The period between AD 900 and the Spanish arrival in 1519 is known as the Post-Classic. It was characterized by renewed population growth, extensive commercial development, and the rise of the most powerful city-states yet seen in Mesoamerica. During this period, two city-states, Tula and later Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec empire, dominated central Mexico. As was the case with the earlier periods, the onset of the Post-Classic occurred gradually and varied by location.

For an extended period after the fall of Teotihuacan there was a power vacuum in central Mexico. As historian Enrique Florescano noted, “Wars pitting everyone against everyone else characterized that turbulent epoch.” Several small city-states, such as Xochicalco in the modern state of Morelos and El Tajín in Veracruz arose to fill this power vacuum.

After AD 900, the Toltec rose to dominance in central Mexico. The Toltec looked back to their first great ruler, Topiltzin, who was born in the first half of the tenth century. He was responsible for moving the Toltec capital to Tula, located fifty miles northwest of where Mexico City stands today. At its peak between AD 950 and 1150, the city had a population of 30,000–40,000 and covered 5.4 square miles. There the Toltec constructed an impressive formal plaza flanked by ball courts, altars, and pyramids topped by temples. From Tula, the Toltecs dominated central Mexico for two centuries. Toltec influence extended as far north as present-day Arizona and New Mexico and as far south as Yucatán.

In Tula, military artistic motifs outnumbered religious ones. There were abundant images of both the ubiquitous Quetzalcoatl and of his enemy Tezcatlipoca (the Smoking Mirror). Toltec astronomers developed a superb calendar. Within the city there was a sizable community of artisans specializing in the production of pottery vessels, figurines, and obsidian blades. Their skill was reflected by the fact that the word “Toltec” was used in the Nahuatl language to mean artist. Farmers working irrigated, terraced fields supported these workers.

Around AD 1175, a combination of drought, famine, and war led to the fall of Tula. All the evidence points to a sudden, overwhelming cataclysm. Ceremonial walls were burned to the ground. Soon the city was deserted.

Aztec legends told of their coming from a place to the northwest of the Valley of Mexico known as Aztlan. Upon their arrival in the valley early in the twelfth century, this band of hunter-gatherers was scorned by more sophisticated agriculturists, such as the Colhuacan. For a short period, the Aztecs cultivated the lands of the Colhuacan as serfs. In 1323, the Aztecs’ overlords provided one of their princesses to an Aztec chief as a bride. The Aztecs, rather than performing the anticipated marriage ceremony, sacrificed her in hopes she would become a war goddess. The enraged Colhuacan then expelled the Aztecs from their land. The Aztecs withdrew to an isolated, marshy area. There, according to their lore, in the year 1325, they founded the city of Tenochtitlan on the present site of Mexico City.

An Aztec legend recounts that an eagle perched on a prickly-pear cactus, eating a snake, indicated the place where the Aztecs were to found Tenochtitlan. Today the Mexican flag and coat of arms depict this eagle.

The Aztecs constructed Tenochtitlan on roughly five square miles of land reclaimed from Lake Texcoco, which surrounded their capital. Its population reached as many as 250,000, making it larger than any city in Europe, except perhaps Naples and Constantinople, and four times the size of Seville. Only the cities of China, unknown to Spaniards and Aztecs alike, exceeded its population. Sophisticated systems provided food, trade goods, and potable water to the city’s population.

The difficulty of hauling grain in societies lacking wheeled vehicles and draught animals imposed size limits on Mesoamerican cities. Tenochtitlan could escape these limits since large cargo canoes, which came from distant waterfronts, provisioned the city with grain and other produce.

In 1519, Tenochtitlan was the largest city that had ever existed in the New World. Its size and grandeur reflected its status as an imperial capital, and its large buildings made a statement about the might and control of its rulers, thus legitimizing and contributing to their power. In laying out the city, planners consciously adopted the model of Tula, since Tula and the Toltec practices served as the source of Aztec political and social legitimacy.

With the exception of Tenochtitlan, most Aztec cities were not large. The second largest, Texcoco, had a population of 25,000. Secondary cities served as ceremonial centers of the Aztec territorial division known as the altepetl. Temples soared high above the plazas of these cities. The altepetl was the political unit responsible for collecting tribute from the villages and rural people within its boundaries. This tribute would then be distributed to the local elite and to Tenochtitlan. The altepetl also organized manpower in time of war and for construction projects. A hereditary leader known as a tlatoani, or speaker, headed each altepetl. Residents of each altepetl considered themselves a separate people from those elsewhere, even though all were Aztecs.

By 1465, the Aztecs had the entire Valley of Mexico under their control. During the next half-century, the Aztecs extended their control across 140,000 square miles stretching from modern Querétaro and Guanajuato in the north to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in the south. Divine sanction and generations of military triumphs bolstered Aztec confidence.

Generally the Aztecs did not establish permanent garrisons in conquered territory. Merchants, known as pochteca, and tax collectors, known as calpixtli, were usually the only Aztec presence among the conquered. Recurrent bloody, punitive expeditions prevented disaffected subjects from challenging Aztec suzerainty or failing to supply demanded tribute. On the eve of the Spanish conquest, the Aztec empire constituted a massive agglomeration of 38 provinces, embracing a range of cultural and linguistic traditions.

The Aztecs instituted a form of tributary despotism. They would rule conquered lands indirectly, leaving indigenous leaders and nobles in place, but subordinating them to the Aztec hierarchy. The tribute Aztec subjects sent to Tenochtitlan annually included 7,000 tons of corn, 4,000 tons each of beans, chia seed, and amaranth, and 2,000,000 cotton cloaks. The Aztecs also received as tribute shields, feather headdresses, and luxury products, such as amber, that were unobtainable in the central highlands. As a result of this tribute, as well as the Aztecs’ well developed trading networks, the main Aztec market at Tlatelolco offered consumers pottery, chocolate, vanilla, copper, all sorts of clothing, cooked and unprepared food, gold, silver, jade, turquoise, feather products, and even slaves. Spaniard Bernal Díaz del Castillo visited the market, where 60,000 gathered daily, and expressed astonishment at “the number of people and the quantity of merchandise that it contained, and at the good order and control that was maintained, for we had never seen such a thing before.”

As was the case with other Mesoamerican civilizations, the Aztec empire was highly stratified socially. Most of the population were peasant farmers. They were responsible not only for their sustenance, but for providing tribute and labor for public works. The Aztec state then organized the redistribution of goods and labor on a massive scale, thus allowing the highly inegalitarian consumption by the nobility, which constituted roughly 5 percent of the population. Presiding over the Aztecs was an emperor who was selected from the nobility. Rather than having rigid rules of male primogeniture, as European monarchies of the time did, the top Aztec elite selected the royal family member they felt was most qualified. The last Aztec emperor to be selected before the Spanish arrival was Montezuma, who assumed the throne in 1502.

Human sacrifice formed a salient characteristic of Aztec society. The Aztecs claimed that human sacrifices propitiated the god Huitzilopochtli (Humming Bird of the South) and thus prevented the destruction of the earth and the sun for a fifth time. Aztec belief held that humans had existed in four previous worlds and that all had perished when these worlds were destroyed. To reintroduce humans to the fifth world, Quetzalcoatl made a perilous journey to steal human bones from Mictlantecuhtli, the lord of the underworld. The gods then gave life to the bones by shedding blood on them.

Modern scholars have yet to reach consensus on why Aztec sacrifice played such an important role. The threat of being sacrificed might have intimidated conquered subjects. Some modern scholars have attributed such frequent human sacrifice to the need for animal protein in a society lacking cattle. (Victims were eaten after the sacrifice.) Others maintain that sufficient protein existed and that sacrifice served to reduce the population. Aztec sacrificial practices were used by the Spanish to justify the Conquest. However, as archeologist Robert J. Sharer commented, “Before we decry practices such as human sacrifice, we should remember that Europeans of 500 years ago burned people alive in the name of religion and submitted ‘heretics’ to an array of tortures and protracted executions.”

The Aztecs perfected one of the most productive agricultural systems ever devised—the chinampa. Chinampas were artificial islands, located near lakeshores, which measured from fifteen to thirty feet in width and up to 300 feet in length. Aztecs grew crops in soil piled on these islands. Lake water penetrated the entire chinampa, moistening roots. Mud scooped up from the lake bottom and night soil brought from Tenochtitlan by canoe maintained fertility. Eventually chinampas covered 25,000 acres in the Valley of Mexico. Chinampa-produced food facilitated the rapid expansion of the Aztec empire.

Chinampas formed part of the rich lacustrine culture that developed in the Valley of Mexico. Lakefront villages relied heavily on the abundant fish, crustaceans, mollusks, and 109 aquatic bird species that inhabited the 252 square miles of lakes in the Valley of Mexico. Canoes facilitated communication between villages and with Tenochtitlan. These canoes could transport a ton of grain, roughly ten times what the Spanish-introduced mule could carry.

The charismatic megacivilizations, such as the Maya and the Aztec, only covered limited areas of present-day Mexico and only dominated their area of influence for relatively short periods. In addition, there were innumerable other ethnic groups. They adapted themselves to the widely varying environments in which they found themselves. Most lacked the attributes of civilization—social classes, states, and hieratic religion. They accumulated knowledge concerning a variety of terrestrial and aquatic species that furnished them with food, fibers, raw materials, and medicines. Many such people lived in the deserts of northern Mexico. Even though they did not have a rich material culture, what they did have—projectile points, scrapers, milling stones, baskets, and mats—has been well preserved in desert caves.

Even though the Aztec empire was truncated by the Conquest, Mesoamerica’s ethnic diversity continued under Spanish rule, providing continuity to the area. This diversity is indicated by more than 100 distinct indigenous languages surviving until at least the end of the nineteenth century. Of these surviving languages, Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, presently has the largest number of speakers. Due to Aztec influence over Mesoamerica, Nahuatl loan words are found in many of Mexico’s indigenous languages, and many Nahuatl place names are still used. Nahuatl loan words that have made their way into English include ocelot, coyote, tomato, chocolate, tamale, and avocado.

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