The Aztec culture


Last Updated: 20 years

The Aztec civilization contained about 15 million people that lived in nearly 500 towns and cities. About 300,000 people lived in Tenochtitlan.


In this famous city, the government controlled and were responsible to deal with taxes, punishment, famine, and market trading. Punishment in the city of Tenochtitlan was enforced for breaking any of the code of government laws. Offenders were enslaved into tedious work conditions for a specific amount of time. If the offense happened to be minor, the law-breaker was charged with a string of fees or fines. This type of governing system is only one of the many things that affected aspects of everyday life for the Aztecs.

Aztec Art

The Aztec sculptures which adorned their temples and other buildings were among the most elaborate in all of the Americas. Their purpose was to please the gods and they attempted to do that in everything they did. Many of the sculptures reflected their perception of their gods and how they interacted in their lives. The most famous surviving Aztec sculpture is the large circular Calendar Stone, which represents the Aztec universe.

Aztec Education

The Mexicas were especially interested in education. Boys and girls were carefully educated from birth. During the first years of life, fathers educated boys, while mothers took care of girls. Once family education was over, the children of the nobles and priests went to the calmecac, and all others went to the tepochcalli. The Aztecs believed that education was extremely valuable and insisted that boys, girls and young people attend school. There were two main types of school, the so-called tepochcalli and the calm*cac. Boys and girls went to both, but were kept separate from each other. 

The tepochcalli was for the children of common families and there was one in each neighborhood. Here, children learned history, myths, religion and Aztec ceremonial songs. Boys received intensive military training and also learned about agriculture and the trades. Girls were educated to form a family, and were trained in the arts and trades that would ensure the welfare of their future homes. 

The calmecac was for the children of the nobility, and served to form new military and religious leaders. Teachers were greatly admired.

Aztec family life

In the context of the family, men and women played distinct roles. Aztec women married at about 16. 

In school boys were taught arts and crafts, and the girls were taught to cook and other necessities.

Aztec Farming & Irrigation

The Aztecs made terraces, which were steps descending down a hall to control the flow of water. This kept their crops from flooding. Like the Olmec civilization, the Aztecs also used a slash and burn method of farming. Chinampas, artificial islands made by weaving giant reed mats and covering them with mudded plants, were used to extend crops into the swamp. Although they seemed to float, the chinampas were anchored to the ground by plant roots. All this helped the Aztecs grow and abundance of corn, chili peppers, squash, tomatoes, beans, and other kinds of food. 

The Aztecs were late arrivals to the Lake Texcoco area. They were surrounded by very strong neighbors, so they were forced to live on the swampy, western side of the lake. As the Aztecs grew in number they made excellent military and civil organizations. By 1325, they founded the city of Tenochtitlan. The city was located on present day Mexico City. 

It was very hard to build Tenochtitlan because the Aztecs only had a small piece of land in the surrounding marshes. The Aztecs made the swampy, shallow lake into chinampas. In this case the islands were made by piling up mud from the lake bottom. They used them as their city foundations. Then they built causeways and bridges to connect the city to the mainland. To easily move people and goods, canals were dug and lined with stone. All this made it easy to defend the city from attack. Because of Tenochtitlan’s location and high organization, the city grew rapidly. By 1519 there were about 60,000 people in the city every day. Goods were exported and traded in many other parts of the Aztec Empire.

Aztec Food

The principal food of the Aztec was a thin cornmeal pancake called a tlaxcalli. (In Spanish, it is called a tortilla.) They used the tlaxcallis to scoop up foods while they ate or they wrapped the foods in the tlaxcalli to form tacos. They hunted for most of the meat in their diet and the chief game animals were deer, rabbits, ducks and geese. The only animals they raised for meat were turkeys and dogs. 

The Aztecs have been credited with the discovery of chocolate. T he Aztecs made chocolate from the fruit of the cacao tree and used it as a flavoring and as an ingredient in various beverages and kinds of confectionery. 

In 1519, Hernan Cortez tasted Cacahuatt, a drink enjoyed by Montezuma II, the last Aztec emperor. Cortez observed that the Aztecs treated cacao beans, used to make the drink, as priceless treasures. He subsequently brought the beans back to Spain where the chocolate drink was made and then heated with added sweeteners. Its formula was kept a secret to be only enjoyed by the nobility and the warrior class.

Aztec Language

The Aztec spoke a language called Nahuatl (pronounced NAH waht l). It belongs to a large group of Indian languages which also include the languages spoken by the Comanche, Pima, Shoshone and other tribes of western North America. The Aztec used pictographs to communicate through writing. Some of the pictures symbolized ideas and other represented the sounds of the syllables. 

Variations of this language are still spoken in some of the more remote areas of Mexico in which the indigenous cultures are still alive. Nahuatl is a variation of a larger language group known as Uto-Aztecan. Other variations on this language group are still spoken in some of the regions spanning from central Mexico through northern Mexico on into the southwestern United States including the Pima, Tohono O’ohdam of Arizona.

Aztec math

The Aztecs used a vigesimal system, counting by 20s. The numbers 1-19 were expressed by dots or occasionally by fingers; 20 was represented by a flag; 400 (i.e. 20 >(20) by a sign which looks like a feather or a fir tree; and 8,000 (20 x 20 x 20) by a bag or tasseled pouch which was imagined to contain 8,000 cocoa beans. 


Aztec metals

The Aztecs had 3 basic crafts: metal work, feather work, and music. The metal workers had no iron so they used copper, gold, and silver. That created jewelry of gold and silver. 

Aztec Society

The Aztec society was divided into 3 classes- slaves, commoners, and nobility. 

Aztec Slaves: 

The children of poor parents could be sold, usually for only a certain time period. Slaves could buy back their freedom. The slaves that escaped and reached the royal palace without being caught were given their freedom instantly. 

Aztec Commoners:

The most numerous social group was known as the macehualtin; these people were engaged in agriculture and the common trades. Although they worked the land in family units and were allowed to kept their produce, the land itself was collectively owned by the inhabitants of the neighborhood or calpulli. 

Commoners were given lifetime ownership of an area of land. The lowest group of commoners were not allowed to own property. They were tenant farmers, they just got to use the land and never be owners. 

The lower social orders were made up by peasants, who like the European serfs, were attached to the lands owned by the nobility and were obliged to cultivate them in exchange for part of the harvest. 

Aztec Nobility:

The nobilities were the people who were nobles by birth, priests, and those who earned their rank. 

The very highest social sphere was occupied by a minority of families known as the pipiltin. These people were members of the hereditary nobility and occupied the top positions in the government, the army and the priesthood. The nobles chose a supreme leader known as the tlatoani from within their own group; in Nahuatl this name means he that speaks. This leader was greatly revered and ruled until his death. 

In Aztec society, warriors, priests, and the nobility were considered to be among the most respected in the Aztecan social hierarchy Because of the Aztecs’ emphasis on warfare, the warrior class was highly valued, and often warriors would volunteer for the most important Aztec sacrificial rituals. 

The long distance traders also enjoyed considerable privileges and often served the government as ambassadors and spies. The most outstanding artisans, physicians and truly wise teachers were also highly respected.

Aztec War

Due to the aspirations of conquest and the religious beliefs of the Mexicas, war was a very important activity. The Mexicas believed that the gods had sacrificed themselves for mankind, that their blood had given man life, and that the Sun was nourished with the blood of human hearts. This belief led them to sacrifice many prisoners at their temples. Some people were able to resist the Aztecs; the most powerful of these were the Tlaxaltecas and the Purepechas. 

The people were completely prepared for war and great emphasis was placed on the creation of codexes and on the interpretation of the calendars, since both activities were essential to religion and community life. 

The codexes consist of writing and drawings made by the Mesoamerican people on strips of deer skin, or on a kind of paper made from amate tree bark. Once finished, these strips were folded like a concertina. 

Although there were surely a large number of codexes, only a few were conserved. Many were destroyed by the Spanish Conquistadors, and others were lost through neglect or due to the fragile materials on which they were created.