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  • Writer's pictureVanessa Colin

The Aztec Empire, part two: development

With the purpose of a better understanding of the pre-Columbian era cultures, the experts proposed to divide pre-Hispanic history in three periods: the Preclassic or Formative (2500 BCE – 250 CE), the Classic (250 – 900 CE) and the PostClassic (900 – 1521 CE) -It's important to note that this only applies to all the cultures that developed in Mexico and Central America. The pre-Columbian cultures from South America are studied from a different perspective-

The Aztec empire developed during the PostClassic period and it would end up in 1521 with the Spanish conquest. Despite the fact that the Aztecs had a very short existence, there is a precise record of their development, which I’ll try to explain briefly in this post.

Government and administration

Extension of the Aztec Empire circa 1500s. Source: wikipedia commons

As I mentioned in my previous post, when the Aztecs settled in the basin of Mexico, the place was alredy occupied and the dominant power was that of Azcapotzalco. In 1427, after the death of Tezozomoc, ruler of Azcapotzalco, and Chimalpopoca, ruler of Tenochtitlan, a civil war began. Tlacaelel, great statistician, economist, warrior and religious reformer became the main advisor of the new hey-Tlatoani Itzcoatl, post that Tlacaelel would hold until his death in 1475. Tlacaelel counseled Itzcoatl to taking advantage of the fragile situation reigning the valley, and start a war against Azcapotzalco to gain the absolut control. In consequence, Tenochtitlan formed an alliance with other cities to fight Maxtla, the king usurper of Azcapotzalco who had assassinated his half-brother in order to seize the throne. Long story short, the Aztecs won the war, and the Triple Alliance was founded, which included the cities of Tenochtitlan, Texcoco and Tlacopan (also known as Tacuba). By means of this alliance, they'd rule and control the Empire until the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors.


Market of Tlatelolco. Model in the Museo Nacional de Antropología. Photo credit: Oliver Santana / Raíces. From: Arqueología Mexicana

Agriculture and trade of raw materials were the main economic activities. For instance, the market of Tlatelolco was one of the biggest markets, not only in Mesoamerica, but also in the world. The seed of cacao was the main coin of the time, nonetheless, “bartering” was a very popular practice among the Aztecs. The Aztecs merchant was called “poctecas”, whom travelled long distances to get various products from distant lands, journeys that could last years. The mining and textile industry were very important too.

Life in society

A codex representing the customs of the aztec people. Source: Pinterest

The Aztecs followed a strict social hierarchy in which individuals were identified as nobles (pipiltin), commoners (macehualtin), serfs, or slaves (tlacotli). The noble class consisted of government and military leaders, high level priests, and lords (tecuhtli). All Aztec children attended school, though their curricula varied by gender and social class. Each calpulli had a school for commoner children known as a telpochcalli. The purpose of the telpochcalli was to train young men to be warriors, and boys generally began their training at the age of 15. Noble children and exceptionally gifted commoner children attended the calmecac schools, where they received training to become priests and government officials. While military training was provided, the calmecac offered more academic opportunities than the telpochcalli. Women had limited leadership roles within the Aztec empire. There is evidence that they had administrative roles in the calpulli (designation of an organizational unit below the level of the altepetl "city-state") and markets, and also worked as midwives and priestesses. However, the top administrative positions were limited to men, and women were not permitted to serve as warriors.

The Aztecs additionally had landless serfs and slaves. Serfs worked land that was owned by nobles and did not live in the calpulli. Individuals became slaves (tlacotin) as a form of punishment for certain crimes or for failure to pay tribute. Prisoners of war who were not used as human sacrifices became slaves. An individual could voluntarily sell himself or his children into slavery to pay back a debt (the latter required permission of the court). Slaves had the right to marry, to have children, to substitute another individual in their place, and to buy their freedom. Slaveowners were responsible for housing and feeding their slaves, and slaves generally could not be resold. They were usually freed when their owners died, and could also gain their freedom by marrying their owner. Aztecs were not born slaves and could not inherit this status from their parents.

Language and writing

Photo source: Gaceta UNAM

Even if we aren’t aware of this, we use almost every day words that come from nahuatl, the language spoken by the Aztecs. Words such as “chocolate”, “tomato” or “avocado” have their roots in nahuatl. Poetry was very appreciated and it was s, danced, and some subjects included history, great heores, life and death with a religious meaning behind. Regarding to writing language, we can determinate it as a set of pictographic, ideographic and phonetic elements. It existed various books regarding to history, economy, mathematics and many other disciplines. Classical nahuatl used a set of 15 consonants, 4 long and short vowels. Its grammar was composed by suffixes, prefixes, reduplication of syllables and compound words.

Human Sacrifices

Photo source:

One of the most controversial topics within the Pre-Hispanic cultures are the Human Sacrifices. It should be noted that human sacrifice has existed in almost all the cultures of the World. Aztec human sacrifice has as its main concept, the “debt”. We owe our lives to a creator and in consequence, we have to give something in return. For the Aztecs, their deities or gods didn’t have a duality as we see in religions, where you can see a clear difference between the evil and the good. A great amount of people who was going to be sacrificed, had the belief that this was sort of a way to gain immortality. This act was carried out through out of different festivities, depending on certain gods. As it existed life, it had to exists death and human sacrifices was a way to balance them. Anyone could be sacrificed: kids, woman, warriors, war prisoners, etc. Temples were reserved for heart extraction. Some mountains also were used as a place of sacrifice. Oher kinds of sacrifice involved the Flower Wars that were an act of ritual between the cities of Aztec Triple Alliance and Tlaxcala, Huexotzingo and Cholula. Death in the Flower Wars contained religious importance as those who died were thought to live in heaven with the war god, Huitzilopochtli. Other types of human sacrifice, which paid tribute to various deities, killed the victims differently. The victim could be shot with arrows, die in gladiatorial style fighting, be sacrificed as a result of the Mesoamerican ballgame, burned, flayed after being sacrificed, or drowned.



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