What Everybody Gets Wrong about the Aztecs

The Mexica; the people popularly known as the Aztecs, are one of the most misunderstand groups in history.

In fact, most of what you think you know about the Aztecs is wrong. Some popular wrong ideas about the Aztecs include:

1) Nobody called them Aztecs

The proper name for the Aztecs is Mexica. Notably, neither the Mexica themselves; nor their enemies, the Spanish used the name Aztec. Instead, 18th Century scholars probably created the name Aztec history professor Camilla Townsend speculates.*

2) They are extinct

Wrong, the Aztecs still exist, we call them Mexicans. Their country, Mexico, had a population of 129.7 million people in 2017.

Additionally, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates there were 36.697 million people of Mexican descent in the United States in 2018. In fact, the flag of the Mexican Republic contains an Aztec symbol: the eagle holding the snake.

3) They thought the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés was the god Quetzalcóatl

Yes, it is probable that some illiterate Mexican peasants viewed Cortés as a god. However 16th and 17th Century Mexican writings state Mexica leaders knew Cortés and his soldiers were men not Gods, Townsend writes.

Additionally, it is hard to imagine Cortés; a devout Catholic promoting pagan beliefs. Notably Spanish Inquisition was in operation during the 16th Century. If Cortés had claimed to be a pagan God, the Inquisition could have burnt him at the stake for heresy.

The Cortés as a god story was probably invented by 18th Century Scholars misinterpreting Mexica writings, Townsend speculates. Townsend writes it was an earlier explorer Juan de Grijalva Mexicans mistook for Quetzalcóatl.

Plus, Quetzalcóatl was not a major Mexica deity, Townsend notes. Instead, another people, the Choulans. worshiped Quetzalcóatl.* The Choulans were the Mexica’s enemies and Cortés allies.

4) The Aztecs did not Resist the Spanish Invasion

In reality, the Mexica put up a fierce resistance to the Spanish invasion. Mexican soldiers killed hundreds of far better-armed Spaniards.

Cortés had to wage a brutal three-year war to conquer Mexico. Additionally, Cortés only won because disease; probably small pox, killed most of the Mexicans.

To defeat the Spaniards, the Mexicans would have had to invent 2,000 or 3,000 years of military technology and strategy overnight. The Conquistadors  possessed the 16th Century world’s most-advanced military technology.

Thus, the Mexica put up a good fight against a far superior force.

5) The Spanish used guns to conquer Mexico

Interestingly, the main Spanish military advantage was steel. The Conquistador’s main weapon was a steel sword. However, the Spanish were among the world’s best swordsmen in the 16th Century.

In contrast, the Mexica’s main weapon was a stick with glass glued to it. The Mexicans relied on such “weapons” because they had no metal. Thus, the Mexica had no way to hurt a Spanish soldier wearing armor. In contrast, one Spanish sword fighter could kill dozens of Mexica.

Yes, the Spanish had guns, but 16th firearms were unreliable, inaccurate, and hard to load. Relying only on a musket for defense on a 16th Century battlefield was a good way to die fast.

To explain, a Spanish musket only had one shot. If several Mexica attacked; and the soldier only had a musket, the Mexica could overwhelm and kill the Spaniard. However, a trained Spanish swordsman could kill several Mexica in a few minutes.

6) The Aztecs had an “Empire”

The idea the Mexica had an empire is somewhat true. It defends on how you define empire.

If you define Empire as a large centralized dictatorship, the Mexica had no empire. However, if you define Empire as a group of states to owe fealty to one monarch or leader, the Mexica had an Empire.

To explain, several Mexican city states and kingdoms owed fealty to the Mexica Emperor Montezuma. However, the Mexica did not have a centralized bureaucratic state, but neither did the Spanish.

Part of the confusion comes from the empire Cortés owed loyalty to. Cortés was a subject of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who was also king of Spain.

The Holy Roman Empire was a federation of quasi-independent states that owed fealty to Charles V. Hence, Cortés probably compared Montezuma’s Empire to the one he was familiar with.

The Mexica’s story shows that a lot of the history we think we know is wrong.

* See The Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecsby Camilla Townsend for details. Townsend, a professor of History at Rutgers University, bases her writings on Mexica texts.