The Great Fall of the Aztec and Inca Civilizations
The destruction of the empires of Mexico, to this day, amazes many. Their great ruins are left as a mere shadow representing what they once were. The annihilation of the Aztec and Incan civilizations serves as a great reminder of the carnage that is brought by greed, but additionally by more obscure, unseen forces. The Aztec and Mayan societies, each respectively weakened from civil war tensions, did not stand a chance against the diseases, technology, or treachery brought by the Spanish Conquistadors.
The Aztec civilization was immensely powerful in the early 15th century. It was a culture based largely upon economic conquest. Tenochtitlan was its most grandeur city, the center of political and economic power. Their markets were sustained by populations exceeding 50,000 visitors daily. Bernal Dìaz, one of Cortes' companions, illustrates the magnificence of Montezuma's craftsmen by comparing them to the greatest artists of Europe. He praises the Aztecan artists to be as skilled as Michelangelo and Berruguete, declaring that, “they would be counted in the same rank ” (qtd. Reilly 487). Dìaz's description of the marketplace provides a clear manifestation of the fruitfulness of the Aztec Empire.
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The Aztec's productivity, while demonstrated in their economics, is equally evident in their conquests of neighboring states. The city of Tenochtitlan was the most powerful of the three cities in the Aztec Triple Alliance. This Alliance controlled the surrounding regions for almost one hundred years. However, there stood one city-state that resisted conquer, the Confederacy Tlaxcala. Overall, the Aztecs dominated the Valley of Mexico, yet never defeated Tlaxcala.
The Inca Civilization exemplified immense power balanced with a strong central government. Like the Aztecs, they achieved immense amounts of wealth. Their infrastructure represented phenomenal organization balanced with mass amounts of labor. Road building was known as one of their defining talents. This attribute allowed the Incan rulers to retain communication and control over their vast territories.
The Incan society established much of its civilization through its government and process of taxation. As noted by Pedro de Cieza de Leon, “not a single village of the highlands or the plains failed to pay the tribute levied on it by those who were in charge of these matters ” (qtd. Somervill 52). The mastery of governance displayed by the Incas represents a collected and developed society.
Both the Incas and the Aztecs represented wealthy successful civilizations, yet both of them fell to the Spanish conquistadors. The Aztec empire was conquered by Hernando Cortes, with the help of their enemies, the Tlaxcala Confederacy. The Incas were brought to their demise by Francisco Pizarro. Both of these ancient nations were weakened by significantly by outside factors.
Disease spread rampantly through the towns and cities of both empires. Smallpox was considered most devastating, but only represented one of many diseases including typhus, measles, bubonic plague, and tuberculosis. These diseases were more potent in the Americas because they were foreign to the native people and their immune systems. The effects were staggering. When Cortes originally stormed the Aztec Empire in 1519, the native population numbered around twenty-two million, “yet by the end of the century, following a series of devastating epidemics, only 2 million people remained ” (Stutz). The Incas faced a similar if not identical fate, “Smallpox was only the first epidemic. Typhus in 1546, influenza and smallpox together in 1558, smallpox again in 1589, diphtheria in 1614, measles in 1618 ” (McEwan 93). Ultimately, disease played an extensive role in weakening both the Aztec and Inca civilizations and still significantly affects their people to this day.
The Aztec's beliefs and religion also contributed greatly to their demise. It was believed that their god, Quetzalcoatl, was destined to return to their nation and bring its destruction. Ironically, Cortes and his men are said to have resembled the Aztec's great god. Under this conviction, Cortes and his men were treated as royalty. Dìaz recalls the splendorous gifts given to Cortes, describing one in particular, “a very rich necklace, made of golden crabs, a marvellous piece of work, which [Montezuma] hung around Cortes' neck ” (qtd. Reilly 486). Even though the Aztec people showered the conquistadors with wealth, the Spaniards greed was unsurpassable. Dìaz explains that, “[we] placed our artillery in a convenient spot...the order we were to keep was clearly explained...we were warned to be very much on the alert, both the horsemen and the rest of us soldiers ” (qtd. Reilly 486). The Conquistadors gained a massive advantage by catching Montezuma and the Aztec people by surprise. This was just one of the factors that led to the fall of The Aztec Empire.
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The Inca's relationship with Francisco Pizarro and his men differed far from that of Cortes and the Aztecs. When Pizarro returned to conquer the Inca Civilization, it had already entered a period of unrest. There was a war being waged between the two brothers of the ruling family, and great turmoil in the newly conquered territories. Pizarro and his men were not welcomed as gods, and furthermore, did not venture to hide their warmonger intentions. Unlike the Aztecs, the Incas did not fall to treachery. Instead, it has been recorded that Pizarro often talked his way out of near death situations, and therefore it was the Inca's leniency that proved to be a factor of their downfall.
The war tactics and technology of the Conquistadors was far more advanced than the native Aztec and Inca societies. The traditional war strategy of the natives relied on old tactics of siege warfare. This approach required a large number of draftees to storm the opponent. It lacked organization, planning, and trained soldiers. Overall, such battles were based on brute strength alone. The Spaniards war tactics were much more advanced. Not only did they have greater experience from fighting battles all over the world, but they were also technologically advanced. While the natives had axes and arrows for weapons, the Spaniards used guns and cannons. The conquistadors also had superior armory that protected them from many of the Aztec and Incan weapons. In addition to advanced armory and weaponry, the Spanish had horses. Neither the Aztecs nor the Incas had anything close to rival this animal. In addition to the forces the Spaniards brought from the Old World, they gained many forces in the New World as well. Both the Inca and Aztec empires had many enemies from their own respective conquests. Neither Cortes nor Pizarro had any difficulties rallying these people to their cause. Overall the Aztecs and Incas were partly defeated by the Spaniards advanced war skills, but also from the assistance of their own rivals and enemies.
The Aztec and Inca civilizations met their demise through an accumulation of forces working against their societies. The effects of disease, technology, civil unrest, and treachery have left a scar on these nations' growth and prosperity. The societies left in their wake are only a meek tribute to what once was. These natives have been forced to adapt to the white man's way of life, yet it is clear such adaptation will never return them to their glorious past.
- Reilly, Kevin. World Of History: A Comparative Reader. 3rd. 1. New York, NY: Bedford/St.Martin's, 2007. Print.
- McEwan, Gordon. The Incas: New Perspectives. 1st. 1. New York NY: WW Norton, 2006. 93-96. Print.
- Somervill, Barbara. Francisco Pizarro: Conqueror of the Incas. Minneapolis, MN: Compass Point Books, 2005. 52. Print.
- Stutz, Bruce. “Megadeath in Mexico.” Discover (2006): n. pag. Web. 15 Dec 2009.