HIST 3704A: Aztecs
Winter 2021

Instructor: Professor Sonya Lipsett-Rivera

Description: For the average person, the Aztecs conjure up images of bloody sacrifices. Yet, the Aztecs or Mexica were just one people of a larger culture now identified as Nahuas. Their complex belief systems and elaborate speeches are just a few aspects of their past that are obscured by the overwhelming images of popular culture. The Aztecs often are surprising as a culture. While they were fierce warriors and harsh imperial masters, they were also poets. They appreciated beauty and had a quirky sense of humour as shown in the nicknames they gave to people such as Tochnenemi  (He Hops Like A Rabbit) or Maxtlacozhuehue (Old Yellow Breechclout). They built one of the largest cities that existed in the world in the fifteenth century—Tenochtitlan—in a lake. The city was dotted with canals, so a lot of transportation and commerce was done via canoes. Spaniards who first saw Tenochtitlan were in awe and they compared it to Venice. They marveled at how well the huge market at Tlatelolco functioned and at the wealth of the city. Aztec merchants and soldiers traveled thousands of kilometers to trade or make war and yet they had no draft animals or wheeled carts. Aztec priests were astronomers and mathematicians and bureaucrats and yet they wrote everything in a pictographic form of writing that is still somewhat mysterious to scholars.

After an introduction to the political history and background of the Aztecs, the course will be divided into thematic sections such as war, cosmology, religion, the family, the economy, and society ending with a look at the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs at the beginning of the sixteenth century.

In this class, we will examine the Nahua culture in general, but we will also follow the political history of the Mexica of Tenochtitlan.


This class may be delivered online. If so, each week, students will be provided with a thematic unit. It will be composed of several short video clips in which I explain key concepts.

Apart from video clips, each unit will provide student with readings. Some will be articles that provide background information and other will be historical sources—that is to say, the kind of information that historians use to formulate our versions of the past. Primary sources are varied: many are written, but they can be objects, paintings, maps, and more.

Each week students will engage in discussion around the class material and will have small projects that will ensure that they are engaging with class material.

Students will also write one longer essay and some tests.

If circumstances change, it will be organized into two lectures with discussions in class. Stay posted.