part two

part three

part four

part five

part six

part seven

part eight

Tenochtitlan and the Conquest of the Americas


History Of The Conquest Of Mexico, The Aztecs (part five)

The Americas On The Eve Of Invasion

Author:      Prescott, William H

Date:         1992



Post classic Mesoamerica, A.D. 1000-1500


     The collapse of Teotihuacan in central Mexico and the abandonment of the

classical Maya cities in the 8th century A.D. signaled a significant political

and cultural change in Mesoamerica. The civilizations that followed built on

the achievements of their classic predecessors but rarely surpassed them,

except in the area of political and military organization.


     In central Mexico, nomadic peoples from beyond the northern frontier of

the sedentary agricultural area took advantage of the political vacuum to move

into the richer lands. Among these peoples were the Toltecs who established a

capital at Tula in about 968. They adopted many cultural features from the

sedentary peoples, to which they added a strongly militaristic ethic. This

included the cult of sacrifice and war that is often portrayed in Toltec art.

Later Mesoamerican peoples, such as the Aztecs, had some historical memory of

the Toltecs and thought of them as culture heroes, the givers of civilization.

Thus, being able to trace one's lineage back to the Toltecs later became a

highly prized pedigree. The archeological record, however, indicates that

Toltec accomplishments were often fused or confused with those of Teotihuacan

in the memory of the Toltec's successors.


The Toltec Heritage


     Among the legends that survived about the Toltecs were those of

Topiltzin, a Toltec leader and apparently a priest dedicated to the god

Quetzalcoatl (the Feathered Serpent) who later became confused with the god

himself in the legends. Apparently, Topiltzin, a religious reformer, was

involved in a struggle for priestly or political power with another faction.

When he lost, Topiltzin and his followers went into exile, promising to return

in the future to claim his throne on the same date according to the cyclical

calendar system. Supposedly, Topiltzin and his followers sailed for Yucatan;

there is considerable evidence of Toltec influence in that region. The legend

of Topiltzin-Quetzalcoatl was well known to the Aztecs and may have influenced

their response when the Europeans later arrived.


     The Toltecs created an empire that extended over much of central Mexico,

and their influence spread far beyond the region. Although the Maya had

abandoned many cities and no longer kept long-count dates, large cities,

especially in Yucatan, were still occupied. Around A.D. 1000, Chichen Itza was

conquered by Toltec warriors, and it and a number of other cities were then

ruled for a long time by central Mexican dynasties or by Maya rulers under

Toltec influence. The architecture at Chichen Itza - with its pyramid of the

god Quetzalcoatl (Feathered Serpent) and artistic motifs of warriors,

feathered serpents, and the symbols of death - reflects the Toltec influence.

Some Maya states in Guatemala, such as the Quiche kingdom, also had Toltecized

ruling families.


     Toltec influence spread northward as well. Obsidian mines were exploited

in northern Mexico, and the Toltecs may have traded for turquoise in the

American Southwest. There is evidence of contact between Mesoamerica and the

cliff-dwellers of Colorado and New Mexico, who are the ancestors of the modern

Pueblo Indians of the Southwest. It has been suggested that the great Anasazi

adobe town at Chaco canyon in New Mexico was abandoned when the Toltec Empire

fell and the trade for local turquoise ended.


     How far eastward that influence spread is a matter of dispute. Was there

contact between Mesoamerica and the elaborate culture and concentrated towns

of the Hopewell peoples of the Ohio and Mississippi valleys discussed in

Chapter 9? Scholars disagree. Eventually, in the lower Mississippi valley from

about 700, elements of Hopewell culture seem to have been enriched by external

contact perhaps with Mexico. This Mississippian culture, which flourished

between 1200 and 1500, was based on maize and bean agriculture. Towns, usually

located along rivers, had stepped temples made of earth and sometimes large

burial mounds. Some of the burials include well-produced pottery and other

goods and seem to be accompanied by ritual executions or sacrifices of

servants or wives. This indicates social stratification in the society.

Cahokia, near East St. Louis, Illinois, covered five square miles and may have

had over 30,000 people in and around its center. Its largest earthen pyramid,

called Monk's Mound, covers 15 acres and is comparable in size to the largest

classic period pyramids in Mexico. Many of these cultural features seem to

suggest contact with Mesoamerica, although no definitely Mexican object has

been found in a Mississippian site. Still, certain artistic traits and

subjects, including the feathered serpent, strongly suggest contact.


The Aztec Rise To Power


     The Toltec Empire lasted until about 1150, at which time it was

apparently destroyed by nomadic invaders from the north who also seem to have

sacked Tula around that date. In the period after the fall of Tula, the center

of population and political power in central Mexico shifted to the valley of

Mexico and especially to the shores of the large chain of lakes in that basin.

The three largest lakes were connected by marshes; together they provided a

rich aquatic environment. While the eastern lakes tended to be brackish from

the minerals that emptied in them from surrounding rivers, the southern and

western portions contained fresh water. The shores of the lakes were dotted

with settlements and towns. A dense population lived around the lakes to take

advantage of their life-giving water for agriculture, the fish and aquatic

plants and animals, and the advantages of transportation. Of the approximately

3000 square miles in the basin of the valley, about 400 square miles were



     The lakes became the cultural heartland and population center of Mexico

in the postclassic period. In the unstable world of post-Toltec Mesoamerica,

various peoples and cities jockeyed for supremacy of the lakes and the

advantages they offered. The winners of this struggle, the Aztecs, eventually

built a great empire, but when they emerged on the historical scene they were

the most unlikely candidates for power.


     From their obscure origins, the Aztec (or as they called themselves, the

Mexica) rise to power and formation of an imperial state was as spectacular as

it was rapid. According to some of their legends, the Mexica had once

inhabited the central valley and had known agriculture and the "civilized"

life but had lived in exile to the north in a place called Aztlan (from whence

we get the name Aztec). This may be an exaggeration by people who wished to

lay claim to a distinguished heritage. Other sources indicate that the Aztecs

were simply one of the nomadic tribes that used the political anarchy,

following the fall of the Toltecs, to penetrate into the area of sedentary

agricultural peoples. Like the ancient Egyptians, the Aztecs rewrote history

to suit their purposes. Their ruler Itzcoatl (1427-1440) ordered all the old

books destroyed and had history rewritten in a manner more favorable to the

Aztec "official" version. Later observers, both Spaniards and Indians, wrote

with their own biases. Thus, it is difficult to piece the story together and

to eliminate intentional bias, political manipulation, and later rewriting,

but with the help of archeology and ethnohistory, or the use of

anthropological techniques by historians, it is possible to outline the major

features of Aztec life and history.


     What seems clear is that the Aztecs were a group of about 10,000 people

who migrated to the shores of Lake Texcoco in the central valley of Mexico

around the year 1325. After the fall of the Toltec Empire, the central valley

was inhabited by a mixture of peoples - Chichimec migrants from the northwest

and various groups of sedentary agriculturalists. These peoples were divided

into small political units that claimed greater or lesser authority on the

basis of their military power and their connections to Toltec culture or

Toltec descendants. Many of these peoples spoke Nahuatl, the language the

Toltecs had spoken. The Aztecs too spoke this language, a fact that made their

rise to power and their eventual claims to legitimacy more acceptable.


     In this period the area around the lake was dominated by a number of

tribes organized into city-states. The city of Azcapotzalco was the real power

but was challenged by an alliance centered in the city of Texcoco. Another

city, Culhuacan, which had been part of the Toltec Empire, used its heritage

as legitimate heir to the Toltecs as a means of creating alliances by marrying

its princes and princesses to more powerful but less distinguished states.

This was a world of political manuever and state marriages, competing powers

and shifting alliances.


     An intrusive and militant group, such as the Aztecs, were distrusted and

disliked by the dominant powers of the area, but their fighting skills could

be put to use, and this made them attractive as mercenaries or allies. For

about a century the Aztecs wandered around the shores of the lake, being

allowed to settle for a while and then driven out by more powerful neighbors.

An alliance with Culhuacan failed when instead of arranging a royal marriage

of a princess sent from that city, the Aztecs executed her as an offering to

their gods.


     In a period of militarism and warfare, the Aztecs had a reputation as

tough warriors and fanatical followers of their gods, to whom they offered

continual human sacrifices. This reputation made them both valued and feared.

Their own legends foretold that their wanderings would end when they saw an

eagle perched on a cactus with a serpent in its beak. Supposedly, this sign

was seen on a marshy island in Lake Texcoco and there, on that island and one

nearby, the Aztecs settled. The city of Tenochtitlan was founded about 1325

and on the neighboring island the city of Tlatelolco was established shortly

thereafter. The two cities eventually grew together, although they maintained

separate administrations.


     From this secure base the Aztecs began to take a more active role in

regional politics. Azcapotzalco and Texcoco were locked in a struggle, and the

Aztecs now began to serve Azcapotzalco as mercenaries. This alliance brought

prosperity to the Aztecs, especially to their ruler and the warrior nobility,

which was now acquiring lands and tribute from conquered towns. By 1428,

however, the Aztecs had rebelled against Azcapotzalco and had joined with

Texcoco in destroying it. From that victory the Aztecs emerged as an

independent power. In 1434, Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and a smaller city,

Tlacopan, joined together in a triple alliance that exercised control over

much of the central plateau. Nezhualcoyotl, the philosopher king in Texcoco

(1434-1472), used his personal prestige and political wisdom to keep some

balance in the alliance, but in reality, Tenochtitlan and the Aztecs dominated

their allies and controlled the major share of the tribute and lands taken.


The Aztec Social Contract


     According to the Aztec accounts of this history, a social and political

transformation had also taken place. Acampichtli, the first ruler, had created

a nobility, or pipiltin, from the leading families by marriage with some

Culhuacan nobles who could trace their roots to the Toltecs. When the war with

Azcapotzalco broke out, the commoners were reluctant to fight; but the

nobility urged them on and promised victory. According to the Aztec official

version, the pipiltin promised to obey the commoners forever if they lost, and

the commoners made a similar promise if the nobles could bring victory. The

conquest of Azcapotzalco assured the position of the nobility. Moreover, the

ruler of Tenochtitlan emerged from this process no longer as a spokesman for a

general council, but as a supreme ruler with wide powers. Succeeding rulers

expanded that power and the boundaries of Aztec control. Moctezuma I

(1440-1469) conquered areas around the central plateau. Under his brother

Ahuitzotl (1486-1502), the empire reached its greatest extent - from coast to

coast and with some subject areas far to the south, although the Tarascan

kingdom to the northwest remained independent. Moctezuma II (1502-1520)

consolidated the conquest of central Mexico, and although a few independent

states remained within central Mexico, Aztec domination extended from the

Tarascan frontier southward to the Maya area. Subject peoples were forced to

pay tribute, surrender lands, and sometimes do military service for the

growing Aztec Empire.


     Whatever the official explanation of events, it seems clear that Aztec

society had been transformed in the process of expansion and conquest. From a

loose association of clans, the Mexica had become a stratified society under

the authority of a supreme ruler of great power. A central figure in these

changes was Tlacaelel, a man who served as a sort of prime minister and

advisor under three rulers from 1427 to his death around 1480. Under his

direction, the histories were rewritten and the Mexica were given a self-image

as a people chosen to serve the gods. Human sacrifice, long a part of

Mesoamerican religion, was greatly expanded under his direction into a cult of

enormous proportions in which the military class played a central role as

suppliers of war captives to be used as sacrificial victims. Supposedly, at

the dedication of the great temple during the reign of Ahuitzotl, over 10,000

victims were put to death. It was also a policy of Tlacaelel to leave a few

territories unconquered so that periodic "flower wars" could be staged in

which both sides could obtain captives for sacrifice. Whatever the religious

motivations of this cult, Tlacaelel and the Aztec rulers manipulated it as an

effective means of political terror. By the time of Moctezuma II, the Aztec

state was dominated by a king who represented civil power and served as a

representative of the gods on earth. The cult of human sacrifice and conquest

was united with the political power of the ruler and the nobility.


Religion And The Ideology Of Conquest


     Aztec religion incorporated many features that had long been part of the

Mesoamerican system of beliefs. Religion was a vast, uniting, and sometimes

oppressive force in which little distinction was made between the world of the

gods and the natural world. The traditional deities of Mesoamerica - the gods

of rain, fire, water, corn, the sky, and the sun, many of whom were worshiped

as far back as the time of Teotihuacan - were known and venerated among the

Aztecs. There were at least 128 major deities, but the number of gods, in

fact, seemed innumerable for often each deity had a female consort or feminine

form. This was because a basic duality was recognized in all things. Moreover,

gods might have different forms or manifestations somewhat like the avatars of

the Hindu deities. Often each god had at least five aspects, each associated

with one of the cardinal directions and the center. Certain gods were thought

to be the patrons of specific cities, ethnic groups, or occupations. It was an

extensive pantheon supported by a round of yearly festivals and a highly

complex ceremonialism that involved various forms of feasting and dancing

along with penance and sacrifice.


     This bewildering array of gods can be organized into three major themes

or cults. The first were the gods of fertility and the agricultural cycle,

such as Tlaloc, or the god of rain (called Chac by the Maya), and the gods and

goddesses of water, maize, and fertility. Xipe Totec, for example, represented

agricultural rebirth. His cult was horrible. Victims sacrificed to him were

flayed, and a priest then donned the skin to represent the new growth of the

maize. A second theme centered on the creator deities, the great gods and

goddesses who had brought the universe into being. The story of their actions

played a central role in Aztec cosmography. Tonatiuh, the warrior god of the

sun, and Tezcatlipoca, the god of the night sky, were among the most powerful

and respected gods among the peoples of central Mexico. Much of Aztec abstract

and philosophical thought was devoted to the theme of creation. Finally, the

cult of warfare and sacrifice built on the preexisting Mesoamerican traditions

that had been expanding since Toltec times but which, under the militaristic

Aztec state, became the cult of the state. Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec tribal

patron, became the central figure of this cult, but it included Tezcatlipoca,

Tonatiuh, and other gods as well.


     The Aztecs revered the great traditional deities - such as Tlaloc and

Quetzalcoatl, the ancient god of civilization - so holy to the Toltecs, but

their own tribal deity Huitzilopochtli became paramount. The Aztecs identified

him with the old sun god, and they saw him as a warrior in the daytime sky

fighting to give life and warmth to the world against the forces of the night.

In order to carry out that struggle, the sun needed strength - and just as the

gods had sacrificed themselves for humankind, the nourishment the gods needed

most was that which was most precious, human life in the form of hearts and

blood. The great temple of Tenochtitlan was dedicated to both Huitzilopochtli

and Tlaloc. The tribal deity of the Aztecs and the ancient agricultural god of

the sedentary peoples of Mesoamerica were thus united.


     In fact, while human sacrifice had long been a part of Mesoamerican

religion, it had expanded considerably in the postclassic period of

militarism. Warrior cults and the militaristic images of jaguars and eagles

devouring human hearts were characteristic of Toltec art. The Aztecs simply

took an existing tendency and carried it to an unprecedented scale. Both the

types and frequency of sacrifice increased, and a whole symbolism and ritual,

which included ritual cannibalism, developed as part of the cult. How much of

Aztec sacrifice was the result of religious conviction and how much was

imposed as a tactic of terror and political control by the rulers and the

priest class is a question still open to debate (see "Analysis" in this



     Beneath the surface of this polytheism, there was, however, also a sense

of spiritual unity. Nezhualcoyotl, the king of Texcoco, composed hymns to the

"lord of the close vicinity," an invisible creative force that supported all

the gods. Yet, his conception of a kind of monotheism, much like that of

Pharaoh Akhnaten in Egypt, was too abstract and never gained great popularity.


     While the bloody aspects of Aztec religion have gained much attention, we

must also realize that the Aztecs concerned themselves with many of the great

religious and spiritual questions that have preoccupied other civilizations:

Is there life after death? What is the meaning of life? What does it mean to

live a good life? Do the gods really exist?


     Nezhualcoyotl, whose poetry survived in oral form and was written down in

the 16th century, wondered about life after death:


     Do flowers go to the land of the dead?

     In the Beyond, are we dead or do we still live?

     Where is the source of light, since that which gives life hides itself?


He also wondered about the existence of the gods:


     Are you real, are you fixed?

     Only You dominate all things

     The Giver of Life.

     Is this true?

     Perhaps, as they say, it is not true.


     Aztec religious art and poetry is filled with images of flowers, birds,

and song - all of which the Aztecs greatly admired - as well as human hearts

and blood - the "precious water" needed to sustain the gods. It is this

mixture of images that makes the symbolism of Aztec religion so difficult for

modern observers to understand.


     Aztec religion depended on a complex mythology that explained the birth

and history of the gods and their relation to peoples and on a religious

symbolism that infused all aspects of life. As we have seen, the Mesoamerican

calendar system was religious in nature, and many ceremonies coincided with

particular points in the calendar cycle. Moreover, the Aztecs also believed in

a cyclical view of history and believed that the world had been destroyed four

times before and would be destroyed again. Thus there was a certain fatalism

in Aztec thought and a premonition that, eventually, the sacrifices would be

insufficient and the gods would again bring catastrophe. Characteristically,

at the end of each 52-year cycle, all the fires in the kingdom were

extinguished, and while the people waited apprehensively, the priests

attempted to kindle a new fire in the chest cavity of a sacrificial victim. If

the gods approved and the sparks caught, the world would continue; the new

fire was then taken by runners with torches to relight all the fires in the



The Foundation Of Heaven: Tenochtitlan, The Great City


     The city-state with its ruler-spokesman was a key central Mexican concept

and it applied to Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital. The Mexica thought of

themselves as inheritors of Toltec traditions and of their city as the new

Tula. From its modest beginnings, Tenochtitlan became a great metropolis, with

a central zone of palaces and whitewashed temples surrounded by adobe brick

residential districts, smaller palaces, and markets. The temple precinct was

dominated by the great pyramid and twin temple of Huizilopochtli and Tlaloc.

(This has recentdy been excavated by archeologists.) The round temple of

Quetzalcoatl, the school for the priesthood, and some seventy other buildings

stood in or near the precinct. The craftsmanship and architecture was

outstanding. Hernan Cortes, the Spanish conqueror who viewed the city,

personally reported, "The stone masonry and the woodwork are equally good,

they could not be bettered anywhere." There were gardens and a zoo kept for

the ruler. The nobility had houses two stories high, sometimes with gardens on

the roofs.


     Tlatelolco, at first a separate island city, was eventually incorporated

as part of Tenochtitlan. It too had impressive temples and palaces, and its

large market remained the most important place of trade and exchange. Building

projects by various Mexican rulers increased the size and beauty of the city.

By 1519, the city covered about five square miles. It had a population of

150,000, larger than contemporary European cities such as Seville or Paris.


     Its island location gave Tenochtitlan a peculiar character. Set in the

midst of a lake, the city was connected to the shores by four broad causeways.

Since the city was built on an island and reclaimed land, it was crisscrossed

by canals that allowed the constant canoe traffic on the lake access to the

city. Away from the center of the city, households practiced floating garden,

or chinampa, cultivation within the city. Each of the more than 60 city wards

was controlled by a calpulli, or kin group, and each maintained its

neighborhood temples and civic buildings. The city was supplied primarily by

canoe transportation, although there were aqueducts that brought in fresh

water. A dike had been constructed to keep the brackish waters of the eastern

portion of the lake away from the agriculture in and around the city. There

were smaller island communities and along the shores of the lake were other

densely populated towns and cities. The structural achievement was impressive.

A Spanish foot-soldier who saw it in 1519 wrote:


     Gazing on such wonderful sights, we did not know what to say, or whether

     what appeared before us was real, for on one side, on the land, there

     were great cities, and in the lake ever many more, and the lake was

     crowded with canoes, and in the causeway were many bridges at intervals,

     and in front of us stood the great city of Mexico. . . .


     Such vivid descriptions by Western observers tell only a portion of the

story. Tenochtitlan had an internal organization that reproduced the Aztec

religious and social universe. Its four causeways were associated with the

four cardinal directions and the gods of each. Within the city, neighborhoods

were organized in pairs of 20 communal corporate groups and in a number of

temple upkeep groupings, each with its neighborhood temple and school to

maintain. The round of festivals, the calendar system, and the cosmology of

Aztec religion was represented physically by the city's organization and the

place and hierarchy of the corporate groups within it. Such groupings were

based on occupations, residence, or ethnicity. This last grouping was

important because Tenochtitlan and the Aztecs themselves had included large

non-Aztec ethnic populations even in their origins. In fact, much of Aztec

myth and official history was designed to create a unified people out of an

agglomeration of groups.


     Tenochtitlan was the heart of an empire and drew tribute and support from

its allies and dependents, but in theory it was still just a city-state ruled

by a headman, just like the other 50 or more city-states that dotted the

central plateau. Even so, the Aztecs called it the "foundation of heaven," the

basis of their might. It was a great world city, but unlike Rome or Athens, it

was later so completely obliterated that even in the lifetime of its

conquerors, one of them could lament that "all is overthrown and lost, nothing

left standing." Present-day Mexico City rises on the site of the former Aztec



[See Aztec Sacrifice: Human sacrifice existed among many Mesoamerican peoples,

but the Aztecs apparently expanded its practice for political reasons and

religious belief.]


Feeding The People: The Economy Of The Empire


     Feeding the great population of Tenochtitlan and the Aztec confederation

in general depended on traditional forms of agriculture and on innovations

developed by the Aztecs. Lands of conquered peoples were often appropriated,

and food was sometimes demanded as tribute. In fact, the quantities of maize,

beans, and other foods brought into Tenochtitlan annually were staggering. In

and around the lake, however, the Aztecs adopted an ingenious system of

irrigated agriculture by constructing chinampas for agriculture. These were

beds of aquatic weeds, mud, and earth that had been placed in frames made of

cane and rooted to the lake floor. They formed artificial floating islands

about five meters long and 30 to 100 meters wide. This narrow, striplike

construction allowed the water to reach all the plants, and willow trees were

also planted at intervals to give shade and help fix the roots. Much of the

land of Tenochtitlan itself was chinampa in origin, and in the southern end of

the lake over 20,000 acres of chinampas were constructed.


     The yield from chinampa agriculture was high and four corn crops a year

were possible. Apparently, this system of irrigated agriculture had been used

in preclassic days, but a rise in the level of the lakes had made it

impossible to continue. After 1200, however, lowering of the lake levels once

again stimulated chinampa construction, which the Aztecs carried out on a

grand scale. They also constructed dikes to close off the fresh waters in the

southern and western parts of the lake from the brackish waters elsewhere.

Today, the floating gardens of Xochimilco represent the remnants of the lake



     Production by the Aztec peasantry and tribute provided the basic foods.

In each Aztec community the local clan apportioned the lands, some of which

were also set aside for support of the temples and the state. In addition,

individual nobles might also have private estates that were worked by servants

or slaves from conquered peoples. Each community had periodic markets -

according to various cycles in the calendar system such as every five and 13

days - in which a wide variety of goods were exchanged. Cacao beans and gold

dust were sometimes used as currency, but much trade was done as barter. The

great market at Tlatelolco operated daily and was controlled by the special

merchant class, or pochteca, which specialized in long-distance trade in

luxury items such as plumes of tropical birds and cacao. The markets were

highly regulated and under the control of inspectors and special judges.

Despite the existence and importance of markets, this was not a market economy

as we usually understand it.


     The state controlled the use and distribution of many commodities and

served to redistribute the vast levies of tribute received from subordinate

peoples. Tribute levels were assigned according to whether the subject peoples

had accepted Aztec rule or had fought against it. Those who surrendered paid

less. Tribute payments, such as food, slaves, and sacrificial victims, served

political and economic ends and a wide variety of commodities. Over 120,000

mantles of cotton cloth alone were collected as tribute each year and sent to

Tenochtitlan. The Aztec state redistributed these goods. After the original

conquests, it rewarded its nobility richly, but the commoners received far

less. Still, the redistribution of many goods by the state interfered with the

normal functioning of the market and created a peculiar state-controlled mixed


Main Page

World History Center Project