The fifteenth century brought to Europe a "significant growth in population" and a revival of the economy. Along with that came a desire for long-distance trade that introduced new products and a need for new markets. Meanwhile, the political system of Europe was changing, and the creation of the national states was now a reality.
Having seen the goods and products of the East, after a long series of visits to the Orient initiated in the fourteenth century by Marco Polo, Europe desired to continue trade with Asia. The Europeans wanted to find a faster and safer way to travel there. So, expeditions begun, with Portugal making the first step, going to the East following the coastline of Africa.
A young Italian employed by the Portuguese ships suggested one day a different route; not a journey eastwards but westwards, to reach Asia not from the inside, but from its coastline. His name was Christopher Columbus, and when Portugal did not offer him its support, he turned to Spain. In 1492, under Spanish flag, he embarked on a sea voyage to the west. The story from here on is known; he mistook modern-day Cuba for China, and it was not until his third trip that he realized his mistake and probably understood he had discovered a new continent.
In the years after Columbus' discovery, many more Spaniards fled for that new land. They discovered from the very first day that people inhabited this new land. These people were divided into tribes. One of those tribes, in fact the predominant tribe that ruled over a number of others and over a vast area, was the tribe of the Aztecs, located in the central part of the American continent.
What follows, is a very brief account of these people. In the next pages, one can read a survey of the history of the Aztecs and of some elements of their culture such as religion, art and social stratification.
By 300 AD, one city had become the greatest center in the valley of Mexico. It was Jeotihuacan, an "urban metropolis", a "strong political entity", with the support and service of "large surrounding suburban and rural population". Jeotihuacan managed to spread its influence in all directions and house the religions and state figures, along with some artisans, merchants and intellectuals. Between 300 AD and 600 AD, the town reached its peak and influenced greatly the Totonacs in the east, but 50 years later, it was burned by hostile people. This event permitted other cities to emerge as important and influential (Josephy Jr, 1991 ; pp. 200-203).
The following centuries saw the rise of the Toltecs in power. The Toltecs lived in the north and Tollan was their capital. Largely influenced by the Teotihuacans, the Toltecs begun influencing other people in the Middle American area. The Toltecs had a secular, militaristic and religious administration that soon begun to struggle for control. This "strife" weakened their state and an epidemic of plague and invasions of the Chichimes from the north brought down Tollan around 1200 AD. (Josephy Jr, 1991 ; p. 204-205).
The Chichimes was a mixture of people that easily assimilated the civilizations they had conquered. Many of these tribes settled around Lake Texcoco in the valley of Mexico. One of these tribes was the Culhuas, who settled in the south. The Culhuas used the Mexicas, a weak, landless tribe as mercenaries, but they soon chased them away when the Mexicas sacrificed the daughter of the Culhuas' king in order to honor him. Some small islands in the lake, became the new house of the Mexicas and in 1325 they founded their capital, Tenochtitlan, and renamed themselves as Aztecs, from the area they originally came from, Aztlan (Brandon, 1987 ; p. 65 and Josephy Jr, 1991 ; pp. 212-213).
The Aztecs were subordinated to the Tepanecs, a tribe west of the lake, with Azcapotzalco as their capital. The Tepanecs were the new dominant power in the area and had conquered the Culhuans. In 1416, Tezozomoc, the king of the Tepanecs, conquered the Texcocos, another tribe, and killed all the royal family except prince Nezahualcoyotl (Brandon, 1987 ; p. 65-66).
Tezozomoc died and one of his sons disappointed by the choice of the new king killed his brother, the king of the Tepanecs, and the king of Tenochtitlan. This enraged the Aztecs who allied with Nezahualcoyotl and defeated the Tepanecs. Nezahualcoyotl became the ruler of Texcoco around 1426. Texcoco and Tecochtitlan were the two strongest cities of the area and allied with the people of the city Tlacopan. The allies conquered the surrounding areas and Tenochtitlan, expanded and took over Texcoco and Tlacopan and became the sole rulers of Mexico (Brandon, 1987 ; pp. 66-69).
The Aztecs had created an empire that extended towards both oceans. However, it was not like the empires of Europe. They had rather created a loose confederacy of subjected areas, independent in a sense from the Aztecs. These areas of ten self-governed peoples were forced to pay tribute and offer people for the Aztec human sacrifices. These forced duties accompanied by Aztec "oppression" caused many riots of the subjected peoples, leading the Aztecs "to enforce obedience" (Josephy Jr, 1991 ; p. 214).
Social stratification in the Aztec world presents peculiarities. The people belonging to the upper classes received their positions in a hereditary manner, but the lower classes did not have such clear distinctions. Very often, a person was admitted to a rank after great "achievement, especially in war fare". There were seven classes in the Aztec society. The head of the Aztecs was the king, known as tlatoani or tlacatewhtli. He descended from the Toltec prince Acamapichtli (while the prince was supposed to descend from Quetzalwatl, the great Toltec god). Acamapichtli was invited to Tenochtitlan by the Aztecs, married twenty wives and founded thus, the Aztec noble families (Driver, 1972 ; p. 336). The king headed all activities, and had to prove his abilities before coronation by embarking on a war. He served as the "magical rain-maker-king in annual rites", he did sacrifices and was at the same time the "invincible warrior", leader of the Aztec army (Townsend, 1992 ; p. 202-207).
Next in rank were the nobles, the pipiltin, the descendants of Acamapichtli. They served in the Aztec state, holding the highest positions in the administrative, judicial, military and religious sectors. Some of them though, had no authorities, or worked "as palace servants or skilled craftsmen" . People who excelled and offered great services in the state were rewarded by the king with knighthood and were admitted to the class of the knights. Another class was that of the macehualtin, the "commoners or plebeians". These people had some land that they cultivated but could not sell since it was owned by the deme. They could though keep or sell what they produced freely or move to another deme and cultivate land there. If they didn't cultivate their land for two years, they could lose it. But they could also acquire high positions in the deme, even its leadership (Driver, 1972 ; p. 337).
Below the macehualtins, were the mayeques, the serfs. They were attached to the land, and were paid with a portion of the products they cultivated. They were also obliged to serve their masters by doing other small jobs, as well (building, cooking, planting etc.). They could be called to serve in the army and they did not pay any taxes. The slaves were one more class of the Aztec society. Their masters used their services as they saw fit, but they could not kill them since the master owned only the services, nor could sell them to a new master without the slaves' consent. Finally, slavery was neither hereditary nor lasted for "a lifetime" (Driver, 1972 ; p. 337.)
The final class of the Aztec society was the "propertyless proletariat", landless, with no masters, but they "worked as servants, porters, craftsmen, and as day laborers". From an economic point of view, they were in a "precarious" state, since they had no land to cultivate and no one to "provide for at least their biological needs" (Driver, 1972 ; p. 337-338).
The supreme divinity was Tloque Nahuaque, "a supreme and ineffable god", an abstracted depiction of the divine force. Among the supreme forces that dominated the Aztec pantheon and were the personified powers of nature, were the deities Tonacatecuhtli and Tonacacihuatl, "our lord and lady of Subsistence", otherwise known as Ometecuhtzi and Omecihuatle, "two lord" and "two lady" respectively. They were the couple that were regarded as the "parents" of all other deities. Other deities included Tezcatlipoca, the "smoking mirror", symbolized by an obsidian mirror, a deity connected to destiny and fate, as well as to the royal position, since his name is mentioned extensively in prayers during royal rites. Tezcatlipoca was the "adversary" of Quetzalcoatl, the "feathered serpent", a deity "venerated under different guises. It was a nature-duty, a god of civilization, "the serpent rising from the earth and bearing water on its toul". Some other important deities were Tonatiuh, the "sun god", represented by the solar disk and Huehueteotl, the "old, old deity", a god of the sacred fire. Tlaloc was the rain god, and Chalchiuhtliwe, "she of the jade skirt", goddess of the ground waters (Townsend, 1992 ; pp. 109-114 and Vaillant, 1966 ; pp. 180-182). These, are but a very few fraction of the Aztec pantheon.
The Aztec mythology, very similar to other mythologies, describe the creation of the world Ometewhtli and how Omecihuatl gave birth to four sons, who became the cardinal points of the world, a "horizontal plane" surrounded by the sea. The earth was created and destroyed four times. In the fifth creation, Quetzalcoatle took the bones of the past generations and made a new human kind (Townsend, 1992 ; p. 117-121).
The gods were worshiped in the teocallis, "houses of God", the great temples made of packed earth surrounded by bricks, looking like the Egyptian pyramids. Divided into four or five stories, they ended on a tower which had in its front two altars and a sacrificial stone. The worship of the gods was done either through human sacrifices or through bloodless events; almost everyday, the Aztecs had something to celebrate of and definitely every month they held a festival for a deity (Prescot ; pp. 45-46).
When it came on semiprecious stones, the Aztecs used a number of them with most works done on turquoise, rock crystal, serpentine, amber, onyx, jasper and agate. Two were the most important stones though; jade, which was regarded as the most valuable of all stones, more valuable than gold, a stone exclusively for nobility's jewels, figurines and amulets. Obsidian, the other valuable stone, was valuable because of its usefulness. It was made into cutting and puncturing tools; into blades as sharp as razors; into single and double-edged knives; into scrapers, gougers, dartpoints and striking blades. When polished, it became mirror, and after work, it became ear spools and vases extremely thin-walled (Townsend, 1992 ; pp. 169-172 and Driver, 1972 ; pp. 190-191)).
Bookmaking was another aspect of the Aztec art. Books, which were used exclusively by the priests, had wooden or hide covers, and their pages, made of hide, inner bark or paper from the maguey plan, were joined together, reaching a length up to 34 feet and folded "like a screen". The books were decorated with "human figures, glyphs, and other symbols" painted in various colors (Driver, 1972 ; p. 191).
One other important field of Aztec art, was feather weaving. Feathers were found on cloaks, shields and other decorative objects. Specially trained weavers produced garments exclusively for the highest ranks of the Aztec society. Feathers were also used to decorate shields "attached to the hide covering". Several shields have survived today, proving why the Spaniards were impressed by these feather works; the feathers were arranged in the most intricate designs with impressive colors forming "superb" colorist effects (Townsend, 1992 ; p. 176 and Driver, 1972 ;p. 192).
Cortes and Moctezuma exchanged embassies. Cortes was refused permission to visit Tenochtitlan, and at the same time he received the alliance of the Totonacs, enemies of the Aztecs, fed up from Moctezuma's reign. He allied with the Tlaxcalans and later he visited Tenochtitlan, despite Moctezuma's efforts. There, the nobility, as a representative of Quetzalcoatle, who was long awaited to return to Tenochtitlan, received him with honors. Using as a pretext an attack of the Aztecs on some Spaniards who lived in Vera Cruz, the city Cortes has built, Cortes imprisoned Moctezuma. Moctezuma ordered his people "to recognize the Spaniards as their masters", and accepted the fact that they were going around his country, looking for gold, hoping that they "would be finally satisfied and would return to their homes across the sea" (Bamford Parkes, 1988 ; pp. 43-51).
Cortes had left in Tenochtitlan Pedro de Alvarado to command the Spanish army. Alvarado, fearing that a forthcoming festival of the Aztecs was to lead to a massacre of the Spaniards, ordered an attack against the Aztecs. The Aztecs, in their turn, drove the Spaniards inside the palace and did not let them out Cortes returned to the capital with an army of Spaniards and Tlaxcalans. Despite his efforts, a battle broke out, and in it Moctezuma died. Later, the Spaniards tried to leave the capital, and many died on their way out. On June 30, 1520, what was left of the Spaniards, escaped from the city. By December of the same year, Cortes with a new Spanish army and native allies began to eliminate towns. For the next three months, Cortes put Tenochtitlan under siege. By June 1521, half of the city was burned, and on August 13, Cuauhtemoc, nephew of Moctezuma II and king of the Aztecs, was arrested. Tenochtitlan was finally taken and destroyed (Bamford Parkes, 1988 ; pp. 53-58). That was the end of the Aztec civilization.
Bamford Parkes, Henry. A History of Mexico. The American Heritage Library, Houghton Miffin Company. Boston : 1988 (1960).
Brandon, William. Indians. The American Heritage Library, Houghton Miffin Company. Boston : 1987.
Driver, Harold E. Indians of North America. 2nd ed., revised. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago : 1972.
Josephy Jr, Alvin M. The Indian Heritage of America. The American Heritage Library, Houghton Miffin Company. Boston : 1991.
Prescot, William H. History of the Conquest of Mexico and History of the Conquest of Peru. The Modern Library, Random House Inc. New York.
Townsend, Richard F. The Aztecs. Thames and Hudson, London : 1992.
Vaillant, G.C. Aztecs of Mexico. Penguin Books, Middlesex : 1966.