The people whom we typically refer to as Aztecs called themselves Mexica or Culhua-Mexica. They were also known as the Tenochca, a name derived from the ancestor Tenoch. It is also the source of the name of the great Aztec capital city, Tenochtitlán, on the site of current-day Mexico City. In the 15th and early 16th centuries, the Aztecs ruled an extensive empire in what is today central and southern Mexico, and south into Guatemala. Refer to the map in this exhibit (Item 3) for an image of the reach of the empire at its height; by 1519 A.D. it covered more than 80,000 square miles, with a population of more than five million people.

The Aztec language was Nahuatl. Aztec tradition suggests that early Nahuatl-speaking tribes came to Mesoamerica in the 12th century from the plateaus of northern Mexico, about the time of the collapse of the great Toltec civilization. They settled the islands of Lake Texcoco in central Mexico, where Tenochtitlán was founded in 1325. The Spanish drained the lake in the 17th century in order to gain more arable land.

Through alliances with neighboring states, developed through both commerce and conquest, Tenochtitlán gained dominance over several hundred small city-states, thereby forming what we now call the Aztec Empire. The military played a dominant role in society; victory and valor in battle led directly to social advancement. Other social groups included the priest and bureaucratic classes, serfs, indentured servants, and slaves. The Aztecs succeeded in great measure due to their sophisticated system of agriculture, in which complex irrigation systems were used, wetlands were reclaimed, and all possible lands were cultivated. The Aztecs shared many religious beliefs with other Mesoamerican peoples, including similar concepts of creation, a cosmology of 13 realms of heaven, nine underworlds, and the use of bloodletting and sacrifice to feed the gods and keep the world in balance. The Aztecs also shared with other cultures the calendric system of a 260-day Sacred Year and a 365-day Solar Year.

Unlike the Maya, whose civilization was already in decline at the time of the conquest, the Aztec empire was at its height when Spanish explorers appeared in 1519. Hernán Cortés capitalized on discontent among some subject city-states when he conquered the empire in 1521.

The Magliabechi and Borbonicus códices represent the Aztec culture.

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