Sometime shortly after about A.D. 1200, bands of nomadic people from the north migrated into the Valley of Mexico, which lies in the high plateau of central Mexico. These people identified themselves as separate tribes, such as the Mexica (may SHEE kah), from whom Mexico gets its name. All the tribes spoke one language—Nahuatl (NAH hwaht el)—and believed their origins began in the same legendary birthplace, Aztlan. Together, these tribes are known as the Aztecs.
In A.D. 1325, the Aztecs founded their capital city, Tenochtitlán (teh nawch tee TLAHN). According to Aztec legend, the gods had told the Aztecs to search for an eagle holding a snake in its beak and perching atop a cactus. When they saw this sign, they would know where to build their capital.
Indeed, they finally saw the sign on a swampy island in Lake Texcoco (tesh KOH koh), and there they built their city. Today, Mexico City sits atop this same site.
As their population grew, the Aztecs found ingenious ways to create more farmland in their lake environment, just as the Maya had modified their environment by farming raised beds in the river valley. The Aztec built chinampas, artificial islands made of mud piled atop reed mats that were anchored to the shallow lake-bed with willow trees. On these “floating gardens,” the Aztecs raised maize, squash, and beans, the same crops grown by their predecessors the Maya. They gradually filled in parts of the lake and created canals for transportation. Wide stone causeways linked Tenochtitlán to the mainland.
In the 1400s, the Aztecs greatly expanded their territory. Through a combination of fierce conquests and shrewd alliances, they spread their rule across most of Mexico, from the Gulf of Mexico in the east to the Pacific Ocean in the west. By 1517, the Aztec empire numbered an estimated 5 to 6 million people.
War brought immense wealth as well as power to the Aztec empire. Tribute, or payment from conquered peoples, helped the Aztecs turn their capital into a magnificent city. From its temples and royal palaces to its zoos and floating gardens, Tenochtitlán seemed a city of wonders. It was also the center of a complex, well-ordered empire.
Unlike the Maya city-states, each of which had its own king, the Aztec empire had a single ruler. However, like the Maya, the Aztecs had a clear social hierarchy. A council of nobles, priests, and military leaders elected the emperor, whose primary function was to lead in war. Below him, nobles served as officials, judges, and governors of conquered provinces.
|EMPEROR||COUNCIL OF NOBLES||PRIESTS/PRIESTESSES|
|elected by council of nobles, priests and military leaders; function was to lead war||officials, judges, governors of conquered provinces; owned/received land||peformed rituals to please the gods and prevent droughts and other disasters|
|military; could become nobles depending on victories in battle||Long-distance, not local, traveling traders; could become nobles depending on trades Artisans|
|could not own land||prisoners of war/debtors; slaves could own land and buy their freedom|
In Aztec society, birth determined social status. Rank was visible in Aztec clothing. Nobles dressed in fine textiles, often cotton, and sandals. Where could a woman have influence in Aztec society?