10 Facts About Aztec Leader Montezuma

Montezuma II Xocoyotzin was leader of the Mexica (Aztec) Empire in 1519 when Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes showed up with a powerful army. Montezuma's indecision in the face of these unknown invaders certainly contributed to the fall of his empire and civilization.

There is much more to Montezuma than his defeat by the Spanish, however.

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Montezuma Was Not Really His Name

Drawing of Aztec leader Montezuma

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Montezuma's real name was closer to Motecuzoma, Moctezoma or Moctezuma and most serious historians will write and pronounce his name correctly.

His real name was pronounced something like "Mock-tay-coo-schoma." The second part of his name, Xocoyotzín, means "the Younger," and helps distinguish him from his grandfather, Moctezuma Ilhuicamina, who ruled the Aztec Empire from 1440 to 1469.

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He Didn't Inherit the Throne

Unlike European kings, Montezuma did not automatically inherit rulership of the Aztec Empire upon the death of his uncle in 1502. In Tenochtitlan, the rulers were selected by a council of some 30 elders of noble lineage. Montezuma was qualified: He was relatively young, was a prince of the royal family, had distinguished himself in battle, and had a keen understanding of politics and religion.

He was by no means the only choice, however. He had several brothers and cousins who fit the bill as well. The elders selected him based on his merits and the likelihood that he would be a strong leader.

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Montezuma Wasn't an Emperor or King

Montezuma at Tenochtitlan

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He was a Tlatoani, which is a Nahuatl word meaning "Speaker" or "he who commands." The Tlatoque (plural of Tlatoani) of the Mexica were similar to the kings and emperors of Europe, but there were important differences. First, Tlatoque did not inherit their titles but rather were elected by a council of elders.

Once a tlatoani was selected, he had to undergo a long coronation ritual. Part of this ritual imbued the tlatoani with the power to speak with the divine voice of the god Tezcatlipoca, making him the maximum religious authority in the land in addition to commander of all of the armies and all domestic and foreign policies. In many ways, a Mexica tlatoani was more powerful than a European king.

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He Was a Great Warrior and General

Montezuma was a brave warrior in the field as well as a skilled general. If he had never shown great personal bravery on the battlefield, he never would have been considered for Tlatoani in the first place. Once he became Tlatoani, Montezuma carried out several military campaigns against rebellious vassals and holdout city-states within the Aztec sphere of influence.

More often than not, these were successful, although his inability to conquer the antagonistic Tlaxcalans would come back to haunt him when the Spanish invaders arrived in 1519.

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Montezuma Was Deeply Religious


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Before he became tlatoani, Montezuma was a high priest in Tenochtitlan in addition to being a general and diplomat. By all accounts, Montezuma was very religious and fond of spiritual retreats and prayer.

When the Spanish arrived, Montezuma spent much time in prayer and with the Mexica diviners and priests, trying to get answers from his gods as to the nature of the foreigners, what their motives were, and how to deal with them. He wasn't sure if they were men, gods, or something else entirely.

Montezuma became convinced that the coming of the Spanish foretold the end of the current Aztec cycle, the fifth sun. When the Spanish were in Tenochtitlan, they pressured Montezuma greatly to convert to Christianity, and although he allowed the foreigners to set up a small shrine, he never personally converted.

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He Lived a Life of Luxury

As Tlatoani, Montezuma enjoyed a lifestyle that would have been the envy of any European King or Arabian Sultan. He had his own luxurious palace in Tenochtitlan and many full-time servants to cater to his every whim. He had numerous wives and concubines, When he was out and about in the city, he was carried around in a great litter.

Commoners were not supposed to ever look at him directly. He ate from his own dishes that no one else was allowed to use, and he wore cotton tunics which he changed frequently and never wore more than once.

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He Was Indecisive in the Face of the Spanish

Cortes arrives on Mexico

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When an army of 600 Spanish conquistadors under the command of Hernan Cortes arrived on Mexico's gulf coast in early 1519, Montezuma sent word for Cortes not to come to Tenochtitlan because he would not see him, but Cortes was not dissuaded.

Montezuma sent lavish gifts of gold intended to appease the invaders and make them go home, but they had the opposite effect on the greedy conquistadors. Cortes and his men made alliances along the way with tribes unhappy with Aztec rule as well.

When they reached Tenochtitlan, Montezuma welcomed them into the city. But Cortes, realizing Montezuma was setting a trap, took him captive less than a week later. As a captive, Montezuma told his people to obey the Spanish, losing their respect.

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He Did Take Steps to Defend His Empire

Montezuma did, however, take some steps to get rid of the Spanish. When Cortes and his men were in Cholula on their way to Tenochtitlan, Montezuma ordered an ambush set up between Cholula and Tenochtitlan. Cortes caught wind of it and ordered the infamous Cholula Massacre, slaughtering thousands of unarmed Cholulans who had gathered in the central square.

When Panfilo de Narvaez came to take control of the expedition from Cortes, Montezuma began a clandestine correspondence with him and told his coastal vassals to support Narvaez. Finally, after the Massacre of Toxcatl, Montezuma convinced Cortes to free his brother Cuitláhuac to restore order. Cuitláhuac, who had advocated opposing the Spanish from the start, soon organized the resistance to the invaders and became Tlatoani when Montezuma died.

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He Became Friends With Hernan Cortes

Cortes takes Montezuma prisoner

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While a prisoner of the Spanish, Montezuma developed a sort of strange friendship with his captor, Hernan Cortes. He taught Cortes how to play some traditional Mexica table games and they would wager small gemstones on the outcome. The captive Montezuma took the leading Spaniards out of the city to hunt small game.

The friendship had practical value for Cortes: When Montezuma found out that his warlike nephew Cacama was planning a rebellion, he told Cortes, who had Cacama arrested.

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He Was Killed by His Own People

In June of 1520, Hernan Cortes returned to Tenochtitlan to find it in a state of uproar. His lieutenant Pedro de Alvarado had attacked unarmed nobles at the Festival of Toxcatl, massacring thousands, and the city was out for Spanish blood. Cortes sent Montezuma to the rooftop to speak with his people and plead for calm, but they were having none of it. Instead, they attacked Montezuma, hurling stones and spears and firing arrows at him.

Montezuma was horribly injured before the Spanish could get him away. Montezuma died of his wounds a few days later, on June 29, 1520. According to some native accounts, Montezuma recovered from his wounds and was killed by the Spanish, but those accounts agree that he was at least grievously wounded by the people of Tenochtitlan.

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Minster, Christopher. "10 Facts About Aztec Leader Montezuma." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/ten-facts-about-montezuma-2136263. Minster, Christopher. (2023, April 5). 10 Facts About Aztec Leader Montezuma. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/ten-facts-about-montezuma-2136263 Minster, Christopher. "10 Facts About Aztec Leader Montezuma." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/ten-facts-about-montezuma-2136263 (accessed June 9, 2023).