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The Aztec Empire for Unit 1 of AP World History

Cate O'Donnell

9 min read

Dec 22, 2023




Do you need to learn about the Aztec Empire for AP World History? Maybe you are studying the Mexica. What is the difference between the Mexica and the Aztecs? They are two names for the same people. Whether you are studying the Mexica or the Aztecs, you will learn everything you need to know for the AP World History exam here!

You can read and watch videos on the Aztec Empire using Google Slides, or you can scroll down to read on the website.

Aztec Wall Carving
Aztec Wall Carving 1246744033/Shutterstock

Aztec or Mexica?

The term “Aztecs” is derived from the word “Aztlan,” which is believed to be the mythical homeland of the Mexica people. The Mexica, a Nahuatl-speaking indigenous group, migrated from Aztlan to the Valley of Mexico in the 13th century. Over time, they established their capital, Tenochtitlan, on an island in the middle of Lake Texcoco. The Mexica civilization grew to become a dominant force in Mesoamerica, forming the Aztec Empire.

The use of the term “Aztecs” to describe the Mexica people is largely a result of historical convention and European influence. When the Spanish conquistadors, led by Hernán Cortés, encountered the Mexica civilization in the early 16th century, they referred to the people as “Aztecs.” This term was later adopted by historians and scholars to describe the indigenous group that built one of the most powerful and sophisticated civilizations in pre-Columbian America. The name “Aztec” has since become the commonly used designation for the Mexica people in historical and academic contexts.

The Beginning of the Aztec Empire

In 1325 CE, the Mexica, a Nahuatl-speaking group that migrated from the mythical Aztlan, founded their capital, Tenochtitlan, on a small island in Lake Texcoco. The strategic choice of this location, surrounded by water and marshes, provided both natural defenses and fertile grounds for agriculture. Led by their legendary leader Tenoch, the Mexica transformed from wandering nomads to builders of a grand city, marking the beginning of their empire. The growth of Tenochtitlan wasn’t merely physical; it symbolized the convergence of diverse Mesoamerican cultures and laid the groundwork for a civilization characterized by intricate religious practices, complex social structures, and a burgeoning sense of identity. This foundational moment set the stage for the Triple Alliance, a powerful coalition formed in 1428 with Texcoco and Tlacopan, ultimately evolving into the expansive and influential Aztec Empire. The Aztecs’ journey from humble beginnings to imperial dominance was a testament to their adaptability, military prowess, and ability to assimilate diverse influences from the rich mosaic of Mesoamerican civilizations.


Chinampas are a unique Mesoamerican agricultural system that originated with the Aztecs in ancient Mexico. They are artificial islands or raised fields created in shallow lake beds, primarily in the region of the Valley of Mexico. Chinampas are constructed by dredging nutrient-rich mud and aquatic vegetation from the lake bottom to build up a fertile and productive growing area.

Artificial Islands: Chinampas consist of rectangular or square plots of arable land, separated by canals. These plots are created by weaving together sticks and reeds, which are then layered with mud and organic material.

Irrigation: The canals between chinampas provide a constant source of water for irrigation, allowing for year-round cultivation. This is particularly important in regions with a distinct dry and wet season.

Fertility: The mud and organic matter dredged from the lake bed are highly fertile, making chinampas incredibly productive for agriculture. Crops like maize, beans, squash, and various vegetables could be grown on these fields.

Sustainability: Chinampas are often cited as an early example of sustainable agriculture. They make efficient use of limited land resources and minimize soil erosion. Additionally, the aquatic environment of the canals provides habitat for fish and waterfowl, enhancing biodiversity.

Historical Significance: Chinampas were a fundamental part of Aztec agriculture, providing food for the growing population of the capital city of Tenochtitlan and its surroundings. The system played a significant role in the success and wealth of the Aztec Empire.

The Social Structure of the Aztec Empire

The social structure of the Aztec Empire was a complex and hierarchical framework that reflected the multifaceted nature of Aztec society. At its pinnacle stood the emperor, who held both political and religious authority and was considered a divine figure. Beneath the emperor were the nobility, consisting of the highest-ranking military officials, priests, and aristocrats. Nobles enjoyed privileges such as land ownership and access to luxury goods.

The commoners constituted the majority of the population and were organized into distinct classes. The macehualtin, or commoners, included skilled artisans, farmers, and merchants. They played vital roles in sustaining the empire’s economic activities. The pochteca, a merchant class, held a unique position, engaging in long-distance trade and often accumulating wealth and influence.

Slavery was present in the Aztec society, primarily as a result of warfare. Captives from military campaigns became slaves, and their status varied, with some working in households, fields, or as sacrificial offerings in religious ceremonies.

The Aztec social structure was also influenced by a system of calpulli, which were community-based groups responsible for organizing agricultural activities, distributing land, and fostering a sense of communal identity. Despite the hierarchical nature of Aztec society, there was a degree of social mobility, with individuals having the opportunity to rise in status through military achievements, economic success, or religious service. The intricate social fabric of the Aztec Empire reflected a society that balanced centralized control with local autonomy, contributing to the resilience and longevity of their civilization.


At the heart of the Aztec Empire’s social organization lay the calpulli, a fundamental and intricate system that played a crucial role in the cohesion of Aztec society. The calpulli can be understood as community-based groups, akin to clans or neighborhoods, and served as the building blocks of Aztec urban life. Each calpulli was a self-governing unit responsible for a specific geographic area, and its members shared common lineage, often tracing their ancestry to a common ancestor. Within the calpulli, individuals worked together in various capacities, such as organizing agricultural activities, distributing land, and ensuring communal welfare.

Beyond economic and agricultural responsibilities, the calpulli also played a significant role in maintaining social order and identity. It fostered a sense of community, shared traditions, and collective responsibility. The calpulli system was not only a practical arrangement for resource management but also a social and cultural framework that contributed to the overall stability of the Aztec Empire. While the emperor and nobility held centralized power, the calpulli provided a decentralized layer of governance that allowed for local autonomy and the preservation of distinct community identities. This intricate interplay between central authority and community-level organization exemplifies the dynamic and resilient nature of the social structure within the Aztec Empire.

The Tribute System

The tribute system in the Aztec Empire was a cornerstone of economic and political governance, facilitating the flow of resources from subject regions to the imperial center. This intricate system was grounded in the belief that the empire’s prosperity relied on the contributions of its diverse provinces. Tribute, known as “tlaquilolli” in Nahuatl, encompassed a wide array of offerings, including agricultural products, textiles, artisanal goods, and labor services.

Each province within the empire was assigned a specific tribute quota based on its resources and capabilities. The tribute was collected regularly, often annually, and was overseen by tax collectors known as “calpixque.” These officials meticulously documented the contributions and ensured that each province fulfilled its obligations. Failure to pay tribute could result in severe consequences, including military intervention or forced resettlement.

The Aztec tribute system served multiple purposes beyond economic gain. It solidified the empire’s control over a vast territory, creating a network of interdependence among diverse regions. Additionally, it played a role in the redistribution of goods within the empire, addressing regional disparities and ensuring a degree of economic equilibrium. The tribute system was not merely an economic transaction but a deeply embedded cultural and political practice, reinforcing the imperial ideology that the emperor, as a divine ruler, deserved the offerings from subject provinces. Despite its efficiency in sustaining the empire, the tribute system also contributed to tensions and resentment among subject peoples, eventually playing a role in the complex dynamics that unfolded during the Spanish conquest.

Religion of the Aztec Empire

The religion of the Aztec Empire was a complex and intricate system deeply interwoven with every facet of Aztec society. Central to their beliefs was a pantheon of deities, each associated with various aspects of life, nature, and the cosmos. At the forefront of the divine hierarchy stood Huitzilopochtli, the god of war, sun, and the patron deity of the Mexica people. His temple, the Templo Mayor in the capital city of Tenochtitlan, was a focal point for religious ceremonies and rituals.

The Aztecs engaged in a diverse array of religious practices, including elaborate ceremonies, sacrifices, and festivals. Human sacrifice, particularly during major religious events, was a central and controversial aspect of Aztec religious rituals. Captives from warfare or other sources were offered as sacrifices to appease the gods and maintain cosmic balance.

Priests held a crucial role in Aztec religious life, conducting ceremonies, interpreting omens, and overseeing the construction and maintenance of temples. Education in religious matters was highly esteemed, and certain schools were dedicated to training priests and passing down sacred knowledge.

The Aztecs also had a rich mythology that explained the origins of the world and humanity. Their cosmology included the belief in multiple layers of the cosmos and the cyclical nature of time.

In addition to organized religious activities, the Aztecs practiced personal rituals, such as household ceremonies and offerings to household deities. The intricate interplay between the divine and the earthly, the cosmic and the mundane, defined the spiritual landscape of the Aztec Empire, leaving an indelible mark on Mesoamerican religious history.

Human Sacrifices

Human sacrifice was a deeply ingrained and controversial aspect of the religious practices within the Aztec Empire. At the heart of Aztec belief was the notion that the gods required constant nourishment, particularly in the form of human offerings, to sustain the cosmic order and prevent catastrophic events. The act of human sacrifice was intricately woven into major religious ceremonies and festivals, often involving captives from warfare or, in some cases, members of the Aztec society.

The most notorious site for these ceremonies was the Templo Mayor, the grand temple in the capital city of Tenochtitlan. The sacrificial rituals were elaborate, involving the presentation of captives to specific deities, such as Huitzilopochtli, the god of war. Methods of sacrifice varied, but common practices included heart extraction, decapitation, or other forms of ritualistic killing. The rituals were conducted by specialized priests who held a pivotal role in the religious hierarchy.

The justification for human sacrifice in Aztec culture stemmed from the belief in a cyclical and fragile cosmic order. Sacrifices were viewed as a necessary means to appease the gods and ensure the well-being of the empire. The captured individuals, often prisoners of war, were symbolically transformed into messengers to the divine realm.

While human sacrifice played a central role in Aztec religious ideology, it also generated criticism and condemnation from outsiders, particularly the Spanish conquistadors who encountered the practice. The controversial nature of this aspect of Aztec religion has sparked extensive debate among historians and scholars, reflecting the complex interplay of cultural practices within the rich tapestry of Mesoamerican civilizations.

Pyramid of the Sun

Pyramid of the Sun
Pyramid of the Sun 1717836748/Shutterstock

The Pyramid of the Sun is one of the most iconic and significant structures in Mesoamerican archaeology. Located in the ancient city of Teotihuacan in present-day Mexico, this colossal pyramid stands as a testament to the architectural and engineering prowess of the ancient Mesoamerican civilization. The Pyramid of the Sun is the third-largest pyramid in the world, towering at approximately 216 feet in height. It is composed of a series of stepped layers, leading to a flat, rectangular platform at the top.

The End of the Aztec Empire

The decline and ultimate fall of the Aztec Empire were catalyzed by the arrival of Spanish conquistadors, led by Hernán Cortés, whose expedition to the Americas in 1519 was driven by a combination of motives. Cortés, fueled by a thirst for wealth, glory, and the desire to spread Christianity, set sail with the explicit goal of exploring and expanding Spanish influence in the newly discovered territories. In addition to these broad objectives, rumors of a wealthy empire rich in gold and precious resources further piqued Cortés’s interest.

The Spaniards were initially welcomed by the Aztec emperor Moctezuma II. However, Cortez sought to exploit existing tensions within the empire and capitalize on the discontent among subject peoples by making alliances with enemies of the Aztec Empire.

The turning point came in 1520, during the festival of Toxcatl, when tensions boiled over, leading to a massacre known as the “Noche Triste” (Sad Night). The Aztecs, realizing the duplicitous intentions of the Spaniards, launched an attack, resulting in significant losses for both sides. However, the Aztecs suffered a more enduring blow as their emperor, Moctezuma II, was taken captive by the Spanish.

The final blow to the Aztec Empire came in 1521 when Tenochtitlan, the majestic capital, fell after a prolonged siege. The city was devastated, its iconic Templo Mayor demolished, and its treasures plundered. The Spaniards, reinforced by European diseases that decimated the indigenous population, solidified their control over the remnants of the Aztec Empire. The conquest marked not only the end of an empire but also the beginning of Spanish colonization in the Americas, leaving an indelible impact on the course of history and the intermingling of cultures in the New World.

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Cate O'Donnell

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