The Aztec Empire operated in what is today Mexico in the 1300s-1500s. Despite sharing much technology with bronze-age civilizations, they were incredibly scientifically advanced in certain areas, such as astronomy, which drove them to create a very accurate calendar. They had their own writing system, performed feats of architecture which would be difficult to replicate even with modern technology, and worked gold into statues. The fact that they could invent all these things independently from the Old World is remarkable.
The Aztec Empire was predated by a series of city-states. These city-states fought each other regularly but no one was able to gain the upper hand. In 1250 AD, the Mexica people migrated into the area, and founded the city of Tenochtitlan, on the site of which Mexico City, the capital of Mexico, stands today.
The Mexica allied with the city-state of Azcapotzalco, which tipped the balance in the city-state conflicts and allowed the two to rise to dominance. However, a falling-out between the Mexica and the rulers of Azcapotzalco lead the Mexica to switch sides, and the Triple Alliance of Tenochtitlan (the Mexica city), Texacoco, and Tlacopan beat Azcapotzalco in a war. Over the next 100 years, the Triple Alliance conquered the area, until their realm spread from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. This Triple Alliance became the Aztec Empire.
Under the rule of Emperor Montezuma, Tenochtitlan became much more powerful than the other two partners in the alliance. He and his successors centralized the alliance to become more like a state, collecting tribute from the surrounding cities. Montezuma built schools, issued death penalty laws, and created rules which distinguished nobles from peasants. He also created the concept of the Flower Wars.
The Flower Wars were pre-arranged, regulated wars set up regularly. The combatants in these were not supposed to kill one another-instead, the soldiers of the losing side would be captured alive. The Aztec religion demanded that living people be ritually sacrificed to appease the gods on a regular basis.
The Flower Wars provided a steady stream of sacrifices, and a way for the warriors of the empire to train in real warfare. This training was needed to quell rebellions-as the Aztec imperial system allowed for a lot of autonomy to its cities, which bred revolt-and to fight the Spanish, a threat they never saw coming.
In 1519, the Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés landed in the area with a force of 630 men. Cortés founded the colony of New Spain and then spent the next six years rampaging through the Empire. He played the different factions and cities against one another and brought about an immense civil war, which led to Cortés's capture of two subsequent Aztec Emperors, the destruction of Tenochtitlan, and ultimately the ruin of the Aztec Empire.
Both the rise of the Aztec Empire through warfare, and its fall at the hands of the Spaniards, show the human capacity for violence and destruction. But the artefacts which the Aztecs left behind, including the architecture, statues, and writing, show the other side of humanity-the capacity to create. Creation in the end may be more powerful, as today we learn about the Aztecs from the things they created, not the things which they destroyed.
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