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The Aztec Empire History
The center of the Aztec civilization was the Valley of Mexico, a huge, oval
basin about 7,500 feet above sea level. The Aztecs were formed after the Toltec
civilization occurred when hundreds of civilians came towards Lake Texcoco. In
the swamplands there was only one piece of land to farm on and it was totally
surrounded by more marshes. The Aztec families somehow converted these
disadvantages to a mighty empire known as the Aztec Empire. People say the
empire was partially formed by a deeply believed legend. As the legend went, it
said that Aztec people would create an empire in a swampy place where they would
see an eagle eating a snake, while perched on a cactus, which was growing out of
a rock in the swamplands. This is what priests claimed they saw when entering
the new land. By the year 1325 their capital city was finished. They called it
Tenochtitlan. In the capital city, aqueducts were constructed, bridges were
built, and chinapas were made. Chinapas were little islands formed by pilled up
mud. On these chinapas Aztecs grew their food. The Aztec Empire included many
cities and towns, especially in the Valley of Mexico. The early settlers built
log rafts, then covered them with mud and planted seeds to create roots and
develop more solid land for building homes in this marshy land. Canals were also
cut out through the marsh so that a typical Aztec home had its back to a canal
with a canoe tied at the door. In the early 1400s, Tenochtitlan joined with
Texcoco and Tlacopan, two other major cities in the Valley of Mexico.
Tenochtitlan became the most powerful member of the alliance. Montezuma I ruled
from 1440 to 1469 and conquered large areas to the east and to the south.
Montezuma's successors expanded the empire until it extended between what is now
Guatemala and the Mexican State of San Luis Potosi. Montezuma II became emperor
in 1502 when the Aztec Empire was at the height of its power. In 1519, the
Spanish explorer Hernando Cortes landed on the East Coast of Mexico and marched
inland to Tenochtitlan. The Spaniards were joined by many of the Indians who
were conquered and forced to pay high taxes to the emperor. Montezuma did not
oppose Cortes because he thought that he was the God Quetzalcoatl. An Aztec
legend said that Quetzalcoatl was driven away by another rival god and had
sailed across the sea and would return some day. His return was predicted to
come in the year Ce Acatl on the Aztec Calendar. This corresponded to the year
1519. Due to this prediction, Montezuma II thought Quetzalcoatl had returned
when Cortes and his troops invaded. He did not resist and was taken prisoner by
Cortes and his troops. In 1520, the Aztecs rebelled and drove the Spaniards from
Tenochtitlan, but Montezuma II was killed in the battle. Cortes reorganized his
troops and resurged into the city. Montezuma's successor, Cuauhtemoc,
surrendered in August of 1520. The Spaniards, being strong Christians, felt it
was their duty to wipe out the temples and all other traces of the Aztec
religion. They destroyed Tenochtitlan and built Mexico City on the ruins.
However, archaeologists have excavated a few sites and have uncovered many
remnants of this society. Language: The Aztec spoke a language called Nahuatl
(pronounced NAH waht l). It belongs to a large group of Indian languages, which
also include the languages spoken by the Comanche, Pima, Shoshone and other
tribes of western North America. The Aztec used pictographs to communicate
through writing. Some of the pictures symbolized ideas and others represented
the sounds of the syllables. Food: The principal food of the Aztec was a thin
cornmeal pancake called a tlaxcalli. (In Spanish, it is called a tortilla.) They
used the tlaxcallis to scoop up foods while they ate or they wrapped the foods
in the tlaxcalli to form what is now known as a taco. They hunted for most of
the meat in their diet and the chief game animals were deer, rabbits, ducks and
geese. The only animals they raised for meat were turkeys, rabbits, and dogs.
Arts and Crafts: The Aztec sculptures, which adorned their temples and other
buildings, were among the most elaborate in all of the Americas. Their purpose
was to please the gods and they attempted to do that in everything they did.
Many of the sculptures reflected their perception of their gods and how they
interacted in their lives. The most famous surviving Aztec sculpture is the
large circular Calendar Stone, which represents the Aztec universe. Religion:
Religion was extremely important in Aztec life. They worshipped hundreds of gods
and goddesses, each of whom ruled one or more human activities or aspects of
nature. The people had many agricultural gods because their culture was based
heavily on farming. The Aztecs made many sacrifices to their gods.
When victims reached the altar they were stretched across a sacrificial stone. A
priest with an obsidian knife cut open the victim's chest and tore out his heart.
The heart was placed in a bowl called a chacmool. This heart was used as an
offer to the gods. If they were in dire need, a warrior would be sacrificed, but
for any other sacrifice a normal person would be deemed sufficient. It was a
great honor to be chosen for a sacrifice to the gods. The Aztec held many
religious ceremonies to ensure good crops by winning the favor of the gods and
then to thank them for the harvest. Every 52 years, the Aztec held a great
celebration called the Binding up of the Years. Prior to the celebration, the
people would let their hearth fires go out and then re-light them from the new
fire of the celebration and feast. A partial list of the Aztec gods: CENTEOTL,
The corn god. COATLICUE, She of the Serpent Skirt. EHECATL, The god of wind.
HUEHUETEOTL, The fire god. HUITZILOPOCHTLI, The war/sun god and special guardian
of Tenochtitlan. MICTLANTECUHTLE, The god of the dead. OMETECUHLTI and his wife
OMECIHUATL, They created all life in the world. QUETZALCOATL, The god of
civilization and learning. TEZCATLIPOCA, The god of Night and Sorcery. TLALOC,
The rain god. TONATIUH, The sun god. TONANTZIN, The honored grandmother. XILONEN,
"Young maize ear," Maize represents a chief staple of the Aztecs. XIPE TOTEC,
The god of springtime and re-growth. Aztec dances: The Aztec Dance is known for
its special way of expressing reverence and prayer to the supernatural gods of
the sun, earth, sky, and water. Originally, the resources accessible to the
native Indians were limited, yet they were able to create lively music with the
howling of the sea conch, and with rhythms produced by drums and by dried seeds
which were usually tied to the feet of the dancers. Summary: Overall, I feel
that the Aztec civilization was very advanced. It had a very complex structure
in which there were lower class, middle class and upper class peoples. They had
a good system of transportation and irrigation through the use of canals. They
had a strong warfare system, which was seen by their conquering of many lands.
They also had their own language, and their own mathematical system. Their
scholars were also very intelligent, they had developed their own system of time
measurement and a calendar system that was very accurate.
1) Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia Version 7.0.5 CD-ROM Grolier Inc.1995
2) Microsoft Encarta 96 CD-ROM Microsoft, 1996
3) Internet Addresses:
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The Aztecs are undoubtedly one of the most unusual cultures that ever existed. For centuries people have been thinking with horrified fascination about these people that combined complicated social structure, educational system and impressive scientific and cultural development with human sacrifice on massive scale, cannibalism and constant wars of conquest. Here are some Aztec culture facts that can make an awesome essay.
Probably the first thing everybody thinks hearing about the Aztecs is human sacrifice – and for a good reason. All pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures practiced it to this or that extent, but the Aztecs took it to a completely new level.
According to Aztec mythology, gods sacrificed their lives to sustain the fading sun and save humankind, and this made humans indebted to them for all eternity. Moreover, the sacrifice of gods was not a single act, but more of a continuous process, which required constant reenactment. The power of gods kept the sun alive, and to give gods this power, they had to give them blood and hearts, which were considered to be fragments of the sun’s heat.
Aztecs divided time into 52-year cycles and fearfully ended the end of each – if the gods didn’t receive enough sacrifices throughout the cycle, the sun would go out and the world would end. The main reason for Flower Wars the Aztecs constantly waged on their neighbors was to provide enough captives to fill the sacrifice quota. Even Aztec war strategy and tactics were mainly devised to wound and capture rather than kill as many enemies as possible.
Human sacrifice was an extremely important part of everyday life in Aztec society – it was carried out during each of their many festivals and for special occasions and was accompanied by elaborate rituals and done by various methods according to which god it was intended for. The most popular method was the extraction of the heart, but victims were often burned, flayed, drowned, starved and decapitated. Afterwards priests would often wear their skins (they were considered holy relics and symbolized rebirth) and cannibalize their corpses. And there were a lot of them – during the opening ceremony of one particularly big temple, as reported in their codices, they slaughtered between 10,000 and 80,400 people in the course of four days, while normally settling for about 20,000 per year.
Despite their extremely warlike nature and penchant for torture and human sacrifice, the Aztecs were far from being uncultured, which probably made them a great deal more disturbing and frightening. At the zenith of its glory their capital, Tenochtitlan, housed between 200,000 and 300,000 people, by far eclipsing most European cities of the time, with possible exceptions of Constantinople and Venice.
The Aztecs were also probably the first nation in the world to ever establish the system of universal mandatory education – it took place before the age of 14 and was carried out by parents under supervision of authorities. Among other things, children had to learn the so-called “sayings of the old” – a collection of statements that embodied the Aztec ideals and conditioned them for future service. After 14 children attended more advanced schools, divided into two types: the ones dedicated to theoretical sciences like astronomy, writing, mathematics etc., and the ones dealing with military and practical education.
Aztec civilization was based on domination over the surrounding peoples and aggressive expansion, and the Aztecs themselves were a nation of warriors from the outset. Being initially a small and insignificant migratory tribe, the Aztecs managed to conquer almost the entire Mesoamerican region in a little more than a century, and warfare occupied one of the central positions in their lifestyle and social arrangement. Aztec empire had a relatively small standing army for its size – only the members of elite warrior societies which were extremely hard to get into, served as full-time military forces. However, military training was an integral part of basic education, and every male Aztec was prepared to the role of a soldier since childhood. Therefore, during military campaigns large numbers of warriors were drafted from commoners.
Warfare was also the only way for a man of low birth to improve his station in life – through showing bravery on the field of battle and, in particular, through capturing enemy warriors alive for the further use as sacrifices. After taking four prisoners, one was accepted into one of elite warrior societies, like Eagle and Jaguar warriors. Taking six prisoners and more led to the greatest possible honor – to be accepted into the most prestigious society, Cuachicqueh, or the Shorn Ones (called so because they shaved their heads except for one braid over the left ear), who served as elite shock troops and swore to kill any of their number who makes a step back during a battle.
Trade was an important component of Aztec everyday life: their merchants travelled all across Mesoamerica and beyond and were united into exclusive guilds, and every large settlement had regular market days on which all kinds of merchandise exchanged hands. Basic currency for all transactions was cacao beans which had to be exported from lowlands. They were used mostly for small purchases; for large transactions the Aztecs used standardized lengths of cotton cloth of varying quality and value (from 65 to 300 beans).
Aztec empire had a code of laws that regulated everyday life and meted out punishments. However, by our standards these regulations and punishments sometimes look rather bizarre. For example, death penalty (usually through strangulation) was common for serious crimes, which included murder, theft and public drunkenness (unless you were over 70 years old). The most usual punishment for less serious offences was to have your house demolished. These included, for example, petit larceny and wearing of clothes too lavish for your social status.
The Aztecs will undoubtedly continue to intrigue us for many years to come. Fortunately, the body of evidence telling us about them is rather large compared with other Mesoamerican cultures, which means that you will have a lot of material for your history essay!
- A. Caso, The Aztecs, People of the Sun (tr. 1958, repr. 1967).
- Berdan, Frances F., Richard E. Blanton, Elizabeth H. Boone, Mary G. Hodge, Michael E. Smith and Emily Umberger (1996) Aztec Imperial Strategies. Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, DC.
- Brumfiel, Elizabeth M. (1998) Huitzilopochtli’s Conquest: Aztec Ideology in the Archaeological Record. Cambridge Archaeological Journal.
- Durán, Fray Diego (1964) The Aztecs: The History of the Indians of New Spain. Translated by Fernando Horcasitas and Doris Heyden. Orion Press, New York.
- Kellogg, Susan (1995) Law and the Transformation of Aztec Culture, 1500-1700. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.
- León-Portilla, Miguel (1963) Aztec Thought and Culture: A Study of the Ancient Náhuatl Mind. Univ. Oklahoma Press, Norman.
- Smith, Michael E. (2003) The Aztecs. 2nd ed. Blackwell Publishers, Oxford.
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