Wikipedia defines an Empire as following:

The term "empire" does not have a precise definition, but is generally applied to political entities that are considered to be especially large by the standards of their time and that have acquired a significant part of their territory by conquest.

When one thinks of an Empire, a large state comes to mind which comprises of multiple cultures, ethnicities and a formidable military. But then when one looks at the Aztec Empire, it all goes wrong. Compared to contemporary and historical empires, one could say that Aztec Empire was not even large enough to be a duchy in Europe or Emirate in Asia. Also neither was it a singular political entity in traditional concept of Empires (but the counter argument here would be the Holy Roman Empire). It comprised of only 117,501 sq mi of area. I asked few friends about it but they disregard the area based on claims that Aztecs had no horses which were backbone of communications and expansion in that era.

My Question is why are they referred to as the Aztec Empire? Why not use more modest and realistic titles of Confederation or Kingdom?

  • 4
    Compare to modern Japan. It still has an emperor, so I guess some can consider it as an empire. However it is very centralized and culturally unified, and its area is around the same. As you said the definition of an Empire is very vague - it also comes from the lack of an appropriate word for the translation of the indigenous term used to describe the empire sometimes (no idea for the Aztec though)
    – drolex
    Dec 10, 2015 at 10:43
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    A close friend of mine is of native Nicaraguan descent, and he likes to talk about history. If you get him started he can go on and on about how the Aztecs oppressed his people, even to the point of saying that, for all the negative consequences of the Conquistador invasion, they ultimately did a very good thing by wiping out the Aztec empire and their religion of death. (His words, not mine.) That definitely fits the description of an empire of conquest. Dec 10, 2015 at 19:58
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    Because when I call them the Aztec baseball team, people get confused. The name is simply a label so that we all know that we're talking about the same thing. There is no formalism, no regulation, no governance to the English language. This question should probably be in English, not in History. History doesn't contain those kind of rules either.
    – MCW
    Dec 11, 2015 at 19:22
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    Of course, 'Empire' is not a Nahuatl word. At a guess, I'd say that 'we conquered a mighty pagan empire in the name of Christ' made for a good boast on the part of the conquistadors.
    – evilsoup
    Dec 11, 2015 at 21:25

3 Answers 3


First of all, as the definition you cited states,

The term empire does not have a precise definition.

The Aztec Empire was large by the standards of their time in their part of the world. It dominated the Valley of Mexico and was a major power in Mesoamerica generally. Land size is not really a indicator of imperial status per se, but in context, the Aztecs was the largest player around.

Also, I think you've severely overestimated how big European duchies were. See for instance: Salzburg, Limburg, Silesia, Bukovina, Bar, Bremen, Holstein or Guelders.

Secondly, Aztec rule consisted of an imperial power (Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan) subjugating and exacting tributes from foreign cities. This bears fairly close resemblance to classical empires. For example, the Athenian Empire through which Athens ruled the Aegean shores.

In fact, a powerful imperial core exercising indirect rule or suzerainty over autonomous provinces is very typical of imperial political structures. For instance, large parts of the British Empire was controlled through indirect rule. Notably, the princely states of India.

My previous two points addressed the substance of an empire. Ultimately, and perhaps more importantly however, the name of a political entity is primarily a matter of style and form. The best example is the Holy Roman Empire, which is neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire in practice.

The Aztec polity was headed by the huetlatoani, a title which outranked the tlatoani who ruled other contemporary Mexican city states. By analogy, therefore, the title of huetlatoani is translated as "emperor". Since the Aztec Triple Alliance was ruled by "emperors", it was an Aztec Empire.

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    Thanks for the very detailed and well structured answer Semaphore. ^_^
    – NSNoob
    Dec 10, 2015 at 9:07
  • @NSNoob Glad to help
    – Semaphore
    Dec 10, 2015 at 9:07

As "empires" go, the Aztec "empire" is pretty small. It ranks 212th among large empires, with 220,000 square miles. That's about the size of two large European countries, say Germany and France, or Germany and Poland. It was also larger than any other civilization in the Americas (pre Columbus), except for the Incas.

An Emperor may be considered a "king of kings." Aztec leaders had several "kings" of smaller "city states" under them. Except for three core cities, most of these cities were conquered, rather than "home-grown." By that standard, as well as the "two country" size, the Aztecs had an empire.

  • In the 11th Century, the Holy Roman Empire was considerably larger than just "Germany and Poland." Wouldn't the phrase "so called" in your essay mean that you have a better, more appropriate, name for it?
    – Ricky
    Dec 10, 2015 at 22:03
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    Because of COURSE there's a list of empires you can sort by land size. But no hoverboards...
    – corsiKa
    Dec 11, 2015 at 0:35
  • The link you gave says the hre is bigger.
    – user5001
    Dec 11, 2015 at 3:47

I think it is called an empire by the following criterion: it is a multi-ethnic state where one ethnic group (or nation) rules over the other, usually conquered, ethnic groups. (This applies to the Russian, British, Osman, Austro-Hungarian, Roman, Persian, Mongol, Carolingian and many other empires.)

The size is secondary.

This definition fits the Aztec empire as well.

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