Cultures Subjugated by the Aztecs

Cultures Subjugated by the Aztecs

From the 14th through 16th centuries Aztecs dominated central and southern Mexico and established an elaborate and wide-ranging empire. As the Aztecs grew in number, they developed superior military and civil organizations.

The Aztecs formed military alliances with other groups, creating an empire that extended from central Mexico to the Guatemalan border. By the end of the reign of Motecuhzoma II in 1520, 38 tributary provinces had been established; however, some of the tribes at the fringes of the Aztec empire remained fiercely independent.

Aztec rulers approached war somewhat differently than we do today. There were varied reasons for warfare. An insult, a tribute that had not been paid, or an attack on Aztec traders could trigger a military response. The Aztecs did not launch surprise attacks, nor did they fight during certain seasons or at night. Declarations of war began by sending ambassadors to the city they planned to attack. They would ask the city leaders to become allies by paying tribute, trading with the Aztecs, and putting a statue of their god Huitzilopochtli in their temple. They had twenty days to decide whether they would comply. If the city refused, more ambassadors arrived. This time the talk was tougher, less about the advantages of joining the Aztecs and more about the destruction and death, which came to any city that did not submit. To show how confident they were about the outcome of any future war, the Aztecs gave the enemy chief weapons, and more warnings. If this did not work, a third embassy arrived twenty days later. Polite talk was replaced by bloodcurdling threats about what would happen after the city lost the war. This included destruction of the city’s temple, enslavement of population, and a promise that crippling tribute would be demanded for years to come. If the city still refused to join the Aztecs, the war began. Through all of these negotiations, the Aztecs had time to gain information and plan how to best attack the city. Priests decided on the luckiest day to start the battle, soldiers prepared for war, the army set out, and the battles began. Usually the Aztecs won quickly. They took as many prisoners as possible for sacrifice, destroyed the local temples and decided on the tribute to be paid. Then they made the local people worship Huitzilopochtli and respect the Aztec emperor. Tribute was paid regularly, or else another battle would occur.

Discussion Questions:

1. How do Aztec war tactics and strategies differ from those used today? Are there parts that seem effective? Ineffective? If you were counseling the Aztecs on military strategy, what suggestions would you make?

2. If you were part of a neighboring group what tactics would you suggest to avoid being conquered?


This Life–Death figure was created by the Huaxtec, a people who were defeated by the Aztec armies around 1450 and henceforth paid tribute to the Aztec empire. It is an excellent embodiment of a concept that ran through Mesoamerican cultures; the concept of duality. This life-size sculpture represents a youthful male wearing ornaments and a cloth knotted around his waist, but when we examine the other side of this figure we find a skeletal figure with its rib cage and internal organs exposed.

The Huaxtec language is still spoken in Mexico today, especially in rural areas, and the people retain characteristic traditions in their music and dance. It is estimated that the Huaxtec population in Mexico numbers approximately 80,000 people.

View + Discuss

Life-Death figure (Apotheosis)
Huaxtec, ca. 900–1250
Stone, 158 x 67 x 22.9 cm
Brooklyn Museum of Art, Henry L. Batterman Fund and the Frank Sherman Benson Fund 37.2897PA
Photo © Brooklyn Museum of Art

1. Divide the class into two groups. Each group should compose a list of words that describe one side of the sculpture. When complete, post both lists. Are there words in each list that can be combined to demonstrate the concept of duality? Are there other combinations that suggest other qualities in this sculpture?

2. Are some dualities still part of our contemporary life? Do you feel this concept is still important or has it been replaced by other ideas. Explain.

Further Explorations

Although we see the front and back of this work in the photograph, make a drawing that shows how it might look from the side – in profile. If you are visiting the museum during the exhibition, bring the drawing with you, so that you can compare your conception with your observations in the gallery.

Consider the concept of duality and create a drawing, poem, essay, sculpture, or other personal expression of this pervasive theme. 

On View

This presentation, comprised of selected materials from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum Archives, pays homage to the first Frank Lloyd Wright–designed structures in New York City.

Works & Process

Photo: Petrus Sjövik

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