January 1, 1428 - Rise and Fall of the Aztec
By Donovan Jacobs
The Aztecs were the most dominant civilizations in the Central Americas during a period from 1325 to 1521. At its peak, the empire would span over 80,000 square miles, and be home to between five to fifteen million people. The Aztecs spoke Nahuatl and rose from the ashes of the dying Toltec Empire, gaining momentum, and snowballing to become one of the largest civilizations in the world during the time period.
The Toltec people came to power around 900 and were a warlike people who worshipped a god that demanded human blood and sacrifice. At around 1000 a new ruler, Topiltzin, rose to power. He called on the people to end the human sacrificing, promoting a feathered serpent god called Quetzalcoatl. The people, afraid that their god would punish them, revolted, forcing Topiltzin and his followers into exile on the Yucatán Peninsula. There he greatly influenced the later Mayan culture. However, the Toltec’s soon crumbled after his exile, losing their hold in the Valley of Mexico by the early 1200’s.
From the ashes rose a new power: the Aztecs. They came to the Valley of Mexico by 1200 and there they found a cluster of small city-states that were remnants of the Toltec Empire. The Aztecs were a group of poor, nomadic people that came from northern Mexico, who were ambitious. They soon became soldiers for hire, being recognized for their ferocity and effectiveness in combat. According to legend, they were ordered by the god of sun and warfare, Huitzilopochtli, to found a city where they saw an eagle perched upon a cactus with a snake in its beak. They found this spot on Lake Texcoco and founded Tenochtitlán in 1325. Their control stretched from central Mexico to the Atlantic and Pacific, and down into Oaxaca. The empire was split into 38 providences and was home to five to fifteen million people. The Aztecs used military conquest as the basis of their power, receiving tribute from their conquered enemies, who became subjects of the empire. They held loose control over the empire, electing to allow local rulers to govern their regions. However, in return they demanded tribute in the form of gold, maize, cacao beans, cotton, jade, and many other items. Any failure to pay tribute or attempt to resist was met with the full brutality of the Aztec empire, in the form of the destruction of villages, and the killing or capturing of its inhabitants.
Aztec society was complex and saw varying levels of power. At the top of the social ladder was the emperor who held absolute power and lived in a grand palace. Below him came military leaders, government officials, and priests. These people formed the nobility and often owned vast estates, living like lords with lives of wealth and luxury. Next came the commoners, made up of merchants, artisans, soldiers, and farmers who owned land. At the bottom of the social ladder was the enslaved people. These were those who were captives and did many of the hard labor-intensive tasks.
Perhaps one of the greatest feats of the Aztec empire was the construction of their capital, Tenochtitlán. By the early 1500’s it has become a great urban center in the Valley of Mexico, boasting a massive population of 200,000 to 400,000 people. In fact, it was larger than London, England, and any other European city at the time. It was built on an island with three main roads, called causeways, that connected it to the mainland. These roads were built over the water and marshland that surrounded the city. The main city had smaller cities around the lake, allowing for trade. Tenochtitlán had a vast network of streets that connected the city center to the outer residential areas. Canals allowed for the transportation of people to the city center, and for the movement of goods and products. There were many markets, offering a wide variety of products such as avocados, beans, chili peppers, corn, squash, and tomatoes. The people of the city grew fruits and vegetables on chinampas. These were floating farm plots that allowed for the roots of the plants to grow through the platforms and into the water and silt. The silt was extremely fertile which allowed for extremely efficient crop yields and allowed the city to sustain the massive population. The city’s center had an enormous walled-in complex that contained palaces, temples, and government buildings. The main structure was the Great Temple. It was a massive pyramid with two temples atop it. One was dedicated to the sun god, while the other was dedicated to the rain god. This temple was the center of religious life in the Aztec culture.
The Aztecs had a very complex religion, containing over 1,000 gods. Like the Mayans, they had an advanced calendar system. They had a religious calendar, with thirteen, twenty day months. They also had a solar calendar containing eighteen, twenty day months with a five day period at the end that they believed to be unlucky. They worshipped Quetzalcoatl, who they believed was the god of learning, books, wind, death, and rebirth. Their religious calendar was full of festivals that honored many different gods. Like the Toltecs, the Aztecs practiced human sacrifice but on a much greater scale. They believed they had to give up human blood as offerings to please the gods. They did this in elaborate public ceremonies they believed would further please the gods. The most important god in their culture was the sun god, Huitzilopochtli. He was involved in the most important rituals and was believed to make the sun rise and set. When the sun set, they believed he was fighting the forces of evil in order to make it rise once more. The Aztecs believed that he needed to be nourished by copious amounts of human blood. If he did not receive this nourishment, he would not be strong enough to fight, and the sun would never rise again. For this reason, they practiced human sacrifice on a scale rivaled by no other civilization. Each year, thousands of victims were led to the top of the pyramid, where their hearts would be carved out in a brutal fashion by an obsidian knife. Their bodies would then be thrown down the steps of the pyramid. These brutal ceremonies were performed by priests. The sacrifices were often slaves, criminals, prisoners of war, and people offered as tribute. Since they needed so many people to satisfy their gods, they were forced to go to war often. They often carried out wars with the sole purpose being to gain sacrifices. For this reason, they used non-lethal tactics to ensure they got the maximum amount of sacrifices.
However, the mighty empire eventually began to collapse. In 1502 Montezuma II becomes the emperor. Under his rule the empire started to collapse. With the population growing, he called for even more sacrifices. This caused many of the providences under the Aztec’s control to revolt. This caused a period of rebellion and turmoil. To ease the tensions, Montezuma tried to limit the need for tribute by reducing the amount of government officials. As time went on and tensions grew, people began to see bad omens everywhere, causing the unease to skyrocket. When the Spanish conquistadors arrived, the Aztecs thought it was the fabled return of the great Quetzalcoatl. The diseases brought along by Hernán Cortes and his men ravaged the Aztec population. Smallpox and other diseases ran rampant, killing between five and eight million people who had no way of fighting of the disease. Even though the Aztecs had tens of thousands more men that the Spaniards and were almost able to defeat them, the superior weaponry possessed by the Spanish coupled with the merciless diseases, proved to be too great a force for even the mighty Aztecs to handle. By the middle of the 1500’s the Aztecs were all but wiped out, and the great empire that had once ruled the Valley of Mexico, was merely a memory.
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Accessed May 24, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Aztec.