The Glories of the Aztec Empire under Montezuma

At the time of Spanish contact with the Aztec ruler Montezuma, the Aztecs were a successful, advanced society and major political power that was on par with their contemporaries in Europe.

May 28, 2023By Jessica Kenmore, BS Archaeology w/ Geoarchaeology Concentration
aztec empire montezuma


When we think of the ancient Aztec Empire, images of monumental temples, fierce warriors, and ritual sacrifice might come to mind. While these were elements significant to the ancient civilization, it turns out that there is much more to this culture. Written records and archaeological evidence have shown that when the Spanish conquistadors first met with the Aztec ruler Montezuma, the Aztecs were a complex society with major achievements in science, art, and economy.


For a more complete picture of the Aztec Empire, we’ll start from the beginning — their origins and how they became a political power to their eventual demise and the cultural evidence left behind.


The Origins of the Aztecs

female deity stone sculpture
Seated Female Deity Stone Sculpture, ca 15th-early 16th century CE, via The Metropolitan Museum, New York


Modern-day Mexico is a region with a history that goes back thousands of years, with several culture that thrived long before Spanish contact. Perhaps the most famous of these cultures is the Aztecs. While there are myths surrounding the origin of the Aztecs, it is believed that theirs was a culture that splintered off from the Azcapotzalco people in the 13th century CE, moving on to settle in modern-day Central Mexico and Guatemala.


This newly independent people formed a coalition with the Texcocos and Tacubas, beginning an expansion campaign over much of Mesoamerica. By the time the Spanish had arrived in the 16th century CE, the Aztecs controlled over 370 city-states. Their society was complex and socially divided, with a defined nobility that included the ruler, priests, and the military. While the populace was relegated to labor, they attended schools and received training to help refine their skills. All citizens were educated in religion, their cultural history, and Nahuatl, their written language.


The First Spanish Contact 

meeting cortes moctezuma
The Meeting of Cortés and Montezuma by Unknown, ca. 1650 via The Library of Congress

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter


In his letters to Emperor Charles V, the Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés wrote in detail about Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital city. The impressive metropolis was built on an island in Lake Tetzcoco, the site of current-day Mexico City. At the time of Spanish contact, this city held approximately 200,000 people and was one of the world’s largest cities. Cortés wrote of massive bridges into the city, markets that sold local and imported goods, and even specialty shops like apothecaries, barbers, and restaurants.


celebrations coronation moctezuma iipcodex
Celebrations held for the coronation of emperor Moctezuma II of Mexico in the Durán Codex, 1579, via Bibliotexa Digital Hispanica


Cortés also wrote of the hospitality and diplomacy he and his men experienced when they first visited Tenochtitlan and met with the Montezuma, the leader of the Aztecs. According to these letters, Montezuma took great trouble to make Cortés and his men comfortable during their initial visit to Tenochtitlan. Sadly, despite the wonderful things he reported back to Spain, Cortés went on to defeat the Aztecs and almost completely destroyed the great city of Tenochtitlan. Thanks to archaeologists, historians, and other researchers, we are able to understand the true splendor of the Aztec Empire under Montezuma.


The Great Architecture of the Aztecs 

nuremberg map tenochtitlan
Map of Tenochtitlan from Nuremberg, via Library of the University of British Columbia


According to legend, the Aztec god of war, Huitzilopochtli, instructed the people to build their capital city where they saw an eagle perched on a cactus while eating a snake. In the early 14th century CE, the Aztecs saw this exact image on an island in Lake Texcoco. They went on to build the great metropolis on that island.


Building a city that spanned five square miles on an island was no easy feat and required knowledgeable hydrologists and architects. At the time of Spanish contact, the city was divided into four sectors, each with its own purpose, plus a central area that housed the major temples and palaces. Each sector was separated by causeways that formed canals to control the water level.


With water from the surrounding lake controlled, Aztec engineers and architects were now able to build housing, temples, pyramids, and public areas. As we can imagine, the soil of the island was muddy and soft, causing structures to sink over time. Adapting to this environment, builders would add layers to buildings over time, creating multi-level structures and the monumental pyramids that are associated with the Aztecs.


rendition aztec city
Artist Rendition of Templo Mayor in Tenochtitlan via Discover Magazine


Utilizing local materials, the Aztec builders employed a variety of architectural styles. Private homes and palaces, public plazas, ball courts, temples, and pyramids spanned Aztec territory at the time. Homes for the populace were usually constructed from adobe bricks and lumber, while the more monumental palaces, temples, and pyramids were built from carefully cut and arranged stone blocks.


The Templo Mayor was the primary temple of the Aztec people, and its ruins can still be seen in modern-day Mexico City. Construction began between 1427 and 1440 CE and continued until the Spanish Conquest. Different stages of construction can be seen in the ruins, and it seems that each ruler aimed to build a pyramid that was superior to what their predecessors constructed. Over the years, more and more layers were added to the stone pyramid, culminating in twin temples on top of the pyramid.


This pyramid was built on an east-west axis, and with such exact geometry that from the top of the western stairway, one could see the sacred Mt. Tlaloc between the twin temples. During the equinox, one can even see the sunrise between the temples.


Agriculture in a Challenging Environment

drawing aztec floating gardens
Artist’s Drawing of Aztec Chinampas, via


The Aztecs faced quite a few challenges when it came to agriculture, especially in their capital city. Because this city was on an island, there was flooding that had to be controlled in order to prevent erosion. The land surrounding the island city was too steeply sloped to support agriculture, so they had to come up with an innovative way to grow food — floating gardens, or chinampas.


These floating gardens were rectangular plots constructed onto the lake bed with lumber, soil, and plant material. The soil and plant material were layered until the plot was above water level, and the garden was secured in place by planted trees. To work around the tides and inevitable flooding from the lake, Aztec farmers constructed irrigation systems and aqueducts to control the water level within the gardens.


With this innovative and methodical way of planting, the Aztecs were able to construct 30,000 acres of floating gardens. With their ample irrigation, the floating gardens were planted with diverse and rotating crops to protect the nutrients in the soil. These floating gardens could yield as many as seven harvests per year, doing well to support the enormous Aztec population in the area.


Chinampas still exist today, serving the people of Mexico City, one of the most heavily populated cities in the world. In today’s chinampas, farmers still plant some of the main crops used by the Aztecs: corn, beans, squash, and the ancient grain amaranth. These impressive floating gardens have been recognized as an Agricultural Heritage System of Global Importance by the UN.


The Art of the Aztecs

aztec gold serpent labret
Serpent Labret with Articulated Tongue, ca. 1300-1521 CE, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art


In their stratified society, artists were members of the populace, or those outside of the elite class. While they were of a working class, they were classically trained in their respective crafts. Metalworkers, sculptors, and ceramicists learned methods and styles passed on from predecessors and absorbed new knowledge from their contemporaries.


During Montezuma’s reign, impressive metalworks of gold and silver were created all throughout the empire. Many of these metalworks made their way back to Spain, where great Renaissance artists remarked on their amazing artistry. While many of these beautiful metalworks were melted down and reused as currency, there are a few jewelry pieces that still exist today. Using wax casting and filigree-type work, Aztec metalworkers created necklaces, rings, and pendants.


Following the established Mesoamerican tradition of carving natural stone, Aztec artists created objects and sculptures out of basalt, jade, and everything in between. The sculptures represented elements important to the Aztec lifeways and religion, including the gods themselves. Some of the deity sculptures were monumental in size and were painted in bright colors at the time of Spanish contact.


aztec vulture ceramic vessel
Vulture Vessel, ca. 1200-1521 CE via The Metropolitan Museum, New York


Specially trained ceramicists created works that represented plants and animals important to their culture. While several styles were seen during the different periods of the Aztec Empire, artists seemed to prefer a naturalistic style during the reign of Montezuma. During this time, ceramic sculptures of jaguars, eagles, and turtles could be found throughout the empire. Some of these works were utilitarian, and a few still exist today.


florentine codex aztec
Sample Page from the Florentine Codex, Book 4, via University of Oregon


During the reign of Montezuma, an Aztec poet was referred to as a Tlamatine, which translates to “the one who knows”. These poets were educated in the science of the Aztec calendar, ancient songs, and the recorded history of their culture. These poets would confer with each other to refine work they would later recite at ceremonies, banquets, and parties. While much of their recorded work was destroyed during the Spanish Conquest, some surviving poets recited their works to Spanish friars, who transcribed them. Some of these transcriptions, known as codices, still exist today. These codices also include the Aztecs’ description of religion, their cultural history, and society.


The Aztecs Relied on Trade

aztec black on orange ceramic bowl
Black-on-Orange Ceramic Bowl, ca. 15th-early 16th century CE, via The Metropolitan Museum, New York


From the reports Hernán Cortés sent home and his descriptions of their bustling markets, Emperor Charles V learned that the Aztecs had a diverse economy that relied on trade. Archaeologists have confirmed this with widespread evidence of Aztec Black-on-Orange style ceramics throughout northern and central Mesoamerica. The distinctive green Pachuca obsidian was also found widely distributed throughout northern and central Mesoamerica.


Archaeologists have recovered objects in Aztec sites that were definitely imported, such as jade, Mezcala sculptures from southwestern Mexico, and Mixtec sculptures from southern Mexico. Many of the imported goods were recovered during excavations of the Templo Mayor in Tenochtitlan, as part of caches and offerings buried within the temple.

Author Image

By Jessica KenmoreBS Archaeology w/ Geoarchaeology ConcentrationHaving moved around a lot as a child, I became intrigued by the histories of my many homes. This interest continued, and I eventually became an archaeologist. I hold a BS in Archaeology from Oregon State University. These days, I do less field work and am concentrating more on writing. While I might be doing less archaeological work, my interest in travel and learning is as keen as ever.