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How the Aztec Empire Was Forged Through a Triple Alliance

February 24, 2021 in History

By Dave Roos

Three city-states joined in a fragile, but strategic alliance to wield tremendous power as the Aztec Empire.

The . “It wasn’t good for farming the corn, beans and squash that they all lived on.”

Soon, however, the Mexica learned an agricultural trick from the neighboring Xochimilca, who taught them to build productive raised bed gardens in the shallows using basket-like fences of woven reeds. In time, the previously unattractive island location transformed into a central trading hub with canoes filled with goods criss-crossing the lake to buy and sell in Tenochtitlán.

WATCH: Greatest Ancient Metropolises on HISTORY Vault

Itzcoatl Leads a Bold Coup

While settlers around Lake Texcoco thrived agriculturally, they lived under volatile rulership. Power dynamics in 14th-century Mexico were complicated to say the least.

“Every city state was always on the edge of civil war,” says Townsend, the result of an energetically polygamous ruling class.

Kings, known as tlàtoani (meaning “speaker” or “mouthpiece”), took multiple wives as gifts and tributes from their political allies. The polygamous unions yielded dozens of potential heirs, each vying for the throne with the military backing of their mother’s home city.

In 1426, the tlàtoani of Azcapotzalco, still the most powerful city state, died suddenly. His heirs, each representing the interests of another city state, began killing each other off in a desperate grab for the throne. Chaos ensued.

The tlàtoani of Tenochtitlán at the time was a man named Itzoatl or “Obsidian Snake.” Itzcoatl himself was an unlikely heir to the Tenochtitlán throne, as the son of a former king and an enslaved woman. But he was a savvy schemer and knew an opportunity when he saw it.

Itzcoatl sought allies from towns that had been wronged by Azcapotzalco. But not only that, he looked for bands of brothers from second- and third-tier queens who had little chance of rising to power on their own. That’s how Itzcoatl forged an alliance between Tenochtitlán and aspiring families in the two smaller city states of Tlacopan and Texcoco.

Together, this unlikely coalition of the least-powerful bands of brothers waged war against chaotic Azcapotzalco and seized power in a coordinated coup. The Triple Alliance was born.

The Triple Alliance: An Ad Hoc Empire

Panoramic view of Tenochtitlán, the ancient capital of the Aztec empire, and the Valley of Mexico.

Once Azcapotzalco was subdued, the Triple Alliance combined its armies to intimidate city states and villages across the Valley of Mexico and …read more


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