Aztec Civilization

Aztec Civilization

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The Aztec Empire (c. Aztec warriors were able to dominate their neighbouring states and permit rulers such as Montezuma to impose Aztec ideals and religion across Mexico. Highly accomplished in agriculture and trade, the last of the great Mesoamerican civilizations was also noted for its art and architecture.

The Aztec civilization, with its capital city at Tenochtitlán (Mexico City), is actually the most well-documented Mesoamerican civilization with sources including archaeology, native books (codices) and lengthy and detailed accounts from their Spanish conquerors - both by military men and Christian clergy. These latter sources may not always be reliable but the picture we have of the Aztecs, their institutions, religious practices, Aztec warfare and daily life is a rich one and it continues to be constantly expanded with details being added through the endeavours of 21st-century CE archaeologists and scholars.

Historical Overview

Sometime around 1100 the city-states or altepetl which were spread over central Mexico began to compete with each other for local resources and regional dominance. Each state had its own ruler or tlatoani who led a council of nobles but these small urban centres surrounded by farmland soon sought to expand their wealth and influence so that by c. 1400 several small empires had formed in the Valley of Mexico. Dominant amongst these were Texcoco, capital of the Acholhua region, and Azcapotzalco, capital of the Tepenec. These two empires came face to face in 1428 with the Tepanec War. The Azcapotzalco forces were defeated by an alliance of Texcoco, Tenochtitlan (the capital of the Mexica) and several other smaller cities. Following victory, a Triple Alliance was formed between Texcoco, Tenochtitlan and a rebel Tepanec city, Tlacopan. A campaign of territorial expansion began where the spoils of war - usually in the form of tributes from the conquered - were shared between these three great cities. Over time Tenochtitlan came to dominate the Alliance, its ruler became the supreme ruler - the huey tlatoque ('high king') - and the city established itself as the capital of the Aztec empire.

Masters of the world, their empire so wide & abundant that they had conquered all the nations.
Diego Durán

The empire continued to expand from 1430 and the Aztec military - bolstered by conscription of all adult males, men supplied from allied and conquered states, and such elite members of Aztec society as the Eagle and Jaguar warriors - swept aside their rivals. An Aztec warrior wore padded cotton armour, carried a wooden or reed shield covered in hide, and wielded weapons such as a super sharp obsidian sword-club (macuahuitl), a spear or dart thrower (atlatl), and bow and arrows. Elite warriors also wore spectacular feathered and animal skin costumes and headdresses to signify their rank. Battles were concentrated in or around major cities and when these fell the victors claimed the whole surrounding territory. Regular tributes were extracted and captives were taken back to Tenochtitlan for ritual sacrifice. In this way, the Aztec empire came to cover most of northern Mexico, an area of some 135,000 square kilometres.

The empire was kept together through the appointment of officials from the Aztec culture's heartland, inter-marriages, gift-giving, invitations to important ceremonies, the building of monuments and artworks which promoted Aztec imperial ideology, and most importantly of all, the ever-present threat of military intervention. Some states were integrated more than others whilst those on the extremities of the empire became useful buffer zones against more hostile neighbours, notably the Tarascan civilization.


The Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán (today beneath Mexico City) on the western shore of Lake Texcoco flourished so that the city could boast at least 200,000 inhabitants by the early 16th century, making it the largest city in the Pre-Columbian Americas. These inhabitants were divided into several social strata. At the top were local rulers (teteuhctin), then came nobles (pipiltin), commoners (macehualtin), serfs (mayeque), and finally slaves (tlacohtin). The strata seem to have been relatively fixed but there is some evidence of movement between them, especially in the lower classes.

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Not only the political and religious capital, Tenochtitlán was also a huge trading centre with goods flowing in and out such as gold, greenstone, turquoise, cotton, cacao beans, tobacco, pottery, tools, weapons, foodstuffs (tortillas, chile sauces, maize, beans, and even insects, for example) and slaves. The Spanish invaders were hugely impressed by the city's splendour and magnificent architecture and artwork, especially the Templo Mayor pyramid and massive stone sculptures. Dominating the city was the huge Sacred Precinct with its temples and monumental ball court. Tenochtitlan's water management was also impressive with large canals crisscrossing the city which was itself surrounded by chinampas - raised and flooded fields - which greatly increased the agricultural capacity of the Aztecs. There were also anti-flood dykes, artificial reservoirs for fresh water, and wonderful flower gardens dotted around the city.

The whole city was designed to inspire awe in the people, especially visiting nobles who, entertained with lavish ceremonies, could see that the Mexica Aztecs truly were:

Masters of the world, their empire so wide and abundant that they had conquered all the nations and that all were their vassals. The guests, seeing such wealth and opulence and such authority and power, were filled with terror. (Diego Durán, the Spanish friar, quoted in Nichols, 451)


Mythology and religion, as with most ancient cultures, were closely intertwined for the Aztecs. The very founding of Tenochtitlán was based on the belief that peoples from the mythical land of plenty Aztlán (literally 'Land of White Herons' and origin of the Aztec name) in the far northwest had first settled in the Valley of Mexico. They had been shown the way by their god Huitzilopochtli who had sent an eagle sitting on a cactus to indicate exactly where these migrants should build their new home. The god also gave these people their name, the Mexica, who along with other ethnic groups, who similarly spoke Nahuatl, collectively made up the peoples now generally known as the Aztecs.

The Aztec pantheon included a mix of older Mesoamerican gods and specifically Mexica deities. The two principal gods worshipped were Huitzilopochtli (the war and sun god) and Tlaloc (the rain god) and both had a temple on top of the Templo Mayor pyramid at the heart of Tenochtitlan. Other important gods were Quetzalcoatl (the feathered serpent god common to many Mesoamerican cultures), Tezcatlipoca (supreme god at Texcoco), Xipe Totec (god of Spring and agriculture), Xiuhtecuhtli (god of fire), Xochipilli (god of summertime and flowers), Ometeotl (the creator god), Mictlantecuhtli (god of the dead) and Coatlicue (the earth-mother goddess).

This sometimes bewildering array of gods presided over every aspect of the human condition. The timing of ceremonies in honour of these deities was dictated by a variety of calendars. There was the 260-day Aztec calendar which was divided into 20 weeks, each of 13 days which carried names such as Crocodile and Wind. There was also a Solar calendar consisting of 18 months, each of 20 days. The 584 day period covering the rise of Venus was also important and there was a 52-year cycle of the sun to be considered. The movement of planets and stars were carefully observed (albeit not as accurately, though, as the Maya had done) and they provided the motive for the specific timing of many religious rites and agricultural practices.

The sun, not surprisingly, had great significance for the Aztecs. They believed that the world went through a series of cosmic ages, each had its own sun but finally each world was destroyed and replaced by another until the fifth and final age was reached - the present day for the Aztecs. This cosmic progression was wonderfully represented in the famous Sun Stone but also crops up in many other places too.

The gods were honoured with festivals, banquets, music, dancing, decoration of statues, burning of incense, the ritual burial of precious goods, penances such as blood-letting, and animal sacrifices. Human sacrifice, both of adults and less often children, was frequently carried out to metaphorically 'feed' the gods and keep them happy lest they become angry and make life difficult for humans by sending storms, droughts etc. or even just to keep the sun appearing every day. Victims of human sacrifice were usually taken from the losing side in wars. Indeed, the so-called 'Flowery Wars' were specifically undertaken to collect sacrificial victims. The most prestigious offerings were those warriors who had shown great bravery in battle. The sacrifice itself could take three main forms: the heart was removed, the victim was decapitated, or the victim was made to fight in a hopelessly one-sided contest against elite warriors. There were also impersonators who dressed in the regalia of a specific god and at the climax of the ceremony were themselves sacrificed.

Architecture & Art

The Aztecs were themselves appreciative of fine art and they collected pieces from across their empire to be brought back to Tenochtitlan and often ceremonially buried. Aztec art was nothing if not eclectic and ranged from miniature engraved precious objects to massive stone temples. Monumental sculptures were a particular favourite and could be fearsome monstrosities such as the colossal Coatlicue statue or be very life-like such as the famous sculpture of a seated Xochipilli.

Organised in guilds and attached to the main palaces, artisans could specialise in metalwork, wood carving or stone sculpture, with materials used such as amethyst, rock crystal, gold, silver, and exotic feathers. Perhaps some of the most striking art objects are those which employed turquoise mosaic such as the famous mask of Xuihtecuhtli. Common forms of pottery vessels include anthropomorphic vases in bright colours and of special note was the finely made and highly prized Cholula ware from Cholollan.

Aztec art depicted all manner of subjects but especially popular were animals, plants and gods, particularly those related to fertility and agriculture. Art could also be used as propaganda to spread the imperial dominance of Tenochtitlan. Examples such as the Sun Stone, Stone of Tizoc, and Throne of Motecuhzoma II all portray Aztec ideology and seek to closely correlate political rulers to cosmic events and even the gods themselves. Even architecture could achieve this aim, for example, the Templo Mayor pyramid sought to replicate the sacred snake mountain of Aztec mythology, Coatepec, and temples and statues bearing Aztec symbols were set up across the empire.


The Aztec empire, which controlled some 11,000,000 people, had always had to deal with minor rebellions - typically, when new rulers took power at Tenochtitlan - but these had always been swiftly crushed. The tide began to turn, though, when the Aztecs were heavily defeated by the Tlaxcala and Huexotzingo in 1515. With the arrival of the Spanish, some of these rebel states would again seize the opportunity to gain their independence. When the conquistadors finally did arrive from the Old World sailing their floating palaces and led by Hernán Cortés, their initial relations with the leader of the Aztecs, Motecuhzoma II, were friendly and valuable gifts were exchanged. Things turned sour, though, when a small group of Spanish soldiers were killed at Tenochtitlan while Cortés was away at Veracruz. The Aztec warriors, unhappy at Motecuhzoma's passivity, overthrew him and set Cuitlahuac as the new tlatoani. This incident was just what Cortés needed and he returned to the city to relieve the besieged remaining Spanish but was forced to withdraw on 30 June 1520 in what became known as the Noche Triste. Gathering local allies Cortés returned ten months later and in 1521 he laid siege to the city. Lacking food and ravaged by disease, the Aztecs, now led by Cuauhtemoc, finally collapsed on the fateful day of 13 August 1521. Tenochtitlan was sacked and its monuments destroyed. From the ashes rose the new capital of the colony of New Spain and the long line of Mesoamerican civilizations which had stretched right back to the Olmec came to a dramatic and brutal end.

The Aztec Civilization: What was it like?

The empire ended when the area was conquered by the Spanish.

However, this empire is not the homogeneous civilization that you might think of at first. The Mexica formed the head of the empire, and built their capital city of Tenochtitlan where the present day Mexico City is located. Even the Mexica were not culturally homogeneous - some researchers believe that as many as seventeen ethnic groups were among the original tribes that came south to the site of Tenochtitlan.

Organizing a Civilization

They originally formed an alliance with two other cities in the area, called Texcoco and Tlacopan, called the Triple Alliance. However, Tenochtitlan eventually became the most powerful, and began conquering other cities. Cultures in the area at the time the Mexicas arrived in the valley of Mexico included the Tepanecs, Cholcos, Xochimilcos, Tlaxcalans and others, all attempting to gain ascendancy in the valley itself.

Each state in the empire was ruled by its local government, which paid tribute and followed a number of laws dictated by the Triple Alliance. Most of the tribute went to Tenochtitlan, since it had most of the power. This type of empire is called a hegemonic or informal empire.

The territories ruled by the Aztec civilization weren't entirely connected, either. Since some city-states successfully resisted, maps of the Aztec empire often have "holes" in them. This doesn't appear to have affected the strength of the empire, however.

Had Europeans not appeared, the empire may have kept on growing. At its height, the Aztec civilization reached east and west from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. North-south, the empire stretched from Central Mexico to modern day Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

Ruling an Empire

Groups of families were the basic unit of government in the empire. These groups, called calpulli, had existed long before the Aztec civilization, and were set up to own land. The leaders of the calpulli set up schools for common citizens, collected taxes, and took care of basic group needs. Later calpullis were less family related and more regional, but operated in much the same way.

Leaders of the calpullis formed a city council - possibly the unit with the most power in the ancient Aztec government. Each city council had another council within it - an executive council made of four members. One of them would be the leader of the city, or tlatcani.

The council of Tenochtitlan led the empire itself, and has been compared to the senate of Rome. The leader of this group was the Huey Tlatcani, or the emperor. He was worshiped as a god, and had the support of the city council, major government officials, and the priesthood. The most famous of the Aztec emperors was Montezuma II, ruler when Cortes reached the Aztecs.

The famous human sacrifices of the Aztecs were originally infrequent, grotesque to modern eyes. It seems that, during the mid fifteenth century, a series of natural disasters convinced the Mexica that massive sacrifice was needed to satiate their gods. These practices were among the excuses that the Spanish used to attempt to destroy the empire so completely.

The remnants of the Aztec Civilization

Many people in Mexico today can trace their ancestry and some culture back to the Aztec civilization, including the language of the empire (Nahuatl) which is still spoken. If you visit the country today, you'll see a lot of relics of Aztec culture there, including elaborate stone architecture, pottery, jewelry, paintings and more. Place names, religion - even ways of thinking that were seen in the Aztec civilization are still very much a part of Mexico today.

Note: The image on this page is a mechanical clock based on the Aztec calendar of ancient times. It is on display on the grounds of the Roman Catholic Basilica in Mexico City.

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If you quote this material please be courteous and provide a link.

Tenochtitlán: A Dominant Imperial City 

Tenochtitlan, the ancient capital of the Aztec empire, and the Valley of Mexico. 

When Spanish conquistadors arrived in the Aztec imperial city in 1519, Mexico-Tenochtitlán was led by Moctezuma II. The city had prospered and was estimated to host a population of between 200,000 and 300,000 residents.

At first the conquistadors described Tenochtitlán as the greatest city they had ever seen. It was situated on a human-made island in the middle of Lake Texcoco. From its central location, Tenochtitlán served as a hub for Aztec trade and politics. It featured gardens, palaces, temples and raised roads with bridges that connected the city to the mainland.

Other city-states were forced to pay periodic tributes to Tenochtitlán’s public markets and to its religious center, the Templo Mayor or “Great Temple.” Religious tributes sometimes took the form of human sacrifices. While the Aztec’s monetary and religious demands empowered the empire, it also fostered resentment among surrounding city-states. 

Aztec History and the Triple Alliance

In the Aztec history, the famous Triple Alliance has particular relevance because it was thanks to this alliance that Aztec Empire was established in 1428.

Before the formation of the alliance, Azcapotzalco was the most powerful city-state in the region. However, when their emperor Chimalpopoca was assassinated, the civil war of succession began which soon spread to other city-states.

During this war, a triple alliance was formed between the city-states of Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan. This alliance defeated Azcapotzalco and Tenochtitlan emerged as the most powerful city-state and the capital of the Aztec Empire.

Aztec Civilization - History

Dig into the mysteries of Aztec history right here! What was ancient Aztec art and culture like? What about the Aztec religion? And the legendary Aztec sacrifices?

The Aztec Empire was peopled by a group that was once nomadic, the Mexicas. Their chroniclers told them that after their long journey from Aztlán, they found themselves to be outcasts, until they found the sign sent to them by their god Huitzilopochtli, and began to build their city. And so the Mexica peoples continued, and the Aztec Empire began.

The city of Tenochitlan was soon to become one of the largest cities in the world. The power of the Mexica peoples became more consolidated, and they began to form alliances. Their military power grew as well, and they began to conquer peoples in the surrounding areas.

At the height of its power, the Aztec Empire was organized and strong, but ruled with fear. In 1519, a clash of cultures was to take place, unlike anything before it. Although there was much tragedy in both the Spanish and Aztec empires before this, the meeting of the two civilizations was disastrous. In a few short years, the culture and structure of one of histories greatest empires would have virtually vanished.

  • It was against the law to be drunk in public in the Aztec empire, unless you were over 70 years old!
  • Each Aztec home had a steam bath!
  • It is said that the major Aztec weapon could chop off the head of a horse with one blow!
  • Read on for much more ancient Aztec history!

The articles on this site are ©2006-2021.

If you quote this material please be courteous and provide a link.

Aztec Civilization - History

The young boy’s remains were adorned with beads, jewels and bells.

Archaeologists made the stunning discovery while scanning the pyramid for damage after the devastating 2017 central Mexican earthquake.

The mysterious epidemic that devastated Aztecs may have been food poisoning.

New DNA research suggests a deadly form of salmonella may have been behind the collapse of the Aztec civilization.

The bouncing rubber balls used to play today’s most popular sports can be traced back 3,500 years to the dangerous—and deadly—ancient Mesoamerican sport of ulama.

Explore the deadly history.

A trove of ceremonial offerings has been discovered under Teotihuacan’s Pyramid of the Sun, archaeologists announced Tuesday.

Excavations for a new Mexico City subway line have unearthed a number of important finds, including the remains of 50 Aztec children.

What Caused the Aztec Empire to Fall? Scientists Uncover New Clues

In 1545, an unknown disease struck the Aztec Empire. Those who came down with it might become feverish, start vomiting, and develop blotches on their skin. Most horrific of all, they𠆝 bleed from their eyes, mouth, and nose, then die within a few days.

Over the next five years, the disease—then called 𠇌ocoliztli,” or “pestilence”—killed between seven and 17 million people. Scientists and historians have long wondered what the source of this mysterious epidemic was. Now, a group of researchers may have found the answer: salmonella.

On January 15, 2017, the scientific journal Nature Ecology & Evolution published a study of Salmonella enterica bacteria in the teeth of cocoliztli victims. Most Americans know salmonella as a foodborne illness that you can get if you eat, for example, raw eggs or chicken.

Though S. enterica was the only germ that researchers detected in the victims’ teeth, they do caution that other indetectable pathogens could have been involved, too.

“We cannot say with certainty that S. enterica was the cause of the cocoliztli epidemic,” Kirsten Bos, a molecular paleopathologist at the Max Planck Institute in Germany and co-author of the recent study, told The Guardian. “We do believe that it should be considered a strong candidate.”

Hernando Cortez, Spanish conquistador who conquered Mexico, making contact with native Mexicans. (Credit: Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

European invaders brought many new and devastating illnesses to the Americas in the 16th and 17th centuries. It’s possible that Spanish invaders brought salmonella to the Aztecs in modern-day Mexico through domesticated animals.

The study doesn’t pinpoint the source of the bacteria, leaving open the possibility that it originated in the Americas. Yet even if the Spanish didn’t bring the bacteria, they likely still played a role in how it affected the Aztec people.

“We know that Europeans very much changed the landscape once they entered the new world,” Bos told NPR. “They introduced new livestock, [and] there was lots of social disruption among the indigenous population which would have increased their susceptibility to infectious disease.”

11d. The Aztec World

In 1978, while digging in the basement of a bookstore, workers for Mexico City's power company hit a huge stone disk. Almost 11 feet across, engraved on its surface was the dismembered body of Coyolxauhqui, the Aztec moon goddess. In the center lay her torso, naked but for a belt of snakes. Around the edges were scattered her severed arms, legs and head. She had been slain and cut to pieces by her brother Huitzilopochtl moments after his birth.

Huitzilopochtl, God of the Sun, was the Aztec principal god. He had an insatiable appetite for blood. Under his urging, the Aztecs rose from a band of primitive farmers to become the bloodiest civilization of the early Americas. Many Central America cultures indulged in human sacrifice. The Aztec practiced it on an industrial scale, sacrificing tens of thousands of victims each year.

The Aztec empire of 1519, shown in orange, ruled over vast expanses of central Mexico.

Tenochtitlan: A Legendary City

The Aztecs dominated the Valley of Mexico for 100 years, until their downfall at the hands of Hernan Cortez and his conquistadors in 1521. They built their capital in the most unlikely of places &mdash the center of a lake. Tenochtitlan was a city surrounded by water, with temples and pyramids &mdash sparkling white monuments and ceremonial squares gleaming in the tropical sun. It sat in Lake Texcoco, criss-crossed by canals and connected by three broad causeways to the shore. Along the lake edge the Aztec created chinampas , or raised fields of rotting vegetation and lake-mud. Extraordinarily fertile, they yielded many crops per year.

One story central to the Aztec belief system was the tale of their origins. Aztecs believed that one day while doing housework, the ancient Earth goddess Coatlicue (Serpent Skirt) was impregnated by a ball of feathers. Coyolxauhqui and the 400 stars of the southern sky, her children of the night, grew jealous and determined to kill her. They sliced off her head.

Her unborn child, Huitzilopochtl, learned of the plot. He leapt from her body fully grown. In his hand he brandished a club lined with slivers of razor-sharp black volcanic glass called obsidian. He chopped up Coyolxauhqui and her brothers &mdash a metaphor for the way the sun overwhelms the moon and stars when it rises at dawn each morning.

Huitzilopochtl commanded the Aztecs to travel south until they found a cactus with an eagle nesting in its branches. After many adventures and much misery, they discovered an island with a prickly pear cactus in the year 1 Flint (1324 AD). Sitting upon it was an eagle with outstretched wings and a snake held tightly in its talons. This became the site of Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City. The Aztecs believed the oval red fruit of the cactus symblolized the human heart. Today an eagle, cactus, and snake are the national emblems of the Republic of Mexico.

Rise and Fall of an Empire

Within 50 years of founding Tenochtitlan, the Aztec had extended their rule all across the valley. They formed political alliances with other states, skillfully intermarried with their nobles, and fought tenaciously in battle. Their empire was created by a culture of war. Boys were taught from an early age to be warriors. A warrior who captured four or more prisoners could become a Jaguar or Eagle Knight, and wear brightly colored body-suits of feathers. Girls were prepared for the battle of childbirth. Women who died in labor became goddesses, accompanying the sun across the sky each day from noon until sunset.

By 1519, the Aztec cycle of conquest and exploitation was at its peak. More and more conquered peoples provided tribute, the basis of the Aztecs' immense wealth. More and more prisoners were captured for human sacrifice. Conquistadors were astonished by Aztec marketplaces. They found dealers in gold, silver and precious stones. They saw embroidered clothing and cotton goods and cacao beans for chocolate drinks. Jaguar pelts and deerskins, as well as the brilliant blue plumes of the cotinga bird lined the marketplace. Food included vegetables and fruits, turkeys, young dogs, wild game and many kinds of honey. There were sellers of tobacco, liquid amber, and herbs. All this and more poured into Tenochtitlan. At the same time, the conquistadors heard tales of the day 20,000 captives, some roped together through their noses, wound through the streets to be sacrificed at the top of the Great Temple steps.

Within two years, the Aztec culture was destroyed by the Spanish. Tenochtitlan lay in ruins. There would be no more human sacrifices. And, as the Aztec feared, without life-sustaining blood their gods deserted them and darkness descended on their cosmos.

Aztec Empire

Starting in the 13th century, the Valley of Mexico was considered to be the heart of the Aztec empire, in addition to the capital city being located here, the Triple Alliance could be found here as well. By the year 1520, the empire was estimated to contain as much as 20 million people. The empire of the Aztecs is distinct from other mesoamerican civilizations in a number of different ways. First, it has a tradition of mythologies and religious systems that were highly complex, and they achieved astounding achievements in both architecture and art, achievements which rivaled Europe.


Another factor that made the Aztec Empire unique was its penchant for human sacrifice. While this practice was prevalent among other civilizations in the region, it was very pronounced among the Aztecs, particularly for its brutality and its frequency. The Aztec civilization had reached its maximum height and power by 1521, and it was during this time that Hernan Cortes arrived in the region, defeating the Aztecs with both his own native army and a group of mesoamerican natives who wished to crush the Aztecs once and for all.

How to be a Tlatoani

The office of tlatoani was hereditary, as it was kept within a particular lineage in each Aztec city-state. This was important, as the Aztecs believed that a tlatoani’s right to rule rested on him being from the correct lineage. Nevertheless, this office was not inherited automatically from father to son. Instead, the Aztec tlaloque were elected by a city council, and once chosen, served in this position for life. The council, however, reserved the right to remove the tlatoani, should he prove to be unworthy.

Once elected as tlatoani, an inaugural ceremony would be performed for the new ruler. We know that the inaugural ceremony for the huey tlatoani lasted for a period of time and consisted of several different parts, each of which prepared the ruler for his new role.

As an example, the first part of the inaugural ceremony was religious in nature and involved a retreat with fasting and penitential observances. Additionally, the new huey tlatoani would make regular solemn visits to the shrine of Huitzilopochtli, incense was burnt, and a blood-letting ceremony was performed. This stage was meant to gain the approval of the gods.

A European depiction of an Aztec temple, from ‘Americae, nona et postrema pars’ (1602). () An image of Huitzilopochtli is seen in the background. ( Public Domain )

By contrast, the third part of the inaugural ceremony was the ‘coronation war’, which was designed to prove the new ruler’s prowess in war. The new huey tlatoani was required to go to battle to gain tribute and to capture victims for the human sacrifice that was to be carried out during the confirmation feast. One huey tlatoani, Ahuitzotl, is recorded to have captured a total of 80,400 prisoners, certainly more than enough to prove his worth. The huey tlatoani Tizoc, on the other hand, is recorded to have captured just 40 prisoners, which indicates that he was not worthy to rule.

The Aztec ruler Ahuitzotl (here written Ahuiçuçin = Ahuitzotzin, an honorific form), in the Codex Mendoza. ( Public Domain )

Indeed, military leadership was one of the most important aspects of being a tlatoani. For the Aztecs, the goal of warfare was not only to gain tribute and to expand their territory, but also to maintain the universe. The Aztecs believed that human sacrifice was necessary to sustain the gods, who in turn ensured that the universe continued to exist. The victims of these rituals were often war captives, hence bestowing a sacred nature on warfare.

Ancient Aztec clothing

Ancient Aztec clothing, that is, the clothing worn by the tribes that made up the Aztec empire (such as the Mexica people), was rich in variety. As we shall see, it varied according to the social class that people belonged to.

Aztec clothing was generally loose fitting and did not completely cover the body. When the Spanish arrived in Mexico, the people were surprised to see them in their full armour, with only their faces exposed.

Aztec clothes were generally made of cotton (which was imported) or ayate fiber, made from the Maguey Cactus (also called the Century Plant or American Aloe). Women would weave the fibers into clothing, a task girls were taught as young teenagers. Because of their vast trading network, the Aztecs were able to make use of a beautiful array of dyes, creating the brilliant colours still seen in Mexico today.

The Common people

A simple loincloth and tilma

The Ancient Aztec clothing of the common people and slaves sometimes covered very little of their bodies. Maguey clothing, rather than the cotton, was the rule. Slaves would only wear a simple loincloth. The loincloth, also worn by common people, was made from a long strip of cloth tied in front. If the man had a little higher social standing, it might be embroidered or have fringes on the two ends. The men would also wear a cloak made from a triangular cloth known as a tilmatli or tilma. It could be used like an apron to carry things, or worn as a cloak.

Perhaps the world's most famous tilma is the one worn by Juan Diego, now on display at the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City.

The women would wear skirts, and a sleeve less blouse or short sleeved shirt. Again, this would be very simple, with some decoration as the social class became more prestigious. (read more about the clothes of the commoner)

The upper class

Of course the noble class and religious leaders would wear clothing that was much more adorned, though still tilmas and loincloths and skirts would be worn. There would be symbols of their particular affiliation on the clothing or in a head dress. The more prestigious clothing became brightly coloured. Gold was often used in clothing, and pendants, feathers, furs, and other forms of decoration were used. Jewelry such as necklaces, earrings and bracelets were also worn by the upper classes. Like tribes still in mesoamerica today, some wore "ear spools". Of course, for certain rituals costumes were worn which became even more elaborate. Aztec masks were used for rituals, representing various Aztec gods.

The merchants

Merchants were in a class all their own, and had a certain amount of independence that most people didn't enjoy. They often were allowed to wear more elaborate clothing.

The military

The military had their own costumes, based on what military group they belonged to - the eagle or the jaguar, for example. Even for the Aztec warrior, there was a hierarchy that was reflected by how adorned their costumes were. Those who were war heroes were allowed more jewels and more stunning clothing.

The ancient Aztec clothing of the warrior offered some protection, and their head dresses also served as helmets. Some of the chiefs even wore a layer of gold. Warriors carried a simple decorated shield. They used bows, spears, and the maquahuitl - a combination sword and club.

Ancient Aztec Clothing: Importance

Ancient Aztec clothing was a huge part of the economy. You could buy a slave if you had enough material. People brought thousands of clothing items as tribute to the powerful empire. Clothing both united people and separated them - much like it still does today.

The articles on this site are ©2006-2021.

If you quote this material please be courteous and provide a link.

Watch the video: Στον μυθικό κόσμο των Μάγια - Μάνος Δανέζης, Στράτος Θεοδοσίου (July 2022).


  1. Goltirn

    Without any doubt.

  2. Faukree

    Choice at you uneasy

  3. Goltikasa

    Many thanks for an explanation, now I will not commit such error.

  4. Grogis

    Now everything has become clear, many thanks for the help in this matter.

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