The Aztecs, known more correctly as the Mexicas, flourished in the highlands of central Mexico between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries, AD. As the last in a series of civilizations in Mesoamerica, the Aztecs adopted many traits and institutions from their predecessors such as the Maya and Teotihuacan. The Aztecs also devised many innovations, particularly in economics and politics. Aztec civilization was destroyed at its height by the invasion of Spanish conquerors under Hernando Cortés in 1519. The Aztec peoples, who spoke the Nahuatl language, survived and intermarried with the Spaniards; today there are still over one million speakers of Nahuatl in rural areas of central Mexico.
The basic principle of Aztec social organization was the division of society into two social classes, the nobility and the commoners. The nobility was a hereditary group whose members occupied most of the important political positions and controlled most of the economic resources in Aztec society. The king (tlatoani) occupied the highest level of the nobility. Lords with the title tecuhtli were high-ranking chiefs with important political and military roles. Other nobles were called pilli. This social hierarchy within the nobility was marked by tribute payments (lower-ranking nobles paid tribute to kings) and by the sizes of the houses or palaces of the nobles. Nobles formed social and political alliances with nobles in other city-states through arranged marriages and other ties, and the entire Aztec nobility of central Mexico became enmeshed in a network of kinship and cooperation that transcended political boundaries.
The Aztec political unit was the city-state, or altepetl, ruled by a king, or tlatoani. These kings were selected by a high council of nobles who chose from the male members of the city-state's royal family. Only proven military leaders were considered for kingship, and newly-selected kings had to undertake a successful campaign of conquest before they were...
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