was the ninth emperor of the Aztec Empire, reigning from 1502 to 1520.
After earning a reputation for both cruelty and reforms that
favored the nobility, he met his match in 1519 when the Spaniard Hernando
Cortés used Machiavellian tactics to take Montezuma hostage and begin the
destruction of his once seemingly invincible empire.
Montezuma was born in 1466 and came from a distinguished lineage that included his uncle
Emperor Axayacatl, who ruled the Aztec Empire from
1468 to 1481.
Raised and educated in the island capital of Tenochtitlán, Montezuma proved himself from a young
age as a soldier, an important distinction in a militaristic society. He first served as a warrior and then a
captain under several emperors following the death of his uncle. He also gained important political experience as a
leader and ruler during the early years of his life.
Montezuma was serving as an official in Tolocán, to the west of Tenochtitlán, when Emperor
Ahuitzotl died in 1502. Later in that year, a council of noblemen chose Montezuma as the next Aztec emperor. He
assumed the position at the height of the Aztec Empire's power. Ahuitzotl had greatly expanded the empire in terms
of territory and influence following the unsuccessful and militarily weak reign of Emperor Tizoc. Montezuma thus
had the fortune of inheriting a vigorous empire that controlled most of central Mexico and whose influence
stretched from the present-day southern United States to the middle of Central America.
The geographical extent of the empire made it difficult to control. Almost from the day he was
named emperor, Montezuma had to suppress rebellions and revolts throughout his territory. A 1502 rebellion in the
provinces of Nopallan and Icpatepec allowed Montezuma to demonstrate his abilities while it also provided a large
number of captives to be sacrificed and ritually consumed at his coronation. The bloody suppression of that
rebellion earned Montezuma a reputation as a harsh ruler. His army killed large numbers of villagers, took others
as captives, and forced the survivors to pay crushing tributes.
Montezuma also earned a reputation as a reformer.
The Aztec nobility had grown in numbers during the reign of
previous emperors and clamored for offices and positions.
In the old system, the nobility received only a limited
number of the best jobs in the empire.
Montezuma changed this by removing commoners from important
posts and replacing them with noblemen.
He then removed all royal servants without a title, creating
many jobs for the lesser nobility. Those changes won Montezuma the gratitude
and support of the growing nobility.
At the same time, he also cultivated the support of Aztec commoners. By the end of the first 10
years of his reign, Montezuma had consolidated his power, becoming one of the most powerful and autocratic rulers
in Aztec history.
Montezuma then engaged in a series of successful military campaigns that increased the size and
power of the empire. During 1503-1504, he continued the ancient rivalry of the Aztec with the Tlaxcatlecans. Then
from 1505 to 1510, Montezuma turned his attention to the south, bringing the Mixtec and the Zapotec culture under
the vassalage of the Aztec Empire.
After 1510, Montezuma turned inward and faced serious rebellions and revolts throughout his
territories. During that period, Montezuma began receiving news from Aztec traders that strangers had been sighted
and several captured as slaves by the Maya of the Yucatan.
In an unfortunate coincidence for Montezuma, the news was accompanied by such ill omens as
falling stars that alarmed religious and secular leaders. After consulting auguries and priests, Montezuma was
informed that the return of their ancestral god, Quetzalcóatl, could be expected in 1519. That proved to be the
year that Cortés and his expedition of Spanish conquerors arrived on the Mexican coast.
Shaken and torn by fear and religious fervor, Montezuma sent the Spaniards gifts of gold and
silver. Instead of assuaging gods, however, the gifts instead persuaded the Spaniards to stay and try to conquer a
land of obvious riches. On November 8, 1519, Cortés and his men arrived in Tenochtitlán. Montezuma welcomed him
warmly, but Cortés took the opportunity to seize the emperor and attempt to use the Aztec capital as headquarters
for the conquest of Mexico.
Although imprisoned and living as a captive, Montezuma continued to rule the empire. He even
managed to plan rebellions and attacks on the men he now recognized as invaders from a foreign land. By April 1520,
however, Montezuma had lost power and legitimacy among his Aztec subjects. When Cortés left Tenochtitlán to fight
rival Spaniards, the Aztec rose against the Spaniards. After Cortés returned to the city, Montezuma persuaded him
to release his younger brother Cuitláhuac to appease the angry Aztec. That probably represented a last-minute
effort to ensure his brother's succession and guarantee further resistance.
Upon his release, Cuitláhuac assumed control of the armed struggle against the Spaniards. After
the Aztec surrounded Cortés and his men in late June 1520, Montezuma was forced to a rooftop to order his subjects
to end all resistance. The Aztec, disgusted at their once formidable emperor, reportedly responded with a hail of
stones that killed him. Aztec (as well as many later historians) claimed that the Spaniards had killed Montezuma,
but there is no evidence for that claim.
Cuitláhuac became emperor after Montezuma's death but died of smallpox after forcing the
Spaniards from Tenochtitlán in a great battle. His successor Cuauhtémoc then led the final and ultimately futile
defense of the Aztec capital against the Spaniards and their Indian allies. Montezuma's indecisive and wavering
reaction to the Spanish invaders has, fairly or unfairly, earned him a reputation of indecisiveness and weakness
that vastly overshadows his record as one of the Aztec's most powerful emperors.