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The Life of Moctezuma II

History’s library holds many leaders whose lives span not just shelves but rooms. While we know more than we could ever hope about George…


History’s library holds many leaders whose lives span not just shelves but rooms. While we know more than we could ever hope about George Washington, for instance, other leaders such as Moctezuma II remain mysterious to us all.

Montezuma opted for diplomacy over immediate warfare when welcoming Cortes and his men into Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital. He displayed the splendors of Aztec civilization to intimidate or appease Cortes’ men; according to accounts provided primarily from Spanish sources this period depicted him as someone alternating between hospitality and nervousness, beholding or fearful.

Montezuma was born to a princely family and held various military and political posts before becoming Tlatoani (maximum leader) in 1502. He was highly qualified for this post: having distinguished himself in battle, been an exceptional orator and being his own father’s son; plus possessing an empire stretching from Atlantic to Pacific that sent food, weapons, enslaved people for sacrifice purposes as well as hundreds of vassal tribes under him as vassals.

Tlatoani royalty led an extravagant lifestyle. Their emperor resided in an extravagant palace, had their own private zoo with jaguars and eagles, had access to 3,000 servants at all times and dined from dishes no commoner could access, wore cotton tunics that weren’t meant to be worn again and carried a litter that made him seem larger than life around town surrounded by guards – they knew they were indebted to gods and understood this fact well enough! They were truly deserving.

Montezuma spent much of his time prior to the arrival of the Spaniards consulting Mexica diviners and priests for answers from their gods about who these strange visitors were and their intentions; he could not tell whether they were human beings or Quetzalcoatl himself, whom he expected would soon return from exile.

Montezuma’s fortunes began to change during his rule. After discovering that his warlike nephew planned an uprising against him, he turned to Cortes for assistance and promised Montezuma that Tenochtitlan would fall back under his control. Cortes agreed and promised Montezuma that Tenochtitlan would become part of Spain. Montezuma wanted to show his thanks, so he named Cortes as an honorary Tlatoani and gave him eight months as the voice of Aztec society. Montezuma died sometime post-1520 due to natural causes or possible captivity. This engraving comes from a portrait which once belonged to Alonso Davalos Bracamontes de Ulibarri y de la Cueva, known by his title of Conde de Miravalle and who claimed descent from both Philip II and Montezuma. It’s thought this engraving dates back to around the 1700s.