StMU Research Scholars

The Tragic Downfall of Moctezuma

In 1502, at the age of 42, Moctezuma had succeeded the throne from his uncle Ahuitzolt. Immediately after succeeding the throne, Moctezuma earned the title of God of war and the sun due to his glorious achievements in battle. He was known for leading the Aztec Empire’s army in well-organized, extensive expeditions of conquest, and in expanding his empire, becoming the strongest empire the region had ever seen. He was well respected, loved by all his subjects, powerful, and had all the loyalty from his subjects; yet all of this began to crumble into dust the moment the Spaniards first appeared.

The Aztec empire emperor Moctezuma at Chapultepec being surrounded by his subjects | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Spaniards were led by Hernan Cortes to the coast of Yucatan.1  The Aztecs nearby began to send reports back to the capital Tenochtitlan about the sighting of strange men wearing strange garments. The reports mostly mentioned Cortes and his appearance, as many believed that he was the deity Quetzalcoatl, due to his white beard, which was said to be a prominent feature of Quetzalcoatl.2 This wasn’t the only reason that the Aztecs strongly believed that Cortes was the prophesied god. Before the arrival of Cortes, a series of prophesied events began unfolding long before the arrival of the awaited deity. Before the arrival of Cortes and his men in February 1519 on the Yucatan Coast, a series of events that would baffle Mexico since 1489 had started. It began with some natural disasters and odd phenomena, such as floods, a solar eclipse, earthquakes, and comets appearing both during the day and night. After those events, even stranger ones began. Animals and people began to disappear and then later reappear (some aged and some as if no time had passed). Huitzilopochtli’s temple burst into flames, and when it was later rebuilt, it was struck by lightning. A woman who was dead then arose from her eternal slumber and proclaimed to Moctezuma that he would be the last emperor of the Aztec empire. Finally, the disembodied voice of a woman frightened the residents of  Anahuac by wailing in lament during the night. All these events preceded the arrival of Cortes as omens of something momentous to come.3 Soon the whole empire began to feel fear and worry about the arrival of Cortes and the Spaniards. So Moctezuma met with the priests of the Aztec Empire to consult about the appearance of Cortes. There it was concluded that in order to keep the safety of the empire and settle down the nervousness of the subjects, Moctezuma would have to lead away Cortes before the return of the god he was prophesied to be would cause the destruction of the Aztec Empire.4

Cortes and Moctezuma trying to communicate to each other | Courtesy of Flicker

With the ever growing fear of the empire’s subjects, Moctezuma started to plan out how he would lure Cortes away. He began by sending gifts filled with a few of the riches of the empire. He sent messages expressing his interest in creating an alliance with Cortes; he exaggerated the difficulties of the journey from the coast to Anahuac, and he begged the Spaniards to return and stay in the east. In exchange of staying in the east, Cortes promised to send gifts of wealth and riches; but Moctezuma didn’t know that by sending Cortes these gifts, he was only feeding into the idea that the Aztec Empire contained a rumored City of Gold that held far more wealth than what Moctezuma had offered him.5 So, filled with greed, Cortes gathered his men and six thousand Mexican Indian allies and began to march up to the city of Cholula in October, 1519. Those allies were from tribes that craved to bring down the Aztec Empire; many were from tribes that the Aztecs had recently conquered.6  Now with the enemy marching up the mountains, Moctezuma sent an army to ambush them to stop them; yet ultimately they failed. Due to his failed attempt to ambush Cortes and his men, the Spanish intruders had gotten closer to Anahuac. So Moctezuma began to plan out his last attempt to stop him.

With the realization that if this final plan didn’t work, Moctezuma’s fate would be in Cortes’ hands. Moctezuma started to prepare a trap.7 He began by decorating and making the capital city Tenochtitlan seem warm and welcoming towards Cortes and his men. The main idea was that they would catch the Spanish off guard and ambush them. Upon Cortes’ arrival on November 8, 1519, Moctezuma greeted him with these words:

“Thou has arrived on earth, thou has come to thy noble city of Mexico. Thou has come to occupy thy noble mat and seat which for a little time I have guarded and watched for thee… Now it is fulfilled: thou has returned Quetzalcoatl.”8

The battle between the Aztec’s, being lead by Moctezuma, and the Spaniards, being lead by Cortes, after Moctezuma’s failed attempt to ambush the Spaniards | Courtesy of Picryl

Yet no matter how magnificent those words sounded, Cortes did not fall for them and noticed that the whole set up was a trap. On the other hand, Moctezuma’s advisors and subjects where appalled by his words; they couldn’t believe how easily their once strong and powerful emperor had surrendered to their enemy. They had regarded the Spaniards as dangerous aliens that had came into their home in order to take it away and cause destruction, and they believed they should be repulsed rather than warmly welcomed.9 This caused the Aztec’s to begin to hate their emperor and feel anger and fury. Sensing the shift of emotions from the Aztecs and the danger that slowly began to approach him, Cortes took hold of Moctezuma and held him captive with the belief that by holding the only emperor of the Aztec Empire, the Aztecs wouldn’t attack him or his people. Moctezuma understood his situation and easily followed their orders, which caused the Aztec people to burn with more anger and disappointment towards their Emperor. It is believed by historian John S. Brown that Moctezuma suffered a case of Stockholm Syndrome while he was held captive. It was said that it had begun to develop due to his growing obsession with power and strength, and that obsession happened to be reflected upon Cortes.10 It was said that his eagerness to befriend Cortes was in order to prevent the nobles who opposed his decision of coming to terms with Cortes to grow any power for themselves.11

In any case, Moctezuma had earned himself the light of being a barbarian, who was cruel, greedy, and evil, and a leader who did not care about his loyal subjects and slowly lost all the respect and loyalty that he had built up over his time as the Emperor of the Aztec Empire.

Now with the people’s rage all pointing towards Moctezuma, Cortes took advantage of this opportunity and allowed his men to torment the people of the Aztec Empire. So the Spaniards began massacring the priest of Huitzilopochtli and placing crucifixes in the temples. During that same time, Moctezuma tried to earn his freedom by showing intrigue in what Cortes and his men were doing, but it had been too late. By the time he had tried to earn his freedom, the Pipilyin had already deposed him as Emperor and had replaced him with his brother Cuitlahuac.12 So when Cortes noticed how the Aztecs were beginning to fight back, he took Moctezuma to the roof in order to restore the calm, but the moment Moctezuma tried to speak to his subjects, he was attacked by a storm of rocks and arrows being thrown and shot his way by his subjects and warriors who were furious with him. With an angry hoard of people throwing and shooting things his way and with no way to hide or escape, Moctezuma received many injuries, mostly on his head. With no treatment and with serious injuries to his head, Moctezuma sadly passed away three days later on June 30, 1520. When the Aztec people found out about the death of their Emperor, they immediately blamed the Spaniards as they believed that the Spaniards had murdered Moctezuma. So they took it upon themselves to seek revenge on them and started attacking the Spaniards. Now in prominent danger, Cortes gathered his men and planned to escape the Aztec capital during the night in hopes that everyone would be in a deep slumber and the amount of forces would be diminished, but to his surprise, as he and his men began to sneak away, they were caught by the Aztecs and a big battle broke out. The Aztecs fought back with full force, pushing the Spaniards out of the city, but before leaving, Cortes promised to return and fully take over their empire, bringing the destruction of the Aztec Empire to an end.13 When the Spaniards left, the people began their search for their Emperor’s body, and when they finally found Moctezuma’s body, they took hold of it and threw it into the sewage canal and later decided to put it on top of a trash heap and burn his body away, not bothering to give him a proper burial. Now with a great amount of their soldiers being injured and with no Emperor, the Aztec Empire soon would fall to its demise, and Cortes would come back and ultimately bring destruction to the Aztec Empire causing it to disappear into history.

Moctezuma’s dead body being thrown in the water canals by what seems to be a Spaniard and an Aztec | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

For centuries after the destruction and fall of the Aztec Empire, Moctezuma had earned himself the label of an incapable leader. Terms such as lustful, power hungry, barbarian, greedy, and evil will be used when describing who he was, ultimately becoming an Emperor who didn’t deserve any power. This would all change during the Mexican Revolution when Moctezuma would be portrayed as the innocent America that was brutally violated by Spain’s ruthless greed, corruption, and bloody violence.14 His name, Moctezuma, would later become a term that would be associated with authentic Mexico.15  

  1. David Carrasco, Eduardo Matos Moctezuma, and Scott Sessions, Moctezuma’s Mexico : Visions of the Aztec World (Niwot, Colo: University Press of Colorado, 1992), 85.
  2. Gordon M. Sayre, The Indian Chief as Tragic Hero: Native Resistance and The Literature of America, From Moctezuma to Tecumseh (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2005), 50.
  3. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, September 1, 2022, s.v. “Moctezuma II”, by Paul E. Kuhi.
  4. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, September 1, 2022, s.v. “Moctezuma II,” by Paul E. Kuhi.
  5. John S. B, “Cortes Exploits Advantages to Defeat Aztecs,” Army Magazine 69, no. 11 (November 1, 2019): 1-4.
  6. Encyclopedia Britannica, April 20, 2022, s.v. “Montezuma II | Biography, Accomplishments, Death, Importance, & Facts | Britannica,” https://www.britannica.com/biography/Montezuma-II.
  7. Encyclopedia Britannica, April 20, 2022, s.v. “Montezuma II | Biography, Accomplishments, Death, Importance, & Facts | Britannica,” https://www.britannica.com/biography/Montezuma-II.
  8. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, September 1, 2022, s.v. “Moctezuma II,” by Paul E. Kuhi.
  9. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, September 1, 2022, s.v. “Moctezuma II,” by Paul E. Kuhi.
  10. David M. Carballo, Collision of Worlds: A Deep History of the Fall of Aztec Mexico and the Forging of New Spain (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2020) 2.
  11. David M. Carballo, Collision of Worlds: A Deep History of the Fall of Aztec Mexico and the Forging of New Spain (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2020) 2.
  12. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, September 1, 2022, s.v. “Moctezuma II,” by Paul E. Kuhi.
  13. Gordon M. Sayre, The Indian Chief as Tragic Hero: Native Resistance and The Literature of America, From Moctezuma to Tecumseh (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2005), 51-52.
  14. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, September 1, 2022, s.v. “Moctezuma II,” by Paul E. Kuhi.
  15. David Carrasco, Eduardo Matos Moctezuma, and Scott Sessions, Moctezuma’s Mexico : Visions of the Aztec World (Niwot, Colo: University Press of Colorado, 1992),95.

6 Responses

  1. King of the Aztecs! Very interesting article on Moctezuma, the ruler of the Aztec empire. I enjoyed the images you used in your article. Congratulations on your nomination.

  2. What a interesting article, i have never heard of Moctezuma before . I love the imagery you used i was able to connect with the story and culture towards understanding the background a little more with the photos. Overall, i believe you did an awesome job! Congratulations on your nomination!

  3. This was a fascinating essay; I had no clue Moctezuma would send gifts to Cortes in order to hasten his demise. That was the first time I had ever heard of this story, so I find it pretty amusing that he was attempting to keep Cortes away but that this actually drove Cortes to want more of Moctezuma’s treasures.

  4. Wow! Your article was amazing to read, I liked how you told the story and gave so much detail. The story you told flowed perfectly, and your article is well researched. It was interesting to read that Moctezuma’s subjects felt betrayed by him and when they found out that he passed they started to attack Cortes and after Cortes fled, they just dumped his body and wanted nothing to do with him. Overall, great job!

  5. First of all, congratulations on your nomination. It was interesting to see how Moctezuma and the Aztecs tried to form with Hernan Cortez, but little did they know that Cortez and the Spaniards had other intentions. I find it interesting how the conquered tribes had resentful feelings toward the Aztecs and were part of the downfall of the Aztec empire. Before reading the article, I thought Moctezuma was beloved and respected by the Aztecs. Still, after reading the article, that was not the case when he surrendered to the Spaniards.

  6. This was an interesting article, I had no idea that Moctezuma would play into his downfall by sending Cortes gifts. I find it pretty ironic that he was trying to keep Cortes away but this actually encouraged Cortes to want more of Moctezuma’s treasures, that was the first time I had ever heard of this story.

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