The last ruler of the Aztecs, Montezuma II ruled over an empire that was at the height of its power when he ascended to the throne in 1502. Seventeen years later, Montezuma II greeted the Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortz at his capital Tenochtitln. After attempting to buy off Cortz, he was imprisoned by the Spanish conquistador and eventually killed by his own people (so Spanish accounts tell it), ending his reign and causing the downfall of his empire.
The Aztecs had migrated to the valley of Mexico following the fall of the Toltec Empire in the late twelfth century, founding their capital at Tenochtitln in 1325. Over the next two centuries, the militaristic Aztec gradually conquered much of modern-day Mexico and northern Central America, forcing other native peoples to pay tribute or face destruction.
Technically proficient, highly organized, and adept militarily, the Aztecs also were much resented by their subject peoples. The Aztecs ruled over an uneasy empire and their religion reflected that fact. Periodically, they engaged in invasions against other peoples to obtain human sacrifices to propitiate gods, who constantly threatened to bring down destruction on the empire.
Montezuma II, the ninth emperor of the Aztecs, ascended the throne upon the death of his uncle in 1502. Like many of his predecessors on the throne, Montezuma II was commander of the empire’s army and led many of its expeditions against neighboring peoples. He also was a highly religious man and had a fatalistic streak. When Cortz arrived in 1519, Montezuma II may have believed him to be an incarnation of Quetzalcoatl, an Aztec god who, legend had it, would be white, hirsute, and come from the east. The bearded Cortz fit the bill, and Montezuma II lavished great gifts on him in hopes of winning the man-god’s favor.
Suspicious of a trap, the Spanish conquistador had Montezuma II imprisoned and forced the Aztecs to offer even more treasure. When Cortz abandoned the capital to fight off a rival Spanish expedition in early 1520, the Aztecs rose up; however, they were subsequently reconquered, and their capital was destroyed.
By seeming to have subjected himself so easily to such a small force of Spaniards Cortz commanded but 300 or so men, along with about 1,000 native allies Montezuma II lost the respect of his people. While trying to rally them against Cortz during the latter’s absence in June 1520 (again, according to Spanish accounts), Montezuma II was attacked with spears and arrows. He died three days later.
James Ciment See also: Aztec; Cortz, Hernando; Native American-European Conflict; Spanish Colonies on Mainland North America (Chronology). Bibliography Collis, Maurice. Corts and Montezuma. New York: New Directions, 1999. Prescott, William Hickling. History of the Conquest of Mexico. 3 vols. Chicago: Hooper, Clarke, 1843.
Montezuma II 1466–1520 Photo Gallery