Aztec Civilization

Aztec

Aztec (ăz´tĕk´), Indian people dominating central Mexico at the time of the Spanish conquest. Their language belonged to the Nahuatlan subfamily of Uto-Aztecan languages. They arrived in the Valley of Mexico from the north toward the end of the 12th cent. and until the founding of their capital, Tenochtitlán (c.1325) were a poor, nomadic tribe absorbing the culture of nearby states. For the next century they maintained a precarious political autonomy while paying tribute to neighboring tribes, but by alliance, treachery, and conquest during the 15th and early 16th cent. they became a powerful political and cultural group. To the north they established hegemony over the Huastec, to the south over the Mixtec and Zapotec and even ventured as far as Guatemala. Their subjugation of the people of Tlaxcala in the mountains to the east was bloody but only intermittent, and the Tlaxcala people later became allies of the Spanish against the Aztec. Only in the west, where the Tarascan Indians severely defeated them, did the Aztec completely fail to conquer.

The Aztec Civilization

By absorption of other cultural elements and by conquest the Aztec achieved a composite civilization, based on the heritage of Toltec and Mixteca-Puebla. They attained a high degree of development in engineering, architecture, art, mathematics, and astronomy. The Aztec calendar utilized a 260-day year and a 52-year time cycle. Aztec skill in engineering was evident in the fortifications of their island capital. The Aztec further developed sculpture, weaving, metalwork, ornamentation, music, and picture writing for historical records. Agriculture was well advanced and trade flourished.

The political and social organization was based on three castes—nobility, priesthood, and military and merchants. The priesthood was a powerful political as well as religious force. Aztec government was relatively centralized, although many conquered chiefs retained political autonomy; they paid tribute and kept commerce open to the Aztec. The Aztec had a large and efficient army. Prisoners of war were used for human sacrifice to satisfy the many gods of the Aztec pantheon, notably Huitzilopochtli, the chief god, who was god of war.

Spanish Conquest

When the Spaniards, under Hernán Cortés, arrived in 1519, the Aztec civilization was at its height. However, many subject Indian groups, rebellious against Aztec rule, were only too willing to join the Spanish. Initially, the invaders were aided by the fact that the Aztec believed them to be descendants of the god Quetzalcoatl. Montezuma, the last of the independent Aztec rulers, received Cortés, who made him prisoner and attempted to rule through him. The Aztec revolted, Montezuma was killed, and Tenochtitlán was razed (1521). Cuauhtémoc, last of the emperors, was murdered (1525), and the Spanish proceeded to subjugate Mexico.

Bibliography

See B. Diaz del Castillo, The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico (tr. by A. P. Maudsley, 1928, repr. 1965); A. Caso, The Aztecs, People of the Sun (tr. 1958, repr. 1967); L. Sejourné, Burning Water: Thought and Religion in Ancient Mexico (1961); J. Soustelle, The Daily Life of the Aztecs on the Eve of the Spanish Conquest (tr. 1961, repr. 1970); G. C. Vaillant, The Aztecs of Mexico (rev. ed. 1962); B. C. Brundage, A Rain of Darts: The Mexican Aztecs (1973); G. W. Conrad and A. A. Demarest, Religion and Empire: The Dynamics of Aztec and Inca Expansionism (1984); R. Hassig, Trade, Tribute, and Transportation (1985) and Aztec Warefare (1988).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Aztecs of Mexico: Origin, Rise, and Fall of the Aztec Nation
George C. Vaillant.
Doubleday, 1962
The Daily Life of the Aztecs: On the Eve of the Spanish Conquest
Jacques Soustelle; Patrick O'Brian.
Macmillan, 1962
Mesoamerica's Classic Heritage: From Teotihuacan to the Aztecs
David Carrasco; Lindsay Jones; Scott Sessions.
University Press of Colorado, 2000
Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl: The Once and Future Lord of the Toltecs
H. B. Nicholson.
University Press of Colorado, 2001
Aztec Human Sacrifice: Cross-Cultural Assessments of the Ecological Hypothesis
Winkelman, Michael.
Ethnology, Vol. 37, No. 3, Summer 1998
PEER-REVIEWED PERIODICAL
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Aztecs: A New Perspective: John M.D. Pohl Reviews Recent Scholarship about the Empire Swept Away by Cortes. (Cover Story)
Pohl, John M. D.
History Today, Vol. 52, No. 12, December 2002
The Origins of Violence in Mexican Society
Christina Jacqueline Johns.
Praeger Publishers, 1995
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 3 "The Rise of the Aztec State," Chap. 4 "Warfare in Aztec Mexico," and more
Brutality and Benevolence: Human Ethology, Culture, and the Birth of Mexico
Abel A. Alves.
Greenwood Press, 1996
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 3 "Aztec Culture"
Mesoamerican Architecture as a Cultural Symbol
Jeff Karl Kowalski.
Oxford University Press, 1999
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 9 "The Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan: Cosmic Center of the Aztec Universe"
The Ephemeral Civilization: Exploding the Myth of Social Evolution
Graeme Donald Snooks.
Routledge, 1997
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 7 "Tenochtitlan: Citadel of the Sun"
From Black Land to Fifth Sun: The Science of Sacred Sites
Brian Fagan.
Addison-Wesley Pub. Co., 1998
Librarian’s tip: Discussion of the Aztecs begins on p. 332
The Ancient Americas: A Brief History and Guide to Research
Hanns J. Prem; Kornelia Kurbjuhn.
University of Utah Press, 1997
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 14 "The Aztecs"
Historical Dictionary of the Spanish Empire, 1402-1975
James S. Olson; Sam L. Slick; Samuel Freeman; Virginia Garrard Burnett; Fred Koestler.
Greenwood Press, 1992
Librarian’s tip: Discussion of the Aztecs begins on p. 69
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