Montezuma II

The ninth ruler of the Aztec empire, Montezuma II (1466-1520) was seized by the Spanish conquistadores, who used him to control and rule the empire.

Montezuma was born in Tenochtitlán, capital of the Aztec empire, and the present site of Mexico City. He received a thorough education in religion, science, and art and was especially devoted to his religion, becoming a priest in the temple of the war god Huitzilopochtli. He also distinguished himself in the numerous Aztec wars.

In 1502 Montezuma succeeded his uncle Ahuitzotl to the throne and became known for his pride and superstition. He lacked the harsh realism of his predecessors and was very much influenced by omens and prophecies. He dismissed all plebeians from his court and increased taxation of the merchants. Although his advisers warned him that his measures would weaken the empire, he requested heavier tribute from conquered tribes and launched numerous expeditions to obtain sacrificial victims. His actions led to revolts and to wars between Tenochtitlán and several tribes.

Under these circumstances Montezuma learned of the arrival of the Spaniards in 1519. Fearing that they were emissaries of the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, whose return was believed to be imminent, and following the decisions of the Supreme Council of the Indian Confederation, Montezuma tried to appease the conquistadores by sending gifts and offering homage. This only whetted the appetite of the Spaniards. Their leader, Hernán Cortés, allied himself with the Tlaxcalan Indians, who had remained independent from the Aztecs, and marched toward Tenochtitlán.

Conquest of Tenochtitlán

Many Indians welcomed Cortés as a deliverer from Aztec control. Montezuma himself refused to fight Quetzalcoatl emissaries and invited Cortés into the capital. Fearful that the Aztecs might rebel against the Spanish presence, Cortés seized Montezuma, thus becoming the master of the Aztec empire without a struggle. Using Montezuma as his mouthpiece, he governed from behind the throne. Montezuma summoned all his caciques (chiefs), ordering them to obey the Spaniards and to collect tribute and gold for the Spanish monarch.

Cortés and his men remained in Tenochtitlán for several months. By then a new Spanish expedition from Cuba had reached the Mexican shores with orders to limit Cortés's power. Leaving one of his lieutenants in command, Cortés marched to the coast and persuaded his compatriots to join him.

In the meantime an Indian uprising occurred in Tenochtitlán as a result of the ruthless policies followed by Cortés's lieutenants. Cortés hastened back only to find his men barricaded in the palace and threatened by starvation. He ordered Montezuma to arrange for supplies, but the Emperor refused. Cortés then released one of the Aztec chiefs, Cuitlahuac, with orders to open the markets and bring back food. Instead, Cuitlahuac assumed the leadership of the revolt. There was furious fighting in the capital.

Cortés finally convinced Montezuma to address his people and to order them to obey the Spaniards. The angry Indians, however, refused to listen to their captive emperor and showered him with stones. Montezuma died several days later, in June 1520, either from wounds inflicted by the mob or at the hands of the Spaniards.

Further Reading on Montezuma II

Much valuable information on Montezuma can be found in George C. Vaillant, Aztecs of Mexico (1941; rev. ed. 1962); Frederick A. Peterson, Ancient Mexico (1959); and R. C. Padden, The Hummingbird and the Hawk: Conquest and Sovereignty in the Valley of Mexico, 1503-1541 (1967).