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Aztec Daily Life: The Aztecs, who possibly originated as a nomadic tribe in northern Mexico, landed in Mesoamerica around the starting of the 13th century. From their lavish capital city, Tenochtitlan, the Aztecs materialized as the major force in central Mexico, flourishing an intricate social, political, religious, and commercial organization that carried many of the region’s city-states under their control by the 15th century. Invaders forced by the Spanish winner Hernán Cortés dethroned the Aztec Empire by force and apprehended Tenochtitlan in 1521, bringing an end to Mesoamerica’s last great native civilization.
When the Aztecs saw an eagle alit on a cactus on the soggy land near the southwest boundary of Lake Texcoco, they took it as a hint to make their residence there. They consumed the swampy land, manufactured artificial islands on which they could plant gardens, and settled the infrastructure of their capital city, Tenochtitlán, in 1325 A.D.
Typical Aztec crops included maize (corn), along with beans, squashes, potatoes, tomatoes, and avocadoes; they also reinforced themselves through fishing and capturing local animals such as rabbits, armadillos, snakes, coyotes, and wild turkey. Their comparatively modern system of agriculture and a powerful military ethic would enable the Aztecs to develop a successful state, and subsequently an empire.
The Aztec Empire
The founders of the Aztecs established on a marshy island in Lake Texcoco in either 1325 or 1345. According to legend, the Aztecs fixed at a place where they saw an eagle alit on a cactus with a snake in its mouth. They took this as a sign from their god that they should fix there.
The Aztecs called the place Tenochtitlan, which means the place of the cactus. At first, they were worthless people but in the 15th century the Aztecs regularly built up a large empire. However, the Aztec empire was not an ’empire’ like the Roman Empire, which was controlled from one city.
The Aztecs occupied the surrounding peoples. However, the Aztecs did not usually govern other nations. Instead, they imposed feathers on them to pay tribute (goods like gold, feathers, weapons, and invaluable stones). The Aztec ’empire’, was more like an assemblage of states controlled by the Aztecs.
Furthermore, the conquered people had to send soldiers to provide the Aztec emperor when they were needed. Meanwhile, the Aztecs set up up the island in the lake by driving wooden spikes into the bed of the lake then laying earth and rocks. They moved Tenochtitlan into a great city, with a population of over 100,000. The city was located out in a grid pattern with marketplaces.
In the center were the emperor’s palace and the great temple, which was a step pyramid. Tenochtitlan was converged with canals for moving goods. The streets of Tenochtitlan were routinely cleaned and there were public washrooms. The sewage was used for fertilizer. Furthermore, the great city on an island was tied to the mainland by four causeways. Two aqueducts delivered water into the city.
The Aztec civilization was also highly advanced socially, intellectually, and artistically. It was a highly structured society with a rigid caste system; at the top were nobles, while at the bottom were serfs, indentured servants, and slaves.
Aztec Daily Life
Aztec society was subdivided into classes. At the very top was the emperor. Below him were the nobles and priests. Below them were merchants, craftsmen, peasants, and then slaves. Merchants created a class of their own. They resided in their own areas of cities and their children regularly married the children of other merchants.
Merchants who carried out long-distance business were called pochteca. There were also many craftsmen in Aztec society. Although the Aztecs did not use iron and bronze some craftsmen made jewelry from gold, silver, and copper. Other craftsmen made items of obsidian, jade and semi-precious stones.
There were also feather workers who made things like hats from feathers. Most of the slaves were people who had executed crime and been penalized for slavery or very poor people who sold themselves into slavery. However Aztec slaves did have some rights. They could own property and marry. Any children they had were born free.
A master had to sentence his slave 3 times, in front of witnesses before he could auction him. However, if a slave was sold 3 times by 3 different masters he could then be sold for reparation.
Aztecs were polytheists. That is they idolized many gods. They consider that the gods needed to be ‘fed’ with human hearts and blood. So convicts were sacrificed by having their hearts cut out.
The Aztec faith distributed many forms with other Mesoamerican religions, like that of the Maya, markedly including the rite of human libation. In the great cities of the Aztec empire, magnificent temples, palaces, plazas, and statues incorporated the civilization’s unfailing adoration to the many Aztec gods, including Huitzilopochtli (god of war and of the sun) and Quetzalcoatl (“Feathered Serpent”), a Toltec god who played many remarkable roles in the Aztec faith over the years.
The Great Temple, or Templo Mayor, in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, was dedicated to Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc, the rain god. The Aztec calendar, common in much of Mesoamerica, was based on a solar cycle of 365 days and a ritual cycle of 260 days; the calendar showed a central role in the religion and rituals of Aztec society.
Everyone in Aztec society benefited from a fruitful battle or campaign. Captives of the war would be sacrificed to the gods, ensuring continued benevolence from the gods to the Aztecs.
When the Aztecs started to eye a land for conquest, they first asked the pochteca, the long-distance traders of the empire, to investigate the area and report on what they found. In this sense, the pochteca were invaluable to the emperor. The military intelligence conveyed by these merchants could enable successful campaigns, especially in lands distant from Tenochtitlan, the capital.
The next step was to send a formal ambassador to the area or city-state. The emperor’s ambassador would first tell of the advantages of being a tributary member and ally of the Triple Alliance. If, after 20 days the city declined, the ambassadors returned with threats of what would happen if they continued to refuse. After a second refusal to become a tributary, the Aztec army marched.
Every boy received military training at their schools, both telpochcalli, and calmecac. The boys endured hard exercise to build up muscles and received military training as they grew. At the end of school, boys wanting to be warriors received further training in the army on the battlefield as weapon carriers and messengers.
The Aztec system of communication required regular messengers. The emperor established a group of well-trained runners every 2.5 miles throughout the empire. When a message went out from Tenochtitlan, runners could convey the information to the farthest-flung outpost. Military commanders conveyed messages to allied cities regarding troops and provisions needed for the upcoming war.
Intelligence was gathered through the pochteca, ambassadors, messengers, and spies. Some pochteca acted as spies, disguising themselves as the natives of the city to be conquered. This dangerous occupation won them much honor and respect in Aztec society.
When the attacking and defending forces sighted each other, the first weapons used were projected weapons—atlatls or dart throwers, slings, spears, and bow and arrows. When the armies closed into melee, razor-sharp obsidian clubs, swords and daggers were used. When the Aztecs won, they would take defeated warriors, women, and children as slaves or sacrifices.
The city itself was left alone, but the temple was burned or razed. The local leaders would be left in charge, but heavy tribute had to be paid. As Aztecs were fierce warriors, the threat of war was often enough to cause other Mesoamerican cities to surrender.
Maize was the predominant crop of the Aztecs. Aztec women crumbled the maize into flour on a stone Wedge with a stone roller. It was then made into flour and heated into a kind of pancake called a tortilla. Aztec women cooked on a clay disc called a comal, which stood on stones above a fire.
Maize was also made into a kind of oatmeal called atole. The Aztecs ate ‘envelopes’ of steamed maize called tamales shoved with vegetables, meat, or eggs. The Aztecs also ate tomatoes, avocados, beans, and peppers, as well as pumpkins, squashes, peanuts, and amaranth seeds. They also fed fruit such as limes and cactus fruits. The Aztecs diet also consisted of rabbits, turkeys, and armadillos.
They also ate dogs. However, meat was leisure for the Aztecs and simple people only ate it infrequently. The nobles drank an alcoholic drink called octli, from festered maguey juice. Upper-class Aztecs consumed chocolate made from cocoa beans. It was infused with vanilla and honey.
Poor people drank water or sometimes an alcoholic drink called pulque. To cultivate food Aztec farmers did not have plows. However, they did use tools like a digging stick, clod breaker, and hoe. The Aztecs set up small islands on marshy lakes. These were called chinampas.
Early plots of land were chanced out with canals between them so they could be reached by canoe. The chinampa was evolved up in layers made of plants from the lake and sludge from its bottom. They planted willows around the ends of chinampas to make them more protected. They also fished in the lakes and caught water birds.
Normal Aztecs resided in simple huts, usually of just one room. The huts were made of adobe and any furniture was very simple such as reed mats to sleep on or sit on and grounded tables. Wooden chests were used to store clothes. Nobles lived in many wider houses with many rooms. They were usually shaped like a hollow square with a central courtyard. It usually contained gardens and fountains.
By law, only upper-class Aztecs could build a house with a second floor. If ordinary Aztecs did they could be executed. Aztecs were clean people. Many homes had steam baths next to them. They were small rooms with a furnace outside. The furnace heated the walls of the steam tub. When a person inside the steam bath threw water on the wall it turned to steam.
Disparate classes of Aztecs wore distinct clothes. The upper class wore cotton clothes and feather headdresses. Ordinary people wore clothes prepared from maguey plant fabric. Men wore loincloths and cloaks secured with a knot at one shoulder.
Women wore wrap around skirts and tunics with short sleeves. Married women coiled their hair on top of their heads. By law, only upper-class Aztecs could wear cotton. If civilians wore cotton clothes they could be put to death. Women wove clothes in their own homes. The Aztecs preferred bright dyes. A red dye was made from the cochineal beetle. It took about 70,000 beetles to prepare half a kilo of dye.
Aztec children were managed very harshly. If they acted up they could have cactus spines pushed into their skin or they were kept over a fire containing chilies and were charged to inhale the smoke. However, the Aztecs consider education was important. Boys gained jobs like farming and fishing from their fathers and girls gained skills like cooking and weaving from their mothers.
However, both boys and girls showed up in schools. (Although they were taught separately). The typical children went to a school labeled a telpochcalli. They learned about history and religion but also about music and dance. When they were older boys understood to fight. Noble children went to a school labeled a calmecac.
They learned to read and write. (The Aztecs made paper from the bark of fig trees. Their writing consisted of pictograms or pictures that portrayed sounds). Upper-class children also learned religion, mathematics, and astrology.
- To be brutally honest, the Aztecs were a rather psychopathic lot.
- They were also lovers of sports and the arts.
- The Aztecs developed a complex form of slavery.
- They introduced compulsory schooling.
- The Aztecs were probably brought undone by disease, not conflict.
- The Aztecs were actually Mexicas.
- The Aztecs were master accountants.
- Having multiple wives was a status symbol in Aztec society.
- Mexico City is built upon the Aztec capital.
- Teotihuacan is the one Aztec site every visitor to Mexico should see.