Politics and Religion in the Aztec empire: How the Aztecs Kept Control over their Vast Empire

The "Aztec calendar stone" or "Sun Stone", a large stone monolith unearthed in 1790 in Mexico City depicting the five eras of Aztec mythical history, with calendric images.

At its height the Aztec empire stretched across most of Mexico, but the rulers managed to keep control through politics, religion and an unusual written language.

As the Aztec empire expanded, the rulers used a combination of trade, tribute and religion to keep control, and developed an official written language which could be understood by people who spoke many different languages.

Mixing Politics and Religion

In the Aztec empire there was virtually no distinction between the emperor’s political and religious duties, meaning he was head of both the state religion and the law. The empire was highly religious, including in the state religion several gods from the areas which it conquered. This decision may have been because the emperor had not known about these god before and felt duty-bound to honour them, or may have been a political move to encourage good relations across the empire.

The acquisition of foreign gods into the Aztec culture would certainly have helped improve relations within the empire. As the religious leader of the empire, however, it would have been his duty to lead ceremonies at the temple, as well as being a military leader.

A Political Centre

The political centre of the Aztec empire was Tenochtitlan, for both practical and historic reasons. The city had its beginnings in around AD 1300 when some members of the Tenochca people escaped from the Culhuacan people to live on an island in the middle of a lake north of the Valley of Mexico. Over the next 75 years relations between the two people deteriorated until the Culhuacans drove all the Tenochcas on to the island.

From the safety of the island the Tenochcas were able to build a flourishing city, establish a government and religious hierarchy and build a causeway to the mainland, which they used to wage wars and conquer surrounding areas, forming the beginnings of the Aztec empire. Wars of conquest were also connected with religion, as the Aztecs captured their defeated enemies to be later sacrificed to the gods in religious ceremonies.

A ‘Mafia Protection Racket’

The political governance of the empire has sometimes been referred to as ‘a mafia protection racket’ because of its system of leaving regional control to local rulers who would each pay tribute to the Aztec emperor. In return they would enjoy the privileges of being a part of the empire, which included access to trade routes connecting them with other parts of the empire which may otherwise have been unavailable to them.

Aside from the tributes which had to be paid, the majority of conquered cities were left free to live according to their own beliefs and traditions. One exception to this was Taluca Valley, which saw rulers set up and immigrants moved in by the empire after its conquest in AD 1475. However, more usually the Aztec empire used a model of indirect control.

Lanuage and Writing

Because of the common trade market, and the number of different cities and polities involved in the state, a common language – Nahuatl – was used to communicate.

A written language which could be used by speakers of many languages was also developed in response to the need for record keeping in order to administrate the vast empire. The logographic writing system may have been an advantage in helping them to communicate across the empire’s 50 to 60 states – which covered most of central Mexico at its height – and helped the rulers of the empire to keep records of political dealings with subject-kings, track important dates which would be recognised across the empire, and record their history.


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