Emperor Montezuma Before the Spanish

Montezuma II was a good leader before the Spanish arrived

Artistic rendering of Montezuma

Painting by Daniel del Valle, 1895

Emperor Montezuma Xocoyotzín (other spellings include Motecuzoma and Moctezuma) is remembered by history as the indecisive leader of the Mexica Empire who let Hernan Cortes and his conquistadors into the magnificent city of Tenochtitlan virtually unopposed. Although it is true that Montezuma was unsure of how to deal with the Spaniards and that his indecision led in no small measure to the downfall of the Aztec Empire, this is only part of the story. Before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, Montezuma was a renowned war leader, skilled diplomat and an able leader of his people who oversaw the consolidation of the Mexica Empire.

A Prince of the Mexica

Montezuma was born in 1467, a prince of the royal family of the Mexica Empire. Not one hundred years before Montezuma's birth, the Mexica had been an outsider tribe in the Valley of Mexico, vassals of the mighty Tepanecs. During the reign of Mexica leader Itzcoátl, however, the Triple Alliance of Tenochtitlan, Texcoco and Tacuba was formed and together they overthrew the Tepanecs. Successive emperors had expanded the empire, and by 1467 the Mexica were the unquestioned leaders of the Valley of Mexico and beyond. Montezuma was born for greatness: he was named after his grandfather Moctezuma Ilhuicamina, one of the greatest Tlatoanis or Emperors of the Mexica. Montezuma's Father Axayácatl and his uncles Tízoc and Ahuítzotl had also been tlatoque (emperors). His name Montezuma meant "he who makes himself angry," and Xocoyotzín meant "the younger" to distinguish him from his grandfather.

The Mexica Empire in 1502

In 1502, Montezuma's uncle Ahuitzotl, who had served as emperor since 1486, died. He left an organized, massive Empire which stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific and covered most of present-day Central Mexico. Ahuitzotl had roughly doubled the area controlled by the Aztecs, launching conquests to the north, northeast, west and south. The conquered tribes were made vassals of the mighty Mexica and forced to send quantities of food, goods, enslaved people, and sacrifices to Tenochtitlan.

Succession of Montezuma as Tlatoani

The ruler of the Mexica was called the Tlatoani, which means "speaker" or "he who commands." When it came time to select a new ruler, the Mexica did not automatically select the previous ruler's eldest son like they did in Europe. When the old Tlatoani died, a council of elders of the royal family came together to select the next one. The candidates could include all male, high-born relatives of the previous Tlatoani, but since the elders were looking for a younger man with proven battlefield and diplomatic experience, in reality they were choosing from a limited pool of several candidates.

As a young prince of the royal family, Montezuma had been trained for warfare, politics, religion and diplomacy from an early age. When his uncle died in 1502, Montezuma was thirty-five years old and had distinguished himself as a warrior, general and diplomat. He had also served as a high priest. He was active in the various conquests undertaken by his uncle Ahuitzotl. Montezuma was a strong candidate, but was by no means his uncle's undlisputed successor. He was elected by the elders, however, and became Tlatoani in 1502.

Coronation of Montezuma

A Mexica coronation was a drawn-out, splendid affair. Montezuma first went into a spiritual retreat for a few days, fasting and praying. Once that was done, there was music, dancing, festivals, feasts and the arrival of visiting nobility from allied and vassal cities. On the day of the coronation, the lords of Tacuba and Tezcoco, the most important allies of the Mexica, crowned Montezuma, because only a reigning sovereign could crown another.

Once he had been crowned, Montezuma had to be confirmed. The first major step was to carry out a military campaign for the purposes of acquiring sacrificial victims for the ceremonies. Montezuma chose to war against Nopallan and Icpatepec, vassals of the Mexica who were currently in rebellion. These were in the present-day Mexican State of Oaxaca. The campaigns went smoothly; many captives were brought back to Tenochtitlan and the two rebellious city-states began paying tribute to the Aztecs

With the sacrifices ready, it was time to confirm Montezuma as tlatoani. Great lords came from all over the Empire once again, and at a great dance led by the rulers of Tezcoco and Tacuba, Montezuma appeared in a wreath of incense smoke. Now it was official: Montezuma was the ninth tlatoani of the mighty Mexica Empire. After this appearance, Montezuma formally handed out offices to his highest ranking officials. Finally, the captives taken in battle were sacrificed. As tlatoani, he was the maximum political, military and religious figure in the land: like a king, general and pope all rolled into one.

Montezuma Tlatoani

The new Tlatoani had a completely different style from his predecessor, his uncle Ahuitzotl. Montezuma was an elitist: he abolished the title of quauhpilli, which meant "Eagle Lord" and was awarded to soldiers of common birth who had shown great courage and aptitude in battle and warfare. Instead, he filled all military and civil positions with members of the noble class. He removed or killed many of Ahutzotl's top officials.

The policy of reserving important posts for the nobility strengthened the Mexica hold on allied states, however. The royal court at Tenochtitlan was home to many princes of allies, who were there as hostages against the good behavior of their city-states, but they were also educated and had many opportunities in the Aztec army. Montezuma allowed them to rise in military ranks, binding them - and their families - to the tlatoani.

As tlatoani, Montezuma lived a luxurious life. He had one main wife named Teotlalco, a princess from Tula of Toltec descent, and several other wives, most of them princesses of important families of allied or subjugated city-states. He also enslaved countless women that he forced into sexual intercourse and he had many children by these different women. He lived in his own palace in Tenochtitlan, where he ate off of plates reserved for only him, waited on by a legion of servant boys. He changed clothes frequently and never wore the same tunic twice. He enjoyed music and there were many musicians and their instruments at his palace.

War and Conquest Under Montezuma

During Montezuma Xocoyotzín's reign, the Mexica were in a near-constant state of war. Like his predecessors, Montezuma was charged with preserving the lands he inherited and expanding the empire. Because he inherited a large empire, much of which had been added by his predecessor Ahuitzotl, Montezuma primarily concerned himself with maintaining the empire and defeating those isolated holdout states within the Aztec sphere of influence. In addition, Montezuma's armies fought frequent "Flower Wars" against other city states: the main purpose of these wars was not subjugation and conquest, but rather a chance for both sides to take prisoners for sacrifice in a limited military engagement. 

Montezuma enjoyed mostly successes in his wars of conquest. Much of the fiercest fighting took place to the south and east of Tenochtitlan, where the various city-states of the Huaxyacac resisted Aztec rule. Montezuma was eventually victorious in bringing the region to heel. Once the troublesome peoples of the Huaxyacac tribes had been subjugated, Montezuma turned his attention to the north, where warlike Chichimec tribes still ruled, defeating the cities of Mollanco and Tlachinolticpac.

Meanwhile, the stubborn region of Tlaxcala remained defiant. It was a region made up of some 200 smallish city-states led by the Tlaxcalan people united in their hatred of the Aztecs, and none of Montezuma's predecessors had been able to defeat it. Montezuma tried several times to defeat the Tlaxcalans, launching large campaigns in 1503 and again in 1515. Each attempt to subjugate the fierce Tlaxcalans ended in defeat for the Mexica. This failure to neutralize their traditional enemies would come back to haunt Montezuma: in 1519, Hernan Cortes and the Spanish conquistadors befriended the Tlaxcalans, who proved to be invaluable allies against the Mexica, their most hated foe.

Montezuma in 1519

In 1519, when Hernan Cortes and the Spanish conquistadors invaded, Montezuma was at the height of his power. He ruled an empire which stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific and could summon more than a million warriors. Although he was firm and decisive in dealing with his empire, he was weak when faced with the unknown invaders, which in part led to his downfall.

Resources and Further Reading

  • Berdan, Frances: "Moctezuma II: la Expansion del Imperio Mexica." Arqueología Mexicana XVII - 98 (July-August 2009) 47-53.
  • Hassig, Ross. Aztec Warfare: Imperial Expansion and Political Control. Norman and London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988.
  • Levy, Buddy. . New York: Bantam, 2008.
  • Matos Moctezuma, Eduardo. "Moctezuma II: la Gloria del Imperio." Arqueología Mexicana XVII - 98 (July-August 2009) 54-60.
  • Smith, Michael. The Aztecs. 1988. Chichester: Wiley, Blackwell. Third Edition, 2012.
  • Thomas, Hugh. . New York: Touchstone, 1993.
  • Townsend, Richard F. The Aztecs. 1992, London: Thames and Hudson. Third Edition, 2009
  • Vela, Enrique. "Moctezuma Xocoyotzin, El que se muestra enojado, el joven.'" Arqueologia Mexicana Ed. Especial 40 (Oct 2011), 66-73.
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Minster, Christopher. "Emperor Montezuma Before the Spanish." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/emperor-montezuma-before-the-spanish-2136261. Minster, Christopher. (2023, April 5). Emperor Montezuma Before the Spanish. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/emperor-montezuma-before-the-spanish-2136261 Minster, Christopher. "Emperor Montezuma Before the Spanish." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/emperor-montezuma-before-the-spanish-2136261 (accessed May 28, 2023).