Moctezuma or Montezuma II, also known as Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin (c. 1466 -1520), was an Aztec ruler ("huey tlatoani" of Tenochtitlan), leader of the Aztec Triple Alliance from c. 15021520. He is famous for being the ruler of the Aztec empire at the start of the Spanish conquest of Mexico.

The portrayal of Moctezuma in history has mostly been coloured by his role as ruler of a defeated nation, and many sources describe him as weakwilled and indecisive. The general biases of the historical sources make it difficult to ascertain anything definitive about his role during the Spanish invasion, and this has led to some controversy as to how to most accurately portray him. Latter-day historians point to Moctezuma's many architectonic, scientific, military and spiritual projects as evidence of a strong and industrious ruler.

Name Edit

The original Nahuatl form of his name was pronounced Template:IPA. It is a compound of a noun meaning "lord" and a verb meaning "to frown in anger", and so is interpreted as "he is one who frowns like a lord,"[1] "he who is angry in a noble manner,"[2] or "he who angers himself."[3] It has been written with a wide variety of spellings, the most common of which today are Montezuma and Moctezuma.

The use of a regnal number is only for modern distinction from the first Moctezuma, referred to as Moctezuma I because even if the latter was the great grandparent of the former, there was no dynastic succession among the aztecs. The Aztec chronicles called him Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin, while the first was called Motecuhzoma Ilhuicamina or Huehuemotecuhzoma "Old Moctezuma". Xocoyotzin, pronounced Template:IPA, means "honored young one".

The sources of Moctezuma's biographyEdit

The descriptions of the life of Moctezuma are full of contradictions and as such nothing much is known about his actual life and personality. The reason for the contradictions is of course the different biases of the sources. One main source is the descriptions of him by Spanish conquistadors such as Bernal Diaz del Castillo and Hernan Cortés. The Spanish sources try to show Motecuzoma as a harsh and somewhat fickle minded ruler in order to justify their getting rid of him as aid provided to the natives rather than an injustice. Another major source is the Florentine Codex made by Bernardino de Sahagún and his native informants. His informants were mainly from Tlatelolco, a city subjugated by Tenochtitlan, and hence the Florentine Codex generally portrays Tlatelolco and Tlatelolcan rulers in a favourable light when compared to the Tenocha, and Moctezuma in particular is depicted unfavourably as a weak-willed, superstitious and indulgent ruler (Restall 2003). Historian James Lockhart also argues that with the defeat of the Aztecs the people needed to have a scapegoat, someone to blame for their shameful defeat, and who better than the ruler at the time of the defeat. All these factors contribute to the picture we have today of Moctezuma as a somewhat weak and indecisive ruler.

However, Romerovargas Iturbide wrote a very deep study named "Moctezuma el Magnifico" criticising Bernal Diaz del Castillo and Hernan Cortes biased accounts and highlighting his virtues. The historical facts of his rule are a little different: he expanded the Aztec Empire the most; warfare expanded the territory as far south as Xoconosco in Chiapas and the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. He elaborated the Templo Mayor and revolutionized the tribute system. He also increased Tenochtitlán's power over its allied cities to a dominant position in the Aztec Triple Alliance. He created a special temple, dedicated to the gods of the conquered towns, inside the temple of Huitzilopochtli. He also built a monument dedicated to the Tlatoani Tízoc.

The depiction of Moctezuma in early post-conquest literatureEdit

Most of the post-conquest literature describes the personality of Moctezuma as more that of a scholar (tlamatini) than a warrior. It is said that he was a priest and the head of the calmecac, the school of the upper classes.

Legend says he did not want to be a tlatoani and that after he was elected in 1502, messengers were sent everywhere to look for him. They found him cleaning a temple, hiding from the messengers. [citation needed]

After being elected, Moctezuma is said to have created elaborate rituals, introducing new regulations and a larger gap between the social classes of pipiltin "nobles" and macehualtin "commoners".[citation needed]

He is said to have dismissed most of the authorities and replaced them with his former students, continuing to give them lessons as if they were still his students. [citation needed]
File:Moctezuma palace.jpg

In another tale, when Moctezuma took some corn from a field, an angry peasant reminded him that he was forbidden to do so. Surprised by this, Moctezuma decided to elevate the macechualli to a higher rank. The treatment he gave to the commoner in this case contrasts with the prohibitions he imposed on the pipiltin (upper classes). [citation needed]

Some of the Aztec stories about Moctezuma describe him as being fearful of the Spanish newcomers, and some sources, such as the Florentine codex, comment that the Aztecs believed the Spaniards to be gods and Cortés to be the returned god Quetzalcoatl. The veracity of this belief is inordinately difficult to ascertain, and sometimes regarded as apocryphal (Restall 2003). Much of the idea of Cortés being seen as a deity can be traced back to the Florentine Codex written down some 50 years after the conquest. In the codex' description of the first meeting between Moctezuma and Cortés, the Aztec ruler is described as giving a prepared speech in classical oratorial Nahuatl, a speech which as described verbatim in the codex (written by Sahagúns, tlatelolcan informants which were probably not eyewitnesses of the meeting) included such prostrate declarations of divine or near-divine admiration as, "You have graciously come on earth, you have graciously approached your water, your high place of Mexico, you have come down to your mat, your throne, which I have briefly kept for you, I who used to keep it for you," and, "You have graciously arrived, you have known pain, you have known weariness, now come on earth, take your rest, enter into your palace, rest your limbs; may our lords come on earth." Subtleties in, and an imperfect scholarly understanding of, high Nahuatl rhetorical style make the exact intent of these comments tricky to ascertain, but Restall argues that Moctezuma politely offering his throne to Cortés (if indeed he did ever give the speech as reported) may well have been meant as the exactly opposite of what it was taken to mean: politeness in Aztec culture was a way to assert dominance and show superiority. This speech, which has been widely referred to, has been a factor in the widespread belief that Moctezuma was addressing Cortés as the returning god Quetzalcoatl. Other parties have also propagated the idea that the Native Americans believed the conquistadors to be gods: most notably the historians of the Franciscan order such as Fray Geronimo Mendieta(Martínez 1980). Some Franciscans at this time held millennarian beliefs (Phelan 1956) and the natives taking the Spanish conquerors for gods was an idea that went well with this theology. Bernardino de Sahagún, who compiled the Florentine Codex, was also a Franciscan.

Mythical accounts of omens and Moctezuma's superstitionEdit

Bernardino de Sahagún (1499-1590) mentions eight events, occurring prior to the arrival of the Spanish, which were interpreted as signs of a possible disaster, e.g. a comet, the burning of a temple, a crying ghostly woman, and others. Some speculate that the Aztecs were particularly susceptible to such ideas of doom and disaster because the particular year in which the Spanish arrived coincided with a "tying of years" ceremony at the end of a 52-year cycle in the Aztec calendar, which in Aztec belief was linked to changes, rebirth and dangerous events.

An account by Fernando Alvarado Tezozomoc (1598) records a story of how Moctezuma sent emissaries to find the legendary wizard and prophet, Huemac, who, according to legend, had predicted the arriving of Quetzalcoatl one thousand years before. Moctezuma wanted to ask Huemac for protection and to be his servant, so that he could avert the catastrophe predicted by these omens. Three times Moctezuma sent emissaries, and three times Huemac refused. Huemac recommended instead that Moctezuma abandon all luxuries, the flowers and the perfumes, make penance and eat the same food as peasants, drink only boiled water, and then maybe he would help him. To his anguish, Moctezuma was unable to obey the commandment. These legends are a part of the post-conquest rationalisation by the Aztecs of their defeat and show Moctezuma as indecisive, vain, and superstitious and ultimately the cause of the fall of the Aztec Empire.

Contact with the Spanish Edit

Also see: Hernan Cortés, Spanish Conquest of Mexico and Siege of Tenochtitlan

Template:Spanish colonization of the Americas


Moctezuma sends emissaries to the Spanish Edit

In 1517, Moctezuma received first reports of Europeans landing on the east coast of his empire; this was the expedition of Juan Grijalva who had landed on San Juan Ulúa, which although within Totonac territory was under the auspices of the Aztec Empire. Moctezuma ordered that he be informed of any new sightings of foreigners at the coast and posted extra watch.

This meant that when the expedition of Cortés arrived in 1519 Moctezuma was immediately informed and he sent emissaries to meet the newcomers, one of them known to be an Aztec noble named Tentlil in the Nahuatl language but referred to in the writings of Cortés and Bernal Díaz del Castillo as "Tendile".

As the Spaniards approached Tenochtitlan they made an alliance with the Tlaxcalteca who were enemies of the Aztec Triple Alliance and they helped instigate revolt in many towns under Aztec dominion. Moctezuma of course was aware of this and he sent gifts to the Spaniards, probably in order to show his superiority to the Spaniards and Tlaxcalteca. (Restall 2003)

The massacre of CholulaEdit

Cortés arrived at the city of Cholula (Chollollān in Nahuatl) which was subject to the Aztec Triple Alliance. Cortés and his Tlaxcaltec allies took over Cholula, and reportedly massacred about 5,000 people. As expected, the chronicles from the Tlaxcalteca and the Aztec differ on how it all started, Tlaxcalteca and Spanish sources citing a trap devised to destroy them, but Mexica sources saying that the slaughter was unmotivated. Matthew Restall has interpreted the massacre at Cholula as a message sent by the Tlaxcalteca to their Aztec enemies that they themselves now had many allies and that the tables were turned.

As news of the massacre of Cholula spread, the people of most pre-Hispanic cities were terrified.

On November 8, 1519, Moctezuma met Hernán Cortés on the causeway leading into Mexico Tenochtitlan and the two leaders exchanged gifts.

Moctezuma as host and prisoner of the SpaniardsEdit

Moctezuma brought Cortés to his palace where the Spaniards lived as his guests for several months. Moctezuma continued governing his empire and even undertook conquests of new territory during the Spaniard's stay at Tenochtitlan. However at some time during that period Moctezuma became a prisoner in his own house. Exactly why this happened is not clear from the extant sources. But the Aztec nobility grew displeased with the large Spanish army staying in Tenochtitlan, and Moctezuma told Cortés that it would be best if they left. Shortly thereafter Cortés left to fight Panfilo de Narvaez and during his absence the massacre in the main temple turned the tense situation between the Spaniards and Aztecs into direct hostilities, and Moctezuma became a hostage used by the Spaniards to assure their security.

The Death of MoctezumaEdit

In the subsequent battles with the Spaniards after Cortés' return, Moctezuma was killed. The details of his death are unknown: different versions of his demise are given by different sources. Bernal Dìaz del Castillo states that on July 1, 1520, the Spanish forced Moctezuma to appear on the balcony of his palace, appealing to his countrymen to retreat. The people were appalled by their emperor's complicity and pelted him with rocks and darts. He died a short time after that. Bernal Díaz gives this account:

[Moctezuma] was hit by three stones, one on the head, one on the arm, and one on the leg; and though they begged him to have his wounds dressed and eat some food and spoke very kindly to him, he refused. Then quite unexpectedly we were told that he was dead.
Cortés similarly reported he died wounded by a stone thrown by his countrymen (In some accounts, Cuauhtémoc is named the culprit, but the source is not reported). According to Father Sahagun's tlatelolcan informants, Alvarado "garrotted all the nobles he had in power", and they also reported, they found the body of Moctezuma in the street, three days after the killings, with sword wounds. In the Ramirez Codex, by an anonymous Christianized Aztec, he criticizes the Spanish priests, because instead of administering the last sacraments to Moctezuma, they were busy searching for gold. Much suggests that when Moctezuma had proved incapable of pacifying the Aztec people he was no longer useful as a hostage to the Spaniards who disposed of him.

Aftermath Edit

The Spaniards were forced to flee the city and they took refuge in Tlaxcala, and signed a treaty with them to conquer Tenochtitlan, offering to the Tlaxcalans freedom from any kind of tribute and the control of Tenochtitlan.

Moctezuma was then succeeded by his brother Cuitláhuac, who died shortly after during a smallpox epidemic. He was succeeded by his adolescent nephew, Cuauhtémoc. During the siege of the city, the sons of Moctezuma were murdered by the Aztec, possibly because they wanted to surrender. By the following year, the Aztec empire had entirely succumbed to the Spanish. After the conquest, Moctezuma's daughter, Techichpotzin, was considered the heiress to the king's wealth following Spanish customs and given the name "Isabel". She was married to different conquistadors who laid claim to the heritage of the Aztec emperor. The title Moctezuma still is the name of a Spanish house.


Spanish noble familyEdit

The grandson of Montezuma II, Ihuitemotzin, baptised "Diego Luís de Moctezuma" was brought to Spain by King Philip II. There he married a Spanish woman named "Francisca de la Cueva de Valenzuela". In 1627, their son Pedro Tesifón de Moctezuma was given the title of "1st Count of Moctezuma de Tultengo", and thus became a part of the Spanish nobility. One descendant of this family was the general "Jerónimo Girón y Moctezuma", commander of the Spanish forces at the Battle of Mobile (1781).

References to Moctezuma in modern cultureEdit

  • The conquest of the Aztecs is recounted in a song by Neil Young called Cortez the Killer from the album Zuma, a tribute to Moctezuma who appears in the song as a wise and benevolent ruler.
  • Montezuma occasionally appeared on the animated series Histeria!, especially in a Mesoamerica-centric episode titled "The Montezuma Show". On the show, Montezuma is depicted as a seemingly easygoing person who shows an obvious distaste for Cortez. He continually offers the other characters a drink of water, only to be rejected because they know that "it'll give [them] the runs."

In Native American mythology and folkloreEdit

A mythological figure of the Tohono O'odham[5] people of Northern Mexico and some Pueblo people of New Mexico and Arizona by the name Montezuma, can possibly be traced back to the Aztec ruler.

Bancroft, writing in the 19th century (Native Races vol 3), speculates that the name of the historical Aztec Emperors Moctezuma had been used to refer to a combination of different cultural heroes who were united under the name of a particularly salient representative of Native American identity.

Other references among the Arizona and New Mexico tribes indicate a belief in "Montezuma" as having been the name of a great king and law-giver of the remote past, who ruled over a vast empire including Mexico, and who was said to be buried inside a particular mountain in Arizona that allegedly bears his image.


  1. Andrews, J. Richard [1975] (2003). Introduction to Classical Nahuatl, Revised Edition, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 599.
  2. Brinton, Daniel G. (1890). Ancient Nahuatl Poetry.
  3. Thomas, Hugh (1995). Conquest: Montezuma, Cortés, and the Fall of Old Mexico.
  4. Based on the maps by Ross Hassig in "Aztec Warfare"
  5. Another telling of the Tohono O'odham legend, dated to 1883


  • Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest by Matthew Restall, Oxford University Press (2003) ISBN 0-19-516077-0
  • Hassig, Ross; Aztec Warfare: Imperial Expansion and Political Control; Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988.
  • Lockhart, James, ed., tr. We People Here: Nahuatl Accounts of the Conquest of Mexico. University of California Press, 1993
  • John Ledy Phelan, The Millenian Kingdom of the Franciscans in the New World (1956)
  • Jose Luis Martínez, Gerónimo de Mendieta (1980), in Estudios de Cultura Nahuatl vol 14, UNAM, Mexico pp131-197
  • Townsend, Richard F. (2000) The Aztecs. revised ed. Thames and Hudson, New York.
  • Weaver, Muriel Porter (1993). The Aztecs, Maya, and Their Predecessors: Archaeology of Mesoamerica, 3rd ed., San Diego: Academic Press. ISBN 0-01-263999-0.

See alsoEdit

External linksEdit

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