When Cortez entered the capital of the Aztec Empire, the Spaniards believed they entered a brand new world. In reality, the Aztecs and their history was older than many cultures on the European continent. The 2 most significant cultures that preceded the Aztecs were the Olmecs and the Mayans. The Olmecs and the Mayans have history that date back to 2500 BC and earlier.
The Mayans were by far the more impressive of the two pre-Spanish tribes. The Mayans were so old that they actually achieved 2 golden ages. Most cultures are fortunate to have one golden age; the Mayans were able to re-invent themselves. Most of Aztec society, religion, daily life, and government were modeled after the Mayans.
The name for the Aztecs is inaccurate, it is a name given to them by the Spanish and historians of a later date. The most accurate name for the Aztec Empire is the word, "Mexica." So if you ever wondered how the country of Mexico got their name, now you know.
The Mayas and the Olmecs were like Greek city-states. The Aztecs were like that until they decided to expand their territory. The Aztecs were like the Romans of North America. I can't say they are the Romans of all the Americans because the Incas controlled South America. That is a story for a later date.
The Aztecs started out in the swamps of Lake Texcoco. In 1428 the Aztecs committed themselves to a very aggressive territorial expansion plan. At the height of their rule, they controlled 38 provinces. The population at Tenochtitlan (capital city) was 250,000 people. They controlled land as for north as Colorado in the United States and as far south as El Salvador and beyond. They had territory that faced two major bodies of water (Pacific and Gulf of Mexico). Their kingdom spanned various types of terrain from desert, jungle, mountains, and sea coast. Amazingly, the Aztecs did not have any major rivers within their empire. Usually a great empire has a major river source. The only other two major civilizations that did not have rivers were the Greeks and the Incas.
Warfare in Aztec Society
When archeologists first explored the Aztecs and also the Mayas, it was believed that they were a very peaceful society. They couldn't have been more incorrect. As the years went by, they found out that the Aztec society was a civilization that was based on blood, human sacrifice, and constant warfare. At first warfare was for territory. Once the Aztecs expanded to a point that they were the most powerful, warfare took a different path. The new path was for religion. According to the Aztec religion, the only drink that could satisfy the Aztec gods was blood. Warriors were encouraged and promoted not with a large death count, but rather they were socially and militarily promoted by their capture count
Most military marches were not over vast amounts of land. No Aztec general covered the amount of land as their Greek, Roman, or European counterparts. There were various reasons for this. First, the Aztecs did not have the invention of the wheel in use. Next, the Aztecs did not have any large pack animals like horses, cows, oxen, etc. The geography and lack of inland water sources also reduced the amount of land covered. The maximum the soldiers could march was 36 miles and only 8 days. For every 2 soldiers the Aztecs marched out, one man was used as their porter. The porter was a lot like the Feudal squire. They would carry the tools and weapons.
Campaigns would consist of a 3 day march. There would usually be a 1 day battle. The victors would take a 1 day rest to collect their prisoners, tribute, and other spoils of war. Then they would march 3 days home. Obviously the more land an empire held, the take off point could penetrate deeper into an enemies territory.
Training for Aztec men started at about age 6. They were taught respect, chain of command, battle techniques with weapons, and hand to hand combat. The focus of their training was to capture the enemy for their gods. At the age of 18, Aztec males were given their opportunity to become men and great warriors. This was the age they were allowed to engage in battle. The first goal of a new soldier was to capture 4 prisoners for sacrifice. Once they captured their quota, they were given the title of tequina (warrior). If they would fail at this quest, they became maceualtins (plebeian/working class). In Aztec society, warriors were treated better than the regular people. In this society, the warrior class held the greatest chance to obtain the noble class.
If a man was able to battle, the height of the social order was to enter one of the two supreme orders of warriors. They could enter the order of the "shaved ones," or the Otomics." To enter these orders a warrior needed to perform over 20 deeds of bravery and provide numerous prisoners for sacrifice.
Usually, the religion of a culture would be discussed in the area of daily life. However, the Aztecs are definitely in another category. Because the religion of the Aztecs and the need to create war are so closely intertwined, they need to be discussed together. The cosmos of the Aztecs is a complex web of worship and understanding. Many stories exist for the same event like the creation of the world and mankind. Some gods had the ability to change shape and abilities. Take for example an explanation for the creation of the earth. The god Ometeotl was supposed to be able to bring the earth into being. The Aztecs also had another explanation of the creation of all. Tonacatecuhtli is a male god in the Aztec cosmos, however the same god is also a goddess called Tonacacihuatl.
Human sacrifice was the most important part of the Aztec life. It encompassed religion, work, government, worship and war. It was important to keep the gods happy. The most precious gift that could be given to the gods was blood. Animal blood was not good enough. The Aztecs would travel to other towns and villages and extract tribute in the form of humans. Prisoners of war would be prime targets for death. Their bravery in battle was commended in battle by pulling out their hearts and eating their flesh.
Not all sacrifices were from other parts of the empire. Some people volunteered to become sacrificed. Some men were given the luxury of being treated as a god for one year. At the end of that year, they would be given to the gods and the process would repeat itself again. Children were sometimes sacrificed in dire circumstances for example when rain was needed. The child's tears were seen as the primer for the rain drops.
Ritual sacrifice also occurred in the arena of athletics/competition. Gladiatorial combat in a religious ceremony would pit 5 gladiators vs. 5 gladiators. Each man was given the title of a specific god and then they would battle to the death. The popular game pok-a-toc (spellings will vary) pitted one team vs. another team. Various accounts of sacrifice at the ending of the match are swarming. Early discoveries believed it to be the entire losing team. Other studies say it was the winning team. More modest accounts say only the captain of the losing team would be sacrificed. The game itself was played with a rubberized ball that was very bouncy like a dodge ball. The athletes were not allowed to use their hands. They were only allowed to use their hips. Like basketball, they had to move the ball through a goal above the participants.