The Aztec Empire

Vice-kingdom of Nueva España

Mexican War of Independence

1st Mexican Empire

1st Republic of Mexico

2nd Mexican Empire

2nd Republic of Mexico

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In present Mexico the Toltecs were the first settlers of whom any definite monuments have remained. They entered the territory of Anahuac - the rich valley of Mexico - some time before the close of the seventh century. They lived there for four hundred years and then mysteriously disappeared. After another hundred years had passed, the most noted of their successors, the Aztecs, wandering into the valley from the north, seem to have spread throughout the country and have determined to occupy this beautiful spot. Their decision was the result of religious beliefs and the opinions of fortune-tellers.

They had halted, in 1325, on the shore of the pricipal lake. “There they beheld, perched on the stem of a prickly pear, which shot out from the crevices of a rock that was washed by the waves, a royal eagle of extraordinary size and beauty, with a serpent in its talons, and his broad wings opened to the sun.” They decided to make this the site of their future city, and they laid its foundations on this spot by sinking piles into the shallows, for the low marshes were half buried in water. 

The descendants of these people developed into a strong civilized nation, and although conquered by



The Aztec Empire









Moteuczoma I, Ilhuicamina








Moteuczoma II, Xocoyotzin






Spanish Conquest of the Aztec Empire

Vice-royalty of New Spain

Vice-roys of New Spain


Mexican Empire 1821-1823

Agustin Iturbide


Republic of Mexico 1823-1863

Mexican Empire 1863-1867

Maximilian of Habsburg


Republic of Mexico 1866-1905

United States of Mexico 1905-present

the Spaniards in the 16th century their influence was so powerful that the inhabitants of Mexico, at the beginning of the srtruggle for independence, were sympatheticall even more Indian than Castilian. The symbol of revelation had therefore been preserved throughout the colony, and on the decalration of independence it was deemed the most fitting emblem for the new nation. In some of the earlier hieroglyphs a bird was given as the prey of the eagle, but the serpent has always been accepted as the real object grasped in the eagle’s claws.

The Empire of Mexico was the successor of the vice-royalty of New Spain, a territory extending from an undefined north to Guatemala in the south. It was, as a part of the Kingdom of Castile and Leon, under the jurisdiction of a viceroy, the spanish Council of the Indies and the Chamber of Commerce  (Casa de Contratacion).

After the conquest of Spain by Napoleon a revolutionary struggle that ultimately resulted in the independence of the nation began in 1810, but success was not attained until the establishment of independence from Spain in 1821. The first Mexican Congress was held in 1822, when a regency was installed and an emperor was named. The question then arose concerning a flag and coat of arms for the new American empire, and the provisional government, on 2 November 1821 decided upon the coat of arms to mark their new nation. In doing this they went far back into history and tradition, choosing emblems of signifiucance from the legends of their own country.The short-lived Empire desired no better device for its coat of arms. Previous to the date of the first legislative acts, Iturbide, at first a Spaniard, but later a revoltionist, had promulgated (24 February 1821) the celebrated  “Plan of Iguala,” known as Las Tres Garantías, among its many clauses being one declaring for the absolute independence of Mexico as a moderate monarchy. The three guaranties were symbolized in the flag adopted at the time. It consisted of three horizontal, later vertical bars, respectively green, white, and red. The green denoted independence, the white the purity of the Roman Catholic religion, and red the union of the Spanish element with the Mexican nation. The soberana junta provional gubernativa (supreme provisional council of the Government) authorized this flag on 2 November 1821, and selected the coat of arms in the following language:

The arms of the Empire for all classes of seals shall be solely the nopal growing on a rock which rises from the lake, and perched on it, by his left foot, an eagle with an imperial crown [...] The national flag and banners [....] shal be a tri-color, adopting forever the colors green, white and red in vertical stripes; on the white to be designed a crowned eagle.

This decree was confirmed, almost word for word, on 7 January 1822.

The first Congress of the Mexican nation  convened 24 February 1822. Iturbide abdicated on 20 March 1823 and twenty five days later, on 14 April 1823 the sovereign Mexican Congress decreed as follows:

1. The coat of arms is the Mexican eagle perched on its left foot, upon a nopal growing from a roch in the waters of the lake, with its right foot grasping a snake that he is in the act of tearing to pieces with its beak; bordering this armorial design are two branches, one of laurel, the other of evergreen oak, conforming to the description thatwa used by the Governmenrt of the first defenders of independence. 2., In regard to the national flag, this is the same as the one hitherto adopted, with the sole difference that the eagle is to be without the crown, and this change must be made in the coat of arms also.


The eagle has been the emblem of Mexico until the present day.




The Aztec Empire


Codex Mendoza, frontispiece


The Aztec empire consisted of the city of Tenochtitlan and the many villages and territories captured by the Aztecs in the same way, say, as the city of Rome consisted of the many kingdoms and territories captured by the Roman armies. and gave its name to the Roman Empire.

The symbol of the Aztec Empire is represented on the frontispiece of the Codex Mendoza. The Codex Mendoza was written twenty yars after the fall of the empire and about five years after the foundation of the spanish vicroyalty of New Spain. [1] This means in fact that no representations of the Mexican eagle are known from the time of the Aztec Empire. As native scribes and interpreters were solicited from a generation that could still claim firsthand knowledge of preconsquest Aztec life to compose the codex, its information may be quite reliable.  On fol. 2r. of this codex there is a representation of the emblem of the city, its people and of the coat of arms of the empire. [2]


The emblem consists of a square with a wide bordure and a saltire symbolizing the oceans and the waters of the earth. Each quarter represents a point of the compass and the pictures of the founding captains stationed in each quarter: Acaçitli and Quapan the north, Xiucaque and Atolotl in the south, Oçelopan, Teçineuh and Xocoyotl in the west and Aguexotl and Xomimitl in the east. In the center is the captain of Tenoch and an eagle perched on the hierglyph for the city of Tenochtitlan. Below it are the

This emblem is according an indian religious model of the earth, each wind direction having a color (white, yellow, black and red respectively) and a world-tree growing in the center. In the emblem of the Aztec Empire the world tree is replaced by the symbol of Tenochtitlan which is a prickly pear on a rock.


The hieroglyph for Tenochtitlan/Mexico

In the Codex Osuna, 1565, p. 34.


On it is an eagle which is the symbol of the Aztec people.


The eagle on the cactus

This is all according the legend that the city of Tenochtitlan was founded in 1325 on a spot where “perched on the stem of a prickly pear, which shot out from the crevices of a rock that was washed by the waves, [was] a royal eagle of extraordinary size and beauty, and his broad wings opened to the sun.”  Probably the Mexican or Golden Eagle was meant.


Mexican Eagle

Aquila Chrysaetos canadensis - Accipitridæ


The eagle on fol. 2 of the Codex Mendoza is perched atop a prickly pear cactus that grows from the Aztec glyph for rock. This same symbol appears in several other Colonial accounts.

The eagle that depicts the foundation legend is associated with Huitzilipochtli, the Mexica’s patron deity.

Codex Mendoza fol 2: Eagle and shield

The cactus grew, according to Aztec mythology, from the heart of Copil, son of Huitzilopochtli's sister, which had been flung onto the island. The cactus fruit the eagle is about to consume may represent the human hearts offered the sun to sustain it during the daily journey across the frimament. [3]

El Tunal con el Aguila que hallaron en la laguna [4]


í On this leaf representing the founding of Mexico City or Tenochtitlán, an eagle devours a bird while perched on a flowering cactus. The cactus grows from a rock in the middle of a lake. Footsteps of the Mexicans are shown approaching the base of the cactus. On the right is Tenoch (known from his glyph of a flowering cactus) who led the Aztecs to Tenochtitlán. On the left is Tochtzin, or Mexitzin (known from his glyph of a rabbit), from Calpan (known from the glyph of a house with a flag), Tenoch's co-ruler. The two rulers sit on basket-work thrones. At upper right is the symbol of Copil, son of Malinalxochitl, or five dots with crossed arrows, on a shield. His symbol of five dots represents the Aztec belief that the world was a flat surface divided into five directions (north, south, east, west and the center where their capital was located).


Political Structure


The Palace

Codex Mendoza fol. 69r.


The palace represents the secular state. This consisted of the Lord of Mexico and the representatives of the provinces and his clique who were housed in the two buildings on both sides of the throne. In the manuscript these are identified as the lords of Tenayuca, Chiconauhtla, Colhuacan, Texcoco and Tlacopan and the ‘fiends and allies of Motecuzoma’.

Below are housed the military and judicial councils called the Council Hall of War and Motecuzoma’s Council Hall.

Of these Montecuzoma’s Hall is manned with learned men, called oidores or alcaldes which can be translated with bailiffs “judges appointed by the lord of Mexico to hear civil and criminal cases.”


The Ruler


We have no realistic official portraits of the rulers of Mexico. In the codices they are represented by a picture of a seated man dressed in a cloak and with a headdress consisting of a blue diademwith a high plaque in front and tied with a red bow gehind. Their names are written above their heads in aztec hieroglyphs.





Acamapichtli 1376-1396

Huitzilihuitl 1391-1416

Chimalpopoca 1416-1427






Itzcoatl 1427-1440

Moteuczoma I, Ilhuicamina


Axayacatl 1468-1481



Tizoc 1481-1486

Ahuitzotl 1486-1502

Moteuczoma II, Xocoyotzin



Motecucuma 2° deste nombre ultimo Rey de los Mexicanos

From: Ramirez Codex (Manuscrit Tovar) late 16th cent.


Motecuzoma II (16th century)

Museo di Etnologia, Firenze (It.)




Cuauhtemoc 1520-1521

The Court


Nezaualpilli (fasting lord) was one of the representants of the provinces in the court. He is represented here in official dress with a Maxtlatl (cloak) and Tilmatli (skirt) with geometrical decorations. He has a headdress of feathers, ear-rings and lip-jewel. In his hands a fly-whisk and a floral sceptre. We may assume that the other Provincial lords were dressed similarly


Nezaualpilli, Lord of Texcoco

Codex Ixilchochitl (B.N. Paris)


The provinces represented in the Court each had their name written in an aztec hieroglyph. Four of them are represented here, the fifth (of Chiconauhtla) not being available.


Topoglyph of Colhuacan

Topoglyph of  Tenayocan

Topoglyph of Texcoco

Topoglyph of Tlacuban

Montecuzoma’s Council


The four members of the council ‘had order, account, and reason in all things, so that the lordship was well governed. And prior to the reign of Montecuhzoma, there was no such order in the government. When Motecuhzoma later succeeded to the lordship, being wise and of good disposition, of his free will he imposed order and a form of good government and ordered them to maintain and carry it out, on pain of severe punishments. And so for him who committed a wrong, the punishment was carried out without any pardon, according to his crime. These punishments were rigorous, and since in their execution they gave no pardon, his subjects went about always alert, looking over their shoulders, for it was with fear that all his subjects went about their business and without harming [other]. for the small amount of freedom they had’.[5]


The four Judges and their assistants

Codex Mendoza, fol. 68r.


The Military


The aztec heraldry can be compared in many ways with the medieval european heraldry. It is true that european heraldry was for a long time characterized by the colors of medieval cavalry, the heraldry of infantry playing for quite a long time a minor role. Indeed aztec heraldry is about the dress of warriors fighting on foot but it is certainly effectively designed to impress and to strike fear in the same way as european armoury did in the middle ages.

In particular the headdresses or crests the warriors were wearing must have been quite impressive and do hardly have their equals.

Another thing is that aztec warriors bore elaborately decorated shields.

In the Codex Mendoza it is stated that coats of arms were a part of the tribute the conquered peoples had to pay and some of these have been represented in the manuscript.


The shield and Arrows

Tlacochcalcatl General,

bearing the arms of the Aztec Empire


In the same way as the eagle on the cactus symbolizes the founding of Tenochtitlan, the shield and arrows represent the (army of) the city itself. A shield backed by arrows is an Aztec glyph for war. When the shield in question carries this particular design - the ihuiteteyo (down ball) - it represents the (armed) power of Tenochtitlan. The inhuiteteyo shield occurs repeatedly in Codex Mendoza. It appears before each of the nine sequential Aztec rulers in the conquest history, part 1 of Codex Mendoza.


The shield is also carried  by the two victorious warriors of folio 2r, one of the priest warriors of folio 65r. and the mighty Aztec general, Tlacohcalcatl, on folio 67r..

In heraldic terms this shield and arrows are the coat of arms of the Aztec Empire.


Four Aztec Generals

From left to right: Brave Tlacatecatl, Brave Tlacochcalcatl, Brave Huitznahuatl, Brave Ticocyahuacatl [6]


Five Aztec Valiant Warriors and Captains

From left to right: Tocuiltecatl, Ticocyahuacatl, Tezcacoacatl, Tlacochcacatl, Tlacatecatl. [7]


Warrior Classes [8]



1st class Warrior, Quachic

Captured great many enemies

2nd class warrior, Otoni

Capture five or six enemies

3rd class Warrior

Captured four enemies



4th class Warrior,

Captured three enemies


5th class Warrior

Captured two enemies

6th class Warrior

Captured one enemy



Probably the shields were the emblems of the divisions. There are several different designs probably symbolizing the sun, the moon, the sky and the earth (?)



Some shields have been preserved in public collections:


Shield (Chimalli), Mexico, Aztec, 16th century;

duck, thrush, macaw, Blue Cotinga feathers; cotton and beeswax adhesive,

Museo Nacional de Historia, CONACULTA–INAH, Mexico City.


Feather shield

Württembergisches Landesmuseum

Feather shield

Württembergisches Landesmuseum

The Spanish Conquest


In the conquest of the Aztec empire and the overthrowing of its ruling dynasty Hernán Cortés de Monroy y Pizarro (*1485-†02.12.1547) played a crucial role. In 1519, he was elected captain of the third expedition to the mainland, an expedition which he partly funded. After he had overthrown the Aztec Empire and had brought large portions of mainland Mexico under the rule of the King of Castile, Cortés was awarded the title of (1st) Marqués del Valle de Oaxaca.

On 7 March 1525 King Charles I of Spain recognized the merits of Cortés by granting him and his descendants a coat of arms. It is:


Arms: Quarterly: 1. Argent, a two-headed eagle Sable for the Empire; 2. Sable, three crowns 1 and 2 Or; 3. Gules, a lion rampant Or; 4. The city of Tenochtitlan rising from the lake, proper. And on a yellow bordure seven captains and lords linked with a chain closed with a lock in base.

Crest: On a closed helmet, lambrequined of the colors, [a winged lion  issuant]


The grant reads:


[...]traher por vuestras armas propias y conocidas un escudo que en el medio del a la mano derecha en la parte de arriba aya una aguila negra de doss cabezas en campo blanco que son las armas de nuestro ymperio y en la otra meitad del dicho medio escudo a la parte de abaxo un leon dorado en campo colorado en memoria que vos el dicho hernando cortes y por vuestra yndustria y esfuerzo truxistes las cosas al esta­do arriba dicho y en la meytad del otro medio escudo de la mano yzquierda a la parte de arriba tress coronas de oro en campo negro launa sobre las dos en memoria de tress Señores de la gran cibdad de tenustitan y sus provincias que vos vencistes que fue el primero muteccuma que fue muerto por los yn­dios temendole vos preso y cuetaoacin su hermano que sucedio en el señorio y se rrevelo contra nos y os echo de la dicha cibdad y el otro que sucedio en el dicho señorio guauctemncin y sostubo la dicha rrevelion hasta que vos le vencistes y prendistes y en la otra meytad del dicho medio escudo de la mano yzquierda a la parte de abaxo podais traher la cib­dad de tenustitan armada sobre agua en memoria que por fuerza de armas la ganastes y sujetastes a nuestro señorio y por orla del dicho escudo en campo amarillo siete capitanes y señores de siete provincias y poblaciones que estan en laguna y en torno della que se rrevelaron contra nos y los enastes y prendistes en la dicha cibdad de tenustitan apresionados y atados con una cadena que se venga a cerrar con un candado debaxo del dicho escudo y encima del un yelmo cerrado con su tinble en un escudo atal [...]


Arms of Cortés as in his palace in Cuernavaca

Arms of Cortés in one of his houses in the the marquisate of  Valle de Oaxaca

According to the grant the arms are composed of:


1. The two-headed eagle of the Habsburg Empire

2. Three crowns symbolizing the three rulers of the Aztec Empire overthrown by Cortes: Moctezuma II,  Cuitláhuac and Cuauhtémoc.

3. A lion symbolizing his force, steadfastness and valor.

4. A city in a lake symbolizing the conquest of the city of Tenochtitlan by which Cortes finished his campaign.

5. The heads of the vassals of Moctezuma governing lake Titicaca: Tacuba, Coyoacán, Iztapalapa, Texcoco, Chalco, Xochimilco and Tlatelolco y Huichilobos (Churubusco), and a lock symbolizing their vassalage.

6. A helmet symbolizing his nobility and knighthood.


On 20 July de 1529 Cortes was granted the title of Marqués del Valle de Oaxaca and this gave him the right to crown his arms with a crown of a marquess. On an escutcheon he added the arms of Rodríguez de las Varillas, which he considered to be the his family-arms. This was: Or, four pales Gules and a bordure Azure, eight square crosses Argent.

At the same time the bordure was omitted and the chain with the seven heads and the lock was replaced as a collar around the shield.


Arms of Cortés, 1588 [9]


Later he added the motto «JUDICIUM DOMINI APREHENDIT EOS ET FORTITUDO EJUS CORROBORAVIT BRACHIUM MEUM». (The lord judges them by his deeds and strengthens my arm) [10]

Arms of Cortés with motto

In the city hall of Mexico city


About the relations between the spanish kingdom and the Aztec Empire as symbolized by their heraldic emblems we are informed by the Codice Techialoyan Garcia Granados which was discov-ered in Paris at the end of the 19th century. [11]


Part of the Codice Techialoyan Garcia Granados

Showing the heraldic symbols of the Aztec Empire under Spanish suzereinty.


In it there is a representation of the royal achievement of the king of Spain in the time of the rule of Charles of Habsburg, king of Castile and Leon (1516) and Emperor of the German Nation of the Holy Roman Empire (1520).


Royal Achievement of the King of Spain 1520-‘55

The achievement is:

Arms: A quarterly of Spain and the Netherlands, supported by a two-headed eagle and between the Piles of Hercules

Crown: An Imperial Crown

Order: The Order of the Fleece

Supporters: Two crowned lions

To make the achievement applicable to Mexico a prickly pear is added as a compartment.


Also there is a representation of the royal achievement of Castile and Leon, also of King Charles.


The Royal Arms of Castile & Leon

The arms are:


Arms: Quarterly of Leon and Castile supported by an imperial two-headed eagle and between the piles of Hercules.

Crown: A royal crown


Last but not least an achievement is represented which is a European interpretation of the heraldic symbols of the Aztec Empire.


Supposed achievement of the Aztec Empire

The achievement is:

Emblem: A heart and two man-catchers in saltire, the dexter one with a fly-whisk.

Crown: The Aztec Imperial Crown

Supporters: An eagle and a jaguar

Compartment: The aztec hieroglyph for rock.


This constellation reflects the situation of the spanish occupation of the Aztec Empire between 1521 and 1535


Vice-kingdom of Nueva Espana



New Spain, formally called the Viceroyalty of New Spain (Virreinato de Nueva España), was a viceroyalty of the crown of Castile. It was formed in 1535, as the realm of the Spanish empire which comprised the territories in the north overseas ‘Septentrion’, from North America and the Caribbean, to the Philippines.

New Spain was established following the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire in 1521. At its greatest extent, it included, on the mainland of the Americas, much of North America south of Canada, that is: all of present-day Mexico and Central America except Panama; most of the United States west of the Mississippi River, plus the Floridas.


Parts of Former New Spain

In present Central America


Costa Rica

El Salvador





In the Caribbeans


Dominican Republic

In present United States of America






New Mexico



Dependent from New Spain: Philippines


To the west of the continent, New Spain also included the Spanish East Indies (the Philippine Islands, the Mariana Islands, the Caroline Islands, parts of Taiwan, and parts of the Moluccas) To the east of the continent, it included the Spanish West Indies (Cuba, Hispaniola (comprising the modern states of Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Puerto Rico, Jamaica, the Cayman Islands, Trinidad, and the Bay Islands).

On the mainland, the administrative units included Las Californias, that is, Alta California (present-day Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah, western Colorado, and south Wyoming); and Baja California Norte and Sur, Nueva Extremadura (the present-day states of Coahuila and Texas), and Santa Fe de Nuevo México (parts of Texas and New Mexico) and Louisiana (including the western Mississippi river basin and the Missouri River basin).

The Spanish governed New Spain from Mexico City, formerly Tenochtitlan: the conquered capital of the Aztec Empire. It was ruled by a viceroy, governing the various territories on behalf of the King of Spain.

It was the first of four viceroyalties created to govern Spain's overseas colonies. The Viceroyalty of Peru was created soon after, following the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire in 1542. For nearly two centuries these were the sole viceroyalties, until in the 18th century the Viceroyalty of New Granada, and the Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata were also created.


As New Spain was a part of the kingdom of Castile, the arms of the king of Castile were also valid in the colony. In the time of Queen Iohanna and Charles I (V) this consisted of a quarterly of Castile and Leon supported by a two-headed eagle imperially crowned. After the accession of king Philip II this was replacesd by the arms of the king of Spain, he being a king of Castile. This consisted of a parted per fess of Spain and the Netherlands. These arms were surrounded by the collar of the Order of the Fleece only, and were royally crowned, the two-headed eagle, being an emblem specific for Charkel V omitted. Also the achievements of the Council of the Indies and of the Chamber of Commerce of the Indies were seen in the Americas. The colony itself as a whole had no coat of arms of its own but many capitals of lower administrative units had.


Achievement of Castile on the facade of the Royal Chapel of the Indies in Tlaxcala


Royal arms of the king of Spain supported by a lion with sword and globe

By Iohannes Blaeu, 1606


The lion and sword is the emblem of the royal armed forces, the globe is the emblem of the spanish empire. In other cases the lion-and-sword bears the arms or emblem of the army of an administrative unity (like the bundle of arrows of the (Northern) Netherlands).


For the viceroys of Mexico see: Virreyes de Nueva España


Mexican War of Independence 1810-1821



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© Hubert de Vries 2014-01-30


[1] Codex Mendoza (1541). Oxford University Bodleian Library.

[2] The legend of the foundation of Tenochtlan and the eagle have a very great resemblance with the legend of the foundation of Rome and the feeding of Romulus and Remus by the Capitoline wolf. The aztec eagle is a nice counterpart of the roman eagle. Probably the legend was a contribution of the spanish friars supervising the compilation of the codex.

[3] Berdan, Frances F. & Patricia Rieff Anawalt: The Essential Codex Mendoza. Berkely, Los Angeles, London, 1997.PP. 3-4

[4] From: The Ramírez Codex (also known as the Tovar Codex) a post-conquest codex from the late 16th century entitled Relación del origen de los indios que hábitan esta Nueva España según sus Historias ("Relation of the Origin of the Indians who Inhabit this New Spain according to their Histories").

[5] Berdan, Frances F. & Patricia Rieff Anawalt: The Essential Codex Mendoza. London, 1997. Pp 140-143.

[6] Berdan c.s op.cit 1997 p. 138-139

[7] Ibid. pp. 134-135

[8] Ibid. pp. 132-133

[9] Nobleza del Andaluzia. Sevilla, 1588.


[11] Códice García Granados. Biblioteca Nacional de Antropología e Historia (35-49).