10 Facts About Moctezuma II, the Last True Aztec Emperor | History Hit

10 Facts About Moctezuma II, the Last True Aztec Emperor

Richard Bevan

08 Dec 2021
Moctezuma II in the Ramírez Codex (Tovar manuscript) based on an earlier work possibly compiled by Christianized Aztecs shortly after the conquest.
Image Credit: Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo

Moctezuma II was one of the final rulers of the Aztec empire and its capital city Tenochtitlan. He ruled prior to its destruction around 1521 AD at the hands of the Conquistadors, their Indigenous allies, and the effect of disease spread by the European invaders.

The most famous of Aztec emperors, Moctezuma is seen as a symbol of resistance against the Spanish and his name was invoked during several rebellions centuries later. Yet according to a Spanish source, Moctezuma was killed by a group of rebels amongst his own people who were angry at his failure to deal with the invading army.

Here are 10 facts about Moctezuma.

1. He was something of a family man

Moctezuma could give the King of Siam a run for his money when it came to fathering children. Known for his countless wives and concubines, a Spanish chronicler claims he may have sired over 100 children.

Of his female partners only two women held the position of queen, in particular his favourite and most highly ranked consort, Teotiaico. She was a Nahua princess of Ecatepec and the Aztec Queen of Tenochtitlan. Not all the emperor’s children were considered equal in nobility and inheritance rights. This depended on the status of their mothers, many of whom were without noble family connections. 

Moctezuma II in the Codex Mendoza.

Image Credit: Science History Images / Alamy Stock Photo

2. He doubled the size of the Aztec Empire 

Despite portrayals of Moctezuma as indecisive, vain and superstitious, he doubled the size of the Aztec Empire. By the time he became king in 1502, Aztec influence spread from Mexico into Nicaragua and Honduras. His name translates as ‘Angry Like A Lord’. This reflects his importance at the time as well as the fact that he was the fully independent ruler of the Aztec Empire until its collapse in the 16th century. 

3. He was a good administrator

Moctezuma had a talent as an administrator. He set up 38 provincial divisions in order to centralize the empire. Part of his plans to maintain order and secure revenues was to send out bureaucrats accompanied by a military presence to make certain that tax was being paid by the citizens and that national laws were being upheld.

This skill at bookkeeping at a grand scale and an apparent administrative zeal contrasts with his image as a warrior who secured territories through warfare.


4. Little tangible evidence documents his rule

Very little is known about Emperor Moctezuma or what it was like to rule over the Aztec kingdom. The Spanish Conquistadors’ destruction of the grand city Tenochtitlan, as well as its artefacts and art, left little information about the Aztec ruler for posterity. Born into Aztec royalty, Moctezuma’s nearly two decades of leadership saw him expand his empire’s region until it dominated modern day Mexico.

When the Spanish explorers arrived on South American shores led by the Conquistadors’ leader Hernan Cortes, Moctezuma could do little but watch his world crumble. Though he was followed by two successors, he was the last of the Aztec emperors with widespread authority.

5. He was part of an Aztec royal family

Moctezuma’s father was the Aztec ruler Axayacatl and his uncle was the emperor Ahuitzotl. Nothing is known about what Moctezuma was like as a child or a young man, nor of his relationships with family members.

What is known is that he came of age during a time of transformation and that as the prince of Axayacatl he was pampered and feted as divine. Living in the most opulent of palaces, Moctezuma II received the best education, learning the disciplines of warfare and politics for his future as emperor.  

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6. He ruled several million people

At its height, the Aztec Empire incorporated between 6 to 12 million people, around 500 cities and stretched from modern central Mexico to the fringes of modern Guatemala. During the reign of Moctezuma’s father Axayacatl, the Aztec empire had only been in existence for half a century.

The Aztecs encompassed multiple ethnic groups of central Mexico and proliferated as a culture in the 13th and 14th centuries. The Aztec civilisation emerged from violent competition between numerous city-states. As the Aztecs excelled in warfare, by 1325 AD they had established a seat of power in the great city of Tenochtitlan, upon an island in the Valley of Mexico.

7. He inherited his throne from his uncle

In 1479, when Montezuma was 10 years old, his father Axatacatl saw his entire army wiped out by the rival Purepecha Empire. Shortly afterwards he succumbed to a wasting disease, possibly the result of assassination by poisoning. After a short reign by Tizoc, Moctezuma’s uncle Ahuitzotl took over as ruler in 1486 and ushered in what is recognised as the Aztec golden age.

During this time, the Aztecs continued to conquer other regions. One of the first things Ahuitzotl did to celebrate his new reign was to sacrifice as many as 20,000 prisoners on top of the gargantuan Templo Mayor pyramid in a brutal ritual. (The Spanish chronicler Fray Diego Duran puts the number at a staggering, and improbable, 80,000.)

8. He made up for his father’s failures

While Montezuma’s father Axatacatl was generally an effective warrior, a major defeat by the Tarascans in 1476 damaged his reputation. His son, on the other hand, was noted not only for his skills in fighting but also in diplomacy. Perhaps intent on distancing himself from his father’s failures, he conquered more land than any other Aztec in history. 

In November 1519, Hernando Cortés approached the capital of the Aztec kingdom and came face to face with its ruler, Moctezuma. The story which follows has been told countless times following a Spanish narrative. A key part of the story has been overlooked - until now. After being taught the Roman alphabet, the Native Americans used it to write detailed histories in their own language of Nahuatl. Camilla Townsend is a Professor of History at Rutgers University. For the first time, she has given these sources proper attention, providing a fresh take on our understanding of native Mexicans. She showed me how Moctezuma and his people were not just the exotic, bloody figures of European stereotypes and how the Mexica people did not simply capitulate to Spanish culture and colonization but realigned political allegiances, held new obligations and adopted unfamiliar technologies.
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9. He welcomed Cortés to Tenochtitlan

After a series of confrontations and negotiations, the leader of the Spanish conquistadors Hernan Cortés was welcomed to Tenochtitlan. Following a frosty encounter, Cortés claimed to have captured Moctezuma, but this may have taken place later. A popular historical tradition has long ascribed to the Aztecs the belief that the white-bearded Cortés was the embodiment of the deity Quetzalcoatl, which led the wretched and omen-obsessed Aztecs to look towards the conquistadors as if they were gods.

However, the story seems to originate in the writings of Francisco López de Gómara, who never visited Mexico but was a secretary to the retired Cortés. Historian Camilla Townsend, author of Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs, writes that there is “little evidence that indigenous people ever seriously believed the newcomers were gods, and there is no meaningful evidence that any story about Quetzalcoatl’s returning from the east ever existed before the conquest.”

Returning to the city later with reinforcements and superior technology, Cortes eventually conquered the great city of Tenochtitlan and its people through violence.

10. The cause of his death is uncertain

The death of Moctezuma was attributed by Spanish sources to an angry mob in the city of Tenochtitlan, who were frustrated at the failure of the emperor to defeat the invaders. According to this story, a cowardly Moctezuma attempted to evade his subjects, who threw rocks and spears at him, wounding him. The Spanish returned him to the palace, where he died.

On the other hand, he may have been murdered while in Spanish captivity. In the 16th century Florentine Codex, Moctezuma’s death is attributed to the Spaniards, who cast his body from the palace.


Richard Bevan