The Aztecs lived in central Mexico, dominating Mesoamerica between the 14th and 16th centuries. Their capital, Tenochtitlan, was the center of their empire. From there, they traded and conquered their way to the top.
The Aztec ruled numerous provinces. Unlike European rulers, who insisted on creating laws for their subjects, the Aztecs simply wanted tribute. Money poured in from all corners, filling Tenochtitlan’s coffers. As long as conquered peoples continued to pay, they would have no further problems with the Aztec empire.
The Aztec economy was a powerhouse. Cacao beans, imported from the lowlands, were a common form of currency used to buy goods (land and labor were not for sale). Lengths of cotton cloth, known as quachtli, also served as a form of cash. Marketplaces were vibrant areas – farmers selling produce, potters selling their wares, merchants offering goods from faraway lands. When Cortes explored the city of Tlatelolco, he reported that the marketplace saw 60,000 visitors daily, all jostling for the best bargains.
The Aztec people were divided into various classes, including the nobility, artisans, and merchants. Slaves were common in Aztec society. One could become a slave through debt, war, or criminal activity. Still, slaves weren’t always treated badly – slaves were allowed to own possessions and even slaves of their own. Further, slaves could purchase their freedom, or be freed if they married or had children with their master.
Aztecs had few domesticated animals, and no big-game animals to hunt. Dog and turkey were eaten for protein, as were wild animals, birds, and even insects. However, they were predominantly vegetarian, relying on their crops for sustenance. Maize, squash, several kinds of beans, tomatoes, and more were planted, crops carefully tended to maximize Earth’s bounty.
The Aztec people were early pioneers in education, making it mandatory for most male children, regardless of their family name, income, or rank. Two schools developed – the calmecac, which taught advanced writing, statesmanship, astronomy, and statesmanship; and the telpochcalli, which was concerned with military and other practical studies. Girls were educated at home in the age-old arts of home and child care. While women were not taught to read or write, they were involved in religious ceremonies (just not as priests).
During peace time, Aztec warriors concentrated on the manly art of poetry, the only worthy occupation for a warrior. During the Spanish conquest, many scraps were collected and remain in museums and private collections.
The architecture of the Aztecs is breathtaking. Modern-day Mexico City is located over the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, and much of the ancient architecture still remains. Homes were made of perishable materials like reeds, wood, and loam. For truly imposing structures like temples and pyramids were made of stone, carefully carved and lifted into place. This feat is more amazing when you consider the technological limitations of the Aztecs – no draft animals, no metal tools to cut through the rock, no wheeled vehicles, nothing but brute strength to move massive stones into place.
With the arrival of the Spanish in the 15th and 16th centuries, Aztec life was irrevocably altered. War and disease decimated the population, often scattering the population of cities to the wind. The Spanish were more interested in conquest than in collecting information, and little information remains of this once-vibrant culture. Their buildings and written language continue to intrigue us, teasing glimpses of a lost people.