Moctezuma, also known as Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin (also spelled Montezuma in English) (c. 1466–1520) was the 9th tlatoani (ruler) of Tenochtitlan, reigning from 1502 to 1520. It was during Moctezuma's reign that the Spanish Conquest began.
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 weak-willed and indecisive. The biases of some historical sources make it difficult to understand his actions during the Spanish invasion.
During his reign the Aztec Empire reached its maximal size; through warfare Moctezuma II expanded the territory as far south as Xoconosco in Chiapas and the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, and incorporated the Zapotec and Yopi people into the empire. He changed the previous meritocratic system of social hierarchy and widened the divide between pipiltin (nobles) and macehualtin (commoners) by prohibiting commoners from working in the royal palaces. The famous Stone of Tizoc, a sacrificial stone decorated with carvings representing Tizoc, Moctezuma's predecessor as Tlatoani, was also elaborated during his rule.
The descriptions of the life of Moctezuma are full of contradictions, and thus nothing is known for certain about his personality and rule.
The first hand account of Bernal Díaz del Castillo's True History of the Conquest of New Spain paints a portrait of a noble leader who struggles to maintain order in his kingdom after he is taken prisoner by Cortés. In his first description of Moctezuma, Díaz del Castillo writes:
"The Great Montezuma was about forty years old, of good height, well proportioned, spare and slight, and not very dark, though of the usual Indian complexion. He did not wear his hair long but just over his ears, and he had a short black beard, well-shaped and thin. His face was rather long and cheerful, he had fine eyes, and in his appearance and manner could express geniality or, when necessary, a serious composure. He was very neat and clean, and took a bath every afternoon. He had many women as his mistresses, the daughters of chieftains, but two legitimate wives who were Caciques in their own right, and only some of his servants knew of it. He was quite free from sodomy. The clothes he wore one day he did not wear again till three or four days later. He had a guard of two hundred chieftains lodged in rooms beside his own, only some of whom were permitted to speak to him. (Díaz del Castillo 1568/1963: 224-25)
Cortes and all of us captains and soldiers wept for him, and there was no one among us that knew him and had dealings with him who did not mourn him as if he were our father, which was not surprising, since he was so good. It was stated that he had reigned for seventeen years, and was the best king they ever had in Mexico, and that he had personally triumphed in three wars against countries he had subjugated. I have spoken of the sorrow we all felt when we saw that Montezuma was dead. We even blamed the Mercederian friar for not having persuaded him to become a Christian" (Díaz del Castillo 1568/1963: 294).
The Florentine Codex, made by Bernardino de Sahagún and his native informants of Tenochtitlan-subjugated Tlatelolco, generally portrays Tlatelolco and Tlatelolcan rulers in a favorable light relative to the Tenocha, and Moctezuma in particular is depicted unfavorably as a weak-willed, superstitious, and indulgent ruler (Restall 2003). Historian James Lockhart suggests that the people needed to have a scapegoat for the Aztec defeat, and Moctezuma naturally fell into that role.
Unlike Bernal Díaz, who was remembering his memoirs many years after the fact, Cortés wrote his Cartas de comunicación (Letters from Mexico) in the moment in order to justify his actions to the Spanish Crown. His prose is characterized by simple descriptions and explanations, along with frequent personal addresses to the King. In his Second Letter, Cortes describes his first encounter with Moctezuma thus:
Mutezuma [sic] came to greet us and with him some two hundred lords, all barefoot and dressed in a different costume, but also very rich in their way and more so than the others. They came in two columns, pressed very close to the walls of the street, which is very wide and beautiful and so straight that you can see from one end to the other. Mutezuma came down the middle of this street with two chiefs, one on his right hand and the other on his left. And they were all dressed alike except that Mutezuma wore sandals whereas the others went barefoot; and they held his arm on either side. (Trans. Pagden 1986:84).
Cortés' truthfulness and motives have been called into question by many scholars. Anthony Pagden and Eulalia Guzman (Relaciones de Hernan Cortes 1958:279) have pointed the Biblical messages that Cortés seems to ascribe to Moctezuma's retelling of the legend of Quetzalcoatl as a vengeful Messiah who would return to rule over the Mexica. Pagden has written that "There is no preconquest tradition which places Quetzalcoatl in this role, and it seems possible therefore that it was elaborated by Sahagún and Motolinía from informants who themselves had partially lost contact with their traditional tribal histories" (Pagden 1986:467) .
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's 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 Sahagún's Tlatelolcan informants who 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." Matthew 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 has been a factor in fostering the 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. Some Franciscan priests held millennarian beliefs 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 priest.
Ethnohistorian Susan Gillespie has argued that the Nahua understanding of history as repeating itself in cycles also led to a subsequent rationalisation of the events of the conquests. In this interpretation the description of Moctezuma, the final ruler of the Aztec Empire, was tailored to fit the role of earlier rulers of ending dynasties - for example Quetzalcoatl, the mythical last ruler of the Toltecs. In any case it is more than likely that the description of Moctezuma in post-conquest sources was largely coloured by his role as a monumental closing figure of Aztec history.
When 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 was aware of this and he sent gifts to the Spaniards, probably in order to show his superiority to the Spaniards and Tlaxcalteca.
On November 8 1519, Moctezuma met Cortés on the causeway leading into Tenochtitlan and the two leaders exchanged gifts. Moctezuma gave Cortés the gift of an Aztec calendar, one disc of crafted gold and another of silver. Cortés later melted these down for their material value (Díaz del Castillo 1963: 216-19).
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. The Aztec nobility reportedly became increasingly 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.
In his Historia, Bernal Díaz 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:
Barely was [the emperor's speech to his subjects] finished when a sudden shower of stones and darts descended. Our men who had been shielding Montezuma [sic] had momentarily neglected their duty when they saw the attack cease while he spoke to his chiefs. Montezuma 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 that Moctezuma died wounded by a stone thrown by his countrymen. On the other hand, the indigenous accounts claim that Moctezuma was killed by the Spanish prior to their leaving the city. According to Sahagún's Tlatelolcan informants, Alvarado "garrotted all the nobles he had in power", and Moctezuma's body was found in the street with sword wounds three days after the killings.
Others say he was killed by Cortés alone. Cortés supposedly poured molten gold down his throat, thus simultaneously drowning, suffocating, and burning him.
In the Ramirez Codex, an anonymous account by a Christianized Aztec, the Spanish priests are criticized for searching for gold rather than administering the Last Rites. Some modern scholars, such as Matthew Restall (2003), prefer the indigenous accounts over the Spanish ones. They surmise that the Spanish killed Moctezuma once his inability to pacify the Aztec people had made him useless.
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.
Following 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.
Hubert Howe Bancroft, writing in the 19th century (Native Races, Volume #3), speculated that the name of the historical Aztec Emperor 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.
One such example was the rebellion of the Virgin Cult in Chiapas in 1721, where the followers of the Virgin Mary rebelled against the Spanish after having been told by an apparition of the virgin that Moctezuma would be resuscitated to assist them against their Spanish oppressors. In the Quisteil rebellion of the Yucatec Maya in 1761 the rebel leader Jacinto Canek reportedly called himself "Little Montezuma".
The grandson of Moctezuma II, Ihuitemotzin, baptized as Diego Luis de Moctezuma, was brought to Spain by King Philip II. There he married 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 part of the Spanish nobility. One descendant of this family was General Jerónimo Girón y Moctezuma, commander of the Spanish forces at the Battle of Fort Charlotte.
Moctezuma's daughter, Princess Xipaguacin Moctezuma, married Juan de Grau, Baron of Toleriu, one of Cortés's senior officers, who took her back to Spain where she died in the Mountain village of Toleriu, near Andorra, in 1537.