The Last Great Civilization of Mesoamerica

The Aztecs were an extraordinary civilization with a rich culture and impressive achievements. Originating in what is now the American Southwest, they eventually migrated south to Mexico and established their capital city, Tenochtitlan. This city was an engineering marvel, built on an island in the middle of a lake and connected to the mainland by a series of causeways. At its height, the Aztec empire had a population of 15 million people living in 500 different states. Their society was complex and hierarchical, with a powerful ruler at the top and a well-organized system of agriculture, trade, and tribute-collecting supporting the empire.

The Aztec Empire in 1519 within Mesoamerica

The Aztec Empire in 1519 within Mesoamerica

In the early to mid-1400s, three influential city-states in central Mexico formed the renowned Triple Alliance. These cities were Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan, and their dominance extended throughout central Mexico. However, it was Tenochtitlan that rose to become the dominant power in the whole empire.

The city leaders of Tenochtitlan played a crucial role in governing the Aztec empire. The city council functioned much like the Roman Senate and wielded significant political power. At the head of the council was the Huey Tlatoani, or the Great Speaker, who held the title of emperor and was considered a divine being by the Aztec people.

Tenochtitlan and Lake Texcoco in 1519. National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City.

Tenochtitlan and Lake Texcoco in 1519. National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City.

The Aztecs’ way of life was intricately linked to their social hierarchy, which consisted of four distinct classes: the nobles, who were the highest in power; the commoners, who were ordinary people and mostly farmers; serfs, who worked the land for the nobles; and slaves, who were captured.

Despite living in arid regions with limited water sources, the Aztecs were highly skilled farmers who relied on corn, supplemented with other crops, fishing, and hunting. As polytheists, the Aztecs worshiped many gods and practiced human sacrifice to win their favor, especially for rain, plentiful harvests, and success in war.

Like many Mesoamerican cultures, they used two calendars simultaneously—a ritual calendar with 260 days and a solar calendar with 365 days. Each day had a unique name and number in both calendars, and the combination of the two dates created a cycle that lasted 52 years. At the end of this cycle, the two calendars would align, and a new cycle would begin.

The Aztec Sun Stone (also known as the Aztec Calendar Stone). National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City.

The Aztec Sun Stone (also known as the Aztec Calendar Stone). National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City.

The Aztec economy operated mainly on a barter system, with cacao beans as a currency for smaller transactions. For instance, a small rabbit was worth 30 beans, a turkey egg cost three beans, and a tamale was worth one bean. For more significant purchases were used standardized lengths of cotton cloth known as quachtli. The value of quachtli varied based on the grade, ranging from 65 to 300 cacao beans. An average commoner in Tenochtitlan could sustain themselves for a year with about 20 quachtli.

The Aztecs highly valued education, and all children, regardless of their social status, were required to attend school. The empire had two separate schools, one for the nobles and another for the lower classes. If a commoner showed exceptional talent, they might be selected to attend the noble school for advanced learning. However, before starting school, children would learn from their parents at home from the age of four or five. Boys would learn from their fathers how to trade, craft, farm, hunt, and fish, while girls learned from their mothers how to manage a household. This early home education was crucial for their future learning in formal schools.

Diorama model of the Aztec market at Tlatelolco. Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago.

Diorama model of the Aztec market at Tlatelolco. Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago.

Francisco Hernández de Córdoba was the first European to set foot on Mexican soil. His tales inspired Diego Velasquez, the Spanish governor, to send a larger group of people led by Hernán Cortés in 1519. As Cortés arrived in Tabasco, he met with the locals and uncovered the existence of the mighty Aztec civilization, ruled by the powerful leader Montezuma II.

Eight months later, Cortés and his men arrived in Tenochtitlan, where they were greeted with hospitality according to Aztec tradition. Although the Aztecs had a larger army, they were no match for the advanced weaponry of the Spaniards. Taking advantage of this, Cortés quickly seized control of Tenochtitlan by taking Montezuma hostage. Tragically, during a ceremonial dance, thousands of Aztec nobles were slaughtered by the Spaniards, and Montezuma died under mysterious circumstances while in captivity.

Along with their advanced weaponry, the Europeans brought deadly diseases such as smallpox, mumps, and measles. These diseases proved to be powerful weapons against the local population, who had no immunity to them. In just one year, smallpox spread rapidly and reduced the population of Tenochtitlan by a devastating 40%.

After Montezuma’s death, his nephew, Cuauhtémoc, became the new emperor and led the Aztecs in driving the Spaniards out of the city. However, in 1521, Cortés and his men launched a counter-attack and defeated Cuauhtémoc’s resistance, bringing an end to the Aztec civilization. It is estimated that around 240,000 people lost their lives in the city’s conquest. Cortés razed Tenochtitlan and built Mexico City on its ruins, which became the most prominent European center in the New World.


“I and my companions suffer from a disease of the heart which can be cured only with gold.” ―Hernán Cortés

“Civilization begins with order, grows with liberty, and dies with chaos.” —Will Durant

“There are many humorous things in the world; among them, the white man's notion that he is less savage than the other savages.” ―Mark Twain

“An average plan vigorously executed is far better than a brilliant plan on which nothing is done.” ―Brian Tracy

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