The Aztec Empire.

Stevenson Day, J.,

The Aztec Empire: Short Lecture. 8.21.92,


Cantares Mexicanos, Fol.19 v 20 r

The great empire of the Aztecs and its capital city of Tenochtitlan flourished in the central valley of Mexico just before the arrival of the Spanish in 1519.

The Aztecs were late comers to the Valley of Mexico, heirs of ancient cultures and traditions that had flourished there for over 3000 years. Legend says they left their original homeland of Aztlan around A.D.1100. They arrived in the Central Plateau around 1200. Tenochtitlan, founded in 1325, was built on a rocky island in Lake Texcoco where the Aztecs discovered an eagle perched on a cactus with a serpent in its mouth. They had been told by Huitzilopochtli, their patron god, that this symbol, still the emblem of modern Mexico, would mark the spot for their capital city.

In 1519 the expanding Aztec empire was governed by the semi-divine emperor Moctezuma II. He ruled over a highly stratified society of nobles, commoners, serfs and slaves. His magnificent palace stood at the center of the empire's capital Tenochtitlan, the sacred and secular heart of the Aztec state. This beautiful island city, located where Mexico City stands today, was constructed on a series of artificial islands with canals for streets, towering pyramids and slendid public buildings. In 1519 it had a population of at least 250,000 people, making it one of the largest urban centers in the world. The city was connected to the mainland by three great causeways. Along these causeways ran aqueducts carrying fresh water to the pools and public fountains of the town. The canal system supplied efficient transportation and thousands of canoes carried goods and people through the city and to surrounding villages on the lake shore. For the Aztecs this method of transport was particularly important as, like all the prehispanic cultures of the Americas, they lacked draft animals and the wheel.

In this sophisticated metropolis were government buildings, schools, great markets, ballcourts, temples, pyramids, palaces and simple homes. At its center was the sacred precinct where the gods of the Aztec pantheon were worshiped through song, dance, ritual and human sacrifice. At the heart of the precinct stood the Templo Mayor, or "great temple". This massive double pyramid structure was dedicated to the two most important gods of the Aztec empire, Tlaloc, god of rain, and Huitzilopotchli, god of war and the sun. These were the deities responsible for the sustenance of the Aztec state - Tlaloc as provider of the empire's agricultural needs and Huitzilopotchli as provider of the wealth and tribute resulting from wars of conquest.

The Aztecs considered themselves the people of the sun. In this role they were responsible for providing the blood of sacrificial victims to sustain the sun in its journey each day across the sky. This need to maintain the sun was the basis for the warrior cult of the Aztec state. This cult promoted warfare as the means for taking prisoners to be offered on the sacrificial stone of the great pyramid. It also supported the empire through harsh tribute exacted from vanquished provinces. These demands for the wealth of conquered city states left bitterness and resentment behind. Cortes was to use this smoldering resentment to enlist native allies to help him in his conquest of the great city of Tenochtitlan.

In 1519 Cortes and a small group of Spanish adventurers set sail from Cuba on a voyage that opened the doors of a vast new empire for the Spanish crown. The fateful encounter of two different worlds in the persons of Cortes and Moctezuma and the fall of the Aztec empire to the Spanish in 1521 is one of the most incredible and dramatic stories in the history of the world. The final battle for Tenochtitlan was fought in August of 1521. Eighty days of seige and hand to hand combat left the city in shambles. Disease had decimated the native population and great losses had occurred on both sides. The defeat of the Aztecs by the Spanish and their Indian allies led to the destruction of Tenochtitlan and the abrupt end of one of the most brillant civilizations of the prehispanic Americas.

At Tlatelolco in Mexico city, scene of the last battle for Tenochtitlan, a plaque has been placed on the wall of an ancient building. Its inscription addresses the fall of the Aztec empire and the unique Mexican culture that grew out of the fusions of Old New and New World traditions.

On the 13th of August in 1521 heroically defended by Cuauhtemoc, Tlatelolco fell to Hernan Cortes. This was neither a triumph nor a defeat, it was a painful birth of the mestizo people who are the Mexico of today.

Jane Stevenson Day

Chief Curator, Denver Museum of Natural History

Note: Dr. Jane Day has retired from her position at the DMNH

SELECTED READINGS (books available in DMNH shop)

Berdan, Frances F. The Aztecs. New York,Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers. 1989.

Carrasco, David. Religions of Mesoamerica. New York:Harper and Row Publishers. 1990

Coe, Michael. Mexico. New York:Thames & Hudson,1984

Diaz del Castilo,Bernal The Conquest of New Spain. Baltimore: Penquin,1963.

Leon-Portilla, Miguel The Broken Spears. Boston:Beacon Press,1966.

Matos, Eduardo Moctezuma The Great Temple of the Aztecs. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd.,1988.

Soustelle, Jaques Daily Life of the Aztecs on the Eve of the Spanish Conquest. Stanford: Stanford University Pres, 1970.