During the same period as the Inca Empire, the Aztec Empire dominated
Mesoamerica from Mexico and Guatemala to the
territories of Salvador and Honduras for nearly 100
years. The people of this culture were refined
workers, merchants, farmers and fishers. Also, they
were fervent worshippers of the many gods of the
Sun, and fierce defenders and conquerors of their
territory. In 1519 when Hernan Cortes landed in this
region and came upon this civilization, they were the
sole heirs of a flourishing community. Only two years after his landing, the Aztec
Empire crumbled and the capital was burned to the ground.
The Aztecs began their reign in 1427 after the leader, Itzcoatl, with the
assistance of surrounding cities, defeated the Tepanecs and gained control of
the Mexican basin. Leadership of the nation was passed on from brother to
brother and then to the eldest son of the eldest brother. Leaders were then
chosen by religious leaders and
people of political power, based on
their skills on the battlefield and their
ability to speak eloquently.
For the Aztecs, warfare had a much
different goal than for most of their
counterparts. The goal of the battles
was not to destroy the enemy and ransack the village but to capture the
community and integrate them into the Aztec society, thus providing a much
more productive and expanding kingdom. The temples of these cities were
burned and the worship of Huitzilopochtli was installed. Warfare was also used to
capture victims for ceremonial use. Prisoners of war were sacrificed on huge
alters in front of large crowds. The heart of the victim was cut out, symbolically
offered to the gods, and the lifeless bodies of the victims were rolled down the
long stairs, staining the steps with blood.
Aztec religion was closely tied into the calendrical system they adopted based on
the cosmos. The Aztec god was a form of energy in one way or another. This
energy could then be distributed to mankind through several different forms from
lakes and streams to sunlight and wind. Each part of the Aztec world was
represented in one fashion or another by some deity, which in turn either blessed
or punished the peoples. These deities were then represented in the calendars of
the Aztec, namely the Day-Count and the Solar Year. The Day-Count calendar
was based on 20 day signs, (i.e. dog, water, deer, grass, etc..) and 13 day
numbers. This was an endless cycle which constantly repeated itself, providing a
260-day year and determined the type of day it was going to be, based on the
meaning of the signs. The Solar Year was used to determine planting and
harvesting times and to organize festivities. This system was based on a 365 day
cycle and when combined with that of the Day-Count, it provided a perfect 52
year cycle, which measured historical events for the Aztec.
The fall of the Aztec Empire was based not only on the actions of the Spaniards,
but on the revolt of surrounding smaller communities which
belonged to this huge collaboration of peoples. Cortes had
found the weakness of this Empire, that being the Empire was
nothing more than a collection of smaller groups of people
who were tied together by one thing: membership in this
society. Many of these communities despised the Aztecs and
wanted freedom from their rule. Cortes saw this and exploited
it to its fullest. By gathering up more than 150,000 of these
native peoples and 9,000 of his own troops, he completely
dismantled the Aztec Empire and in the process gained
control of those who were fighting for their own freedom. Finally, after the city of
Tenochtitlan became infected with the small-pox epidemic, and half of the city
was wiped out, Cortes seized the city and laid it in ruins. By August 13th, 1521,
the Aztec empire was decimated and Spanish rule soon spread throughout the
newly gained land.
Based on the reading, please answer the following questions:
1. Where did the Aztecs live? When did they exist?
2. How did the Aztecs gain control of the area they ruled?
3. How was leadership passed on? How leaders chosen?
4. What were the goals of Aztec warfare?
5. Describe human sacrifice during Aztec rule.
6. For what two things was the Aztec calendar used?
7. What was the weakness of the Aztec empire that Cortes discovered?
8. How did Cortes conquer the Aztecs?