Montezuma II (circa 1467 – 1520, reigned 1502 – 1520) was the Aztec Empire’s Tlatoani – a position equivalent to king, general, and pope, all rolled into one – when the Spanish arrived under Hernan Cortes. Until then, Montezuma had been a capable ruler, conqueror, and diplomat, and it was during his reign that the Aztec Empire had reached the height of its power and its greatest extent. It was to prove a short lived peak.
Something about the Spaniards baffled Montezuma, and in dealing with them he became an indecisive and dithering wreck. As a result, he made a series of catastrophic decisions that led to end of his rule, his life, his empire, and the deaths of most of his subjects. Montezuma ended up a a hostage of the Spaniards in his own palace, and a puppet ruler. He was either killed by his own people in a fit of disgust at his collaboration with the conquistadors, or was murdered by the Spaniards when he was of no further use to them.
Rise of Montezuma
Montezuma was born around 1467 as a prince of the Aztec royal family, which had risen a century earlier to rule the Valley of Mexico, then began subjugating its neighbors. By the time its ruler Ahuitzotl – Montezuma’s uncle – died in 1502, the Aztec Empire covered most of central Mexico, and stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific. It ruled vassal tribes and sub kingdoms who were forced to send tribute to the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, in the form of goods, food, slaves, and human sacrifices.
Aztec rule did not automatically pass from father to son, but went instead to the most capable or powerful member of the royal when the throne became vacant. When a vacancy occurred in 1502, a 35 year old Montezuma was well positioned to succeed his uncle as ruler of the empire, having already distinguished himself by then as a warrior, general, diplomat, and high priest. So a council of Aztec elders and royal family members elected him Tlatoani.
Once he had undergone the preliminary rituals, which included fasting and praying, followed by partying and feasting, Montezuma had to buckle down for the hard work of getting confirmed: conduct a military campaign to conquer sacrificial victims to make gods happy and make the coronation official. He chose a pair of rebellious vassal tribes in today’s Mexican state of Oaxaca, swiftly subduing and bringing them back into the fold, while seizing captives to sacrifice in Tenochtitlan.
A man of the people the new Tlatoani was definitely not. An elitist, Montezuma reversed his predecessor’s policies, which had elevated capable commoners and raised them into the ranks of the Aztec nobility. He abolished titles such as “Eagle Lord”, which had been bestowed upon soldiers of commoner origins who had distinguished themselves in warfare. Purging the Aztec government, Montezuma filled all civil and military offices with members of the Aztec aristocracy, while killing or banishing many of his predecessor’s top officials.
Once he had finished consolidating his rule, Montezuma set out to conquer, and spent the bulk of his reign waging war against neighboring tribes or rebellious subjects. His forces won most of the time, and during Montezuma’s years in power, the Aztec Empire reached its greatest territorial extent. A notable exception, however, was his failure to subdue the Tlaxcala region after major campaigns in 1503 and 1515. That failure would come back and bite Montezuma, when the Tlaxcalans allied with the Spanish against the Aztecs. When not fighting wars of conquest or subjugation, Montezuma’s armies fought “Flower Wars” against other states – ritualized and limited battles whose aim was not conquest, but to give both sides an opportunity to seize prisoners for human sacrifices. The Aztec Tlatoani was at the height of his powers when Hernan Cortes and a band of about 600 conquistadors landed on Mexico’s Gulf coast, in 1519.