A model of the Huey Teocalli, where Aztec human sacrifices were held in honor of the sun god Huitzilopochtli.
A prisoner of war is dragged screaming up the steps of the temple. At the top stands an ornately-clad priest holding an obsidian knife. The prisoner is laid down on a small sacrificial stone. There he is held down by his escorts as the priest lifts his knife in front of the crowds of spectators. The knife plunges into the prisoner’s chest and he gives a final yell. Then the priest lifts a bleeding heart from the lifeless body and offers it as a sacrifice to the gods. The body is pushed down the steps of the temple as another man is brought forth.
This scene occurred thousands of times every year in the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan. It was a sight that instilled awe in the inhabitants of the city, terrified those tribes which the Empire had conquered, and traumatized the Spaniards who witnessed it on their overseas exploits. Human sacrifice has become the image that the world today has of the Aztec Empire, which dominated the Valley of Mexico from 1428 to 1521. Their reign may have been less than a century, but in that time they spilled the blood of countless thousands in a regime that was as impressive as it was brutal. So who were these people whom we know as the Aztecs?
The ceremonial ball court from Monte Alban, a settlement from the Zapotec culture that existed long before the Aztecs. The Mesoamerican ball game was first created by the Olmecs and then adopted by later cultures, including the Maya and Aztecs.
While the Aztec Empire hadn’t existed long before the arrival of the white man, its predecessors had been laying its foundations for millennia.
The secret to starting any civilization is agriculture. And oftentimes the secret to effective agriculture is genetic engineering. We often think of civilization in the Americas starting long after that in the Old World, because we have some sort of weird thought that these people were far behind. In reality, domestication of plants in Mesoamerica began to take place sometime shortly after 8,000 BC, about the same time as it was going on in the Middle-East. About this time, the world went through major climactic shifts; as the great ice sheets of the Last Ice Sheets receded, seasonal cycles in the tropical regions became more tame and settling down to farm became a new possibility.
Now in the Old World, they had this nice crop called wheat that they could do pretty much anything with. They also had loads of good domesticable (is that a word?) animals to provide them with extra food and labor. The Mesoamericans weren’t as lucky. They had teosintes, wild grasses which reproduced by having their seeds eaten by animals and then pooped elsewhere. Not exactly reliable agriculture, but that would change.
Take a look at your dog. Whatever breed you have, you probably won’t find it in the wild. You know why? Because it’s domesticated. A lot of people assume that “domesticated” means something along the lines of “tamed,” but not exactly. To domesticate an organism is to take it and selectively breed it to keep the traits you particularly want. Ancient Mesoamericans took teosintes and continued to plant them, choosing to replant those which had the yummiest juiciest seeds. The seeds grew over the many generations until they produced a new crop: corn!
(Yes, you will most likely see the word spelled maize when you look at history textbooks that are trying to be fancy on the subject, but come on. Nobody uses that word. I’m going to keep calling it corn.)
Corn’s developmental process took place over millennia and it’s difficult to define a certain point at which it was complete, but whatever the case, it was the basis for advanced societies in Mesoamerica by 1500 BC when the Olmec appeared on the scene. The Olmecs lived on Mexico’s Caribbean coast in what are now the states of Veracruz and Tabasco. There they built big temples and statues of heads. Rubber balls found among Olmec ruins suggest that they may also have been the inventors of the Mesoamerican ballgame, a game that would be played in other names by both the Maya and the Aztecs, as well as other cultures. Rubber trees are native to Central America and Spanish records indicate that the Europeans were shocked when they saw balls that could bounce as rubber does. It was a technology which Mesoamerican cultures were able to take advantage of long before cultures anywhere else in the world. The Olmecs continued their balling until they mysteriously collapsed as a civilization around 400 BC.
The rock stars of pre-Aztec Mexico are most certainly the Maya. Everyone knows the Maya for their awesome temples and their calendar (and its 12/21/2012 end date for which they never actually predicted an apocalypse like people always still bring up for some reason). The Maya have existed as a culture since antiquity, but their civilization reached its greatest heights during what archaeologists have termed the classic period, roughly 250-900 AD. The Maya were not a single empire, but rather a collection of culturally similar city-states that competed for power on the Yucatan Peninsula. They achieved many things, creating a complex hieroglyphic writing system, one of the earliest mathematical systems that included one of the first concepts of a zero, and monuments that demonstrate an acute knowledge of astronomy. But then for unknown reasons, the Mayan cities were abandoned, writing fell out of use, and the civilization faded into obscurity. It was perhaps the most advanced of Pre-Columbian civilizations, but its unexplained demise is still a great enigma to archaeologists.
During the reign of the Maya, however, another civilization dominated central Mexico. The Toltec Empire (496-1122) was centered on the city of Tula in the modern Mexican state of Hidalgo. The Aztecs looked back to it as their predecessor state, as it waged wars and conquered vast territories of central Mexico, becoming one of the largest empires of the Pre-Columbian world. The Toltecs are still mysterious today and many of the records we have of them contradict each other. What we can be sure of is that the Toltecs were very war-like and applied a religious value to their military conquests. Their systems in warfare would become the basis for the later Aztec military.
In the 1300s or earlier, a people known as the Mexica migrated south toward what is now Mexico City. Legend has it that the sun god Huitzilopochtli would show them where to build their new capital city. When they came to Lake Texcoco, they saw an eagle clutching a snake in its claws upon a cactus and somehow or another determined that that was the sign of where to settle. This is where the Aztec story truly begins…
A model and map of Tenochtitlan from the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.
Mexico City today is the largest city in the Americas. Seriously. You’d think it would be somewhere in the United States like New York, but Mexico City has 21 million people while New York only has 20 million. This sprawling metropolis has been the center of the Viceroyalty of New Spain, the Mexican Empire, and the United Mexican States, but before it was the modern super-city that it is, it was the site of Pre-Columbian America’s greatest imperial capital city…
Tenochtitlan, the Mexica capital, was constructed on a site that offered a unique set of geographical challenges. Built on the southern end of an island within the vast Lake Texcoco, it was surrounded by brackish water that often threatened to destabilize its foundations. To deal with this, complex systems of dykes were built across the lake to control water flow. Causeways were constructed to offer foot passage to the mainland and to the smaller settlements that surrounded the lake. Aqueducts were built to carry fresh water to those in the city by emptying it into the lake just around the island, so that the naturally brackish water could be kept at a distance behind the dyke system while fresh water was readily available on the Tenochtitlan beaches. The Mexica were freaking geniuses.
Over time, Tenochtitlan became a trading hub and cultural center. Massive marketplaces became the exchange point for innumerable goods. Quetzal feathers, fancy cloaks, pretty rocks, and above all the cacao bean. Cacao beans are cheap and easy to carry, but pretty universally wanted because chocolate is fricking delicious and, guess what, it was invented in ancient Mesoamerica. So it was only natural that the Mexica used the beans as a sort of currency. Money really did grow on trees once.
The most impressive sight of the city, however, was the massive pyramidal temple in the central district of the city. Called the Huey Teocalli (or “Templo Mayor” in Spanish, which is often used), this huge structure was 328 by 262 feet (100 by 80 meters) at the base and stood about 200 feet (60 meters) tall, the largest structure in Tenochtitlan. On top of the Huey Teocalli’s pyramid-shaped base stood two large shrines, one devoted to the sun and war god Huitzilopochtli and the other to the rain and agriculture god Tlaloc. It was here that the Mexica’s infamous human sacrifices took place. Here in the most impressive of temples, the heavens met Earth and the bloody nourishment which the gods required could be quenched. The Huey Teocalli was like the Ka’aba for Muslims or the Temple of Solomon for the ancient Hebrews: the center of the world and the place whose rulers had a sacred duty to the order of the universe.
As Tenochtitlan’s influence increased over the surrounding nations, its population grew to massive sizes. While exact census records do not exist, Tenochtitlan likely supported around 200,000 people at its height, but it perhaps held populations as high as 350,000, making it the largest metropolis in the Americas at its time and the most powerful city in North America (I say North America and not the Americas overall here, because the Inca state centered in Cuzco, Peru was considerably more vast than that of the Mexica/Aztecs, but that’s another topic).
Before I talk about the formation of the Triple Alliance, or Aztec Empire, I feel like I should tell you about the Aztec belief system, because it might make things make a little more sense.
Meet the Gods
The Aztecs, like many cultures in history, believed in a whole pantheon of gods who embodied different aspects of nature and human society. The gods were often wrathful beings whose power could change the world drastically or even destroy humanity altogether. Aztec mythology is full of contradictions and variations and it’s much harder to read through than that of the Greeks or the Vikings. The Aztec priesthood seems to have affected the mythology to make it into a useful propaganda system, justifying the practice of human sacrifice which the Aztec Empire used to flex its power over its subjects and centering on the object which the Aztecs saw as most powerful and holy: the sun.
(If you haven’t noticed already, Aztec names for things can be super hard to pronounce. The language that they spoke, Nahuatl, was troublesome to the Spaniards too and because their records gave us some of the best information on the Aztecs, they botched a lot of the names for every person who would end up reading the records. I generally use Nahuatl names here (sorry if you’re struggling), though some of the names are Spanish variants if they’re particularly familiar. One example is the name of the Aztec king whom the conquistadores first met; Emperor Motecuhzoma Xocoyoti became Montezuma II. If Nahuatl is hard, it just takes a little time to get used to, honestly. If you sound your way through all the names, you’ll find that they’re really made of a lot of the same elements.)
In the beginning, there was nothing, but from chaos emerged a god with two personalities, one male and one female. Its name was Tonacatecuhtli and Tonacacihuatl. The two/one (it’s weird) brought the universe into being and parented several gods.
The gods, as gods do, decided to begin to create the world, but as they dropped their creations onto the primordial Earth, they were devoured by a vast sea monster. Cipactli was a terrifying beast that was part crocodile, part fish, and part frog. At every joint on its body, Cipactli had a mouth. It devoured everything that touched the ancient sea. One god, Tezcatlipoca, put his foot near the water to bait the beast. Cipactli emerged from the waves, biting off Tezcatlipoca’s foot. Together with his brother Quetzalcoatl, Tezcatlipoca battled the beast and they managed to slay it. From Cipactli’s dead body, the gods sculpted the Earth.
Over the course of Aztec cosmic history, there were five different suns created. Each one represented a period of existence within the great cycle of universal death and rebirth. But one of these suns would become the most important and central to the Aztec universe.
Once there was a goddess named Coatlicue who had 400 sons and a daughter named Coyolxauhqui. Coatlicue was impregnated with a 402nd child by a ball of feathers one day (what) and her children became angered by this. Led by Coyolxauhqui, they conspired to kill their mother. If you think Athena’s birth in Greek mythology was awesome, prepare for this. Coatlicue’s fetal son Huitzilopochtli suddenly burst from her womb in full battle armor wielding a flaming snake as a sword. He slashed Coyolxauhqui apart limb from limb and proceeded to chase his brothers across the heavens, slaughtering them. Their defeated bodies became the stars. The Aztecs honored Huitzilopochtli’s victory over Coyolxauhqui by placing a stone depicting her dismembered body near the base of the Huey Teocalli, so that the great image of Huitzilopochtli at the top of the temple could tower above it.
Huitzilopochtli became the god of the sun and of war and the central deity of the Aztec Empire. As he was born shedding blood, he would always need it to sustain himself and the priests of the Huey Teocalli would provide him with it. If the Aztecs ceased to offer this blood sacrifice, the sun would cease to shine.
An Empire Built on War
The practice of gladiatorial sacrifice, by which some Aztec war captives would be taken and made to battle with Aztec warriors.
Early on, while Tenochtitlan was still small, it had paid tribute to a city on the banks of Lake Texcoco known as Azcapotzalco whose people were known as the Tepanacs. Azcapotzalco solidified its dominion over Tenochtitlan through diplomatic marriage, but this caused trouble in 1426 when the Tepanac king Tezozomoc died. A question of succession as to whether the next king of Azcapotzalco would be Mexica or Tepanac broke out between the city and Tenochtitlan. The Mexica saw a great opportunity to flex their muscles and take another city, but the Tepanacs would not have it. A Tepanac named Maxtla seized the throne. The Mexica king Itzcoatl was defiant to this new ruler and Maxtla responded by blockading Tenochtitlan. Maxtla also increased in aggression towards another nearby city-state named Texcoco. Meanwhile, a smaller Tepanac city named Tlacopan rose in revolt against its overlords and supported the Mexica. Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan determined that they would need to act as allies to defeat Azcapotzalco. They created a formal alliance and defeated the Tepanacs in 1428.
The alliance became more than just an occasion of cooperation in war. The Triple Alliance took the Tepanac lands and established a collective empire. Tenochtitlan became the capital while Texcoco and Tlacopan also got administrative roles. With three of Mexico’s most powerful city-states now united, there was now no power that could compete with them. Their conquests stretched far and wide, from the Pacific to the Caribbean. This was the political powerhouse that we now refer to as the Aztec Empire.
In order to secure hold its imperial power, the Aztecs used a Spartan-like system of military training for all male children of commoners. Aztec boys would receive basic military training from the age of 15. There was no standing army in the Aztec Empire, but they didn’t need one because the populace was perfectly able to defend itself in war. The formal military was reserved for conquest and raiding, which the Triple Alliance did plenty of.
On the fringes of the empire, little villages would often find themselves raided by hordes of Aztec warriors. The Aztecs did not work with metal, so they wore armor made of cotton, quetzal feathers, and wood. They carried a variety of weapons, the most notable of which was the macuahuitl, a wooden sword with obsidian blades. Primitive as the macuahuitl appeared to the Spaniards later on, they were terrified of its effectiveness. One record noted that an Aztec used it to behead a horse from under a Spaniard in one clean swipe. The raids on villages were traumatic to the Aztecs’ conquered subjects and that was exactly their intent. Tribute poured into Tenochtitlan as warriors forced it from the hands of the other Native American cultures who were unfortunate enough to have the Aztecs as neighbors. But the part that terrified these peoples most was that the Aztecs lugged off loads of screaming captives to meet their own terrible fate in Tenochtitlan.
Captives from the tribes were taken up to the top of the Huey Teocalli. They stood at the highest place in Tenochtitlan with a spectacular view of the greatest metropolis of the Americas. Then they were forced onto an altar and their hearts were torn out to be given to Huitzilopochtli, that the sun might continue to shine. It was a weird paradox: a beautiful city that offered an amazing quality of life for its time, advanced in technology and highly developed, but maintained economically by the terror of the altar. Aztec warriors had a powerful incentive for supporting the regime. Fighting in war and taking sacrificial captives was the official method by which commoners could raise their social class. Warriors were often people who also worked as farmers or merchants back home in the Triple Alliance until they were noted for their success in warfare. Then they might be selected by the upper class for higher-level work.
The most skilled and valued warriors could join societies within the military. The famous eagle and jaguar warriors were members of two of the most feared groups. They were the elite forces, wearing the feathers or pelts of their nominal animals. The site of eagles and jaguars charging into battle was terrifying to the Empire’s foes.
The Aztecs found loads of frightening things to do to the captives that were continually brought to the capital. In one alternative version of sacrifice, captives were sent into gladiatorial combat to be a spectacle at festivals. The captive would be tethered to an altar stone on the ground and given a club and shield. Next, they would be charged by a fully armed Aztec warrior who would attempt to kill them. Usually the captives didn’t fare all that well against the toughest warriors of the New World, but if by some miracle the captive could ward off his aggressor–and then 3 to 6 more after that–he would be granted his freedom.
The Aztec regime had an effective method of debilitating and dominating its neighbors and its power grew and grew over the century that it existed. Each emperor added new territories until the fateful day that the Aztecs’ brutality proved to be their downfall.
The Aztecs’ Final War
(So far, I’ve tried to avoid over-emphasizing the tumultuous end of the Aztec Empire. I think that we often have a bad habit, when dealing with Native American cultures, of focusing only on the cultures’ destructions. Usually, this goes either in the direction of glorifying the conquests of Europeans and post-colonial states or of shaming the Europeans and post-colonial states for destroying the cultures and people of the New World. Either viewpoint is usually fueled by political opinions and cultural bias and they both have a very important fundamental issue: they view the Native Americans only as they relate to the white men. They discuss only how the cultures precipitously declined during their interactions with white folks. Sure, that’s an important topic, but it does not do anything to capture the culture and history that defined the civilizations that existed in the Americas. The cultures of the Americas were impactful and vibrant. Most of them may not have had written records, but the glimpses we do have into the Pre-Columbian world show a fascinating world as complex as that of Europe or Asia. For that reason, I have made a point to focus most of this article on the Aztecs as they existed before contact with Europeans. Now I will cover the Spanish conquest of Mexico and the epic Aztec counter-effort, but I wanted to put in this little paragraph first, because I think it’s super important. The Aztecs were more than the way that they fell.)
On October 12, 1492, Genoese navigator Christopher Columbus, sailing under the patronage of the Spanish crown, landed on an island in what we know today as the Bahamas. Every American schoolchild vaguely knows the story of Columbus. Columbus had set out to seek a western route to Asia, so that Spain could have its own route in the trade with India and China. Portugal was soon to establish contact by sailing around the tip of Africa, and the newly united Kingdom of Spain was looking for a way to cash in on the potential wealth and power that was sure to emerge from the Age of Exploration. (Columbus was a very zealous Catholic and like many of his colonial successors, he had a strong feeling of duty to spread Christianity throughout the world. Aside from the economic benefits, he also hoped that he might be able to Christianize the Chinese via his trade route.) Columbus believed that he had landed on islands off the coast of India. His reference to them as the Indies and identification of the native people as Indians is the reason that Native Americans are often labeled as such still today.
Early on, Columbus made contact with wide-eyed native peoples who were shocked to see the vast European ships, loud guns, and strange pale bearded men who had appeared on their shores. The Taino culture was initially hospitable to the mysterious white men, but Columbus took particular interest in the gold earrings that he noticed on some of the Taino. He took some of them captive and demanded that they show him where the gold had been found. Columbus was not the most pleasant man in the world and he tended to force his way around with the native people, exploiting them and noting the disparity in technology between them and the Europeans. He performed a little tour of the Caribbean and then set back for Europe, arriving at the port of Lisbon, Portugal on March 4, 1493.
Columbus’s tales of wealth in the Indies captivated explorers and he himself made several voyages back, even establishing La Isabela, the first Spanish settlement in the New World, on Hispaniola, though it was short-lived. Columbus believed that he had found Asia until his death in 1506, but over the next few decades, it became gradually apparent to the Europeans that they had opened the door to a vast new landmass that they had previously had no knowledge of. The European powers, particularly Spain, eyed America as a land where they might be able to gain wealth and power on a new scale.
Hernán Cortés de Monroy y Pizarro had been born in Castile in 1485. In 1405, he arrived in Santo Domingo, the Spanish colonial capital on the island of Hispaniola. He rose through the ranks, playing a role in the early developments of Spanish dominion over Hispaniola and Cuba. Determined to always aim high, but sometimes ruthless in his methods, Cortes used his closeness to the governor of New Spain to become a major governor administrator in Cuba. In 1518, Governor Velazquez put Cortes in charge of an expedition to explore and secure the interior of Mexico. Then, last moment, Velazquez got mad at Cortes over some personal issue and revoked his charter. Cortes openly mutinied and went to take Mexico anyway. He wasn’t the most decent human being whatsoever and a personal chance to gain loads of gold and power for himself was super exciting.
He managed to gather a force of 11 ships, 500 men, and 13 horses. In March of 1519, Cortes landed on the Mexican coast on the Yucatan Peninsula, claiming the land for Spain, then went on to land again at Tabasco on the fringes of Aztec influence. To prevent his men from escaping from his technically illegal mission, he burned his own ships on the coastline. Cortes was determined to conquer Mexico and neither he or his men would leave until that quest was complete. He captured several small Aztec tributary states in the region and came into contact with some Aztec administrators. Previously, the Spaniards had only faced disparate tribes, but now they found themselves on the borders of a seemingly vast empire.
Repeatedly, Cortes asked the Aztecs to send back to Emperor Montezuma II in Tenochtitlan that the Spaniards may talk with him. But repeatedly, the emperor refused. Cortes was a little irked at this and decided he should march on the capital. On the way there, they passed through the land of the Tlaxcalans, a people who had been conquered by the Aztecs and forced to pay tribute to them. Obviously, they weren’t too big on their oppressors. At first, the Tlaxcalans battled the Spanish, but after several days, the warleader of Tlaxcala, Xicotencatl the Younger, decided, hey, if the Spaniards are enemies of the Aztecs, then we might as well support them. So Cortes and Xicotencatl began working together. The Aztec history of brutality was advantageous to Spain in this respect; natives would be willing to join the fight to destroy the Triple Alliance.
600 Spaniards and 1000 Tlaxcalans continued their march toward Tenochtitlan. They arrived at the Aztec city of Cholula, the second largest city in Mesoamerica after Tenochtitlan itself. Cholula’s importance was ancient and it was home to hundreds of temples. It was like the super trendy city of the Aztec world. Cortes, who as I said before was not the least bit a decent individual, saw the city as an opportunity to demonstrate his power and will. When the warriors and nobles gathered to greet the conquistador in the city square, Cortes ordered his men to slaughter them. Chaos reigned. Cortes’s horrible actions both struck fear into the heart of the Triple Alliance and gave his Tlaxcalan allies serious qualms about turning their backs on the Spaniards. After the Cholula massacre, Cortes burned much of the city.
Montezuma recognized that he was facing a seriously dangerous threat. The Spaniards were absolutely alien to the Aztecs and Cortes’s greed and malevolent intent were clearly evident. (Cortes’s letters back to Charles V claim that Montezuma and the Aztecs thought that Cortes was the god Quetzalcoatl returning from over the sea. Historians nowadays think that Cortes just made that up and there isn’t really any evidence for it. Montezuma was less reverent and more worried in reality.) The emperor decided that he would try to befriend the conquistador instead of fight against him. He made the same mistake that the inhabitants of Cholula had, opening his arms to Cortes and his army, which marched straight into the city.
The emperor greeted Cortes personally and attempted to build a friendly relationship with him. Montezuma realized that since the Spaniards sought wealth, he might as well give them it to save them the trouble of getting violent. Montezuma poured out loads of gold to Cortes, whose eyes shined with greed at the sight. The Aztecs were ungodly rich. Unfortunately, the emperor’s plan seems to have backfired a bit; Cortes’s determination for money only increased. Friendly relations seemed to be going well for a while until Cortes received word that Aztec warriors had slaughtered several Spaniards who had held back toward the coast and attempted to aid Cortes’s native allies to the east. The conquistador’s anger flared. Some of Cortes’s men seized control of the imperial palace and fortified themselves inside with both Cortes and Montezuma. The terrified emperor found himself hostage. Cortes used the emperor to issue his commands to the people of Tenochtitlan, becoming the de facto dictator of the Triple Alliance, but the Aztecs were not going to tolerate this usurpation for long…
In case you don’t forgot while processing all the intense things that went on, remember that Cortes was also still a Spanish criminal, having waged a war against the might Aztec Empire in spite of the direct orders of Governor Velazquez. In April of 1520, Velazquez sent his own army, led by Panfilo de Narvaez and consisting of 1100 men, to try to put a stop to Cortes’s rampage. Cortes heard about this pretty quickly and told 200 men of his to hold the palace while he went to go fight off Narvaez’s army with the rest of his force. Cortes wrecked Narvaez and then told his men of the riches that he was about to score back in Tenochtitlan. As a result, Narvaez’s men joined Cortes. Not even joking, this guy had great luck at getting more troops while somehow also being the enemy of everybody who was powerful.
Meanwhile, back in Tenochtitlan, things started to get hectic. Cortes had put a guy by the name of Pedro de Alvarado in charge of running the show while he was gone. The Aztec festival of Toxcatl happened to be going on in that time. As with many of their festivals, the Aztecs performed human sacrifice to their gods as part of this event. This did not go over well with the Spaniards at all. Many of the very Catholic Spaniards seemed to believe that the actions performed by the priest were some sort of dark Satanic ritual. In order to prevent this from going on, Alvarado interrupted the ceremony at the temple with a troop of his soldiers. Without warning, they relentlessly fired into the crowds then charged in and massacred the vast majority of those in attendance. Those Aztecs left ran terrified from the temple and informed the others throughout the city of the atrocity that the Spaniards had just committed.
Obviously, such an event really didn’t go over well at all and in a city where legitimately every male had military training, serious trouble was coming for the Spaniards. The Aztecs rose in revolt, seeking to overthrow their foreign occupiers. Alvarado forced Montezuma to shout from the palace that the Aztecs should cease their rebellion, but the Aztecs, who were very tired by now of their puppet emperor, refused to obey any of his orders. The Spanish were quickly losing their hold on the city. Thankfully for Alvarado, Cortes showed up very soon with his newly expanded army and retook command, but it was no use. As Montezuma, under pressure from the conquistador, tried to calm his people, he continued to find that none of them would listen to his word. Suddenly, on July 1, with a volley of stones, the Aztecs killed their own emperor. Cortes was terrified. The Aztecs were not a simple enemy who would simply submit to Spanish guns and horses. They were the most hardcore bloodthirsty warrior culture in the Americas and they were going to fight to the end.
Cortes was driven from the city. In a flurry of arrows, stones, and macuahuitls, the Aztecs sent the Spaniards on a speedy retreat. Cortes’s army charged across one of the causeways out of Tenochtitlan. As they fled, the Aztecs wiped out huge portions of the rear of the army, dealing a crushing defeat to Cortes and also capturing most of his stolen wealth and all of his cannons. You can say what you want about how guns and horses and steel armor gave the Spaniards such a crushing advantage over the Aztecs and made their victory inevitable, but in their first attempt to take Tenochtitlan, the Spaniards were defeated. It was the Aztecs who won. Meanwhile, 270 Spaniards who had been in other parts of Tenochtitlan and not been able to join in Cortes’s army found themselves in deep trouble. They were now Aztec war prisoners. Some of the Spaniards were led up the steps of the Huey Teocalli. There they saw the altar upon which had happened that practice which they so feared. Screaming, the prisoners, like so many Tlaxcalans and others before them, had their hearts cut from their chests and given to Huitzilopochtli. Knowledge that this had happened would traumatize the other Spaniards. As brutal as the Spanish were, the Aztecs could certainly return it.
Cortes, now in Tlaxcala, had lost 870 men. Cortes seemed like he had lost for good, but soon he received reinforcements from both his native allies and from Spaniards who had arrived in Mexico from Cuba. From here on out, Cortes’s old strategy of just charging in and taking over wasn’t going to work so well. Cortes went around capturing small towns and cutting off Aztec trade routes. Finally, he besieged Tenochtitlan for eight months until the city finally surrendered. Cortes burned it to the ground. On August 13, 1521, the conquistador captured Cuauhtemoc, the last Aztec emperor, and claimed the lands of the former Triple Alliance for Spain. He would be governor of Spanish Mexico for four years.
Cortes’s takeover of the Aztec Empire might seem inevitable to the average Joe sitting around today. But really, despite Spanish guns, horses, armor, military organization, and all that jazz, Cortes relied very heavily on his native allies which made up the majority of his otherwise super-outnumbered forces. And on top of that, the citizens of Tenochtitlan nearly thwarted the Spanish hold on the city. No, the full story of Spain’s conquest of Mexico isn’t the story of how Cortes fought a victory that he was set to win; it’s the story of a people who lacked knowledge of horseback riding, the wheel, or metal-working were mighty enough to face the emerging global superpower of the colonial age head-on and put up a pretty darn good fight.
And That’s the Aztecs
The maximum territorial extent of the Aztec Triple Alliance.
The Aztecs are one of the strangest cases in the history of human civilizations. An empire at the pinnacle of development in its hemisphere, dominating territory from sea to shining sea, forged from the fear and the blood of the altar. An empire that put up an amazing last stand against a foe that all the patterns of history might have crushed them easily. Despite the horrendous amounts of blood they shed and the terrorizing grip they held on their enemies, five hundred years later you just can’t help but be amazed by this most peculiar of civilizations.