Iraq Banner Desktop

Store Banner Mobile

Daniel del Valle, Moctezuma II Museo Nacional De Arte

Moctezuma II, The Emperor who Lost an Empire


Moctezuma II was the 9 th ruler of the Aztec Empire, whose unfortunate reign coincided with the arrival of the Spanish under the conquistador Hernan Cortez (Hernán Cortés). Moctezuma is remembered today mainly as the Aztec ruler who lost his empire to a European power, although this is an unfair assessment of him. This is due to the fact that Moctezuma was a capable ruler in his own right, as it was during his reign that the Aztec Empire reached its greatest height.

Moctezuma II was born in 1466 to Axayacatl, the sixth ruler of the Aztec Empire, and Xochicueyetl. When his father died in 1481, the throne passed to one of his uncles, Tizocic, who reigned until 1486. He was in turn succeeded by another of Moctezuma’s uncles, Ahuitzotl. During this time, Moctezuma served as a general under his uncle. As Ahuitzotl pursued an expansionist policy for the Aztec Empire, Moctezuma participated in various military campaigns, which helped him gain the experience that was necessary for him to reign as an Aztec ruler later on in his life. Additionally, Moctezuma proved himself to be a capable military leader.

Portrait of Moctezuma by Antonio Rodriguez. Oil on canvas 1680-97. (public domain)

Portrait of Moctezuma by Antonio Rodriguez. Oil on canvas 1680-97. (public domain)

The Rise of Moctezuma

When Ahuitzotl died in 1502, Moctezuma became the new ruler of the Aztec Empire. Thanks to his uncle’s campaigns, Moctezuma found himself the ruler of a vast empire that stretched from what is today the southern United States in the north to the middle of Central America in the south.

It was due to the enormous size of the empire that it was difficult for the Aztecs to have their subjects fully under their control. As a result of this, the subjugated peoples who were dissatisfied with their Aztec overlords rebelled from time to time. Moctezuma responded by brutally suppressing the rebellions with force, which increased the hatred felt towards the Aztecs.

Moctezuma was also a competent administrator. This is evident, for instance, in the building programme he initiated in Tenochtitlan.

The great city of Tenochtitlan (public domain)

The great city of Tenochtitlan (public domain)

Strangers from the East

In 1517, news reached the emperor that strangers from the east were sighted off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. Hearing that these men were sailing in vessels that were larger than anything the Aztecs had ever seen, Moctezuma ordered that a watch on the coast be kept. When the Spanish landed in April 1519, the emperor became even more alarmed, especially since they began to move inland. As Cortez encountered the subjugated peoples of the Aztec Empire, he formed alliances with those against imperial rule, whilst killing those loyal to the empire.

As the Spanish force progressed deeper into Aztec territory, Moctezuma seems to have been indecisive. Although the Aztec army was numerically superior to that of the Spanish, Moctezuma decided against military action. Instead, he tried to get rid of the Spanish by bribing them with gifts. This, however, had the opposite effect, as it increased the determination of the invaders instead. In November 1519, the Spanish finally arrived in Tenochtitlan, and what they saw must have made them aware that they were greatly outnumbered.

Moctezuma presents gifts to Cortez (public domain).

Moctezuma presents gifts to Cortez (public domain).

Cortez, A God in Disguise?

Nevertheless, Cortez and his men were welcomed by the emperor. According to some, the emperor believed that Cortez was the god Quetzalcoatl, whom the Aztecs believed would one day return to rule over Mexica. Others, however, argue that Moctezuma was buying his time, and would crush the Spanish at the appropriate moment. In any case, Cortez saw the emperor’s hospitality as an opportunity to even the odds, and seized it. Believing that the Aztecs would not harm them if they had Moctezuma in their hands, the Spanish took the emperor as hostage.

The capture of Moctezuma. Copper-plate engraving from Van Beecq (public domain)

The capture of Moctezuma. Copper-plate engraving from Van Beecq (public domain)

The Downfall of Moctezuma

Moctezuma died in June 1520, though it is unclear as to how he met his end. According to one version of the story, the Spanish had the emperor killed after they felt he was no longer useful.

Another version (which is found in the Spanish sources), however, claims that Moctezuma was murdered by his own subjects. In this version of events, Cortez leaves the city to defeat a rival conquistador, and when he returns, finds that the people of Tenochtitlan had risen in revolt. Hoping to use Moctezuma to calm the people down, Cortez orders him to speak to his people from a roof / balcony. Instead of listening to their emperor, however, the enraged population pelts him with stones and arrows. Moctezuma dies of his wounds three days later.

Top image: Daniel del Valle, Moctezuma II Museo Nacional De Arte (Jorge Elías / Flickr)

By: Wu Mingren


Neale, G., 2009. Moctezuma: the leader who lost an empire. [Online]
Available at:

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2018. Montezuma II. [Online]
Available at:

The Independent, 2009. Aztec ruler Moctezuma unmasked. [Online]
Available at:

Tuck, J., 2008. Aztec Hamlet: the tragedy of Moctezuma 2. [Online]
Available at: , 2018. Moctezuma II. [Online]
Available at:, 2018. Moctezuma II. [Online]
Available at:

dhwty's picture


Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

Next article