Discover everything you ever wanted to know about the history of the Aztecs, Aztec Cities, People, Temples, Pyramids & Gods. Learn facts about the fascinating lives of the Aztec people and the Ancient city of Tenochtitlan.
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The Aztecs were one of the most dominant ethnic groups in the American Continent before the arrival of the Europeans. They were concentrated in the region of central Mexico and spoke the Nahuatl language. The word "aztecah" in the same language means "people from Aztlan" which is a mythological place in the ancient Aztec culture.
Aztec people were a multi-ethnic people dominated by the Mexica people. Aztec people built great civilizations in which all people were given an education in a well ordered society. Read more about the Aztec People >>
The Aztec Calendar was a sophisticated system & was split into two parts. The 1st part of the Aztec Calendar was called tonalpohualli and the 2nd Part Xiuhpohualli. Read more about the Aztec Calendar >>
Aztec Games were popular in the Aztec Society. Physical outdoor games like the Aztec ball game Tlachtli were played on specifically designed courts that were shaped like a H. Read more about the Aztec Games >>
Aztec Clothing for common people was simple and very young Aztec children often wore no clothes. Aztec Clothing of the Nobility and Kings was more expensive and elaborate. Read more about the Aztec Clothing >>
Aztec Warfare was part of Aztec life with political & religious significance. Aztec warriors took prisoners during Aztec warfare could be used as slaves & human sacrifice Read more about the Aztec Warfare >>
The Little that is known about the history and ancient culture of the Aztecs is acquired through various archaeological sources and the accounts of the early Conquistadors in addition to the local bark paper codices. This was augmented by the depictions of Aztec culture and history written during the 16th and 17th centuries by various Spanish clergymen and local Aztecs. The capital of the Aztec Empire was Tenochtitlan which was situated on the location of present day Mexico City. The Aztec Empire was conquered in 1521 by the Spanish Conquistador, Hernan Cortes, and his army which consisted of Spanish soldiers as well as local Americans from other tribes.
Aztec pyramids are part of the Mesoamerican pyramids which have central importance in ancient Mesoamerican architecture. The primary structure of these buildings is of step pyramids with a temple at the top. These pyramids were of central importance to the Aztec mythology, culture, and religion. The Aztecs built pyramids throughout various regions of Central America and some of these magnificent structures survive today. For instance, the Great Pyramid of Cholula, located in Puebla, Mexico, is the largest pyramid in the world by volume. Its height is 55 meters above the surrounding plains and at its top is the temple which is thought to have been dedicated to the god Quetzalcoatl. Another famous Aztec pyramid is the pyramid at St. Cecilia Acatitlan, Mexico. Human sacrifice was common in the temples of these pyramids in order to appease the gods.
The use of Aztec masks was widespread in the pre-Hispanic Aztec culture and was used for religious reasons in particular. It was common to create different kinds of masks for different purposes and in many cases masks were made only for display and not for wearing. The masks were made all over the Aztec Empire and this is made clear by the fact that ten turquoise masks were sent as a tribute to the Aztec capital from Oaxaca every year. Turquoise was abundantly used for making of Aztec masks and was considered a sacred material. Other materials commonly used in the making of Aztec masks included wood, black stone, and obsidian. Sometimes, even real human skulls were used in these masks, although this was rare. The masks were used either for religious rituals and ceremonies or simply as ornaments. There were also death masks which were worn by nobles after they died.
The most common form of Aztec temples was that of step pyramids at the top of which a room was reserved for ritual and worship. These temples were called “Teocalli” meaning “God houses” by the Aztec people. But this was not the only form of Aztec temples. Sometimes, for instance, a certain area of a city could be declared as a temple and dedicated to religious activities. Similarly, some Aztec temples were built for specific gods or reserved for specific religious celebrations. But the most common form was the same step pyramid form. One of the most famous Aztec temples is the Templo Mayor which is a step pyramid having a height of about 60 meters. It was dedicated to the gods Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc and was completed in 1497. Other famous Aztec temples included the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon, the Great Pyramid of Cholula, the Great Pyramid of Teopanzolco, and others.
The Nahuatl language is most commonly called the Aztec language, although the Aztec people also spoke various other languages and dialects such as Pochutec and Pipil. Various languages collectively known as Nahuan were spoken by the peoples in the areas as early as 600AD. However, by 1000AD, speakers of the Nahuatl language began to be dominant people in the region. As the influence of the Aztec Empire grew over the subsequent centuries, so did the Nahuatl language and it became the language of power, trade, and literature. Originally, the language was written in a pictographic script instead of having a fully developed writing system. This script appears in various inscriptions carved in stone and in picture texts. Following the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire, the Latin alphabet was introduced to write Nahuatl which transformed the language and gave it new dimensions.
Music, in addition to songs and poetry, was highly valued in the Aztec culture. A Spanish friar named Gerónimo de Mendieta gives a vivid account of the importance of music in Aztec society. According to him, each Aztec noble had a chapel in his house reserved for musicians and singers who composed songs in ingenious ways. Music, singing, and dancing were essential elements of religious and cultural festivities that took place every twenty days. The Aztec children were taught music and sang from an early age at school and home. There were various types of Aztec music including sacred hymns, cantares, and other songs of everyday life. The Aztec hymns primarily had religious significance and commemorated the deeds of gods and great rulers. These hymns also served as prayers in order to seek various favours from gods. The “cantares” were “ghost songs” and commemorated the great deeds of the ancestors in the form of mythologies.
The capital of the Aztec Empire was Tenochtitlan which is now the site of the modern-day Mexico City. It was located on an island in Lake Texcoco in the Valley of Mexico. The capital was founded in 1325 during the heyday of the Aztec Civilisation and remained the capital of the empire until it was finally captured by the Spanish invaders in 1521. It was the largest American city in the pre-Hispanic era and after the Spanish conquest became the “cabecera” of the Viceroyalty of New Spain. The city was divided into four zones with each zone in turn divided into 20 districts. Each district had its own marketplace where thousands of people traded daily. Public buildings such as temples and prostis were located at the centre of the city. This included the famous Templo Mayor dedicated to the Aztec patron god Huitzilopochtli and the Rain God Tlaloc.
The Aztec culture was rich with artistic traditions and a variety of Aztec artifacts in the form of statues, plates, bowls, codices etc. have been found all over the Aztec Empire. For instance, one of the most famous Aztec artifacts is the fired-clay Mictlantecuhtli Statue which was discovered in the sacred precinct of Tenochtitlan in 1994. This is a huge clay statue with a height of almost 6 meters and represents a human form with its skin ripped off and its liver visible. According to the archaeological sources, the figure dates from about 1480 and is of god Mictlantecuhtli who in Aztec religion was the god of death and the ruler of the underworld. Other famous artifacts belonging to the Aztec Civilisation include The Aztec Stone Calendar detailing the Aztec view of universe and its gods, The Florentine Codex, Aztec Feather Shield, Moctezuma’s Throne, and the Royal Aztec Crypt etc.
Like most other ancient and medieval civilisations, the role of Aztec women was subordinate to that of men. However, before the rise of Aztec civilisation as a military culture, women had more opportunities and rights. Marriages in Aztec culture were arranged by the family elders after consultation with the extended kinship group. Women were mostly married while in their late teens or early twenties. There were certain taboos related to the pregnant women in Aztec culture. For instance, pregnant women could not view an eclipse as it was thought that doing so would transform her foetus into a monster. Further, eclipses were also thought to cause miscarriages. Women usually worked inside homes and indulged in spinning and weaving, cooking, tending to pets raised for meat, and other household chores. But women were also allowed to participate in various outdoor professions such as those of priestess, doctor, and sorceress. However, the doors of administrative and military positions were closed to women.
The Aztec Empire put huge emphasis on military strength and thus the ideal destiny of every male baby was to become a warrior. Upon the birth of a baby boy, the umbilical cord was given to a warrior who buried it in a battlefield. This was a symbolical gesture signifying the future path of the newborn boy as a warrior. Aztec men mostly married in their early twenties. The men could have multiple wives but it was only the first wife who had the privilege of a grand marriage ceremony. Men were also trained in hunting which came in handy in order to feed their family. Since most of the time of Aztec men was spent on the battlefield, they were very good warriors. One of the sure ways to increase prestige in society was to impress others on the battlefield and bring in a large number of captives.
The path of Aztec life was determined from early childhood and that path was of a militarily oriented life. Symbolically, babies were considered captives in the womb struggling to enter the world. Similarly, women who died during childbirth were glorified as warriors dying on the battlefield. As the Aztec child entered his teens, he learnt hunting and various ways of gathering food from his father. The girl, on the other hand, learnt various household chores form the mother. Hunting was particularly important for Aztec boys since it was one of the primary means of providing food for the family. There were military schools where boys were trained in various military tactics. Boys from noble families also had the alternative life choice of attending the monasteries called “Calmecac”. Also, boys from noble families were instructed in such disciplines as astronomy, art, history, and administration.
Aztec society was a complex and multi-ethnic society which, broadly speaking, was divided into three classes of slaves, commoners, and nobility. Slaves were mainly captured as war booty from the defeated tribes. Slaves also had the option to buy back their freedom. The commoners, who made up the bulk of the society and were called “macehualtin”, mainly indulged in agriculture and common trades. Other than working on small pieces of their own land, they worked on the lands of the nobles and were allowed to keep their produce. The lowest group of the commoners consisted of tenant farmers who worked on the land of other people and could never have land of their own. This class also consisted of peasants who, just like medieval European serfs, were tied to a particular piece of land which they cultivated in return for a certain part of the harvest. Finally, the nobility in the Aztec society consisted of the priests, kings, and the people who owned large amounts of land.
Contrary to common belief, the Aztecs had developed quite a sophisticated technology for their time. This mainly consisted of development in mathematics, the canoe, various forms of medicine, architectural feats, and the highly specialised Aztec calendar. The main disadvantage that the Aztecs had in the development of their military technology and weapons was the lack of iron and bronze in the Aztec society. Thus the technology used to make weapons relied on alternate materials such as obsidian and chert. Eventually they started making use of copper for weapons and remarkably, they used drills made of reed or bone. In transportation, the Aztecs developed canoes to transport their goods across lakes, canals, and rivers. Finally, Aztec mathematics and astronomy was quite sophisticated which is depicted in the Aztec calendar.
The Aztec Empire was primarily a military empire and thus military conventions, weaponry, strategic expansions, and other parts of warfare were very important. The armed forces of the Aztecs were predominantly composed of the commoners who were given the basic military training. There was also small number of professional warriors hailing from the Aztec nobility who enjoyed the social standing according to their achievements. Warfare was central to Aztec politics and society as the state structure was based on military expansion and extraction of tributes from other city states. Due to this overwhelming importance of military conquests and warfare, every male member of the Aztec society was given the basic military training from an early age. Through military achievements, commoners could also have upward social mobility. Finally, sacrifice of war captives and prisoners was a common feature of various religious festivals of the Aztec society. Thus not only economy and politics, warfare in Aztec society was also important to religion.
Aztec culture was a mix of various cultures of the diverse ethnic groups that formed the Aztec Empire. Various traditions and customs influenced the way people lived in society. The Aztec culture divided people into various classes and the culture of slavery was also part of a larger Aztec culture. Slaves, however, were generally well treated and the children of slaves were considered free. Education was compulsory for children in Aztec society and for grown up boys, basic military training was part of the military culture of the empire. The traditional role of females was confined to homes and family life but they could also take part in various outdoor professions. The homes of the common people were mainly made of mud bricks while poor people lived in huts. Things like music, art, and architecture were essential components of the Aztec culture. Warriors in Aztec culture were glorified for military and religious reasons.
The Aztec Empire consisted of various ethnic groups centred on the region of present-day Mexico City. The empire mainly consisted of the Nahua people who migrated to Mexico from north in the early 13th century. The later migrants predominantly consisted of the Mexica people. In its earliest form, the Aztec Civilisation consisted of various city-states constantly at war with each other. The Aztec Empire was formally established when the Mexica people, with their capital at Tenochtitlan, formed an alliance with the two neighbouring city-states of Texcoco and Tlacopan. This triple alliance forming the Aztec Empire remained dominant for over 100 years in the Valley of Mexico until the time the Spaniards arrived. The Empire began to expand in 1428 and conquered various other city-states who paid tribute to the empire. Military and administrative power was centred on the city of Tenochtitlan.
The Aztec Empire was made up of various city-states with the central government in the city of Tenochtitlan. The king in Tenochtitlan did not directly rule all the city states but the local rulers were allowed to do so in return for tribute to the king at Tenochtitlan. These city-states were known as “altepetl” and each was ruled by a supreme ruler, a supreme judge and administrator. The supreme ruler of the Tenochtitlan was thus the emperor of this empire. The nobility and the priesthood also wielded considerable power in the Aztec government. The Aztec city government was managed by the city councils which consisted of people of power and privilege. Each city council had an “executive council” within it which consisted of four members chosen from the council. One of these four members then went on to act as the supreme leader of the city-state.
The Aztecs had a successful trade market which was central to their economy. The markets in each city-state would be located in the centre of the city and had a diverse range of goods for sale. The regional merchants were known as “tlanecuilo” and they traded, through a barter economy, in a wide range of goods such as gold, silver, cloth, cotton, animal skins, and others. The trade market was not only important for Aztec economy but also socialisation as traders from other regions often frequented them. Also, these markets were very important for the trade and sale of locally produced goods in every city-state. Additionally, since there were no horses in Aztec society, the transport of goods on land was not easy. Due to this reason, these central markets of every city-state were the nerve centre of Aztec commerce and the economy. The status of the professional merchants was higher than the common people but lower than the nobles.
The Aztec economy was centred on the market places that existed in every city-state. The merchants who indulged in long-distance trade within the empire were known as “pochteca” and they enjoyed a position of privilege in the Aztec society. These merchants travelled to other city-states and exchanged goods between different city-states. Thus they were very important for trade between different parts of the Aztec Empire and exerted important influence on the Aztec economy. There were 12 locations throughout the empire, managed by officials, where the pochteca reported. The central market place of every city-state was managed by the elder pochtecas known as “pochtecatlatoque”. The group of pochtecas who almost exclusively indulged in slave trade was known as “tlatlani”. Thus the Aztec economy was managed through a sophisticated network of markets and their connections with the markets of other city-states through travelling merchants.
Aztec Class Structure
The Aztec society had a quite sophisticated structure of social classes and privileges. The social classes, broadly speaking, included the nobility, the commoners who also included the lower classes of peasants and serfs, and the slaves. Additionally, there was also clear distinction between the social roles and rights of men and women. The nobility consisted of the landed class which had a monopoly over the administrative and military power of the Aztec Empire. The common people, on the other hand, mainly indulged in agriculture and various kinds of trades. At the lower end of the common people was the class of petty peasants and serfs who had very limited rights. These were similar to the medieval European serfs who were tied to a piece of land and tilled it for their masters in return for a small amount of produce. Military achievement was one of the most important ways of upward social mobility since warriors enjoyed a very respectable status in the Aztec society.
The system of education in the Aztec society was fairly sophisticated and education was considered compulsory for every child, both boys and girls. There were different schools for the noble classes and the commoners and different schools for girls and boys since they were educated in different disciplines. The girls were imparted education in such domains as religion, cooking, sewing and weaving, childcare, and singing and dancing. Study subjects for the children of the nobility included astronomy, mathematics, engineering, medicine, law, and administration etc. Schools of the noble children were connected to the temples and education was received under the supervision of the priests. History and religious beliefs were also part of the education in Aztec society. At the schools of the commoners, boys were taught how to be warriors and farmers.
Aztec mythology was similar to the mythologies of other Mesoamerican cultures and had many rich legends of religious and cultural significance. The most important myth in the accounts of Aztec mythology is about the origins of the Aztec people. According to the mythology, these people came from a place in north called Aztlan, from which they also derived their name. In their journey from north to south, they were guided by their god called Huitzilopochtli which means “Hummingbird from the South”. The Aztec pantheon consisted of various gods and goddesses who served specific purposes and wielded unique powers. Some famous gods and goddess included Xiuhtecuhtli who was god of fire, Ehecatl the god of wind, Xantico the goddess of firebox, Coyolxauhqui the goddess of moon, Tonatiuh the god of sun, and others. As per the Aztec mythology, the heavens were divided into 13 distinct levels with each level being governed by separate gods living in it.
Aztec art was rich with cultural and religious influence and had a long history spanning over many centuries and was influenced by the diverse tribal peoples. Important types of art in the Aztec Empire included architecture, richly coloured clothing, masks, ceremonial knives, headdresses, and others. Adorning the works of art with jewels and feathers was common among the Aztecs. One of the masterpieces of Aztec art was the headpiece of Emperor Montezuma II which consisted of splash of bright green feathers and gold and blue embroidery. The noble families patronised art and it was mainly because of them that the Aztec art and its trade flourished. Noble women particularly preferred artistic jewelry including ear pieces, bracelets, and necklaces. An important component of Aztec art was its rich pictographic languages which depicted various events and recent conquests in the form of pictures. Other important types of Aztec art included pottery, shields, carved pillars, painted walls, and statues etc.
Aztec Human Sacrifice
Human sacrifice was an important cultural and religious tradition in Aztec society as well as other Mesoamerican cultures. The Aztecs had 20-day months and festivities were held at the end of each month. This amounts to 18 festivities every year and humans were sacrificed on all of these occasions. The earliest known human sacrifice in the Aztec society was the sacrifice and skinning of the daughter of the king Cóxcox of Culhuacán. Various rituals were performed while offering human sacrifice in the religious temples. The sacrifices were mainly religious in nature and performed to appease various gods. While the Aztecs offered a variety of other possessions to gods, human sacrifice was considered the highest form of offering. Different kinds of human sacrifices were reserved for different gods such as Huitzilopochtli, Tezcatlipoca, Huehueteotl, Tlaloc, and others.
The most important types of Aztec buildings consisted of temples, shrines, and pyramids. Buildings of lesser importance included Aztec homes, ball courts, and gardens. Cosmology, astronomy, and religion played important role in the construction techniques and mechanism of Aztec buildings. The tools used for the construction of these buildings included stones, chisels, and blades which, although primitive compared to modern standards, afforded impressive Aztec architecture. A variety of materials were used for the construction of Aztec buildings. This included a special kind of volcanic stone known as “tezontle” which was used for the basis of these buildings and provided for strong foundations. Other building materials included local stone materials such as rubble and limestone.
Aztec homes reflected the division of society into various classes. Thus the homes of the rich people were large and elaborate while the common people lived in small homes. The most common material used in the construction of Aztec homes was adobe which was a sun dried brick made of adobe clay. There were separate places for sleeping and dining and a separate area where god statues and images were kept and which acted as a family shrine. Thatched roofs were common in the homes of the ordinary people while homes of the more well to do people had terraced roofs. The homes of the nobles were lavishly decorated and were usually accompanied by gardens.
Aztec architecture had some unique features which are reflected in their grand religious temples in the form of pyramids. These temples were immense and meticulous care was taken for their being well proportioned. Not just the temples but even the Aztec homes were uniform in their architecture and structure, although they varied in size. A great example of Aztec architecture is the city of Tenochtitlan which was divided into four sections with each section having its own architectural value. The four sides were surrounded by a grid and each side had a platform with stairs. Among the temples, the Templo Mayor is the primary example of Aztec architecture which measured approximately 100 meters by 80 meters at its base.
Aztec Farming and Agriculture
The most common profession for common Aztecs was agriculture and farming. Aztec agriculture was quite developed and their farming practices were well organised and planned. The most common farming method used among the Aztecs was of “chinampas”. This was a method of farming that used small, rectangular areas of land in order to grow crops on the lake beds in the Mexican Valley. The small areas were artificially layered with mud, sediment, and decaying vegetation to bring them above the level of the lake. Trees were then planed in the corners to make the farming area more secure. This was a remarkable farming technique which essentially converted useless land into a farm. The most common crop grown by the Aztecs was maize which could be stored for long periods of time. Another important agricultural produce of the Aztecs was squash and many varieties were grown by the Aztecs. The challenge that was faced by Aztec agriculture was one of retaining nutrients in the farming land. It was mainly due to this reason that maize, squash, and beans were frequently grown since they helped to keep the nutrients in the soil.
The staple grain of the Aztec Empire was maize which could be ground into flour and used to make various other kinds of food. Other than maize, beans and squash were the most important ingredients of Aztec food and were consumed by all social classes. Maize even had importance in Aztec mythology and was considered sacred. It came in a variety of different sizes, shapes, and colours. These were cooked together with tomatoes and chilies. Aztecs consumed various kinds of insects such as grasshopper, maguey worm, ants, and larvae etc. Aztecs also had access to a number of spices and herbs including chili peppers, coriander, Mexican oregano, Mexican anise, and others. In drinks, Aztecs made a variety of alcoholic beverages using fermented maize, honey, pineapple, and various other fruits. The most common alcoholic beverage was called “octli”, made from maguey sap. It was consumed by all social classes. The Aztecs even indulged in cannibalism for which prisoners of war were sacrificed.
Aztec society was quite diverse and thus a wide range of professions were available to the people. Boys at a young age were given basic military training and were asked to either learn a trade or become warriors. The most common profession for men, however, was farming which was the basic profession of Aztec society. Traders who travelled from place to place enjoyed a respectable status in society and had a distinct class apart from other classes. In the social hierarchy of the Aztec society, this merchant class was between the nobility and the lower classes. Joining the military and displaying skills on the battlefield was an important way of upward social mobility. Men who became neither warriors nor traders had various other professions to choose from. This included hunting, fishing, and craftsmanship etc. Important jobs of government, administration, and priesthood were mainly reserved for the nobility. Some young men from nobility also became warriors after receiving proper military training.
The Aztec emperor was the king of the city of Tenochtitlan and the rulers of other city-states paid tribute to him. The system of the government was of hereditary monarchy and the emperor was worshipped as a living god and the supreme ruler. The first emperor of the Aztecs was called Tenoch who ruled from 1345 to 1375. There is, however, a disagreement whether he was a real or mythological figure. The last Aztec emperor, on the other hand, was named Cuauhtemoc who assumed the throne on the eve of Spanish invasion in 1520. He only ruled for one year and was imprisoned and later on executed by the Spanish Conquistador, Hernan Cortes. Cuauhtemoc is also the most famous Aztec emperor and remains an important figure in Mexican nationalism. He enjoys the status of a hero in Mexican arts and literature. Some other Aztec emperors include Ahuitzotl who ruled form 1486 to 1502, Montezuma I who ruled from 1440 to 1470, and others.
Painting was an important part of Aztec art. In their paintings, Aztecs reflect an appreciation for a variety of life forms including insects, animals, and birds. Some common themes of Aztec art and paintings included jaguars, snakes, deer, ducks, and other kinds of animals. But the most important influence on Aztec paintings, like other Aztec art forms, was religion. Gods were depicted with special reference to their unique powers. Gods were also often depicted in bright colours and resembling animals of various kinds. Other paintings depicted priests dressed as gods performing rituals or warriors fighting battles. Since the language of the Aztecs was in the form of pictographs, it provided them opportunities of drawings. Thus there are pictographs depicting battle scenes, human sacrifices, and other activities of daily life.
Much of the legacy of Aztec civilisation was lost over the subsequent battles but some has been preserved. Most importantly, grand step pyramids of the Aztecs still stand today in all their majesty. There are various locations of Aztec ruins in Mexico preserved by the government. One of the most important of these is the ruins of Templo Mayor which were excavated in 1978. Thousands of artifacts recovered from the site are at display in the Templo Mayor museum adjacent to the site. Another important site consists of the ruins of the ancient city of Teotihuacan which was discovered and inhabited by the Aztecs in the 13th century. It has several sacred Aztec sites such as the Pyramid of the Sun, the Pyramid of the Moon, and the Avenue of the Dead. Other famous Aztec ruins include the ruins of Calixtlahuaca and the ruins of Tepoztlan.