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Aspects of America's past

The Aztec Empire

Keith Tankard
The Time Traveller
Updated: 14 December 2009
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Although a number of Meso-American civilizations are usually referred to, namely the Olmec, Mayan and Aztec, it is more probable that these are all part of a greater civilization and are simply different eras or empires within a greater whole.


The Olmec Empire was probably the "mother culture" of Meso-America which eventually gave rise to all the other high cultures.

There is evidence that people began to settle in Mexico by about 9 000 BC and that by 5 000 BC hunting and fishing was being supplemented by the beginnings of agricultural development.

By about 2 500 BC there is indication that some form of cultural life was beginning to emerge, with pottery relics attesting to an advanced culture. Soon after that the first development of the advanced Olmec culture began.

The society seemed to have been some form of theocracy, indicated by the remnants of platforms, altars and pyramid-like structures, and its religion would eventually become the basis for all the later state religions.

There were probably also political groups which owed allegiance to powerful rulers who were more than mere chiefs. It seems that there was a definite empire which ruled over a vast area of Meso-America, possibly based on some form of trade.

The Olmec era is also characterised by the colossal stone warrior-heads, weighing over 20 tons each, found planted around the countryside.

Mayan Period

The Golden Age of Meso-America was the Mayan period, a time when there was a great flowering of art, architecture, commerce and intellectual achievement.

The Mayan Empire emerged in the southern forests of Mexico, bordered by central America.

Because of the slash-and-burn method of agriculture, food supplies were never great enough to support large cities and so communities tended to live on the American equivalent of the medieval manor and from there were called to the larger centres for purposes of labour or religious celebration.

The Mayan cities were therefore probably no more than religious centres, inhabited by the ruling classes and the priests (possibly the same thing), as well as by traders, craftsmen and slaves.

Further north, in the highlands of Mexico, was the Teotihuacan Empire. Because the area was grassland, it was able to support larger cities than the Maya and so represented the first urban civilization in central America.

The city of Teotihuacan itself covered an area of roughly seven square miles, a great religious and commercial centre which constantly adapted itself, and was altered and rebuilt several times, so that it would influence the whole of central America for half a millennium.

Its temple structures would also provide the architectural models upon which most of the subsequent religious edifices were based. It was here that the massive pyramids to the sun and the moon gods were built.

It is possible that the great city of Teotihuacan itself was able to support a population of about 200,000, most of the people being engaged in some form of craft specialization and trade.

The state and the city in turn were supported by the forced tribute of millions of surrounding peoples who were conquered during the period. Eventually, however, the capital was totally destroyed in about the 7th century and had completely disappeared by the time of the Late Classic period.

Despite the gigantic architecture of which the people of the classic period were capable, however, they knew little about the wheel.

Even as late as the 16th century the Indians still used the human back for transportation. They had no domesticated animals except dogs (which were bred for food) and therefore not even sleds were used to haul things.

The Teotihuacan people apparently lacked military unity which ultimately led to the city's destruction, probably at the hands of a nomadic tribe from further north (the Toltecs) in about 900 AD.

The Toltecs in turn were displaced by another warlike group (the Aztecs) who migrated into central Mexico from the west during the 12th century and settled initially on an island called Tenochtitlan in the marshy lake Texcoco from where they began to conquer the neighbouring cities.

The Aztecs

It is possible that the Aztecs first appeared on the Central American scene as a primitive people, emerging from a lake island in the western part of the country early in the 12th century.

They worshipped Huitzilopochtli, an idol which they carried everywhere and which was believed to have directed their wanderings.

When they eventually came into the Mexican valley, they were desperately poor and existed only on the good will of the great city-states of the region.

Adversity taught them eventually to be warlike and cruel. Although they slowly developed some form of culture, their increasingly warlike behaviour eventually provoked two of the city states to unite against them.

They were defeated, their chief sacrificed in Culhuacan and the people turned into slaves. Some escaped and fled into the marshes of the lake where they established themselves and slowly built themselves again into a nation.

Another version of the story is much more gory. The king of Culhuacan allowed them to settle within his area and, in an effort to gain an alliance against some of the rival city-states, he presented his daughter to their chief for marriage.

The Aztecs, however, took the girl and skinned her. When the Culhuacan king next visited them, he found himself in the presence of one of their priests dressed in the skin of his daughter. War naturally flared up and the Aztecs were driven into the marshes.

The civilization of both the Toltecs and the Aztecs was based on the earlier Olmec, Teotihuacan and Mayan variety which had preceded it. At the centre was religion and the worship of several gods, the chief being the sky and rain gods Huitzilopochtli and Quetzalcoatl (the Plumed or Feathered Serpent).

The demands of these gods for human sacrifice meant that warfare became continuous, not so much to expand the empire as to bring in captive sacrifices. It was believed that the victim's heart had to be ripped out and the blood poured in offering, all to ensure that the sun continued to rise.

A soldier's heroism was therefore no longer seen in terms of the number of men he killed but in the number of captives he brought in for sacrifice. There would at times be long queues up the steps of the temple to have their hearts ripped out.

All this probably explains the low ratio of Spaniards killed in their 16th century wars against the Aztecs. While the Spaniards were hell-bent on slaughtering their foe, the Aztecs were attempting rather to capture the Spanish soldiers. They gave the appearance, therefore, of wishing to commit suicide.

Despite these religious practices, however, the Aztecs did reach a level of civilization much more advanced in many ways than that of their European contemporaries.

Their manners, dress and architecture rivalled that of medieval Europe, their temples were as magnificent as the pyramids of Egypt and their gardens were as splendid as the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

It seems, in fact, that the Aztecs went to extremes to cultivate gardens, an art which would only take root in Europe a couple of centuries later (and might have been imported into Europe from the Aztecs).

Their stonework matched that of ancient Greece, while their palaces were a match for those of the Spaniards who conquered them. Furthermore, the Aztec sanitary system was several centuries ahead of that which existed in Europe.

Picture writing (or hieroglyphics) was also highly developed and so the Aztecs were able to keep accurate records but it was of little use in the conveying of ideas. They appeared to have a considerable knowledge of astronomy and their system of administration was equal to that of 16th century Europe.

The Aztecs also developed a fine sense of chivalry and delight in warfare. To be in battle was to be in tune with the universe, and so from early youth warriors kept their bodies in readiness for campaigns.

When there was no war, the soldiers engaged in gladiatorial combats or jousting competitions, known as the War of the Flowers in which the slain warriors would be cremated in full military honour, and captured warriors would be sacrificed with all due glory.

The legal system was also highly developed, with a judge appointed by the king for every city. Below him would be magistrate's courts, while in the country districts magistrates were possibly elected by the people themselves.

Capital offenses were many , and all those sentenced to death would be sacrificed to the gods. Lesser crimes were punished by a form of slavery.

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