Aztecs, properly the name of one only of the various tribes or nations who at the time of the conquest in the 16th century occupied the plateau of Anahuac or Mexico, though generally used as synonymous with Mexicans. These tribes were the Xochimilcos, Chalcos, Tepanecas, Acolhuas, Tezcucans, Tlascaltecas, and Aztecas, which collectively bore the name of Nahuatlecas, and their language was called Nahuatl. Tradition variously represents these families as emerging from seven caverns in a region called Aztlan (from the Nahuatl words Aztatl, heron, and tlan or titlan, place or place of), or as wandering away from their fellows subsequently to a grand cataclysm, and after a distribution of tongues. These traditions, however, do not fall within the domain of history, and critical writers have generally preferred to confine their researches within the period fixed by the Mexican paintings or records. Several of these are in existence, and although differing considerably in their chronology, they do not carry back the history of the Aztecs and their affiliated tribes beyond the 11th and 12th centuries of our era.

There is abundant evidence, nevertheless, that the plateau of Mexico was occupied for many ages anterior to the arrival of the Nahuatlecas by a people of much higher culture, of whose civilization that of the Aztecs was but a rude reflection. (See Toltecs.) The locality of the traditional Aztlan has been a subject of much speculation. By some writers it has been supposed that this primitive seat of the Nahuatlecas was in Asia, and that the paintings, all of which depict the passage over a body of water in canoes or on rafts, represent a migration to America from that continent. Most, however, imagine Aztlan to have been somewhere to the north of Mexico, beyond the river Gila, the so-called casas grandes found there having been erroneously thought to be the work of the Aztecs. (See Casas Grandes.) But it is worthy of remark that no native history, chronicle, or known hieroglyphic of the Mexicans assigns a northern origin to the Aztec tribes, except the relation of Ixtlilxuchitl, who wrote a considerable time after the conquest, and who in this matter only followed the Spanish authors who had preceded him.

In the painting representing the migration of the Aztecs, originally published by Gemelli Car-rera in his Giro del Hondo, the sign or hieroglyphic of Aztlan is accompanied by the representation of a teocalli or temple, by the side of which stands a palm tree - a circumstance which excited the astonishment of the cautious Humboldt, as opposed to the opinion that Aztlan was to be looked for in a northern latitude. The palm certainly points southward as the direction whence the traditional migration took place; and this indication is supported by the fact that a people speaking the same language with the Aztecs (the Nahuatl), and having identical habits, laws, and religious observances, existed as far south as Nicaragua, and at the time of the conquest occupied nearly the whole of the present state of San Salvador in Central America. - The next question concerns the date of the departure of the seven tribes from Azt-lan. According to Gemelli's painting, this event happened in the year 1038 of our era; according to the astronomer Gama, in 1064. Veytia follows Gama; but Clavigero fixes the period nearly a century later, in 1160. But great uncertainty is attached to all dates previous to the foundation of the city of Tenochtitlan or Mexico, which all accounts concur in fixing in the year 1324 or 1325. Tradition and the paintings represent that various halts and stoppages took place after leaving Aztlan, before the seven tribes reached the valley of Mexico; and the time occupied is variously estimated from 56 to 163 years.

According to the painting obtained by Boturni representing this migration, they made not less than 22 stoppages, varying from 4 to 28 years in length - altogether occupying 162 years, before reaching Chapultepec. It does not appear that the various tribes all arrived at the same time in the valley of Mexico, but came in and took up their positions successively. They found the country rich and attractive, and occupied by only a remnant of an anterior and powerful people, who had left numerous monuments of their greatness. From these they learned many of the arts of life, the cultivation of the soil, and the working of metals. At first they seem to have lived in harmony with each other; but gradually the stronger tribes began to encroach upon the weaker, which led to combinations for defence among the latter, and to a long series of bloody forays and wars. The Mexicans (subsequently so called from Mexi, one of their war chiefs) ranked as the seventh tribe, and seem to have assumed the name of Aztecas par excellence.

They were established first at Chapultepec, but gradually encroached upon the Chalcos, and finally, under the lead of a succession of military chiefs, became the most powerful tribe in Anahuac, and established their imperial city in the lake of Chalco. This event took place in 1324 or 1325, under the reign of Tenuch, and the city was called Tenochtitlan, the place or seat of Tenoch or Tenuch. The site, like that of Venice - a few low islands in a great lake - was admirably chosen for defence, and the Mexicans exhausted their art in strengthening the position. It could only be approached over long and narrow causeways, easily defended, and which even the Spaniards were not successful in forcing. Commanding the lake with numerous fleets of boats, they were unassailable from the water. From this stronghold they gradually reduced their neighbors, their companions from Aztlan, or forced them into a kind of dependent alliance, which served still further to build up their power and influence; so that, at the time of the arrival of Cortes, the Mexican emperor exercised a qualified dominion over nearly all the aboriginal nations embraced within the present boundaries of the republic of Mexico. This power was often exercised without mercy, and many thousands of their captured enemies were sacrificed on the altars of their sanguinary divinities.

How severely their yoke was felt, and how eagerly it was thrown off, is shown by the readiness with which the Tlascalans, their own kindred, joined the Spaniards in their attack on the Mexican capital. - The form of government among the Mexicans was an elective monarchy; and the legislative power resided wholly with the king. The administration of the laws belonged to certain judicial tribunals, and was conducted with great regularity and with Draconic sternness. Their religion was sanguinary in most of its practices; yet it combined the elements of a milder system, probably, than that of their Tulhuatecan predecessors, whose religion was closely allied to the Buddhist system of India. As essentially a warlike nation, they made the highest beatitudes of their faith the rewards of the bravest soldiers; and while the soul of the common citizen after death was believed to be subject to a purgatorial existence, that of the warrior who fell in battle was caught up at once to the abode of the gods, to the bosom of the sun, the heaven of eternal delights.

In the arts, and especially in their architecture, the Mexicans achieved an advance corresponding with their numerical and political growth; and the islands, which at the outset supported only rude huts of cane and thatch, came finally to be covered with imposing edifices of stone and lime. Metallurgy was extensively practised, and gold and silver, copper, and a species of brass were well known and elaborately worked; but iron, except in its meteoric form, was unknown. For accounts of the political, social, and religious practices, customs, and organization of this interesting people, whose subversion forms the most dramatic incident in the history of this continent, see the works of Sahagun, Solis, Clavigero, Prescott, and Baldwin. The following chronological table is from an unpublished Mexican painting or MS., in the possession of Mr. E. G. Squier:

Aztec Warriors. (From a Mexican Sculpture.)

Aztec Warriors. (From a Mexican Sculpture).

Aztecs leave Aztlan..............................A. D.

1164

Arrive in Valley of Mexico............................

1216

Tenotzinlatoani, founder of Mexico, commences to reign

1324

Acamapiehtle, second king............................

1373

Huitzilihuitzin.................. .........

1394

Chimalpopoca............... .......

1415

Itzcohuatzin...................

1428

Hue Monctecumatzin (Montezuma I.).................

1438

Axayacatzin, king................ .....

1471

Tieocicatzin ("Tizoc")...............

1480

Ahuitzotzin....................

1484

Monctecumatzin (Montezuma II.).....

1502

Entry of the Spaniards.............

1519