Aztec Empire Research Paper

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The Aztec Empire of central Mexico dominated through imperial rule for nearly a hundred years as overlords took control of numerous city-states in the regions, gaining power and wealth. The vast and powerful empire attracted Spanish invaders seeking wealth and treasure. These invaders brought with them disease and advanced weaponry that eventually led to the defeat of the Aztecs and the fall of the empire.

The Aztec Empire dominated central Mexico from 1430 until its conquest by Spanish conquistadors in 1521. At its height it ranged from the Gulf coast to the Pacific, and from nearly 160 kilometers north of Mexico City to the present-day Guatemalan border. It encompassed high plateaus, broad and narrow valleys, daunting mountain ranges, and verdant tropical forests.


As the last great political force in Mesoamerica, the Aztecs drew on the experience and accomplishments of a succession of earlier civilizations. In central Mexico, the monumental city of Teotihuacan flourished from 150 CE until approximately 750. This city established strong regional control in addition to conquering more distant areas, and it engaged in trade with and exercised political influence over polities as distant as those of the Maya in the lowlands of present-day Guatemala. Later, from 950 until around 1150, the city of Tula (in present-day Hidalgo), a major regional center of the Toltec people, gained prominence; it was closely tied to the city of Chichen Itza in northern Yucatan. However, Tula does not appear to have developed an empire in the manner of the earlier Teotihuacanos or the later Aztecs.

The Aztecs drew on much of the Teotihuacan experience in developing their own empire: their capital city of Tenochtitlan was laid out on a grid plan (as was Teotihuacan), they engaged in human sacrifice at a state level, they conquered far-flung territories in creating an empire, and they gave prominence in their godly pantheon to the deities Quetzalcoatl and Tlaloc, both of whom appear in somewhat different form at Teotihuacan. From Tula and the Toltecs the Aztecs appear to have gained their understanding of power politics, and they based their legitimacy to rule on a Toltec foundation. The Aztecs also venerated the achievements of the Toltecs at a nearly mythical level, attributing to the Toltecs all of the fine arts and cultural achievements (such as the calendar and writing) that the Aztecs themselves enjoyed. Aztec appreciation of their predecessors is clear not only from these emulations, but also from their inclusion of images of Teotihuacan, and the presence of other “antiquities” as offerings in buried caches in the Templo Mayor district of Tenochtitlan.

The Basis of Empire

The Basin of Mexico served as the seat of power for the Aztec Empire. This lake-dominated valley had been a popular settlement choice for a long succession of sedentary peoples, and indeed Teotihuacan is located in its northern region. Beginning around 1200, several hunting and gathering groups moved south into more fertile regions from the dry northern deserts. Leaving their original homeland of Aztlan (as yet unidentified), seven of these groups stopped at Chicomoztoc, or Seven Caves, and undetermined location in present-day northern Mexico. While historical accounts offer varying ethnic identifications, these groups moved south and settled in key locations around the Basin of Mexico and in valleys to the east, south, and west. These included the Acolhua, who established themselves east of Lake Texcoco; the Tepaneca, who settled to the west of the lake; the Xochimilca and Chalca, who took up residence in the south of the basin, and the Matlatzinca, Tlahuica, and Huexotzinca, who settled in neighboring valleys. In each case, the people and their cultures blended with the resident sedentary populations.

The last to arrive were the Mexica who, after a dramatic arrival and turbulent relationships with resident polities, established themselves on a small island in Lake Texcoco in 1325. They named their city Tenochtitlan; it was to become an enormous metropolis and center of the Aztec Empire.

From 1325 until 1428 the Mexica pursued longstanding and widely accepted strategies on their road to ultimate imperial dominance. Renowned warriors, they served as mercenaries to the most powerful polity in the Basin of Mexico, Azcapotzalco (flourished c. 1300–1428). Their successes on the battlefield earned them lands, tributaries, and wealth, which they used to enhance their resourcepoor island settlement. They concentrated on building and expanding their urban center beyond its small island setting and into the lake itself by claiming lands from the shallow lake bed. Ultimately (by 1519) the city would house 200,000 to 250,000 people. During this early period they also negotiated strategic elite marriages, particularly with the Colhuacan dynasty in the southern part of the basin. The Colhua claimed descent from the Toltecs, and establishing genealogical ties to that heritage gave the Mexica an enhanced power base and legitimacy to rule. With this dynastic connection forged, subsequent Mexica rulers successfully sought favorable marriage ties with other dynasties in the Basin of Mexico. In short, their first century in the basin provided the Mexica with the military, political, social, and economic foundation for their second century of imperial dominance.

The Growth of Empire

In 1428 the elderly ruler of the powerful city-state of Azcapotzalco died. The Mexica and their neighbors, the Acolhua of Texcoco, took advantage of the ensuing internal power struggle, conquering that ancient seat of power. In the course of that war, the Mexica and Acolhua also joined with the Tepaneca of Tlacopan on the western shore of Lake Texcoco. These three major city-states joined to form a tripartite alliance, commonly known today as the Aztec Empire or the Triple Alliance (the name Aztec means “People of Aztlan,” although this term did not enter common usage (in scholarship, but not as a term the people used in reference to themselves) until well after the Spanish conquest Scholars often use it today to refer generally to Nahuatl-speaking peoples in and around the Basin of Mexico in late post-Classic times). The people often referred to themselves as Mexica, Acolhua, Xochimilca, Chalca, and so forth, based on their city-state and ethnic affiliations. The Mexica under Itzcoatl (reigned 1426–1440) and the Acolhua under Nezahualcoyotl (reigned 1418–1472) took the initiative in the alliance’s expansionistic enterprises.

After consolidating their new political position in 1430, the Triple Alliance forces began an aggressive program of military conquest within the Basin of Mexico. The city-states they conquered were obligated to provide tribute to their conquerors on a regular basis, but they were also given opportunities to participate in and reap rewards from Triple Alliance conquests in more distant realms. The Triple Alliance rulers also forged alliances with these tributary city-states, solidifying their dominance through politically inspired marriages. The practice of polygamy among nobles favored this strategy, allowing a ruler to marry several women simultaneously and therefore establish numerous alliances in this fashion. Nonetheless, the conquests and alliances were not necessarily easy: for instance, Chalco, in the southeast corner of the Basin of Mexico, waged on-and-off war with the Triple Alliance powers for some three additional decades, finally succumbing to Aztec military might in either 1453 or 1465.

Even before the conquest of Chalco was concluded, the Mexica and their allies were already making military advances on city-states beyond the Basin of Mexico. The Mexica king Motecuhzoma Ilhuicamina (Motecuhzoma the Elder; commonly known in English as Montezuma I; reigned 1440–1468) spent his first decade of rule further consolidating conquests in the Basin of Mexico. Then he and subsequent Mexica rulers Axayacatl (reigned 1468–1481), Tizoc (reigned 1481–1486), Ahuitzotl (reigned 1486–1502), and Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin (Motecuhzoma the Younger, or Montezuma II; reigned 1502–1520), along with the tenacious Nezahualcoyotl and his son Nezahualpilli (reigned 1472–1515) of Texcoco (who together reigned from 1418 until 1515) led the Triple Alliance to military conquests beyond the basin to ultimately bring much of central and southern Mexico into their imperial net. In these conquests, Tlacopan remained the lesser partner.

This progression of imperial expansion was not without its setbacks. Provinces sometimes rebelled against their overlords, and reconquest campaigns had to be mounted. The Mexica ruler Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin spent a great deal of military energy simply reasserting imperial power over previously conquered city-states. Indeed, the empire may have come close to its maximum territorial extent by the time the Spaniards arrived in 1519. To the north lay deserts and areas relatively unattractive for conquest, to the east lay the Gulf of Mexico, and to the west sat the powerful Tarascans. To the south lay the rich regions of the Mayan city-states. Their considerable distance from the Basin of Mexico may have been a deterrent to Aztec conquest, since all travel and transport was by foot or canoe. Access to the precious Mayan resources was effectively obtained through the energetic commercial activities of professional merchants, some of them engaged by the Aztec state.

The Aztecs were not invincible. A major war between the Aztecs and Tarascans in 1478 or 1479 resulted in a devastating defeat for the Aztec forces, and the Triple Alliance avoided engaging the Tarascans in a major war again. There were also pockets of unconquered city-states within the imperial bounds. Most notable among these were the Tlaxcallans to the east of the Basin of Mexico, who, although surrounded by the Triple Alliance Empire, remained independent of the Aztec yoke. In 1519 they became decisive allies to the Spanish conquistadors in their conquest of Tenochtitlan.

Further serious problems beset the empire during its short ninety-one-year history. For instance, from 1450 to 1454 a calamitous famine wracked central Mexico, to the extent that thousands of people perished and some that survived exchanged their freedom for maize with the Totonacs of the Gulf coastal region. And in 1503 a devastating flood consumed much of Tenochtitlan, necessitating an energetic rebuilding program.

Structure and Strategies of the Aztec Empire

The primary goal of imperial rule was the acquisition of tribute paid on a regular basis to the Triple Alliance overlords. Upon conquest, a subdued city-state would agree to scheduled payments of locally available goods and products such as maize, chilies, honey, raw cotton, clothing, wood products, incense, warriors’ costumes and shields, greenstones, gold, feathers and jaguar skins. As long as these demands were met and the city-state did not rebel, the imperial powers took little interest in the affairs of their subjects. Politically, local rulers were usually allowed to remain in their traditional positions. The most prominent and insistent Aztec presence in conquered areas was in the form of imperial tribute collectors. Only occasionally, in recalcitrant areas, were Aztec officials such as governors installed or military garrisons stationed.

This loose structure disguised a well-considered system of political organization. In the core area of the empire (the Basin of Mexico), the Aztec Empire had the most time to integrate conquered city-states into its political and economic net. They pursued dynastic marriages with local rulers, then installed the offspring of these royal marriages in the conquered city-state: the new ruler therefore combined local legitimacy with imperial loyalties. In some cases new administrative offices were created, and in a few instances local rulers were actually replaced by those selected by the imperial powers. More subtly, city-states of the basin were often required (or invited) to participate in military ventures as the Triple Alliance advanced to conquer far-flung polities. If successful, warriors of these subjugated city-states could gain gifts and titles as rewards, thus heightening their interest in remaining part of the empire. They were not only attached to the empire, they had become participants in it.

More distant conquered areas saw fewer advantages to their conquest. It was usual that many of the conquered warriors were taken to the Aztec capital cities for sacrifice immediately following conquest. The demands of tribute were unrelenting, and if an Aztec army on the march passed through, the local population could be drained of its subsistence resources to supply the military.

The Triple Alliance employed well-considered strategies in establishing and maintaining its imperial control in outlying areas. An economic strategy focused on the city-states (administratively grouped into provinces) that paid regularly scheduled tribute to the Aztecs. Beyond the Basin of Mexico, this totaled thirty-two provinces that provided much economic support for the rulers and people of the Triple Alliance capitals: maize and other foodstuffs were stored against possible famine; warfare paraphernalia was held for military use; specific goods were stored and distributed as gifts, commissions, or for foreign trading enterprises; the enormous imperial bureaucracy and expensive priestly activities were supported; raw materials were fashioned by urban artisans into luxury wares for the nobility; and in general the extravagant lifestyle of imperial royalty and palatial life was enhanced. The imperial powers maintained this continual flow of tribute goods through threats of reprisals, usually entailing reconquest and a doubling of tribute demands on a rebellious province. As the empire continued expanding, an additional strategy became useful. This was a frontier strategy, and entailed the establishment of client states along hostile borderlands, astride critical transportation routes, or near critical but contested resources. In place of an outright military conquest, the Aztecs negotiated mutually beneficial agreements with these city-states, cemented with gifts. Client states served the empire by assuring borderland control, open transportation routes for merchants and troops, and access to critical resources. In this strategy, the Aztecs found an inexpensive way of managing their distant affairs. Nonetheless, they did establish fortresses and station garrisons at specific military hot spots, whether along volatile borders or within defiant provinces.

Fall of the Aztec Empire

In early 1519 a small force of Spanish conquistadors landed on the Mexican mainland. They had learned of the large empire led by Motecuhzoma and of his vast wealth; tales of treasures of gold were of special interest to the Spaniards. Under the leadership of Hernan Cortes, they traveled inland with the intent of conquering this rich land. A number of factors contributed to the ultimate Spanish victory. Spanish weaponry had some small advantage, with muskets, cannons, and especially steel swords. Horses provided mobility and height in battle, and ferocious dogs sparked considerable fear in the hearts of the native warriors (the small native domesticated dogs, commonly used as food, were of a different genre entirely from the large European canines). In the heat of battle, a major goal of native (but not Spanish) combat was the capture of the enemy for sacrifice, resulting in valorous risks and high indigenous casualties. Most important was the tenuous hold the Aztecs had on their conquered and client city-states, and the presence of significant unconquered polities. Cortes took early advantage of this loose organization to convince many of these city-states, and especially the powerful Tlaxcallans, to join him in his goals of conquest; in the end, the small force of Spaniards was massively augmented by native warriors. The seeds of destruction were built into the Aztec imperial structure. Cortes’s siege tactics employed late in the conquest took a final toll on a starving Tenochtitlan devoid of allies and wracked with smallpox, a disease that arrived with the Europeans and to which the local population had no immunity. Motecuhzoma had perished and his successor Cuitlahuac fell to the disease during the siege. On 13 August 1521 the last Aztec ruler, Cuauhtemoc, was captured by the Spanish conquistadors, signaling the end of Aztec imperial dominance in Mesoamerica.


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