The Aztecs: Lost civilizations

Five hundred years ago, the spectacular city of Tenochtitlan, power centre of the Aztec empire, upon which modern Mexico City was later built, fell decisively to the Spanish. The conquistador Hernán Cortés had entered the city in 1519 without much resistance, and an uneasy period followed during which colonists and locals co-existed. But by 1521 it was all over – and within decades up to 90% of the Mexica people who had flourished in Aztec times had perished from war, famine, or disease.

In this succinct addition to the ‘Lost Civilizations’ series, Frances F Berdan provides a satisfyingly comprehensive study of the Nahuatl-speaking people from the Basin of Mexico, the creators of the Aztec Empire. At its height, the empire covered 200,000km2 of territory, encompassing every topography from high mountains to fertile plains and lakes, and boasting a population of millions. The Spanish were famously dazzled by the Aztecs’ gold, but their flourishing civilisation was based on other factors.

In just 232 pages, Berdan manages to cover all aspects of Aztec life in surprising detail. Drawing on post-conquest documentation, the archaeological record, and ethnographic studies, she first explains how the Mexica people settled the land, how cities replete with temples and palaces rose up, and how the empire came to be organised into city-states (altepetl). The emphasis thereafter, however, is on the daily occupations and preoccupations of life.

Frequent conflict erupted between the city-states, and those who were defeated were obliged to pay tribute in the form of gold, other natural resources, cloth and woven clothing, or even human slaves. For those not at war, however, a more orderly existence could be expected (one chapter is entitled ‘How to be a proper Aztec’). For the most part, people were well-fed, with staple crops such as maize and beans augmented by wild game, although periodic famines did take their toll. Religious observance and codes of ethics created an elaborate cultural and artistic life. Boys and girls were educated, though schooled in different skills, and there is a fascinating pictorial record of the methods used to discipline children – with unflinching illustrations of the punishments handed out to wayward youngsters.

Lively passages in the book evoke daily pursuits and places: for instance, the central part played by the marketplace in cities. Berdan describes the astonishing array of produce and goods to be found there, including the ubiquitous cacao bean (used for food and drink, but also as small change which was at times counterfeited by the addition of sand!), and details the hierarchy of the different merchants and the dangers they faced in bringing their exotic wares back to the cities.

In this compact illustrated volume, Berdan provides us with a wealth of fascinating detail about Aztec life. For the general reader, her book makes a wonderful introduction to the subject, wearing its considerable scholarship lightly and bringing this lost civilisation of Mesoamerica to vivid life.

Review by Maria Earle.
The Aztecs: Lost civilizations, Frances F Berdan, Reaktion Books, £15, Hardback, ISBN 978-1789143607.