Aztec: History, Civilization, Culture & Characteristics

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Aztec Civilization History, Definition & Summary

Aztec: Civilization that developed between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries in the Valley of Mexico.

Data
Date 1321 – 1521
Location Center of the Valley of Mexico
Religion Polytheists
Economy Trade, agriculture and artisan production

Who were the Aztecs?

The Aztecs or Mexica were a Nahua people who, between 1325 and 1521, formed an expansionist civilization in the Valley of Mexico. Its development corresponds to the late Postclassic period according to the traditional periodization of Mesoamerica.

The Aztec civilization ended because of the conquest of America when its capital, the city of Tenochtitlán, fell into the hands of the Spanish conqueror Hernán Cortés, on August 12, 1521.

Location of the Aztec Culture

The Aztecs settled in the center of the Valley of Mexico. From there they expanded towards the Mexican highlands and south through conquest and alliances until they covered a territory of about 300,000 km² and a population of almost 7 million inhabitants.

Aztec: History, Civilization, Culture & Characteristics

Location of the Aztecs in Mesoamerica.

Characteristics of the Aztecs

The main characteristics of the Aztecs are the following:

  • The Mexica or Aztecs were a Nahua people from northern Mexico who settled on the islands of Lake Texcoco, in the Valley of Mexico, around 1325. According to their traditions, they sought the place where, according to the prophecy of the god Huitzilopochtli, they would become lords of other peoples.
  • Once installed, they related to the Toltec nobility and adopted the cult of Quetzalcoatl.
  • Between 1325 and 1426, they were tributaries of another town in the region, the Tepanecas. In 1426 a war between Mexica and Tepaneca began that ended in 1430 with the total triumph of the Aztecs. This meant the independence of the Mexica lordship and the beginning of its expansionist policy. From that moment on, the foundations of Aztec society were established.
  • It was a militarized state that subdued the peoples of the region, encompassing a vast territory.
  • The main activity of the Aztec elite was to consolidate and extend the empire. That was the meaning of the numerous works they carried out: temple complexes to ensure the favor of the gods, roads for trade and the circulation of tributes, etc.
    • By occupying a lake area in the capital, they had to carry out hydraulic infrastructure works: they built dams, water diversions and canals.
    • To farm on the lake, they built artificial islands called chinampas.
  • The capital was the city of Tenochtitlán. In the center there was a ceremonial complex measuring 300 meters on each side, made up of a sunken courtyard, the pyramidal temples of Quetzalcóatl, Huitzilopochtli and Tláloc and a ball court. In addition, there were other minor temples for the secondary gods. It was surrounded by a wall that was accessed by three streets:
    • Outside the wall the palaces of the nobles were located.
    • The city’s water was supplied through aqueducts and canals from springs outside the city.

Aztec Religion

The Aztec religion was polytheistic. They worshiped certain main gods and also deified natural phenomena, the Sun, the moon, and corn, among others.

They made numerous human sacrifices, the offering of blood to the gods was a way to reestablish divine energy.

Aztec Gods

The main gods worshiped by the Aztecs were:

Name Function
Quetzalcoatl Main God
Tlaloc God of rain
Huitzilopochtli God of war and the sun
Tezcatlipoca Lord of night sky and destruction
Huehueteotl Old God of cold and fire. He was the one who gave and took away the cold
Xipe Totec The flayed god. It was related to the agricultural cycles and spring
Tlazolteotl Goddess of lust
Tonantzin or Coatlicue Mother goddess, goddess of life and death
Mictlancihuatl Goddess of the dead who inhabited the underworld

Sculpture of the goddess Coatlicue

Sculpture of the goddess Coatlicue. National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City.

Economy of Aztec Culture

Aztec economy was based on agriculture , the trade and the perception of tribute from the conquered peoples:

  • Agriculture in the lakes was carried out with the technique of chinampas, artificial islands filled with fertile soil.
  • The trade was a very important activity. The cities had extensive markets where products from distant regions were exchanged with each other. In some cases, cocoa beans, gold and small blankets called cuachtli were used as currency.
    • The merchants, pochtecas in Nahuatl, were a powerful group that came to organize themselves into a kind of guild with their own authorities. They could manage credits and they managed the markets.
  • Another important source of resources was tribute. Thanks to these obligations of the subject peoples, the Aztecs obtained prisoners for human sacrifices, manufactured products (ceramics, textiles, metal objects, etc.), agricultural products (corn, beans, pumpkin, etc.) and exotic products such as colored feathers, skins and minerals.

Representation of the cultivation of the Aztec culture

Representation of the construction process of a chinampa.

Political and Social Organization of the Aztecs

Political Organization of the Aztec

During the period of maximum power of the Aztec dominion, the political structure was as follows.

  • The huey tlatoani: he was the highest political, military and religious authority. He was considered a representative of the divinity. It was not a hereditary position but an elective one.
  • The cihuacóatl: he was the second, advisor and companion of the huey tlatoani. He replaced him during his absences.
  • The high dignitaries of different areas: priestly, military, justice, etc. All of them participated in the tlatocán, a supreme council presided over by the huey tlatoani or by the cihuacóatl.
  • The tlatoque: they were the rulers of the different cities sent from Tenochtitlán. In some cases, rulers of conquered cities were allowed to remain in office if they swore obedience to Aztec authority.
  • The calpulli: they had their own political and religious authorities but both responded to the higher authorities.

Social Organization of the Aztec

Aztec society was structured into three large groups:

  • The Pipiltin: they were the nobles. This group included the priests and the ruling class. In turn, the Pipiltin had different categories, the Tlazo-Pipiltin were descendants of the old nobility and rulers were chosen from among them. At a lower level were those who had acceded to this group for having stood out in some aspect:
    • They were the privileged group, they did not pay tribute, they owned the land, they had the right to wear certain clothes and consume certain foods and beverages, and they were also tried by special courts. But they had a great sense of responsibility with the obligations of their position.
    • The young nobles were educated in the calmécac where they learned ancient knowledge and prepared to be rulers. They also learned astronomy, laws, the calendar, etc.
  • The Macehualtin: it was the population that did not belong to the nobility. They were organized into calpullis, groups related by a common ancestor to their members:
    • In the cities, the macehualtin engaged in artisanal, artistic or commercial activities. Each calpulli had two chiefs who had to ensure the subsistence of their community, as well as the fulfillment of obligations to the State.
    • In rural areas, they were farmers.
    • The obligations of the macehualtin were: to obey both the calpulli and superior authorities; perform the personal services that the State demands (serve in the army, construction of public works) and pay taxes.
  • The Tlatlacotin: It was a category similar to slavery, but with some different characteristics. A macehualtin could be temporarily sold as a slave to pay debts, for example.

Aztec Culture Customs

This culture is characterized by being quite rigorous. Women were considered less than men, they had to obey and dedicate themselves to the home.

Men were in charge of honoring their gods and serving in their temples. They were to receive military education, participate in combat, and educate their older children to fight as well.

Its architecture should always enhance art and religion. On the other hand, they wanted to act through the values ​​of respect, honor and education so that everything went well.


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