Moctezuma II - Aztec Emperor

Moctezuma II - Aztec Emperor
Moctezuma II - Aztec Emperor

High priest and eighth son of Mexica emperor Axayácatl (d.1481), Moctezuma II, succeeding his uncle Ahuítzol, was selected as the new emperor by a gathering of some 30 Aztec lords in 1502.

Popularly remembered as a weak and indecisive ruler who failed to perceive or resist the threat posed by the invading Spaniards, Moctezuma (or Montezuma, meaning “he who angers himself”) was a key actor in the conquest of Mexico.

Ample historical evidence supports the interpretation that Moctezuma’s vacillation and political paralysis were crucial in giving the Hernán Cortés and the Spanish the strategic and tactical edge they needed to defeat the mighty Aztecs.


Like all seven Mexica rulers who preceded him following the establishment of the royal house in the late 1300s, Moctezuma II was considered semidivine in a culture saturated with state-sponsored religious symbols and practices.

During his tenure as emperor, he also earned a reputation as a stickler for probity, propriety, and solemnity in public and religious affairs and for ruthlessness in military matters. He has been described as dark, having wavy hair and communicating in stern but eloquent speech.

His weaknesses as a ruler became apparent only after his spies reported the arrival of strange, white-skinned, bearded men, accompanied by imposing four-legged “deer ... as high as rooftops” (horses) in large floating vessels off the Caribbean coast in April 1519.

His indecisiveness from this point forward is commonly attributed to his belief that the strangers’ arrival represented the fulfillment of a prophecy regarding the return of the god Quetzalcoatl—an assertion that continues to provoke controversy among scholars.

Regardless, it is clear that the Mexica emperor did almost everything in his power to appease and placate the Spaniards, especially Cortés. Most often cited in this regard are his decisions not to attack but to welcome the armed strangers into the capital island-city of Tenochtitlán, against the counsel of many of his advisers, and to submit willingly to being kept as Cortés’s prisoner for seven months, from mid-November 1519 until his death the following June.

Extant documentation demonstrates many instances of his paralysis, indecision, fear, and anxiety, even as it offers a detailed portrait of him as a ruler and human being.

Also controversial is the manner of his death; whether he was slain by his Spanish captors, or by the stones hurled by his own subjects following his efforts to quell their violent revolt against the invaders, the sources agree that he died on June 30, 1520, and that his death marked the end of the initial, relatively peaceful phase of the conquest and the beginning of the war without quarter that would result in Spanish victory and the onset of 300 years of colonial rule.