OCW052: The Toltecs and the Aztecs

The Toltecs

The Toltecs were a Mesoamerican people who preceded the Aztecs and existed between 800 and 1000 CE.

Learning Objectives

Identify the Toltecs

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Much of what is known about the Toltecs is based on what has been learned about the Aztecs.
  • Historicists believe that Aztec accounts of the Toltecs can be trusted as historical sources.
  • Others believe that Aztec accounts are too shrouded in myth to be trusted as sources of truth.
  • Certain Mayan sites, such as Chichén Itzá, share distinctive archeological traits with religious monuments and buildings in Tula.

Key Terms

  • Quetzalcoatl: The feathered serpent deity that appears in carvings at Tula and also in much later buildings and mythology in the Aztec Empire.
  • Historicist: A scholar that utilizes Aztec accounts of Toltec culture to piece together the history of the Toltec people.
  • Atlantean figures: Gigantic stone statues of Toltec warriors that only appear at the sites of Tula, Chichén Itzá, and Potrero Nuevo.

The Toltec culture is an archaeological Mesoamerican culture that dominated a state centered in Tula in the early Postclassic period of Mesoamerican chronology (c. 800–1000 CE). Much of what is known about the Toltecs is based on what has been learned about the Aztecs, another Mesoamerican culture that postdated the Toltecs and admired the Toltecs as predecessors. Since so much of what remains on record about the Toltecs may have been tainted by Aztec glorification and mythology in the 14th through 16th centuries, it is difficult to parse out the true history.

The later Aztec culture saw the Toltecs as their intellectual and cultural predecessors, and described Toltec culture emanating from Tōllān [ˈtoːlːaːn] ( Nahuatl for Tula) as the epitome of civilization. Indeed, in the Nahuatl language the word “Tōltēcatl” [toːlˈteːkat͡] (singular) or “Tōltēcah” [toːlˈteːkaʔ] (plural) came to take on the meaning “artisan.” The Aztec oral and pictographic tradition also described the history of the Toltec Empire, giving lists of rulers and their exploits.

Among modern scholars it is a matter of debate whether the Aztec narratives of Toltec history should be given credence as descriptions of actual historical events. While all scholars acknowledge that there is a large mythological part of the narrative, some maintain that by using a critical comparative method some level of historicity can be salvaged from the sources. Others maintain that continued analysis of the narratives as sources of actual history is futile and hinders access to actual knowledge of the culture.

Another controversy relating to the Toltecs remains how best to understand the reasons behind the perceived similarities in architecture and iconography between the archaeological site of Tula and the Mayan site of Chichén Itzá. No consensus has yet emerged about the degree or direction of influence between these two sites.


Toltec pyramid at Tula, Hidalgo: Similarities to the pyramid at Chichén Itzá can be seen, including the sloped shape and external steps.


The historicists believe that there is truth within the stories told by the Aztecs. Theories abound about the role the Toltecs actually played in Mesoamerica, from the central Mexican valleys all the way down to certain Maya city-states.

  • Désiré Charnay, the first archaeologist to work at Tula, Hidalgo, defended the historicist views based on his impression of the Toltec capital. He was the first to note similarities in architectural styles between Tula and Chichén Itzá, a famous Maya archeological site. This led him to posit the theory that Chichén Itzá had been violently taken over by a Toltec military force under the leadership of Kukulcan.
  • Following Charnay, the term “Toltec” has since been associated with the influx of certain Central Mexican cultural traits into the Maya sphere of dominance during the late Classic and early Postclassic periods. The Postclassic Maya civilizations of Chichén Itzá, Mayapán, and the Guatemalan highlands have been referred to as “Toltecized” or “Mexicanized” Mayas.
  • Some 20th-century historicist scholars, such as David Carrasco, Miguel León Portilla, Nigel Davies and H. B. Nicholson, argued that the Toltecs were a distinct ethnic group. This school of thought connected the “Toltecs” to the archaeological site of Tula, which was taken to be the Tollan of Aztec myth.
  • Historicists supportive of the ethnic group theory also argue that much of central Mexico was possibly dominated by a “Toltec empire” between the 10th and 12th centuries CE. One possible clue they point to is that the Aztecs referred to several Mexican city-states as Tollan, “Place of Reeds,” such as “Tollan Cholollan.”
  • Archaeologist Laurette Sejourné, followed by the historian Enrique Florescano, argued that the “original” Tollan was probably Teotihuacán.


On the other side of the argument lie those who believe that the Aztec stories are clouded by myth and cannot be taken as accurate accounts of the Toltec civilization. Multiple theories place the Toltec and the site of Tula within a more general framework:

  • Some scholars argue that the Toltec era is best considered the fourth of the five Aztec mythical “suns” or ages. This fourth sun immediately precedes the fifth sun of the Aztec people, which was prophesied to be presided over by Quetzalcoatl.
  • Some researchers argue that the only historically reliable data in the Aztec chronicles are the names of some rulers and possibly some of the conquests ascribed to them.
  • Skeptics argue that the ancient city of Teotihuacán and the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan were much more influential sites for Mesoamerican culture than Tula. However, this skeptical school of thought acknowledges that Tula still contributed to central Mexican cultural heritage in unique ways.
  • Recent scholarship does not frame Tula, Hidalgo, as the capital of the Toltecs as described in the Aztec accounts. Rather, it takes “Toltec” to mean simply an inhabitant of Tula during its apogee. Separating the term “Toltec” from those of the Aztec accounts, it attempts to find archaeological clues to the ethnicity, history, and social organization of the inhabitants of the site of Tula.

Archeology and Clues

While the residents of the site of Tula, Hidalgo, remain a mysterious group, and their ethnic and social dynamics are obscure, they left behind substantial archeological records that modern scholars have attempted to parse through.


Stone carving of Quetzalcoatl: This powerful feathered serpent deity has deep mythological roots in Aztec stories. He also appears regularly in carvings at Tula.

The city of Tula boasts 15-foot-tall warrior statues carved from stone. These same Atlantean figures, as they are called, also appear at the Mayan sites of Chichén Itzá and Potrero Nuevo.


Toltec warrior statues at Tula: These stone statues highlight the artistic style of the city of Tula. They also connect this city with other cultural sites in Mesoamerica.

Tula also boasts intricate carvings of eagles, jaguars, hummingbirds, and butterflies, all of which the Aztec Empire used prolifically. Furthermore, the site of Tula includes two ball courts for the religious rubber ball game that appears in many Mesoamerican civilizations. Along with these distinct relics, the Toltecs also built distinctive pyramids that mirror other sites, such as Chichén Itzá.

Many questions still remain about the inhabitants of this site, including questions about their origin and their demise. This site also raises questions about the flow of influence between multiple Mesoamerican cultures before the rise of the Aztec Empire.

The Aztec People

The Aztecs were a pre-Columbian Mesoamerican people of Central Mexico during the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries.

Learning Objectives

Describe distinguishing factors of Aztec life

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Aztec “empire” was more of a collection of city-states than an empire.
  • Mexico City today is built on the ruins of Tenochtitlan, which was the capital of the Aztec empire.
  • Agriculture played a key role in the Aztec civilization. Irrigation and floating garden beds allowed people to grow several crops a year.

Key Terms

  • altepetl: Small, mostly independent city-states that often paid tribute to the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan.
  • Nahuatl: The language spoken by the Mexica people who made up the Aztec Triple Alliance, as well as many city-states throughout the region.
  • flower wars: The form of ritual war where warriors from the Triple Alliance fought with enemy Nahua city-states.

The Aztecs were a pre-Columbian Mesoamerican people of Central Mexico in the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries. They called themselves Mexica. The Republic of Mexico and its capital, Mexico City, derive their names from the word “Mexica.” The capital of the Aztec empire was Tenochtitlan, built on a raised island in Lake Texcoco. Modern Mexico City is built on the ruins of Tenochtitlan.

From the 13th century, the Valley of Mexico was the heart of Aztec civilization; here the capital of the Aztec Triple Alliance, the city of Tenochtitlan, was built upon raised islets in Lake Texcoco. The Triple Alliance was comprised of Tenochtitlan along with their main allies of Acolhuas of Texcoco and Tepanecs of Tlacopan. They formed a tributary empire expanding its political hegemony far beyond the Valley of Mexico, conquering other city-states throughout Mesoamerica. At its pinnacle, Aztec culture had rich and complex mythological and religious traditions, and reached remarkable architectural and artistic accomplishments. In 1521 Hernán Cortés, along with a large number of Nahuatl -speaking indigenous allies, conquered Tenochtitlan and defeated the Aztec Triple Alliance under the leadership of Hueyi Tlatoani Moctezuma II. Subsequently the Spanish founded the new settlement of Mexico City on the site of the ruined Aztec capital, from where they proceeded to colonize Central America.

The map shows the capital of Mexico-Tenochtitlan located on an island in Lake Texcoco. It also shows three causeways, one from Mexico-Tenochtitlan to Tepeyacac; another from Mexico-Tenochtitlan to Tlacopan; and another from Mexico-Tenochtitlan to Coyoacan and Mexicaltzingo.

Basin in the Valley of Mexico: Circa 1519, at the time of the arrival of the Spanish.


The Aztec empire was an example of an empire that ruled by indirect means. Like most European empires, it was ethnically very diverse, but unlike most European empires, it was more of a system of tribute than a single system of government. Although the form of government is often referred to as an empire, in fact most areas within the empire were organized as city-states, known as “altepetl” in Nahuatl. These were small polities ruled by a king (tlatoani) from a legitimate dynasty.

Two of the primary architects of the Aztec empire were the half-brothers Tlacaelel and Montezuma I, nephews of Itzcoatl. Moctezuma I succeeded Itzcoatl as Hueyi Tlatoani (or king) in 1440. Although he was also offered the opportunity to be tlatoani, Tlacaelel preferred to operate as the power behind the throne. Tlacaelel focused on reforming the Aztec state and religious practices. According to some sources, he ordered the burning of most of the extant Aztec books, claiming that they contained lies. He thereupon rewrote the history of the Aztec people, thus creating a common awareness of history for the Aztecs. This rewriting led directly to the curriculum taught to scholars, and promoted the belief that the Aztecs were always a powerful and mythic nation—forgetting forever a possible true history of modest origins. One component of this reform was the institution of ritual war (the flower wars) as a way to have trained warriors, and the necessity of constant sacrifices to keep the Sun moving.


The Aztec economy can be divided into a political sector, under the control of nobles and kings, and a commercial sector that operated independently of the political sector. The political sector of the economy centered on the control of land and labor by kings and nobles. Nobles owned all land, and commoners got access to farmland and other fields through a variety of arrangements, from rental through sharecropping to serf-like labor and slavery. These payments from commoners to nobles supported both the lavish lifestyles of the high nobility and the finances of city-states. Many luxury goods were produced for consumption by nobles. The producers of featherwork, sculptures, jewelry, and other luxury items were full-time commoner specialists who worked for noble patrons.

Several forms of money were in circulation, most notably the cacao bean. These beans could be used to buy food, staples, and cloth. Around thirty beans would purchase a rabbit, while one father was recorded as selling his daughter for around 200 cacao beans. The Aztec rulers also maintained complex road systems with regular stops to rest and eat every ten miles or so. Couriers walked these roads regularly to ensure they were in good working order and to bring news back to Tenochtitlan.


Aztec headdress: The feathers most likely came from a tropical rainforest far away, and the headdress was probably owned by an elite or noble.

Trade also formed a central part of Aztec life. While local commoners regularly paid tribute to the nobles a few times a year, there was also extensive trade with other regions in Mesoamerica. Archeological evidence shows that jade, obsidian, feathers, and shells reached the capital through established trade routes. Rulers and nobles enjoyed wearing these more exotic goods and having them fashioned into expressive headdresses and jewelry.

Architecture and Agriculture

The capital of Tenochtitlan was divided into four even sections called campans. All of these sections were interlaced together with a series of canals that allowed for easy transportation throughout the islets of Lake Texcoco. Commoner housing was usually built of reeds or wood, while noble houses and religious sites were constructed from stone.

Agriculture played a large part in the economy and society of the Aztecs. They used dams to implement irrigation techniques in the valleys. They also implemented a raised bed gardening technique by layering mud and plant vegetation in the lake in order to create moist gardens. These raised beds were called chinampas. These extremely fertile beds could harvest seven different crops each year. Some of the most essential crops in Aztec agriculture included:

  • Avocados
  • Beans
  • Squash
  • Sweet Potatoes
  • Maize
  • Tomatoes
  • Amarinth
  • Chilies
  • Cotton
  • Cacao beans

Most farming occurred outside of the busy heart of Tenochtitlan. However, each family generally had a garden where they could grow maize, fruits, herbs, and medicinal plants on a smaller scale.

Aztec Religion

The Aztec religion focused on death, rebirth, and the renewal of the sun. The Aztecs practiced ritual sacrifice, ball games, and bloodletting in order to renew the sun each day.

Learning Objectives

Outline the key points of Aztec religious practices and beliefs

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Aztec religion incorporated deities from multiple cultures into its pantheon.
  • Ritual sacrifice played an essential role in the religious practice of the Aztecs, and they believed it ensured the sun would rise again and crops would grow.
  • The Aztecs utilized a 365-day calendar split into eighteen months based on agricultural traditions and different deities.

Key Terms

  • Huitzilopochtli: The left-handed hummingbird god that mythically founded Tenochtitlan and represented war and the sun.
  • Toxcatl: A month in the Aztec sun calendar that represented drought and ritual renewal.
  • Mesoamerican ballgame: This ritual practice involved a rubber ball that the players hit with their elbows, knees, and hips, and tried to get through a small hoop in a special court.

The Aztecs had at least two manifestations of the supernatural: tētl and tēixiptla. Tētl, which the Spaniards and European scholars routinely mistranslated as “god” or “demon,” referred rather to an impersonal, mysterious force that permeated the world. Tēixiptla, by contrast, denoted the physical representations (“idols,” statues, and figurines) of the tētl as well as the human cultic activity surrounding this physical representation.

The Aztec religious cosmology included the physical earth plane, where humans lived, the underworld (or land of the dead), and the realm of the sky. Due to the flexible imperial political structure, a large pantheon of gods was incorporated into the larger cultural religious traditions. The Aztecs also worshipped deities that were central to older Mesoamerican cultures, such as the Olmecs. Some of the most central deities that the Aztecs paid homage to included:

  • Huitzilopochtli – The “left-handed hummingbird” god was the god of war and the sun and also the founder of Tenochtitlan.
  • Quetzalcoatl – The feathered serpent god that represented the morning star, wind, and life.
  • Tlaloc – The rain and storm god.
  • Mixcoatl – The “cloud serpent” god that was incorporated into Aztec belief and represented war.
  • Xipe Totec – The flayed god that was associated with fertility. This deity was also incorporated from cultures under the Aztec Triple Alliance umbrella.

Huitzilopochtli as depicted in the Codex Telleriano-Remensis: This depiction of the war and sun god shows him in all of his warrior and ritual garb.

Founding Myth of Tenochtitlan

Veneration of Huitzilopochtli, the personification of the sun and of war, was central to the religious, social, and political practices of the Mexica people. Huitzilopochtli attained this central position after the founding of Tenochtitlan and the formation of the Mexica city-state society in the 14th century.

According to myth, Huitzilopochtli directed the wanderers to found a city on the site where they would see an eagle devouring a snake perched on a fruit-bearing nopal cactus. (It was said that Huitzilopochtli killed his nephew, Cópil, and threw his heart on the lake. Huitzilopochtli honoured Cópil by causing a cactus to grow over Cópil’s heart.) This legendary vision is pictured on the coat of arms of Mexico.

Ritual and Sacrifice

Like all other Mesoamerican cultures, the Aztecs played a variant of the Mesoamerican ballgame, named “tlachtli” or “ollamaliztli” in Nahuatl. The game was played with a ball of solid rubber, called an olli. The players hit the ball with their hips, knees, and elbows, and had to pass the ball through a stone ring to automatically win. The practice of the ballgame carried religious and mythological meanings and also served as sport. Many times players of

the game were captured during the famous Aztec flower wars with neighboring rivals. Losers of the game were often ritually sacrificed as an homage to the gods.


A depiction of human sacrifice in the Codex Magliabechiano: This Spanish rendering of human sacrifices reflects the outsider’s view of these ritual traditions.

While human sacrifice was practiced throughout Mesoamerica, the Aztecs, if their own accounts are to be believed, brought this practice to an unprecedented level. For example, for the reconsecration of the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan in 1487, the Aztecs reported that they sacrificed 80,400 prisoners over the course of four days, reportedly by Ahuitzotl, the Great Speaker himself. This number, however, is not universally accepted. Accounts by the Tlaxcaltecas, the primary enemy of the Aztecs at the time of the Spanish Conquest, show that at least some of them considered it an honor to be sacrificed. In one legend, the warrior Tlahuicole was freed by the Aztecs but eventually returned of his own volition to die in ritual sacrifice. Tlaxcala also practiced the human sacrifice of captured Aztec citizens.

Everyone was affected by human sacrifice, and it should be considered in the context of the religious cosmology of the Aztec people. It was considered necessary in order for the world to continue and be reborn each new day. Death and ritual blood sacrifice ensured the sun would rise again and crops

would continue to grow. Not only were captives and warriors sacrificed, but nobles would often practice ritual bloodletting during certain sacred days of the year. Every level of Aztec society was affected by the belief in the human responsibility to pay homage to the gods, and anyone could serve as a sacrificial offering.

Priests and Religious Architecture

A noble priest class played an integral role in the religious worship and sacrifices of Aztec society. They were responsible for collecting tributes and ensuring there were enough goods for sacrificial ceremonies. They also trained young men to impersonate various deities for an entire year before being sacrificed on a specific day. These priests were respected by all of society and were also responsible for practicing ritual bloodletting on themselves at regular intervals. Priests could come from the noble or common classes, but they would receive their training at different schools and perform different functions.


Aztec pyramid of St. Cecilia Acatitlan: This pyramid is typical of Aztec religious architecture. Priests would have stood on the platform at the top to perform religious duties and sacrifices.

Priests performed rituals from special temples and religious houses. The temples were generally huge pyramidal structures that were covered over with a new surface every fifty-two years, meaning some pyramids were gigantic in scale. These feats of architectural display were the sites of large sacrificial

offerings and festivals, where Spanish reports said blood would run down the steps of the pyramids. The priests often performed smaller daily rituals in small, dark temple houses where incense and images of important gods were displayed.

Aztec Calendar


Aztec sun calendar: This calendar shows the eighteen months circling around a representation of the sun.

The Aztecs based their calendar on the sun and utilized a 365-day religious calendar. It was split into eighteen twenty-day months, and each month had its own religious, and often agricultural, theme. For example, the late winter month Altcahualo fell between February 14 and March 5 and represented a time of sowing crops and fertility. The month Toxcatl occurred in May and was a time of drought in the central valley. The Aztecs saw this month as a time of renewal, and it involved a large festival where a young man that had been impersonating the god Tezcatlipoca for a full year would be sacrificed.

The Aztec in the Colonial Period

The Aztec empire was defeated by an alliance between the Spanish and the Confederacy of Tlaxcala.

Learning Objectives

Describe the role of the Confederacy of Tlaxcala in the fall of the Aztec empire

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The arrival of Hernándo Cortés in 1519 marked the beginning of the end for the Aztec empire.
  • Cortés and the Confederacy of Tlaxcala allied to militarily defeat the Aztecs, who were further weakened by a smallpox epidemic in 1520–1521 and subsequent outbreaks.
  • Aztec hegemonic structure was re-appropriated to serve the Spanish colonialists.
  • Some aspects of Aztec culture, such as the language, survive.

Key Terms

  • Tlaxcalan: The people of a pre-Columbian city and state in Central Mexico, who helped Cortés conquer the Aztec empire.
  • Bartolomé de las Casas: (Seville, c. 1484– Madrid, July 18, 1566) Sixteenth-century Spanish historian, social reformer, and Dominican friar. Arriving as one of the first European settlers in the Americas, he participated in the atrocities committed against the Native Americans by the Spanish colonists. In 1515, he reformed his views and advocated before King Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, on behalf of rights for the natives.


The Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire was one of the most significant events in the Spanish colonization of the Americas. The Spanish campaign began in February 1519, and was declared victorious on August 13, 1521, when a coalition army of Spanish forces and native Tlaxcalan warriors led by Hernándo Cortés and Xicotencatl the Younger captured the emperor Cuauhtemoc and Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec empire. The fall of the Aztec empire was the key event in the formation of the Spanish overseas empire, with New Spain, which later became Mexico, a major component.


Hernándo Cortés

Conquest of the Aztecs

During the campaign, Cortés was given support from a number of tributaries and rivals of the Aztecs, including the Totonacs and the Tlaxcaltecas, Texcocans, and other city-states particularly bordering Lake Texcoco. In their advance, the allies were tricked and ambushed several times by the people they encountered. After eight months of battles and negotiations, which overcame the diplomatic resistance of the Aztec emperor Moctezuma II to his visit, Cortés arrived in Tenochtitlan on November 8, 1519, where he was welcomed by Moctezuma and took up residence. When news reached Cortés of the death of several of his men during the Aztec attack on the Totonacs in Veracruz, he took the opportunity to take Moctezuma captive; Moctezuma allowed himself to be captured as a diplomatic gesture. Capturing the indigenous ruler was standard operating procedure for Spaniards in their expansion in the Caribbean, so capturing Moctezuma had considerable precedent.

When Cortés left Tenochtitlan to return to the coast and deal with the expedition of Pánfilo de Narváez, Pedro de Alvarado was left in charge. Alvarado allowed a significant Aztec feast to be celebrated in Tenochtitlan, and in the pattern of the earlier massacre in Cholula closed off the square and massacred the celebrating Aztec noblemen. The biography of Cortés by Francisco López de Gómara contains a description of the massacre. The Alvarado massacre at the Main Temple of Tenochtitlan precipitated rebellion by the population of the city. When the captured emperor Moctezuma II, now seen as a mere puppet of the invading Spaniards, attempted to calm the outraged populace, he was killed by a projectile. Cortés, who by then had returned to Tenochtitlan, and his men fled the capital city during the Noche Triste in June 1520. The Spanish, Tlaxcalans, and reinforcements returned a year later, on August 13, 1521, to a civilization that had been wiped out by famine and smallpox. This made it easier to conquer the remaining Aztecs.


To reward Spaniards who participated in the conquest of what is now contemporary Mexico, the Spanish crown authorized grants of native labor in particular indigenous communities via the encomienda. The indigenous were not slaves, chattel bought and sold or removed from their home community, but the system was one of forced labor. The indigenous of Central Mexico had practices rendering labor and tribute products to their polity’s elites, and those elites to the Mexica overlords in Tenochtitlan, so the Spanish system of encomienda was built on pre-existing patterns. The Spanish conquerors in Mexico during the early colonial era lived off the labor of the indigenous. Due to some horrifying instances of abuse against the indigenous peoples, Bishop Bartolomé de las Casas suggested importing black slaves to replace them (he later repented when he saw the even worse treatment given to the black slaves).

Nevertheless, Aztec culture survives today. Modern-day Mexico City is built on the site of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan. There are still 1.5 million people who speak the Aztec language of Nahuatl, and part of the Mexica migration story appears on the Mexican flag.

Source: World History