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Expansion of the Aztec Empire

Expansion of the Aztec Empire


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The Aztec people lived in the city of Tenochtitlan, which paid tribute to the city-state of Azcapotzalo, the dominant political power in Central Mexico. However, in 1426, the King of Azcapotzalo died and in the ensuing feud of succession, the city of Tenochtitlan went to war with Azcapotzalo. In the war, the city-states of Tlacopan and Texcoco sided with Tenochtitlan and together, the three cities defeated Azcapotzalo.

Aztec-Triple Alliance – Under Motecuzoma I, the Empire expanded towards the Gulf of Mexico at one side and towards Oaxaca on the other.


Overview of the Aztec Empire

The Aztec Empire was the last of the great Mesoamerican cultures. Between A.D. 1345 and 1521, the Aztecs forged an empire over much of the central Mexican highlands. At its height, the Aztecs ruled over 80,000 square miles throughout central Mexico, from the Gulf Coast to the Pacific Ocean, and south to what is now Guatemala. Millions of people in 38 provinces paid tribute to the Aztec ruler, Montezuma II, prior to the Spanish Conquest in 1521.

The Aztecs didn’t start out as a powerful people, however. The Nahuatl speaking peoples began as poor hunter-gatherers in northern Mexico, in a place known to them as Aztlan. Sometime around A.D. 1111, they left Aztlan, told by their war god Huitzilopochtli that they would have to find a new home. The god would send them a sign when they reached their new homeland.

Scholars believe the Aztecs wandered for generations, heading ever southward. Backward and poor, other more settled people didn’t want the Aztecs to settle near them and drove them on. Finally, around A.D. 1325, they saw the god’s sign—the eagle perched on a cactus eating a serpent on an island in Lake Texcoco, or so the legend has it. The city established by the Aztecs, Tenochtitlan, grew to become the capital of their empire.

Fortunately, the site was a strong, strategic area with good sources of food and clean water. The Aztecs began to build the canals and dikes necessary for their form of agriculture and to control water levels. They build causeways linking the island to the shore. Because of the island location, commerce with other cities around the lakes was easily be carried out via canoes and boats.

Through marriage alliances with ruling families in other city states, the Aztecs began to build their political base. They became fierce warriors and skillful diplomats. Throughout the late 1300s and early 1400s, the Aztecs began to grow in political power. In 1428, the Aztec ruler Itzcoatl formed alliances with the nearby cities of Tlacopan and Texcoco, creating the Triple Alliance that ruled until the coming of the Spanish in 1519.

The last half of the 15th century saw the Aztec Triple Alliance dominating the surrounding areas, reaping a rich bounty in tribute. Eventually, the Aztecs controlled much of central and southern Mexico. Thirty-eight provinces sent tribute regularly in the form of rich textiles, warrior costumes, cacao beans, maize, cotton, honey, salt and slaves for human sacrifice. Gems, gold and jewelry came to Tenochtitlan as tribute for the emperor. Wars for tribute and captives became a way of life as the empire grew in power and strength. While the Aztecs successfully conquered many, some city states resisted. Tlaxcalla, Cholula and Huexotzinco all refused Aztec dominance and were never fully conquered.

The Aztec Empire was powerful, wealthy and rich in culture, architecture and the arts. The Spanish entered the scene in 1519 when Hernan Cortes landed an exploratory vessel on the coast. Cortes was first welcomed by Montezuma II, but Cortes soon took the emperor and his advisors hostage. Though the Aztecs managed to throw the conquistadors out of Tenochtitlan, the Spanish regrouped and made alliances with the Aztec’s greatest enemy, the Tlaxcalans. They returned in 1521 and conquered Tenochtitlan, razing the city to the ground and destroying the Aztec empire in the process.


The Population of the New World was Decimated

The Spanish Conquistadors came armed with cannons, crossbows, lances, fine Toledo swords and firearms, none of which had ever been seen by Native warriors before. The Native cultures of the New World were warlike and tended to fight first and ask questions later, so there was much conflict and many Natives were killed in battle. Others were enslaved, driven from their homes, or forced to endure starvation and rapine. Far worse than the violence inflicted by the conquistadors was the horror of smallpox. The disease arrived on the shores of Mexico with one of the members of Panfilo de Narvaez' army in 1520 and soon spread it even reached the Inca Empire in South America by 1527. The disease killed hundreds of millions in Mexico alone: it's impossible to know specific numbers, but by some estimates, smallpox wiped out between 25% and 50% of the population of the Aztec Empire.


Conquest of Mexico

Diego Velázquez, governor of Cuba, laid the foundation for the conquest of Mexico. In 1517 and 1518 Velázquez sent out expeditions headed by Francisco Hernández de Córdoba and Juan de Grijalba that explored the coasts of Yucatán and the Gulf of Mexico. Velázquez commissioned Hernán Cortés to outfit an expedition to investigate their tales of great wealth in the area. Spending his own fortune and a goodly portion of Velázquez’s, Cortés left Havana in November 1518, following a break in relations with Velázquez. Cortés landed in Mexico and then freed himself from Velázquez’s overlordship by founding the city of Veracruz and establishing a town council (cabildo) that in turn empowered him to conquer Mexico in the name of Charles I of Spain. Meanwhile, rumours of ships as large as houses reached Tenochtitlán.

Divining that Mexico was a fabulously wealthy realm held together by sheer force and that the Aztec ruler Montezuma held him in superstitious awe, Cortés pushed into central Mexico with only about 500 European soldiers. Although the Aztecs soon learned that the Spaniards were not gods—and that the invaders and their horses could be decapitated in battle—their arrival spelled disaster for them and their god Huitzilopochtli. By August 13, 1521, Cortés had taken the capital city of Tenochtitlán, the climax of a brutal two-year campaign. His success was the result of a combination of factors: Montezuma’s initial suspicion that Cortés was a returning god Cortés’s abilities as a leader and diplomat European arms—crossbows, muskets, steel swords, and body armour—and horses and dogs (which were all trained for battle) deadly European diseases against which the indigenous Americans had no immunity and the aid of Cortés’s interpreter-mistress, Marina (La Malinche). Another, especially important factor in the Spaniards’ success was the hatred of conquered tribes for the Aztec overlords and Cortés’s ability to attract these tribes as allies, meaning that thousands of Indian warriors joined the Spanish invasion. Without them the Spanish conquest would not have succeeded, at least not at that time. Moreover, Cortés’s capture of Montezuma threw the Aztecs into disarray, at least until the king’s violent death. Despite a heroic defense and the efforts of the last two Aztec kings, Cuitláhuac and Cuauhtémoc, Tenochtitlán was besieged and utterly destroyed. Over the island-city’s still-smoldering ruins, the Spaniards began building a new capital with the erection of a Christian cathedral on the stones of Huitzilopochtli’s temple. (See also Aztec history of Latin America: Early Latin America.)


Prominent Mexican archaeologist Eduardo Matos Moctezuma on April 10 will deliver the first lecture on campus in the series that bears his name and honors his contributions to archaeology. The title is “Eduardo Matos Moctezuma Discovers Himself: Excavations of the Great Aztec Temple,” and the public talk will take place at 6 p.m. at the Geological Lecture Hall, 24 Oxford St.

Matos Moctezuma directed the excavation of the main Aztec site known as Templo Mayor in the late 󈨊s. His work unveiled major aspects of Aztec religion, life, and society to the world.

The five-year Eduardo Matos Moctezuma Lecture Series is a collaboration among the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, the Moses Mesoamerican Archive, and Harvard Divinity School.

Below is an interview with Matos Moctezuma, first published in the Gazette last year, in which he talked about the Aztecs and his breakthrough work. The interview is translated from the original Spanish.

Eduardo Matos Moctezuma

GAZETTe: All ancient cultures have creation myths. What was the Aztecs’?

MATOS MOCTEZUMA: They believed they came from a place called Aztlan, hence the name Aztecs. Some experts think Aztlan is a myth because it has yet to be discovered. According to the myth, they left Aztlan guided by one of their gods until they arrived in the Texcoco Lake, in what’s now Mexico City, where they founded Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec empire, in the year 1325.

GAZETTe: But how did the Aztec empire really originate?

MATOS MOCTEZUMA: Mexico is a country with an ancient history that goes back 20,000 years. Before the Aztecs, there were the cultures of Teotihuacan, Monte Alban, Palenque, and Tajin. But the Aztecs, also called Mexicas, emerged in the 14th century when they freed themselves from their former masters, the Azcapotzalcos, after forming an alliance with the Texcocos and Tacubas. They began a large expansion across what is now Mexico and Mesoamerica through wars. It is said that when the Spaniards arrived in the early 16th century, the Aztecs ruled over 370 small city-states that paid tribute in goods to Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec empire.

GAZETTe: The Aztec culture has been described as fierce and bloodthirsty. What were the Aztecs really like?

MATOS MOCTEZUMA: The Aztec was fundamentally a culture based on war and agriculture. Their two most important deities were Huitzilopochtli, the god of war, and Tlaloc, the god of rain. The duality of war and agriculture was crucial for the Aztec economy. The Aztecs expanded their empire through military conquest and sustained it through tributes imposed on the conquered regions. Every 80 days, the new subjects of the Aztecs had to pay tributes to Tenochtitlan. As for the Aztec society, it was very complex. It was socially divided between the nobility and the populace. The nobles included the ruler, the priests, and the military, all of whom had privileges and didn’t pay taxes. The poorer people had to work as painters, poets, sculptors, peasants, doctors, or architects. They attended schools to learn their trades and received military training to be prepared for wars. They also attended schools to learn about religion, music, and their language, the Nahuatl, which we know because they left codices with pictograms and texts that told their history. When the Spaniards came, Tenochtitlan had approximately 200,000 people. It was one of the world’s largest cities in the 16th century. The Aztecs were one of the world’s greatest civilizations.

GAZETTe: How do you compare the Aztecs to other great ancient civilizations, such as the Mayas, the Incas, the Chinese, or the Egyptians?

MATOS MOCTEZUMA: According to experts, there are six large regions in the world that are the cradles of civilization. Those regions are Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, the Indus Valley, Mesoamerica, and the Andes, where people developed civilizations independently, boasting large cities and strong states. In Mesoamerica, it was the Aztecs and the Mayas but also the Zapotecas, Mixtecas, Toltecas, etc., and in the Andes, the Incas, but also the Moche, Chimu, Chavin, and others. The Aztec was a strong state due to its military power, its religion, and its tribute system. They developed their own calendar of 18 months of 20 days each, built large cities and huge pyramids and temples, and developed a farming system called chinampas that they used to grow crops on shallow lake beds. They grew maize, beans, tomatoes, pumpkins, chilis, etc. The Aztecs’ contributions to the modern world are extensive, from agricultural products to farming techniques to stunning art and architecture.

GAZETTe: Let’s talk about the Aztec religion. Much has been said about the role of human sacrifice among Aztecs. What is the truth about human sacrifices?

MATOS MOCTEZUMA: The Aztec religion was primarily polytheist. They had different gods, male and female. The sun god was Tonatiuh. There were many deities, and they were revered in monthly festivities with rich offerings. There is this black legend that only the Aztecs used human sacrifices in their religious rituals, when there is evidence that they existed in many other ancient cultures that were mostly agricultural societies. In the Aztecs’ case, human sacrifices were meant to please the sun god so that he could continue providing them with light, warmth, and life. They believed that without human sacrifices, the sun could stop and everything was going to die. So the sun had to be fed so that it could continue with its movement, so that there would be day and night. But not all rituals demanded human sacrifices. In general, those who were sacrificed were slaves or prisoners of war.

GAZETTe: What factors contributed to the fall of the Aztec empire?

MATOS MOCTEZUMA: Before the arrival of the Spaniards, there were nine emperors, and during the war of conquest, two more. During the last 18 years of the Aztec empire, the ruler was Moctezuma II. In those years, the empire continued its expansion through war, but exacting tribute from their subjects created discontent among them. There were small rebellions, but the Aztecs, who had the military power, always won. When the Spaniards landed in 1519 in what is today Veracruz, the local people there, the Totonacas, complained to conquistador Hernan Cortes that they were subjugated by Moctezuma, the señor of Tenochtitlan. When Cortes heard this, he promised that they would be freed from paying tribute if they become their allies to overthrow Moctezuma. With their help, Cortes gained more allies among other disgruntled groups in the region, and he planned the advance towards Tenochtitlan. There is a myth about the question of how 800 Spaniards defeated a whole empire. Well, it wasn’t only 800 Spaniards. They were supported by thousands of indigenous people who wanted to get rid of Aztec rule. When the conquest happened, when Tenochtitlan was about to fall, surrounded by land and sea, those groups of local enemies of the Aztecs played a fundamental role in the fall of the Aztec empire. Also, the Aztecs used a tactic that worked against them. Unlike the Spaniards who came to kill, the Aztecs preferred to take prisoners of war for human sacrifices. The Aztecs captured Cortes, and they didn’t kill him because they were going to sacrifice him. But his comrades saved him. Moctezuma was taken prisoner and was killed by the Spaniards.

GAZETTE: Are you a descendant of Moctezuma, the Aztec emperor?

MATOS MOCTEZUMA: There are not too many who have that last name in Mexico. According to my mom, we are descendants of Moctezuma. But I am not sure, and I don’t care too much about it.

GAZETTe: You spent 40 years, a large part of your career as an archaeologist, excavating the remains of the Templo Mayor. What was the significance of the Templo Mayor for the Aztecs?

MATOS MOCTEZUMA: The Templo Mayor was the center of the ancient Aztec empire, the most sacred place for the Aztecs. In 2014, we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the discovery of the Templo Mayor. In 1914, Manuel Gamio found remains that led him to believe that the site was the Templo Mayor, which until then we had only heard about. But the site was in the middle of the city it was actually underneath Mexico City. Years went by, and in 1978 electrical workers who were excavating underground found a big sculpture, which turned out to be a monolith depicting an Aztec goddess, which led to the discovery of the Templo Mayor. The same year, the Templo Mayor Project was founded, with me as the director, and under my helm and with a multidisciplinary team, we started excavations and were able to find a large part of the remains of the religious heart of the Aztecs. Excavations are still taking place, and, as in the past, we’re excavating the ritual heart of the Aztec empire, which we had only heard of before. After we dug up the remains of the temple, we were able to learn the role of the Templo Mayor in Aztecs’ life and the powerful symbolism it held in the empire.

GAZETTe: What is left to learn about the Aztecs?

MATOS MOCTEZUMA: We’ve just scratched the surface of Tenochtitlan, the capital, but we still need to know how it was organized, the social hierarchies, and the way it functioned. Since it’s underneath the city, there is a lot still to be learned.


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