A Detailed Guide on the Aztec Civilization

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Science and Technology

The Aztecs were a fairly advanced and powerful that could be compared to ancient Rome in terms of its level of technological sophistication. The Aztecs were not as sophisticated as their contemporaries in all areas of science and technology but they were very advanced in areas that they needed to be and did very well with what little they had and what the obstacles that they had to face. The Aztecs used many different technologies and their sophisticated knowledge of many sciences to try to regulate and better their daily lives.

The Aztecs used a combination of astronomy, canal building and highly developed agricultural science to plant the right plants at the right time in order to feed their empire. Astronomy was used to make calendars which would have determined the best time to begin to plant and harvest each food. Canal building and irrigation allowed the Aztecs to feed their plants rich riverbed soil by building island farms in the middle of rivers and canals, a farm of this variety was a Chinampa. Building farms in the middle of rivers allowed the Aztecs to quickly deliver goods to the nearest market. The Aztecs also built farms on slopes by building terraces from the soil, this also served to limit soil erosion. Due to the high demand for food that existed in the Aztec empire, slash and burn were also common methods of farming, this also lead to an ever increasing demand for land.

The societal progress of the Aztecs relied heavily on math to determine the best date to do certain things, the construction of buildings, canals, roads, taxes and even religious events. The Aztecs created 3 calendars each having significance in a different area of life; a ritual calendar, an annual and a long count calendar. Even though the ritual calendar was dedicated to religion, all of the calendars had some degree of religious value as Aztec society tied everything to religion.

As sophisticated as the Aztecs were they lacked some technologies that were available elsewhere and therefore had their own unique response to problems. The most shocking thing about Aztec technology is that there is a lack of the use the wheel and pack animals, to compensate the Aztecs had good roads, professional runners, many rest stops situated every 6-10 miles, river highways, many causeways and secure toll roads. Another unusual technological trait of this civilization was that metallurgy did not go very far beyond copper, tin, lead and jewellery gold and silver. To compensate for the limited knowledge in metallurgy they used obsidian in place of metal in many tools which required sharpness.

Medical innovations were extensive in the Aztec empire as it fought many battles very often. Medical innovations in the Aztec empire ranged from talk therapy and medicinal herbs to bone realignment surgery. Talk therapy was widely used to try to resolve psychological problems and is a fairly simple concept that is still used today. Due to the abundance of plants and herbs in the area of their control, the Aztecs had the opportunity to experiment on their medicinal purposes this lead to them having many treatments to many illnesses and problems that they knew of. In order to avoid any need for any such treatment the Aztecs practiced good sanitary practices such as brushing their teeth with fibrous roots and using washing their mouth with mild abrasives such as ash, this was supplemented by cleansing rituals. Surgery in the Aztec empire was rudimentary but it still performed some of its purpose such as setting bones via wooden nails.

All in all without the science and technology that the Aztecs had, they would not have been anywhere nearly as successful as they were as many different technologies and their sophisticated knowledge of many sciences were a key necessity in their attempt to try to regulate and better their daily lives. They beat every obstacle that they faced with the exception of a fatal misinterpretation coupled with a threat possessing both advanced weapons and unheard of illnesses.

Music, Art and Literature

Music

Music played a large part of the Aztec life because it provided the Aztec people with enjoyment, passing on history and culture, as well as creating a spiritual connection with life. Music was a subject taught in Aztec schools and students would pick up instruments as early as when they 12 years old. Music was also seen by the tecuhtli as a way to demonstrate their wealth so they often had their own private band or musicians to play for them at home.

Most of the music was sacred hymns, which were to honor the dead rulers and gods. Sacred hymns were instructional because they transferred historical knowledge of the past rulers and cultural knowledge of the gods to the next generations. Sacred hymns were usually only sung at special occasions to honor the dead rulers or gods. Cantares was another genre of music and they were similar to the sacred hymns because they honored the dead and their noble actions. Cantares were also called ghost songs and sung in rituals or during battle. The Aztec also played happier songs that were not about the dead in their everyday life, such as songs of energy, love, and excitement.

The Aztec used a variety of instruments in their music. To the Aztec, percussion was the major section of their music. Drums made out of turtle shells, logs, or skin were played with hands or mallets. More often than not, drums were the only instrument in Aztec music especially in cantares, to lead the warriors into battle. Other forms of percussion used by the Aztec include rattles, filled with pebbles and shaken. For melody, there were very few instruments that the Aztec had. Most of Aztec melody comes from the flute or huilacapitztli and these are still popular in Central Mexico today. Horns and trumpets were rare but still present in Aztec music.

Art

The Aztecs prized art and it showed in almost every aspect of their civilization. A large portion of the Aztec population were artisans who felt that they had been blessed by the gods and tried to express their thoughts wherever they could. The results were marvelous pottery, masks, and architectural art found throughout the Aztec Empire.

The majority of Aztec art depicted dead rulers, gods, or nature. There was a lot of spiritual art in the Aztec Empire and these can be seen mainly on the architecture. The Aztec masons built large monuments, temples, and palaces dedicated to the gods covered with inscriptions or symbolic representations of dead rulers or gods. The natural themes were specified on animals and insects. However, more then not the animals or insects represented gods or the dead and not the animal itself.

Besides the large monuments, temples and palaces, art created by artisans were often traded in the marketplace. Ceremonial knives, head dresses, jewelry, coloured clothing are just some examples of the variety of art forms found in the Aztec Empire. Art was also worn in the form of jewelry, clothing, and headdresses and the upper class showed their power by changing appearance daily. Legend states that the emperor never wore the same clothing twice. The upper class also held family treasuries of their jewelry. Art was also found on masks, shields, pottery, and almost everywhere in the Aztec world. Artists paints on walls and carved on pillars to record what they saw or felt. The pictorial replications of people or animals were surprisingly realistic. In comparison to the European art at the time, Aztec art was more realistic.

Literature

The Aztec spoke Nahuatl and they recorded the majority of their literature on agave paper which was made out of agave plant fiber. These sheets were folded in half and literature was recorded on them. The majority of Aztec literature was sacred and discussed topics from predicting the future to rituals. There were also books discussing the calendar and when sacrifices should take place. The most important book from the Aztec Empire is called the Dresden Codex and it was a combination of astronomy and medicine. The Nahuatl glyphs were also found extensively on the architecture because not many of the agave books remain today.

The Economy

The Aztec economy was the biggest and one of the most advanced in the world by the start of the 16th century. The Aztec economy’s large size was due to a law which made it illegal to sell products anywhere other than the designated market place. This law was enforced by the notion that one would incur the wrath of the market god if they traded anywhere else. So by the start of the 16th century, Tlatelolco’s marketplace was the largest in the world, with up to 60,000 people trading in it and almost just as much in the other major cities such as Teotihuacan. Since trading was such a large part of the Aztec lifestyle, the empire relied on it for a variety of political reasons. Trade played a major part of creating a system of networks that the Aztec used to receive payments from regions as well as supply the regions with agricultural and military goods. Trade was also an alternative to war, which the Maya predecessors glorified, because trade enabled the Aztec to spread their political and dynastical influence throughout Mexico.

Two general economic systems existed in the Aztec Empire, the political and the commercial systems. The political system was similar to the feudal system found in most empires around the world. Unlike the rigid feudal system, the Aztec political system was slightly different. There were numerous king figures or tlatoani who ruled over city states. The tlatoani expected tributes to be paid from their lords or tecuhtli. The lords were administrators, judges or high ranked warriors. The tecuhtli enforced a certain region and asked for tributes to be paid. These would either come directly from slaves whom the tecuhtli owned or from calpulli of the region. The calpulli was the community chieftan and his role was to enforce the collection of tributes by the commoners. Although there is some flexibility when one looks at the Aztec Empire as a whole, the system is quite rigid and promotes only cash flow to those in power.

Since the political system was not a great economic system, a second system existed to promote trade and economic activity – the commercial system. Although the commercial system existed, tributes or taxes still had to be paid by the merchants, artisans, or warriors that traded. In fact, 80% of the Aztec population consisted of merchants and artisans, while only 20% of the population was farmers. The strength of the merchant class was so strong that it was predicted to overtake the tecuhtli class within a few decades after 1500. The market square was controlled by the pochtecatlatoque or the senior merchants who are appointed by the tecuhtli to oversee the marketplace. Their roles would be to organize the marketplace like the modern day supermarket so goods that fell in the same category could be found together. Furthermore, they also set the merchants up in a grid format so it was easy to navigate through the marketplace. Since these marketplaces would see close to 60,000 people a day, organization was a key responsibility for the pochtecatlatoque. The pochtecatlatoque were also responsible for enforcing the law such as ensuring that all trades are fair to both the seller and the buyer. A major fraud that occurred numerous times in Aztec markets is the trade of fake cacao beans. Merchants accused of trying to counterfeit cacao beans from wax and amaranth dough were executed on raised platforms in the middle of the marketplace. The pochtecatlatoque were also the collectors of tributes from the merchants.

The commercial system allowed a large portion of the population to trade which bolstered economic activity in the Aztec Empire. The markets also allowed trade of products that come from all regions of the Aztec Empire. For example one could usually find beans, vegetables, herbs, fruits, turkeys, deer, ducks and other forms of food along with a wide variety of pots, plates, jewelry, stones, military equipment, and much more. The markets were also a place for the sale of slaves. Male slaves were often bought by merchants to help transport goods or sold to cacao or other vegetable plantations for labor. Female slaves were often bought as prostitutes. Slaves were also bought by the tecuhtli or wealthy merchants as sacrifices for their gods. The existence of the commercial system let the less wealthy commoners and merchants the ability to sell products to the wealthy and consumerist tecuhti who loved to buy jaguar skins, jade studded masks, and obsidian sacrificial knives.

The major Aztec trade system let the empire operate as a tributary empire. The Aztec empire was not a rigidly controlled empire because city states generally had the majority of control over themselves. However with the Triple Alliance of Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan, their combined military might forced conquered the majority of central Mexico. The conquered regions or states then had to pay tribute or a tax to the Triple Alliance. Tribute would be collected by a variety of people, from senior merchants to chieftains but the collection of tributes was only made possibly by the lack of control on the city states. The lack of control allowed a commercial system which complemented the collection of tributes because so much economic activity occurred that the commoner was able to pay the tributes and still have enough cacao beans or exotic feathers to live. Furthermore, the commercial system set up a network of trade routes that were used by the Aztec Empire to send soldiers, equipment, or supplies to certain areas of need.

The major trade route was called the Teotihuacan corridor and it connected the city to the regions where the raw materials were produced. When the raw materials entered the city, artisans and other craftsmen manufactured products then sent them to the major trade center in Tlatelolco. The Teotihuacan corridor was an important route because it let the Aztec officials to control the movement of raw materials. Although trade in Europe was quite stagnant because of the short life of agricultural goods, the Aztec were trading nonperishable commodities such as cotton, jewelry, skins and various forms of pottery. The Aztec extended trade routes in all directions and set up trading posts throughout Mexico with warehouses to store goods temporarily. The logistics of Aztec’s land trade was remarkably advanced when compared to their global counterparts.

The Aztec also traded on water, but this was generally limited to freshwater rivers and tributaries. The Aztec relies on canoes for all of their aquatic travels even on the seas, when they built larger canoes. Transporting by canoe was an important aspect of the Aztec economy because of the way the chinampas the Aztec used to grow their crops were in shallow lakes. Therefore, canoes made it easier to load and transport the agricultural goods. Furthermore, since the major trading hubs were located beside rivers, canoes were a fast and efficient way to move any good in the Aztec Empire. Sea trade developed in a minor form with trading posts established along the Tucatan peninsula and Belize and according to historical records contact was made with tribes in Ecuador. However, the lack of better technology limited the Aztec to short distances by sea.

The entire economy of the Aztec Empire was for the most part a barter system, but certain products played such an important part of the people’s lives that they began to be used as a form of currency. The Aztec also did not have scales or balances so the barter system worked by size rather than weight. However, the most prominent currency was the cacao bean and it was so commonly used as currency that some merchants even tried to make counterfeit cacao beans. The cacao bean was used as currency because of the Aztec legend that it was given to them by a god, but the more practical reason was the popularity of cacao as a food. The Aztec made liquid frothy chocolate drinks flavored spices and corn. Like the federal reserve’s held by the Bank of Canada, the royal warehouses held rooms full of dried cacao beans. Other forms of currency that were not as popular as the cacao bean were cotton mantles or clothing, pieces of tin, copper axe blades, transparent quills full of gold dust, and feathers of tropical birds.

Law, Government and Military

Law

Law of the Aztec Empire was very strict in the society to keep the balance of the social structure within the country. The Aztec law was fair in a way that it does not discriminate people for their social status. In the Aztec society, nobles and higher-class people treated harsher even more than peasants to show a good example to them. Under the Aztec legal system, criminals were severely punished. Death sentence was commonly used in the Aztec society. Other punishments are restitution, slavery, shaving the offender’s head. Sometimes, punishment could go beyond just the defender, but extend to the family of the guilty party. The Aztecs had a prison system which included, a “death row”, a debtor’s prison, and a prison for people who were found guilty of minor crime. Conditions in the prison were too cruel that many prisoners died while in custody. Mostly offenses were punishable by death together with: homicide, rape, abortion, robbery, selling property, fraud, incest, treason, use of the emperor’s insignia, and witchcraft. Capital punishment means hanging, drowning, stoning, beating, burning, quartering, and strangulation. Again, Victims’ families can intervene in the execution of a sentence, and forgive the criminal. If the victim chooses to forgive the criminal then the criminal becomes a slave of the victim’s family. Here are examples of the punishments related to marriage; Adultery was often punished by stoning to death. A husband who murdered his adulterous wife was sentenced to death for taking the law into his own hands. For the divorce law, usually the court tries to reconcile the couple. The couple’s property would be divided equally as well as their children would be separated by their sex. Also, public drunkenness was punished by death young people; however, the law about drunkenness was different to senior individuals. For example, it was against the law to be drunk in public! Unless it was at a festival or you were a senior citizen. Ancient Aztec laws were strictly enforced, and I think that probably hindered a lot of disruption and upheaval, as most everyone just abided by the rules.

Government

The Aztec government was different from any other government of Europeans’ at that time. The king was the head of the government, but he did not fully hold the power. He still had to consult his nobles before any decision was made. The Commands basically began with the king; he had his executive council which included everyone from the highest priest to consult the gods to the General of the Army, to the treasurer and so on. Four leaders would be chosen to lead, and out of those there would be one leader (mayor) of the city. These leaders control the city properly and surrounding areas. Instead of king’s tyranny, the surrounding cities and areas paid respect to the king by offering gifts. In Aztec, the nobles, priests, career warriors, tax collectors were below the king or ruler on the socio-economic scale. Despite the fact that each citizen of the empire belonged to a class from birth, it was possible for common farmers and soldiers to climb up the ladder for the higher-class if they showed good deeds and valour in battle. Even though slavery was a frequent punishment for most of the crimes, however even slaves had some rights. A slave could buy freedom for a price if a slave had time to do other work on the side. Merchants and traders were separate from the other classes; also, they had many other privileges and rights. The army also would fight small wars and conquer lands, providing sacrifices and expanding the empire. Most of all, it was a seemingly peaceful ruled nation; thus there were obviously strict laws to abide by in the ancient Aztec times. Crimes were harshly punished in Aztec. The death penalty was a common punishment. Because the people feared the death, most people were respectful, so there were few major crimes, disputes, or arguments.

Military

War was significant to the Aztecs in their life. The Aztecs had professional military officers instead of a professional army. All Aztec boys were trained to fight when they were young. They were trained and educated on fighting skills and weapons at school. It was an honour and duty for all the Aztec soldiers to fight in battles. The students went on trips to the battlefields led by the real soldiers, and they learned how to take prisoners of war. Manhood was achieved after a soldier captured his first prisoner. The Aztec’s courage and strength helped them build their empire and establish themselves as the strongest of all the tribes in the Valley of Mexico. The Aztecs were constantly at war with nearby tribes and easily defeated them. When war was declared, it was pleasing time and was realized as a time to exhibit their warrior skills in battle. Soldiers from noble families wore costumes that were designed to frighten their enemies. They were dressed as jaguar warriors with ocelot skins and eagle warriors who wore a helmet that was like the beak of a bird of prey. Normal troops had costumes with patterns and had emblems from feathers and leather. The jaguar and eagle warriors were considered nobility. Their elaborate costumes were worn to show their strength and significance in Aztec society.

The Aztec soldiers and their enemies fought with primitive weapons: spears, bows, and arrows. Very sharp obsidian blade wooden clubs were their major weapons. However, obsidian blades soon got their edges broken and were thus fragile. The Aztec Warriors were wearing close-fitting breastplates and used wooden shields for protection. Brightly coloured feathers adorned the warrior’s leather or wooden shield. Below the shield was leather strips for protection of his legs. Their armour was padded cotton made into suits fitted to the body. The Aztecs went to war believing that their gods had given them all Mexican lands. Furthermore, they fought to get more supplies and land for their growing population as well as to have victims to sacrifice to the god. A place was chosen for the battle where the armies met. The fighting would start after insults and more cries were called out and drums and conch shell trumpets were played. The battle was most likely short and was stopped for both sides when the weaker side surrendered and prisoners were taken. The Aztec soldiers’ goal was to mainly attack enemies’ legs to capture them as prisoners. The soldiers brought back their opponents as prisoners to their city Tenochtitlan. They used the prisoners as sacrifices in religious ceremonies or as slaves.

By the time Montezuma the second became ruler in 1502, Tenochtitlan was a huge city and most of its neighbouring cities were already part of the Aztec empire. Conquering new lands meant longer journeys. The warriors complained, but the leaders wanted more power and more tributes to support their huge population. Their priests urged the leaders to conquer new lands to keep the gods happy with blood offerings. The ruler Ahuitzotl had to reward and compensate his warriors to win in battles. When he died, the empire was at its utmost glory; however, perils of revolt constantly threatened the empire.

Religion and Values

Religion was a concept held in high regards by the Aztecs. This ancient race believed in human sacrifices and worshiped their own unique assembly of gods and goddesses. Like other cultures of the past, the Aztecs often held religious ceremonies to celebrate their cherished religion. Their religion stemmed from fear of nature and a fear of the world. In a way, it was a method of explaining the complex phenomena of the past. As a result of this, Aztec beliefs often dealt with prophecies, which foretold the beginning and end of disastrous and monumental future events. These prophecies were a method of controlling nature, and finding peace in the chaos of the world that they feared. They built temples to honour their gods, and to hold artifacts of religious importance. At the top of the temple, there was an altar where they would sacrifice human beings.

The Aztec calendar is one of this civilizations most interesting creations. This ancient schedule was used to as a means to control nature, to predict the events of the future. It consisted of the typical 365-day calendar cycle and a 260-day ritual cycle. Together, the two cycles formed a 52-year century, the Calendar Round. The 365-day cycle was known as the agricultural year, as it was used to divide the seasons and manage the yearly harvest. The ritual cycle was used to schedule their religious celebrations. Each month had its own name, and was associated with its own god. The time of year determine why kind of rituals were to be held, as well as the god that had to be worshipped.

The actual Aztec calendar itself is disk-like in shape, and was usually carved of stone. The calendar bares many ancient carvings relevant to the events and gods to be celebrated each year. The circular monolith itself is also known as the Sun Stone, representing how the Aztec year revolved around the rising and sinking sun.

The gods played a crucial role in Aztec religion. Most aspects of their lives revolved around their deities. The Aztecs believed that the world occurred in cycles; it would continually be destroyed and reborn, and the next cycle would be reborn.

Tezcatlipoca (Smoking Mirror) is the god of the sky, who is often associated with obsidian, the main component of Aztec weapons. He was the first ruler of the world. Legend has it that he transformed himself into the sun to govern this planet. However, one of his brothers grew jealous of him, and knocked him from the sky, ending to reign. Furious, he transformed himself into a jaguar and ate every human being on the planet.

Quetzelcoatl, the feathered serpent deity, was the primordial god of the wind. He was a transgressor between the earth and the sky, the link between human and god. In fact, Quetzelcoatl is the combination of a quetzal bird (which represents the heavens) and a snake (representing the land). He is responsible for creating human beings when the world was born. He is the same god who knocked the first on from the sky. He was the ruler of the second cycle, which was destroyed by a hurricane.

Tlaloc (He Who Makes Things Sprout) was the god of rain, fertility, and water. He was loved for his ability to bring life through rain, yet he was feared for his power of creating storms and thunder. He was the ruler of the 3rd sun or cycle, which was destroyed by fire. It was believed that people who drowned in floods would pass on to Tlaloc for guidance. He was married to Jade Skirt, the water goddess, as their similar elemental attributes would attest to.

Chalchiuhtlicue (Skirt of Jade) was the water goddess that represented youth and beauty. She was ruler of the fourth world, which she finally destroyed with a flood to make way for the fifth world. People relied on her for good harvests.

The fifth world (as in this current world) is ruled by no god, since none of the divine deities wanted the responsibility of governing the land, believing it to be too much trouble. The Aztecs predicted that an earthquake would destroy this world.

The Aztecs were very religious in everything they did, including war. They believed it was their duty to god to fight battles. This was a major driving force behind their ferocious natures in combat. In a way they feared god, or rather, they feared divine punishment should they lose a battle. Above all, the Aztecs valued humility, honour, and loyalty. These rules applied to everyone around them, friend or foe. They did not think of their opponents as enemies, but merely as “brothers who chose not to act like brothers”. It is true that the Aztecs enslaved and sacrificed many people. However, they did this out of “respect”, since they believed that there was no greater honour than to be sacrificed or put into service in the name of their god. In fact, they often sacrificed their finest warriors when the supply of slaves ran short.