Cuauhtémoc (also known as Cuauhtemotzin, Guatimozin or Guatemoc; c. 1502–1525) was the Aztec ruler (tlatoani) of Tenochtitlan from 1520 to 1521. The name Cuāuhtemōc means "One That Has Descended Like an Eagle" in Nahuatl — commonly rendered in English as "Falling Eagle" — and was .
Cuauhtémoc took power in 1520 as successor of Cuitláhuac and was a nephew of the emperor Moctezuma II, and his young wife was one of Moctezuma's daughters. He ascended to the throne when he was 18 years of age, as his city was being besieged by the Spanish and devastated by an epidemic of smallpox. Probably after the killings in the main temple, there were few Aztec captains available to take the position.
On August 13, 1521, Cuauhtémoc went to call for reinforcements from the countryside to aid the falling Tenochtitlán, after eighty days straight of urban warfare against the Spanish. Of all the Nahuas, only Tlatelolcas remained loyal, and the surviving Tenochcas looked for refuge in Tlatelolco where even women took part in the battle. Cuauhtémoc was captured while crossing Lake Texcoco in disguise. He surrendered to Hernán Cortés along with the surviving pipiltin (nobles), and offered him his knife and asked to be killed.
At first, Cortés treated his foe chivalrously. "A Spaniard knows how to respect valor even in an enemy," he declared. However, he allowed Aldrete, the royal treasurer, to have Cuauhtemoc tortured to make him reveal the whereabouts of hidden treasure. Cuauhtémoc, insisting that there was no hidden treasure, stood up under the ordeal.
Surrounded at Tlatelolco, the Aztec lords decided to surrender on August 13, 1521. Emperor Cuauhtémoc went by canoe. He was taken to Cortés.
"And so the war ended, we laid down our shields. We have suffered enough! Some fled across the lake others across the causeways. Spanish soldiers stopped people everywhere, looking for gold. They stripped the women, even peering into their mouths. As for the men many were taken and branded on the cheeks."
"But what of the gold?" demanded Cortés. Cuauhtémoc directed that all that he had in his canoe be brought forth.
"Is that all there is?" replied Cortés. An Aztec lord reminded the Spanish commander that they had taken all the gold, but had lost it in the Tolteca canal when they fled the city the year before.
"Let Cortés listen," he said. "This is how that treasure was made. When Motecuhzoma was alive, war was declared and we, the Mexicas, the Tlalteoloca, the Tepaneca, and the Acolhua campaigned together. When we conquered, when a city fell, we all returned to our cities. Only later the people of the conquered cities came to us and brought their tribute: jade, turquoise, gold, and precious feathers; it was all brought here to Tenochtitlan… and now it is lost."|30px|30px|Florentine Codex
Cuauhtémoc was tortured by having his feet put to a fire, along with Tetlepanquetzal, the tlatoani of Tlacopán, and the Cihuacóatl (counselor) Tlacotzin, but even so they refused to divulge information about the treasures the Spanish coveted. It is said that during the torture, Tetlepanquetzal asked him to reveal the location of the treasures in order to stop the pain given to them, and Cuauhtémoc is quoted to say "Do you think I am in a bath for pleasure?" This would be popularized in the 19th century as "Do you think I am in a bed of roses?" The date and details of this episode are unknown. In the end, a shamed Cortés delivered Cuauhtémoc from Aldrete's hands.
Eventually Cortés recovered some gold from a noble's house, but most of the tales about "Aztec gold" is a myth. Since for the Aztecs, gold had no intrinsic value, they did not have big solid pieces of gold, instead they preferred wood covered with gold. After those pieces were melted, they only gave a fraction of the gold that Cortés and his men expected.
There are a number of discrepancies in the various accounts of the event. According to Cortés himself, on 27 February 1525 it was revealed to him by a citizen of Tenochtitlan named Mexicalcingo that Cuauhtémoc, Coanacoch (the ruler of Texcoco) and Tetlepanquetzal (the ruler of Tlacopan) were plotting his death. Cortés interrogated them until each confessed, and then had Cuauhtémoc, Tetlepanquetzal, and another lord named Tlacatlec hanged. Cortés wrote that the other lords would be too frightened to plot against him again, as they believed he had uncovered the plan through magic powers. Cortés's account is supported by the historian Francisco López de Gómara.
According to Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a conquistador serving under Cortés who recorded his experiences in his book The Conquest of New Spain, the supposed plot was revealed by two men, named Tapia and Juan Velásquez. Díaz portrays the executions as unjust and based on no evidence, and admits to having liked Cuauhtémoc personally. He also records Cuauhtémoc giving the following speech to Cortés, through his interpreter Malinche:
Oh Malinche [i.e., Cortés]! Now I understand your false promises and the kind of death you have had in store for me. For you are killing me unjustly. May God demand justice from you, as it was taken from me when I entrusted myself to you in my city of Mexico!Díaz wrote that afterwards, Cortés suffered from insomnia due to guilt, and badly injured himself while wandering at night.
Fernando de Alva Cortés Ixtlilxóchitl, a Mestizo historian and descendant of Coanacoch, wrote an account of the executions in the 17th century partly based on Texcocan oral tradition. According to Ixtlilxóchitl the three lords were joking cheerfully with each other, due to a rumor that Cortés had decided to return the expedition to Mexico, when Cortés asked a spy to tell him what they are talking about. The spy reported honestly, but Cortés invented the plot himself. Cuauhtémoc, Coanacoch and Tetlepanquetzal were all hanged, as well as eight others. However, Cortés cut down Coanacoch, the last to be hanged, after his brother began rallying his warriors. Coanacoch did not have long to enjoy his reprieve — Ixtlilxóchitl wrote that he died a few days later.
According to the account of the Chontal Maya inhabitants of Itzamkanac recorded in the 17th century, Cuauhtémoc approached Paxbolonacha, the local Maya ruler, telling him of the evils of the Spaniards, and suggesting that the Mayas and Nahuas join forces to kill them. Paxbolonacha refused, observing the Spaniards to be peaceful and well-behaved, and after Cuauhtémoc continued to ask repeatedly, went to Cortés and informed him of Cuauhtémoc's plan. Cortés kept Cuauhtémoc in chains for three days. He was then baptized, although his baptismal name was unknown — "some say he was named don Juan and some say he was named don Hernando". Finally, he was beheaded, and his head impaled on a ceiba tree in front of the temple at Yaxdzan.
Many places in Mexico are named in honour of Cuauhtémoc. These include Ciudad Cuauhtémoc in Chihuahua and the Cuauhtémoc borough of the Mexican Federal District. There is also a Cuauhtémoc station on the Mexico City metro and the Monterrey Metrorrey. Cuauhtémoc is also one of the few non-Spanish given names for Mexican boys that is perennially popular. In the Aztec campaign of the PC game Age of Empires II: The Conquerors, the player plays as Cuauhtémoc, despite the name Montezuma for the campaign itself. In the next installment to the series, Age of Empires 3: The War Chiefs, Cuauhtémoc was the leader of Aztecs.
Cuauhtémoc, in the name Guatemoc, is portrayed sympathetically in the adventure novel Montezuma's Daughter, by H. Rider Haggard. First appearing in Chapter XIV, he becomes friends with the protagonist after they save each other's lives. His coronation, torture, and death are described in the novel.