The Aztec Empire flourished in the Valley of Mexico between A.D. 1325 and 1519 and was the last great civilization before the arrival of the Spanish in the early 16th century.
The Aztec Empire flourished in central Mexico during the Postclassic period of Mesoamerican history, from approximately A.D. 1325 to 1521. It is considered one of the great civilizations of the Americas — known for amazing feats of urban planning, engineering, military conquest and unique artistic innovations — and the last great Mesoamerican civilization before the arrival of the Spanish in the sixteenth century.
The Aztecs, also known as the Mexica, ruled by a combination of fear, skillful political manipulation, alliances and military force. At the same time, the Aztecs were renowned artisans, engineers, builders, traders and agriculturalists. They created colorful and intricate art, vast cities with towering pyramids and great aqueducts, a highly productive agricultural system and a writing system that made use of logograms and syllabic signs.
Today, the influence of the Aztecs on modern Mexican society and culture is profound and far-reaching and can be seen in cuisine, architecture, art, literature and more.
According to legend, the Aztecs migrated into the Valley of Mexico from Aztlán, reputed to be somewhere in the North. (The word “aztlán” is from the Nahuatl language and is typically translated as “white land,” or “land of white herons,” according to Britannica(opens in new tab).) These migrants were likely hunter-gatherers from northwest Mexico who were organized into a loose confederation of nomadic tribes, according to Britannica; they were skilled hunters and warriors who were openly hostile to the settled inhabitants of the Valley of Mexico.
As depicted in several Aztec codices, the famous Indigenous manuscripts written on bark paper and folded like an accordion, the Aztecs were led to the Valley of Mexico by their chief god, Huitzilopochtli, according to New World Encyclopedia(opens in new tab). Much of the valley was already inhabited, including the good agricultural land, so the Aztecs settled on an island at the western end of Lake Texcoco. They built their capital city, Tenochtitlán (modern-day Mexico City), on the spot where they observed an eagle — a potent symbol in Aztec ideology — perched atop a nopal cactus and clutching a snake in its talons (an image depicted on the modern Mexican flag).
Modern archaeology, however, paints a different picture of Aztec origins. The people who would later be known as the Aztecs were one of many Nahuatl-speaking groups occupying the Valley of Mexico. During the 12th century A.D., many of these peoples began to organize themselves into independent communities. “The basic political form of these groups was the city-state,” Michael Smith, a professor of archaeology at Arizona State University (ASU) and the director of the Teotihuacan Research Laboratory at ASU, told Live Science.
In Nahuatl, “city-state” is translated as “altepetl,” and much like the city-states of ancient Greece, for example, the city-states in the Valley of Mexico were independent political entities with their own standing armies, Indigenous identities, and political and religious structures. Like Athens, the Aztec city-state of Tenochtitlán grew from obscurity to military and political prominence through a gradual program of alliance and military dominance, Smith said.
At first, as legend has it(opens in new tab), the Aztecs eked out a precarious existence on their island, practicing agriculture and building a small settlement that gradually expanded. Fierce warriors, they often battled with the other peoples of the region. Other times, they hired themselves out as mercenaries in the many wars in which the inhabitants of the valley were engaged. Either by force of arms, alliance or skillful politicking — or a combination of all three — the Aztecs gradually came to dominate the surrounding tribes and city-states in the region, according to World History Encyclopedia. It is possible that the Aztecs contributed to the downfall of the Toltecs, who were the dominant political and cultural force in the Valley of Mexico before the rise of the Aztecs, according to World History Encyclopedia(opens in new tab).
In 1427, the Tepanec War — a conflict that pitted the Aztecs against the Tepanecs of the city of Azcapotzalco — broke out. It was precipitated by a civil war that flared up between two Tepanec rulers who vied for power after the death of the Tepanec king, Tezozomoc, according to Omni Atlas(opens in new tab). The Aztecs sided with one of the claimants, a man named Tayahuah, who opposed Tezozomoc’s son, Maxtla. Initially, the war went poorly for the Aztecs; the Aztec ruler, a man named Chimalpopoca, was killed in the conflict. But, with the ascension of the new Aztec ruler, Itzcóatl (who ruled from 1428 to 1440), the war took a dramatic turn. Itzcóatl, in a coalition with several city-states, marched on Azcapotzalco, overthrew Maxtla and captured the city.
Soon thereafter, in 1428, Itzcóatl formed an alliance with the neighboring states of Texcoco and Tlacopan, two of the more powerful city-states in the region, according to World History Encyclopedia. This came to be known as the Triple Alliance and is viewed by some scholars and archaeologists as the beginning of the Aztec Empire (other scholars argue that the empire began much earlier in 1325, which is the date of the founding of Tenochtitlán). At first, the three cities ruled the valley relatively equally. But gradually, the Aztecs gained sole political power and hegemony of the region.