The Aztecs

Michael E. Smith

Blackwell 1996
A book review by Danny Yee © 2000
It is framed by narrative political history, but the core of The Aztecs is social history, a description of life in the Valley of Mexico and its surrounds in the fifteenth century. For this Smith draws on a broad range of sources — native codices, accounts by the Spanish conquerors and later chroniclers, and archaeology — but particularly on recent findings from archaeological excavations (including some of his own) designed to answer particular questions. The result is quite lively, going into just enough detail about particular sites and documents to give some depth, and I found it an engaging read. I recommend it to anyone interested in the Aztecs, both general readers like myself (approaching the subject for the first time) and those with some background in the area seeking an overview.

Smith begins with a historiographical introduction surveying the environmental context, the history of Aztec studies, and the sources. This is followed by an outline of Aztec history: predecessors in Teotihuacan and the Toltecs, the Aztlan migrations, the rise of Aztec city states, and the Empire of the Triple Alliance. And the closing chapters describe the Spanish conquest, subsequent Nahua history, and the Aztec legacy today.

In the middle of this there are eight chapters on different aspects of Aztec life. Smith begins with demographics and the related topics of agriculture and settlement patterns: in Late Aztec times there may have been around a million people in the Valley of Mexico, supported by intensifying agriculture centred on the standard Mesoamerican maize/bean complex. He goes on to look at Aztec artisans and the variety of everyday and luxury goods they produced: pottery, copper and bronze tools, textiles, obsidian, feather mosaics, and more. These goods were exchanged within a complex economy featuring a hierarchy of markets, thriving trade, and a significant merchant class.

Smith outlines what is known about Aztec family life (birth, education, marriage, and death) and social distinctions — there were slight differences between rural and urban dwellers, but fairly rigid distinctions between commoners and nobles. The basic unit of Aztec politics was the city-state (though the appropriateness of that particular term is debated), with the Triple Alliance maintaining a "hegemonic empire" based on a combination of tribute extraction and strategic control of key border areas. Aztec cities had a "public plaza" at their centre, with temple, palace, and ballcourt, but were otherwise not that clearly distinguished from rural areas. Tenochtitlan was a unique case: with perhaps 200000 inhabitants, it was one of the biggest cities in the world at the time.

In the popular imagination the Aztecs are inextricably linked with human sacrifice. Smith does look at this (and human blood offerings more generally) and some of the proposed explanations for it, but he also gives a broader outline of Aztec religion, covering creation myths and deities and the role of monumental architecture and public ceremonies. Turning to science and art, he glances at writing, astronomy and the calendar, medicine, art, poetry, and dance.

The Aztecs is illustrated with a good selection of black and white halftones, well-integrated with the text.

July 2000

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%T The Aztecs
%A Smith, Michael E.
%I Blackwell
%D 1996
%O paperback, halftones, notes, references, index
%G ISBN 0631209581
%P 361pp