The History of the Aztec Civilization


If a clever gleaner of the curious and notable things in literature should write on the curiosities of historical speculation, he would be sure to take some account of “A New History of the Conquest of Mexico” published in Philadelphia in 1859. The special aim of this work is to deny utterly the civilization of the Aztecs. The author has ability, earnestness, and knowledge of what has been written on the subject; he writes with vigor, and with a charming extravagance of dogmatic assumption, which must be liked for its heartiness, while it fails to convince those who study it. This writer fully admits the significance of the old ruins, and maintains that a great civilization formerly existed in that part of the continent. This he ascribes to the Phœnicians, while he gives it an extreme antiquity, and thinks the present ruins have existed as ruins “for thousands of years,” explaining these words to mean that their history “is separated by a cycle of thousands of years from the civilization of our day.” In his view, the people who constructed the old cities were subjugated and destroyed, long ages since, “by inroads of northern savages,” who were the only people in the country when the Spaniards arrived.

[208]The chief business of this “New History” is to set forth these views. Under the treatment of its author, Montezuma becomes a rude Indian sachem, his kingdom a confederation of barbarous Indian tribes like that of the Iroquois, the city of Mexico a cluster of mud huts or wigwams in an everglade, its causeways rude Indian footpaths, its temples and palaces pure fictions of lying Spanish romance, and all previous histories of the Aztecs and their country extravagant inventions with a “Moorish coloring.” He would have us believe that what he calls “the pretended civilization of Montezuma and his Aztecs” was a monstrous fable of the Spaniards, a “pure fabrication,” encouraged by the civil authority in Spain, and supported by the censorship of the Inquisition. Therefore he undertakes to destroy “the fabric of lies,” unveil those “Mexican savages” the Aztecs, and tell a “new” story of their actual character and condition.
Of course, views so preposterous do not find much favor. If the Mexicans had been nothing more than this, the experience of Cortez among them would have been like that of De Soto in his long and disastrous march through Florida, the Gulf regions, and the country on the lower Mississippi. Cortez and his men had a different fortune, because their march was among people who had towns, cities, settled communities, and the appliances and accumulations of civilized life. Doubtless some of the Spaniards exaggerated and romanced for effect in Spain, but they did not invent either the city of Mexico or the kingdom of Montezuma. We can see clearly[209] that the Mexicans were a civilized people, that Montezuma’s city of Mexico was larger than the present city, and that an important empire was substantially conquered when that city was finally subjugated and destroyed.

That the ancient city of Mexico was a great city, well built partly of timber and partly of cut stone laid in a mortar of lime, appears in all that is said of the siege, and of the dealings of Cortez with its people and their rulers. Montezuma, wishing to remove false notions of the Spaniards concerning his wealth, said to Cortez during their first interview, “The Tlascalans, I know, have told you that I am like a god, and that all about me is gold, silver, and precious stones; but you now see that I am mere flesh and blood, and that my houses are built of lime, stone, and timber.” Lime, stone, and timber! This was the poorest view of the old city of Mexico that could be given to those who saw it. It is not easy to understand how a denial of the Aztec civilization was possible.


The first inhabitants of that part of the continent seen by Spaniards were Mayas from Yucatan. Columbus met them in 1502 at an island near Ruatan, off the coast of Honduras. While he was stopping at this island, these Mayas came there “in a vessel of considerable size” from a port in Yucatan, thirty leagues distant. It was a trading vessel, freighted with a variety of merchandise, and it used sails. Its cargo consisted of a variety of textile fabrics of divers colors, wearing apparel,[210] arms, household furniture, and cacao, and the crew numbered twenty men. Columbus, who treated them very kindly, described these strangers as well clothed, intelligent, and altogether superior to any other people he had discovered in America. Adventurers hunting for prey soon began to make voyages in that direction and report what they saw. Sailing along the coast of Yucatan, they discovered cities, and “the grandeur of the buildings filled them with astonishment.” On the main land and on one or two islands they saw great edifices built of stone. The seeming riches and other attractions of the country led the Spaniards to invade Yucatan, but they were defeated and driven off. At this time they gained considerable knowledge of Mexico, and persuaded themselves that immense wealth could be found there.

Finally, in March, 1519, Cortez landed near the place where Vera Cruz was afterward built, and moved on through the country toward the city of Mexico. Studying, in all the histories of the Conquest, only their incidental references to the civilized condition of the people, we can see plainly what it was. As the invaders approached Tlascala, they found “beautiful whitewashed houses” scattered over the country. The Tlascalans had towns, cities, agriculture, and markets. Cortez found among them all that was needed by his troops. His supremacy in Tlascala was easily established; and it was not difficult to induce the people to aid him cordially in his operations against Mexico, for they hated the Aztecs, by whom they had recently been subjugated. In a de[211]scription of their capital, he stated that it was as large as the city of Granada, in Spain.
He went next to Cholulu, where, near the great mound, was an important city, in which they saw a “great plaza.” Bernal Diaz said of this city, “I well remember, when we first entered this town and looked up to the elevated white temples, how the whole place put us completely in mind of Valladolid.” The “white temples” were “elevated” because they stood on high pyramidal foundations, just as they are seen in the old ruins. It is probable, however, that these were built of adobe bricks or of timber. The city very likely was much older than the Aztec empire. A Spanish officer named Ordaz ascended Mount Popocatapetl, and one thing he saw was “the Valley of Mexico, with its city, its lagunas and islands, and its scattered hamlets, a busy throng of life being every where visible.”


At the city of Mexico Cortez had a great reception, negotiation having established the form of friendly relations between him and Montezuma. Quarters were provided in the city for the Spanish portion of his army, a vast edifice being set apart for their use which furnished ample accommodations for the whole force. The place could be entered only by causeways. They marched on a wide avenue which led through the heart of the city, beholding the size, architecture, and beauty of the Aztec capital with astonishment. This avenue was lined with some of the finest houses, built of a porous red[212] stone dug from quarries in the neighborhood. The people gathered in crowds on the streets, on the flat roofs, in the doorways, and at the windows to witness the arrival of the Spaniards. Most of the streets were narrow, and had houses of a much less imposing character. The great streets went over numerous canals, on well-built bridges. Montezuma’s palace was a low, irregular pile of stone structures extending over a large space of ground.

Among the teocallis of the Aztec capital the “great temple” stood foremost. It was situated in the centre of a vast inclosure, which was surrounded by a heavy wall eight feet high, built of prepared stone. This inclosure was entered by four gateways opening on the four principal streets of the city. The “temple” was a solid structure built of earth and pebbles, and faced from top to bottom with hewn stone laid in mortar. It had five stages, each receding so as to be smaller than that below it. In general outline it was a rectangular pyramid three hundred feet square at the base, with a level summit of considerable extent, on which were two towers, and two altars where “perpetual fires” were maintained. Here the religious ceremonies were conducted. The ascent was by a circular flight of steps on the outside which went four times around the structure. The water in the lagoons being salt, the city was supplied with water by means of an aqueduct which extended to Chapultepec.
Such substantially is the account given of the old city of Mexico and its great temple by every writer who saw[213] them before the Conquest, and all the struggles which took place for possession of this capital had a character that would have been impossible any where save in a large city. In every account of the attacks on the great temple, we can see that it was a great temple; and we may perceive what the old city was by reading any account of the desperate and bloody battles in which the Spaniards were driven from it, after standing a ten days’ siege in the great stone building they occupied.


This battle took place in the latter part of June, 1520, several months after the friendly reception, and was occasioned by the treacherous and most atrocious proceedings of the Spaniards, which drove the Mexicans to madness. Nearly a year passed before Cortez made another attack on the Mexican capital. During this time he found means among the Tlascalans to build a flotilla of thirteen vessels, which were transported in pieces to Lake Tezcuco and there put together. This would have been impossible if he had not found in the country suitable tools and mechanics. By means of these vessels armed with cannon, and assisted by a great army of native allies consisting of Tlascalans, Cholulans, and many others, he took control of the lagunas, secured possession of the causeways, and attacked the city in vain for forty-five days, although his men several times penetrated to the great square. He now resolved to enter by gradual advances, and destroy every thing as he went. This he did, burning what was combustible, and tearing down[214] most of the edifices built of stone; nevertheless, thirty or forty days more passed before this work of destruction was complete. The inhabitants of the city were given over to extermination.

The conquerors proceeded immediately to rebuild the city, native architects chiefly being employed to do the work. Materials for the rebuilding were taken from the ruins; probably many of the old Aztec foundations were retained, and there may now be edifices in the city of Mexico which stand on some of these foundations. Twelve acres of the great inclosure of the Aztec temple were taken for a Spanish plaza, and are still used for this purpose, while the site of the temple is occupied by a cathedral. The plaza is paved with marble. Like the rest of the great inclosure, it was paved when the Spaniards first saw it, and the paving was so perfect and so smooth that their horses were liable to slip and fall when they attempted to ride over it.

Some relics recovered from ruins of the old temple have been preserved. Among them is the great Aztec calendar which belonged to it, on which are carved hieroglyphics representing the months of the year. This calendar was found in 1790 buried in the great square. It was carved from a mass of porous basalt, and made eleven feet eight inches in diameter. It was a fixture of the Aztec temple; it is now walled into one side of the cathedral. The “stone of sacrifice,” another relic of the temple, nine feet in diameter, and covered with sculptured hieroglyphics, can still be seen in the city, and in the suburbs, it is said, vestiges of the ruins of long lines[215] of edifices can be traced. Calendars made of gold and silver were common in Mexico. Before Cortez reached the capital, Montezuma sent him two “as large as cartwheels,” one representing the sun, the other the moon, both “richly carved.” During the sack of the city a calendar of gold was found by a soldier in a pond of Guatemozin’s garden. But these Spaniards did not go to Mexico to study Aztec astronomy, nor to collect curiosities. In their hands every article of gold was speedily transformed into coin.

In every Spanish description of the city we can see its resemblance to cities whose ruins are found farther south. If the Spaniards had invented the temple, they would not have made it unlike any thing they had ever before seen or heard of, by placing its altar on the summit of a high pyramid. This method of constructing temples is seen in the old ruins, but it was unknown to Cortez and his men until they found it in Mexico. The only reasonable or possible explanation of what they said of it is, that the temple actually existed at the Aztec capital, and that the Spaniards, being there, described what they saw. The uniform testimony of all who saw the country at that time shows that the edifices of towns and cities, wherever they went, were most commonly built of cut stone laid in mortar, or of timber, and that in the more rural districts thatch was frequently used for the roofs of dwellings. Moreover, we are told repeatedly that the Spaniards employed “Mexican masons,” and found them “very expert” in the arts of building and plastering. There is no good reason to[216]doubt that the civilized condition of the country, when the Spaniards found it, was superior to what it has been at any time since the Conquest.


The Mexicans, or Aztecs, subjugated by Cortez, were themselves invaders, whose extended dominion was probably less than two hundred and fifty years old, although they had been much longer in the Valley of Mexico. There were important portions of the country, especially at the south, to which their rule had not been extended. In several districts besides those of the Mayas and the Quichés the natives still maintained independent governments. The Aztec conquest of the central region, between the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific, was completed only a few years previous to the arrival of the Spaniards, and the conquest of this region had not been fully secured at some points, as appeared in the readiness of the Tlascalans and others to act in alliance with Cortez. But the Aztecs did not come from abroad. They belonged in the country, and seem to have been originally an obscure and somewhat rude branch of the native race.
It is very probable that the Colhuas and Nahuas or Toltecs of the old books and traditions, together with the Aztecs, were all substantially the same people. They established in the country three distinct family groups of language, it is said, but the actual significance of this difference in speech has not been clearly determined. These unlike groups of language have not been suffi[217]ciently analyzed and studied to justify us in assuming that they did not all come from the same original source, or that there is a more radical difference between them than between the Sclavonic, Teutonic, and Scandinavian groups in Europe. These ancient Americans were distinct from each other at the time of the Conquest, but not so distinct as to show much difference in their religious ideas, their mythology, their ceremonies of worship, their methods of building, or in the general character of their civilization.
If the Toltecs and our Mound-Builders were the same people, they probably went from Mexico and Central America to the Valley of the Mississippi at a very remote period, as Colhuan colonies, and after a long residence there returned so much changed in speech and in other respects as to seem a distinct people. The Aztecs appear to have dwelt obscurely in the south before they rose to power. They must have been at first much less advanced in civilization than their predecessors, but ready to adopt the superior knowledge and methods of the country they invaded.


It has sometimes been assumed that the Aztecs came to Mexico from the north, but there is nothing to warrant this assumption, nothing to make it probable, nothing even to explain the fact that some persons have entertained it. People of the ancient Mexican and Central American race are not found farther north than New Mexico and Arizona, where they are known as Pueblos,[218] or Village Indians. In the old times that was a frontier region, and the Pueblos seem to represent ancient settlers who went there from the south. There was the border line between the Mexican race and the wild Indians, and the distinction between the Pueblos and the savage tribes is every way so uniform and so great that it is well-nigh impossible to believe they all belong to the same race. In fact, no people really like our wild Indians of North America have ever been found in Mexico, Central America, or South America.
Investigation has made it probable that the Mexicans or Aztecs went to the Valley of Mexico from the south. Mr. Squier says: “The hypothesis of a migration from Nicaragua and Cuscutlan to Anahuac is altogether more consonant with probabilities and with tradition than that which derives the Mexicans from the north; and it is a significant fact, that in the map of their migrations presented by Gemelli, the place of the origin of the Aztecs is designated by the sign of water (atl standing for Aztlan), a pyramidal temple with grades, and near these a palm-tree.” Humboldt thought this indicated a southern origin.
Communities of Aztecs still exist as far south as Nicaragua and Costa Rica, with some variations in their speech, but not so great, probably, as to make them unintelligible to each other. The Spanish historian, Oviedo, called attention to the fact that an isolated community of Aztecs was found occupying the territory between Lake Nicaragua and the Pacific. They were called Niquirans, and Mr. Squier seems to have verified this[219] fact. The result of his investigation is that the people of the district specified are Aztecs, and that, “from the comparative lateness of the separation or some other cause,” their distinguishing features were easily recognized, their speech being nearly identical with the native speech heard in the Valley of Mexico. Oviedo said of them: “The Niquirans who speak the Mexican language have the same manners and appearance as the people of New Spain (Mexico).” In the neighboring districts, communities closely related to the Mayas are found, and others that appear to belong to the Toltec family. Aztecs are found still farther south, and there appear to be conclusive reasons for believing that Montezuma’s people went from the south to Anahuac or Mexico.

According to the native histories as reported by Clavigero, the Aztecs began their migration northward from Aztlan about the year 1160 A.D., and founded the more important of their first settlements in the Valley of Mexico about the year 1216 A.D., a little over three hundred years previous to the Spanish invasion. Another result of investigation adds a century to this estimate. This result is reached as follows: the Mexicans stated constantly that their calendar was reformed some time after they left Aztlan, and that in the year 1519 eight cycles of fifty-two years each and thirteen years of a ninth cycle had passed since that reform was made. This carries back the beginning of their migration considerably beyond the year 1090 A.D.
Their sway seems to have been confined for a long time to Anahuac. They grew to supremacy in part prob[220]ably by the arrival of new immigrants, but chiefly by conquest of the small states into which the country was divided. They could learn from their more cultivated neighbors to reform their calendar, compute time with greater accuracy, and make important improvements in other respects. They must also have modified their religious system to some extent, for it does not appear that they had adopted the worship of Kukulcan (whose name they transformed into Quetzalcohuatl) before they came to Mexico. But they brought with them an effective political organization, and very likely they were better fitted than most of their new neighbors for the rude work of war.

Before the city of Mexico was built, the seat of their government was at Tezcuco. The character of their civilization after they rose to pre-eminence was shown in their organization, in their skill as builders, in the varied forms of their industry, and in the development of their religious ceremonies. It is manifest that they adopted all the astronomical knowledge and appliances found in the neighboring states which they subjugated. Their measure of the solar year and their numbering of the months were precisely like what had long existed in this part of the country; and they had the same astronomical implements or contrivances. One of these contrivances, found at Chapultepec, is described as follows:
“On the horizontal plane of a large, carefully-worked stone, three arrows were cut in relief, so that the shaft ends came together and made equal angles in the centre. The points were directed eastward, the two outside show[221]ing the two solstitial points, and that in the centre the equinoctial. A line on the carved band holding them together was in range with holes in two stones which stood exactly north and south. A cord drawn tightly through the holes in these two stones would, at the moment of noon, cast its shadow on the line drawn across the band. It was a perfect instrument for ascertaining east and west with precision, and for determining the exact time by the rising and setting of the sun at the equinoxes and solstices. This stone has now been broken up and used to construct a furnace.”

These Aztecs were manifestly something very different from “Mexican savages.” At the same time, they were less advanced in many things than their predecessors. Their skill in architecture and architectural ornamentation did not enable them to build such cities as Mitla and Palenque, and their “picture writing” was a much ruder form of the graphic art than the phonetic system of the Mayas and Quichés. It does not appear that they ever went so far in literary improvement as to adopt this simpler and more complete system for any purpose whatever. If the country had never, in the previous ages, felt the influence of a higher culture than that of the Aztecs, it would not have now, and never could have had, ruined cities like Mitla, Copan, and Palenque. Not only was the system of writing shown by the countless inscriptions quite beyond the attainments of Aztec art, but also the abundant sculptures and the whole system of decoration found in the old ruins.