The Aztec state is actually the most well documented Mesoamerican civilization with sources including archaeology, native books (codices) and lengthy and detailed accounts from their Spanish conquerors – both by military men and Christian clergy. These latter sources may not always be reliable but the picture we have of the Aztecs, their institutions, religious practices, warfare and daily life is a rich one and it continues to be constantly expanded with details being added through the endeavours of 21st century CE archaeologists and scholars.
Sometime around 1100 CE the city-states or altepetl which were spread over central Mexico began to compete with each other for local resources and regional dominance. Each state had its own ruler or tlatoani who led a council of nobles but these small urban centres surrounded by farmland soon sought to expand their wealth and influence so that by c. 1400 CE several small empires had formed in the Valley of Mexico. Dominant amongst these were Texcoco, capital of the Acholhua region, and Azcapotzalco, capital of the Tepenec. These two empires came face to face in 1428 CE with the Tepanec War. The Azcapotzalco forces were defeated by an alliance of Texcoco, Tenochtitlan (the capital of the Mexica) and several other smaller cities. Following victory a Triple Alliance was formed between Texcoco, Tenochtitlán and a rebel Tepanec city, Tlacopan. A campaign of territorial expansion began where the spoils of war – usually in the form of tributes from the conquered – were shared between these three great cities. Over time Tenochtitlán came to dominate the Alliance, its ruler became the supreme ruer – the huey tlatoque (‘high king’) – and the city established itself as the capital of the Aztec empire.
Architecture & Art
The Aztecs were themselves appreciative of fine art and they collected pieces from across their empire to be brought back to Tenochtitlán and often ceremonially buried. Aztec art was nothing if not eclectic and ranged from miniature engraved precious objects to massive stone temples. Monumental sculptures were a particular favourite and could be fearsome monstrosities such as the colossal Coatlicue statue or be very life-like such as the famous sculpture of a seated Xochipilli.