The Aztecs, who probably originated as a nomadic tribe in northern Mexico, arrived in Mesoamerica around the beginning of the 13th century. From their magnificent capital city, Tenochtitlan, the Aztecs emerged as the dominant force in central Mexico, developing an intricate social, political, religious and commercial organization that brought many of the region’s city-states under their control by the 15th century. Invaders led by the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés overthrew the Aztec Empire by force and captured Tenochtitlan in 1521, bringing an end to Mesoamerica’s last great native civilization.
Early Aztec History
The exact origins of the Aztec people are uncertain, but they are believed to have begun as a northern tribe of hunter-gatherers whose name came from their homeland Aztlan, or “White Land” in the Aztec language of Nahuatl.
he Aztecs were also known as the Tenochca (from which the name for their capital city, Tenochtitlan, was derived) or the Mexica (the origin of the name of the city that would replace Tenochtitlan, as well as the name for the entire country).
The Aztecs appeared in Mesoamerica–as the south-central region of pre-Columbian Mexico is known–in the early 13th century. Their arrival came just after, or perhaps helped bring about, the fall of the previously dominant Mesoamerican civilization, the Toltecs.
Did you know? The Aztec language, Nahuatl, was the dominant language in central Mexico by the mid-1350s. Numerous Nahuatl words borrowed by the Spanish were later absorbed into English as well, including chile or chili, avocado, chocolate, coyote, peyote, guacamole, ocelot and mescal.
When the Aztecs saw an eagle perched on a cactus on the marshy land near the southwest border of Lake Texcoco, they took it as a sign to build their settlement there. They drained the swampy land, constructed artificial islands on which they could plant gardens and established the foundations of their capital city, Tenochtitlán, in 1325 A.D.
Typical Aztec crops included maize (corn), along with beans, squashes, potatoes, tomatoes and avocados; they also supported themselves through fishing and hunting local animals such as rabbits, armadillos, snakes, coyotes and wild turkey. Their relatively sophisticated system of agriculture (including intensive cultivation of land and irrigation methods) and a powerful military tradition would enable the Aztecs to build a successful state, and later an empire.
The Aztec Empire
In 1428, under their leader Itzcoatl, the Aztecs formed a three-way alliance with the Texcocans and the Tacubans to defeat their most powerful rivals for influence in the region, the Tepanec, and conquer their capital of Azcapotzalco. Itzcoatl’s successor Montezuma (Moctezuma) I, who took power in 1440, was a great warrior who was remembered as the father of the Aztec empire.
By the early 16th century, the Aztecs had come to rule over up to 500 small states, and some 5 to 6 million people, either by conquest or commerce. Tenochtitlán at its height had more than 140,000 inhabitants, and was the most densely populated city ever to exist in Mesoamerica.
Bustling markets such as Tenochtitlan’s Tlatelolco, visited by some 50,000 people on major market days, drove the Aztec economy. The Aztec civilization was also highly developed socially, intellectually and artistically. It was a highly structured society with a strict caste system; at the top were nobles, while at the bottom were serfs, indentured servants and enslaved workers.
The Aztec faith shared many aspects with other Mesoamerican religions, like that of the Maya, notably including the rite of human sacrifice. In the great cities of the Aztec empire, magnificent temples, palaces, plazas and statues embodied the civilization’s unfailing devotion to the many Aztec gods, including Huitzilopochtli (god of war and of the sun) and Quetzalcoatl (“Feathered Serpent”), a Toltec god who served many important roles in the Aztec faith over the years. The Great Temple, or Templo Mayor, in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan was dedicated to Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc, the rain god.
The Aztec calendar, common in much of Mesoamerica, was based on a solar cycle of 365 days and a ritual cycle of 260 days; the calendar played a central role in the religion and rituals of Aztec society.
Human Sacrifice: Why the Aztecs Practiced This Gory Ritual
When the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés and his men arrived in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán in 1521, they described witnessing a grisly ceremony. Aztec priests, using razor-sharp obsidian blades, sliced open the chests of sacrificial victims and offered their still-beating hearts to the gods. They then tossed the victims’ lifeless bodies down the steps of the towering Templo Mayor.
Andrés de Tapia, a conquistador, described two rounded towers flanking the Templo Mayor made entirely of human skulls, and between them, a towering wooden rack displaying thousands more skulls with bored holes on either side to allow the skulls to slide onto the wooden poles.
Reading these accounts hundreds of years later, many historians dismissed the 16th-century reports as wildly exaggerated propaganda meant to justify the murder of Aztec emperor Moctezuma, the ruthless destruction of Tenochtitlán and the enslavement of its people. But in 2015 and 2018, archeologists working at the Templo Mayor excavation site in Mexico City discovered proof of widespread human sacrifice among the Aztecs—none other than the very skull towers and skull racks that conquistadors had described in their accounts.
While it’s true that the Spanish undoubtedly inflated their figures—Spanish historian Fray Diego de Durán reported that 80,400 men, women and children were sacrificed for the inauguration of the Templo Mayor under a previous Aztec emperor—evidence is mounting that the gruesome scenes illustrated in Spanish texts, and preserved in temple murals and stone carvings, are true. Why did they carry out such brutal ceremonies? John Verano, an anthropology professor at Tulane University, explains the practice held spiritual significance for the Aztecs.
“It was a deeply serious and important thing for them,” says Verano. Large and small human sacrifices would be made throughout the year to coincide with important calendar dates, he explains, to dedicate temples, to reverse drought and famine, and more.
The rationale for Aztec human sacrifice was, first and foremost, a matter of survival. According to Aztec cosmology, the sun god Huitzilopochtli was waging a constant war against darkness, and if the darkness won, the world would end. The keep the sun moving across the sky and preserve their very lives, the Aztecs had to feed Huitzilopochtli with human hearts and blood.
Human sacrifice also served another purpose in the expanding Aztec empire of the 15th and 16th century: intimidation. The ritual killing of war captives and the large-scale displaying of skulls were visceral reminders of the strength of the empire and the extent of its dominion. DNA tests of recovered victims from the Templo Mayor site show that the vast majority of those sacrificed were outsiders, likely enemy soldiers or slaves.
Verano says that across history and cultures, the rise of ritual human sacrifice often coincides with the emergence of complex societies and social stratification. It’s a particularly effective method of intimidating rivals and keeping your own people in line. Just look at the gladiator battles of Imperial Rome or the mass burials of servants and captives alongside Egyptian pharaohs and Chinese kings.
Also, as hard as it is to imagine, many captured soldiers, slaves and Aztec citizens went willingly to the sacrificial altar. To give your heart to Huitzilopochtli was a tremendous honor and a guaranteed ticket to a blessed afterlife fighting in the sun god’s army against the forces of darkness.
The nature of warfare during the height of Aztec power was also unique. By the late 15th century, the Aztecs had won control over large swaths of central and southern Mexico. The only remaining holdout was the neighboring city-state of Tlaxcala to the east.
Instead of engaging in violent battles to the death, the Aztecs and Tlaxcalans agreed to fight so-called “Flower Wars,” ceremonial battles in which the goal was to capture, not kill, as many enemy combatants as possible. Verano says that these battles provided an important venue for young Aztec warriors to gain social status by bringing home a gaggle of captives, some of whom would ultimately be sacrificed.
In addition to slicing out the hearts of victims and spilling their blood on the temple altar, it’s believed that the Aztecs also practiced a form of ritual cannibalism. The victim’s bodies, after being relieved of their heads, were likely gifted to nobleman and other distinguished community members. Sixteenth-century illustrations depict body parts being cooked in large pots and archeologists have identified telltale butcher marks on the bones of human remains in Aztec sites around Mexico City.
While it was long theorized that Aztecs only engaged in ritual cannibalism during times of famine, another explanation is that consuming the flesh of a person offered to the gods was like communing with the gods, themselves. As off-putting as it sounds, Verano says that ritual cannibalism most likely existed among the Aztecs and would have been considered not only normal, but a great honor
European Invasion & Fall of the Aztec Civilization
The first European to visit Mexican territory was Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba, who arrived in Yucatan from Cuba with three ships and about 100 men in early 1517. Cordobars reports on his return to Cuba prompted the Spanish governor there, Diego Velasquez, to send a larger force back to Mexico under the command of Hernán Cortés. In March 1519, Cortes landed at the town of Tabasco, where he learned from the natives of the great Aztec civilization, then ruled by Moctezuma (or Montezuma) II.
Defying the authority of Velasquez, Cortes founded the city of Veracruz on the southeastern Mexican coast, where he trained his army into a disciplined fighting force. Cortes and some 400 soldiers then marched into Mexico, aided by a native woman known as Malinche, who served as a translator. Thanks to instability within the Aztec empire, Cortes was able to form alliances with other native peoples, notably the Tlascalans, who were then at war with Montezuma.
In November 1519, Cortes and his men arrived in Tenochtitlan, where Montezuma and his people greeted them as honored guests according to Aztec custom (partially due to Cortes’ physical resemblance to the light-skinned Quetzalcoatl, whose return was prophesied in Aztec legend).
Though the Aztecs had superior numbers, their weapons were inferior, and Cortes was able to immediately take Montezuma and his entourage of lords hostage, gaining control of Tenochtitlan. The Spaniards then murdered thousands of Aztec nobles during a ritual dance ceremony, and Montezuma died under uncertain circumstances while in custody.
European diseases like smallpox, mumps and measles were also powerful weapons against the local population, who lacked immunity to them. A Franciscan monk traveling with Cortés observed the impact of smallpox on the Aztecs: “They died in heaps…In many places it happened that everyone in a house died, and as it was impossible to bury the great number of dead, they pulled down the houses over them, so that their homes became their tombs.” By 1520, smallpox had reduced the population of Tenochtitlan by 40% in just one year.
Cuauhtemoc, Montezuma’s young nephew, took over as emperor, and the Aztecs drove the Spaniards from the city. With the help of the Aztecs’ native rivals, Cortes mounted an offensive against Tenochtitlan, finally defeating Cuauhtemoc’s resistance on August 13, 1521. In all, some 240,000 people were believed to have died in the city’s conquest, which effectively ended the Aztec civilization. After his victory, Cortes razed Tenochtitla and built Mexico City on its ruins; it quickly became the premier European center in the New World.
How Hernán Cortés Conquered the Aztec Empire
The Aztec Empire, Mesoamerica’s dominant power in the 15th and early 16th centuries, controlled a capital city that was one of the largest in the world. Itzcoatl, named leader of the Aztec/Mexica people in 1427, negotiated what has become known as the Triple Alliance—a powerful political union of the city-states of Mexico-Tenochtitlán, Tetzcoco and Tlacopán. As that alliance strengthened between 1428 and 1430 it reinforced the leadership of the Aztecs, making them the dominant Nahua group in a landmass that covered central Mexico and extended as far as modern-day Guatemala.
And yet Tenochtitlán was conquered by the Spanish in 1521—less than two years after Hernándo Cortés and Spanish conquistadors first set foot in the Aztec capital on November 8, 1519. How did Cortés manage to overthrow the seat of the Aztec Empire?
Tenochtitlán: A Dominant Imperial City
When Spanish conquistadors arrived in the Aztec imperial city in 1519, Mexico-Tenochtitlán was led by Moctezuma II. The city had prospered and was estimated to host a population of between 200,000 and 300,000 residents.
At first, the conquistadors described Tenochtitlán as the greatest city they had ever seen. It was situated on a human-made island in the middle of Lake Texcoco. From its central location, Tenochtitlán served as a hub for Aztec trade and politics. It featured gardens, palaces, temples and raised roads with bridges that connected the city to the mainland.
Other city-states were forced to pay periodic tributes to Tenochtitlán’s public markets and to its religious center, the Templo Mayor or “Great Temple.” Religious tributes sometimes took the form of human sacrifices. While the Aztec’s monetary and religious demands empowered the empire, it also fostered resentment among surrounding city-states.
Hernándo Cortés Makes Allies with Local Tribes
Hernándo Cortés formed part of Spain’s initial colonization efforts in the Americas. While stationed in Cuba, he convinced Cuban Governor Diego Velázquez to allow him to lead an expedition to Mexico, but Velázquez then canceled his mission. Eager to appropriate new land for the Spanish crown, convert Indigenous people to Christianity and plunder the region for gold and riches, Cortés organized his own rogue crew of 100 sailors, 11 ships, 508 soldiers and 16 horses. He set sail from Cuba on the morning of February 18, 1519, to begin an unauthorized expedition to Mesoamerica.
Arriving on the Yucatán coast, Cortés encountered Indigenous people who told him about other Europeans who had been shipwrecked and captured by local Mayans. Cortes freed Jerónimo de Aguilar, a Franciscan friar, from the Mayans and made Aguilar part of his crew. Aguilar turned out to be an invaluable asset to Cortes due to his ability to speak Chontal, the local Mayan language. With Aguilar at his side, Cortés and his conquistadors continued traveling the region, battling Indigenous groups along the way.
Cortés and his men then acquired another asset when an Aztec chief gifted them some 20 enslaved young Mayan women, including Malinalli, a Nahua woman from the Mexican Gulf Coast. Malinalli became baptized with the Christian name Marina, and was later known as La Malinche. La Malinche spoke both the Aztec language of Náhuatl and Mayan Chontal and worked alongside the Spanish invaders, providing the conquistadors with the ability to communicate with any Indigenous groups they encountered.
With La Malinche and Aguilar in tow, the conquistadors made their way to the island city of Tenochtitlán where they were initially welcomed by Emperor Moctezuma II. When Cortés became concerned that Moctezuma’s people would turn against his men, he placed Moctezuma under house arrest and Cortés attempted to rule through the detained Moctezuma.
Soon Cortés received word that the Cuban governor had sent a Spanish force to arrest Cortés for insubordination. Leaving his top lieutenant Pedro de Alvarado in charge of Tenochtitlán, Cortés took men to attack the Spanish forces at the coast. Cortes’s men defeated the troops and took the surviving Spanish soldiers back with him as reinforcements to Tenochtitlán. In Cortés’ absence, Alvarado had hundreds of Aztec nobles killed during a ceremonial feast, leading to further unrest among the Aztec people.
Tenochtitlán residents demanded the Spanish be removed from the city. When the detained Moctezuma could no longer control Tenochtitlán’s residents, the Spaniards either allowed him to die during a skirmish in 1520 or killed him—depending on varying accounts.
Driven from the capital, the Spanish later circled back with a small fleet of ships. Working in alliance with some 200,000 Indigenous warriors from city-states, particularly the Tlaxcala and Cempoala (groups who had resented the Aztec/Mexicas and wanted to see them vanquished), the Spanish conquistadors held Tenochtitlán under siege from May 22 through August 13, 1521—a total of 93 days.
Disease Further Weakens the Aztec
With Tenochtitlán encircled, the conquistadors relied on their Indigenous allies for key logistical support and launched attacks from local Indigenous encampments. Meanwhile, another factor began to take its toll. Unbeknownst to the Spanish, some among their ranks had been infected with smallpox when they had departed Europe. Once these men arrived in the Americas, the virus began to spread—both among their indigenous allies and the Aztecs. (Some research has suggested that salmonella, not smallpox, had weakened the Aztecs.)
The first known case reportedly emerged in Cempoala—one of the city-states that had allied with the Spanish—when an enslaved African came down with the disease. The virus then spread. As the Spaniards and their allies later attacked Tenochtitlán, even when they lost battles, the smallpox virus infected the Aztec. Aztec troops, members of the noble class, farmers and artisans all fell victim to the disease.
While many Spaniards had acquired an immunity to the disease, the virus was new in the Americas and few Indigenous understood it. The bodies of smallpox victims piled up in the streets of Tenochtitlán and, with the city under siege, there were few available ways to dispose of the bodies.
Spaniards and their allies were taken in as prisoners (the Aztecs tended to hold captured prisoners for sacrifice to the gods, rather than kill them in battle) and traces of the virus were left on the clothes, hair and on the dead bodies of those who had had the disease. As Tenochtitlán residents contracted smallpox they had no place to turn for help. Aztec priests and medicinal practitioners knew of no remedy and Tenochtitlán residents had little immunity.
The Spanish Wielded Better Weaponry
The conquistadors arrived in Mesoamerica with steel swords, muskets, cannons, pikes, crossbows, dogs and horses. None of these assets had yet been used in battle in the Americas. The Aztecs fought the Spanish with wooden broadswords, clubs and spears tipped with obsidian blades. But their weapons proved ineffective against the conquistadors’ metal armor and shields.
When the Spanish arrived in the Americas they came from a war-oriented culture that had seen battle against other European nations for dominance and against North Africans for sovereignty. The conquistadors arrived in Mesoamerica with better guns and had been trained in tactical strategies. They deployed a cavalry that could chase down retreating warriors, dogs trained to track down and encircle enemies and horses capable of trampling adversaries.
Up against large armies of Spanish and Indigenous forces, surrounded and cut off from the mainland, and with a population succumbing to an unknown, devastating virus, the Aztec Empire was unable to fight off the invading Spanish conquistadors. The Aztecs, including members of the Aztec royal family—then were forced to adjust to life under Spanish rule.