Montezuma I

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Montezuma I

Montezuma I (1397-1469), who ruled the Aztecs from 1440 to 1469, is best known for his expansion of the empire and for his building projects, including the dike across Lake Texcoco and the temple to the god Huitzilopochtli. He declared that war was the main task of the Aztecs in order to ensure a constant supply of sacrificial victims for Huitzilopochtli, who demanded many victims a year. Montezuma's pattern of conquering an enemy and demanding tribute became the norm for all future Aztec conquests.

Montezuma I, also known as Motecuhzoma Ilhuicamina ("'The Angry Lord, Archer of the Skies") was the grandson of the first leader of Tenochtitlan ("Cactus Rock"). The great city-state of the Aztecs, Tenochtitlan was the great city-state of the Aztecs. It was located on an island in Lake Texcoco in the Valley of Mexico. Tenochtitlan was the forerunner of Mexico City, the capital of modern Mexico. Montezuma's father, Huitzilhuitl ("Hummingbird Feather"), had many children; Montezuma was born about 1397, the son of a princess of Cuernavaca named Miahuaxihuitl.

After Huitzilhuitl died, Montezuma's warrior brother Chimalpopoca ruled for ten years, then was assassinated. During Chimalpopoca's reign, another brother, Tlacaelel, joined Montezuma in gaining the support of a group of young, militant nobles. This group chose Itzcoatl ("Serpent of Knives") as the next leader of the Aztecs. Itzcoatl, brother of Huitzilhuitl, enlarged the area controlled by the Aztecs, with his nephews, Tlacaelel and Montezuma as generals of the army.

Upon Itzcoatl's death in 1440, Montezuma was picked to take over the reins of command. Unlike the previous leaders, who held the title "Speaker," he was called "Great Speaker," because he spoke for not only the Aztecs, but also for the tribes who paid tribute to them. Montezuma's coronation was a vast ceremony, with the sacrifice of many prisoners. Seated on a basketwork throne, Hungry Coyote, the Lord of Texcoco, placed the fire crown, a turquoise diadem, on the head of his friend Montezuma.

Montezuma was a wise ruler and a modest man. He lived in a simple, clean palace and had only a few wives. A great deal of his time was passed in conversation with sage friends, as well as with his half-brother, Tlacaelel, who acted as the "serpent woman" or chief military and political adviser to several Aztec rulers. Montezuma consulted Tlacaelel about every matter, and Tlacaelel told him that it was Montezuma's duty to constantly seek advantage for his household, court, and domains and to enlarge his empire at every opportunity. Tlacaelel sat next to Montezuma in court and was the only person allowed to be treated as the king's equal.

Satisfied the Sun God

Montezuma solidified the triple alliance between Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan with a formula for dividing the spoils of war. The booty was split into five parts; one part went to Tlacopan and the remainder was shared by the other two groups. Encouraged by Tlacaelel, Montezuma also began construction of a new temple to Huitzilopochtli, originally the hummingbird god but now worshiped as the god of battle, the lord of creation, and the all-powerful Sun god. The temple of Huitzilopochtli, also known as the templo mayor, great temple, or great pyramid, had more than one hundred steps. Over a period of two years during Montezuma's reign, thousands of slaves and workers constructed this edifice, even during times of famine. They used canoes to transport the stone and wood to the sacred area. The temple was inaugurated in 1455 following the Aztec victory over the Huaxtecs, who served as the temple's first sacrificial victims.

Montezuma ordered all subject people to provide workers and material for the building of the new temple. Although he hesitated to force the fierce and numerous Chalca tribe to contribute, Tlacaelel insisted. The Chalcas were stubborn opponents who killed a great many Aztecs, including three brothers of Montezuma and Tlacaelel. The two tribes battled periodically for 20 years, at first with Montezuma in command of the Aztec army. This was a new concept, invented by Tlacaelel who maintained that the ruler should begin his rule by leading his subjects in battle and wetting his feet with the blood of sacrificed victims. Montezuma was a successful warrior and sacrificed the first group of Chalca victims to the Sun god in Tenochtitlan.

Huitzilopochtli required a continual supply of sacrificial victims, whose blood and body parts fed the god to ensure the daily journey of the sun across the sky. The ceremony required four priests to hold the victim, while the king lifted an obsidian knife above his head, brought it down on the victim's body, reached in to grab the heart, pulled it out, and held the beating heart up, sprinkling the blood in the direction of the sun. The king then placed the heart in the mouth of the statue of Huitzilopochtli. Montezuma and Tlacaelel took turns killing the first few victims, after which the chief priests took over. Up to 20,000 victims were sacrificed to Huitzilopochtli and other Aztec deities every year.

Ensured a Food and Water Supply

The Valley of Mexico where the Aztecs ruled contained about one million people during Montezuma's reign. "This Aztec heartland included not only Tenochtitlan, but at least nine provincial centers and a large number of smaller settlements, the largest and densest population concentration in the entire history of pre-Hispanic American. The only way to feed everyone was by efficient, government-controlled agriculture," explained Brian Fagan in The Aztecs. Montezuma employed inspectors to make sure that every bit of land was planted and that extra food was sent to the capital.

In 1449 Lake Texcoco flooded the city of Tenochtitlan. Rain and hail ruined the harvests and famine struck the Valley of Mexico. Montezuma asked his cousin Nezahualcoyotl, ruler of Texcoco, for help. Nezahualcoyotl directed the construction of a nine-mile-long dike that would help control the water level and also lessen the saltiness of the water so it could be used for farming. The immense project took almost ten years and tens of thousands of workers to complete. After the dike was finished, Montezuma requested that Nezahualcoyotl direct the construction of a three-mile-long aqueduct to bring more drinking water to the city.

In the first half of the 1450s many disasters struck the Aztecs. Grasshoppers and frost destroyed two harvests. Snow and rain caused terrible flooding one year; and the next two years saw an extended drought. People had no food, and some even sold their children to distant tribes for corn. Famine led to rebelliousness among the tribes paying tribute to the Aztecs. Montezuma and Tlacaelel met with the provincial puppet rulers of these tribes and arranged for phony wars, called "Flower Wars," in which the chieftains told the Aztecs the size and location of their armies, guaranteeing an Aztec win.

In 1455 the Aztec calendar's 52-year cycle ended and the calendar began again, an occasion marked by fasting and making new fire. Also at this time, the famine ended because of abundant harvests. Worried about future famines, Montezuma decided to ensure a reliable food supply by conquest and the collection of tribute. In 1458 he and his army attacked and conquered the province of Panuco, thus extending the Aztec empire to the sea. In 1461 the army conquered the lands of the Totonacs to the south, along with the people of Coatzocoalcos, and four years later Montezuma defeated the Chalca. His last war, against the Tepeaca in 1466, solidified a course of military expansion that determined Aztec policies until the Spanish arrived in 1519.

During Montezuma's rule, an old garden in Huaxtepec was rediscovered. Montezuma hired an overseer named Pinotetl to renovate the garden's stone fountains, as well as the area's irrigation system. While Pinotetl worked, Montezuma sent requests to the Lord of Cuetlaxtla for vanilla orchids, cacao trees, and other valuable plants, as well as for gardeners who would know how to replant and care for them. The replantings were successful, giving Montezuma great joy, for which he thanked the gods.

Montezuma's Sumptuary Laws

During Montezuma's reign rules of conduct were established that drew lines between various levels of Aztec society and singled out those of high birth or bravery in battle. Dress and forms of salutation were ritualized, as embellished clothing was reserved for various noble classes and lower classes were prohibited from donning cotton cloth, wearing sandals, or owning clothes that extended below the knee. Only noblemen could reside in homes of more than one story or use fine glazed ceramic eating vessels. Montezuma himself wore the finest jewels and finely woven cotton clothing and donned a headdress with bright feathers. His laws legislated all forms of behavior, from adultery to drunkenness to more criminal activities, with slavery a typical punishment.

Montezuma died in 1469 and was succeeded by his 19-year-old cousin Axayacatl. Axayacatl was the father of Montezuma II, the ruler of the Aztecs at the time of the Spanish invasion and conquest. More than five centuries later, in 1978, excavations began in Mexico City at the site of the great temple. Nearby were found funerary urns made of clay and obsidian and inscribed with the year of Montezuma's death. Archaeologists surmised that these may be the funereal urns of the great Aztec ruler himself.


Fagan, Brian, The Aztecs, W. H. Freeman and Company, 1984.

Kandell, Jonathan, La Capital: The Biography of Mexico City, Random House, 1988.

Thomas, Hugh, Conquest: Montezuma, Cortes, and the Fall of Old Mexico, Simon & Schuster, 1993.

Townsend, Richard F., The Aztecs, Thames & Hudson, 2000.


Papers from the Institute of Archaeology, Volume 4, 1993.


Museo del Templo Mayor Web site, (January 26, 2002). □

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