The Aztec Empire was a Mesoamerican culture that existed from 1300 until their destruction in 1521 by Spanish conquistadors under the leadership of Hernán Cortés. The empire was composed of an alliance of three city-states known as Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan, located in and around the Valley of Mexico.
At its height, the Aztec Empire is described as being one of the greatest Mesoamerican empires in history, establishing an incredibly flourishing and unique culture that unfortunately came to an end almost overnight. Keep reading to learn some facts about the mighty Aztec Empire that will help you see the culture in an entirely new way.
Their Capital Was The Largest Pre-Columbian City In The Americas
Located on the western shore of Lake Texcoco in modern-day Mexico, the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan was home to over 200,000 people by 16th century CE. This made it the largest city in the Pre-Columbian Americas and the world. A political and religious capital, Tenochtitlan was also a major hub for trade ranging from gems, weapons, food, and slaves.
Throughout the city were impressive water canals, which was also surrounded by raised flooded fields increasing the city’s agriculture production. The Spanish conquistadors were particularly impressed with the city’s advanced architecture and artwork, most notably the Templo Mayor pyramid.
They Were Undone By Disease More So Than Combat
The Aztec Empire began to truly fall after the arrival of the Europeans, mainly the Spanish, in the early 16th century. As it turns out, the biggest threat that the Spaniards brought with them wasn’t guns and soldiers, but disease. Historians have agreed that it was smallpox that decimated the Aztec population.
Within the first five years after the arrival of the Europeans, an estimated 20 million Aztecs are believed to have died from the illness. Many of those who died first were the leaders who had direct contact with the Spanish conquistadors.
Aztec Isn’t What They Called Themselves
Although everyone refers to the ancient people as Aztecs, that is not the name that they called themselves. They called themselves the Mexica, which is where the name from the country of Mexico comes from.
It’s assumed that the Europeans started calling them Aztecs because Aztlan is an area in Northern Mexico that the Aztecs are believed to have lived around the 12th century. However, they were also known as the Tenochca, derived from the name of their capital city, Tenochtitlan.
They Kept Immaculate Records
Much like Egyptian hieroglyphs, the Aztecs had their own form of writing known as Nahuatl, an alphabet made up of pictures. This form of writing was highly specialized and was typically performed by skilled scribes and priests who studied and practiced for years.
They used their style of writing to keep near immaculate records for taxes, religion, astronomy, weather, history, ceremonies, and even art. These were written on paper made of bark or deerskin and were written with charcoal and then colored with dye from vegetables among other substances.
It Was Mandatory For Children To Attend School
Rearing children was an essential aspect of Aztec life, and while parents were expected to teach their children as much as they could, children also attended school. One of the first civilizations to do so, attending school was mandatory for children although they were separated by social status and gender.
Boys of nobility attended the Calmecac School where they learned government, leadership skills, art, history, religion, and more. On the other hands, boys of less status were sent to Cuicacalli School, which was more military-focused. The girl’s education was more based on domestic duties such as cooking, weaving, and maintaining the home.
They Had A Unique Form Of Slavery
Compared to the type of slavery that we’re familiar with today, Aztec slavery is far different. In Aztec culture, slaves were not necessarily property and could make enough money to eventually buy their freedom. Slavery was also a type of currency, with people able to sell themselves into slavery to pay off debts or even sell their children into slavery for a certain number of years.
Furthermore, although still not a preferable way of life, Aztec slaves could marry, have children, own possessions, earn money, and even have their own property. In a sense, slavery was seen as a different kind of employment.
They Loved Art And Sports
While today, many people see the Aztecs as a particularly brutal and bloodthirsty civilization, they were also extremely artistic. Some of their greatest artistic achievements can be seen in their architecture, pottery, sculpting, poetry, and dress as well. They often also tattooed their accomplishments on their body in very intricate designs.
On top of their art, they also enjoyed recreation, as seen for their love of sports. Their most popular game, Ullamaliztli, is a team game played with a rubber ball on a court called a Tlachtli. The goal was to get the ball through a stone hoop using only their head, elbows, knees, and hips.
They Had An Interesting Burial Ritual
Unlike many other cultures which separate the dead from the living, the Aztecs did quite the opposite. They were known to bury their deceased ancestors and loved ones either around or directly under their houses. However, if a person of high nobility or power dies they would be cremated instead.
This is because they believed the cremation of a great soldier or ruler would send them to the afterlife quicker than being buried. Often, the Aztecs would also sacrifice a dog and bury it with someone who died so it could guide them to the afterlife.
Aztec Men Practiced Polygamy
While it wasn’t taboo for Aztec men to have more than one wife, there were certain rules that were expected to be followed. For example, a man’s first wife is known as his “principal wife” and is the only woman that he goes through a religious ceremony with.
Although a man is expected to treat all of his wives with equal respect, his first wife is always considered to be the most important, although his secondary wives are still kept in official records. Having multiple wives was also a status symbol that demonstrated a family’s wealth and social status. Divorce wasn’t unheard of either although adultery by either party could be punishable by death.
There Was A God For Almost Everything
The Aztecs are known for having numerous gods and goddesses. Each of them was considered to be in control of one or more aspects of Aztec life such as the sun, nature, animals, or daily activities.
There was also no shortage of agricultural gods since farming was an important staple of their civilization. In addition, the majority of the gods had two faces, one representing their good side and the other, their less forgiving personality. For the most part, the Aztecs both exalted and feared their gods.
Their Diet Wasn’t Anything To Complain About
Because of the Aztec’s very advanced and effective irrigation system, they were able to create a booming agricultural industry that provided large harvests of food. Their diet typically consisted of maize (one of their biggest crops), potatoes, tomatoes, squash, beans, and chocolate.
Of course, they also hunted and would eat animals such as coyotes, snakes, rabbits, turkeys, fish, and armadillos to name a few. The Aztecs were skilled hunters using their knowledge of the surrounding jungle to find what they were looking for. They also enjoyed fermented fruit drinks, even having their own version of hot chocolate.
The Legend Of The Eagle And Cactus
According to legend, the ancient Mexica people were looking for an eagle perched on a cactus as a sign where to build their great city of Tenochtitlan. The image of the eagle and cactus supposedly came from an ancient prophecy.
Amazingly, the Mexica people eventually found what they were looking for, except it was on a tiny island in the middle of Lake Texcoco where they decided to build their incredible city. The eagle and snake can be seen today on the Mexican flag as a tribute to the legend.
Many Natives Teamed Up With The Spaniards
When the Spanish conquistadors first landed in Mesoamerica and began their conquest of the Aztec empire, some natives saw it is an opportunity to break free from the Aztec rule. Due to how large and intricate the Aztec civilization was, they demanded a lot from the subjects it had conquered during the creation of their empire.
So, when the Spanish began to make their way inland towards Tenochtitlan, they recruited many of the surrounding natives to fight beside them. This proved to give the Spanish the upper-hand in their conflicts with the Aztec armies.
They Introduced Chocolate To Europe
Chocolate originally comes from Mesoamerica with the Aztecs believing that it had been gifted to them by their god Quetzalcoatl, the god of wisdom. Cacao was so revered in their society that their seeds were even used as a form of currency on occasion. However, the way they consumed chocolate was far different from how we do now.
Usually, they would crush up the seeds and create a drink with other spices that most people would probably find unappealing today. It wasn’t until they introduced it to the Europeans that Westerners began to add sugar to it.
They Had Never Seen Horses Until The Arrival Of The Spaniards
Before the arrival of the Spanish, no person in the Aztec civilization had ever seen a horse, as they didn’t live in the New World. So, when the Aztecs saw the Spaniards riding in on their horses, they had no idea what to make of it.
It awed them to the point that they thought the Spaniard leader, Hernán Cortés, was Quetzalcoatl, one of their gods prophesized to return to Earth. Bernal Díaz del Castillo’s account of the Aztecs seeing the horses claims they thought they were centaurs. He wrote: “The Indians, who had never seen any horses before, could not think otherwise than that horse and rider were one body.”
Aztecs Were Fierce And Elite Warriors
Although not all Aztec males were warriors, those that were struck fear into the heart of their enemies. The typical Aztec warrior wore heavily padded cotton armor and typically carried a wooden shield, an obsidian club-sword, a spear, or a bow and arrow.
They also had elite fighting forces such as Eagle and Jaguar warriors who wore feather and animal skin costumes complete with headdresses to signify their rank. Those with high ranks and those who had demonstrated their valor in battle were likewise treated as a form of nobility in Aztec society.
They Were Very Animated While Fighting
On top of being elite fighters, the Aztecs were also known to sing, dance, and play music during battle. Not only did they use music to pump themselves up during combat, but also as a way to organize their troops and communicate during the commotion. Their chants and dancing were also used to intimidate their enemies, something that was especially effective against the Spanish.
According to one conquistador, While they are fighting they sing and dance, and from time to time utter the most frightful whoopings and whistlings in the world… and it is a certain fact that, to anyone who had never seen them fight before, their yells and manly appearance would be intimidating.”
They Participated In Human Sacrifice
Human sacrifice was common in many cultures in the Pre-Columbian Americas, yet was extremely prominent in Aztec society. The Aztecs believed that they owed a blood-debt to their gods and would sacrifice humans and animals in hopes of avoiding disasters set forth by the gods.
Although scholars believe the numbers were exaggerated, accounts during the Spanish Conquest claimed that over 20,000 people were sacrificed each year. Sacrifices usually included removing the sacrifice’s heart while still alive and proceeding to throw their body down the temple step. Many sacrifices came from enemy soldiers, with the greatest warrior among them being chosen since being sacrificed was considered a high honor.
There Were Runners To Send Messages
During the reign of the final Aztec Emperor Moctezuma II, designated runners were instructed to deliver messages, items, and establish plans across long distances. These runners were extremely talented athletes and were designated to an area 2.5 miles apart from each other.
This way, they could quickly report on important matters, especially in regards to the military. When Hernán Cortés first arrived in 1519, the leaders of the Aztec Empire were well aware of his arrival before his march on Tenochtitlan.
They Shied Away From Alcohol But Not Psychedelic Experiences
Although the Aztecs frequently drank fermented beverages, it was frowned upon to actually become intoxicated by them. Supposedly, having a fifth cup of a drink such as pulque, an agave beer, was said to only lead to trouble. However, psychedelic substances were held in high regard.
Peyote was used for vision quests, morning glory was used during ceremonies, and psilocybin mushrooms were reserved for the highest religious occasions. Many other plants were also used to cause intoxication, sometimes just for recreation. Of course, the missionaries were appalled by this and considered their ingestion of such substances to be the work of the devil.