Aztec ruins in Mexico

The Aztecs were an American Indian people of central Mexico, best known as the builders of an empire that swiftly fell under Spanish control during the years 1519 to 1521.

The defeat of the Aztecs was no ordinary conquest. The capital of their empire was a city larger than Rome. In its beauty it resembled Venice, set in the middle of a lake with canals for streets.

Although the city was demolished in the final battle of 1521, its fame has endured. Aztec civilization is remembered today for its elaborate religious life, complex social organization, elegant literature, and monumental works of sculpture.

Family and Community

When a man tied the end of his cloak to the corner of a woman's blouse, she became his wife and he could marry no other. Though he might take one or more secondary "wives," only the children of his actual wife could inherit his property.

A man's duties included farming, soldiering, and the various trades, such as carpentry and metalwork. A woman took care of the home, wove cloth, or practiced medicine. Children had responsibilities of their own. Girls helped with the weaving. Boys fetched firewood or went to the marketplace to pick up scraps of maize (corn) and beans left by the merchants.

Settlements. Families lived in villages, towns, or cities. Every town had neighborhoods, each with its chief. A city with many neighborhoods might be divided into four quarters, each quarter with its chief. These divisions made it easy to recruit people for military service or large work projects.

In the Valley of Mexico, the center of the Aztec world, there were dozens of cities. The largest was the capital, called Tenochtitlán, which may have had a population of 200,000. Tenochtitlán and its twin city, Tlatelolco, were located on islands in the middle of a shallow lake. The islands were connected to the mainland by earthen causeways.

Today the capital of the republic of Mexico is Mexico City. It is on the same site, but the lake, over the years, has been mostly drained.

Social Classes. Like cities today, the Aztec capital was a place of bustling activity, filled with people of all kinds. Everybody, however, fit into one of three categories: nobles, commoners, and tlatlacotin. The tlatlacotin were poor people who had sold themselves as permanent workers. Their children, however, were born free.

High officials were usually chosen from the noble class. Commoners were also selected, if of proven ability.

From Birth to Death

Because the wealthier citizens originally made up most of the army, their votes always counted more than those of the poorer classes in the main popular assembly, the Assembly of Centuries. Although the Senate could not pass laws, in early times the hereditary priests claimed the right to approve laws.

When a girl was born, she was presented with a tiny sewing basket. A boy was given a miniature shield and four little arrows. Before the age of 4, children had their ears pierced. At 5 or 6, children could go out to play, if they had finished their chores.

Education. At 10, children were legally responsible for their actions and could be sentenced to punishment. At this age all boys and girls were sent to neighborhood boarding schools. Some students learned trades. Others studied history, music, the art of speaking, and the interpretation of dreams.

At 15 a young woman was ready for marriage. The typical young man became a warrior and would marry later.

Dress. Men wore loincloths and simple cloaks knotted over one shoulder. Women wore sleeveless blouses and wrap-around skirts of cotton cloth.

Shelter and Food. Houses were of one story and might have several rooms, each facing a central courtyard. The kitchen with its fireplace was in the rear. A young family often lived in a single room in the house of the husband's father.

Maize, beans, squash, and turkey were important foods. Crops were grown on island gardens called chinampas, made of fertile soil scooped from the lake bottom.

Funerals. Long prayers were said for a dead person. The corpse was either buried or cremated, together with a sewing basket and weaver's tools (for a woman) or weapons (for a man). It was believed that most people went to the dead land beneath the earth. Those who had drowned went to the paradise of the rain god. The most honored dead were men killed in battle and women who had died in childbirth. They went to the sky to live with the sun.


Aztecs worshipped many gods in addition to the rain god and the sun. There was the fire god, called Old God. There was an earth goddess, called Snake Skirt,and a goddess of love, named Flower Plume.

Merchants and hunters had special gods who received their prayers. The city of Tenochtitlán had a tribal god, Huitzilopochtli (wee-tseel-oh-POACH-tlee), who protected the city's warriors.

Feasts and the Calendar. The year was divided into 18 "months," each with 20 days. In each of these months there was a feast in honor of one or more gods. The rain god and the maize god were remembered in the spring. One of the fall months was devoted to Cloud Snake, god of hunting. Religious feasts were marked by parades and music. At the end of the year were five unlucky days, when people stayed indoors.

At the close of every 52 years a special ceremony was held. All fires were put out. Then a priest kindled a new fire using a drilling stick. Runners with torches carried the new fire to each of the settlements in the Valley of Mexico.

The Payment. Aztecs believed that the gods demanded payment, perhaps an offering of food or a sacrifice of quail. For the new fire ceremony and other important feasts it was necessary to make the "human payment" — the sacrifice of a human being.


Traditional Aztec histories begin with myths of world creation. They continue with legends about the Aztecs' predecessors, the Toltecs, who archaeologists have determined flourished between A.D. 900 and 1200. Their capital, Tula, now in ruins, is located 45 miles (72 kilometers) north of Mexico City. These legends are followed by historical accounts of the kings who built the Aztec empire.

Origin of the Aztecs

Aztecs claimed to have come from a region far to the north, migrating south toward Tula and into the Valley of Mexico. At about this time — according to legend — Tula's last ruler, the priest-king Quetzalcóatl (keh-tsahl-KOH-ahtl) broke his priestly vows and fled in disgrace to the eastern seashore. He disappeared over the water, promising one day to return. After he had gone, an Aztec tribe called Mexica founded Tenochtitlán, in 1325.

The Rise and Fall of the Aztec Empire

After years of warring with its neighbors, Tenochtitlán formed an alliance with two other cities, Texcoco and Tlacopán. This occurred about 1430. The new alliance, or empire, grew rapidly. By the time of the emperor Montezuma II, Aztecs controlled a territory stretching from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico and south to the present border of Guatemala.

Spanish Conquest. It was Montezuma II who greeted the conqueror Hernando Cortés in 1519 (or the year 1 Reed by the Aztec calendar). According to legend, Montezuma believed Cortés was the legendary Quetzalcóatl, who was to return in the year 1 Reed, and was hesitant to give offense.

Montezuma was taken prisoner by the Spanish and mysteriously killed. Unable to restrain the populace by peaceful means, Cortés resorted to force. Firearms, horses, and steel armor gave the Spanish an edge. But they could not have won without the help of other Aztec cities, eager to see Tenochtitlán humbled. The capital was reduced to rubble during the fierce battle of the summer of 1521. A new Spanish city began to rise in its place.

Aftermath. Smallpox and other diseases brought from Europe greatly diminished the Aztec population. The succession of kings continued through the 1500s. Now known as gobernadores (governors), they served under Spanish authority. Although the gobernadores eventually lost what remained of their powers, people continued to read and write the Aztec language through the 1700s and to keep up many of the ancient customs.

Legacy of the Aztecs

The modern Aztec language, known as Nahuatl or mexicano, is still spoken by more than a million Nahua, who continue to plant maize, weave cotton cloth, and play instruments like the log drum. The Nahua live mostly in small towns and villages in central Mexico. Nationally, Aztec art is recognized as an essential feature of Mexico's heritage. Aztec painting and sculpture have influenced Mexican artists such as Diego Rivera and Miguel Covarrubias. Modern poets such as Octavio Paz have been inspired by Aztec literature. Perhaps the most widely known legacy of Aztec culture is in the realm of foods and recipes. Avocado, chili, chocolate, and tomato are all Aztec words. If you have been to a Mexican restaurant or have prepared Mexican food at home, you may have had enchiladas, guacamole, tacos, and tamales. These are dishes made with ingredients that go back to Aztec times.

John Bierhorst
Author, The Mythology of Mexico and Central America