Aztec Culture


For a century, the Aztecs of Tenochtitlan had been the greatest power in Mexico. As they grew in political status, they became sophisticated and civilized, learning from established peoples who had been town dwellers for more than 1,000 years.

The Aztec empire consisted of numerous loosely connected urban communities. Land ownership was communal; each local group, called a capulli, was composed of a few families that jointly owned a piece of land. Part of the yield of cultivated land was given to the state as a kind of tax.

Technology depended more on human skills than on mechanical devices. The wheel was known, but it was used for nothing more important than pull-along toys. No wheeled vehicles existed, nor any machines depending on rotary motion. Iron and steel were unknown, although copper and bronze were used for tools, and Mexican jewelers made magnificent ornaments from gold, silver, and their aIIoys. Many things that a 16th-century Spaniard took for granted, including glass and glazes, gunpowder, plows, and alphabetic writing, were absent from Mexico, but the lack of these things did not prevent the Aztecs from producing an art and architecture that amazed the Europeans. Although wheat, barley, cattle, horses, sheep, and goats were unknown until introduced from Europe, the Mexicans were efficient farmers who made full use of irrigation, terracing, and fertilization of the fields.

As the Spaniards immediately appreciated, Aztec Mexico was rich and civilized, even if its customs and technology were unlike those of the Old World. The state controlled every aspect of life. Schooling and training in the martial arts were compulsory for all boys. A centralized bureaucracy looked after the collection and storage of taxes, matters of legislation and punishment, famine relief, and market trading. A special class of merchants devoted themselves to long-distance commerce outside the Aztec empire, and their caravans traveled as far as Yucatan and Guatemala, where they exchanged goods with traders from MAYA territory. These merchants were also used as official envoys and as spies. Religion was in the hands of full-time priests, whose leaders were drawn from the ruling families; thus no conflict of interest existed between church and state.