See how this powerful group ruled central Mexico 500 years ago.
The year is 1450. Twin pyramids covered in red and blue paint rise nine stories tall on an enormous platform in the center of the city of Tenochtitlan (pronounced ten-och-TEE-tlahn), the capital of the Aztec Empire. Zoos, botanical gardens, and markets buzz with people. Nearby, farmers riding canoes tend to floating gardens growing maize, tomatoes, beans, and more. Nearly 300,000 people call this city home—making it one of the largest cities in the world at the time.
Lasting about 200 years, the Aztec Empire was the last great civilization of Mesoamerica (the region from modern northwestern Mexico to the Central American country of El Salvador) before Europeans conquered the land. Today, 500 years after the Aztec civilization fell, the ruins of Tenochtitlan lie beneath modern-day Mexico City.
History of the Aztec civilization
The people who would eventually create the Aztec Empire called themselves the Mexica (pronounced meh-SHEE-kah). They believed that they came from the mythical land of Aztlan, which is why later historians called these people the Aztec.
Around the year 1300, this nomadic group arrived in what’s now central Mexico, traveling from perhaps as far away as modern-day Utah. The area was already well populated by other groups, so the Aztec settled on uninhabited islands in Lake Texcoco, establishing their capital city, Tenochtitlan, on an island in the year 1325. (The Spanish later drained this lake.)
For the next hundred years, the Aztec lived under the region’s ruling group, the Tepanec. The Aztec paid taxes to them and served as soldiers in their military. But this didn’t last. In 1428, the Aztec joined two other city-states to overthrow the Tepanec. And soon, the Aztec took control of the alliance and became the region’s rulers.
Over the next hundred years, Aztec kings conquered territory until the empire spanned about 80,000 square miles from the Gulf of Mexico in the east to the Pacific Ocean in the west. Dividing the territory into states, the Aztec ruled over a total of about six million people.
The local leaders of these states could govern without too much intervention from their Aztec rulers—but they had to pay tribute to the emperor back in Tenochtitlan. These tributes could be things like food, cotton textiles, feathers, and precious stones like turquoise.
But tributes could also be human sacrifices to the gods. Sometimes women and children were sacrificed, but most victims were warriors from these neighboring states who were taken in battle. These people were often sacrificed atop the Templo Mayor, meaning “Great Temple” in Spanish, at the center of Tenochtitlan.
By the end of the 1400s, their subjects were so unhappy with the tribute system and the brutal sacrifices that that they started to rebel against Aztec rule. And then in 1519, Spanish explorers led by Hernán Cortés arrived. The Spanish first pretended to befriend King Moctezuma II but then took him prisoner. With the help of other local groups who no longer wanted to be ruled by the Aztec, the Spanish conquered Tenochtitlan in 1521, ending the Aztec Empire. However, many Aztec descendants still live in Mexico today.
Life in the Aztec civilization
Tenochtitlan was on an island in a lake, and so the Aztec people figured out how to turn the marshy land into “floating” farms called chinampas, which are still used today.
First, they placed square fences made of intertwining branches in the swamp. As the water passes through the branches, mud and debris caught on the fences to create a wall. People also grew plants like willow trees in the walls to further stabilize them. Then they filled the walled-off squares with sediment until it rose above the water, appearing to float. Farmers tended to the chinampas on canoes in between each plot of farmland.
The Aztec also brought fresh water into the city with long stone channels called aqueducts, providing water for flower gardens, private homes, and city fountains.
Young Aztec children were homeschooled. But as teenagers, both girls and boys attended school to learn about philosophy, nature, music, and the military; they also learned a trade. Women were expected to raise children and look after the home, but some women could also be doctors or educators; most men were farmers, but some worked a craft like pottery, carpentry, or metal work.
All adult men had to serve in the Aztec military, and noble members of Aztec society were honored as top warriors. But life was difficult for conquered people living under Aztec rule: They were often forced to serve in the military, enslaved, or sacrificed to the Aztec gods.
The Aztec built temple-pyramids throughout their empire. These structures were used for sacrifices, worshiping the gods, and also might have been the resting places of the emperors. They sometimes did this by building on top of the remains of pyramids built by the Olmec.
The Aztec believed in many gods, but the most important were Huitzilopochtli, (wee-tsee-loh-POHCH-tlee) the god of war and the sun, and Tlaloc (TLAH-lohk), the god of rain. The two pyramid-shrines atop Templo Mayor were dedicated to these gods.
Why the Aztec civilization still matters
Today, archaeologists are still uncovering the secrets of the Aztec Empire beneath Mexico City—it wasn’t until 1978 that utility workers stumbled upon the ruins of Templo Mayor.
When we speak, we echo many of the words that the Aztec used in their language, Nahuatl. “Chocolate,” “tomato,” “avocado,” and “chili” come from these Indigenous words. Many of the foods we enjoy today—like corn tortillas, hot chocolate, and popcorn—were also eaten by the Aztec.
The chinampas farming technique perfected by the Aztec is still used in Mexico today. The Aztec empire also created a legal system with judges and trials and governing systems with different departments, similar to our modern-day federal government.
- Aztec people used cocoa beans as money.
- The Aztec believed that the gods sent them a sign—an eagle devouring a snake while standing on a cactus—to settle in Tenochtitlan. The symbol is still used today on Mexico’s flag.
- These people played ullamaliztli, a game made with a 16-pound rubber ball in which players had to pass the heavy ball using only their torso–no hands or feet allowed.
- The Aztec used two calendars: a 365-day calendar and a 260-day ritual cycle. The two calendars lined up every 52 years.
- The busiest market days in Tenochtitlan drew 50,000 people. (Compare that to the size of your grocery store!)