Montezuma II Research Paper

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Montezuma II was emperor of the Triple Alliance (Aztec Empire) at the time of the Spanish conquest of Mexico. Although a strong king with numerous accomplishments, Montezuma II has been burdened with an undeserved reputation as a weak and ineffectual opponent to the conquering Spaniards.

When the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes came to Mexico in 1519, Montezuma II was the emperor of the Triple Alliance (Aztec Empire). Born in 1467 into the royal family of Tenochtitlan, the dominant city in the alliance that ruled the empire, Montezuma II was called Montezuma (Angry Lord) Xocoyotzin (the Younger) to distinguish him from his great-grandfather, the king Montezuma Ilhuicamina (An Arrow Pierces the Sky), also known as Montezuma I.

Succession in the Tenochtitlan dynasty passed among male members of the royal family as determined through election by a royal council upon death of a king. By 1502, when the emperor Ahuitzotl died, his nephew Montezuma II (grandson of the emperor Axayacatl) had distinguished himself in battle and was an obvious choice for the throne. Native historical accounts are unanimous in their praise of Montezuma II’s qualities. For example, the Codex Mendoza (a postconquest history written in the ancient style) describes his “bravery and leadership in war” and goes on to describe him as follows: “Montezuma was by nature wise, an astrologer, a philosopher, and skilled in all the arts, civil as well as military. His subjects greatly respected him because of his gravity, demeanor, and power; none of his predecessors, in comparison, could approach his great state and majesty” (Codex Mendoza, folio 14 verso; Berdan and Anawalt 1992, vol. 4:34).

During his reign (1502–1520) Montezuma II led wars of conquest to consolidate the distant provinces of the empire. He worked to concentrate power in the hands of the top nobility at the expense of commoners. Whereas Ahuitzotl had permitted talented commoners to occupy important offices, Montezuma stripped these commoners of their titles and decreed that only members of the top nobility could hold high office. Nigel Davies calls this “a definite step in the direction of an absolute monarchy” (Davies 1973, 216). He also carried out a series of religious and calendrical reforms to help claim supernatural support for his political agenda.

In 1519, Hernan Cortes and a band of several hundred Spaniards landed in Mexico. Montezuma did little to fight the Spaniards, who were able to enter Tenochtitlan without opposition. Cortes took the king hostage, and he was soon killed. Native sources state that the Spaniards killed Montezuma, whereas Spanish sources state that he was killed by an Aztec mob that was assaulting the palace where he was held.

One of the central “mysteries” of the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs is Montezuma’s failure to oppose Cortes more vigorously. Why did the king not send his armies—with tens of thousands of experienced troops—to fight Cortes? One interpretation blames the Aztec king for indecisiveness and vacillation. According to this view, the king was frozen in uncertainty and therefore permitted Cortes to enter Tenochtitlan unopposed. This popular view of Montezuma as an indecisive and weak leader, however, is contradicted by his history as emperor between 1502 and 1519.

According to recent scholarship, indigenous nobles and Spanish Franciscan friars in the decades after the conquest conspired to invent reasons for Montezuma’s hesitation. One such reason was the dubious notion that Montezuma believed Cortes to be the god Quetzalcoatl returning to reclaim his kingdom. A related reason was a series of omens throughout his reign that supposedly alerted Montezuma to his impending doom. These stories “explained” Montezuma’s behavior and allowed the surviving colonial-period Aztec nobility to make sense of the conquest. These stories also helped the Spanish friars promote the notion that the conquest was preordained by God in order to bring Christianity to the New World. Many authors of works about the conquest of the Aztecs—particularly the influential books by Prescott (2000; first published in 1843) and Thomas (1993)— have accepted these stories at face value. Revisionist scholarship, however, indicates that these stories were myths invented in the sixteenth century, and identifies other factors that explain Montezuma’s actions in a more satisfactory fashion.

The actions of Montezuma in fact indicate that he followed the advance of the Spaniards closely and attempted to have his subjects defeat them along the way (most notably at Cholula, where a planned ambush turned into a massacre of Aztec troops). He ultimately let the Spaniards into Tenochtitlan only as a last resort after recognizing their huge military and technological superiority. In Aztec diplomacy, a ruler who submitted peacefully to a conquering army secured a lower tribute quota and milder treatment for his people than a ruler who openly opposed the imperial troops. Montezuma’s failure to oppose Cortes more vigorously may have arisen from an attempt to secure better treatment for his subjects under the Spanish crown. Regardless of the actions of Montezuma, however, the final Aztec defeat was assured by the introduction of smallpox and its devastating effects on the native population.


  1. Berdan, F. F., & Anawalt, P. R. (Eds.). (1992). The Codex Mendoza (Vols. 3 & 4). Berkeley: University of California Press.
  2. Brienen, R. P., & Jackson, M. A. (Eds.). (2007). Invasion and transformation: Interdisciplinary perspectives on the conquest of Mexico. Boulder: University Press of Colorado.
  3. Davies, N. (1973). The Aztecs: A history. Norman: University of Oklahoma.
  4. Gillespie, S. D. (1989). The Aztec kings: The constitution of rulership in Mexica history. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
  5. Graulich, M. (1994). Montezuma, ou l’apogee et la chute de l’empire azteque [Montezuma, or the height and the fall of the Aztec empire]. Paris: Fayard.
  6. Hassig, R. (1988). Aztec warfare: Imperial expansion and political control. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
  7. Prescott, W. H. (2000). History of the conquest of Mexico and history of the conquest of Peru. New York: Cooper Square Press. (Original work published 1843)
  8. Thomas, H. (1993). Conquest: Montezuma, Cortes, and the fall of old Mexico. London: Hutchinson.
  9. Townsend, C. (2003). Burying the white Gods: New perspectives on the conquest of Mexico. American Historical Review, 108, 659–687.

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