For more on Aztec History, see World History I.13

An Aztec Ritual for Flooding
An Aztec Ritual for Flooding

Topics on the Page

Social Classes
  • Tenochtitian
War and Slavery
Political Structure
Religious Rituals


It is helpful to go back and see exactly how the Aztec civilization started.
  • Many years after the Mexican people first built their proud city, Tenochtitlan (later to become Mexico City), they formed an alliance with two other cities - Texcoco (Tetzcoco) and Tlacopan. This Triple Alliance was to rule the Valley of Mexico until the Spanish arrived. However, over time one city become the most powerful - Tenochtitlan. It would become the heart of the Aztec civilization.
    • Essentially, Aztec empire history is a history of city-states. As the empire expanded (which it began to do in earnest around 1428) it conquered more cities. Some cities resisted. Others were conquered and began to pay tribute.
  • How the empire was ruled: The city of Tenochtitlan was the military power, which spearheaded the conquest of new territory. But the Aztec emperor didn't rule every city state directly. Local governments would remain in place, but would be forced to pay varying amounts of tribute to the Triple Alliance (with most of the tribute going to Tenochtitlan).
    • For this reason scholar Alexander J. Motyl would call this empire a informal or hegemonic empire.
  • The Aztecs didn't necessarily rule connected territories. Because they were conquering cities, they sometimes had power in "pockets" over an area.
  • Ruling through a local government ensured that the locals would keep the people happy, and that there would be stability and continuity. This system worked very well for the peoples of the empire.

Click here for more helpful information on the origins of the Aztec civilization.

Click here for an article about the Aztec Empire from the History Channel, including a video showing how the entire empire collapsed in the 16th Century.


Aztec culture was a rich combination of the cultures of the peoples that made up the Aztec empire, including the Mexicas. Hundreds, even thousands of years of tradition influenced the way people lived in the society. Let's take a look at the different social classes and how they lived.

Social classes in Aztec culture consisted of two main social classes in Aztec culture. First the nobility or pilli, then the common people or macehualli. Each of these was further broken up into groups of people that had quite different lives.

Along with continuing the Mayan ball game, the Aztecs had many games which they played.

Click here for more interesting information on Aztec culture.

Aztec social classes

Growing up Aztec
The Mexica people of the Aztec empire had compulsory education for everyone, regardless of gender or class. In the end, people in the Aztec society were generally well educated, though boys received a wider education than girls.
Girls were taught how to run a home, cook, and care for a family, but they were also taught things like crafts and ways to economically run the home. In this way women had a lot of power in society, though it was behind the scenes.

Note: Mandatory education was historically rare in the rest of the world.

Boys learned other trades, and were also taught fighting skills and leadership skills.

Though children started off with similar education, it was eventually split into two main branches. First the calmecac, which was mainly for children of nobles. These children would be educated as priests, teachers, doctors, and leaders of society. Next came the telpochcalli, where children were taught more about Aztec culture and religion, the trades, and skills particular to gender. It seems that there was some freedom to choose a type of education, and perhaps some children were promoted who showed promise in a specific field. It may also be that vocation was chosen based on the religious "sign" children were born under. Just who could go where is a matter of some debate today.

In their mid-teens, adult life would begin. Girls would marry, or stay in the temple and work. Boys might join the military or begin their trade. Marriages were arranged and again strongly tied to religious belief. Some polygamy was practiced, though there was still a "primary" wife.

Indian vendors at the market of Tlaxcala.  Posted on Wikimedia Commons by Wolfgang Sauber.
Indian vendors at the market of Tlaxcala. Posted on Wikimedia Commons by Wolfgang Sauber.


Aztec Social Classes:

  • The noble class had a variety of vocations open to them. They would have positions of leadership and influence, as mentioned above. They would also have some wealth, and unlike the common people they were allowed to enjoy works of art.
  • The higher level of nobility, usually hereditary to some extent, were the pilli (singular pipiltin). They would hold high positions in government or in the military.
  • There were also various classes of common people. There were farmers, who were very efficient. There were merchants, who would travel and trade. These people had a fair amount of freedom to be independent and wear stylish clothes. There were artisans of various kinds. Every type of job needed to run a society that you can imagine.
  • Another occupation of status was to be an athlete. Aztec culture had its own version of Ulama, a game played in Mesoamerica. The game was very popular and the players were celebrities.
  • Aztec life was permeated by religion. The cycles of the calendar and rituals associated with it to keep nature in balance and appease the gods were a big part of Aztec culture. For more, see Aztec religion.

People of the common class lived in adobe homes made of mud bricks. Alongside their homes contained a bathhouse: Bathing was associated with good health.

In Aztec culture, the warrior was glorified for religious reasons. Taking prisoners and sacrificing them to the gods was an increasingly important ritual. Though life was very structured, it seemed close to chaos as the people tried to avoid natural and imagined disaster.

As people got older, and more disease arrived, the the religious healer would be called for. Medical science and religious ritual went side by side. When death came, people would be cremated or buried, depending on how they died and the family's choice.


The South Central region of present day Mexico was home to the Aztec population. They lived in the highlands of Mesoamerica, in an area of basins separated by volcanic peaks and mountain ranges.[5]


"The Conquest of Tenochtitlán," from the Conquest of México series (painting done second half of seventeenth century)
"The Conquest of Tenochtitlán," from the Conquest of México series (painting done second half of seventeenth century)

The entire Aztec civilization contained about 15 million people, which lived in nearly 500 towns and cities. About 300,000 people lived in Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec world. In this famous city, the government controlled and were responsible to deal with taxes, punishment, famine, and market trading. Punishment in the city of Tenochtitlan was enforced for breaking any of the government laws. Offenders were enslaved and forced to do manual labor or, at times, sacrificed.[6]

Click here for an informative 5 minute video discussing Tenochtitlan, a major city-state in the Aztec Empire.


The Aztec maintained their subsistence by utilizing fishing, hunting, gathering and gardening techniques. The valley rivers were rich in fish, insects, shrimp, tadpoles, and a naturally occurring grain called ahuatle. Those near the ocean ate crabs, oysters, fish and turtles. Therefore, the water was a major source of food for the Aztec who wished to utilize the ocean. Among the wild animals used for food were rabbits, snakes, armadillos, deer, pumas and coyotes. The Wild Turkey was also incredibly important to the diet of the Aztecs.

War and Slavery

Raiding and warring often began simply to collect captives for use in sacrificial offerings to the principal Aztec god, Huitzilopochtli. The Aztec conquered many other tribes, allowing them to retain their own religion and government. However, these tribes were expected to supply the Aztecs with food, textiles, pottery and other items needed to support the nobles, priests and administrators of the city of Tenochtitlan, which numbered perhaps in the hundreds of thousands. In this way, the Aztecs conquered, but allowed their conquered peoples to maintain their autonomy.

There were also slaves, which were generally well-treated. Slavery was not hereditary - the children of a slave were free. There were ways for a slave to gain freedom, such as purchasing it.

Political Structure

The class system of the Aztecs was rigid and stratified. Those at the top enjoyed spoils and privileges, and those at the bottom struggled to live. The ruling class, the top level of social stratification, was itself divided into several categories according to function, importance, and standing. The tecuhtli , the dignitaries or lords, was applied to the highest level of the ruling class, consisting of the most important warriors, administrators or judges. These individuals were traditionally elected, but by the sixteenth century, the election process evolved more into a presentation ceremony, however, many of these individuals did reach their position through promotion according to merit. Each tecuhtli was responsible for a particular region and was the highest form of government in that region. Each district or calpulli had a calpullec, or chieftain, who was elected for life and was responsible for harmony within the community, staging council sessions, mediating debates and the like. The warriors of Mexica were highly admired and respected and were accorded such honor and privileges that no Aztec did not wish to be a warrior. [7]

Religious Rituals

The Aztecs were a polytheistic society, however, their most important deity was named Huitzilopochtliwho was essentially the Aztec god of the sun and war.

Image of Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec sun and war god, one of the two principal deities of Aztec religion, often represented in art as either a hummingbird or an eagle.
Image of Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec sun and war god, one of the two principal deities of Aztec religion, often represented in art as either a hummingbird or an eagle.

Click here for more information on the gods of the Aztec's. They believed the sun fought darkness every night and rose to save mankind. They believed the earth was flat. They believed that if they fed the sun blood, it would rise. They also believed in 13 heavens and 9 hells.

Sacrifice was one of the main events in the Aztec religion. Priests made human sacrifices to make the sun god happy. Aztecs fought in wars to capture men to sacrifice. On God's Feast Day, they killed their slaves for the gods. Human sacrifices were offerings to the sun and earth so that food would grow.


As an advanced civilization, the Aztecs utilized various forms of currency. The cacao bean was a common form of money used by the Aztecs. For example, a small rabbit would cost a person around thirty cacao beans, but if a man were to sell his own child (especially a daughter), that man would gain about 600 cacao beans. Selling one’s own child was a common Aztec practice regarded an act of self sacrificing.

The Aztecs used quachtli, a type of cloth, as a high ranking form of currency. Quachtli was of higher value than the cacao beans, and if a common man were given ten quachtli he could live for half a year in Tenochtitlan.

external image aztec-pyramid-1.jpg
external image aztec-pyramid-1.jpg

Click on this link to see a 5 minute video about the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire.

Lesson Plans

Click on this link to get a lesson plan on the Aztec Empire from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

This Lesson plan (for Grades 3-5) will allow students to:
  • Identify the Aztecs as the builders of a great city and rich civilization in what is now Mexico
  • Locate the Aztec Empire and its capital on a map
  • Be able to place the Aztecs in the chronology of American history
  • Describe several aspects of Aztec culture
  • Tell the legend of the founding of the capital city of Tenochtitlan and describe the way the city looked at its peak
  • Understand the causes of the Aztec civilization's downfall

Interactive Games

Visit this link to play fun, interactive games involving the Aztecs! Fun History Game to test knowledge

external image Test_hq3x.png
external image Test_hq3x.png

Sample Test Question:

- Prepared calendar that regulated agricultural activities
- Gathered folk tales and recorded historical events
- Served as members of the ruling class

Which members of Aztec society were responsible for the tasks outlined above?
A) merchants
B) soldiers
C) farmers
D) priests

Answer: D
Source: California Standards Test Questions, California Department of Education