Moctezuma II was the most significant emperor of the Aztec Empire. Following the Aztec’s founding and construction of Tenochtitlan in the Valley of Mexico in 1325 AD, they quickly established their authority across the other societies in the valley. Historians refer to this time period as the Aztec Empire, since the Aztec were constantly expanding throughout central Mexico. As well, for the two centuries that followed the initial construction of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec were ruled over by a series of leaders referred to as Huey Tlatoani. In the Aztec language of Nahuatl this translates to 'Great Speaker'. Each huey tlatoani ruled in different ways but they all oversaw the expansion of both Tenochtitlan and the Aztec Empire until the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in 1519.
Moctezuma II became the ninth tlatoani and ruler of Tenochtitlan in 1502. He ruled over the Aztec Empire until 1520 with the arrival of Spanish conquistadors under the leadership of Hernan Cortés. When he came to power he continued the campaigns of conquest and expanded the Aztec Empire even further than it had already in the previous decades.
While he oversaw the Aztec conquer of several different Mesoamerican city-states, he still had bitter rivals in the Tlaxcala and Huexotzinco. During this time the Aztec continued to carry out the Flower Wars against these two powerful city-states. As well, he built temples and public buildings in Tenochtitlan and expanded his authority over the people. More specifically, he strengthened the Aztec social system of the time and made it more difficult for commoners to increase their status in the society. As tlatoani of the Aztec, he was often carried by guards so that he did not touch the ground and commoners were not allowed to look directly at him.
However, Moctezuma II is most famous for being the Aztec ruler during the Spanish conquests of Mexico. Historians have reported that Moctezuma II was first made aware of the Spanish’s arrival in 1517 when Spanish conquistadors landed at the edge of Aztec territory along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. In fact, this was the expedition of Juan de Grijalva who was a Spanish conquistador and one of the first European explorers to arrive in Mexico. Unsure of who these people were or what they wanted, Moctezuma II ordered his people to keep him informed of their movements and actions. In 1519, more Spanish conquistadors arrived, but this time they were led by Hernan Cortés.
Moctezuma II was informed of their arrival, which was in the area of the Yucatan Peninsula, to the east of the main territory of the Aztec Empire. Quickly, Hernan Cortés and his men encountered other Mesoamerican peoples living in the area. For example, they came into contact with the Tlaxcala, which was a powerful city-state to the east of Tenochtitlan. Tlaxcala were traditional enemies of the Aztec as the two had fought each in different battles including the Flower Wars. As such, the Tlaxcala used the opportunity to their advantage and allied themselves with the Spanish against Tenochtitlan. This is important, because Cortés used the Tlaxcala and other enemies of the Aztec in his later conquest of Tenochtitlan. In response, Moctezuma II had gifts sent to Cortés in an attempt to show his prestige and the power of the Aztec over their rivals. Moctezuma II was also unsure of how to respond to Cortés and the other Spanish conquistadors because their arrival into the Aztec territory coincided with an important Aztec prophecy in relation to the Mesoamerican god Quetzalcoatl. The prophecy spoke of Quetzalcoatl’s arrival at the same time as the Spanish, and Quetzalcoatl was said to have white skin. Unsure of whether or not Cortés was the god, Moctezuma II responded by greeting him with honor and giving him many gifts.
Cortés and the Spanish arrived at the city of Tenochtitlan in November of 1519. While they were accompanied by their new allies, the Tlaxcala, only Cortés and the Spanish were invited into the city. Still believing that Cortés might be Quetzalcoatl, Moctezuma II gave the Spanish many gifts and allowed them to stay as guests in the Aztec capital. During the next week or so the Spanish toured the city and saw the many Aztec temples, markets and palaces. At this point Cortés became fearful that Moctezuma II may order his death and in response he took the Aztec leader captive in the palace that Moctezuma II had prepared for the Spanish in Tenochtitlan. Capturing the leader of an indigenous tribe or group was a very common practice by the Spanish throughout their conquests of the Caribbean and Central America. As such, Cortés was simply following a commonly held practice by the Spanish during the time period. The Spanish remained in Tenochtitlan for the next several months, during which time they controlled the city through Moctezuma II. This is because Moctezuma II continued to rule over the Aztec Empire and city of Tenochtitlan from his imprisonment in the Aztec palace. The Aztec nobility and religious leaders became very angry during this time with the Spanish. They believed that Moctezuma II was weak and had let the Spanish take over the city. For example, during this time, Cortés replaced Aztec religious symbols in the palace with Christian symbols and demanded that the Aztec deliver as much gold as possible.
During the months after Moctezuma II was imprisoned in Tenochtitlan, Cortés was forced to leave to handle a different situation. Cortés had been made aware that Diego Velasquez, the Spanish governor of Cuba, had ordered his arrest for disobeying orders in regards to his expedition to Mexico. As such, Cortés left that spring to stop Pánfilo de Narváez and other Spanish men that were sent to arrest him. While he was gone, the Spanish conquistadors that remained in Tenochtitlan carried out a massacre of Aztec citizens. The Aztec responded and the Spanish were essentially held captive by the Aztec nobility and warriors in Tenochtitlan following the massacre.
Sometime during the conflict between the Spanish and the Aztecs, Moctezuma II was killed, however there are different accounts of the event and historians are unsure of the truth. First, Spanish accounts of the death of Moctezuma II argue that he was killed by his own people while trying to get them to retreat from fighting the Spanish. This version is based on the idea that the Aztec people became so disgusted with Moctezuma’s actions and support for the Spanish that they killed him. An account by Cortés suggests that Moctezuma II was stabbed to death by his own people, while another account suggests that he was stoned to death. Supposedly, the Spanish had forced to him to speak to his people in an attempt to allow the Spanish to go free. The second version of his death, which comes from Aztec accounts of the event, is that Moctezuma II was killed by the Spanish as they fled the city following the Aztec retaliation for the Spanish massacre of Aztec people in the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan as part of a festival. In this version, Moctezuma’s body was said to have been thrown from the palace as the Spanish fled. The Aztec people cremated his body soon after. Historians are unsure of which version is true based on the truthfulness of the sources of information and the difficulty of assessing an event so far in the past. Regardless, Moctezuma II died during this time and his death was one of several factors that led to the eventual collapse of the Aztec Empire during the Spanish conquest. Cuitláhuac, the younger brother of Moctezuma II, was chosen as the next tlatoani to rule over Tenochtitlan.