The organization and structure of the Aztec Empire

Aztec Empire

The Aztecs, who referred to themselves as Mexica, were a powerful tribe of people speaking the Nahuatl language. They founded one of the biggest empires in Central America which is believed to have lasted from the 1300s to the 1500s. One of the most renowned cities of the Aztec empire was Tenochtitlan; this city was located in the middle of a lake where the present-day capital of Mexico, Mexico City, now stands (Johnson, 2015).

The Aztec empire was begun in the Valley of Mexico. When the Aztecs came upon the valley, they found that other tribes were already there. These tribes had occupied the best land for agriculture in the region. The Aztecs moved on to the swampy and less attractive lands on the shores of Lake Texcoco. Despite not having much to begin with, the Aztec were not bothered. The Aztecs were not only a very ingenious tribe, but they were also of the belief that their god had sent them to this location, so without a doubt they thought the location was ideal for them. The Aztecs believed they would find an eagle with a snake in its mouth as an ‘omen’, and this would occur at the place they would occupy for the rest of their lives. They did find this “prophesized” eagle, and called that city Tenochtitlan. This city was one of the biggest of the 14 and 15th centuries (Pohl, 2002).

The organization and structure of the Aztec Empire

In 1430, three city states joined to form a powerful alliance in the Basin of Mexico, with the aims of achieving economic, political, and most importantly military control of their neighbours. Almost a century later in 1519, the year Hernando Cortes first set foot on the coast of mainland Mexico, the alliance had grown in power and controlled most of the lowlands and highlands of southern and central Mexico. Also by the early 16th century the Mexica (Aztecs) of Tenochtitlan had established themselves as the military leaders of the local alliance, with support from the Tepaneca of Tlacopan, and the Acolhua of Texcoco (Smith & Berdan, 1992; Pisani & LeMaster, 2000).

During the ninety-plus year history of the Aztec Empire, the capitals grew in size, opulence, and political importance. The largest of them all, Tenochtitlan, is estimated to have housed over 150,000-200,000 inhabitants. The largest market place in the Basin of Mexico was the neighbouring city of Tlatelolco. Many of the cities in the empire had expansive, opulent, multi-room palace complexes that served as the administration complexes and the residences of nobles.

The social structure of the Aztecs was largely hierarchical, with the ruling hereditary nobility having the prerogative of power and privilege. In the capital Tenochtitlan, which was at the centre of the empire, there were many specialists, ranging from sculptors, weavers, jewellers, blacksmiths, and dealers in fine stones, valuable metals, and others who mostly served the luxury needs of the many nobles (Smith & Berdan, 1992; Atwood, 2014).

There were also many scribers in the capitals of the empire who chronicled accounts concerning the rulers’ perspectives of the economic, infrastructural, and political activities of the empire. Early researchers of the empire such as Duran (1967) found information about the Aztec Empire from the many hieroglyphics in manuscripts, tablets, wall engravings, and paintings that detailed the perspectives of the rulers of the Aztecs on their conquests and tributes to their gods and other socio-cultural practices of the empire (Duran, 1967; Pl. 1). Most of the information known about this great new world empire is derived from such sources and from similar ethno-historic sources (Hassig, 1990). Present day archaeological sources are recently also making invaluable contributions to the information already known (Smith & Berdan, 1992).

Most of the recent research into the Aztec Empire has focused on determination of the relationship(s) between the conqueror and the conquered, focusing on smaller political entities that resided in the Basin of Mexico (e.g. Gibson, 1971). A recent reconstruction of the Aztec empire as a whole was done by a team of researchers who combined approaches including art history, archaeology, and ethno-history (Willey, 2011; Smith & Berdan, 1992).


Religion was the main activity of the Aztec socio-cultural life. The Aztecs, like other powerful tribes such as the Romans and Egyptians, had a large variety of gods and goddesses. Each of these represented and/or “controlled” a different aspect of their lives. Tributes and “thanksgiving” ceremonies were quite important to the Aztecs, particularly after bumper harvests. The ceremonies were perhaps distinguished from others by the human sacrifices that were made to the Aztec gods. Generally, human sacrifices were mostly prisoners of war and children. The Aztecs believed that human blood and human hearts gave the gods power and strength. Large temples and shrines were built to perform such ceremonies (Willey, 2009; The Aztec Civilization, n.d).

When the Spanish conquerors reached the largest city of the Empire, Tenochtitlan, in 1519, its main temple (Templo Mayor) stood at over 150ft high. The relics of this temple can still be seen today where the building formerly stood. The temple was destroyed by the Spaniards, who later utilized its blocks to construct their individual cathedral, the current “Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary.” However, not known to the Spaniards at that time, about 6 previous versions of the Templo Mayor still rests beneath the shattered temple. This was because each successive leader of the Aztecs built his own individual temple over an earlier one (Atwood, 2014).

The fact that the Aztecs carried out human sacrifices is often just alluded to in books, with many authors choosing not to emphasis it. Many authors also do not report cannibalism at all, despite the fact that it was a common feature of the lives of the Aztecs. The gist of many Aztec exhibitions now conform to the current societal trends advocating for multicultural sensitivity, hence we are not surprised by that (Pettus, 2004). However there are a few authors who are upfront concerning the unsavoury aspects of the Aztec culture, such as blood-letting and mass human sacrifice (Willey, 2011).


The main economic activity of the Aztecs was agriculture, with corn being the most traded and thus most important crop. The Aztec Empire occupied the Valley of Mexico, which had very good lands, thus surplus harvests were not a surprise. They mainly practiced slash and burn agriculture. They were a very clever people with well designed irrigation systems to enable farming in dry lands. They also farmed on shallow lakes, utilizing a sort of small reclamation method, where mud scooped from the lake was piled up to form small islands known as chinampas. These islands had very fertile soils that were good for growing crops.

The biggest market in the region at that time was at Tlatelolco. Despite the fact that the Aztecs were “quite civilized” by standards of the time, they had no monetary system; instead they engaged in barter trade (Willey, 2009; The Aztec Civilization, n.d). Aztec merchants called ‘pochteca’ served three basic functions within the economic structure of the Aztec Empire. They acted as middlemen, moving products between producers and consumers; they were market managers (Pisani & LeMaster, 2000); they also served as international traders moving valuable luxury goods for sale (Berdan, 1988, p. 640).

Deal and Kennedy (1982) are of the viewpoint that culture has a very strong influence throughout any organization or society. They believe culture affects everything from who wears what, to what sport someone plays [Deal & Kennedy, 1982; p. 4]. Aztecs merchants displayed a strong corporate culture that was hierarchical from principal merchants to trade apprentices (Pisani & LeMaster, 2000). The pochtecas developed many rituals and ceremonies that were a principal part of the Aztec culture (Deal and Kennedy, 1982).

Social structure

Family life and marriage in particular, were important aspects of the Empire. Weddings were primarily arranged with the assistance of a male elder. Women were married by 16 and men by their mid twenties. The men had to give some sort of dowry, possibly livestock or valuable metals. The Aztec society was patriarchical. One could marry more than one wife if he had the means to support them (The Aztec Civilization, n.d; Willey, 2009).

The nobles, merchants and other well-off people in the society lived in brick houses. Those who were very wealthy lived in stone houses. Many homes in the empire were white-washed. The houses of the nobles had separate rooms for steam baths. The steam baths were made in a clever way by pouring water over heated stones. Bathing was believed to clean both the body and soul. Farmers and commoners lived in mud-thatched houses and had very little in the way of furniture. Most had only blankets and cooking pottery (Willey, 2009).

One of the most powerful kings of the Aztec Empire was Montezuma and he greatly influenced the culture and social life of the Aztecs. He wore a mantle, known as tlimatli, which was blue and white. The mantle was usually folded over his shoulder and held by a green clasp known as chalchivitl (The Aztec Civilization, n.d).


ATWOOD, R. (2014). Under Mexico City. Archaeology, 67(4), 26.

Berdan, F.F. (1988). “Principals of Regional and Long-Distance Trade in the Aztec Empire,” in J. Kathryn Josserand and Karen Dakin (Editors), Smoke and Mist: Mesoamerican Studies in Memory of Thelma D. Sullivan, part ii, pp. 639-656, British Archaeological Reports, International Series vol. 42, British Archaeological Reports, Oxford.

Deal, T.E. And Kennedy, A.A. (1982). Corporate Cultures: The Rites and Rituals of Corporate Life, Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.

Duran, D. (1967). Historia de Las lndias de Nueva Espana, 2 vols (ed A.M. Garibay K.). Mexico City: Pornia.

Gibson, C. (1971). “Structure of the Aztec empire.” In Archaeology of Northern Mesoamerica, part 1 (Eds G. Ekholm and I. Bernal). Handbook of Middle American Indians, vol. 10. Austin: University of Texas Press, pp. 376-94.

Hassig, R. (1990). Aztec warfare. (Cover story). History Today, 40(2), 17.

Johnson, S. (2015). 5 Staples of the AZTEC PANTRY. Historicool Magazine, (14), 36.

Pettus, P. (2004). “The Aztec Empire” at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. New Criterion, 23(4), 49.

Pisani, M.J., & LeMaster, J. (2000). Commerce, International Trade and Management Before the “Discovery” of Europe: A Modern Management Reappraisal of Aztec Merchant Activity. Latin American Business Review, 1(4), 101.

Pohl, J.D. (2002). AZTECS; A NEW PERSPECTIVE. History Today, 52(12), 10.

Smith, M.E. & Berdan, F.F. (1992). Archaeology and the Aztec empire. World Archaeology Volume 23 No. 3.


Willey, P. (2009). The Aztec Empire/The Ancient Maya/The Inca Empire. School Library Journal, 55(12), 94

Willey, P. (2011). The Aztec Empire/The Incan Empire/Ancient African Kingdoms. School Library Journal, 57(3), 183.

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