8 Important Figures in the Conquest of the Aztec Empire

Montezuma, Cortes, and a Who's Who of the Conquest of the Aztecs

From 1519 to 1521, two mighty empires clashed: the Aztecs, rulers of Central Mexico; and the Spanish, represented by conquistador Hernan Cortes. Millions of men and women in present-day Mexico were affected by this conflict. Who were the men and women who were responsible for the bloody battles of the conquest of the Aztecs?

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Hernan Cortes, Greatest of the Conquistadors

Hernan Cortes and peacock with coats of arms of Spanish tributary nations, detail from Allegory of Dominions of Charles V by Peter Johann Nepomuk Geiger (1805-1880), Throne Room, Miramare Castle, Trieste, Friuli-Venezia Giulia
Hernan Cortes. DEA / A. DAGLI ORTI / Getty Images

With only a few hundred men, some horses, a small arsenal of weapons, and his own wits and ruthlessness, Hernan Cortes brought down the mightiest empire that Mesoamerica had ever seen. According to legend, he would one day introduce himself to the King of Spain by saying "I am he who gave you more kingdoms than once you had towns." Cortes may or may not have actually said that, but it was not far from the truth. Without his bold leadership, the expedition would certainly have failed.

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Montezuma, the Indecisive Emperor

The Aztec Emperor Montezuma II (1466-1520) in Chapultepec, oil on canvas by Daniel del Valle, 1895, Mexico, 16th century
The Aztec Emperor Montezuma II. De Agostini Picture Library / Getty Images

Montezuma is remembered by history as a star-gazer who handed his empire over to the Spaniards without a fight. It's hard to argue with that, considering that he invited the conquistadors into Tenochtitlan, allowed them to take him captive, and died a few months later while pleading with his own people to obey the intruders. Before the arrival of the Spanish, however, Montezuma was an able, warlike leader of the Mexica people, and under his watch, the empire was consolidated and expanded.

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Diego Velazquez de Cuellar, Governor of Cuba

Statue of Diego Velazquez at Prado Museum, Madrid
Statue of Diego Velazquez. parema / Getty Images

Diego Velazquez, governor of Cuba, was the one who sent Cortes on his fateful expedition. Velazquez learned of Cortes' great ambition too late, and when he tried to remove him as commander, Cortes sailed off. Once rumors of the great wealth of the Aztecs reached him, Velazquez tried to regain command of the expedition by sending experienced conquistador Panfilo de Narvaez to Mexico to rein in Cortes. This mission was a great failure, because not only did Cortes defeat Narvaez, but he added Narvaez' men to his own, strengthening his army when he needed it the most.

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Xicotencatl the Elder, The Allied Chieftain

Cortes meets with Tlaxcalan Leaders
Cortes meets with Tlaxcalan Leaders.

Painting by Desiderio Hernández Xochitiotzin / Wikimedia Commons

Xicotencatl the Elder was one of four leaders of the Tlaxcalan people, and the one with the most influence. When the Spaniards first arrived ​to Tlaxcalan lands, they met with fierce resistance. But when two weeks of constant warfare failed to dislodge the intruders, Xicotencatl welcomed them to Tlaxcala. The Tlaxcalans were traditional bitter enemies of the Aztecs, and in short order Cortes had made an alliance which would provide him with thousands of fierce Tlaxcalan warriors. It is not a stretch to say that Cortes would never have succeeded without the Tlaxcalans, and the support of Xicotencatl was crucial. Unfortunately for the elder Xicotencatl, Cortes paid him back by ordering the execution of his son, Xicotencatl the Younger, when the younger man defied the Spanish.

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Cuitlahuac, the Defiant Emperor

Monument to Aztec leader Cuauhtémoc on Paseo de la Reforma, Mexico City
Monument to Aztec leader Cuauhtémoc on Paseo de la Reforma, Mexico City.

AlejandroLinaresGarcia / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Cuitlahuac, whose name means "divine excrement," was Montezuma's half-brother and the man who replaced him as Tlatoani, or emperor, after his death. Unlike Montezuma, Cuitlahuac was an implacable enemy of the Spanish who had counseled resistance to the invaders from the moment they first arrived in Aztec lands. After the death of Montezuma and the Night of Sorrows, Cuitlahuac took charge of the Mexica, sending an army to chase the fleeing Spanish. The two sides met at the battle of Otumba, which resulted in a narrow victory for the conquistadors. Cuitlahuac's reign was destined to be short, as he perished of smallpox sometime in December 1520.

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Cuauhtemoc, Fighting to the Bitter End

Conquest of Mexico. Capture of Cuauhtemoc. Colored engraving.
Capture of Cuauhtemoc.

Corbis / Getty Images

Upon the death of Cuitlahuac, his cousin Cuauhtémoc ascended to the position of Tlatoani. Like his predecessor, Cuauhtemoc had always advised Montezuma to defy the Spanish. Cuauhtemoc organized the resistance to the Spanish, rallying allies and fortifying the causeways which led into Tenochtitlan. From May to August of 1521, however, Cortes and his men wore down the Aztec resistance, which had already been hard hit by a smallpox epidemic. Although Cuauhtemoc organized a fierce resistance, his capture in August of 1521 marked the end of Mexica resistance to the Spanish.

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Malinche, Cortes' Secret Weapon

Hernandez Cortes, Spanish conquistador, 16th century.
Cortes arriving in Mexico followed by his black servant and preceeded by La Malinche.

Print Collector / Getty Images

Cortes would have been a fish out of water without his interpreter/mistress, Malinali aka "Malinche." An enslaved teenage girl, Malinche was one of 20 young women given to Cortes and his men by the Lords of Potonchan. Malinche could speak Nahuatl and therefore could communicate with the people of Central Mexico. But she also spoke a Nahuatl dialect, which allowed her to communicate with Cortes through one of his men, a Spaniard who had been a captive in Maya lands for several years. Malinche was much more than merely an interpreter, however: her insight into the cultures of Central Mexico allowed her to advise Cortes when he needed it most.

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Pedro de Alvarado, the Reckless Captain

Portrait of Cristobal de Olid (1487-1524) and Pedro de Alvarado (ca 1485-1541)
Portrait of Cristobal de Olid (1487-1524) and Pedro de Alvarado (ca 1485-1541). De Agostini / Biblioteca Ambrosiana / Getty Images

Hernan Cortes had several Cuauhtemoc lieutenants who served him well in his conquest of the Aztec Empire. One man he constantly relied upon was Pedro de Alvarado, a ruthless conquistador from the Spanish region of Extremadura. He was smart, ruthless, fearless and loyal: these characteristics made him the ideal lieutenant for Cortes. Alvarado caused his captain great trouble in May 1520 when he ordered the massacre at the Festival of Toxcatl, which enraged the Mexica people so much that within two months they kicked the Spanish out of the city. After the conquest of the Aztecs, Alvarado led the expedition to subdue the Maya in Central America and even took part in the conquest of the Inca in Peru.

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Minster, Christopher. "8 Important Figures in the Conquest of the Aztec Empire." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/conquest-of-aztec-empire-important-figures-2136535. Minster, Christopher. (2023, April 5). 8 Important Figures in the Conquest of the Aztec Empire. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/conquest-of-aztec-empire-important-figures-2136535 Minster, Christopher. "8 Important Figures in the Conquest of the Aztec Empire." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/conquest-of-aztec-empire-important-figures-2136535 (accessed June 8, 2023).