Aztec culture (), also known as Mexica culture, was a Mesoamerican culture that flourished in central Mexico in the post-classic period from 1300 to 1521, during the time in which a triple alliance of the Mexica, Texcoca and Tepaneca tribes established the Aztec empire. The Aztec people were certain ethnic groups of central Mexico, particularly those groups who spoke the Nahuatl language and who dominated large parts of Mesoamerica from the 14th to the 16th centuries. The Aztec have also referred to themselves as the Meshika or Mehika.
Aztec culture is the culture of the people referred to as Aztecs, but since most ethnic groups of central Mexico in the postclassic period shared basic cultural traits, many of the traits that characterize Aztec culture cannot be said to be exclusive to the Aztecs. For the same reason, the notion of “Aztec civilization” is best understood as a particular horizon of a general Mesoamerican civilization. The culture of central Mexico includes maize cultivation, the social division between pipiltin nobility and macehualtin commoners, a pantheon (featuring Tezcatlipoca, Tlaloc and Quetzalcoatl), and the calendric system of a xiuhpohualli of 365 days intercalated with a tonalpohualli of 260 days. Particular to the Aztecs of Tenochtitlan was the Mexica patron God Huitzilopochtli, twin pyramids, and the ceramic ware known as Aztec I to III.
From the 13th century, the Valley of Mexico was the heart of Aztec civilization: there the city of Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec Triple Alliance, was built upon raised islets in Lake Texcoco. The Triple Alliance formed the Aztec Empire, a tributary empire that expanded its political hegemony far beyond the Valley of Mexico, conquering other city states throughout Mesoamerica in the late postclassic period. It originated in 1427 as an alliance between the city-states Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan; these allied to defeat the Tepanec state of Azcapotzalco, which had previously dominated the Basin of Mexico. Soon Texcoco and Tlacopan became junior partners in the alliance, of which the Mexica of Tenochtitlan were the de facto leaders. The empire extended its power by a combination of trade and military conquest. It was never a true territorial empire controlling a territory by large military garrisons in conquered provinces, but rather controlled its client states primarily by installing friendly rulers in conquered cities, by constructing marriage alliances between the ruling dynasties, and by extending an imperial ideology to its client states. Client states paid tribute to the Aztec emperor, the Huey Tlatoani, in an economic strategy limiting communication and trade between outlying polities, making them dependent on the imperial center for the acquisition of luxury goods. The political clout of the empire reached far south into Mesoamerica conquering cities as far south as Chiapas and Guatemala and spanning from the Pacific to the Atlantic oceans. The empire reached its maximal extent in 1519, just prior to the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors led by Hernán Cortés, who managed to topple the Aztec empire by allying with some of the traditional enemies of the Aztecs, the Nahuatl-speaking Tlaxcalteca. Subsequently, the Spanish founded the new settlement of Mexico City on the site of the ruined Aztec capital, from where they proceeded with the process of colonizing Central America.
Aztec culture and history is primarily known through archaeological evidence found in excavations such as that of the renowned Templo Mayor in Mexico City; from indigenous bark paper codices; from eyewitness accounts by Spanish conquistadors such as Cortés and Bernal Díaz del Castillo; and especially from 16th- and 17th-century descriptions of Aztec culture and history written by Spanish clergymen and literate Aztecs in the Spanish or Nahuatl language, such as the famous Florentine Codex compiled by the Franciscan monk Bernardino de Sahagún with the help of indigenous Aztec informants. At its height, Aztec culture had rich and complex mythological and religious traditions, as well as achieving remarkable architectural and artistic accomplishments.
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