The Aztecs: The Last Great Empire of Ancient America

Cortes and Montezuma

The Aztecs were the last empire to flourish in Central America before the arrival of Hernan Cortes and the Spanish Conquistadores.

The least known and understood of the Central American empires to flourish was that of the Aztecs. Much of what remains of that civilisation has been distorted and corrupted by the Conquerors, who always have an unfavourable outlook on the conquered. The fact is, however, very little is known about that last great Central American civilisation.

The Origins of the Aztecs

One of the great mysteries surrounding the Aztecs lies with their origins. No one is sure as to when or from where they came. The Aztecs themselves claimed to have arrived to the central plateau of Mexico from some northern lands. Currently, however, no archaeological evidence has been found as yet to corroborate the claim. Moreover, the task to prove such stories is complicated further by a lack of sources, both historical and archaeological, as hardly any remnants of their pre-Technotitlan days have been found, if indeed there are any to be found.

What little is known of their origins, however, can be pieced together from comparative linguistics. The Aztecs spoke a language known as Nahuatl; it was related to that which was spoken by the Toltecs. Although this is a small indication as to their origins, it hardly answers the question.

Development of the Aztec Kingdom

The first true development of the Aztecs as an imperial force took root with the royal advisor known as Tlacaelel. This figure took great pride in claiming that he was a king-maker, and, judging from the sources, it seems he was somewhat correct in his assertions. His first idea, and probably his most significant, was in associating his people to the Toltecs by claiming that the Aztecs were their descendants.

Claims of lineage have been used by countless rulers to help legitimise and justify their rule; the Aztecs were no different. Tlacaelel understood the power of such an association and the prestige that it would afford to his people. The Aztecs were new to the area and needed every link they could find to make them seem not as foreigners, but as long lost cousins returning to their homeland. Whether his plan was successful remains unknown.

Tlacaelel, furthermore, wished to elevate the Aztec religious practices to that of the pantheon of the older gods. This was another method practiced to fuse an older culture to the more recent. In this approach, the evidence is clear that Tlacaelel’s measures were a success. More is known of the religious rites and festivals of the Aztecs than of any other Central American tribe. Furthermore, as the Aztecs came to dominate the region, so to do their religious practices.

Montezuma I

Montezuma I, who from the 1440s onwards, began the great expansion of the Aztecs out from there territorial lands. Before this could happen, a further ideological change was needed. The final idea, once again, came from the mind of Tlacaelel. His concept of an imperial dynasty gave the impetus needed for the king to pursue his conquests; hence, the stage was set for the rise of a new power in the area.

The imperial dynasty preached by Tlacaelel claimed that the Aztecs were meant to rule others simply because it was there destiny. The last ingredient had been added to the recipe of empire. Montezuma, with the doctrines and ideology needed, led the Aztec armies outward and beyond their traditional boundaries armed with the goal of fulfilling their destiny.

The Height of Aztec Rule: Ahuitzotl

It would fall to the eight ruler of the Aztecs to spread the influence, force and power of the kingdom to its greatest heights and vastest distances. The eighth king is known as Ahuitzotl. During his reign of 16 years, from 1486 to 1502, Ahuitzotl, as identified in the Codex Mendoza, managed an astounding 45 conquests; these brought the influence of his kingdom into modern Guatemala and well along the Pacific Coast.

It is interesting to note however, that these conquests seem first and foremost to be economic, since no attempts were made to enforce the Aztec religion upon the conquered or their social structure. In fact, the Aztecs usually permitted local chieftains to retain their influence in the area as long as they supplied the necessary gifts, normally comprised of sacrificial victims and monetary tributes in the form of precious jewels.

Ahuitzotl was particularly fond of the “priceless” gems and jewels that were found in Guatemala. It is believed by modern historians, and somewhat demonstrated by archaeological findings, that it was the desire to own these precious metals that led Ahuitzotl to the invasion, and subsequent conquest, of the local tribes of the area. The typical strategy was to send merchants as advanced spies to investigate the resources of the community, then to report of their findings. Soon afterwards, the troops were mobilised and the warriors sent into action.

The End of the Aztecs

The end of the Aztecs was not as sudden as is often explained. The factors that led to their downfall are somewhat more complicated. A deeper understanding of the ties between the conquered and the conquerors explains their downfall somewhat more clearly. It seems that the Aztecs suffered from their own rapid expansion and foreign policy decisions. Since the Aztecs never tried to assimilate the conquered nor even impose their culture, a strong identity remained amongst those who had been conquered. Moreover, the Aztecs wanted “only” riches and victims to sacrifice, which, in turn, became their breaking point.

The Aztecs forced other tribes to send victims for sacrifice to their gods, if the victims were never offered, the Aztec warriors invaded and the tributes were then forced. These acts created much resentment amongst the neighbouring tribes; that, and the fact of loosing all there wealth and resources to a foreign power.

Furthermore, the ever increasing demands placed upon the conquered peoples for more wealth and more victims grew perpetually; it was never enough for the Aztec kings. When Ahuitzotl ceased, Montezuma II, his successor, was left to face serious and grave difficulties. These difficulties were compounded even further by the arrival of the Spanish.

Before Cortes’ arrival in 1519, Montezuma II was, it is claimed, bothered by portents of doom and gloom. His reign was already witness to many uprisings and revolts by tribes who questioned Aztec rule and dominance. For many of these tribes, the arrival of Cortes and his Conquistadores was more than welcomed; it was, in fact, greeted with enthusiasm. The Spanish were seen as the great liberators, a chance that could not be missed by the conquered.

The Aztecs began their growth to a dominant force very slowly and from humble beginnings. Once in place however, their need for economic riches and sacrificial victims quickly made them the leading force of Central America and Tenochtitlan one of the greatest cities of the world. Nonetheless, in the end, the Aztec kingdom had grown beyond its limits. The end was coming regardless; the Spanish only helped to accelerate the process.


  1. Draper, R., “Unburying the Aztec”, in National Geographic, November 2010, pp.110-135
  2. Stearns, P., World History: Patterns of Change and Continuity, (New York, 1995), pp.244-253
  3. Berdan, F., The Aztecs of Central Mexico: An Imperial Society, (New York, 1982)
  4. Wolf, E., (ed.) The Aztec, Maya and Their Predecessors, (Los Angeles, 1981)