The Aztecs: Civilization & Culture

Steven Aiken, Lucia Reyes
  • Author
    Steven Aiken

    Steven has recently received his Bachelor's degree in English from University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He has also taught Fine Art at a shelter for youths for six months at Shannon West Youth Center.

  • Instructor
    Lucia Reyes
Discover how and when Aztec civilization began and ended. Explore who the Aztecs really were. Learn facts about the Aztec culture and their accomplishments. Updated: 12/29/2021

Table of Contents


Aztec Civilization

Who were the Aztecs? What did they accomplish, and why are they important? When did the Aztec civilization begin, and when did it end? We will investigate and answer all these questions, and more!

The Aztecs were a powerful civilization that lasted nearly a century. They created the precursors to some of the most popular and common things still used today. They also invented ingenious tools to help them expand their empire to become the powerful nation that it was.

The Aztecs were a people that are believed to have originated as a nomadic tribe in Northern Mexico, migrating southward until they arrived in Mesoamerica at the beginning of the 13th century. They get their name from the nouns they used to describe themselves - in the Nahuatl language, aztecatl means "person from Aztlan," and aztecah is the plural form, translating to "people from Aztlan." Aztlan is most commonly translated as "White Land," however alternate translations include "Land of White Herons," or "Place of Herons."

The Aztecs

The Aztecs were also called the Tenochca and the Mexica, deriving these names from their ancestors, Tenoch and Mexica, who were likely from Metzliapán -- translated as "Moon Lake" -- which is the name for Lake Texcoco. The Aztecs began as a nomadic tribe, travelling with other tribes like the Tlaxcalteca, Tepaneca and Acolhua. They temporarily stayed in the ruins of Tula following a devastating attack on the Toltec people, and it was here that they improved upon their agricultural talents. Their stay was short, however, and they traveled again in search of a new and permanent home, as instructed by their god Huitzilopochtli, who told them that the location of this new home would be revealed by the appearance of a happy eagle perched on a cactus, holding a serpent in its beak. This symbol would later become part of the Mexican flag.

In 1325, their long travel ended when tribal elders spotted the eagle on the cactus on an island in Lake Texcoco. They built a temple there, and slowly expanded across the other islands of the lake. Eventually, this would become the powerful Aztec city Tenochtitlan. In order to create this city, they had to drain much of the swampland in the region, which allowed them to create waterways and bridges, as well as create stable foundations for housing. Lake Texcoco would have floating gardens built atop it in order to produce food for the populace.

A painting of Tenochtitlan. The island it was built upon was swampy and had to be drained, and bridges had to be built out to land.

image of a painting of Tenochtitlan

Aztec Era

The Aztec Empire dates from 1428 to 1519. When the Aztec Empire began, they made a three-way alliance between themselves, the Texcocans, and the Tacubans, thanks to the efforts of their leader, Itzcoatl. This Triple Alliance allowed them to defeat their greatest rival, the Tepanec, resulting in the capture their capital, Azcapotzalco. This was the first of many victories for the Aztec Empire. Later, Itzcoatl was succeeded by Montezuma I, also called Moctezuma, in 1440, who became known as the father of the Aztec empire thanks to his work in expanding the empire to encompass much of the Mesoamerican region.

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  • 0:01 Mythical Entrance into Mexico
  • 1:26 The Aztecs Build an Empire
  • 5:33 Aztec Accomplishments
  • 6:47 Clash of Two Cultures
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Aztec Culture

There are a host of Aztec facts that aid in understanding what is Aztec in terms of culture, the success of their empire, as well as their religion.

Because their empire grew to be so large, regions were often broken up into city-states, called altepetl, that were governed by a ruler, called tlatoani. A Huey Tlatoani, an emperor, was responsible for overseeing all the tlatoani.

The Aztecs also had a system for social classes. There were the pilli, or the nobility, as well as the macehuallu, or the common people. There were also slaves, called tlacotli. It is important to note that slavery in Aztec society was not hereditary, so children born to slaves were not slaves themselves. The commoners primarily consisted of farmers working the chinampas, the floating gardens they used as farmland for all their agricultural goods. However, as time went on and farming became more efficient, fewer farmers were needed, and as such, many people turned to craftsmanship and mercantilism.

Education was universal and mandatory in Aztec society. Boys and girls were required to attend lessons, though typically boys received more education than girls. Boys learned various trades as well as martial and leadership skills, while girls were taught how to run a home, how to cook, and how to take care of a family. They were also taught different crafts and economics in terms of running a home, and as such had a great deal of power in Aztec society.

Aztec Accomplishments

The Aztecs were famous for one of their most ingenious inventions, the chinampas. The chinampas were floating gardens made from woven-straw and wooden supports that were filled with mud. They were constructed on the lake, so that any crops grown on them had a constant supply of water. It is because of these that they were able to produce so many agricultural goods, like maize, that could feed their ever-growing population. This, as well as their superior fighting skills, was the primary reason behind their expansive population. Marketplaces began to bustle with increasing efficiencies in farming, resulting in markets such as the one in Tlatelolco that drove the Aztec economy.

The Aztecs also developed a calendar that tracked the movements of planets and other celestial bodies, and incorporated religious events and holidays, as well as other important dates. Each day and group of days was assigned to a given god. Their calendar tracked two separate years, a solar year and a religious one, that had a single day of overlap every 52 years.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What are 3 facts about the Aztecs?

The Aztec's calendar was a large part of their religion, as their many religious ceremonies and rituals required precise dates and times. They also developed a system of compulsory education for all their children, one of the first systems of universal education. They produced much of their agricultural product on floating gardens, which were plots of land made from intertwined reeds and branches filled with mud that were staked out on the lake.

What is the Aztec civilization known for?

The Aztec Empire is known for many things. They were the largest empire in the Mesoamerica region, and maintained power for nearly a century. They also were known for their floating gardens, their calendars, and their monuments.

When did the Aztec civilization begin and end?

The Aztec Empire lasted nearly a century. Itzcoatl founded the empire in 1428 when he formed a three-way alliance with two other tribes to take out a rival, and then continued his conquests, coming to rule nearly 500 small states, comprised of over 5 million people. However, the empire ended in 1521, when Hernan Cortes led forces against Tenochtitlan, capturing it, razing it, and building Mexico city in its place.

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