The Fall of Pax Azteca: The Greatest American Empire

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On the night of the 21st of February, 1978, on a residential street in the middle of Mexico City, a group of workmen were digging through the hard asphalt of the road. They were working for the Mexican City electric company and their job was to run cables across the street and through the whole neighbourhood. It seemed like a normal day at work for these men, that is until they struck a hard block of stone 2 meters down. Excavators reported to their managers that the immovable object seemed to have a clear pattern of intricate details that distinguished it from other stones in the area. They quickly notified archaeologists at Mexico’s National Institute of History and Anthropology, who promptly asked for all construction to be halted until they could figure out what was laying underneath the road. Over the next couple of days flocks of archaeologists made their way to the site in anticipation of what was to be excavated. The more they uncovered, the clearer the picture became. It was a carved stone disk measuring over 3 meters in diameter. On its surface was a woman, later recognized as the Goddess Coyolxauhqui, who was bare breasted and decapitated, boasting a crown of eagle feathers, and surrounded by skulls and snakes. 

The stone disk peaked the entire country’s desire to know what else lay beneath the streets of Mexico City. So much so that the president of Mexico, Jose Lopez Portillo, announced that all construction would be halted indefinitely, the entire city block would be demolished, and archaeologists given control of the area. As work continued, there seemed to be no end to the excitement and intrigue derived from the site. Archaeologists would learn that the stone disk was placed at the base of an enormous pyramid that towered over the city. Over the next ten years, more and more of the ruins would be uncovered in the centre of the city, a site which used to be the centre of the Aztec Empire, Tenochtitlan. 

A prophecy Fulfilled
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Smack dab in the middle of the tricolour flag of Mexico is an eagle perched on a cactus devouring a snake. The cactus is portrayed as sprouting from the water, symbolizing Lake Texcoco which used to lie in the middle of the Mexican Valley. The symbol dates back to an ancient prophecy that foresaw the establishment of the Aztec Empire: the wandering tribe would find the destined site for a great city whose location would be signalled by an eagle with a snake in its beak perched atop a cactus. The Mexica people arrived in the Mexico Valley as homeless wanderers in about 1300 A.D to find a region inhabited by various city-states vying for supremacy and hegemony. After falling out with the ruler of a nearby city-state, Azcapotzalcos, the Mexica people were driven out and saw this vision on what was then a small swampy island in Lake Texcoco. 

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Tenochtitlan at the heart of Lake Texcoco

Before the Aztecs, there were the cultures of Teotihuacan, Monte Alban, Palenque, and Tajin. But the Aztecs, also called Mexicas, emerged in the 14th century when they freed themselves from their former masters, the Azcapotzalcos, after forming an alliance with the Texcocos and Tacubas. They began a large expansion across what is now Mexico and Mesoamerica through wars. It is said that when the Spaniards arrived in the early 16th century, the Aztecs ruled over 370 small city-states that paid tribute in goods to Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec empire.

Aztec Culture and Society

The Aztec was fundamentally a culture based on war and agriculture. Their two most important deities were Huitzilopotchli, the god of war, and Tlaloc, the god of rain. The duality of war and agriculture was crucial for the Aztec economy. The Aztecs expanded their empire through military conquest and sustained it through tributes imposed on the conquered regions. Every 80 days, the new subjects of the Aztecs had to pay tributes to Tenochtitlan. As for the Aztec society, it was very complex. It was socially divided between the nobility and the populace. The nobles included the ruler, the priests, and the military, all of whom had privileges and didn’t pay taxes. The poorer people had to work as painters, poets, sculptors, peasants, doctors, or architects. They attended schools to learn their trades and received military training to be prepared for wars. They also attended schools to learn about religion, music, and their language, the Nahuatl, which we know because they left codices with pictograms and texts that told their history. When the Spaniards came, Tenochtitlan had approximately 200,000 people. It was one of the world’s largest cities in the 16th century. The Aztecs were one of the world’s greatest civilizations.

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Aztec Sun Stone
Folio from the Codex Mendoza showing a commoner advancing through the ranks by taking captives in war. Each attire can be achieved by taking a certain number of captives.

In fact, one of Cortes’ men was in such awe that he wrote:

When we saw all those cities and villages built on water; and the other great towns on dry land, and that straight and level causeway leading to Mexico, we were astounded. These great towns and shrines and buildings rising from the water, all made of stone, seemed like an enchanted vision from the tale of Amadis. Indeed some of our soldiers asked whether it was not all a dream. It is not surprising therefore that I should write in this vein. It was all so wonderful that I do not know how to describe this first glimpse of things never heard or, never seen, and never dreamed of before.”

According to experts, there are six large regions in the world that are the cradles of civilization. Those regions are Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, the Indus Valley, Mesoamerica, and the Andes, where people developed civilizations independently, boasting large cities and strong states. The Aztec was a strong state due to its military power, its religion, and its tribute system. They developed their own calendar of 18 months of 20 days each, built large cities and huge pyramids and temples, and developed a farming system called chinampas that they used to grow crops on shallow lake beds. They grew maize, beans, tomatoes, pumpkins, chilis, etc. The Aztecs’ contributions to the modern world are extensive, from agricultural products to farming techniques to stunning art and architecture.

The Aztec religion was primarily polytheist. They had different gods, male and female. The sun god was Tonatiuh. There were many deities, and they were revered in monthly festivities with rich offerings. Human sacrifices were meant to please the sun god so that he could continue providing them with light, warmth, and life. They believed that without human sacrifices, the sun could stop and everything was going to die. Just like any being, the sun had to be fed so that it could continue with its movement, so that there would be day and night. But not all rituals demanded human sacrifices. In general, those who were sacrificed were slaves or prisoners of war.

The Aztec Empire thrived on its military reputation and kept a tight grip on the surrounding city states, extracting tributes and taxes from its vassal states. The empire was loosely kept together through the appointment of officials from the Aztec heartland, inter-marriages, gift-giving, invitations to important ceremonies, the building of monuments and artworks which promoted Aztec imperial ideology, imposition of the Aztec religion (especially worship of Huitzilopotchli) , and most importantly of all, the ever-present threat of military intervention. This meant that it was not a homogeneous and mature empire where its members had a mutual interest in its preservation. Some states were integrated more than others whilst those on the extremities of the empire were exploited merely as buffer zones against more hostile neighbours.

Map depicting the extent of the Aztec Empire and its neighbouring city-states.
The Empire Strikes Back

By 1515 CE rumours in the Aztec heartlands and several bad omens of a rapidly approaching crisis were fuelled by sightings off the coast of fantastic floating temples. The visitors from the Old World had finally come.

Once the “floating temples” as the natives had called them landed, Hernan was initially met with hostilities but the Europeans easily subdued the natives with their superior weapons and tactics. As a gift of reconciliation Cortés was presented with some slave girls, and one of these, a certain Malintzin (aka Marina or Malinche), would prove an invaluable asset as she spoke both the local Mayan language and, crucially, also the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs. One of Cortés’ men spoke the former so that now the way was open to parley with any representatives the invaders came across. Malintzin would remain at Cortés’ side throughout the campaign, and together they would have a son, Don Martin. 

As history has plainly shown, empires are notoriously feeble at the extremities and once a disease has taken hold in the outermost parts, the centre becomes increasingly at risk of being infected. When the Spaniards landed in 1519 in what is today Veracruz, the local people there, the Totonacas, complained to conquistador Hernan Cortes that they were subjugated by Moctezuma, the señor of Tenochtitlan. When Cortes heard this, he promised that they would be freed from paying tribute if they became their allies to overthrow Moctezuma. With their help, Cortes gained more allies among other disgruntled groups in the region, and he planned the advance towards Tenochtitlan. There is a myth about the question of how 800 Spaniards defeated a whole empire. They were supported by thousands of indigenous people who wanted to get rid of the Aztec Empire. When the conquest happened, when Tenochtitlan was about to fall, surrounded by land and sea, those groups of local enemies of the Aztecs played a fundamental role in the fall of the Aztec empire. Also, the Aztecs used a tactic that worked against them. Unlike the Spaniards who came to kill, the Aztecs preferred to take prisoners of war for human sacrifices. The Aztecs captured Cortes, and they didn’t kill him because they were going to sacrifice him. But his comrades saved him. Moctezuma was taken prisoner and was killed by the Spaniards.

As with all great nations, there could only be one winner, and within three years Mesoamerica, including the Tarascan capital of Tzintzuntzan and the Maya highlands, were under Spanish control. Gradually, Franciscan friars arrived to spread Christianity, and the bureaucrats took over from the adventurers. In 1535 CE, Don Antonio de Mendoza was made the first viceroy of the kingdom of New Spain.  

I highly recommend everybody read Cortes’ Letters to Emperor Charles V in which he describes his adventures, observations, and general information about the New World. The American Historical Association has published them for free on their website.


Thanks for reading!

Kareem Abdurazag


Writer | Culture & Humanities Blogger


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