Mexico Travel Guide and Travel Information

Brief history of the Aztec Empire

In the period from 1068 to 1168 AD, the Chichimecas tribe left the island of Aztlan.

The exact location of the island is unknown, but many researchers believe that it was somewhere in the northern Gulf of California. From the word “Aztlan” comes the name “Aztec”, although they called themselves Mexica.

For more than 200 years, Aztecs wandered before they settled on two islands of Lake Texcoco. The Aztecs first reached Chicomoztoc, and from then went on a long journey south to more fertile lands of the Valley of Mexico.

Before they got to the Valley of Mexico, Aztecs often stayed for a long time: erected temples settled down internal tribal conflicts. Its first sanctuary, they erected on the hill of Chapultepec, where they lived in 1253-1295 AD.

  • The first celebration of the New Fire, they celebrated in Coatepec.
  • The second – in Apatzco (in the Valley of Mexico).
  • The third – in Tezpayocan (on the shores of Lake Texcoco).
  • The fourth – in Chapultepec (Lake Xochimilco).

Many tribes that lived around the lake have met Aztecs very unfriendly and warlike.

In the Valley of Mexico, the Aztecs were attacked by a coalition of coastal cities, caught up, and exiled as slaves in Culhuacan – there they were warriors and mercenaries. Later they earned honor and respect for their courage.

In 1322 Culhuacan drove Aztecs from their lands, and they moved inside of the lake.

1325: Foundation of Tenochtitlan

Legends say, that in 1325 on a small island in Lake Texcoco, Aztecs saw an ancient prophecy, the god Huitzilopochtli had predicted them to settle where they saw an eagle holding a snake in its claws, and sitting on a cactus.

In the same year, Tenochtitlan was founded. The capital of the future Aztec Empire was later divided into 4 districts: Teopan, Moyotlán, Quepopan, and Aztacalco, with a ceremonial center located in the center of the city.

The rise of the Aztecs to power

Aztecs were in the service (mainly as military mercenaries) of the most powerful city-state of that period in the Valley of Mexico – Azcapotzalco. As a reward for their service, they received land and access to natural resources.

During this period, they with great zeal rebuilt their city, expanding it with the help of artificial islands – chinampas and tried to enter into alliances (often through marriage) with the ruling dynasties of neighboring peoples, which trace their origins to the Toltecs.

  • In 1337 a group of Aztecs split from the main tribe and founded the city of Tlatelolco.
  • In 1348 the war with the Tepans began.
  • In 135, Cholula was conquered by the Kingdom of Huexotzingo.
  • In 1375 the Azcapotzalco ruler authorized the Aztecs to formally elect their ruler.

1376-1395: Acamapichtli reign

Between 1375 and 1376 the Aztecs elected their first paramount leader, Acamapichtli.

Ācamāpīchtli is considered the first “huey tlatoani” (governor) of the Mexicas, who strengthened the alliance between Tenochtitlán and the capital of the Tepanecs, Azcapotzalco, helping them in their conquests, especially to the south.

The Great Temple dedicated to Huitzilopochtli probably was built in 1390.

1395-1405/14: Huitzilihuitl reign

In 1395, Acamapichtli died (after his death a period of unrest began), and Huitzilihuitl (1395-1405/14) became his successor. Huitzilíhuitl was the second Mexica “huey tlatoani” (governor), who ruled from 1391 to 1415.

Huitzilíhuitl was also the 4th son of Acamapichtli, his predecessor on the Mexica throne, and was chosen according to the chronicles because he was a young man with a noble heart, gentle and good habits.

Once he became the tlatoani of Tenochtitlan, his first political decision was of utmost importance – he married the daughter of the tlatoani of Azcapotzalco, with which he achieved that the tributes were reduced to mere symbolic deliveries.

In return, Huitzilíhuitl provided his father-in-law with a great service – the Aztecs conquered several neighboring towns, such as Chalco and Cuautitlán, in the name of the Tepanecs of Azcapotzalco, of whom, despite the joy caused by the royal wedding, they remained vassals.

Hutizilíhuitl died at 35 years of age.

When he died he left his kingdom in order and dictated several laws, forming an army for the land and another for the water. Huitzilíhuitl was the first tlatoani-warrior, he introduced Aztecs to a taste for war, military life, and conquests.

1405/14-1428: Chimalpopoca reign

In 1405/14 (one was given in 1405, the other in 1414), the third Aztec emperor was Chimalpopoca (1405/14-1428), brother of Huitzilihuitl. He established a complex system of dynastic succession.

The tlatoani (supreme ruler) was elected by four military leaders appointed by the Supreme Council. They could choose tlatoani from among the brothers of the deceased tlatoani, and if not, then from among the sons and nephews in the male line.

By 1418, the Tepanecs of Azcapotzalco had conquered the entire territory of Texcoco.

1428-1440: Itzcoatl reign

In 1428 Itzcoatl came to power. Emperor Itzcoatl and his nephew (or brother) Tlacaelel (adviser to the emperor) were the first to officially sanction the practice of sacrifice.

Identifying the main Aztec god Huitzilopochtli with the Sun, they had to periodically feed the celestial body with fresh human blood so that it would not stop its path of movement across the sky.

That same year, Azcapotzalco marched against Tenochtitlan, but the Aztecs formed an alliance with Tlatelolco, Tlacopan, Texcoco, Tlaxcala, Huexotzingo, and eventually defeated the Tepanecs of Azcapotzalco in 1430.

Azcapotzalco Tepanecs was defeated in 1430.

Itzcoatl forms a powerful triple alliance of Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, Tlacopan (Mexica, Acolhua, and Tepanecs) with the supreme council, in which foreign policy issues solved by Aztecs, trade issues – by Tepanecs and law issues – by Acolhua.

War Spoils in such an alliance were divided in the ratio 2:2:1. A Tlacaelel began to lead an army of the Triple Alliance because he manifested himself at war with Tepanecs as an outstanding commander.

1428-1440: Itzcoatl reign

Itzcoatl captured the agricultural south and north of the Valley of Mexico. The Council of Elders, warlords, and priests have been replaced by the Council of Four, the highest advisory body to the tlatoani, consisting of his relatives, and had the right to choose a new tlatoani.

Itzcoatl also destroyed the old pictographic manuscripts, in which the Aztecs and their deities assigned a modest role in the history of the Valley of Mexico. Instead, they wrote new manuscripts, which magnified the Aztecs and kept silent about a primitive tribal past.

In 1440, Montezuma I came to power (1440-1469).

During his rule sacrifices in the form of fights between captive enemies became popular. If during such bouts captives showed courage and provided stubborn resistance, priests awarded valuable gifts to one who captivated them.

Montezuma I often invited to such fights leaders of the not yet conquered city-states.

Between Triple Alliance and other city-states – Tlaxcala, Huexotzingo, Cholula – by mutual agreement, there was the “war of flowers”, the main purpose was to get prisoners to offer a sacrifice to the Sun.

Aztec Empire acquired new lands and needed administrative reforms. There was introduced special order management, and new rules to promote the social ladder. Montezuma I laid the foundations of the judicial system distinct from community and clan law.

Tlatoani still retain their deified status, and the ongoing process of concentration in the hands of the ruler of the military, political, religious, ideological, legislative, and judicial branches.

In the mid-15th century, the Aztecs continued to equip their capital and built a huge dam across the lake, which could supply the inhabitants of Tenochtitlan with freshwater and protect the city from flooding. Aztecs built the first aqueduct in the city.

1440-1469: Motecuhzoma I reign

  • In 1445 the Aztecs organized a military campaign in Oaxaca.
  • In 1446, they waged military action against the Chalco-Amecameca Confederacy.

From 1450 to 1454 AD Aztecs were a subject of natural disaster: there were prolonged droughts and untimely frosts. The result of it was famine and disease – many people died. There have been numerous cases of cannibalism.

  • 1458 – conquest of Veracruz and Coixtlahuaca.
  • In 1465 the Aztecs defeated the Chalco and conquered them.

1469-1481: Axayacatl reign

In 1469, came to power Axayacatl and in 1473 he conquered Tlatelolco.

  • In the 1470-1480-ies Aztecs extended the western boundaries of the empire.
  • In 1476 they conquered the Valley of Toluca.

1481-1486: Tizoc reign

In 1481, Tizoc Calchihutlatonac, grandson of Montezuma I, became the Aztec emperor. During his reign empire experienced its heyday. After 2 years after the beginning of his reign, he decided to rebuild the pyramid, dedicated to Huitzilopochtli.

He decided to make the Temple significantly higher, grander, and more powerful – it took a lot of human resources: not only the adult population of the city and the slaves who worked under the construction of the temple, but also children.

In 1486 Tizoc was poisoned (this is an assumption) and the Emperor became the third grandson of Montezuma I – Ahuitzotl (1486-1502). He had become famous as an outstanding military leader.

The next year (Feb. 19, 1487) was completed the construction of the Great Temple. In honor of the temple, Aztecs invited tribal leaders who belonged to the empire, which brought a lot of subjects to sacrifice.

There have also been festively decorated all the temples in Tenochtitlan at that time (about 300). The first one who tore the victim’s heart and handed it to the priest was the emperor himself.

At the same moment, all the temples in the city started a mass sacrifice, which lasted from morning until late evening. The feast lasted 3 days. According to various estimates, there were from 4000 to 80,600 sacrificed men.

But it seems a more accurate figure of 20,000 prisoners.

During his reign, Ahuitzotl was forced to do the construction of irrigation and drainage facilities, due to the periodic lack of food and freshwater in growing Tenochtitlan. Thus, the second aqueduct was built in the city.

1486-1502: Ahuitzotl reign

In 1496, the boundaries of the Aztec Empire were located near the border Mixtec state (Valley of Oaxaca). Ahuitzotl could not ignore the territory of the Mixtec State and he began a military expansion of the Aztecs, which turned into a protracted.

A solar eclipse occurred which scared all the inhabitants of the empire.

By the early 16th century, all city-states conquered by the Triple Alliance were deeply integrated into the imperial structure and their rulers participated in the wars of conquest organized by the Aztecs and received rewards in the form of titles and lands.

The Triple Alliance included about 50 city-states and was subordinate to more than 400 villages. There were 38 provinces from which the Aztecs collected tribute.

1502-1519: Montezuma II reign

In 1502, came to power Montezuma Xocoyotzin (Montezuma II), son of Axayacatl. During his reign, the empire was mainly been engaged not only in capturing new lands but the consolidation of previously captured and the suppression of uprisings and revolts.

Montezuma II was unable as his predecessor to win the west Tarascan, and the east Tlaxcaltecs (the latter provided military assistance to the Spanish conquistadors, and united with them against Aztecs).

Montezuma II left a memory of himself as a consummate diplomat. He continued the policy of military expansion, but his policies differed from the policies of his predecessors. In place of a lightning attack came the successive events on the active inclusion of different peoples in the economic life of the country.

During his reign the state included numerous enclaves, as a result – the Triple Alliance territory covered all of central Mexico, including Veracruz, Hidalgo, Puebla, Mexico, Morelos, and partially Guerrero, Oaxaca, and Chiapas.

In Tenochtitlan was built a special temple, where were the statues of the gods of the conquered tribes. During this period, continued the practice of mass sacrifice – it is known to us that once Montezuma II ordered in one day to sacrifice more than 1000 prisoners.

In 1503, the Aztecs began a new protracted and bloody war against Oaxaca. Montezuma II attacks Mixtec cities Achiotlan and Xaltepec. This year heavy rains flood the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan.

In 1504 the Aztecs carried out military action against the enclave of Puebla. From 1505 to 1509 Aztecs began a military campaign against the cities Quetzaltepec, Tototepec, Teuctepec, Miauatlan, Yanuetlan, and Zozallan.

  • In 1509, the Aztecs in horror were watching the comet.
  • In the years 1511-1512 Aztecs were defeated in the war against Oaxaca.
  • In 1514 there were natural disasters that caused the harvest and after it began to hunger.
  • In 1515 starts the rebel of Ixtlilxochitl. The war began Texcoco vs Tlaxcala.

Arose rumors about the appearance of the bearded white men. In 1518, Juan de Grijalva on four well-equipped ships, made an expedition to the Yucatan Peninsula, and then, on his return to Cuba, he sailed along the coast of the Aztec Empire.

1519 – Aztecs conquered the capital of the Totonac – Zempoala.

By this period the empire has already a huge territory with a variety of rich natural resources from the northern regions of Mexico to the current boundaries of Guatemala: arid areas north of the Valley of Mexico, mountain gorges of the current state of Oaxaca, and Guerrero, coastal Gulf of Mexico, Pacific ridges.

By this time Tenochtitlan had become one of the largest cities in the world with a population of 150-200 thousand people and had become a huge trading center with a large market in the satellite city of Tlatelolco, where in the trading day attended up to 25 thousand people.

  • The second-largest city of the empire was Texcoco with a population of 30,000 people.
  • In many other cities, the population was 10-25 thousand people.

In 1519 began the expedition of Hernando Cortez.

He sailed from Cuba on February 18 with 11 ships onboard which were 508 soldiers, 16 horses, and a few guns. First, he sailed with 10 ships to Cozumel. He then rounded the Yucatan and sailed to the Mexican coast, where he founded the city of Veracruz.

After the arrival of the Spaniards, the Aztec emperor brought the report: “The gods have returned. Their spears spewing flames. Their warriors have two heads and six legs, and they live in floating homes.”

Montezuma expected the performance of the ancient prophecy of the return of Quetzalcoatl in the year Ce Acatl (year of cane rod), which corresponded to 1519. During the ten years before this event in the Aztec empire were 8 omens of an impending disaster:

Every night during the year the flames appeared in the eastern sky. For unexplained reasons, was burned the temple of Huitzilopochtli in Tlacateccan. Lightning struck a temple of Xiutecuhtli in Tzonmolco.

One afternoon there was a comet, that collapsed into 3 parts. The water in Lake Texcoco boiled up and destroyed the surrounding houses. One night the voice of a weeping woman heard: “My dear children, we must go! Where can I take you?”.

One fisherman caught heron, tufted in the form of a mirror in which Montezuma saw the heavens and the army, riding on animals like deer. There were found people with two heads and one torso, which then mysteriously disappeared.

During his stay on the Gulf Coast, Cortez repeatedly clashed with local tribes, but the force of arms of the Indians was not comparable to European – powder did the trick.

Meanwhile, Montezuma received the reports, which said that white people shooting lightning and dressed in armor made of silver and stone, and could not be defeated in open battle. To somehow appease the “gods” Montezuma sends Cortez different gifts.

But the Spaniards were not ready yet to go to Tenochtitlan.

Constant skirmishes took their toll – the bread, bacon, and salt were in the end, the soldiers were tired of wearing heavy armor, and many were afraid of freezing in the mountains, as well as they were afraid of a huge Aztec army.

However, Cortes was not going to come back with empty hands, and the desire for easy and quick gains, as well as the speaking skills of the leader of the Spaniards, convinced all to take a march on Tenochtitlan.

August 16, 1519, the Spaniards began their march on the capital of the Aztec empire, which lies about 450 kilometers to the west. Along the way, they were joined by several thousand Indians.

November 8, 1519, the Spaniards came to Tenochtitlan, and Moctezuma greeted them: “Welcome, we’ve been waiting for you. This is your house.” He waited for God, Quetzalcoatl. But they were not gods …

In the ensuing weeks, the Aztec emperor discovered that he had become a hostage, and the Spaniards began to destroy all relics of Indians and put them in place of the Christian shrines.

Then the Indians were more and more convinced that posing as gods Spaniards were no less bloodthirsty and greedy for gold trafficking. There was growing dissatisfaction with the actions of Montezuma who continued to support the white newcomers.

One day he was taken to the roof to calm down the raging crowd, but some threw stones from the wounds of which he died three days later (according to the Spaniards, but there are other versions which say that the Spaniards themselves killed the emperor before they escaped from the city).

1520-1520: Cuitlauak reign

After Montezuma, the Emperor became for a short time his brother Cuitlauak (1520-1520). Soon after the onslaught of a huge number of Aztecs, Cortez with his army was forced to leave the city.

1520-1521: Cuauhtémoc reign

That same year Cuauhtémoc of Tlatelolco (“descending (falling) Eagle” – 1520-1521) became the last sovereign ruler of the Aztec Empire. In that year he turned 18 years old.

Escaped from the town Cortes had no intention of giving up. Building ships and trusting luck, allies, gunpowder, horses, and iron, led this united army to attack Tenochtitlan.

August 13, 1521, the Spaniards captured Tenochtitlan, together with the latest tlatoani Cuauhtemoc and several of his supreme advisors. Tenochtitlan was completely looted and destroyed, and Cuauhtémoc was executed.

The Aztec Empire was completely conquered by the Spaniards.

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