Life in the Aztec Empire

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  • 0:02 Life as a Mexica
  • 0:41 Tenochtitlan
  • 4:11 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Experience a day in Aztec Empire and explore the capital city Tenochtitlán in the Valley of Mexico. Then, test your understanding about this powerful military state with a short quiz.

Life as a Mexica

You are not sitting at your computer. No, stop thinking that you are. You are, in fact, in the Valley of Mexico, high in the mountains of Central Mexico. The year is roughly 1490, and you are living in the complex military state called the Aztec Empire. This empire is composed of people who were conquered, as well as people who are the conquerors. You belong to the conquerors, the people called the Mexica, who ruled the mighty Aztec Empire and lived in their capital city, Tenochtitlán. This is you. Let's call you Tizoc. Hey there, Tizoc. Quen tinemi?—how are you?

Drawing of Mexica male


On your day as a Mexica in the Aztec Empire, you wake up in the city of Tenochtitlán. Your house is made of stone and near the center of the city because you, Tizoc, are an important person. Don't let it go to your head. You look out your window at the great city, which is situated in the middle of Lake Texcoco, in the shadow of nearby mountains. On the lake are fishermen who are at work, canoes bringing people and trade goods from the mainland, and long platforms of earth elevated to the lake surface called chinampas, where Mexica farmers are growing maize, beans and flowers. Although this lake is naturally briny, aqueducts bring fresh water from the mountains. All of these engineering accomplishments came from people like you, the educated members of society. You are currently in the calmecac, the school for people who are studying advanced politics, engineering, science, art, or astronomy.

As you walk through the city, crossing bridges over dozens of canals and waterways, you hear people speaking Nahuatl, the language of central Mexico. The city is full of people from every possible social class, and the Aztec Empire has many social classes. In Tenochtitlán alone, there are commoners, nobles (like you), commoners who earned nobility through valiant deeds, bureaucrats, rulers, true slaves, people who chose to become slaves to pay off a debt, merchants, and people travelling from across the empire.

This city is huge, one of the largest in Central America. It is all sustained by the massive amount of tribute that the conquered people pay as taxes—anything from food to warriors can be sent as tribute. A lot of goods come through here, and they are sold in the many marketplaces, each of which holds thousands of people. There is a marketplace just for flowers, one for clothes, and one for food, like tortillas or chocolate. Nearby is a ball court, where some of your school friends are playing ullamaliztli, a game to get a rubber ball through elevated hoops without your hands. This is a very popular game, and this court is for anybody to play in. The main ball court is only used for major rituals where warriors play each other. The defeated team is sacrificed to the gods, but today the ball courts are only being used for fun.

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