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The Real Story of Montezuma, the Last of the Aztec Emperors

This engraving shows Aztec King Montezuma II meeting conquistador Hernán Cortés. Montezuma II ruled from 1502 to 1520. Prisma/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

A little more than 500 years ago, a meeting occurred between two men that forever altered the course of history. The encounter took place in the magnificent Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán, the seat of a wealthy and powerful Aztec empire that ruled over vast regions of central and southern Mexico. On Nov. 8, 1519, the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés, after months of battling neighboring cities, entered Tenochtitlán and won an audience with the emperor we know as Montezuma II, the last fully independent ruler of the Aztec empire.

You probably think you know what happened next. Montezuma and his Aztec priests, believing the Spanish to be gods or the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy, basically rolled over and handed Tenochtitlán to Cortés. And that's how a Spanish invading force of just a few hundred men conquered an empire of millions and initiated centuries of Spanish colonial rule in the Americas.

But that story, and particularly that version of Montezuma, are inventions, says Matthew Restall, a historian of colonial Latin America at Penn State University and author, most recently, of "When Montezuma Met Cortés: The True Story of the Meeting that Changed History."

"There are two Montezumas: the Montezuma who actually lived — the real, historical Montezuma — and the Montezuma who was invented after his death," says Restall. "The invented Montezuma in many ways is the opposite of the real Montezuma. The invented Montezuma is weak and a coward and a failure. He's superstitious, afraid of the Spaniards and overwhelmed by them."

If that's not the real Montezuma, then what really happened on that fateful day in 1519? And who was responsible for reducing the mighty Montezuma into nothing more than a doormat for the Spanish conquest?

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A Glimpse at the Real Montezuma

One of the most difficult challenges facing historians like Restall is that even though the Aztecs were an advanced civilization that kept detailed written records and histories, all of those documents were destroyed by the end of the war with the Spanish. Thankfully, centuries of careful cross-disciplinary scholarship have revealed a picture of Montezuma that's at direct odds with his weak reputation.

"The real Montezuma was one of the strongest, most successful, most expansionist emperors that the Aztec empire ever had," says Restall.

First of all, Montezuma wasn't really his name. In Nahuatl, the indigenous Aztec language, he was called Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin. The first part of his name roughly translates as "he is one who frowns like a lord," and the second part means "honored young one" to distinguish him from an earlier emperor with the same frowny name. The Spanish heard and recorded the name as both Moctezuma and Montezuma, the latter being the most common spelling in English.

After inheriting the throne from his uncle, the great military leader Ahuitzotl, Montezuma ruled for two decades (1502–1520) and expanded the Aztec empire to its greatest size by conquering rival kingdoms stretching from modern-day Mexico City to Chiapas. He made powerful enemies in the process, including the rival Tlaxcaltecs, with whom the Aztecs brokered a fragile peace. While overseeing this vast empire, Montezuma received tributes of gold, agricultural products and slaves that enriched the ruling classes of Tenochtitlán.

Codex Fejervary Mayer
The Codex Fejervary Mayer, a ritual Aztec codex, was one of the rare pre-Hispanic manuscripts that survived the Spanish conquest of Mexico. This page was used as a birth chart.
Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

More than a military man, Montezuma was also an intellectual and a collector.

"He maintained a vast complex of libraries, zoos and gardens in Tenochtitlán," says Restall. "Montezuma used these libraries, zoos and gardens to organize flora, fauna, objects and even people from throughout his empire."

In fact, Restall thinks it may have been Montezuma's innate curiosity, and not his alleged cowardice, that was the emperor's Achilles' heel.

"When the Spaniards arrive, Montezuma is fascinated by them; he's not afraid of them at all," says Restall. "So rather than behave in a barbaric way — which is to attack them and kill them — Montezuma very cleverly lures the Spaniards into his city and puts them up as his guest in his father's palace, in order to study them and learn from them. In effect, he's collecting them, almost like a new acquisition for his zoo."

Was it a mistake for Montezuma to invite an invading army into his city and host them like royalty for six months while peppering them with questions and conversation? "Yes," says Restall. "If anything, that was his failing. Montezuma was so fascinated by them that he couldn't see beyond that."

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Montezuma's Surrender: Lost in Translation?

If Montezuma wasn't in fact a weakling or a coward, then why did he surrender immediately to Cortés and his army at that first meeting in 1519? The answer, of course, is that he didn't surrender at all. The earliest account of Montezuma's alleged surrender was written by Cortés himself, and was either a gross mistranslation or more likely a total fabrication to cover up the Spaniard's desperate situation.

First, some context. Cortés wrote his account of the famous meeting with Montezuma a year after it happened. By 1520, the Spanish were at an absolute low point in their bloody war with the Aztecs. Montezuma was dead, Cortés had lost two-thirds of his men fleeing Tenochtitlán, and the Spanish had taken refuge with the Tlaxcaltecs, the Aztecs' traditional enemy. Cortés was also on the lam, wanted for mutiny by the Spanish colonial authorities in Cuba.

It was at this precarious moment that Cortés sat down and wrote a letter to King Charles V of Spain. Instead of asking the king for help or a royal pardon, Cortés told the story of the day he met Montezuma.

According to Cortés, the Spanish were greeted by nearly a thousand Aztecs in "rich costumes." Crossing a wooden bridge into the island city of Tenochtitlán, they were met by "Señor Moctezuma," dressed in even finer cotton robes and accompanied by a retinue of noblemen. Cortés and Montezuma exchanged gifts — the conquistador presented the emperor with a necklace of "pearls and glass diamonds" and Montezuma reciprocated with jewelry adorned with shells and gold figurines.

Montezuma showed the Spaniards into the salon of a "very large and splendid palace" where the Aztecs continued to shower their guests with gold and silver jewelry, ornate featherwork and "six thousand pieces of cotton cloth." Once everyone was seated on cushions, Montezuma began his speech.

This speech, Restall notes, would have been delivered through "a chain of translators." Cortés traveled with a Spanish priest who had shipwrecked in the Yucatan and learned some Maya. And among the Aztecs was a woman who also spoke Maya. So whatever Montezuma said would have first been spoken in Nahuatl, then translated to Maya, then retranslated from Maya to Spanish.

According to Cortés, writing a year later from his memory of a twice-translated speech, Montezuma related a story of an ancient Aztec ruler who departed long ago with a promise of returning to "conquer this land, and reduce [the Aztecs] to subjection as his vassals." Montezuma said he believed that the Spanish were those prophesied conquerors, and even recognized the king of Spain as "our natural sovereign."

"In that speech, Montezuma supposedly says, 'I've been waiting for you. All I've been doing is holding this seat for you, the representative of our true natural lord, the King of Spain,'" says Restall. "It's absurd, objectively speaking. You read this and you think, how could people believe this? It's so clearly self-serving."

But Cortés knew his audience and knew that the king of Spain would eat it up. A fabulously wealthy Aztec empire pledging its loyalty to Spain? Yes, please! Overnight, Cortés went from being a mutinous rebel to a conquering hero. His letter was printed and published across Spain.

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Montezuma's Death and Unfair Legacy

We'll never know what Montezuma really told Cortés when they first met in 1519. But the fact is that Montezuma didn't surrender. He hosted the Spanish for six months, providing them with food, gold trinkets and women, until Cortés had to march back down to the Veracruz coast to repel a Spanish battalion sent from Cuba to arrest him.

While Cortés was away from Tenochtitlán, something tragic happened. His aide Pedro de Alvarado, who was left in charge of 100 Spanish troops, mistook an Aztec religious ceremony with ornate costumes and drumming for war preparations. In a panic, Alvarado and his men massacred dozens of Aztecs in the Great Temple, chopping arms off the drummers and murdering unarmed Aztec priests.

Knowing this meant all-out war, the Spanish captured Montezuma and held him prisoner in the palace. When Cortés returned, he joined the fight raging in Tenochtitlán. At some point, Montezuma was allowed to walk onto the palace patio and speak to the Aztecs. According to the Spanish, Montezuma was killed by a rock thrown from one of his own men, apparently infuriated that Montezuma was urging peace with the conquistadors. More likely, Restall believes Montezuma was murdered by the Spanish.

Montzeuma pleads with Aztecs
Montezuma, captured by the Spaniards, pleads with the Aztecs to surrender as the Spanish attack his palace in 1520.
Art Images via Getty Images

The war between the Spanish and Aztecs raged on for years and resulted in a horrific loss of life from both battle and disease. Cortés and the Spanish eventually succeeded in toppling Tenochtitlán, but only with the critical help of Tlaxcaltec warriors.

Restall believes that the myth of Montezuma's surrender has persisted in the popular imagination because it's "a key lie" that justifies the conquest of Mexico. Instead of a war of aggression, the Spanish were bringing civilization and Christianity to Mesoamerica. Of course Montezuma surrendered, because he was overwhelmed and amazed by the technological advances of Cortés.

In the decades after the Spanish conquest, indigenous Mexicans were also taught that Montezuma was a weak emperor who bowed to the technologically superior Spanish, which made Montezuma an easy scapegoat for the cruelties of colonial rule.

"For very different reasons, this cowardly Montezuma makes sense to people," says Restall of Montezuma's inaccurate legacy. "He allows them to take a very complicated story with a lot of dark elements and makes it very simple and straightforward."

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