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Aztec, Inca & Maya


Step pyramids in TenochtitlánStep pyramids in Tenochtitlán When the Spanish arrived in the Americas, the dominant power in Mexico was the Aztec Empire, founded by the Mexica people. The Mexica arrived in central Mexico in around 1250. They founded their capital, Tenochtitlán, on an island in Lake Texcoco in 1325. Together with their chief allies, the Acolhuas of Texcoco and the Tepanecs of Azcapotzalco, the Mexica controlled what is often known as the Aztec Empire. The Aztecs could be ruthless warriors and followed a particularly cruel religion in which, to appease the gods and avert natural disasters, humans were sacrificed once a month. But the Aztecs also insisted on high standards in education, medicine and sanitation.

The eagle and the cactus, as shown on the Mexican flagThe eagle and the cactus, as shown on the Mexican flag

The legend of the eagle and the cactus

According to legend, the Mexica people were told by the god Huitzilopochtli that the place where they saw an eagle resting on a prickly pear cactus was to be their home. This came to pass on a swampy island in the middle of Lake Texcoco, and it was on this spot that the Mexica people founded the city of Tenochtitlán. It would later be the capital of the Aztec Empire.

The rise of the Aztec Empire

When the Mexica people arrived in central Mexico in around 1250, there were already other tribes living there. These tribes had the best land. The Mexica made alliances with other peoples and established their territory.Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital, on Lake TexcocoTenochtitlán, the Aztec capital, on Lake TexcocoMap of Lake TexcocoMap of Lake Texcoco
The centre of the Aztec civilization was Tenochtitlán, the capital. Founded in 1325, the city covered about 15 square kilometres (6 square miles) and was built on an island in Lake Texcoco. By the 1400s, the Aztecs controlled much of the land surrounding the city.

Under their ruler Moctezuma I (ruled 1440–1468), the Aztecs extended their empire across central Mexico, from coast to coast. The empire was at its height during the reign of Ahuitzotl (1486–1502), when it had a population of around 4 million people.

Causeways linked Tenochtitlán to the lake edge.Causeways linked Tenochtitlán to the lake edge.


The island city of Tenochtitlán was once one of the largest cities in the world, with a population of about 200,000. It was connected to the mainland by causeways to the north, south and west. The city itself had a network of canals. Its temples were built in the shape of stepped pyramids, some as high as 45 metres (150 feet). Around the city were chinampas, so-called “floating gardens”. Made from earth and vegetation built up from the shallow lake bottom, they were used to grow crops.

Inside the city of TenochtitlánInside the city of Tenochtitlán

An eagle knight fights a captive.An eagle knight fights a captive.


Religion was very important in the lives of the Aztecs. They worshipped many gods. Among the most important were Tlaloc, the rain god; Huitzilopochtli, patron of the Mexica tribe; Quetzalcoatl, the god of civilization and order; and Tezcatlipoca, the god of royal power and justice.

The Aztecs believed that they owed a blood-debt to the gods, and were therefore constantly obliged to pay this debt to prevent disaster. They did this by sacrificing humans and animals once a month. The Aztecs believed these sacrifices would persuade the gods to ensure plentiful harvests and good fortune. To escape sacrifice, some captives had the chance to fight their way to freedom. But they stood little chance against a fierce eagle knight.

A 16th-century Aztec illustration of a sacrificeA 16th-century Aztec illustration of a sacrifice


Important gods had their own temples. Both the Aztecs and the Maya built their temples in the shape of stepped pyramids, up to 45 metres (150 feet) high. Many of these temples were used to sacrifice human victims. Captives were led to the altars at the top of a temple and killed in a bloody ritual. Priests lived in buildings around the bottom of the pyramid. In front of each temple was a plaza, or square, where people gathered to watch the sacrifices and festivals. During sacrifices, many watchers cut themselves until they bled.


The ball game

Players in an Aztec ball gamePlayers in an Aztec ball gameThe ball game was played throughout Central America. Over 1300 ancient ball courts have been found in the region. The sport probably developed from around 1400 BC. The exact rules of the game played by the Aztecs are unknown, but it is likely that players tried to knock a rubber ball through a stone ring. They were allowed to use only their forearms, hips and thighs to touch the ball. It was a serious sport—members of the losing team were often sacrificed to the gods.

16th-century illustrations of older children at work16th-century illustrations of older children at work

Daily life

Education was compulsory for all children, whether they were boys or girls, rich or poor. The Aztecs were also very advanced for their time in medicine, using anaesthetics made from herbs and plants during surgery. When it came to sanitation, there were toilets in private houses in Tenochtitlán, and boats went through the city collecting garbage and waste. About 1000 men were employed to clean the city’s streets. The Aztecs were also a cultured people: poetry was highly regarded. In peacetime, poetry was considered the only occupation worthy of an Aztec warrior. At the same time, laws were harsh: almost every crime was punishable by death.
Market traders in TlatelolcoMarket traders in Tlatelolco

Warriors prepare to attack a town.Warriors prepare to attack a town.


The Aztecs often went to war. They needed extra food and treasures from new lands and cities. More importantly, they wanted to gather captives to sacrifice to their gods. They believed this was necessary for humankind to survive. Some
rituals required thousands of sacrifices, which meant that many battles had to be fought to gather captives.

Aztec warriors attacked on foot, shouting, banging drums and blowing shrill whistles. Some warriors carried only a net for capturing their victims alive, while others were armed with clubs, spears and bows and arrows. Fighting in groups of six, it was essential that each group brought back at least
one captive.

Unsuccessful warriors were seen as cowardly and worthless. Brave, skilled warriors received rewards and respect. Every year, brave warriors gathered in front of their ruler and were given elaborate headdresses, feathered clothing, animal skins and jewellery. The best warriors had the privilege of becoming jaguar or eagle knights.

Jaguar knights

A jaguar knight with his feathered shieldA jaguar knight with his feathered shieldJaguar knights were the finest Aztec warriors and were rewarded with jaguar skins to wear, complete with the head, jaws and teeth. The jaguar represented Tezcatlipoca, god of war and night. Jaguar knights sometimes carried out night-time attacks. They believed the jaguar's strength would be given to them during battle. They fought with a spear and a wooden club, called a macahuitl, studded with glass blades. Their feathered shield was believed to hold magic powers.

An eagle knightAn eagle knight

Eagle knights

Eagle knights lived near the Great Temple in Tenochtitlán and often took part in the most important religious ceremonies. Most Aztec warriors wore padded clothing (hardened with salt water for greater protection), but the eagle knight always wore a magnificent feathered tunic and an eagle-head helmet. His special shield was made of animal skins with the feathers of rare birds, such as the hummingbird or quetzal, attached to it. Like the jaguar knight, he wielded a macahuitl club.

The headdress of the eagle knight had the shape of an eagle’s beak. With his face paint and feathered tunic, the eagle knight was a terrifying sight. He was called upon to make early morning,
surprise attacks.

An eagle and jaguar knight battle the Spanish.An eagle and jaguar knight battle the Spanish.

End of the
Aztec Empire

In 1519, the Aztecs were attacked by Spanish invaders led by the conquistador Hernán Cortés. The spears and clubs of the fierce Aztec warriors were no match for Spanish guns. By 1521, the empire, at that time ruled by Moctezuma ll, was defeated.

Consultant: Philip Parker

See also in History

See also in Culture

Aztec soldiers marching off to battle were often given chocolate beverages to fortify and sustain them during battle.

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