The rise of the Aztec Empire took centuries to complete. From their origins as hunter-gatherers in the deserts of what is today the southwest United States, to their rise as a regional superpower in central Mexico, the Aztecs have a fascinating history.
At its height, the Aztec Empire was home to over a million people, had extensive trade networks across Mesoamerica, and boasted some of the most impressive architecture anywhere in the world. It was dominant militarily, culturally, and scientifically.
But, before we get there, we must start our narrative about the rise of the Aztec Empire in the quasi-mythical lands of Aztland.
Before the Rise of the Aztec Empire, There Was Aztland
Though scholars debate where exactly the Aztec originated, and whether they lived in a place they called Aztland, the Aztec sources themselves are quite clear on the matter. Sometime in the distant past, the culture that would give rise to the Aztec Empire was born in the deserts north of Mexico.
Depending on the source, the Aztecs called this lang Chicomoztoc (the land of the Seven Caves) or Aztland. While there’s not 100% certain translation of Aztland into English, it probably meant something like “Place of the White Heron,” and is where our modern moniker for these people (Aztec) comes from.
Though we call this society and culture the Aztecs, they called themselves the Mexica (Me SHEE ka) and spoke a language called Nahuatl. Part of a larger ethno-linguistic family that spread from modern Utah through central Mesoamerica, the Aztec began their history as wanderers.
When they left their homeland is unclear, but by the thirteenth-century we see the signs of Aztec warriors appearing in Mexico. Through their wanderings in this semi-mythical time, the Aztecs became renowned warriors – a trait which would serve them well moving forward. While many tales exist among the cultures of central Mexico about hunter-gatherers coming in from the north, one of these stories describes how the Aztec became attached to the king of a city-state in Mexico.
In her incredible book, The Fifth Sun, Aztec expert Camilla Towsend relates the story of how the Aztecs:
“…were given land by the king of Culhuacan, in exchange for which they had to act as his servants. He entertained himself by giving them impossible tasks and threatening them with dire punishment if they failed… Each time they returned to the king of Culhuacan with the job done, he and his people marveled and asked themselves, “Who are these Mexica?!”… At last Coxcox, the king of the Culhua, determined with his unwelcome guests.”
Weary of the Aztecs abilities and, after a failed ambush, that they had the gods on their side, the king banished them.
The Founding of the Aztec Capital, Tenochtitlan
Back on the move, the next major era did not take too long to unfold. As the Aztecs found themselves once again wandering central Mexico after their banishment from Culhua, they saw a marvelous sight: an eagle, a sacred symbol in Aztec religion, landed on a prickly pear cactus near where they were camping. They took it was a sign from the gods that this spot, in the swampy area of Lake Texcoco, is where they would build their own settlement.
While this story may be at least partially apocryphal, this is where we can really start tracking the rise of the Aztec Empire. In truth, the Aztec may have settled here because it was really the only area left in the prosperous central Mexican basin to settle. Other regional powers already lined the shores of the lake and probably weren’t keen on a group of foreigners, especially ones who know how to fight, moving into their backyard.
Undeterred, the Aztecs began construction of their capital.
The soon-to-be spectacle of Tenochtitlan began life as a marshy patch of land. Using a technique in which they submerged interwoven reeds into the marsh land of Lake Texcoco, then layered soil, vegetation, and mud onto these reeds underwater mats. With this technique, the Aztec created enough land to build their capital city. Notably, Aztec farmers used this same technique to create chinampas, or “floating gardens” around the edges of Tenochtitlan and Lake Texcoco.
Founded sometime in the mid-fourteenth-century, it did not take long for Tenochtitlan, or the Aztecs, to get going.
The Rise of the Aztec Empire Really Gets Going
With an altepetl (city-state) to call their own, the Aztecs got down to work building a society that could compete with the more established kingdoms and city-states in the area. For the next century or so, the Aztecs built out trade networks, cemented political alliances, and continued to expand and improve Tenochtitlan.
While the first ruler of Tenochtitlan (or tlatoani in Nahuatl), a man named Acmapicthli, had secured the city’s independence from other altepetls, it was his son, Huitzilihuitl, who began the process of Aztec expansion. Ruling from around 1395-1417, Huitzilihuitl became adept at using both force and diplomacy to help put Tenochtitlan on the map.
A seemingly capable commander, Huitzilihuitl led his Aztec forces to numerous battles throughout his 20 some years as tlatoani. He proved so capable, in fact, that by the end of his reign the Cuhuacan, who had once hired the Aztecs as mercenaries, had been turned into a client-state of the Tencochtitlan.
The one caveat to Huitzilihuitl’s reign, however, was that he had agreed to be a client to a much larger and more powerful city-state known as Azcapotzalco. While the backing of this power made it possible for Huitzilihuitl to win so many battles and enrich his altepetl, it also meant the Aztecs weren’t getting the lion’s share of what their warriors had earned in battle.
While Aztec soldiers fought and defeated rivals for power, Azcapotzalco retained the best land and a majority of the spoils won in each campaign. While this arrangement suited Huitzilihuitl and his ends, it would not take long for Aztec ambitions to take their next step following his death.
Itzcoatl and the Triple Alliance
Following the death of Huitzilihuitl in 1417, just like in so many other kingdoms throughout history, a struggle for power ensued. The great tlatoani tapped a son from his first wife, Chimalpopoca, to succeed him.
Ruling for nine years, the young king seems to have performed well enough in his new role. But, sadly, in 1426, he met his end. It’s unclear exactly what happened, but we know for certain that Chimalpopca was killed, one way or another, but the tlatoani of another city-state hoping to shore up his own power and eliminate a potentially dangerous rival.
This left a power vacuum in Tenochtitlan. And, because the Aztec elite practiced polygamy, plenty of men who wanted a piece of the action. Enter Itzcoatl.
At least 40 years old at this point, Itzcoatl had watched his half-brother Huitzilihuitl kick off the rise of the Aztec Empire in earnest. But, with the potential for the whole thing to crumbling down just as it really got going, Itzcoatl took bold action.
As an illegitimate son of Acmapicthli, Itzcoatl couldn’t just claim power – he had to fight for it. Knowing he’d need help, he shrewdly began seeking out allies. Courting the rulers of Tlacopan and Texcoco, who faced the threat of invasion from another regional power, Azcapotzalco, the Aztec king convinced them they would be strong together.
Known to history as the Triple Alliance, the Tenochtitlan-Texcoco-Tlacopan alliance defeated Azcapotzalco and became the dominant power in the region.
Though Itzcoatl had grown up in a city on the rise, the ambitious nobleman felt that it was time for Tenochtitlan to take the next step.
How the Triple Alliance Worked
Originally formed in 1428, the Triple Alliance would last until the fall of the Aztec Empire in 1519 amid the Spanish conquest. But, after using it to gain the upper hand in the power struggles of the late 1420s, Itzcoatl and the Aztecs didn’t take long to position themselves as the dominant force in the alliance. Indeed, Itzcoatl was given the title huey tlatoani, or “high king,” an honorific boasted by every subsequent ruler of the Aztec Empire.
From the very early days of the Triple Alliance, we can see the hand Itzcoatl had in shaping it. The key provisions of the alliance were:
- No members of the alliance could go to war against each other.
- The members of the alliance would support each other in war, conquest, and expansion.
- Taxes and tributes gained from this expansion would be shared among the three partners. But, they were not shared evenly. Tenochtitlan received two-fifths, Texcoco also got two-fifths, and Tlacopan received the remaining one-fifth.
- The elites from the three city-states would choose the huey tlatoani.
- Tenochtitlan would be the capital.
Notice that last proviso? Sly move by Itzcoatl, right. This essentially guaranteed that the Aztecs would be the dominant partner in the alliance.
WIth the triple alliance formed, the rise of the Aztec Empire would continue unabated. First turning their attention to the altepetls on the south shore of Lake Texcoco, the Aztecs defeated Coyoacan, Xochimilco, and Cuitlahuac. These conquests brought with them the most productive chinampas in the region, allowing the Aztec to pump more food into their capital city.
The exemption of the Aztec Empire would continue until the arrival of Hernán Cortés and his Spanish conquistadors in 1519.
Tenochtitlan, the Aztec Capital
The meteoric rise of the Aztec Empire meant that their altepetl, Tenochtitlan, quickly became the center of their large, and growing, network of power, trade, and communication.
Unlike cities in Europe and Asia, the almost overnight riser of the Mexica and their empire meant that Tenochtitlan wasn’t a sprawling, unplanned maze of streets and buildings both new and old. Instead, the entire city was designed and constructed with intention.
Tenochtitlan as the Center of Power
At the center of the great city stood the Templo Mayor and its great plaza. With construction on the temple starting around the same time as the city itself, each new Aztec ruler added a new exterior layer to the building. They did this in hopes of both immortalizing their reign, while also pleasing the gods. At the Templo Mayor itself, Aztec priest performed important religious rituals to ensure the smooth running of the Aztec civilization, including, on occasion, human sacrifice.
In this sacred district, which was surrounded by stone walls approximately 380 yards by 300 yards, the Aztec also built ballcourts, homes for priests, and schools. In these schools, priests educated Mexica nobles on the skills they would need to one day perform the duties of the priesthood, including learning the written language of the Aztecs.
Next to the central religious complex the Aztec rulers built their palace (or tecpan in Nahuatl). In this imposing structure the huey tlataoni greeted foreign dignitaries and did the business of running an empire. Over time, the Aztec emperors also built up their royal complex with the trappings of empire. Montezuma II famously had a zoo with animals from across central America (and, rumor has it, even a bison!). Gardens, aviaries, and beautiful architecture also added to the splendor of this area of the city.
The Rest of the City
But, Tenochtitlan was not just a ceremonial and political center. It was a bustling metropolis with some 150,000 people living on the island, and even more living around Lake Texcoco who regularly came into the city.
As you moved away from the religious and political centers of Tenochtitlan, you would encounter large neighborhoods. Known as calpulli, these neighborhoods, too, were immaculately organized. Each calpulli included its own temples markets, allowing residents to easily procure the services they needed for the spiritual and physical well-being. While the wealth of one’s calpulli would have determined how they lived, most Mexica lived in adobe houses, laid out in groups of three or four, with each grouping surrounding a central courtyard. One top of these houses families kept gardens, adding, no doubt, to the sense of life in the great city.
To keep all this hustle and bustle going, Aztec engineers built two large aqueducts that brought fresh water into the city. After an early aqueduct collapsed in 1449 due to flooding, the engineers built it back even bigger and better. The new aqueduct held two water troughs, each able to bring water into the city. This way, if one trough failed or needed repairs, the residents of Tenochtitlan would not be deprived of their water supply.
Leading in and out of the city, the Aztec constructed three long causeways that connected their floating city to the altepetls on the shore of Lake Texcoco. Additionally, the city had a vast network of streets and canals. This allowed people and canoes to easily travers the busy metropolis. The city’s planner were so organized, they even employed teams of street sweepers to keep the streets of Tenochtitlan clean!
This combination of population, cleanliness, and engineering feats made Tenochtitlan, perhaps, the greatest city in the world at the time.
Sources on the Rise of the Aztec Empire
- Camilla Townsend, Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019)
- “‘Chinampas’: The Ancient Aztec Floating Gardens That Hold Promise for Future Urban Architecture,” thearchaeologist.org.
- Manuel Aguilar-Moreno, Handbook to Life in the Aztec World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 79.
- Townsend, Fifth Sun, 38.
- Townsend, Fifth Sun, 39.
- Townsend, Fifth Sun, 45.
- Matthew Jones, “The Aztec Empire: The Rapid Rise and Fall of the Mexica,” historycooperative.org.
- Dirk R. Van Tuerenhout, The Aztecs: New Perspectives (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC Clio, 2005), 70.
- “Templo Mayor and Its Symbolism,” guggenheim.org.
- Heidi King, “Tenochtitlan,” metmuseum.org.
- Townsend, Fifth Sun, 66.