The Aztec

The Aztec

Throughout its long history of human habitation, the Valley of Mexico drew people from Mesoamerica who were attracted by its abundant sources of water, easy communication, and plentiful game and vegetation. The valley was a corridor through which many migrating groups passed and sometimes settled. During the pre-Columbian era, the valley was in constant turmoil except when central authority and political hegemony existed.

The last nomadic arrivals in the valley were the Mexica, more commonly known as the Aztec. Although recent linguistic and archaeological work suggests the Aztec may have come from northwest Mexico, their origins are obscure. According to legend, the Aztec came from Aztlán, a mythical place to the north of the Valley of Mexico around A.D. 1100. They were said to have made their way to the valley guided by the chirps of their sun and war god Huitzilopichtli (meaning "hummingbird on the left"). The inhabitants of the valley viewed the new arrivals with suspicion and tried to prevent their settlement. After much wandering and a few wars, in the early 1300s, the Aztec reached the marshy islands in Lago de Texcoco (site of present-day Mexico City), where they saw an eagle perching on a cactus tree and holding a snake in its beak (an image reproduced on the modern Mexican flag). According to Aztec legend, this was a sign indicating where they should build their new capital city. Tenochtitlán was eventually built on an island in Lago de Texcoco and gradually became an important center in the area. Drinking water came from Chapultepec hill on the mainland, and causeways connected the island to the shores of the lake. The Aztec established a monarchy in 1376, naming Acamapichtli as their first king. By the early sixteenth century, Aztec domination reached into most of central and southern Mexico (with the exception of the Mayan areas in the southeast).

Before the settlement at Tenochtitlán, Aztec society was quite simple in its organization and was composed of peasants, warriors, and priest-rulers. Afterward, and with a much larger population, there was an increasing division of labor and a more complex social structure. The emperor was selected according to merit from among the ruling dynasty. The nobility was composed of the high priests, the military, and political leaders. The merchant class lived apart in the city and had its own courts, guilds, and gods. Commoners, the largest segment of society, were farmers, artisans, and lower-level civil servants. The lowest rung of society was composed of conquered peoples brought to Tenochtitlán as slaves.

The political structure of the Aztec empire was based on a loose coalition of city-states under the fiscal control of Tenochtitlán. The main objective of Aztec expansion was to exact tribute from conquered peoples. Tributes were in kind; cocoa, cotton, corn, feathers, precious metals and stones, shells, and jaguar skins were among those sent. The towns also had the obligation to provide soldiers and slaves and to recognize Aztec supremacy and the supremacy of the Aztec god Huitzilopichtli. Otherwise, towns were basically free to conduct their internal affairs, and Aztec hegemony was never fully consolidated--a fact that eventually became a major element in the fall of the empire.


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