A Brief History of Mexico – Rise and Fall of the Aztec Nation

The Aztecs built the city of Tenochtitlan on an island. Mexico City is now centered on this site.

The Aztecs built the city of Tenochtitlan on an island. Mexico City is now centered on this site.

History portrays Hernán Cortes as a brutal conquistador responsible for wiping out a once proud and highly-evolved indigenous society in Mexico. It turns out he had a lot of help.

The Aztecs worship gods of sun and rain and built great temples, some of which remain today.

The Aztecs worshipped gods of sun and rain and built great temples, some of which remain today.

The Aztecs did not start out as a powerful tribe. In fact, they did not have a homeland for many generations. They subsisted in what is now Central Mexico as mercenary soldiers. They were fierce warriors, and they were seldom defeated. On the other hand, they had no loyalty. Their warriors always fought for those who paid the most. They would even turn against their hosts if their enemies outbid them for their services.

Over a period of centuries the Aztecs had alienated every tribe in the region. The tribes of the central valley banished the Aztecs to a marshy island in the middle of the lake that once covered much of the valley where Mexico City now sits. Over time, the Aztecs built their strength and influence to the point that they threatened to attack any neighboring tribe that did not pay tribute to them. And indeed, those who resisted were wiped out. Over time the Aztecs dominated all of what is now Central Mexico.

An artist's portrayal of Tenochititlan depicts what Cortes encountered as he entered the Aztec city.

An artist’s portrayal of Tenochtitlan depicts what Cortes encountered as he entered the Aztec city.

Then, in 1519, Cortes showed up on the Caribbean shore. When he learned of the great nation of the Aztecs, Cortes set out with 500 men, 15 horses, and a dozen cannons to meet the Aztecs for himself. Cortes discovered the Aztec Nation numbered about six million people and held dominion over another 12 million. The cultivation skills alone needed to produce food for this many people were unprecedented. Cortes was going to need help. It turns out he had no difficulty finding it. Every indigenous tribe readily joined forces with Cortes when they learned his objective was to conquer the Aztecs. It took only two years for Cortes’ army to conquer the entire Aztec Nation. It turned out smallpox was the biggest killer. Over 90% of the indigenous population died from diseases brought from Europe to the New World.

The Palace of Cortes is now a huge museum.

The Palace of Cortes is now a huge museum.

Cortes made his home in a village called Cuauhnáhuac, a native term meaning ‘near the forest.’ The closest word in Spanish was Cuernavaca, or cow horn, a term which bears no relevance to the place. Cortes had a palace built. It stands today as a huge museum bordering the central plaza in Cuernavaca. The Government Palace and the main cathedral are also located near the plaza.

Cuernavaca is now a metropolitan city of nearly one million people with numerous gardens, parks, museums and commercial areas. At an elevation of about 4,500 feet, the climate remains pleasant throughout the year. All of which goes to explain why we made this our home, for now.

Note: This article touches lightly on the history and events spanning the centuries leading up to the Spanish Conquest. I have detailed nothing of the pre-Columbian Mesoamerican societies which evolved simultaneously with post-Christian European societies. Any slight to the sophistication of these cultures is unintentional.
living in Panama

22 comments on “A Brief History of Mexico – Rise and Fall of the Aztec Nation

  1. rabirius says:

    Interesting story.

    • Thanks – I mostly retold what our tour guide told us on our Mexico City tour. It’s not easy to capture 2,000 years of history in 500 words. I haven’t done that since the last time I wrote a term paper. 🙂

  2. mkesling63 says:

    I pick up things about history that most do not. My career started in the mental health field with developmentally disabled. I would encourage all to look up the statement in here that disease was the main killer that came from Europe. Most disease started with a chemical imbalance and that start comes from the head. If you look at history, all your attacks came from the Europe or the top of Asia.

    Both had a Royal beginning. Common denominator here is narcissism. The Spanish conquer gig was to falsely accuse people of cannibalism so they would become slaves. The justification for doing it. What about that order does not reek of serious mental health disease out of Europe and Upper Asia? Chemicals that are bad create more bad chemical.

    Obviously peaceful people whose chemical is balanced don’t see it coming. They are not looking when it hits. If you go to history, the intention of the conquer if disease was in the play, the purpose was obvious. There was no intent of letting them live.

    Science is very important here. It gives many clues that would warn any of some issue coming your way simply in the logic start and end conclusions. Some call it secret. There is no secret to the majority of it. Today you can even see it coming. My guess here is the first conquer was actually funded by Spain or England one of the 2. Because who did he get help from with so little to succeed? I would say Spain conquered them and then reneged on their deals.
    The disease had to be spread somehow? The more decease, the worse people are treated.

    SO the clues here are, where was the most disease and follow the trail back to upper Asia and Europe. The Plagues pops up in history more in those 2 then any other countries ever. Basically if you give allegiance to any, if the people are treated right, there is less disease. If the people were treated badly then there was more. So just a little clue when you follow historical events.

    If the royals/dictators in history had all this chemical crap, then what was there to scare them? Treatment of the people. Fear of the people. When a nation takes their need in law and hands it to somebody else where it is not needed, the end result is bad treatment of the people. Obviously the ones that were there already knew better. So what conqueror do you respect and which one don’t you?

    • Yours is a perspective I would never have considered. I am pleased to have spurred your thinking and moved you to share your thoughts with us here in this space. Thank you.

      • mkesling63 says:

        Well it is easier to do these days. Air quality will tell you about the treatment planned for the people in any given city. The government however controlled that to date. They being the ones with the bad chemical.

  3. Fascinating! Thanks for sharing Mike.

  4. Madame Rashid says:

    Applecore, I’m glad to stumble upon your blog. Your stories are very interesting and the fact that you’re a fellow Northwesterner traveling abroad and telling your stories inspires me to continue mine. Good Luck. I will come to visit often.

    • The Northwest connection resonated with me as well! 🙂 It is so great to have you following along. I will likewise be interested in your stories, so by all means continue to write! Thank you. – Mike

  5. mkesling63 says:

    History with a picture inspires me to get interested. I nominate this blog for inspiring blogger award. http://mkesling63.wordpress.com/2013/01/28/very-inspiring-blogger-award/

  6. char says:

    I found your blog when looking for expat info on Panama. Thank you for much helpful information.
    Most of all the renting part, which if going is what I have considered. Nice to have my thoughts verified. However, i did read that ‘short term’ rentals were difficult to come by. Is this so?
    I was thinking of perhaps 3 months, as there would be so many changes in my grandchildren, and the airfare is becoming so outrageous for too many frequent trips home.

    Kept right on reading to Cuernavaca. I have great interest in your reasons for choosing this town.
    In my thoughts are that smaller towns are more about the locals, but I may be way off on that.

    Have visited a few Mexican towns , but only as a ‘vacationer’ due to time restraints. Have always wanted a longer stay, but too many responsibilities until now.
    Have spent much time in and around the Baja, which has changed so much and has become too ”Americanized”. But I still love it there. And also it has been close–for those regrettably short trips.
    So, perhaps I missed the why of your choice. Would appreciate hearing.

    Thank you for the comprehensive information, and other blogs to check–as I am new to this entire system of education in this manner!

    • Hi Char,
      Three month rentals should not be a problem in most countries. Some European countries are more geared to six month leases. You should consider finding a short-term base in your preferred destination and then tour with a realtor or property manager to find what you are looking for. One thing Americans have going for them abroad is they are preferred as tenants because Americans reliably pay rent on time. In fact, if you find a place you like, you can offer to pay several months in advance and negotiate the price. Most landlords will happily offer a discount in exchange for cash up front. Also, having rental references may come in handy.

      As for Cuernavaca, it was sort of a coincidence. We started out looking at the central valley of Costa Rica, and it was difficult to connect with owners. Their properties were posted online. We simply could not connect with them. In the midst of that process we heard back from new and prior contacts in Cuernavaca, and the rest is history. The same thing is happening now with our next move. We originally wanted to move to Ireland, and we got far greater advice and support from people in Scotland. So we will probably live in Scotland and visit Ireland. We have learned to be flexible and let plans change as is necessary. We are also hoping the moving process will get easier as we go.

      Good luck with your journey, and thank you for sharing your thoughts. – Mike

      • char says:

        Thank you very much Mike. I will be following you. Anxious to hear ALL about Cuernavaca,
        as well as your side trips.
        I thrive on details and personal insights.
        Appreciate the history very much as well.

  7. Interesting twist, the allies of Cortes were all very sorry for the assistance they gave him! If you’re interested in this history and want to learn more, I know a few sources. There’s Stolen Continents by Ronald Wright which delves into Aztec culture and the events of Cortes conquest, but he bases his accounts very heavily on the Florentine Codex by Bernardino de Sahagun, which gives a very detailed and sympathetic account of Cortes’ handling of the Aztecs, and was written in the 16th century.

    • I appreciate the additional sources. As it turns out our landlord is a professor of Latin American history, and he has generously made his extensive library available, and a nice thing about our stay here in Mexico is the opportunity to read to our heart’s content. Thank you for your comments.

      • You’re in Mexico? Whereabouts? Only been there once, but I had a magnificent time. I was backpacking with a friend who was on a long tour of Latin America and we did the Yucatan together. What a time!

  8. We are in Cuernavaca, Morelos about 40 miles south of Mexico City. The elevation here is 5,200 ft., so it doesn’t get too hot, although the pool will be nice come May.

  9. Hey Mike! I just wanted to know that I finally accepted the Liebster award that you nominated me for. Just wanted to thank you again for the nomination and if you want to check out the post, the title is ‘Who Lies the Best’. I had a little fun with the title;).

  10. scott says:

    The pyramid in your blog is Mayan not Aztec ? Located in Yucatan, Chichen Itza. A very remarkable structure to be sure ! Several points come to mind. This particular pyramid is probably best known example of archeoastronamy. The Mayan feathered surpent god located along each side of the 4 stair cases casts a shadow during the equinoxes as moving down in spring and up in fall ? Remarkably, Mayan temples in general were built in layers one upon the other. At the base of the eastern staircase is a hole that leads to a second staircase inside the pyramid ! This internal staircase leads to a red Jaguar-like statue ! The hole is modern. I climbed both ! The view from the top is incredible ! Each stair case has 364 steps with the top temple that adds upto 365 ! The Maya are a truely remarkable people, very friendly, in my experience.

    Just FYI

    The ruins of the great Aztec pyramids that were mostly dystroyed by Spanish, called the Temple Mayor ( can spell) ? New parts of their temple complex are being uncovered in Mexico city ! The Aztecs were indeed over thrown by neighboring tribes that linked with Cortez. As well as a large second wave of Spanish military, but mostly by small pox and other infectious diseases !



    • Mike Lince says:

      Scott, you may be right about the pyramid photo being of Mayan origin. I don’t recall where I got that photo. I seem to recall there was a distinct Mayan influence in the design of the pyramids.

      Thank you for adding your astute observations. – Mike

      • scott says:


        In my ruminations on this partiular site, there may well have been Toltec influences. The Maya and Toltecs shared many things in common. One of which is the Chac mool, A stone statue of a reclining God over which sacrificial offerings were conducted. The precise relationship of the northern Toltecs with the Maya is unknown by myself but they certainly over lapped time wise ? The Aztecs civilization was several hundred years later.

        Remarkably, There is a temple adjacent to El Castillo that has a Chac mool on the top platform. The temple of the warriors.

        Fascinating civilizations !


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