The Rise of the Aztecs

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  • 0:01 Rise of the Aztecs
  • 0:59 Sent Forth from Aztl?n
  • 1:57 Triple Alliance & Rise…
  • 3:18 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.

In this lesson, you will explore the rise of the great Mesoamerican civilization, the Aztec Empire. Then, you will be able to test your understanding about Aztec history with a brief quiz.

The Rise of the Aztecs

Amongst the great military empires in history is one from Central America. They are famous for human sacrifice, large stone pyramids, and worshiping a feathered serpent. Sound familiar?

The Aztec Empire was a complex military state that ruled over central Mexico in the 15th and 16th centuries. The Aztec Empire was the name of the entire empire, including the diverse people who were conquered. The actual rulers of the empire, who lived in the Valley of Mexico in a city named Tenochtitlán, called themselves the Mexica.

Sent Forth from Aztlán

The ancestors of the Mexica were not from the Valley of Mexico. They came from somewhere in the north, a lost paradise called Aztlán. In fact, in their language, called Nahuatl, Aztec means 'people from Aztlán.' According to Mexica mythology, the people left Aztlán and wandered around for years, looking for a new home after either being kicked out or fleeing from a tyrant king, depending on the version.

Historical sources and archeology tell us that the Mexica entered the Valley of Mexico around 1250, when they became mercenaries for another kingdom. The 'king,' or tlatoani, let the Mexica stay until they sacrificed one of his daughters to their god of war. Major oops. The tlatoani drove the Mexica away, and they resettled where they received an omen from the gods in the form of an eagle eating a snake on a nopal cactus.

The Mexica founded their new civilization on that spot, on an island in the middle of Lake Texcoco, and named the city Tenochtitlán. The year was 1325. The Mexica adopted the eagle on a cactus as the symbol of their city; today, that symbol is in the center of the Mexican flag. The Mexica began forming political alliances with other small kingdoms in the valley. The tlatoani of Culhuacan allowed his daughters to marry a Mexica leader, establishing a royal line in Tenochtitlán.

The Triple Alliance and the Rise of the Empire

Around the year 1426, the tlatoani of the Tepanec kingdom, the most powerful kingdom in the Valley of Mexico, died and a war began between the other cities to claim power. Tenochtitlán formed an alliance with the cities of Texcoco and Tlacopan. Together these cities, called the Triple Alliance, won the war and became the new center of power in the Valley of Mexico. The leaders of these three cities took the title huetlatoani, or 'emperor.'

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