Daily Life of the Aztecs: A Blend of Agriculture, Hierarchy, and Culture
In the history of the Mesoamerican civilizations, the Aztecs occupy a major position. A lot of their history is known to us, mostly because of their contact with the Spanish conquistadors. But we seldom ask ourselves - how was their day-to-day existence? Daily life for the Aztecs, who lived in Mesoamerica from the 14th to the 16th centuries AD, was shaped by their agricultural society, complex social structure, heritage, and rich cultural traditions. Theirs was an orderly life, which followed the simple rules of coexistence with nature and the world around them. But it was also full of intricacies that were unique only to the Aztecs.
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A Day in Ancient Aztec Daily Life
In the heart of ancient Mesoamerica, centered on the majestic Lake Texcoco, thrived a civilization that left an indelible mark on the world’s history. The Aztecs, often referred to as the Mexica, were a people whose daily lives were a vibrant tapestry of agriculture, art, religion, construction, and tradition. In the bustling streets of their magnificent cities, beneath towering temples, and amid the rhythm of their timeless rituals, the Aztecs crafted a society as complex and multifaceted as the land they called home.
Cultivation of maize, the main foodstuff, using simple tools. Florentine Codex (Gary Francisco Keller/CC BY 3.0)
One of the major aspects of their lives was, naturally, work. In those times, without work a society could not thrive, because through work - food was produced. Aztecs had well-developed agriculture, and it occupied plenty of their time. In fact, agriculture was the foundation of Aztec society. They relied on a system of chinampas, artificial islands created on the surface of Lake Texcoco, to grow crops such as maize (corn), beans, squash, and chili peppers. These crops formed the basis of their diet. Efficient irrigation was crucial for the success of agriculture in the Aztec Empire. The Aztecs designed intricate systems of canals and raised fields to control water levels and ensure a constant supply of moisture to their crops. The chinampas, in particular, benefited from this sophisticated irrigation network.
The Aztecs had a deep understanding of the agricultural calendar. They timed their planting and harvesting based on the seasons and celestial events. Priests and astronomers played a crucial role in determining the most auspicious times for agricultural activities. What is more, they developed methods of food preservation, such as drying and salting, to store surplus crops for times of scarcity or for trade. And these surpluses from Aztec agriculture were often used for trade. The vast marketplaces of Tenochtitlan and other cities were centers of commerce where agricultural products were exchanged for other goods. So, we can see that a good part of a daily routine for an Aztec would be focused on field work, food preservation, and work on the irrigation systems.
A Complex Social Hierarchy of the Ancient World
Aztec society was highly stratified, and their social hierarchy was a big part of their lives. At the top was the emperor, followed by nobles, priests, warriors, and then commoners. Slavery also existed, and slaves were often prisoners of war or debtors. The Aztec social hierarchy was not fixed, and there were opportunities for individuals to move up the social ladder through acts of bravery in battle, exceptional service to the state, or marriage into a higher social class. However, social mobility was relatively limited, and the hierarchical structure was reinforced by religious beliefs and the imperial system. The Aztec society's complex organization and the role of each class within it contributed to the overall stability and functioning of the empire.
The majority of the Aztec population belonged to the commoner class, known as macehualtin. They were primarily engaged in agricultural labor, crafting, and various trades. Commoners were subject to tribute payments and often provided goods and labor to the nobility and the state. Within the commoner class, there were subdivisions called calpulli, which were essentially clan-like groups. These calpulli often had their own lands and were responsible for organizing various aspects of community life, including agriculture and local administration.
As we said, slavery existed in Aztec society, and slaves were known as tlacotin. They were often captives from war, criminals, or individuals who had fallen into debt. Slaves had limited rights and were considered the property of their masters. However, it's important to note that Aztec slavery was not hereditary, and slaves could eventually earn their freedom. Many tasks in the daily life of a wealthier Aztec commoner could have been taken up by the slaves.
An Education Based on Rich Heritage
Aztec education was primarily oral, with knowledge and traditions passed down through generations. The elite received more formal education, which included training in art, poetry, and history. The Aztecs used pictorial writing called hieroglyphics and codices to record information. It was a complex method of writing, and was thus reserved only for monuments and the most important inscriptions. It's important to note that while education was available to various segments of Aztec society, access to advanced education, including hieroglyphic writing and astronomy, was mainly reserved for the elite classes. Nonetheless, the Aztecs placed a significant value on the preservation of their cultural and historical heritage through education, and it played a vital role in shaping their civilization and identity.
Education also included the transmission of practical knowledge related to agriculture, medicine, and everyday life. The Aztecs had a deep understanding of herbal medicine, and this knowledge was passed down through generations. All that has been learned across centuries had to be passed down to new generations, mainly through words and through examples. A good part of the daily life of Aztecs would have been left to the caring of the young and teaching them all these important things.
Priests played a central role in education, particularly in religious and philosophical matters. They were responsible for the moral and spiritual education of the elite, guiding them in understanding the complex Aztec pantheon and the importance of rituals and sacrifices. For the common Aztecs, this was the life “behind the curtains”, as they were detached from the elites and from the complexities of religious life for the most part. Their daily life was simpler, and was seldom occupied by these matters. However, in Aztec history, priests played an instrumental role. Aztec priests and scholars were skilled astronomers who studied the movements of celestial bodies. Their understanding of astronomy was integrated into religious ceremonies and the creation of the Aztec calendar, which played a central role in their daily life and rituals.
From the Codex Mendoza. Fifteen-year-old boys and girls face their future. Upper half of page; for boys, there are two routes of further education. The father, seated here on the left, can present his son to the head priest for higher training at the temple school (calmecac) for noble boys or he can entrust his son to the master of youths at ‘the young men’s house’ (telpochcalli), where military training was provided for commoners. The fifteen-year-old girl undergoes her wedding ceremonies. At the bottom, a torch-lit procession accompanies the bride to the groom’s house on the first night; she is carried on the back of the female matchmaker. (The Bodleian Library, University of Oxford/CC BY 4.0)
Artists, Sportsmen, Craftsmen, and Warriors
Artisans and craftsmen played a significant role in Aztec society, and apprenticeship was the primary method of passing down specialized skills. Young individuals learned traditional techniques in areas like pottery, weaving, feather work (an important Aztec decorative technique), and metalwork from experienced artisans. For a young Aztec who was committed to learning a trade, daily life would have been almost entirely occupied by work - through which knowledge and skill would be acquired. It was not easy.
And for the young men who were not learning a trade, physical education was very important. They would go to the telpochcalli, or “youth centers”, where physical education was an important component of the curriculum. Young men were trained in military skills, including combat techniques, physical fitness, and the use of weapons. This meant that they could stand up for their people if war ever threatened. With that, and the work at home and in the fields, we can imagine that the daily life of young boys and girls was very demanding, and would shape them up to be the ideal members of the Aztec society.
Furthermore, education often involved a system of mentorship, where a more experienced individual, such as a parent, elder, or teacher, guided and instructed a younger person in various skills and knowledge. This mentorship extended beyond formal schooling and encompassed practical life skills.
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Aztecs Were Successful Traders With a Well-Developed Economy
Many individuals in the Aztec society would have been oriented towards trade, which was essential to the Aztec economy. We can be certain that their daily lives were focused on numbers, shipments, and the other intricacies of trading. The Aztecs had a market system known as a "tianquiz (tli)," where goods were bought and sold. Cocoa beans were used as currency, and a complex system of taxation helped support the empire. These markets were bustling centers of commerce, where people could buy and sell a wide range of goods. Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, had one of the largest and most famous markets in Mesoamerica.
A folio from the Codex Mendoza shows taxes paid to Tenochtitlan in exotic trade goods. (Public Domain)
Trade was also long-distance. A wealthy Aztec trader could travel to neighboring nations and states, in a caravan and under protection. Such a journey would take days or weeks, and could be very dangerous as well. But, if successful, it would certainly be lucrative. We can imagine that the daily life of a long-distance merchant was filled with dangers and the difficulties of traveling “on foot”. The same goes for the envoys and caravans who collected tribute. The Aztecs collected tribute known as "tlaquilolli," from subject states and regions within their empire. This tribute included goods such as food, textiles, and other valuable items. The tribute system helped sustain the economy of the empire and was a source of wealth for the Aztec elite.
Kneeling female figure; early 15th - early 16th century painted stone. (Metropolitan Museum of Art/CC0)
Ultimately, in their daily lives, the Aztec commoners found time for arts and culture as well, both of which played a big role in their history. They were skilled artisans and created beautiful pottery, sculpture, and textiles. Their art often depicted religious themes and symbols, including gods, animals, and geometric patterns. Aztec art and culture were deeply intertwined with their religious beliefs and social structure. They left behind a legacy of impressive artistic achievements and a complex cultural tapestry that continues to fascinate and inspire people today. Aztecs also enjoyed sports and games, including the famous ball game known as tlachtli. This Mesoamerican sport involved a rubber ball and stone courts. Tlachtli had both religious and recreational significance. So, we can see that their daily lives were not all about work: the Aztecs knew how to have fun as well!
Aztec life wasn’t all work and no play. This Mesoamerican game consisted of a rubber ball and stone courts. (pop_gino /Adobe Stock)
Festivals and Celebrations for the Aztecs
Of course, there was always time for celebrations and festivals. The Aztecs, a people deeply connected to their gods and the cycles of nature, celebrated a multitude of festivals throughout the year. These festivals served both religious and social purposes, bringing the community together and reinforcing their faith.
One of the most renowned and controversial aspects of Aztec culture was their practice of human sacrifice. They believed that offering human lives to the gods was essential to ensure the continued balance of the world. These sacrifices took place during major religious festivals, like the Feast of Huitzilopochtli and the New Fire Ceremony. Victims, often prisoners of war or volunteers, would be dressed in elaborate attire, symbolizing various deities, before they were led to the altar. There, a high priest would perform the sacrificial act, which could involve heart extraction, decapitation, or other methods, depending on the specific ritual and deity being honored. However, this was not seen as horrific as it is today, and death was something natural to the Aztecs.
A Blooming Empire Brought to a Sudden and Terrible Halt
The Aztec civilization bloomed roughly from 1300 to 1521 AD. It was a complex and promising civilization, but its development was suddenly stopped. The Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire, led by Hernán Cortés, had a profound and far-reaching impact on both the Aztec civilization and the broader history of the Americas. In 1521, after a two-year campaign, Cortés and his Spanish forces, along with their indigenous allies, conquered
?', the Aztec capital. The capture of the emperor, Cuauhtémoc, marked the end of Aztec rule in Mesoamerica.
With the Aztec Empire under Spanish control, the region became part of the Spanish colonial empire. The Spanish established a new administrative and social order, imposing their language, religion (Christianity), and legal system on the indigenous people. And with that, the Aztecs were essentially - no more.
Top image: Aztec daily life seen in the Mural of the Aztec market of Tlatelolco by Diego Rivera. Palacio Nacional, Mexico City. Source: Diego Rivera/CC BY-SA 3.0
Beck, E. 2018. Aztec Daily Life. Available at: https://www.historycrunch.com/aztec-daily-life.html#/
Niver, M. H. 2017. Ancient Aztec Daily Life. PowerKids Press.
Unknown. 2023. Aztec Daily Life. Available at: https://aztecsandtenochtitlan.com/aztec-civilisation/aztec-daily-life/