and a necklace of skulls, hands and hearts, she reveals the Aztec’s terrifying view of their gods.

The myth of Coatlicue tells of the birth of Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec god of war and the sun. The myth of Coatlicue tells of a priestess sweeping the sacred temple on Mount Coatepec when she was impregnated by a ball of feathers. Her son Huitzilopochtli is born full grown when Coatlicue is attacked by her daughter, the moon goddess. The newborn warrior kills his sister and cuts her into pieces, symbolizing the victory of the sun over the moon. The statue was so horrifying that each time it was dug up, it was reburied. The statue now resides at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.

Stone of Tizoc

The Stone of Tizoc is a carved disk showing the victory of the emperor Tizoc over the Matlatzinca tribe. The emperor had it carved to celebrate his victory and reveal the martial power of the Aztecs. The large, circular disk has an eight-pointed sun carved on the top, which was used for sacrificial battles. A warrior captured in battle was tied to the stone, and armed with a feather lined club. Aztec warriors, armed with obsidian lined clubs, fought the tied warrior and naturally defeated him. The side of the eight-foot diameter disk depicts Tizoc’s victory. The Matlatzincas are shown as despised barbarians, while Tizoc and his warriors are represented as noble Toltec warriors. The Stone of Tizoc artfully mixes sun worship, mythology and Aztec power. Today this masterful carved stone is at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.

Sun Stone

Another massive stone disk, the carvings on the Sun Stone, also known as the Calendar Stone, show the four consecutive worlds of the Aztecs, each one created by the gods only to end in destruction. This basalt stone, 12 feet in diameter and three feet thick, was discovered near the cathedral in Mexico City in the 18th century. At the center is the sun god Tonatiuh. Around Tonatiuh are the four other suns which met destruction as the gods Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca fought for control. After the destruction of a sun and the epoch it represents, the gods had to recreate the world and humans until finally the fifth sun held. At either side of the center, jaguar heads and paws hold hearts, representing earth. Fire serpents are at the bottom of the stone, as their bodies snake around the edge. The Sun Stone carving is probably the most recognized artwork of the Aztec world.

Aztec System of Writing: Pictograms

(See Main Article: Aztec System of Writing: Pictograms)

Part of the first page of Codex Mendoza, depicting the founding of Tenochtitlan

Codex painter was an honored and necessary profession in the Aztec world. They were highly trained in the calmecacs, the advanced schools of the noble class. Some calmecacs invited commoner children to train as scribes if they were highly talented, but most scribes were nobles. After the Spanish conquest, codex painters worked with the priests recording the details of Aztec life. These codices are the richest source of information we have about the Aztecs.

The Aztec Empire, as with many empires, required a great deal of paperwork: keeping track of taxes and tribute paid, recording the events of the year both great and small, genealogies of the ruling class, divinations and prophecies, temple business, lawsuits and court proceedings and property lists with maps, ownership, borders, rivers and fields noted. Merchants needed scribes to keep accounts of all their trades and profits. All of this official work required the scribes of the Aztecs—the codex painters.

The Aztecs didn’t have a writing system as we know it, instead they used pictograms, little pictures that convey meaning to the reader. Pictography combines pictograms and ideograms—graphic symbols or pictures that represent an idea, much like cuneiform or hieroglyphic or Japanese or Chinese characters.

To understand pictography, one must either understand the cultural conventions or the graphic symbol must resemble a physical object. For instance, the idea of death in Aztec pictography was conveyed by a drawing of a corpse wrapped in a bundle for burial; night was conveyed by a black sky and a closed eye, and the idea of walking by a footprint trail.

The codices were made of Aztec paper, deer skin or maguey cloth. Strips of these materials up to 13 yards by 7 inches high were cut, and the ends pasted onto thin pieces of wood as the cover. The strip was folded like a concertina or a map. Writing in the form of pictograms covered both sides of the strip.

Only 15 pre-Columbian Mesoamerican codices survive today—none of them Aztec, but from other cultures of about the same time. However, hundreds of colonial-era codices survive—those that carry the art of the tlacuilo (codex painters) but with Nahuatl and Spanish written commentary or description.

The Aztec number system was vigesimal or based on twenty. Numbers up to twenty were represented by dots. A flag represented twenty, which could be repeated as often as needed. One hundred, for instance, was five flags. Four hundred was depicted by the symbol of a feather or fir tree. The next number was eight thousand, shown as a bag of copal incense. With these simple symbols, the Aztecs counted all their tribute and trade. For example, one tribute page might show 15 dots and a feather, followed by a pictogram of a shield, which meant that the province sent 415 shields to the emperor.

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