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Aztec brazier (about 1300 AD)

Aztec brazier (about 1300 AD)

Mexica people move to Mexico

Beginning in the 1100s AD, the Medieval Warm Period seems to have made it too hard to live where the Mexica were in North America. So the Mexica people moved south to what is now Mexico. The Mexica were relatives of the Shoshone and Ute people who lived in the Rocky Mountains.

Medieval Warm Period
Who were the Shoshone?
More about the Rocky Mountains

Aztec work as mercenaries

After some moving around Mexico in the 1200s, by 1325 the Mexica settled down with their capital city at Tenochtitlan. Around this time, the Maya kingdom to their south lost power, and the small kingdoms of Mexico got stronger.

What’s a mercenary?

But the Mexica were still less powerful than their neighbors, the Tepanecs. Like other newcomers – the Greeks in Egypt, the Ostrogoths in Europe, the Arabs and then the Turks in West Asia – the Mexica hired themselves out as mercenaries. They fought for stronger states like the Tepanecs.

The Triple Alliance

The Mexica had kings for about 150 years. And they were all from the same family. The first king of the Mexica was Acamapichitli, who was elected in 1376. His son, Huitziláihuitl, succeeded him in 1395. Then Chimalpopoca took over in 1417. We think he was Acamapichitli’s grandson. Chimalpopoca and his people also fought as mercenaries for the Tepanecs. But then in 1427 apparently the Tepanec king Maxtla killed Chimalpopoca. Maxtla was trying to get more control over the Mexica.

After Maxtla killed Chimalpopoca, a more distant relative, Itzcóatl, became king. Itzcóatl didn’t want to have anything more to do with the Tepanecs. So the Mexica became more independent. They thought of themselves as making a fresh start. Under Itzcóatl, the Mexica formed the Triple Alliance with their neighbors. The alliance called themselves the Aztecs.

An Aztec human sacrifice

An Aztec human sacrifice (Codex Magliabechiano, Folio 70)

Montezuma I

The Aztecs began to be more powerful than their old neighbors. (This is also the usual thing that happens with newcomers who fight as mercenaries.) Itzcóatl’s nephew, Montezuma, succeeded him in 1449. Montezuma was a great ruler. Under his rule the Aztecs conquered a lot more land.

To show his power, Montezuma built big zoos and botanical gardens in his palace, where he could show off all the different animals and plants that he ruled over.

Central American environment
More about Aztec religion/gods

But also during Moctezuma’s reign, there was a terrible drought and people went hungry. This may be related to the beginning of the Little Ice Age.

Little Ice Age
A related drought in Africa?

Montezuma sacrificed a lot of people to the gods. He sacrificed the prisoners of war taken in the “Flower Wars,” which were a sort of pretend wars just in order to get prisoners of war to sacrifice.

Montezuma II's headdress made of feathers

Montezuma II’s headdress made of feathers from a rare bird called a quetzal (well, it’s probably his headdress, but it’s definitely quetzal feathers!)

Axayacatl and Tizoc

Montezuma ruled a long time and died old. His grandson, Axayacatl, became king after him. There were rebellions, and Axayacatl had to reconquer some Mexica land.

Aztec writing and literature

When Azayacatl died in 1481, his brother Tizoc became king, though apparently he didn’t accomplish much. He seems to have been killed by his own people after five years.

Ahuizotl and Montezuma II

Finally their younger brother Ahuizotl became king in 1486. Under Ahuizotl, the Mexica conquered even more land, further south all the way to Maya territory (modern Guatemala). Ahuizotl’s son Montezuma II succeeded him in 1502.

Want more? Check out the Britannica’s article about the Aztec!

More about Aztec religion
And more about Mexican history

Bibliography and further reading about the Aztec:


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