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Aztec Hamlet: the tragedy of Moctezuma 2

Jim Tuck

In history, there are innumerable cases of dynasties toppling because of the weakness of incumbents. The incompetence of do-nothing rulers had much to do with the fall of the late Roman Empire. In France, during the Dark Ages, the feeble Merovingians were completely dominated by mayors of the palace until one of them (Pepin, father of Charlemagne) seized power and became king in name as well in fact.

So the survival of the fittest is not the stuff of which tragedy is made. What is tragedy is when a bizarre quirk of history causes a ruler who appears strong and decisive to suddenly lose it all by yielding to Hamlet-like indecision.

Such a ruler was Moctezuma Xocoyotl, or Moctezuma II, the last emperor of the Aztecs. Absolute ruler of the one of the world's mightiest powers, he was brought down by a force that numbered less than a thousand men.

Moctezuma was born around C.E. 1480. Of princely background, he was the youngest son of Emperor Axacayatl, who ruled between 1469-81. The Aztec monarchy was not hereditary and Axacayatl was succeeded by Ahuitzotl, a Genghis Khan type whose reign fell between 1481-1502. Able, ruthless and bloodthirsty, Ahuitzotl doubled the size of the Aztec empire and is once said to have ritually slaughtered twenty thousand prisoners at a reconstructed teocalli, or sacrificial "god house."

On Ahuitzot'ls death, a council of nobles selected a promising theology student in his early twenties to be the next emperor. This was Moctezuma Xocoyotl, the last name meaning simply "the youngest."

The youthful emperor immediately showed signs of being a take-charge ruler. Frequently campaigning at the head of his armies, he won forty-three battles against enemies operating in a region south of the Aztec domains.

Moctezuma was every bit as much of a no-nonsense executive in the domestic area. He built and embellished temples and furnished a supply of fresh water to his capital at Tenochtitlán by constructing a double aqueduct. To encourage respect for the law, he would resort to such ruses as offering judges bribes just to see if they were corrupt. He also prowled through the streets in disguise to make sure that his edicts were being enforced.

What caused Moctezuma's fall can be summed up in two words: religious superstition. Haunted by the suspicion that an invading force he could easily have snuffed out was made up of supernatural beings, he fatally dithered and saw his empire destroyed. As a theology student, Moctezuma was familiar with the legend of Quetzalcoatl, the beloved Aztec god who would one day return as a bearded and fair-skinned man.

When he learned of the Spanish landing at Veracruz, Moctezuma was plunged into an agony of indecision. He held a meeting with several top advisers, also attended by an allied king, Cacama of Texcoco. The meeting was fruitless, as some wanted to resist Cortés while others wished to treat the invaders with the deference due to divine beings or their representativas.

In the end, Moctezuma decided on the most disastrous course of all: he attempted to bribe Cortés into leaving Mexico by sending embassies laden down with rich gifts. "This was to reveal, at once, both his wealth and his weakness," wrote William H. Prescott, celebrated l9th century historian of the Conquest.

Cortés was as bold as Moctezuma was indecisive. He was the original man who won't take no for an answer. When Moctezuma's envoys told him the emperor was not available for an audience, Cortés brashly replied that he couldn't leave Mexico before coming to Tenochtitlán to pay his respects in person. Then, in an act of supreme daring (or rashness, if one prefers), he had all his ships burned save one that would return to Spain to report developments to King Charles V.

Possibly believing that only supernatural beings could be endowed with such supernatural gall, Moctezuma allowed Cortés to enter Tenochtitlán on November 12, 1519. What Cortés saw made him very nervous. With a population of over 300,000, the Aztec capital was larger than any city in Europe. Even with Spanish cannon and cavalry, his small force could be wiped out by such overwhelming odds.

Moctezuma's next irresolute mistake paved the way for what has been describe as one of the most daring moves in the annals of history. The Aztec emperor allowed Cortés and a few trusted aides into the imperial palace -- and they promptly placed him under arrest. The flimsy excuse given was that Moctezuma had ordered a coastal tribe to attack the Spanish garrison at Veracruz.

The Spaniards now had a valuable hostage. Furthermore, this act of degradation appears to have broken Moctezuma's spirit. Having forfeited the respect of his people, the emperor spent the pathetic last months of his life trying to ingratiate himself with his captors -- playing ball games with them in the imperial gardens and lavishing gifts on the men who had so degraded him. He accepted Christianity and meekly swore allegiance to Charles V.

The sad drama ended in April 1520. Cortés had just returned from defeating a rival Spanish force at Veracruz sent by the envious governor of Cuba. In his absence, Pedro de Alvarado -- the most brutal of the conquistadores -- slaughtered 3,400 Aztecs because he mistook a spirited religious ceremony for an outbreak of rebellion. The furious population of Tenochtitlán rose massively against the Spaniards, who were barricaded inside the imperial palace. They sent the docile Moctezuma to calm his subjects but he was greeted with jeers and stones. One projectile knocked him unconscious and he was carried downstairs by attendants. Though he didn't appear to be seriously hurt, he died within two weeks -- undoubtedly of a broken heart.

To the end, the once powerful, strong-willed Aztec emperor believed he might be dealing with an enemy that was either superhuman or who had links with divine power that he lacked. History would have been far different if he had believed otherwise.

Published or Updated on: October 9, 2008 by Jim Tuck © 2008
Contact Jim Tuck

Historian Jim Tuck founded the only chapter of Americans for Democratic Action outside the U.S., now named in his honor. Adelante ("Forward" in Spanish) is the chapter's official publication.

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