After the collapse of the Toltec empire, central Mexico's city-states again fought among themselves for dominance and defended against further invasions by groups from the north. Among the latter, one minor nomadic group, appearing around A.D.1200, gradually rose to power as the Aztecs. They built an island fortress called Tenochtitlán (circa 1325), which may have housed up to 300,000 inhabitants at its peak. Dividing and overcoming the other city-states through shrewd alliances, political intrigue, and warfare, the Aztecs emerged as the dominant power in central Mexico, and as far south as Guatemala (although in the Yucatán the resurgent Maya maintained their independence). They sought to validate this lordship by claiming descent from Quetzalcóatl through an aristocratic branch of the Toltecs.
Like the Toltecs, Aztec society was based on martial values, although it was also characterized by a well-regulated economy, a judicial system, and a strong moral code. A fundamental Aztec belief was that the balance between the forces of darkness and the forces of regeneration needed to be maintained by propitiatory rituals involving sacrifice. Almost any enterprise -- such as the planting of crops, a trading expedition, a military campaign -- was considered to require human sacrifice to ensure its success. Much of Aztec warfare was aimed acquiring a supply of sacrificial victims. However, ritual death at the hands of priest was considered an honour.
Aztec civilization was at its peak when the arrival of the Spaniards led to its downfall. Hernando Cortés landed on the Gulf Coast of Mexico in 1519 and soon set his sights on the conquest of Mexico. This also happened to be the date that legend predicted Quetzalcóatl would return to reclaim his dominion. The fatalistic preoccupation of the Aztec emperor, Moctezuma, with the notion that Cortés was Quetazlcóatl contributed to the Aztec failure to resist the Spaniards (allied with Mexican groups hostile to the Aztecs) until it was too late.
The much smaller original of this two-headed serpent (now in the British Museum) dates from the 14th or 15th century and is made of wood, encrusted with a mosaic of turquoise and shell. The serpent was one of the symbols of Tlaloc, the Aztec rain god, and would have been worn as a pendant by a high priest. It was probably part of the treasure sent by Moctezuma to Cortés, in an attempt to persuade him to leave Mexico.
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