It was in 1519 when a band of Spanish conquistadors, led by Hernan Cortes arrived at the Yucatan Peninsula. Together with a small army of 600 men, Cortes sought out to conquer the Aztec empire for their country. The Aztec empire was considered as the most advanced civilization in North America. They were in control of large cities and had complex social, religious, economic and political structure. Their empire controlled the area from the Valley of Mexico to the Gulf of Mexico and south of present day Guatemala. Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital was located in present-day Mexico City. During Cortes’ conquest, the Aztecs were ruled by Montezuma II. The Aztecs themselves had conquered many neighboring tribes, suing the captives for their human sacrifices in their religious ceremonies and rituals in offering to their gods. Although they have conquered many tribes, they did not necessarily rule them.
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But how could a powerful empire be conquered and destroyed by a small army which was that of Cortes? If the Aztec empire had established a complex religious and political structure, why were they not able to sustain a war against the Spanish conquistadors?
Even though the Spanish army was small in number, they had better strategies, better resources and weapons when they fought with the Aztecs. While Aztecs fought with wooden swords and weapons, the Spanish conquistadors fought with metal shields and swords. Although their wooden weapons can bring much damage, they were also easily broken and the Spaniards’ weapons were more durable. The Spanish could move faster because they also had horses which gave them an advantage as Aztec only fought on their foot. The conquistadors also used guns, which were easier to use and load than the stone slings that the Aztecs used.
Another factor that led to the conquest of the Aztec under the Spaniards was their religion. An important aspect of Aztec life was their religion. They were polytheists and one of their gods, Quetzalcoatl was described as having a fair skin, red hair and light eyes, having an unlikely similar appearance to that of the Europeans. As Cortes and his army arrived on the peninsula, they were welcomed by Montezuma (which Cortes would later hold as hostage) himself, thinking that he may be Quetzalcoatl. Montezuma really believed that Cortes was their god because their arrival matched with the year that Quetzalcoatl was predicted to arrive on their land. Because of this, the Aztec people generally greeted the Spaniards well, offering them with food, gold and other treasures.
Montezuma welcomed them as guests, with the knowledge that these conquistadors have already made an alliance with enemy tribes. By lavishing them with hospitality and gifts, Montezuma thought he could show how superior they were than their enemy tribes. Since they arrived as special guests, they used this to their advantage. They were allowed by the emperor Montezuma to enter their land and to establish a colony for his army. Many of the Aztec nobility also volunteered to show them around their empire.
The Spaniards brought with them the teachings of Christianity and wanted to convert the Aztecs. They also tried to get the favor of many Aztec people. Getting the favor of many Aztec people would prove to be useful in their conquest because these Aztecs would soon become their allies in further destroying the Aztec empire and would rebel against the great emperor Montezuma.
Cortes also sought the help of other tribes that the great emperor Montezuma had defeated. Before finally attacking Tenochtitlan, Cortes made an alliance with Tlaxcalteca, major enemies of the Aztecs. This clever strategy of Cortes helped him increase his army to fight the thousands of soldiers that the Aztec empire had. Many of those tribes hated Montezuma for using much of their prisoners during war as human sacrifices.
Even though the native people did not understand them, Cortes tried to force them into believing their teachings about Christianity and whoever did not listen, they would kill. After establishing his colony, Cortes challenged the natives and held Montezuma as hostage. The Aztec empire started to get weak at this point. This was probably one of the factors why the Spanish had easily conquered the Aztecs. Although the Aztecs were considered as a powerful empire, they had little contact with other people, thus they easily believed that Cortes was their god. They were oblivious to the fact that these foreigners would be a big threat and would lead to the downfall of their empire. Another mistake that the Aztecs may have done is the offering of the treasures to the Spanish conquistadors. Because of this, the Spaniards discovered how rich the Aztec empire really was and they even became more determined to conquer the land for they might discover more treasures upon conquering it. Finally, another huge factor that led to the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs was the diseases that they brought with them. The
Spanish conquistadors brought with them many diseases such as small pox and measles which they gotten during their long journey. Many of the Aztec people that they have enslaved and had contact with acquired the diseases and spread them with other natives, killing thousands. The natives being sick also could not find the remedy for these foreign diseases. These diseases brought about by the Spaniards were partially the reason for wiping out the empire because the Aztecs did not have natural immunity for those diseases.
- “History of the Aztecs.” History World.
- “The Conquest of the Aztecs.” 27 February 1997. WebChron, The Web Chronology Project.
The Aztecs are undoubtedly one of the most unusual cultures that ever existed. For centuries people have been thinking with horrified fascination about these people that combined complicated social structure, educational system and impressive scientific and cultural development with human sacrifice on massive scale, cannibalism and constant wars of conquest. Here are some Aztec culture facts that can make an awesome essay.
Probably the first thing everybody thinks hearing about the Aztecs is human sacrifice – and for a good reason. All pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures practiced it to this or that extent, but the Aztecs took it to a completely new level.
According to Aztec mythology, gods sacrificed their lives to sustain the fading sun and save humankind, and this made humans indebted to them for all eternity. Moreover, the sacrifice of gods was not a single act, but more of a continuous process, which required constant reenactment. The power of gods kept the sun alive, and to give gods this power, they had to give them blood and hearts, which were considered to be fragments of the sun’s heat.
Aztecs divided time into 52-year cycles and fearfully ended the end of each – if the gods didn’t receive enough sacrifices throughout the cycle, the sun would go out and the world would end. The main reason for Flower Wars the Aztecs constantly waged on their neighbors was to provide enough captives to fill the sacrifice quota. Even Aztec war strategy and tactics were mainly devised to wound and capture rather than kill as many enemies as possible.
Human sacrifice was an extremely important part of everyday life in Aztec society – it was carried out during each of their many festivals and for special occasions and was accompanied by elaborate rituals and done by various methods according to which god it was intended for. The most popular method was the extraction of the heart, but victims were often burned, flayed, drowned, starved and decapitated. Afterwards priests would often wear their skins (they were considered holy relics and symbolized rebirth) and cannibalize their corpses. And there were a lot of them – during the opening ceremony of one particularly big temple, as reported in their codices, they slaughtered between 10,000 and 80,400 people in the course of four days, while normally settling for about 20,000 per year.
Despite their extremely warlike nature and penchant for torture and human sacrifice, the Aztecs were far from being uncultured, which probably made them a great deal more disturbing and frightening. At the zenith of its glory their capital, Tenochtitlan, housed between 200,000 and 300,000 people, by far eclipsing most European cities of the time, with possible exceptions of Constantinople and Venice.
The Aztecs were also probably the first nation in the world to ever establish the system of universal mandatory education – it took place before the age of 14 and was carried out by parents under supervision of authorities. Among other things, children had to learn the so-called “sayings of the old” – a collection of statements that embodied the Aztec ideals and conditioned them for future service. After 14 children attended more advanced schools, divided into two types: the ones dedicated to theoretical sciences like astronomy, writing, mathematics etc., and the ones dealing with military and practical education.
Aztec civilization was based on domination over the surrounding peoples and aggressive expansion, and the Aztecs themselves were a nation of warriors from the outset. Being initially a small and insignificant migratory tribe, the Aztecs managed to conquer almost the entire Mesoamerican region in a little more than a century, and warfare occupied one of the central positions in their lifestyle and social arrangement. Aztec empire had a relatively small standing army for its size – only the members of elite warrior societies which were extremely hard to get into, served as full-time military forces. However, military training was an integral part of basic education, and every male Aztec was prepared to the role of a soldier since childhood. Therefore, during military campaigns large numbers of warriors were drafted from commoners.
Warfare was also the only way for a man of low birth to improve his station in life – through showing bravery on the field of battle and, in particular, through capturing enemy warriors alive for the further use as sacrifices. After taking four prisoners, one was accepted into one of elite warrior societies, like Eagle and Jaguar warriors. Taking six prisoners and more led to the greatest possible honor – to be accepted into the most prestigious society, Cuachicqueh, or the Shorn Ones (called so because they shaved their heads except for one braid over the left ear), who served as elite shock troops and swore to kill any of their number who makes a step back during a battle.
Trade was an important component of Aztec everyday life: their merchants travelled all across Mesoamerica and beyond and were united into exclusive guilds, and every large settlement had regular market days on which all kinds of merchandise exchanged hands. Basic currency for all transactions was cacao beans which had to be exported from lowlands. They were used mostly for small purchases; for large transactions the Aztecs used standardized lengths of cotton cloth of varying quality and value (from 65 to 300 beans).
Aztec empire had a code of laws that regulated everyday life and meted out punishments. However, by our standards these regulations and punishments sometimes look rather bizarre. For example, death penalty (usually through strangulation) was common for serious crimes, which included murder, theft and public drunkenness (unless you were over 70 years old). The most usual punishment for less serious offences was to have your house demolished. These included, for example, petit larceny and wearing of clothes too lavish for your social status.
The Aztecs will undoubtedly continue to intrigue us for many years to come. Fortunately, the body of evidence telling us about them is rather large compared with other Mesoamerican cultures, which means that you will have a lot of material for your history essay!
- A. Caso, The Aztecs, People of the Sun (tr. 1958, repr. 1967).
- Berdan, Frances F., Richard E. Blanton, Elizabeth H. Boone, Mary G. Hodge, Michael E. Smith and Emily Umberger (1996) Aztec Imperial Strategies. Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, DC.
- Brumfiel, Elizabeth M. (1998) Huitzilopochtli’s Conquest: Aztec Ideology in the Archaeological Record. Cambridge Archaeological Journal.
- Durán, Fray Diego (1964) The Aztecs: The History of the Indians of New Spain. Translated by Fernando Horcasitas and Doris Heyden. Orion Press, New York.
- Kellogg, Susan (1995) Law and the Transformation of Aztec Culture, 1500-1700. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.
- León-Portilla, Miguel (1963) Aztec Thought and Culture: A Study of the Ancient Náhuatl Mind. Univ. Oklahoma Press, Norman.
- Smith, Michael E. (2003) The Aztecs. 2nd ed. Blackwell Publishers, Oxford.
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