One of the most interesting empires of America. The Aztecs (at that time called the Mexicas) arrived in the valley where we today find Mexico City in the year 1253. As they didn't find any unocuppied land, they were forced to work as warrior slaves for the other tribes there. They proved to be very efficient at this task - once bringing 4,000 ears back from a battle as a present to their masters - just to prove that they'd won the battle. They managed to break free from their masters and take over another part of the valley and founded Tenochtitlan in 1325.

The first king was enthroned in 1375 - and from this date on, the warfare of the Aztecs escalated. In just a hundred years, the entire valley was under their control. In 1487 the great temple of Tenochtitlan was finished and about 20,000 people were sacrificed in three days to mark the occasion - all of them having their heart ripped out while still alive. (The rate of this is comparable to 6 millions in five years - anybody say WWII?- but was performed by only a handful of priests - estimations give a killing rate of one priest killing one man every 10 seconds.)

Just as quick as its rise was its downfall - in just one year, a very weak Spanish force lead by Cortes conquered Tenochtitlan that at the time had more than 200,000 inhabitants. The king at that time, Moctezuma II was sure that Cortes was the returning god, Quetzalcoatl. This made Moctezuma more or less surrender and also paralyzed him from doing anything about being captured and watching his people getting killed - which in the end his own people kill him.

With the destruction of the capital, the empire dissolved completely leaving almost no evidence of what was once the greatest city of the entire world - going to the main square of Mexico City gives you an idea though.
The emperors of the Aztec empire were:
  1. Acamapichtli 1372-1391
  2. Huitzilihuitl 1391-1416
  3. Chimalpopoca 1416-1427
  4. Itzcoatl 1427-1440
  5. Moteuczoma I 1440-1468
  6. Axayacatl 1468-1481
  7. Tizoc 1481-1486
  8. Ahuitzotl 1486-1502
  9. Moteuczoma II 1502-1520
  10. Cuitlahuac 1520
  11. Cuauhtemoc 1520-1521
The perils of scholarship. No doubt in school we were all taught that Montezuma's real name was Moctezuma; now we find it was actually Moteuczoma.

This list gives the foundation of the kingdom as 1372, but says dates before the reign of Axayacatl are approximate and depend on matching the cycle calendar. So this is not inconsistent with Cyt's date of 1375 in the previous write-up.

The time honored story that we all learned in world history back in high school about the conquering of the Aztecs by Cortes, contains some logical holes. Cortes, along with a force of approximately 600 men, conquered the mighty Aztec Empire at the height of its power. He had superior technology-- gunpowder, horses-- and the old story goes that Moteuczoma believed that Cortes was Quetzalcoatl, and so the job of conquering the city of Tenochtitlan, and thus bringing down the Empire, was easy.

This is not only completely unrealistic; it is also factually incorrect. There are two reasons why Cortes was able to conquer the Aztecs so quickly.

1. The Aztecs, having conquered much of Mexico, demanded tribute from all the people they had subjugated. Often this tribute was harsh and kept those people in poverty. When Cortes marched through Mexico, he used diplomacy to negotiate with these peoples, making allies (whom he would later betray), and stripping the Aztecs of some economic wealth and army reserves.

2. The Aztecs held out in Tenochtitlan for four months, led by a group of rebels, but smallpox, a disease endemic to Europe (meaning that the Spanish were nearly immune) swept through the city, killing many, including the leader of the rebels, and causing the city to fall into Spanish hands. This, and a series of later epidemics, is also why the Aztecs so quickly surrendered to Christianity; they thought that God must be on the side of the Spanish, because they were so often affected with terrible diseases that the conquerors were immune to.


The Aztecs have been immortalized as the most extensive pre-Columbian empire to have existed in Mesoamerica. The very word Aztec usually springs forth either macabre images of people whose hearts are taken out as offerings to blood-hungry gods or savage thoughts of a brutal society that was obsessed with warfare and conquest. As I will discuss, these two are not far off from what truly happened in the Valley of Mexico, but after understanding the motivations behind the Aztec achievements, such images and thoughts will become a lot less mystical and more logical. In this study, the question that I am trying to answer is that of how and why were the Aztecs able to become the most powerful empire in the history of ancient Mesoamerica.

The structure of my discussion follows a logical progression. First, I discuss the data that is available to archaeologists and anthropologists about the Aztec life and history. Then, I address the relevant historical events as it concerns the Aztec acquisition of power, their establishment as an empire, and the placement of an expansionistic system. Other factors that contributed to the expansionistic system are then addressed; such factors include the relationship between expansion, politics, social structure, and religion, elements in the administration of the empire, and some military advantages. To finish, I provide a brief discussion on what factors were the vital precursors to the Aztec achievement and how they made the forging of the Aztecs a reality.


The sources archaeologists utilize today to draw conclusions about the expansion of the Aztec empire is heavily based on documents composed for the most part, although there are exceptions, during and immediately following the subduing by the conquistadores in 1521. These documents consist of pre-Columbian pictorial manuscripts, reports from the Spanish conquest and subsequent Aztec adaptations to the new system, and interpretations and other ethnographic data collected by Spanish friars from Aztec nobles. Each of the sources has its own problems. Also, one must have in mind that these are interpretive in nature, which implies that they have their own bias and should be studied with a degree of skepticism. Nonetheless, they have allowed archaeologists to perform detailed analysis of the major themes underlying Aztec culture; this potential can be seen from the nature of how each of the sources was produced.

For example, the Aztec codices that were written by pre-Columbian Aztecs are, in contrast with European texts, which preserve words of a spoken language, pictorial in nature since "systems of communication in pre-Columbian [central] Mexico never intended to communicate speech… [instead, they meant to] bypass spoken language and preserve meaning visually and within its own pictorial conventions" (Boone, p. 158). Unfortunately, even though these codices are the best source of information, only twelve have survived. These "painted books," as Elizabeth Boone calls them, can be placed into three categories: religious books and guides for living, historical books, and practical documents. The religious books focused on humankind's relationships with the supernatural and natural; the histories recorded the past, embracing what we would call the mythical as well as the secular inexhaustibly including the deeds of the nobility, the establishment of the empirical polity and conquest, or migration facts, like the Boturini codex, which relates the Aztec migration from Aztlan to the central Mexico; and the practical documents encompass the practical type of documents of everyday life such as maps, land distributions, tribute lists, censuses, etc. (Boone, pp. 150-153).

The other types of evidence were produced after the Spanish arrival and are comprised by accounts from the conquistadores, the works of religious missionaries, and post-Spanish-conquest Aztec codices. The most notable conquistador accounts were by Hernan Cortez, who wrote many letters to King Charles V about his achievements and what he saw in the American continent. These are valuable since they relate firsthand experiences about the Aztec-Spanish encounter; nonetheless, the obvious is that Cortez usually tried to exalt his achievements and his military deeds and would write about the Aztecs through a non-dispassionate frame. Diaz del Castillo also wrote about his experiences during the conquest and the writings tend to be very colorful and descriptive; but the fact that he wrote decades after the fact make his work untrustworthy as psychologists will argue through the "false memory" phenomenon: a distortion of an actual experience, which is quite easy to acquire through either suggestion from other individuals or suggestion through dreams (Loftus). In other words, Diaz del Castillo's descriptions are very likely erroneous in some instances and exaggerated in others since human memory is not so reliable to the detail after long periods of time. Nonetheless, the information is useful as the accounts must hold some degree of accuracy.

The other type of evidence that is worth discussing is the work of the Spanish priests who, even though they reflected their own religion and culture, and even though at times they attempted to sanitize Aztec society in the eyes of the rest of Europe, wrote based on their own interactions, which tend to be more intimate than that of a military man, with the Aztec. The most notable missionary in this respect is Fray Bernardino de Sahagun, who after learning Nahuatl through his evangelization efforts started interviewing with the elders of the former Aztec empire. After instructing them in Spanish and Latin, Sahagun supervised their writings, which were produced in Nahuatl but utilizing the Latin alphabet, resulting in the twelve books known today as the Florentine Codex. This codex is thus invaluable since it was written by the very Aztec tlacuilos—term utilized to describe those in charge of painting codices—, but it is also troubling since it is unclear whether the work represents the views of the Nahuas or whether it represents that sanitized view of the Spanish (Joyce).

It is clear that most of the evidence that we have for the reconstruction of the deeds of an empire are based on accounts of one sort or the other. These accounts are victims to the filter of the interpreter, be it the conquistador who was writing to a superior and always framing things in such a way that his deeds were exalted, or a friar whose work was corrupted by his own religion and interests, no matter how benevolent his intentions, or even that of the very Aztec tlacuilo, whose knowledge could also have been adulterated through generations of propaganda and unavoidable distortions that happen from generation to generation. Furthermore and unfortunately, very little archaeological evidence has been used to support the conclusions that anthropologists can draw from the interpretive evidence. Nonetheless, despite the posed limitations, it is possible to restrict a lot of the excesses and many biases when putting all the documentation together; furthermore, the major themes of Aztec history and culture are ever-present in the documentation despite the inaccuracy of many of the details. All of this allows for a study of the highly diverse phenomena in Aztec culture, including settlement patterns, warfare, politics, food sources, tribute lists, human sacrifice, etc.; all being elements that play an important role in the expansionistic system of the empire.

Arrival to Central Mexico

The Mexica were chichimeca; a word that stands for people who are nomadic. There are two types of chichimeca, those who are purely nomadic and those who are neither truly nomadic nor truly settled. The Mexica pertained to the latter class. Reconstruction of exactly how they arrived to the Basin of Mexico is a difficult task since the manuscripts are permeated with both, facts and myth. Nonetheless, if we take what the Boturini Codex illustrates, the Mexica migration began from Aztlan, a place located to the northwest of today's Mexico City (Young). They were a traveling group who would cultivate maize, chili and other crops when they stopped for some period of time. In addition, since their leaders were also priests, whenever they stopped they would build a temple for their patron deity: Huitzilopochtli (Tezozomoc). It is important to note the early presence of Huitzilopochtli, the god who played an important role in the subsequent expansion of the empire due to his high reverence in the Aztec pantheon, his requirement for sacrifice, and his very own belligerent nature—killing his mythical brothers and sister upon birth.

After 200 years of migration, the Mexica arrived to the Valley of Mexico and were facing a series of well-established civilized groups. These groups displayed monumental public constructions in the surroundings of Lake Texcoco. More importantly, however, is that social stratification was closely tied to military affairs. Even relations between one polity to the next were heavily based on military alliances or factions that were meant to improve the faction's ability to compete for resources and therefore power (Byland). This is because in an area that is rich in resources, keen competition will prevail and Lake Texcoco was not the exception.

Many of the characteristics already in place by the polities in the valley were adopted by the Aztecs upon arrival. For example, the concept of the tlatoani, the Aztec king, comes from this era of intense conflict in the valley. Elizabeth Brumfield tells us about how these polities were administered: "each domain was governed by the paramount… who ruled by virtue of his membership in the local ruling lineage. Each paramount was surrounded by a group of nobles who assisted in the administration and defense of the domain" (Brumfield 1983, p. 268). Certainly, the Mexica not only adopted many of the valley's practices such as this one but, as they expanded and became a hegemonic empire, they also modified the structures.

In this time of intense warfare, shifting alliances and keen competition between polities for power is when the Mexica arrived to the Basin of Mexico and after a brief series of events finally settled in an island in Lake Texcoco, where they erected a small temple to Huitzilopochtli and named the settlement Tenochtitlan. Ecologically, Tenochtitlan provided the Aztecs with great advantages that played a role in their expansionistic affairs. On a practical level, the island provided abundant fish and other aquatic fauna, the potential of unparalleled chinampa exploitation, excellent transportation means (transport in Mesoamerica was either by foot or by canoe, where canoes increased the capacity of the transporter), and a natural protection from invasion; in fact, the urban center of Tenochtitlan was not attacked a single time until the arrival of the conquistadores, who were capable of constructing brigantines suitable for the assault (Davies, The Aztecs as Empire Builders, pp. 66-67). On the other hand, the disadvantages of the island's location include a total lack of some resources such as wood and stone for construction, a confined space, and sporadic threats of flooding.

The Tepanec Umbrella and Acquisition of Power

After the first century of arriving, the Mexica attempted to stay independent but unavoidably, they became subjects of the Tepanec city of Azcapotzalco. This should not be a surprise since Azcapotzalco took an aggressive stance by the mid-fourteenth century and came to hegemonically dominate the entire valley. Sometimes the domination was either through militaristic interactions and some other times, as in the case of the Mexica, it was through mere agreement of Tepanec military superiority; in either case, the agreement was tribute-payment in the form of resources and in the form of military service (Brumfield, pp 270-271).

During Tepanec dominance, the Mexica accomplished two key factors. On one side, they sought to strengthen their political position through strategic marriages. For example, one of the Mexica rulers married a woman from the royal line of Culhuacan, which cemented relations with the Culhua and gave future Mexica rulers the right to claim Toltec descent. Toltec descent meant legitimacy to rule in the eyes of the other groups in the valley. Another important marriage that took place was with the lineage of Tezozomoc, Azcapotzalco's paramount. Such marriage ensured the favor of Tezozomoc towards the Mexica, which later translated into more lenient tribute demands from Azcapotzalco.

The other key accomplishment was the growth in size and splendor of the city of Tenochtitlan. The chinampa system allowed for a reliable and intensive resource base that resulted in a population explosion. Some authors in the past have attributed the stress due to growth as a motivating factor to expand. Even though this might not be a strong-enough motivation to drive a group to aggressive expansive practices, it certainly makes it more feasible for the group to undertake challenging military foes. When Tezozomoc died, two factions were at dispute and supported different contenders for Azcapotzalco's paramount office. Maxtla, the anti-Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco contender, managed to assume office. Thus, the setting for conflict between Tenochtitlan and Azcapotzalco was in place. Around 1427, the conflict turned into a full-fleshed war involving Azcapotzalco and Maxtla's allies against the alliance of Tenochtitlan, under the rule of Itzcoatl, and the embittered Texcocan Nezahualcoyotl who was attempting to recover his domain and who was in addition aided by the rulers of Chalco (Brumfield, p. 271). After defeating Maxtla in 1428, "Itzcoatl quickly established control over the western and southern areas of the valley; Nezahualcoyotl reestablished his control in the east. By 1434, the Valley of Mexico was again dominated by a single ruling clique; the paramounts of Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan," who were a Tepanec group that had supported Tenochtitlan, "had forged the Triple Alliance" (Brumfield, p 271).

At this point, an interesting question to address is that of what made the difference between the outcome of Azcapotzalco's hegemony, and for that matter the outcome of previous powerful polities who attempted to establish control over the valley and only failed after major alliances defied them, and the more solid years of rule that came from the Triple Alliance. Elizabeth Brumfield offers the explanation that during the years of Azcapotzalco, the wars and conflict had eliminated the major nobles who could have contended for power in the valley by either death in the battlefield, assassination, or exile. Thus, when the Triple Alliance took power, only weak nobles were left to dispute with the Aztec. Furthermore, local resistance to the Triple Alliance was undermined by the fact that these weak nobles would compete with each other for patronage from the Alliance. The paramounts of Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan thus took advantage of the situation to strengthen their administration over the empire.

Although the explanation provided above could be valid up to a certain extent, I want to argue that in the belligerent valley there were still powerful polities that could have made it difficult for the Triple Alliance to reign over the valley. For example, there was still the city-state of Chalco, and with a hypothesized help from Nezahualcoyotl, they could have gone into conflict with Tenochtitlan and the Tepanecs. Even though this suggestion is not what happened, it is not too far-fetched, given the nature of the alliances against Azcapotzalco, and it demonstrates that shifting of alliances and conflict could have resulted in disastrous rivalries. Thus the question remains of what was different about the new administration. The key, I believe, lies in the crucial administrative reformations that the Aztecs implemented, which Brumfield also discusses, but which are more clearly articulated by Nigel Davies in The Aztec Empire. Davies argues that prior to the Triple Alliance, Azcapotzalco had only imposed payment of tribute to their conquered people. Nonetheless, Itzcoatl's crucial innovation with respect to expansion was the implementation of expropriation of lands, which were for the most part retained by Tenochtitlan's ruler, although some others were distributed among the nobles (Davies, The Aztec Empire, pp. 39-40, Brumfield, pp 273-274). This need for new land goes back to the nature of Tenochtitlan's location. The island in Lake Texcoco was, as mentioned in this document's "Arrival to Central Mexico" section, a space-limiting piece of land. Furthermore, this land expropriation may also have relieved the stress of the population-size explosion due to the chinampa system. Other important reformations from Itzcoatl include the rule that subdued groups were, in addition to tribute and land, to provide labor for the projects of the Mexica tlatoani; additionally, they were to provide military support in the form of both military equipment and provisions and in the form of manpower for future wars. Thus, Itzcoatl set the vital elements of an expansionistic system in which Tenochtitlan was to grow and, with growth, obtain more power to keep growing.

Despite the fact that Itzcoatl's territorial gains were not impressive when compared to other tlatoanis' campaigns, he could be considered the true founder of the Aztec Empire; he overthrew the hegemony of Azcapotzalco, cemented the Triple Alliance, which, although in theory was supposed to be an entity with equal shares of power, was more strongly dominated by Tenochtitlan and increasingly so in the latter years of the empire, and he brought about administrative reforms in the valley that made it possible to keep conquering and to subdue any group that could defy the Triple Alliance's interests.

Cementing the Vicious Cycle for Expansion

For a detailed discussion of the extent of the conquered territories by each of the tlatoanis one may consult many works such as Barlow's Conquistas de los antiguos Mexicanos, Hassig's Aztec Warfare or Davies' The Aztec Empire. I will not focus on the details of the military problems that occurred during the campaigns of each one of the tlatoanis; doing so will deprive us from information far more important and general about how and why the Aztecs were able to accomplish the extent of conquest that they did. Here, I will merely discuss what is directly related to the expansionistic ideals. The first successor of Itzcoatl's was Moctezuma Ilhuicamina or Moctezuma I. Known as the greatest Mexica tlatoani, he was a great statesman and military leader. The first major task during his reign was to undertake the long-standing rival of Tenochtitlan: Chalco (Davies, The Aztec Empire, pp 50-51; Hassig, pp 157-175). This was an important decision of Moctezuma's: to first subdue local—as in the Valley of Mexico—rivalries before attempting any long-ranged campaigns, since it was plausible that as Tenochtitlan's major military forces were focused outside of the valley, Chalco would seize the opportunity to acquire control of the valley by attacking a defenseless Tenochtitlan.

After Chalco's defeat and subsequent incorporation into the Aztec military system, the Valley of Mexico suffered "the great hunger," which was caused by several years of crop failures during the 1450's. The exact length of the failures cannot be determined since the sources contradict each other, but the most conservative source claims a three-year famine (Davies, The Aztec Empire, p. 59).

At this point, one may ask whether this famine is what drove Moctezuma to expand as aggressively as he did in the immediate years after the famine. Nonetheless, from looking at sources that talk about the tribute lists, no maize was delivered from areas that were not affected by the famine. Indeed, there was maize paid as tribute to Tenochtitlan by its neighboring areas in subsequent years, but estimates of maize tribute to Tenochtitlan have determined that they could only have fed a fourth of the total city's population (Davies, The Aztec Empire, p. 61). In other words, the tribute required by Tenochtitlan was never focused on food supplies, which makes it clear that Moctezuma was not looking for food as he expanded; thus refuting the idea that the famine was any driving force for expansion.

Moctezuma may not have sought food as he expanded, but there is plenty of evidence that he displayed a strong interest in highly prized products such as precious stones, jewels, brightly colored feathers, gold, silver, jaguar skins, and cacao. Authors cite the fact that Aztec ceremonies grew ever more expensive and elaborate as the main reason for seeking large quantities of precious products. This is strongly interwoven with religion, as the ceremonies were for the most part sacrifices for their deities.

Now that the first two imperial administrations have been briefly covered, the reader may already see the concrete foundations of imperial expansion that drove successive leaders to conquest. After Itzcoatl and Moctezuma I, who had a successful campaign of conquest immediately following the famine, the empire was caught in a vicious cycle where new conquests provided the manpower for further conquest and the resources from tribute for increasingly lavish ceremonies—be it sacrifices of prisoners of wars for Huitzilopochtli or impressive ceremonies meant to strengthen the image of the Aztec in the eyes of their allies or instill fear in their opponents—, which in turn depleted the acquired resources, forcing the Aztec to further expansion. The vicious cycle goes a bit further if one considers the role of "flower wars," sacrifices for Huitzilopochtli, and the status acquired from obtaining prisoners of war.

Socio-Political Status, Religion, and Warfare

In the past few sections, I have focused on historical events and decisions that led to the formation of the Aztec empire. Now, I turn my attention to other factors; namely, the role of social and political status, religious beliefs and warfare.

Social advancement in Aztec society was possible through either a successful career in commerce, priesthood or, by far the most accessible means, military achievements. Thus, warfare formed a major part of Aztec society and it was inextricably related with religion, social structure, and politics. Evidence of the important role of warfare includes that schools for the nobles and the commoners emphasized the martial arts; that fine distinctions in social status, and the attainment of superior positions in society were defined by success in warfare; that the troops were justified in their conquests by the patron deity, Huitzilopochtli, who required lives in the form of sacrifice to be content, and by Aztec religion in general, which demanded human blood in order to keep a balance in the universe and in order to ensure the success of the empire; and that even the tlatoani was required to showcase his military prowess before being allowed into rulership—a practice that was implemented after Itzcoatls' reign was that immediately following the new tlatoani's coronation, he was to assume a military campaign to conquer new land.

To further discuss the social structure and its intricate relationship with warfare and religion, I will cite Frances Berdan in table 1, which is a concise compilation of the various social classes of the empire:

Table 1 (from The Aztecs of Central Mexico an Imperial Society by Berdan)

Rulers	   Tlatoani (s) 	           Supreme rulers of major bodies (empires, cities, towns)
            Tlatoque (pl)
“Chiefs”	   Tecutli (s)                Controlled a more restricted area than tlatoque; usually 
            Tetecutin (pl)	         occupied high military and governmental positions
Nobles	   Pilli (s)                     Children of tlatoque and tetecutin; occupied governmental, 
            Pipiltin (pl)	            religious, and military positions

Intermediate positions                
Merchants         Pochtecatl (s)        Merchants organized into guilds and trading over long 
                  Pochteca (pl)	    distances; often agents of the state
Luxury artisans   Tolteccatl (s)      Artisans of crafts such as goldworking and featherworking;
                  Toltecca (pl)	    some were guild-organized; others worked for the state

“Free commoners”	Macehualli (s)           Organized into calpulli, these persons were
                   Macehualtin (pl)	 agriculturalists, fishers, and producers of                                                  utilitarian crafts
Rural tenants 	 Mayeque (s and pl)	 Commoners who worked on the private lands of the                                                    nobility
Slaves	           Tlacotli (s)             Slaves provided much urban labor for the nobility	

The macehualtin, pochteca, and toltecca were trained in the martial arts and mobilized in times of war. They provided the bulk of the Aztec military manpower, which comprised the most important element of the Aztec militaristic strategy: number flooding or overwhelming. Since the administration knew its dependence on these commoners, their participation in war was promoted by allowing the best warriors admission into one of a number of "knightly orders." Only nobles, however, were allowed into the most prestigious orders. Nonetheless, some of the benefits for a successful commoner included exemptions from tribute payments and support by the state of material needs (Berdan, pp. 99-111).

Similarly, nobles depended on military performance for social status. Some positions were only given by the administration to those nobles who had shown a certain degree of military skill.

Military success for social advancement for a citizen, be it a macehualli, a pipiltin, or a tlatoani-contender for any of the three states of the Triple Alliance, was determined through the number and quality (this depended on the difficulty of the opposing army) of war prisoners that the Aztec could capture. The importance of such captives is evident from the development of the concept of "flower wars:" planned wars that were periodically fought between two opposing forces. The purpose of these wars was not to subdue a group of people but to give each army the opportunity of taking war captives for three main purposes: attainment of social prestige, acquisition of sacrifice victims, and for training of military members (Berdan).

What we can thus conclude is that the social structure of the Aztec empire was designed in such a way that an obsession with warfare and the capture of sacrifice victims was instilled into every member of society. This, in my opinion, is the strongest contributing factor towards the expansionism of the Triple Alliance. In the end, it was the common man, lead by the noble, who fought in the name of the empire; without the manpower of the common man, the Aztecs would not have been able to achieve what they did no matter how well-defined the motives for expansion of the tlatoani could have been, or no matter how much the empire could have needed the resources for tribute, etc.

Administration of the Empire and Military Factors

The conquered domain of the Aztec empire was very loosely controlled. After the conquest of a new city state, the Aztecs would usually allow the previous leader of the conquered group to stay in command; it was rare that an Aztec governor be assigned to an acquired province and even more rare was the case when a state was populated with Aztec colonists to make up for a lack of numbers. The only usual impositions after conquest were the adoption of religion (it is logical that the god Huitzilopochtli be promoted among conquered states in order to promote Aztec ideals and further imperial expansion) and the placement of a calpixqui at the new province; the calpixqui was a tlatoani-appointed officer who was responsible for supervising compliance to the tribute demands from the Triple Alliance. One other calpixqui, was appointed in Tenochtitlan. The two calpixquis corresponding to a conquered state were expected to work together in order to make sure that the full tribute be received in the Valley of Mexico. Besides these arrangements, the conquered states were allowed to govern themselves and keep other practices intact. This type of loose government rendered itself to rebellion and refusal to pay tribute since the presence of the Aztec empire was not continually imposed. Nonetheless, the Triple Alliance relied on swift and brutal retaliation in case of non-compliance or in case of rebellion by means of sending the military forces from the Valley of Mexico and by recruiting military men from the areas surrounding the state in question; thus, the Aztecs imposed their full-fledged military machine on the rebel state. Such retaliations and the fact that no state ever knew how massive an army the Aztecs could recruit was enough to maintain a hegemonic dominance.

After studying militaristic practices, it became clear that my latter point was the deciding factor in establishing superiority by the Aztecs. In other words, the weapons used by the other groups in Mesoamerica and the military tactics and strategies employed were common among groups in the Mexico-Guatemala region; thus the Aztecs did not enjoy of any technological or strategic advantages. Nonetheless, the fact that the Aztecs could at any given moment have massive armies of sizes that could not be estimated a priori, was the determining factor for a strong administration and for successful expansionistic campaigns. Overwhelming the enemy by numbers was almost equivalent to automatic victory. This is not to say that Aztec military leaders were not skilled; it is clear, however, that innovation in the battlefield and creativity did not play as strong a role as large numbers.

Synthesis and Conclusion

What made it possible for the Aztecs to extensively control, be it in the form of extracting tribute and manpower, as large a territory as they did? The answer lies in a very complex interaction of factors. On one hand, we have ecological (i.e. Tenochtitlan's resources and location in Lake Texcoco as well as the population explosion due to the chinampa system) and situational elements (of these we have many examples, but a few include the fact that Tezozomoc did not implement a solid administration that would guarantee continued dominance in the valley, or the fact that Tezozomoc got rid of many big contenders for power during his conquests and reign) that simply made it favorable for the Aztecs to rise to power. On the other hand, we have structures that were in place since the beginning of the small nomadic group of the Mexica (i.e. the importance of priests, religion, and the warlike nature of the patron deity, Huitzilopocthli, who had always demanded human sacrifice) and structures and ideas that were consciously implemented as the empire required them (i.e. marriages that improved political relations and allowed for a claim to Toltec descent, or Itzcoatl's reforms in the administration of conquered states); other conditions simply were the result of "luck" or the unexpected result of the interactions of various factors. As an example of the latter is that which resulted from not requiring a permanent presence at conquered states. Not having to man all of the conquered territories made it possible for the Aztecs to save manpower and reduce the costs associated with administering their empire. In turn, those resources—warriors, leaders, food, weapons, intelligence, etc—were directed at expanding while allowing each state to govern itself. It is unlikely that the Aztec leaders realized the benefits of not imposing people and their presence on conquered states. Nonetheless, thanks to either benevolence or simple perpetuation of traditional, central Mexican practices, the Aztecs did not have to spend extra resources in its imperial administration; thus accelerating their expansive process.

I could keep listing many of the factors that allowed the forging of the Aztec empire but the list would become endless and not very insightful. Instead, I believe that the keys to the Aztec empire laid in a few major factors: the ecology and location of Tenochtitlan, the outstanding vision of leaders like Itzcoatl and Moctezuma I, and, most importantly, the vicious cycle created by the socio-political/religious/warfare relationship. The ecology of Lake Texcoco attracted many groups who were competing for resources and for power. It seems logical to me that civilizations based on resource-rich environments are the most likely contenders to subdue other surrounding territories. This is so because they have an abundance of resources, which translates into economic and military power. Even the fact that a large number of contenders for power existed was, in the end, an advantage since large numbers of subdued people translates into larger available numbers for military campaigns.

Critical to the empire was also the vision of great leaders such as Itzcoatl and Moctezuma I, who managed to rise to power in a highly belligerent zone, were able to consolidate the Triple Alliance's power, brought about vital reform that improved the odds of success at staying at power, and finally were able to implement social structures and bureaucratic complexities that made it not only possible to administer the empire but had a built-in drive for expansion.

Finally, I cannot stress enough the importance of having a system that implements an inherent motivation for the people to accomplish the desires of the administration. Davies, in The Aztecs as Empire Builders, calls this effect "the will to power," and he goes on to compare the Aztecs to modern-day Japan, attributing the accomplishment of rising from medieval conditions to military dominance to a will to triumph and to a strict sense of discipline. He is not wrong but there is a lot more underlying an expansionistic system than cultural discipline or hunger for power. In the case of the Aztecs, it was the masterful implementation of the strong relationship between social advancement, religious fulfillment and the supreme god's contentment, and success in the battlefield. Few things motivate a person more than achieving good social status and fulfilling the desires of his god. The Aztecs were able to forge an empire by appealing to primeval drives in the nature of humanity and redirecting those drives for the interests of the empire; and thus amassing the most powerful armies that ever walked the mountains of ancient Mesoamerica.

References Cited


  • Conquistas de los angtiguos Mexicanos. In Journal de la Societe des Americanistes de Paris, Vol 36, pp. 215-222

  • The Aztecs of Central Mexico an Imperial Society. CBS College Publishing, New York, N.Y.

  • Pictorial Documents and Visual Thinking in Postconquest Mexico. In Native Traditions in the Postconquest World (Elizabeth Hill Boone and Tom Cummins, eds).Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C.

  • Aztec State Making Ecology, Structure, and the Origin of the State. In American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 85, No. 2. pp.261-284. American Anthropological Association
  • BYLAND, B.E., and JOHN M. D. POHL

  • Political Factions in the Transition from Classic to Postclassic in the Mixteca Alta. In Factional Competition and Political Development in the New World (E. M. Brumfield and J. W. Fox, eds), pp 117-126. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

  • The Aztec Empire. University of Oklahoma Press. The Aztecs as Empire Builders (only had access to article, I could not find its source again; can be found in Harvard Library).

  • Aztec Warfare Imperial Expansion and Political Control. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University.

  • 2000 Sister Stories. NYU Press and authors

  • The Tajin Totonac. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C.

  • Surprising New Insights Into How We Remember and Why We Forget. Addison-Wesley Pub. Co, Reading, Mass.

  • 1959–81 Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain (Charles E. Dibble and Arthur J. O. Anderson, trans. and eds.). 12 books in 13 vols. School of American Research, Santa Fe, N.M., and University of Utah, Salt Lake City.

  • Cronica Mexicayotl. Mexico: Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico.

  • 1999 The Last Pages of the Codex Boturini.
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