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Opulent jaguar warriors who stalk the highlands and cloud forests, the Aztecs possess impressive temples and obsidian blades. Religious rituals, including human sacrifice, ensure the sun's renewal.

The origin myth of the Aztec culture tells of a group of men and women who, after wandering for two hundred years in search of a new homeland, settled on the site of present-day Mexico City. The city they built on the marshy shores of Lake Texcoco, Tenochtitlan, became the capital of an empire that subdued most of central America.

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The Aztecs belong to a group of peoples known as the Chichimeca, the seminomadic populations that settled in the center of Mexico during the 10th century. Inside the particularly homogeneous cultural space of Mesoamerica, they were distinguished by their ruler, their territory, Mexica, and their belief that they were the chosen people of Huitzilopochtli, god of the sun and war. The Aztec Empire was born through the alliance of three city-states in the valley of Mexico in 1428: Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan. Tributes and taxes were collected from conquered populations and split between the members of the alliance, and this became the main driver of expansion. It has been estimated that the “Triple Alliance,” which was dominated by Tenochtitlan, conquered nearly 420 cities. The empire’s rise continued for 90 years before colliding with the expedition of the conquistador Hernán Cortés, who defeated the Aztec Empire in 1521. The influx of raw and precious materials into the cities at the center of the empire encouraged the development of new techniques in art and craftsmanship. By the time of the Spanish conquest, Tenochtitlan already had over 200,000 inhabitants—twice as many as Venice during the same period. In a letter addressed to Charles V, Hernán Cortés describes Tenochtitlan as the most beautiful city in the world.

Did you know?

The wandering of the Aztec people was prophesied to end on the day that they received a sign from their god Huitzilopochtli: they were to settle only in the place where they would see an eagle perched on a cactus with a snake in its beak. This scene, which is pictured on the Mexican flag, determined the location of Tenochtitlan.