The Aztec Empire was a moving and fragile alliance of three main city-states. The largest and most powerful of the three was Tenochtitlán, the island city built by the Mexican people, also known as the Aztecs. The Aztec Triple Alliance wielded tremendous power over a wide swath of central Mexico for just under 100 years (1420-1521) before falling to the Spanish conquistadors led by Hernán Cortés.
Late arrivals in a crowded valley
According to Aztec mythology, the ancient people who colonized Tenochtitlán came from a legendary land called Aztlán (hence the later adoption of the name Azteca or Aztecs). Modern Mesoamerican scholars now believe that the Mexican people who built Tenochtitlán were the last in a long migration from the parched American Southwest to the fertile Valley of Mexico, the site of modern Mexico City.
By the time the Mexica arrived in the early 1300s, there were already 40-50 established city-states (called altepetl in the Nahuatl language) in the valley, most of them surrounding the great Lake Texcoco. The most dominant altepetl at the time was Azcapotzalco, to whom newcomers from Mexico paid homage and worked as mercenaries. The poor and helpless Mexica built their colony on an island in the middle of Lake Texcoco.
“They got this place because nobody else wanted it,” says Camilla Townsend, historian at Rutgers University and author of Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs. “It wasn’t good for growing the corn, beans and squash they all lived on.”
Soon, however, the Mexica learned an agricultural trick from neighboring Xochimilca, which taught them how to build productive raised gardens in the shallows using basket-shaped fences of woven reeds. Over time, the island’s previously unattractive location evolved into a central shopping center with canoes full of goods plying the lake to buy and sell in Tenochtitlán.
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Itzcoatl leads a daring coup
While the settlers around Lake Texcoco prospered agriculturally, they lived under an unstable regime. The power dynamics in 14th-century Mexico were complicated to say the least.
“Every city-state was always on the brink of civil war,” says Townsend, the result of an energetically polygamous ruling class.
The kings, known as tlàtoani (meaning “orator” or “spokesperson”), took several wives as gifts and tributes from their political allies. Polygamous unions have produced dozens of potential heirs, each vying for the throne with military backing from their mother’s hometown.
In 1426 the tlàtoani of Azcapotzalco, still the most powerful city-state, died suddenly. His heirs, each representing the interests of another city-state, began to kill each other in a desperate attempt to acquire the throne. Chaos ensued.
The tlàtoani of Tenochtitlán at the time was a man named Itzoatl or “Obsidian Snake”. Itzcoatl himself was an unlikely heir to the throne of Tenochtitlán, as the son of a former king and a slave. But he was a shrewd schemer, and he knew an opportunity when he saw it.
Itzcoatl looked for allies in the towns injured by Azcapotzalco. But not only that, he was looking for groups of second and third row queen brothers who were unlikely to rise to power on their own. This is how Itzcoatl forged an alliance between Tenochtitlán and budding families in the two small city-states of Tlacopan and Texcoco.
Together, this unlikely coalition of less powerful brotherhood groups waged war against the chaotic Azcapotzalco and seized power in a coordinated coup. The Triple Alliance was born.
The triple alliance: an ad hoc empire
With Azcapotzalco under control, the Triple Alliance combined their armies to intimidate the city-states and villages of the Valley of Mexico and beyond. Unlike the Roman Empire, which imposed Roman culture, language, and government on the dominated states, the Triple Alliance took an ad hoc approach to its rule.
“[The Triple Alliance] was a set of organized arrangements, but still informal and evolving, ”says Townsend. “Some conquered city-states could continue in power safely as long as they paid homage. Others who had been more “difficult” – perhaps had fought very hard or had killed emissaries – were destroyed.
The Huastec people, for example, fought fiercely against the invading armies and paid a high price for their insolence. According to a Spanish monk writing a century later, “[The allied soldiers] killed young and old, boys and girls, mercilessly annihilating all they could, with great cruelty and with the determination to remove all traces of the Huastec people from the earth.
Loot and tribute in the form of women, warriors, food, textiles and precious materials were shared between Tenochtitlán, Tlacopan and Texcoco, but Tenochtitlán was clearly the “main partner,” Townsend says, due to his size. and the fact that Itzcoatl appeared. with the idea of alliance in the first place.
Due to its now prized location on the lake, Tenochtitlán has grown into a bustling market town rich in conquest spoils and populated by skilled craftsmen for a growing noble class.
The snowball effect of human sacrifice
Townsend says that every ancient culture practiced some form of human sacrifice and this was almost certainly the case with the indigenous peoples of the Americas, not just the Aztecs. In the Mexican world of the 14th and 15th centuries, prisoners of war were regularly sacrificed both as a tribute to the conquering gods and as a warning to upstart city-states.
Prior to coming to power under the Triple Alliance, the Aztecs did not perform large-scale human sacrifice. But Townsend says something changed in the 1470s and 1480s when Tenochtitlán became the dominant force throughout central Mexico.
“[Tenochtitlán] was the king of the mountain and they had to maintain that position, ”says Townsend. “The longer you have been in charge and the more you demand homage from others, the worse it will be if ever you are depressed.”
A decision was made to use terror as a weapon to keep the rebel city-states in line. Soon the Aztecs not only sacrificed a handful of prisoners of war to satisfy their gods, but also demanded tributes from hundreds, if not thousands, of young people in front of the freestone.
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According to a Nahuatl file, soldiers would kidnap people in territories the Alliance wanted to conquer and bring them to the Templo Mayor. (Great Temple) in Tenochtitlán to witness one of these mass human sacrifices. Then they sent the captives home to share what they had seen.
Not everyone was in favor of the sacrifices, says Townsend, who points to Aztec songs and poems decrying violence and bloodshed. But the ruling and noble classes of Tenochtitlán saw no other way to maintain their precarious regime and fuel their opulent lifestyles.
“There are times in the history of every nation when they do despicable things to maintain power, and that’s certainly something the Aztecs did,” Townsend says.
Defeated but not destroyed
In his book, Townsend overturns many of the myths of the Spanish conquest, namely that the native enemies of the Aztecs immediately flocked alongside the foreign invaders in order to crush their hated rival. And that the Aztecs who were not killed by the sword were ended by European epidemic diseases like smallpox.
These conventional explanations are belied by historical texts written by the Aztecs themselves. Shortly after the conquest, the Spanish brothers taught the Roman alphabet to young Aztec nobles so that they could read the Bible. Some of these same young men collected centuries of Aztec history from family members and traditional storytellers and wrote them down in phonetic Nahuatl.
Townsend went through dozens of these Nahuatl annals to piece together a new perspective on Aztec history, including the prodigious arrival of Cortés and the fall of the empire.
What is clear now is that the Tlaxcalans, longtime rivals of the Aztecs who never succumbed to the Triple Alliance, did not immediately cast their spell with the Spaniards. The Tlaxcalans fought Spanish forces for a week before deciding, like so many other Native Americans, that they simply couldn’t compete with the invading superior technology.
“The more the Indians got to know the Europeans – the more they saw ships, compasses, cannons, etc. – the more they realized they were going to end up losing this war, ”Townsend says.
Even after Montezuma’s death in 1520, the Aztecs fought the Spaniards for another year. But once the Tlaxcalans and other indigenous groups joined the Spaniards, the fate of the Aztecs was sealed. Tenochtitlán was razed and countless Aztecs died of European diseases, but that was not the end of the story.
The Aztecs who survived the fall of Tenochtitlán were forced to make peace with the new reality of colonial rule. Like the authors of Nahuatl history, they bowed to the will of their Spanish lords while retaining the language and stories that linked them to their once rich culture.
“The Aztecs have been conquered,” writes Townsend in Fifth sun, “But they also ran away.”