What Do You Know About The Aztec Empire?

Tense meeting between Spanish Conquistador Hernan Cortes (left) and Aztec Emperor Montezuma (right).

5. Background and Initial Formation

The Aztecs began as a union of three powerful city-states in Mexico. Namely, these were the city-states of Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan. These city-states had become powerful as a result of the assimilation into their cities's jurisdictions of the smaller units of villages and outlying area that they were able to respectively subjugate. The alliance helped to defeat the formerly dominant Tepanec Azcapotzalco in the region. The written history of the Aztecs, as illustrated by their pictographic codices, show their place of origin was in Aztlan, Mexico. Soon, these people managed to form a triple alliance that would become the Aztec Empire. The word "Aztec" itself is a modern term coined by archaeologists as a way of differentiating the people from the Mayas and others. The Aztec Empire, according to scholar Alexander Motyl, was a hegemonic alliance.

4. Rise To Power And Accomplishments

The leaders of the three city-states of Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan and their previous communications with each other helped in the formation of their new, powerful alliance. They formed a union to dominate Central Mexico in 1428, at a time when wars were being fought between various villages and cities for regional dominance. The Aztecs proved effective in governing, and they did so by working through the local governments already in place underneath them. Their strategy was to ally with political units and consolidate power by intermarriage. The Aztec Empire was built on blood and wars that, at one time, saw 20,000 captives being sacrificed to their sun god, Huitzilopochtli. The year 1519 saw the Aztec Empire reach its peak, as it dominated Mexico and the tributes kept pouring into its imperial treasuries.

3. Challenges and Controversies

The military might of the empire was centered in Tenochtitlan (in and around modern Mexico City). This city was where the Aztecs' military forces resided and spearheaded their military campaigns from in their pushes for domination over the surrounding region. However, this was not always the case, as in the beginning the three city-states remained at odds with each other as well. However, after the Triple Alliance was forged, the union created the empire. Then, in 1519, Hernan Cortes, first Spanish conquistador to reach the area, arrived by ship. The Spaniards were totally astonished by the wealth of the Aztecs, as the local markets were filled with precious stones, silver, and gold. They saw the mineral wealth, exotic fruits, and other goods held by the Aztecs as theirs for the taking.

2. Decline and Demise

The introduction of Christianity and the conquistadors' greed for gold took hold at a rapid pace. The resulting treachery started by the Spaniards was aided by local natives, resulting in the successive toppling of one Aztec leader after another. It only took two years for the great Aztec Empire to fall, and its surviving leadership was either executed or enslaved. Cortes used treachery to capture the Aztec Emperor Montezuma, and the Aztecs attacked the palace where the deceitful Cortes had been given quarter as a guest. The mob accidentally killed the emperor in the ensuing chaos. Escaping that night to Tlacopan to reorganize his forces and strategize, Cortes raised an army of 100,000, mostly comprised by natives. Cortes then attacked Tenochtitlan once again, which was already weakened after half of its population had died of the small pox introduced into the region by the conquistadors. The city easily fell.

1. Historical Significance and Legacy

The Aztec Empire left a profound cultural legacy, inclusive of language, national identity, architecture, and cuisine alike. Today, the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs is still spoken by about 1.5 million indigenous people in the back country areas of Central Mexico where the original Aztecs hailed from. The words tomato and xocolatl (chocolate) are both derived from this Aztec language. The population of Mexico still has indigenous Mexicans whose ancestors also formed part of the Aztec civilization. Mexico City still retains many Nahuatl names for its streets. Some city and town names in the region also come from the same language. Mexican cuisine has retained some of the Aztec flavors, as well as their dishes' Nahuatl names. Many archaeological sites and museums exhibit Aztec art, and Aztec influences are found in Mexico still today.


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