History of the Aztecs


The Aztec empire was powerful and diverse. The Aztecs ruled most of the land that is now Central Mexico. Their center of power was the Valley of Mexico. Most of the information about the Aztecs' earliest history comes in the form of myths. Nahuatl was the language of the Aztecs and many of their neighbors.

Aztec Origins

myths claim they came from a land called Aztlán. It was an island but scholars do not know its exact location. Many believe that the Aztecs came from a region north of the Valley of Mexico. The migratory tribe that became the Aztecs consisted of seven different groups. 

Scholars believe that Huitzilopochtli was a living leader during this time. Later he was deified and became the Aztecs' chief god. He ordered his followers to join with a group called the Mexica and adopt their name. The Aztecs traveled from place to place. They did not stop for more than twenty years for at least a century.

During this time, the Aztecs stopped at two important places. They were Culhuacán, the curved mountain, and Chicomoztoc, the place of seven caves. Scholars do not know the location of either of these places. They believe they are northeast of the Valley of Mexico. There were also internal quarrels among the Aztecs during their travels.

One of the groups within the Aztecs left. They followed the goddess Malinxóchitl. This group founded the city of Malinalco, southwest of the valley of Mexico. A battle between Aztec factions took place at Coatepetl.

This battle was with the followers of the goddess Coyolxauhqui. The myths say that Huitzilopochtli fought this battle himself. He cut off Coyolxauhqui's head and pushed her body down a hill. It fell apart as it fell. The Templo Mayor in Tenochtitlán was named after this battle. Scholars found a statue of Coyolxauhqui's dismembered body under the part dedicated to Huitzilopochtli.

Arrival in the Valley of Mexico

The Aztecs traveled down the western edge of Lake Texcoco in the Valley of Mexico. First, they settled in Chapultepec for about thirty years. There, Copil, the king of Malinalco, raised enemies against the Aztecs. Copil died during the battle. Legends claim the Aztecs threw his heart into the lake. It landed on the island where Tenochtitlán would be built. The enemies drove the Aztecs out of Chapultepec.

Shortly after, the city-states of Atzcapotzalco and Culhuacán attacked the Aztecs. They defeated the Aztecs and took their leader to Culhuacán as a sacrifice. The Aztecs were scattered by the battle. A small group went to Culhuacán for refuge. The Culhuacans gave the Aztecs permission to settle in Tizaapan. 

The Aztecs began intermarrying with the Culhuacans. The people of Culhuacán were descendants of the Toltecs. The Aztecs saw the Toltecs as the perfect example of culture and nobility. The Aztecs wanted to claim descent from the Toltecs. This would show they were cultured not barbarians. 

The Aztecs also looked to the ancient city of Teotihuacán as the birthplace of some of their gods. Teotihuacán was already a ruin when Tenochtitlán was built. The Aztecs journeyed to the city for pilgrimages. Some of their statues are like those found at Teotihuacán

While the Aztecs were under the Culhuacans' ruler, they served as mercenaries. They saved a battle for Culhuacán and killed many enemies. Then, the Aztecs asked a Culhuacán leader named Achitometl for one of his daughters. He agreed to give them one of his daughters. They wanted her to become the “wife of Huitzilopochtli”.

What Achitometl did not realize was that the Aztecs intended to sacrifice his daughter. He was shocked when he went to a festival and saw a priest dancing in his daughter's skin. The Culhuacans were enraged. They drove the Aztecs into the swampy lands around Lake Texcoco. The Aztecs fled to the island where Copil's heart supposedly landed.

Founding of Tenochtitlán

According to a legend, Huitzilopochtli told his followers to build a city in a specific place. The sign they were in the right place would be an eagle, perching on a cactus, and holding a serpent in its beak. The Aztecs claimed they found this sign on the island in Lake Texcoco. They built the Templo Mayor on the sight where they saw the sign in 1325.

Tenochtitlán was divided into barrios and connected to the mainland by causeways. It proved to be a central location for trade with cities boardering the lake. The Aztecs were vassals of the Tepanecs. They had to develop their own agricultural lands. 

The Aztecs built chinampas in the swampy areas of the lake. Each chinampa had willows planted around its edges. Soil was dug out of the lake and placed between the willows. Crops were planted in the chinampas, which were more fertile than other fields. They were able to provide several harvests a year. Some of these chinampas are still in use today.

A group of Aztecs left Tenochtitlán to found the city of Tlatelolco. It was on the same island as Tenochtitlán. The city had a smaller temple like the Templo Mayor. The primary feature of Tlatelolco was a large market.

Founding of the Triple Alliance

In 1426, the Aztecs became the equals of the Tepanecs in Atzcapotzalco. They received the city of Texcoco as a tributary. Before this year, Tezozomoc ruled the Tepanecs. He was tied to the Aztec leaders through marriage.

When Tezozomoc died, his son Maxtla came to power by murdering his brother. He sent assassins to kill the kings, or tlatoani, of Tenochtitlán and Texcoco. Maxtla failed to kill Texcoco's tlatoani. He did succeed in assassinating Chimalpopoca, tlatoani of the Aztecs.

Itzcoatl became the new tlatoani. He was assisted by Montezuma Ihuilcamina, a future tlatoani. The power behind his throne was Tlacaelel, the cihuacóatl. The cihuacóatl managed a city-state's internal affairs while the tlatoani managed external affairs.

These three men began planning ways to defeat the Tepanecs. They allied themselves with Texcoco, whose leader, Netzahualcoyotl, was Itzcoatl's nephew. A rebellious Tepanec city, Tlacopan, was the third city-state of the Triple Alliance. After a 114 day siege, the Alliance defeated the Tepanecs. Tlacopan was always a junior part of the Alliance.

Aztec Growth

After the beginning of the Triple Alliance, the Aztecs began to expand their empire. Their goal was to surpass the empire of the Tepanecs. The Aztecs campaigned south of the Valley of Mexico. They captured a series of tribute cities. Captured cities were controlled by their terror of the Aztecs.

The Aztecs consolidated their power through marriage. The expansion also opened trade routes so they could get new goods. Some of these trade routes went as far south as the Mayan territories. Jade and quetzál feathers were some valued trade items.

Another goal was to conquer new people groups. One of these was the Mixtecs. This group had many artisans who made most of the Aztecs' gold jewelry. Today, some of the only examples of gold Aztec jewelry were made by the Mixtecs.

Another tribe the Aztecs battled were the Tarascans. They were defeated by the Tarascans twice. The Aztecs conducted campaigns to conquer and reconquer land. A powerful tlatoani was vital for the Aztecs to maintain control of conquered city-states.

When a weak ruler was in power, rebellions took place all over the empire. Strong rulers intimidated their vassals. Merchants gathered information about opposing people groups beside trading for goods. Some campaigns took place because a city assaulted an Aztec merchant.

Internal Problems before the Spanish Arrived

Throughout the Aztec history the Aztecs were facing many internal difficulties. The tlatoani of Tenochtitlán, Montezuma Xocoyotzin, imposed a strict dress code and tribute system. He was an absolute king. His cihuacóatl was his subordinate instead of his equal. 

Two people groups, the Tlaxcalans and the Tarascans could not be conquered. Captured cities were harboring resentment of the Aztecs. Only the fear of Aztec reprisals kept many vassals under control. As well as the fact they were the most powerful city-state. Signs of a coming disaster had also been seen in the Empire. These had the leaders worried about the future.

Arrival of the Spanish

Rumors of the existence of the Spanish began to reach Tenochtitlán in 1515. This was several years before the arrival of Hernan Cortés The Aztecs were not sure how they should treat them. Spanish ships were larger than any native vessels. The appearance of the Spanish with their beards and armor were also strange to the Aztecs.

When Hernan Cortés arrived in 1519, the Aztecs were not sure how to treat him. One story says the Aztecs believed Cortés was the god Quetzalcoatl. The god had left his land and a legend said he would return from the east to reclaim his throne. The year in which Cortés arrived corresponded with the predicted year of Quetzalcoatl's return. Some scholars believe the story about Quetzalcoatl was a post-Conquest invention.

Montezuma II sent gifts to Cortés, upon his arrival, for several reasons. One was to show respect for a fellow ruler. Another was to establish a relationship that would keep the Spanish away from Tenochtitlán. Finally, Montezuma II wanted his people to gain information about the Spanish force.

The gifts only made Cortés more eager to go and capture Tenochtitlán. At first, he did not realize that the Aztec Empire had over ten million people. Cortés soon realized that the conquered cities resented the Aztecs. He soon made allies of some outlying cities.

Cortés' native allies told him about the Tlaxcalans, who were enemies of the Aztecs. He decided to make the Tlaxcalans into allies. The Tlaxcalans fought Cortés. They were defeated by the Spanish. This caused other natives to ally with Cortés because he beat a group who defeated the Aztecs twice.

Next, Montezuma II invited Cortés to meet him at Cholula. The Tlaxcalans advised him not to go to this city. In Cholula, Cortés gathered many of the nobles into a courtyard and killed them. The Spanish said this was because the nobles were planning to help Montezuma ambush them. Scholars are not sure if there was a plot to ambush the Spanish or if it was just an excuse. After the fight at Cholula, the Spanish went to Tenochtitlán.

Defeat by the Spanish Conquistadors

The fall of the Aztec empire

Arrival at Tenochtitlán

Montezuma II welcomed Cortés personally. He provided a palace for the Spanish. Not long after they arrived, Cortés arrested Montezuma II. For many months, Cortés ruled the Aztecs through their tlatoani. This caused resentment among the Aztecs who saw Montezuma II as weak for submitting to Cortés

The Spanish were shocked by the size and beauty of Tenochtitlán and  Tlatelolco. These cities boasted a continuous population of between fifty and one-hundred thousand people. More people lived in cities on the lake shore near Tenochtitlán. The city boasted gardens and zoos.

Tlatelolco had the largest market in the Aztec Empire. It was filled with beautiful goods from around the Empire. Market goods included precious stones, luxury craft goods and a variety of food items. The wealth they saw stunned the Spanish. 

They were also horrified by the number of human sacrifices taking place. Priests conducted human sacrifices at the Templo Mayor often. There was also a large monument holding human skulls near the temple. The statues of gods around the cities also upset the Spanish.

Trouble in the City-state

In 1520, Cortés had to leave Tenochtitlán to deal with a Spanish force sent to arrest him. While he was gone, his second-in-command massacred thousands of Aztec nobles attending a festival. Scholars are not sure if Cortés knew about this massacre before it took place. Records show that the Spanish had given the Aztecs permission to conduct the festival. Most of the nobles in charge of the Aztec army were killed in the massacre.

Cortés rushed back to Tenochtitlán. The Aztecs besieged him in the palace Montezuma II provided for his men. During the fighting, Montezuma II was killed. Each side blamed the other for his death. Before fighting broke out, the Aztecs had chosen a new tlatoani, Cuitlahuac.

As they fled Tenochtitlán, the Spanish stormed the Templo Mayor. They removed the idols from their shrines and threw them off the pyramid. Then they set fire to the shrines. The Spanish escaped to the cities of the Tlaxcalans where they regrouped and gathered an army.

Meanwhile, diseases brought by the Spanish, including smallpox, devastated the Aztecs. Cuitlahuac died of a disease and the last tlatoani, Cuauhtemoc, came to power. The Aztecs were hampered by their methods of conducting warfare. The army only marched during the dry season because soldiers had to farm during the wet season. Cuauhtemoc took advantage of the Spanish retreat to gather his army.

Final Battle

In 1521, Cortés arrived at Tenochtitlán and besieged the city. He blockaded the causeways and attacked using boats. Many of the other cities around Lake Texcoco helped the Spanish besiege Tenochtitlán. Cuauhtemoc gathered most of his allies into his city before the siege began.

On August 13, 1521, Tenochtitlán fell to the Spanish. Cortés destroyed most of the city. The Spainish captured Cuauhtemoc while he was trying to flee the city and executed him in 1525. Cortés laid out and built Mexico city on Tenochtitlán's ruins. The fall of its capital represented the end of the Aztec Empire.

Famous Aztecs and Contemporary Leaders


Tezozomoc was not an Aztec. He ruled the city of Atzcapotzalco and the Tepanecs from 1371 to 1426. He was the overlord of the Aztecs for his entire reign. During Tezozomoc's reign, the Aztecs went from a vassal to an ally with the right to conduct their own wars.


Chimalpopoca was the Aztec's tlatoani from 1417 to 1426. Some scholars believe he was Tezozomoc's grandson. After Tezozomoc's death, his son Maxtla had assassins kill Chimalpopoca. Maxtla tried and failed to assassinate Netzahualcoyotl, the tlatoani of Texcoco.


Itzcoatl was the Aztec's tlatoani from 1426 to 1440. He, along with Tlacaelel and Montezuma Ihuilcamina, planned the Triple Alliance. Itzcoatl was part of the army that destroyed Atzcapotzalco. After this, Tenochtitlán was the most powerful city-state in the Valley of Mexico.


Tlacaelel was the cihuacóatl of the Aztecs from 1426 to 1487. He was the mastermind behind the Triple Alliance. He was also the power behind the throne until his death when he was around ninety. Tlacaelel turned down the position of tlatoani twice. He felt he had more influence as cihuacóatl.


Netzahualcoyotl was the tlatoani of Texcoco who agreed to the Triple Alliance. He was also Itzcoatl's nephew. He helped the Aztecs develop a system to govern the cities they conquered.

Montezuma I

Montezuma I Ihuilcamina was tlatoani of the Aztecs from 1440-1469. He expanded the borders of the Empire and worked to consolidate the new territory. He did this through marital alliances and by appointing city leaders.


Tizoc was the Aztec's tlatoani from 1481 to 1486. He is an example of a weak Aztec ruler. His coronation war was a defeat. After that, cities began to rebel because they did not fear Tizoc. Scholars believe he died of poison.


Ahuitzotl ruled the Aztecs from 1486 to 1502. After his coronation war, he held four straight days of sacrifices at the Templo Mayor. This proved his power to his vassals. He expanded the Aztec's trade routes.

Montezuma II

Montezuma II Xocoyotzin was ruler of the Aztecs from 1502 to 1520. He was a superstitious man. Portents of coming problems began early in his reign. He held absolute power in the empire. His cihuacóatl was a subordinate, not an equal.

Aztec History Facts

Legends claim the Aztecs came from a place called Aztlán.

The Aztecs called themselves Mexica and combined different people groups.

Enemies drove the Aztecs to an island on Lake Texcoco, in 1325, where they founded Tenochtitlán.

The Aztecs looked to the Toltecs and Teotihuacán for examples of culture and nobility.

The ruler of the Aztecs was the tlatoani

Another important Aztec official was the cihuacóatl

The Aztecs formed the Triple Alliance with the city-states of Texcoco and Tlacopan.

Conquered cities had to pay tribute to the Aztecs.

The Aztecs believed in signs and omens.

Ill omens preceded the arrival of the Spanish.

Aztec tribute demands made conquered cities more willing to help the Spanish.

The Aztecs were aware of the Spanish before Hernan Cortés' arrival in 1519.

Tenochtitlán fell to the Spanish on August 13, 1521.

This marked the end of the Aztec Empire.

Human sacrifice was an important part of Aztec history and society.

Many interesting people ruled the Aztecs.