The Aztecs

The Aztec tribe lived in ancient
Mexico for about 400 years.
For the first 200 years, the Aztecs
were constantly on the move. No
one wanted the Aztecs as
neighbors. The Aztecs practiced
human sacrifice. They believed that
if their gods were not fed, they
would not do their jobs. The sun
god would not bring up the sun,
and everyone would die.
To keep their gods happy, the Aztecs believed
that human sacrifice was necessary. They used
people to feed their hungry gods.
Some of the people they sacrificed
were Aztecs. However, most of
the people they sacrificed were
captured from neighboring tribes.
This did not make them popular
with their neighbors. Sooner or later,
their neighbors would band together to
chase the Aztecs away.
When the Aztecs first arrived in the Valley of
Mexico, other tribes were already living on
the best land in the area.
This time, rather than fight for the best land
or for captives to feed their hungry gods,
the Aztecs quietly settled along the
swampy shores of Lake Texcoco.
They built canoes so they could fish, hunt
waterfowl, and trade with other tribes
for the building materials they needed.
Free School for Everyone
To build the city they wanted, they
knew that they would need many
engineers, builders, and traders. This
required an educated population. To
solve this problem, the Aztecs set up
a system of public schools.
Attendance was mandatory for all
Aztec children, even girls and slaves.
The Aztecs were the only people up
to that time in history to have free
schools that every child had to attend.
All-Girls School
There were three different
schools: one for girls, and
two for boys.
Girls learned about religion
and were trained to be good
wives and mothers. They
learned how to cook, sew,
and how to care for their
children. They also learned
how to make beautiful
woven textiles.
Sons of the Upper Class
Sons of the upper class went to the
nobles’ school. Sons of wealthy
traders and merchants also went to
this school. They studied law, writing
(hieroglyphics), medicine,
engineering and building,
interpretation of dreams and omens,
and self-expression. They also learned
about their history and religious
It was a tough school. The boys were
humiliated and tormented to toughen them up.
Sons of Commoners
and Slaves The other boys’ school was for
sons of commoners. Its main
goal was to train warriors and
farmers. Boys had to sleep
under skimpy blankets. They
were given hard bread to eat.
The commoners’ school also
taught history, religion,
manners, correct behavior, and
important rituals, along with
singing and dancing.
Specialized Professions
No matter which school an Aztec
boy attended, he was trained to be
a specialist. Boys studied how to be
farmers, traders, engineers,
builders, astronomers, and doctors.
Students who became builders and
engineers designed and built the
amazing Aztec cities, including the
capital city of Tenochtitlan, located
on the swampy shores of Lake
Floating Gardens
As the Aztec population grew, more
food was needed. To solve this
problem, Aztec engineers created
“floating” gardens. They built a
series of rafts, which they anchored
to the lake bed. They piled on dirt
and grew crops. They made
walkways out of mud and reeds to
connect the floating rafts.
The gardens were quite successful.
The Aztecs grew chili peppers,
squash, corn, tomatoes, and beans.
Thanks to Aztec schools, which produced trained
engineers, builders, and traders, the Aztec capital
of Tenochtitlan became a great city. It had huge
temples, beautiful open plazas, and a large
central marketplace.
By the mid-1400s,Tenochtitlan was one of the
largest cities in the world. It had a population of
over 200,000 people.
Professions Questions
1. What purpose was served
by having every Aztec
child—including boys, girls,
and slaves— attend
2. What is a specialized
Around 1400 CE, the Aztecs began to
conquer neighboring tribes. Since the
Aztec population had increased, they
needed more land for farming and for
building cities to feed and house their
growing population. They needed more
captives to feed their hungry gods.
Schools needed to be run. Storehouses
needed to be filled. Temples needed to
be built.
The Aztec government had its hands
full trying to satisfy all these needs.
War was the answer. When the Aztecs
conquered a tribe, they demanded to
be paid tribute in the form of food,
clothing, precious stones, building
supplies, and captives. The Aztecs
would keep the first four for
themselves, but the last they would
give to their gods.
Other tribes hated and feared the
Aztecs. Sometimes, they simply ran
away from the Aztecs, rather than fight.
The Emperor
The Aztecs had an emperor, a
king who ruled over all the
people. The emperor lived in
the imperial palace in the
capital city of Tenochtitlan.
The palace was huge. It even
had its own zoo. The ground
floor of the palace housed
government offices and the
shops of the most talented
craftsman in the Aztec empire.
As the Aztec empire grew,
government officials directed Aztec
engineers to build many fine cities.
A noble family controlled each city.
Although the noble families were
supposed to assist the emperor, the
truth is that each family pretty much
ran things in its city the way it wanted.
Thus, the Aztecs, like the Maya, were
governed as a group of city-states.
Crime & Punishment
Aztec rulers were quite severe.
Judges decided on the punishment
for those who broke the law.
Drunkenness was the worst crime:
the punishment for being drunk was
death. Thieves were also put to
Laws were tough, and they were
written down. Holy writings called
“codices” detailed the punishment for
each crime. There was no mercy. If
you broke the law, you paid the price.
The One-Time
Forgiveness Law
There was one exception: the one-time
forgiveness law. Once in your lifetime, you
could confess your crime to the priests
and be forgiven. However, you had to
confess before you were caught. If you
committed any other crime after that, you
would be punished to the fullest extent
of the law.
Aztec laws and punishments were
very harsh.
Government Question
Despite there being
an all-powerful
emperor, why were
the Aztecs actually
governed as a
group of city-states?
The poor: Homes of farmers and
other commoners were huts with
thatched roofs. Furniture was
limited. They had blankets for
sleeping and pottery for cooking.
Each home had a garden.
The rich: Homes of the wealthy
were made of sun-dried brick,
whitewashed to look clean. Each
home had a separate room for
steam bathing, where water was
poured over heated stones.
In the Aztec civilization, class
structure was very important.
Upper class: People in the upper
class wore clothing decorated with
feathers and embroidery to show their
status. They also carried fans made
of feathers.
Common people: It was against the
law for commoners to wear feathers
or to carry fans. If commoners broke
these laws, they were killed.
Many wives: At about age 20, men married women
who were 14 or 15 years old. A man could have more
than one wife as long as he could support them.
Matchmakers: Weddings were
arranged by a matchmaker, usually
an old women who used omens
and charms to match up the
right bride and groom.
Wedding party: The bride’s
family threw a party over the three
or four days before the wedding.
Tying the knot: On the day of the
wedding, the bride rode to her new
home on the matchmaker’s back.
There, the bride and groom stood
before the hearth (the fireplace)
wearing special coats, which were
then tied together. From that point
on, they were married.
New babies: The Aztecs welcomed
all life. The birth of a boy or a girl
was celebrated. This was true for
both nobles and commoners.
Correct Behavior
The Aztecs were very concerned that
all their citizens behave correctly.
The rules of correct behavior were
written down. These were not just
guidelines, but actual laws. Should
you break the law, you could be
killed. Children learned the laws of
correct behavior in school.
The Aztecs had a code of behavior
for everything.
Correct Behavior
Here are some of the rules of behavior:
• Do not mock the sick
• Do not mock one who has
• Do not set a bad example
• Do not interrupt the speech
of another
• Do not make ugly faces
• Walk with a peaceful air
• Do not complain
Aztec nobles kept slaves. Slaves were not captives
from other tribes, they were Aztecs. There were
only two ways a person could become a slave:
either as punishment for a crime, or being
voluntarily sold into slavery.
A slave’s life was much the same as the
life of a free person. Slaves could marry
other slaves and even freewomen.
Children of slaves were not slaves
themselves—one could not be born into
slavery in the Aztec world.
It was difficult to get rid of a slave
once purchased. If a slave refused
to obey, the owner had to bring the
slave to a plaza. In front of
witnesses, the owner had to prove
that the slave would not obey. This
had to be done on three separate
occasions, documenting three
different acts of refusal.
After the third time, the owner could
bring the slave back to the market to
be resold.
Slaves could buy their freedom. All they
needed was enough money to pay back
whatever the owner had paid to buy
A slave could earn his or her freedom. On
the way to the slave market, if a slave got
away and managed to run to the palace
without being stopped, that slave was
immediately free. The only person who
could chase that slave was the master’s
son. If anyone interfered with the race,
that person became a slave.
Poetry: For all their love of war, the
Aztecs did have a softer side. They
loved to write and to read poetry.
Much of their poetry was about
heroic acts of war, love, or religion.
Games: The Aztecs loved games.
They loved to give people a sporting
chance. Some of the games they
played included a ball game similar
to one played by the ancient Maya.
Aztec Ball Games
Ballplayers: One of the most
highly admired professions in the
Aztec world was that of ballplayer.
The Aztecs, like the Maya, had
huge ball courts. The Aztec ball
game was a very rough sport.
The best ballplayers were treated
like superstars.
Daily Life Questions
1. What did rich people carry
to show their status?
2. What was one of the many
rules of good behavior?
• How could slaves regain
their freedom?
Spanish Arrival
A few years after Columbus discovered
America, another explorer, Hernan
Cortes, landed in what is now Mexico.
The Spanish were looking for lands to
conquer, gold to capture, and people to
convert to the Catholic religion.
Normally, the Aztecs would have killed
the invaders immediately. However,
they believed Cortes was a god in
disguise. An old legend had foretold that
this would happen, so they welcomed
the Spanish into their city.
Spanish Arrival
The Spanish were amazed at the
beautiful capital city of Tenochtitlan.
Everything was clean. There were
hairdressers and “eating houses.”
Even commoners could buy
medicines, herbs, meat, pottery,
jewelry, and household goods.
The marketplace held more than
60,000 people. No one used money;
goods were bartered and small
differences in value were evened up
using cocoa beans.
Spanish Arrival
The Spanish conquered the Aztecs
in two years and occupied the
The Spanish did not conquer the
Aztecs with guns alone; they also
used horses and dogs. The
Spanish brought huge fierce
mastiffs to go into battle.
Disease also helped to bring down
the Aztecs, who had never been
exposed to anything like smallpox.
Spanish Arrival
The Spanish also had help from the
other tribes in the area. These tribes
saw a chance to not only get even,
but to actually get rid of the hated
Aztecs. By the mid-1500s, the Aztec
empire had collapsed.
Today, around 1,000,000 descendants
of the ancient Aztecs live in Mexico.
While human sacrifice is, of course,
no longer part of their festivals, the art
and the many games the Aztecs
enjoyed live on.
Spanish Arrival
1. What was the name
of the Spanish
2. Why did other tribes
in the area help the
Spanish to defeat the
To name a few:
• Floating gardens
• Written language of hieroglyphics
• Written laws
• Free, mandatory education
• Specialized professions
• Woven fabrics
• Aztec ball games
• Poetry
• Engineering and medicine
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