Aztec is the name popularly used today to label the people who dominated central Mexico around 1500 CE. Actually, "the Aztecs" never used the term to describe themselves; rather, they were Nahuatl-speaking peoples divided into about twenty different ethnic groups. The most famous of these groups, and the preeminent one when the Spaniards arrived in Mexico, were the Mexica.
The Mexica arrived in the basin of Mexico (where Mexico City stands today) probably some time during the thirteenth century CE. According to their own legends, they arrived along the western shores of Lake Texcoco as an impoverished, uncouth group into a region that was already fairly fully occupied by a series of kingdoms. Despised as barbarians by the existing inhabitants, their only skill was an aptitude for warfare under the strong influence of their patron god of war, Huitzilopochtli.
Gradually, the Mexica grew stronger. They settled their capital, Tenochtitlan, sometime around 1325, and toward the end of the fourteenth century began to make a concerted drive to achieve a position of strength in the region. In 1428, they and several allies overthrew the Tepanecs of Azcapotzalco, the most powerful kingdom in the basin of Mexico at the time. In one sudden move, the Mexica had become the most-powerful group in ancient Mexico. With their main allies, the Texcoco and the Tlacopan, the Mexica formed a so-called triple alliance that proceeded to expand its territory aggressively throughout central Mexico; they were still doing so when the Spaniards arrived in 1519.
The Mexica controlled what has often been called "the Aztec empire." In fact, the empire was a collection of subjugated groups and kingdoms held together by a combination of force and intimidation. A major aspect of this subjugation was tribute. If a town or region submitted voluntarily to Mexica might, the amount of tribute that it would have to pay annually might be quite light; regions captured in war or rebellious towns would be assessed a far more onerous amount. There are detailed surviving accounts of the tribute that poured into Tenochtitlan each year: the tribute was one of the things the Spaniards were most interested in as they wished to continue the process for their benefit.
The Mexica are perhaps best known for the warfare they waged and for their practice of human sacrifice (something they had in common with all the other peoples of ancient Mexico). But they were also great engineers, architects, artists, and poets. The Spaniards could barely believe the beauty of Tenochtitlan when they entered it and were astounded by the great artistry of the Mexica in paint, wood, ceramic, stone, and silver and gold (almost all of which the Spaniards melted down into ingots).
"Who could defeat Tenochtitlan, who could shake the foundation of heaven?" asked one Mexica poem. In fact, the Mexica were conquered by the Spaniards and a host of native allies, chief of whom were the Tlaxcaltecans. Although the majority of the people of Tlaxcalteca (or Tlaxcala) were, like the Mexica, speakers of Nahuatl, they were bitter enemies of the Aztec empire and had managed to retain a precarious independence, despite being surrounded by Mexicadominated lands. After a siege of several months, Cortés' troops and his tens of thousands of indigenous allies entered Tenochtitlan on August 13, 1521, signaling the end of the Mexica empire. For their key role in overthrowing the Aztec empire, the Tlaxcaltecans were rewarded with honors, tax exemptions, and limited self-rule by the Spanish colonial government.Bibliography
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