The Factors That Influenced the Fall of the Aztec Empire

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To an extent the Aztec Empire was successful. Between 1428 and 1519 the Mexica successfully came to dominate Meso-America through ninety years of military expansionism. Despite periodic rebellions they successfully maintained their empire through a combination of violence and indirect rule. Furthermore, their society brought a period of extended development and cultural flourishing to Mesoamerica. Their expansionism brought peace and order, encouraging the growth of markets and production in a way that began to create an increasingly interlocked Mesoamerican economy. Economic development caused a population boom during the late Aztec period; triggering the rapid growth of cities and an expansion in farmland. Some historians have also pointed to the Aztec religion as a unifying force that encouraged cultural flourishing, something that could only take place because the Mexica were so successful in enforcing it as a ‘state religion’.

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By the 16th century the Aztec Empire faced serious problems fuelled by population growth and class tensions. The empire was stratified into distinct social groups, with commoners gaining little from the economic and political successes of wider empire. The increasing wealth and power of the nobility pushed inequality to extreme new levels. Commoners had little political power and were oppressed alongside tributary cities by the terror of human sacrifice. Population growth outstripped food production leading to more famines and falling living standards, especially among the peasantry.[4] Furthermore increasing taxation demands on both tributary states and commoners likely bred resentment and undermined the empires stability. The system of indirect rule that allowed the Empire to maintain control also contributed to the scale of rebellion in 1519 by making it easy for tributary city states to break away. The growing interconnectivity of the empire, alongside increasing urban overpopulation, were likely factors in enabling the rapid spread of smallpox. Ultimately it was these problems within Aztec society that enabled both the massive rebellion and the rapid spread of epidemics that caused the Aztec Empire to collapse. Once these factors are taken into account it becomes apparent that by 1519 the Aztec empire was on the verge of a major crisis. To portray the Aztec Empire in 1519 as an overwhelming success is therefore inaccurate.

Traditional narratives, such as Prescotts, see the conquest as essentially inevitable once the Spanish arrive. They typically saw the skill/superiority of the Spanish (and especially Cortes) as the principle reason for the success of the conquest. The traditional narratives rarely discuss the Spanish allies and often underplay their significance. Prescott for instance argues strongly that the ‘superior science’ of the Spanish, and personal ability of Cortes were far more important factors in the conquest than numbers or brute force. Furthermore traditional narratives often focus on the ‘backwards’ nature of the Aztecs as a reason for their defeat. The myth that Cortes was mistaken as the God Quetzalcoatl is a popular example. Through grounded in more truth, the importance given to the Aztec aim of capturing rather than killing in combat is another example of how the Mexica were “other in ways that doomed them” . It’s importance to analyse this narrative because it’s arguments form the basis of the ‘Conquest Paradox’, and because in many ways the traditional narrative still dominates popular history of the Conquest.

It is simply incorrect to see the Conquest as inevitable, in reality the conquest was far messier and confused than the traditional history claims. The weakness of the traditional narrative is largely because of its focus on taking the primary narratives at their word. For instance, Prescott repeatedly references Diaz’s as the “honest chronicler” and never questions the reliability of his account despite using it throughout his book. In large part the traditional narratives are triumphalist because by failing to critique the primary sources they simply rely a history of glory and inevitable success. Much like the sources they use the ‘triumphalist’ histories are principally mythic constructs rather than actual representations of reality. Prescott again demonstrates this through the omnipresent use of emotive language such as ‘brave’, ‘evil’ and ‘glory’. In this way triumphalist narratives are emotive stories rather than objective histories.

There are several major issues related to the primary sources. The importance to portray the conquest as being both glorious and justified is one that impacts the Spanish primary documents. Cortez’s letters were written at a time when he knew he was acting illegally and needed to both justify his actions and gain the support of the King. Other narratives of the Conquest by Spanish soldiers were written decades later and it’s likely their histories both embellished their own actions and involved significant fiction to make a coherent narrative out of events that at the time must have seemed chaotic and confused. Native accounts suffer the same issue. The traumatic event of total social collapse and rapid conquest encouraged a search for coherence and people to blame. The vilification of Moctezuma is an example of this. Furthermore, the conquest took place at a time when neither ‘side’ had cultural understanding of the other. Triumphalist narratives portray Moctezuma and the Aztecs as acting foolishly because primary sources didn’t understand the cultural reasons behind Aztec actions. The myth that Cortez was seen as a God is an example of this misunderstanding, as is the context in which Moctezuma gave the Spanish gold. For these reasons the primary sources need to be addressed critically. By doing this the reality of why the conquest was successful emerges.

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