The city of Aztec emerged in history as a result of a long cultural transformation in the pre Christian era. As per the historians the land of Mexico underwent a great cultural transition around second millennium B.C. The foundations of the sacred cities of Mayas-Tikal, Copan etc. were laid at the beginning of the Christian era.
The pyramids, palaces, various inscriptions and representations of gods became the source to Aztec art and culture in the Conquest period. The downfall of Roman Empire and the emergence of Spaniards as major power in the New World highlight of this period (Portillo, 1992).
The Origin of Toltec Empire
The eighth and ninth centuries witnessed the decline of Teotihuacan and Mayan cultures. However, a new state originated in central Mexico from the blend of these cultures, and it was called Toltec Empire. The main populace of this empire was people who migrated from the north.
They brought with them their language of Nahuatl which in due course became the language of the Aztecs. Quetzalcoatl was their Teotihuacan cultural hero during this period. However, Quetzalcoatl left them promising his return to the land sometime in the future (Portillo, 1992).
The Aztecs or Mexicas entered the Valley of Mexico from the north while new city states sprouted on its shores. In 1325 they founded their city on an isolated island and within a span of ten decades they were successful in amalgamating their old cultural
traditions. They were independent, and finding themselves stable, started conquering the nearby states. This was followed by their expedition to the far and establishing their rule up to Pacific and Guatemala regions. Gradually, they became the most powerful and richer than any other city states (Portillo, 1992).
The Aztec Empire, a panoramic view
Don Hernando Cortes, the Spaniard and his band of six hundred soldiers landed on the coast of Aztec Empire at Veracruz on 22nd April 1519. It changed the destiny of the Empire. The city of Aztec surrendered to this unscrupulous man within 2 years. When he subdued the land the population was around a quarter of a million.
Festivals, sacrifices and several rituals to please the gods were practiced all over. There were frequent communion of teachers and students at the pre-Hispanic education centers. The busy streets and the merchant navigation were all impressive and the soldiers thronged to the city with their military exercises.
Governors and Ambassadors from distant regions visited the city either to offer tributes or to seek Aztec alliance. Gold, silver, slaves and other merchandise filled the streets, causeways and shores. People worked very hard and were devoted to their gods. The celebrations and cultural activities added to the beauty of the city (Portillo, 1992).
Contributions of Tlacaelel and Itzcoatl to making of Aztec Empire
It was Itzcoatl who laid the firm foundation of the empire with his immaculate vision. He ruled the empire between 1428 and 1440. The wealth and the military strength of Tenochtitlan were the result of his accomplishments. His diplomatic alliance
or confederation known as ‘triple alliance’ saw the union of Nezahualcoyotl of Tezcoco (to defeat Azcapotzalco), and befriending Tenochtitlan, Tezcoco and the city of Tlacopan. The royal counselor of the King was Tlacaelel who was a shrewd statesman. He introduced significant reforms in the overall political, religious, social and economic fields of the country which brought in phenomenal improvements in the society as a whole.
The historians have remarked that if the Spaniards were to come to Aztec during his period, the fate of the Empire would have been different. Tlacaelel was such a visionary ‘King Maker’ who never longed for the throne, even though it was extended to him several times. It was he who persuaded the Aztec Kings to extend the realms of Huitzilopochtli stressing upon the necessity to capture men belonging to other clans for the sacrifice.
He also reformed judiciary, military, trade and commerce which were the foundation stones of Aztec mighty empire. The triple alliance conceived by him propelled the neighboring states to concede, and forced them to sign treaties. The farsighted action brought more revenue to the state in the form of tributes. During his period the Aztec boundaries were extended to the south (Portillo, 1992).
Social life of the Aztecs
By 1510 the empire was responsible for over several million people. The empire was extended from Pacific to Gulf coast and up to Guatemala. The speedy growth of the empire brought about corresponding changes in the outlook and way of living of the people. Their socio-political structure was so rigid that they enthralled the Spaniards with its complex nature. The social set up of the citizens reflected the social stratification which was based on the nature and class of their work. Education was
also given great importance. The people practiced worshipping only one god namely, the Lord of Duality, though they considered it in the form of individual deities (Portillo, 1992).
Warfare of Aztecs
War became the cultural institution of the Aztec life as it was their means to please the god. The warriors knew that their prime duty was to find the captives for sacrifice. This was the main reason for the expansion of Aztec Empire. However, it frightened the Spaniards too.
They could have destroyed the conquering Spaniards, but the destiny wanted it in another way, for superstition, black magic and fear overpowered the last emperor Motecuhzoma’s will, and this mistake caused the ruin of a great Empire. The dissident tribal chiefs and the prevailing enmity with the neighboring states also aggravated the situation (Portillo, 1992).
The Downfall of Aztec Empire
On going through the various documents available today it could be seen that the downfall of the Aztec Empire was not because of the bravery of the Spaniards but because of the unwanted fear of Motecuhzoma. Possessed with the evils of black magic and belief in omens, he paved the way for the Spaniards to conquer him and left his people at their mercy.
By misunderstanding the signs and losing courage to fight, the King withdrew from imparting his duty of defending his empire. The fear of losing his throne forced him to sent messengers to the voyaging Don Hernando Cortes with gifts, and begging him. With that he warranted disgrace and sabotaged the will of the people. Instead of confronting the situation with valor and self esteem he opted for the humiliation of great men and their traditions to utter shame and peril (Portillo, 1992).
In short, the whole episode of conquest and the ‘Night of Sorrow’ are the result of the Indians alone. The Spaniards could not be blamed on this. When the messengers gave their reports on their encounter with the Spaniards, King Motecuhzoma was terrified and he was drenched in despair to invite his doom. God will stand only with the valiant and not with the weak. The downfall of Aztec Empire illustrates this. It is relevant to quote the following lines of a Nahua poet named Natalio Hernindez Xocoyotzin: (Portillo, 1992).
“Sometimes I feel that we, the Indians, are waiting for the arrival of a Man
who can achieve all, knows everything, is ready to help us, will answer our problems. But, this Man who can achieve all, knows everything, will never arrive because he is in ourselves, walks along with us. He has been asleep, but now he is awakening.” (Portillo, 1992)
Portillo, M.L. (1992). The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico. Beacon Press, Universalist Association of Congregations. http://www.ambergriscaye.com/pages/mayan/aztec.html. Mar 8, 2010