Motecuhzoma II (c. 1466–c. 1520)

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Motecuhzoma II (c. 1466–c. 1520)

Motecuhzoma II (Moctezuma, Montezuma; b. ca. 1466; d. ca. 30 June 1520), ninth Mexica ruler (ca. 1502–1520). Motecuhzoma Xocoyotl (or Motecuhzoma the Younger, often designated Motecuhzoma II) was described by an early chronicler as "a man of medium stature, with a certain gravity and royal majesty, which showed clearly who he was even to those who did not know him" (Cervantes de Salazar). Also described as deeply religious, very aware of his status as head of the Mexica ruling hierarchy, and rigid and elitist in his application of law and custom, Motecuhzoma was leader of the Mexica and their empire when, bent on conquest and colonization, Hernán Cortés led an army of Spaniards into Tenochtitlán in 1519.

Motecuhzoma II has long been depicted as superstitious, weak, and vacillating in contrast to the "determined" and "bold" Cortés. This picture is overdrawn and does not accurately portray the multiple, though ultimately ineffective, ways that Motecuhzoma II sought to protect his people and empire in the face of an enemy far different than any he had faced before.

He was chosen as his uncle Ahuitzotl's successor in about 1502. Almost every Mexica tlatoani (or supreme ruler) had enlarged the territorial holdings of the empire. Motecuhzoma II did so, though he did not gain as much territory as his immediate predecessor. His conquests followed the general geographic patterns of Ahuitzotl's conquests and lay largely to the east and south of the Valley of Mexico, concentrating especially on central and southern Oaxaca and northern Puebla and adjoining areas of latter-day Veracruz. He ignored areas lying to the west and north of central Mexico, and left the southern regions of the empire still only loosely tied. Continuing warfare with Tlaxcala—and the inability of the Tenochca Mexica and their allies to subdue it—created a political wedge that the Spanish were later able to use to their advantage during the Conquest.

While Motecuhzoma II is reported to have believed that Cortés was the returning deity Quetzalcoatl, it is unlikely that Motecuhzoma or his advisers still thought this when the Spaniards reached Tenochtitlán. Motecuhzoma tried to discourage the Spaniards from their inland march in search of the center of his empire. Unfortunately, one of Motecuhzoma's means of discouraging them was to send gifts such as gold, which only further excited Spanish interest. As the Spaniards moved closer to Tenochtitlán, the Mexica leader attempted to have them captured but to no avail.

When Motecuhzoma II and Cortés finally met, Motecuhzoma again tried to discourage Spanish interest in his empire. But in his much quoted address to Cortés, he acknowledged Spanish military skill and apparently stated that the Mexica would obey the Spanish. Inexplicably, Motecuhzoma allowed himself to be taken captive by Cortés and some of his soldiers. Although Motecuhzoma II sought to form an alliance with Pánfilo de Narváez while imprisoned, he had lost control of events and died in 1520. The Spanish sources generally state that he was stoned by other Mexica and died from his wounds. There is disagreement among Indian sources, though some, such as Chimalpahin, state that the Spaniards killed him. It was left to his successors, Cuitlahua (Cuitlahuac) and Cuauhtemoc, to mount a military opposition, which ultimately failed.

See alsoAztecs; Mesoamerica.


Francisco Cervantes De Salazar, Crónica de Nueva España (1914).

Bernal Díaz Del Castillo, The Conquest of New Spain, translated by J. M. Cohen (1963).

Francisco De San Antón Muñón Chimalpahin Cuauhtlehuanitzin, Relaciones originales de Chalco Amaquemecan, translated and edited by Silvia Rendón (1965).

Hernán Cortés, Letters from Mexico, translated and edited by Anthony Pagden (1971).

Ross Hassig, Aztec Warfare: Imperial Expansion and Political Control (1988).

Additional Bibliography

Carrasco Pizana, Pedro. The Tenocha Empire of Ancient Mexico: The Triple Alliance of Tenochtitlan, Tetzcoco, and Tlacopan. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999.

Carrillo de Albornoz, José Miguel. Moctezuma, el semidiós destronado. Madrid: Espasa, 2004.

Headrick, Annabeth. The Teotihuacan Trinity: The Sociopolitical Strucutre of an Ancient Mesoamerican City. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007.

                                   Susan Kellogg