Polygamy, Human Sacrifices, and Steel – Why the Aztecs Were Awesome

Aztec Leaders: Rulers, Supreme Ruler and the Voice of the People ...
A Chadtec surveys his domain.

The Spanish conquest of the Aztecs was terrible. It was a prolonged period of pestilence, famine, torture, rape, plunder, destruction, conquest, cultural eradication, and general misery, with a short term death toll of something like 600,000 (including military and civilian casualties), and a long term death toll in the millions.

And yet part of me thinks it was totally awesome. That portion of my brain that grew up on Total War and Civilization games thinks the concept of a small number of hyper-technologically sophisticated foreigners led by a verified psychopath waging war on an empire of pyramid-dwelling, polygamist, slave-owning, human sacrificing pagans with the fate of a largely uncharted landmass at stake is incredibly cool. And no one can convince me otherwise.

There are surprisingly few books on the Aztecs, so I took a chance on Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs by Camilla Townsend, which as of writing this only has four reviews on Audible (though 30+ on Amazon). I hope the book gets its due because it’s a fast, narratively-focused, and thoroughly enjoyable walkthrough of hundreds of years of little-understood history, from before the settlement of Tenochtitlan through the Spanish conquest, and over the following hundreds of years of Spanish rule. Townsend’s novel approach to the material is to rely heavily on history texts written by the Aztecs in their native Nahuatl language in the 20-50 years after the Spanish conquests, on top of well-studied archaeological findings.

My main takeaway from the book is that the Aztecs were a highly unique civilization that I desperately want to learn more about. They offer great insights into how a society with radically different structures and norms might function. Whether it was due to their relative geographic isolation, unusual environmental factors, or achievement of a high level of technology for a pagan tribal society, the Aztecs seemed to follow very different civilizational paths than the ancient Greeks, Persians, Chinese, and Indians, despite being at a fairly comparable level of development by the 1500s.

With this review I will attempt to describe in my words and conceptions the highlights of Aztec civilization and then walkthrough a truncated version of their downfall.

Roman Empire - Wikipedia

Rome Analogy Primer

For the sake of comprehensibility, here’s a list of rough analogies between the Aztecs and ancient Rome.

Aztecs = The People of the Mediterranean

“Aztecs” was used to refer to the people of central Mexico. The Aztecs themselves never used the term, and didn’t really have a word or concept for themselves beyond referring to “our people,” as opposed to the Spanish, who were the “other people.” Most of the Aztecs were eventually unified under a single state, but the term always referred to many polities.

Tenochtitlan = Rome

Mexicas = Romans

Aztec Empire = Roman Empire

The Mexicas were an ethnic/tribal group which migrated from the modern-day US into Mexico and eventually founded the city-state of Tenochtitlan. They subjugated the surrounding cities and eventually achieved a stable hold over central Mexico by allying with two lesser-city states, Texcoco and Tlacopan, which were not Mexica, but spoke the same Nahuatl language. The emerging political union is referred to as the Aztec Empire.

Obsidian Snake = Julius Caesar

Obsidian Snake was the Aztec king who established the Empire through conquests and diplomatic maneuvering.

Moctezuma I = Caesar Augustus

Moctezuma I, (not Moctezuma II, the guy who lost to the Spanish) consolidated the Aztec Empire and put it on a stable foundation for a century.

8 Words from Nahuatl, the Language of the Aztecs | Merriam-Webster

Aztec Civilization

You know how in some history games like Civilization or Crusader Kings, you can select your style of government or succession process or economic system, and the game gives you various bonuses and costs based on your choices? The Aztec Empire is like a player who just picks their craziest options without any concern for how it impacts his playthrough.

The Basics

By the early 1500s, the Aztec Empire led by the Mexica people out of Tenochtitlan was at roughly the civilizational development level of the European Classical era. Their population and civic growth was based primarily on the cultivation of maize (primitive corn), with supplements from fishing and hunting. A complex trade network was developed throughout central Mexico based on weaved cloth (from wild cotton), chocolate, gold, food, basic manufactured goods, and slaves.

The Aztec Empire had a singular monarch chosen from among the top noble families via consensus. Tenochtitlan ruled as a dominant city state which extracted tribute from subjugated cities and villages throughout the year. The two junior city-state allies, Texcoco and Tlacopan, received about 1/5th of the annual tribute each. In the generation prior to the Spanish conquest, the Empire was in the process of centralizing its government and converting away from tribute towards taxation managed by a bureaucracy.

Technologically, the Aztecs developed in (what appears to me) a highly uneven manner. Their architecture and urban design built Tenochtitlan into a large (pop. 100K-200K) and magnificent city to rival any of those in Europe at the time. Their knowledge of astronomy gave them one of the best calendars in the world. The Aztecs had basic herbal medicine and may have understood the placebo effect. But the gaping chasm in their technological development was metallurgy. The Aztecs didn’t use copper, let alone iron; they could smelt gold, but nothing else. So their weapons and tools were based on obsidian, which is good for killing white walkers but not Spaniards.

The Aztecs had no alphabetic writing system, but used a pictographic system typically understood by priests and the most educated nobles. Most important knowledge, especially religious knowledge, was maintained via oral tradition. The Aztecs had a numeric system at least on par with that of the ancient Egyptians.

The Aztec religion was a polytheistic paganism based on a cycle of universal annihilation and rebirth. The religion had a dedicated caste of priests, lots of officially-sanctioned mythological stories, and its pyramidal temples dominated Tenochtitlan. The religion was the source of authority for Aztec governance, war, and morality.

20 Interesting Facts About Aztecs You Probaby Didn't Know

Polygamy

Polygamy might be the defining feature of Aztec society. It’s the policy at the center of a huge array of novel systems and institutions in Aztec culture and governance.

Unlike in traditional Islam where each man is allowed up to four wives, the Aztecs had no limit. Every man of any social level was permitted to marry as many wives as he saw fit. Wives could be of any social background for any man, and the wives could be free or enslaved.

In practice, the number of wives an Aztec man could have was limited by his resources and success. This mostly wasn’t due to the cost of having wives since there were no dowries and Aztec women were quite productive both in traditional household work and in the manufacturing of clothing (which was seen as a prestigious activity, even for wealthy Aztec women). Rather, the limits on wives came from the two means of acquiring them: having them granted by another family or captured and enslaved during war. The former acquisition means was largely a product of family and individual prestige, while the latter was a product of successful military endeavors (which also converted into prestige).

The result is a system which encouraged a snowballing of wives. While successfully Aztec warriors might have one free wife and maybe a second slave-wife, the Aztec nobles commonly racked up dozens of wives. Chiefs and kings would purposefully collect wives from subjugated villages (both voluntarily and involuntarily) to maintain diplomatic relationships and increase prestige. At the height of the Aztec Empire, household sizes spiraled into the hundreds and noble dynasties reached into the thousands.

The first wife was always given a primary status position. All other wives were legally equal at a lower level, but in practice, they would rise and fall upon the affection and respect shown by their husbands. Top-tier wives might closely advise their husbands on political and financial matters while bottom-tier wives were rarely visited and basically used as baby factories.

An interesting side effect of this system was that infidelity was harshly punished. It was illegal for men to have sex outside their marriage with married women, and illegal for women to have sex with anyone besides their husbands. According to Townsend, these laws were strictly enforced though she doesn’t give details on the punishments. I guess the idea was that if a guy could get as many wives as he wanted, there was no good reason for him to get his rocks off elsewhere.

Succession in the Aztec polygamist system was chaotic. The Aztecs didn’t divide inheritance among multiple children, and they had no concept of primogeniture (succession by first-born). Literally any son from any wife (even enslaved wives) could lay claim to his father’s inheritance. As a result, succession was usually decided before the father died via a process of what I’d call adversarial consensus.

Basically, prestige in the Aztec world was almost entirely derived from war, either through personal combat experience or military command. Within any given cluster of sons, a handful of the most prestigious would rise to prominence. These sons would then form mutually beneficial alliances with weaker sons. The stronger sons would gain support for their succession claim while the weaker sons would gain promises of payments once their claimant took power, usually in the form of jobs in the military (as the claimant’s lieutenant) or priesthood (the local temple under the family’s protection) or sometimes just payment in goods and slaves. The father also may or may not weigh in on his successor, but his recommendation was not considered binding or especially strong.

When the father died, the strong sons would basically stare each other down with the implicit threat of dynastic gang warfare. Then sons would back down or make deals until only one was left as the chosen successor by consensus. Unfortunately, Townsend is not clear on how exactly this occurs. Did all the sons get together at dad’s funeral and talk it through? Did the moms mediate? I don’t know.

What I do know is that if the sons couldn’t reach a consensus, there would be war. The scale of that war could be as small as a handful of men beating each other with clubs, or as large as an entire empire being torn apart as vassal cities threw their weight behind rival claimants.

Townsend tells a story of one noble Aztec patriarch who had 117 sons, including a bunch who died in war and one he executed for insurrection. As you would expect, in a society where very rich people had tons of sons and no formalized succession mechanism, intra-dynastic wars were very common and very brutal.

What were the civilization costs and benefits to this hardcore polygamy? According to Townsend and my reading of her work:

Pros

  • Polygamy created a strong incentive for male ambition and dominance. Success in war meant more access to sex, more children, and dynastic expansion. Limiting access to sex outside of marriage via law and taboo further reinforced the incentive.
  • Polygamy almost entirely solved the problem of not having a male heir. Many wives meant many children which meant there would almost certainly be a son to succeed the father.
  • Polygamy promoted entanglement and kinship among factions. Just as in so many cultures, the Aztecs married off daughter to forge alliances with other noble families or city-states. When you have 20 daughters, that means you’ll have a lot of alliances. This reduced long-term friction between factions competing for dominance.
  • Polygamy created a prosperous and harmonious household economy. Older wives could afford to retire and live off the labor of younger wives. Younger wives were shown the ropes and taught how to please their husband by older wives.
  • Polygamy created social mobility for women, even slave women. For an Aztec man, success was correlated with quantity of wives, so there were more opportunities for women to marry into wealth and power. Random slave women could be catapulted to the top of the social hierarchy by marrying the right man, especially if they were especially beautiful, intelligent, or ambitious. Though one son would ultimately get the inheritance, other sons of nobles could get stipends or jobs as priests, administrators, or in the military, and would be able to take care of their mothers.
  • Polygamy created lots of kids. Lots of kids meant lots of sons. Lots of sons meant the formation of large numbers of warriors who were deeply loyal to the family against outgroups. While internal family struggles were a big problem, fathers and their hordes of sons were always ready to come to mutual aid against a rival noble family or city.
  • Polygamy encouraged the strongest, bravest, smartest, most ambitious men to have lots of children and spread their successful genes.

 

Cons

  • Aztec polygamy led to massive succession wars amongst the nobility. At the highest level, these wars tore the empire apart and wasted enormous amounts of resources and manpower.
  • Aztec polygamy created a major demographic problem. Surprisingly, this demographic problem was not a result of hypergamy where a surplus of unmarried men emerged as the rich and powerful horded all the women; this issue was solved by capturing slave-wives from rival cities. Instead, the Aztec demographic problem was more similar to that of pre-revolutionary France… there were too many nobles. Polygamous noble patriarchs had tons of noble kids, and as with all nobles throughout the world, these kids wanted to rule states, fight wars, and gain religious power, not farm crops or trade goods. So over time, the Aztecs ended up with a massive surplus of nobles doing unproductive jobs while the productive agricultural, manufacturing, artisanal, and trading populations which supported the nobility shrunk as a proportion of the total population.
  • This demographic problem spilled over into political problems. Nobles liked to live in luxury. Luxuries cost money. Money came from the tribute supplied by vassalized nobles and tribes. Often, successful noble families would grow so large that they could no longer sustain their lifestyles on their existing tributes, so they would either have to raise tribute rates or go to war for more vassals. Either way, many people were left worse off. In the most extreme cases, the increasingly-extractive noble lords would be overthrown by their subjects.
  • Just as the Aztec men competed for wives, the Aztec women competed for position in the household as wives. While the first wife always had the best spot, the other wives would fight to remain in their husband’s grace. Success meant better food, more luxuries, more children, and generally better treatment. Failure meant turning into a glorified housemaid to be used by the other wives and forgotten by the husband.

Rigoberto: Aztec Slaves - YouTube

Slavery

Like nearly all ancient civilizations, the Aztecs aggressively engaged in human slavery. Townsend doesn’t give exact figures on what percentage of the population was enslaved but she mentioned that the Aztec leadership purposefully kept it below 50%. The average slave was used for labor, either in agriculture or manufacturing. The best-off slaves worked comparably cushy jobs in noble households, though I’m not sure if any reached the heights of some Greek or Roman slaves by becoming tutors or advisers to elite families. The worst-off slaves were kept for hard labor, sex, or the Aztec specialty, human sacrifice.

Aztec slaves were acquired by two means: force and choice. By far the most common acquisition method was conquest, since like the Greeks and Romans, the Aztecs were happy to enslave entire populations of defeated enemies. Alternatively, it was legal for Aztecs to sell themselves or their children into slavery if times were tough. At least Aztec law required voluntary slaves to have the opportunity to buy their own freedom, though Townsend is vague on what exactly that entailed. Could an asshole slave owner only offer freedom when a slave was on his deathbed? Could he charge an impossible price? I don’t know.

As far as I can tell, the Aztecs had two novel aspects to slavery:

First, there was the institution of slave-wives. These were not slaves that were liberated and then immediately married (as was the custom in ancient Rome). These were slaves who were kept in slavery as they married a free man. This practice provided a massive bonus incentive for warriors who could go off to war, help conquer a new village, and then capture their very own slave-wives to bring back home.

And as mentioned, as much as it might suck for a woman to get captured and turned into a slave-wife when her village was conquered, at least it provided some potential for a better life. She might be whisked away to live in an awesome pyramid in Tenochtitlan where she could eat chocolate all day and spit out sons for a grateful noble lord. Or she might end up living in a cramped apartment with a resentful first wife and eat nothing but corn for the rest of her life. It was all a dice roll.

Second, Aztec slavery was non-heritable. According to Townsend, this policy was adopted as law during the early days of Aztec civilization when the first cities started expanding. The nobles found that between the slaves captured in war and the natural growth of the slave population by birth (especially by slave-wives to free men), Aztec society faced yet another demographic problem – too many slaves. So the paganistic, slave-owning, human sacrificing civilization adopted the oddly liberal policy of all individuals being born free, even those born of two slave parents.

This was not the policy of ancient Greece or Rome or anywhere else that I know of, and it had fascinating implications. For one, it made the institution of wife-slavery an even better potential track for social mobility. Not only could a slave-wife end up with far more wealth and power if attached to the right noble, but her children would be born into nobility. Daughters would be married to other nobles, and the sons of slave-wives had just as much chance as any other sons to inherit their father’s power, or at least get a juicy buy-out from the dominant son. For instance, the badassedly named Obsidian Snake (AKA Itzoatl), the founder of the Aztec Empire, was born of a slave-wife.

However, since slaves couldn’t naturally replace themselves, the slave population was in a constant state of decay. So the only way for the Aztec Empire to maintain its much needed supply of slave workers was to go out and conquer more tribes to enslave their people. This constant impetus for expansion became evermore burdensome as the Empire expanded, and was probably part of the reason the Aztecs were so terribly beaten by the Spaniards since they managed to piss off every other tribe in Mexico with countless slave raids.

On the other hand, I wonder if this process allowed for easier integration of conquered peoples into the Empire. Again, it must have sucked to be conquered and enslaved, but at least your children will be Aztec citizens and be afforded the protection of such a powerful people.

On a final note, in their perpetual struggle to out-evil the Aztecs, the Spanish would reinstate hereditary slavery in the Aztec lands after the conquest.

Mexica (Aztec) Human Sacrifice: New Perspectives

Human Sacrifices

If the Aztecs are known for anything, it’s cutting out people’s hearts on the top of pyramids, then cutting off their heads, then chucking both parts of their bodies off the pyramids to the roar of zealous crowds, all for the sake of appeasing the sun. Which, again, I’m sure was totally horrifying, but is also totally awesome.

Unfortunately, Townsend doesn’t say too much about the physical process of the Aztec human sacrifice, though she has plenty of great insights into the sociological and cultural impacts of the practice.

Human sacrifices were at least a monthly affair in the Aztec Empire. Sacrificial victims were almost always adult men captured in battle or conquered villages, though exceptions were sometimes made. The honored champion was typically laid down on a stone tablet, then a warrior or priest would cut a hole in his chest and rip out his heart. There were always crowds in attendance, but Townsend says that contrary to popular belief, the whole affair was an intensely solemn occasion. The people watched in silence as an individual truly took one for the team (ie. humanity). A good sacrificial subject was one who faced his terrifying death boldly, or at least stoically. A bad sacrificial subject screamed and cried and begged for mercy until he was put out of his misery.

Sometimes sacrificial events were a bit more… fun. Occasionally the Aztecs would put on gladiatorial matches and watch the captured warriors murder each other. Other times the Aztecs would pull an Escape From LA, and force their sacrificial subjects to play basketball to the death. But there were never really any winners since the last men standing would just have their hearts cut out anyway.

Though human sacrificing was typically a monthly affair, sacrificial events could be more or less common depending on how well the constant wars were going. Winning wars meant more prisoners which meant more sacrifices, and vice versa. In that sense, the very public sacrificial displays were a bloody barometer of the Empire’s state of affairs.

Human sacrifices were delivered to priests by individual warriors. Every sacrifice offered up was considered immensely prestigious for the warrior, which could be vital for a noble son’s claim to a father’s inheritance. But even non-noble warriors got in on the action; a random Aztec soldier might bring a few sacrifices to the local temple in the neighborhood he lives in. This will make him famous and beloved by his neighbors who witness the products of his martial skills. Noble and common warrior alike would always keep trophies from the sacrificial victims they delivered, though sadly Townsend doesn’t say what these trophies were. I’m hoping teeth or ears.

Townsend explains that there was even an Aztec scam where incompetent nobles would go to another city, buy up a bunch of slaves, and then bring them back home and claim to have captured them in battle. The noble would then give them to the priest and have them sacrificed for the prestige boost, which sounds like a move straight out of Crusader Kings 2.

As a tiny empirical data point of the power of human sacrifices, Townsend notes that the Mexica people who founded the Aztec Empire were considered the most prolific human sacrificers of all the Aztec people even before the founding of the Empire. Maybe the human sacrifices helped instill fear in rivals and subjugated lords? Or maybe it’s just reverse causation and they sacrificed the most because they were the most militarily successful even before forming the Empire. Or maybe the sun really was on their side…

Image result for aztec warrior | Aztec warrior, Aztec art, Aztec ...

Conquest and Tribute

The basic structure of Aztec conquest was similar to that of the ancient Greeks and Romans. City states would gather armies and attack other cities. Upon defeating the defender’s army, the aggressing army would sack the city, steal a whole bunch of its wealth, rape a bunch of its women, and take a bunch of slaves. If the losing city was sufficiently large, it would be forced to acknowledge the supremacy of the victor and pay a regular tribute. If the losing city was small, it would be wiped off the earth.

Powerful lords would amass many tributaries, both through conquest and voluntary surrender for the sake of protection. Tribute was usually paid in food and goods, though slaves could also be part of the deal. Competent lords would maintain and expand their power by extracting enough from their vassals to enrich themselves and keep their vassals too poor to become a threat. Incompetent lords would either be overthrown by mistreated vassals or supplanted by stronger insurgent lords.

There were two special ingredients which made the Aztec process of conquest and tribute interesting… slavery and human sacrifice.

First, it was common practice for Aztec lords to take wives from conquered cities, either enslaved or freed. This would theoretically create some sort of diplomatic presence for the beaten people and hopefully engender closer relations. Plus, there was always the prospect of the son of that wife inheriting the lord’s land and causing a full-fledged lord-liege reversal.

Second, Aztec lords literally used the Hunger Games strategy. Townsend states that one of the major revelations of her work was that the Aztecs didn’t just use human sacrifices as a religious ritual, but as a means of social and political control via fear.  If a vassalized people didn’t pay tribute or rose up in revolt, they would be crushed militarily, and then their regular tribute payments would convert to human sacrifices. This proved to be an incredibly effective tool for the Aztecs for a few reasons:

  • It was a terrifying threat to suppress dissent
  • It sapped the military strength of vassals by periodically killing off their warriors
  • It further sapped the strength of vassals by incentivizing vassal to attack each other. A lord who was obligated to send human sacrifices each year could send his own city’s sons, or… he could attack a weaker city, capture a bunch of their warriors, and send them off to be sacrificed instead.

This goes a long way towards explaining why so many Aztec Empire vassals defected to the Spanish. Many lesser lords were ordered to round up their own people, put them in chains, and march them off to have their hearts torn out on the top of pyramids, or force the same terrible fate on other innocent cities. It was a vicious cycle.

Aztec warriors | Aztec art, Aztec warrior, Mayan art

Militarization

Townsend makes it clear that Aztec society was militarized to the core, though this was the case for many, or even most classical civilizations.

Each and every Aztec boy left home at 13 to live in a military barracks to train to be a warrior. By 20, each and every Aztec man was considered a warrior in the service of his lord. Regardless of whether he lived as a noble, farmer, merchant, or artisan, he could be called to fight in the city’s defense or mustered to invade another city. I’m not sure how slaves fit into this, but Townsend never mentions slave warriors, and children typically weren’t enslaved, so they probably weren’t much of a factor.

Incompetent warriors were known as “burden bearers,” and were mocked by all. Being a good warrior was pretty much the only way for a man to rise in Aztec society. Merchants never got that rich, and the wealth to be gained from ordinary economic activity paled to the gains of conquest. Townsend even says that a good heuristic for figuring out which son would inherit the father’s lands was to simply look for the biggest and strongest son. He was likely the best warrior and would gain the most prestige. There didn’t seem to be many Little Fingers or grand viziers pulling the strings; just big burly men who were good at hitting people with clubs.

Just too add a little fascism into the mix, the Mexica people who spawned the Aztec Empire had no interest in either adopting the customs of conquered people nor acculturating the conquered people into Mexica culture. They were proud of their warrior spirit and wanted to keep it pure. This instinct apparently served them quite well in conquering all of Mexico… until the Spanish arrived.

Aztec Warriors | In this illustration, an Aztec Eagle Knight… | Flickr

Civil Wars

Aztec society had polygamy, slavery, an informal succession system, a highly militarized ethos, and a demographic need for constant conquest.

Unsurprisingly, most of the early Aztec history recounted in the book is an endless procession of civil wars. The more powerful a lord became, the more wives he had, the more sons he had, the greater chance the succession process would fail, and the greater chance the vassal lords would back their own son claimants for power. As a result, powerful Aztec states rose and fell rapidly, and much of the overall economic and population gains were consumed by infighting.

While Obsidian Snake built the Aztec Empire through his warrior prowess and diplomacy, his son and successor, Moctezuma I, finally figured out how to solve the succession problem. The Aztec Emperor was really the King of Tenochtitlan, who was the senior partner in a three-way city state alliance. Rather than allow his many, many sons to duke it out for power and likely tear apart the precious alliances his father had so painstakingly built, Moctezuma I entered into a power-sharing agreement with the two other major noble families of Tenochtitlan. Upon Moctezuma I’s death, power would pass to another family’s son who would then marry one of Obsidian Snake’s daughters. And then that guy’s successor would marry the third family’s daughter. And then their son would marry Moctezuma I’s family’s daughter. And this cycle would continue indefinitely until all three families became so mixed together that they were basically the same thing, and none of the three major families would have a reason to revolt against themselves.

Miraculously, it worked! Or at least the Aztec Empire lasted for about 120 years across nine rulers without a major civil war. That is until…

Never Yet Melted » 22 April 1519: Hernan Cortes Lands in Mexico

The Spanish Invasion

I set out to write a summary of the Spanish invasion with some juicy details thrown in, but the whole saga is so epic and fascinating that I ended up writing over 11,000 words. There are too many great characters, unexpected twists, and utterly unique conflicts to gloss over. Of course, this is still a summary, so if you want to know more, check out Townsend’s book.

The following is my telling of the Spanish invasion based about 60% on Townsend, 20% on Wikipedia, 10% on random other Googled sources, and 10% my own inferences.

The Civilization IV Project - Episode 10 - The Set Pieces

Pre-Invasion Aztecs

For 100 years, the Aztec Empire cruised along steadily growing its territory and manpower. Population estimates are all over the map, but Townsend puts Tenochtitlan at 100K in 1500, while this random syllabus I found online says the number was twice as high. In comparison, at the same time, Paris had 200K, London had 50K, and Rome had 45K, all of which are far more reliable estimates. The total population of the Aztec Empire peaked somewhere around 4-6 million, which was about equivalent to England in the mid-14th century.

In the conventional story of the fall of the Aztecs, the Empire was already teetering before the Spanish arrived, and then a combination of plague, weak leadership, local tribes siding with the Spanish, and the Spanish’s overwhelming technological superiority quickly collapsed the greatest state of Meso-America. According to Townsend, most of this story is true, but with two big exceptions – the Aztec Empire was doing just fine before the Spanish arrived and Moctezuma II wasn’t a bad leader.

Moctezuma II succeeded the throne in 1502 at the age of 36. Before coming to power, he was known for his generalship, toughness, and charisma. Once on the throne, he led an expansion of the Aztec Empire to its greatest territorial height, and happily sacrificed thousands in celebration. For the first time in Aztec history, some priests were given the full-time job of disposing of sacrificial corpses.

But Moctezuma was not just a butcher. He channeled his authority and prestige into serious administrative reform by essentially trying to convert the Aztec Empire to feudalism. He, like so many Aztec lords, found the tribute system cumbersome. Different goods were sent at different times of the year in inconsistent amounts, and it was annoying to coordinate how to disburse tribute to hundreds of lords in a complex hierarchical system.

So Moctezuma set about dividing the Empire up into 55 provinces to be overseen by administrators appointed by himself and his bureaucratic apparatus in Tenochtitlan. These administrators would manage the collection of formalized, legalized, consistent taxes to be negotiated by explicit contracts. This would hopefully increase efficiency, lessen confusion, and centralize the government to increase the throne’s power. Though of course the new system would retain plenty of Aztec characteristics, like requiring some cities to pay taxes in the form of sacrificial victims.

While Moctezuma made some impressive strides, not all was well on the homefront. He didn’t like the son who was mostly likely to succeed him, and when this son was discovered having sex with one of Moctezuma’s wives, the king used the opportunity to execute the man. The son whom Moctezuma supported as successor was apparently unpopular, and the choice so pissed off a bunch of Moctezuma’s sons that they would eventually end up siding with the Spanish. Such was Aztec life.

Nevertheless, the Aztec Empire was in good shape in the early 16th century. The Empire was larger than ever, ruled by a capable king, was at its peak population and technology, and had no serious rivals. All was well in Mexico.

Hernán Cortés - Facts, Quotes & Route - Biography

Hernan Cortes

I always try to empathize with infamous historical figures and attempt to see what realistic, human motive they had for their horribleness. For instance, Julius Caesar killed something like a million Gauls, but the Romans didn’t consider the Gauls civilized people, and the Gauls had been raiding Roman land for centuries, and Caesar was gearing up to fulfill his destiny, so ok, I understand.

But Cortes was probably just a psychopath. Or at least he was someone who had no problem with murder, genocide, rape, slavery, sex slavery, plunder, and conquest. Even one of his contemporaries described him as “a man without conscience.” Based on my reading of Townsend, that’s probably what made him such a great conqueror.

Hernan Cortes (who usually went by “Hernando”) was born in 1485 in Medellin, Spain to a low noble family. And like many children of low nobles and second sons of high nobles, Cortes decided to take his chances on the mystery box of the Americas for limitless wealth and power rather than scrape by in the noble-crowded Spain. His second cousin once-removed, Francisco Pizarro, was of the same mind.

Cortes arrived in Santo Domingo (modern day Dominican Republic) in 1504 at age 18. Though he was young and inexperienced, just being a warm male body in the Americas at that time seemed to guarantee some success, and so Cortes was rapidly granted land, slaves, and an encomienda, or the legal right to demand labor and tribute from a local native population. He jumped into some small-scale invasions of the rest of the island of Hispaniola, and accumulated power as one of many ambitious Spanish lords hoping for infinite glory in the new world.

Cortes got his big break at 26 when he served as a lieutenant under Diego Velazquez de Cueller, who was the governor of the Spanish Caribbean and at the time considered to be the premiere Central American conquistador. Velazquez and Cortes led the successful invasion of Cuba and slaughtered, raped, and enslaved tens of thousands of natives as conquistadors tended to do. Cortes developed a reputation for being brutish and cruel, but also clever and cunning, with a good strategic instinct.

As Cortes became one of the most powerful lords in the new world, his relationship with Velazquez began to fray, either because the latter was jealous of the former, or because Cortes was banging Velazquez’s sister-in-law. In 1518 when Cortes was 33, he gathered 400 soldiers, 100 servants, 13 horses, and a handful of canons for an expedition to Mexico, ostensibly to provide military aid to a fledgling Spanish colony and scout out the land for the Spanish crown. Velazquez changed his mind on the expedition at the last moment and ordered Cortes removed from his command. But this was the New World, and anything goes in the New World, so Cortes left Cuba with his army anyway, technically making him an outlaw.

The aid/exploration motive was just a cover story. Cortes had heard tales of a great empire in the interior of Mexico with mountains of gold and countless potential slaves. He had witnessed Velasquez capture the lion’s share of the glory in Cuba and wanted to emerge in his own right as a legendary Spanish conquistador. From day one, Cortes’s plan was to find this empire, conquer it, take everything he could, and rule Mexico.

López Obrador links the arrival of Hernán Cortés to Mexico with ...
A totally accurate portrayal of Cortes’s arrival in Mexico.

Arrival

In 1519, Cortes landed in the Yucatan peninsula about 800 miles from Tenochtitlan. He had no idea where this mysterious empire was or how to get there, so he marched his army around until he ran into a few local tribes and he did what conquistadors do – kill, rape, and enslave everyone. By sheer coincidence, Cortes encountered an enslaved Spanish Franciscan priest who had been shipwrecked in Mexico. Once liberated, he was brought into Cortes’s service as a translator.

The Spanish got little wealth from these tribes that sat on the edge of the Aztec Empire as nominal tributaries. But what they did get was information. Survivors and slaves told Cortes (via the priest) of the Empire, Tenochtitlan, Moctezuma, population estimates, defensive capabilities, and everything else men might say under torture. So Cortes sailed north up the coast in the general direction of Tenochtitlan.

The Spanish kept crushing small tribe-after-tribe. They demonstrated respect for the local culture by adopting the tradition of slave-wives, and soon enough all the Spanish captains had multiple native wives in violation of half the Bible. As they moved north, they encountered larger cities and more sizeable forces until finally Cortes ran into one tribe which not only assembled a sizeable army, but prepared in advance for the invasion. The Spanish finally faced their first military challenge in Mexico.

Consequences of the Conquest of the Aztecs

An Unstoppable Force Meets an Easily Moveable Object

One of the big mysteries to me before reading Fifth Sun was how the conquistadors so thoroughly trounced the native populations in military encounters. Pizarro had a battle where under 200 Spanish soldiers crushed 3,000-8,000 Incan soldiers, inflicting 7,000 casualties at the cost of one wounded Spaniard (Pizarro himself via friendly fire). To my knowledge the natives weren’t smaller than the Spanish, they weren’t dumb, they had plenty of military experience, so how did they always lose so badly?

Of course, the answer is technology. But I intuitively thought that the Spanish weren’t that much more advanced than the Aztecs, or at least not more advanced enough to make up for a 25X manpower difference. But as Cortes would find during his first real battle… they were.

Steel

Obsidian weapons simply could not beat steel plate armor. Every obsidian arrow, spear, club, and ax bounced or shattered on impact with Spanish armor. According to Townsend, a fully armored Spaniard was borderline-invincible on the Aztec battlefield.

I find this concept mind-blowing. It’s like something out of a video game, particularly those annoying sub-bosses who take dozens of hits to kill. The elite Spanish soldiers could walk through volleys of arrow fire or get clobbered by charging warriors and just not die.

This is one of those places where I wish Townsend had gone into more detail, though I’m guessing there is no good historical record of the moment-by-moment experiences of a Spanish warrior in an Aztec battle. How were they ever killed? Could they be surrounded and pummeled enough for concussions to kill them? Were there gaps in their armor that a skilled bowman or precise warrior could reach? Did the Aztecs ever pull the armor off a staggered Spaniard? I need videos.

(The Spanish also had steel swords and spears, but they were probably overkill.)

EDIT – Clarification on Spanish armor composition from this National Park Service article:

Armor was expensive. Buying a full suit of armor was like buying a brand new BMW. Until the iron deposits at Durango were discovered, all armor had to be sent from Spain. Thus most men could not afford full armor. Bernal Diaz notes that when Cortez was preparing his expedition to Mexico most of the men did not have armor and Cortez ordered quilted cotton jackets made. These were the European gambeson and native American Esquipil which were effectively identical. These and leather jackets (Cuerra) were destined to be the predominate body armor of the Conquista. They were inexpensive and, except for the southeastern Indians’ long bow, effective against native weapons. However, for torso protection the Spanish soldier still preferred metal armor if he could get his hands on it. This tended to be the sleeveless chainmail vest (the Jacqueta de Mala) or long sleeveless shirt (the Cota de Mala). Chainmail was much cheaper than plate metal. However, the most crucial piece of armor to a Spanish soldier was his helmet and Cortez had to have simple helmets mass produced in Cuba.

Except for the nobility and very wealthy, who could afford full plate, the equipment lists of Cabrillo’s time indicate Spanish soldiers disliked the weight of armor on their arms, hands or legs. Chainmail torso armor and metal helmets are quite common in the Muster Lists, as well as the occasional buffe – a plate or chainmail protection for the face and neck. They appear to have preferred to rely on their speed and skill to protect their limbs.

Much of the armor used in the New World appears to have been relatively obsolete by 1542, but even obsolete armor was better than none. Obsolete would also be cheaper; thus there was a ready market for it among poor adventurers, and in the New World. This is demonstrated by the archaeological discovery of an archer’s pot helmet (Capelina) at San Gabriel del Yunque in New Mexico.

According to an equipment list in the article, most men used the gamebson/esquipil, which the article says was effective against all native weaponry (except for longbows which the Aztecs didn’t have). Plate steel was the best, but super expensive. The wealthiest men on the expedition would have a 3/4 or 1/2 plate outfits, while many others would use chain mail, plate helmets, or other plate components for key protections. Helmets in particular seem to be universal.

Gunpowder

Early 16th century guns were kind of shit. The pre-arquebuses used by the Spanish were slow, inaccurate, difficult to use, prone to misfire and backfire, and worse in combat than a skilled bow. Their greatest advantage was armor penetration which was rendered useless against the armorless Aztecs. The Spanish had cannons too, but they were even slower, less accurate, more prone to misfire and backfire, and were not fun to move around in the jungles of southern Mexico.

But understandably the Aztecs were terrified of magic sticks that made the loudest noise they had ever heard while killing their soldiers and demolishing their mightiest barricades in an instant. Artillery strategy wasn’t exactly at Napoleonic levels at the time, but as long as the Spanish could protect their cannons, they could eventually annihilate anything in their path and usually scare the native armies into flight while they were at it.

Horses

Though Cortes only had thirteen horses at the start of his campaign and would never have more than a hundred, they proved to be a terror on the battlefield that the Aztecs would never figure out how to overcome.

Try to imagine you have never seen nor heard of a horse in your entire life. Imagine trying to kill someone who’s sitting on top of a horse while you stand on the ground. Imagine you have a shitty club while he has a two-foot long, razor-sharp sword. Now add impenetrable armor to your foe and his horse. I mean, not every inch of the horse, but enough of it. And now imagine the horse is charging at you at full speed while the man tries to stab you. Oh, and you’re pretty much naked.

What do you do even do? Where do you strike? Can you get past his swinging sword? Does the horse bite? Will it kick your lights out if you get behind it? I’ve played a billion hours of Total War and have watched Braveheart thrice, and I would have no idea what to do. Gods bless the Aztec warriors who found themselves in such a position.

And on top of sheer combat prowess, horses gave Spanish forces more mobility and better communication on the battlefield. The fastest Aztec messengers in Mexico were slower than the slowest Spanish horse.

Conquistadors vs Aztecs: The Battle of Otumba - Learning History

In Cortes’s first real battle, he marched up to 1,000 native warriors defending their city behind a fortified wooden barricade surrounded by a swampy moat. Cortes had a couple hundred of his soldiers lined up before the moat. With no weak point in the enemy defense detected, and not much opportunity for cannons or cavalry to be effective, Cortes decided to just launch an all-out frontal infantry assault.

By Townend’s telling, Cortes and his solders waded through the swamp for tens of minutes while obsidian arrows repeatedly rained down from the sky. Once they had finally reached the wooden barricade, they climbed up and simply hacked their way through hundreds of warriors into the city until the remaining Aztecs gave up and fled. The Spanish sustained no deaths and a handful of minor wounds while the Aztecs lost about 220 men.

With a huge manpower advantage, local terrain knowledge, plenty of preparation time, and a fortified position, the Aztecs sustained the single worst defeat to date in their Empire’s history against a small Spanish army which couldn’t even use two of its best assets.

In their defense, the Aztecs seemed to figure out pretty quickly how militarily fucked they were. They would almost never challenge the Spanish in an open-field battle, and instead relied on ambushes and city defenses. Their only consistently successful strategy was to pick off single-digit numbers of Spaniards deployed into the wilderness as foraging parties to feed the army. At their best moments in full battles, Aztec soldiers could gang up on dozens of Spanish soldiers and overwhelm them, usually killing most and capturing a few who surrendered. But those moments were few and far between.

Conquest of Mexico 1519 11-08 The conquistadores arrive to ...

Beachhead

As Cortes continued to advance and crush tribe-after-tribe, cities began surrendering in-advance. They offered gold and goods, and eagerly gave supplies to keep the army fresh. Cortes typically responded in a haughty and dismissive manner, but accepted the tributes and left the people in peace.

Sometimes the tribes handed over women to add to the Spaniards’ ever-growing collection of slave-wives/sex slaves. One tribe gave over twenty slave girls whom Cortes immediately attempted to convert to Christianity. He noticed that one of these slaves was surprisingly sharp. She began picking up Spanish words immediately, and soon could converse with her captors. They then found that she also knew Nahuatl and Yucatan, the two dominant Mexican languages, which was rare for an Aztec, rarer still for a slave, and even rarer still for a female slave. The random slave woman would become known as La Malinche, one of the most controversial figures in Mexican history for her role in the Spanish conquest.

In a huge stroke of luck for Cortes, this linguistic genius with a sophisticated local knowledge of Aztec society happened to hate the Aztec Empire and seemingly had the ambition and ruthlessness to wholeheartedly support Cortes absent coercion. Malinche not only replaced the priest as the main translator and became Cortes’s top native advisor, but arguably became his primary lieutenant, and took a lead advisory role in designing Cortes’s extraordinarily successful diplomatic strategies. In typical Cortes fashion, he would quickly start sleeping with Malinche and eventually father a child with her.

La Malinche - Wikipedia

In 1519, Cortes reached Vera Cruz, the closest coastal point to Tenochtitlan. He found the largest Aztec city yet, but to his surprise, the tribe sent out delegates to meet Cortes and declare him a heroic liberator from the tyranny of the Aztec Empire. Cortes accepted graciously, extracted all he could from the tribe, and used their laborers to build his own little fort-city to act as a forward base of operations.

Cortes had left Cuba a year ago and was still technically an outlaw. He was worried about not only reprisals from the Spanish king, but also about a potentially mutinous contingent of his men who were loyal to Governor Velasquez. So in a 16th century colonial version of “ask forgiveness, not permission,” Cortes declared his conquered part of Mexico to be a colony of the Spanish Empire directly under royal authority rather than Cuban provincial authority. Of course, Cortes had absolutely no legal authority or even rationale to do this, but he hoped that gifting a big chunk of the map to the Spanish king would get him off the hook for mutiny when all this conquering wrapped up.

With supply lines secured by the sea, a decent base of operations set up, and the guidance of Malinche, Cortes turned his sights inland towards Tenochtitlan. He would march on the capital of the largest, wealthiest, most powerful city in the Americas with 400 soldiers (and 100 retainers) and hope to launch himself to infinite glory, wealth, and lots and lots of sex.

Unfortunately, as cool as it would be, Townsend says it was a myth that Cortes burned all his ships before he marched on Tenochtitlan. That would have been a colossal waste of money and would have certainly got him killed by saner men. Instead, Cortes ordered his ships beached so it would be more of a hassle to get them ready to sail, and provide some incentive to his men to not retreat to the shore with an Aztec army at their backs.

Aztec emperor's procession | Aztec art, Indigenous north americans ...

Alien Invasion

The Aztec Empire knew about the Spanish pretty much from the moment they arrived. Tribes near the Spanish landing site sent a trickle of information to the capital which did not paint a pretty picture. The leaders of Tenochtitlan had a tough time figuring out who these super pale guys were and what they wanted. They knew these people were from some far away land across the sea. They knew they worshiped a single great god, and that this god was worshipped by many different peoples. But the Aztecs found it super confusing that these people went by so many names – “Spanish,” “Castilians,” “Cubans,” “Christians,” etc. Eventually the Aztecs decided that these people were some sort of missionary-warriors deployed by their god, and referred to them ominously as the “other people.”

Whoever they were, Moctezuma responded to early reports by immediately convening a war council with his top generals. As Tenochtitlan heard about tribe-after-tribe being steamrolled, the Aztec leadership quickly deduced they were militarily out-matched. They were especially unnerved by horses, which contrary to popular belief, the Aztecs did not think were attached to the Spaniards to form divine demi-gods. Rather, the Aztec generals were concerned about the crazy but repeatedly confirmed reports that these animals were vastly larger, stronger, and faster than any beast they had ever known, let alone tamed, and that a man mounted on a charging horse was invincible in battle.

Moctezuma estimated that at their current numbers, the Aztec Empire could take out Cortes’s Spanish forces. However, the battles would be extremely costly in manpower, and a single unlucky defeat could give disgruntled vassals an opening to revolt. It was especially disconcerting that they were getting reports of vassals already siding with the Spanish before Moctezuma had even organized a military response. Most importantly, Moctezuma knew these 500 Spaniards were just one small contingent of a vast population somewhere beyond the sea, and where 500 fell, thousands more would follow.

So over the protests of a significant minority of lords, Moctezuma opted for peace. He gathered a diplomatic envoy, loaded it with gold and women as tribute, and sent it off to meet Cortes at Vera Cruz to bribe/appease the Spanish into peace in our time.

Say what you want about Cortes, but he seemed to have an instinct for aggressive diplomacy. The Aztec diplomats arrived with their gold and women, paid honors to Cortes, declared that he was some sort of distant ancestor of the Aztec people and therefore no enemy of theirs, and politely asked him to turn his army elsewhere. Cortes accepted the gifts nonchalantly, then bullied the diplomats with condescending insults, and then scared the shit out of them by firing a bunch of cannons into the air and sending some cavalry to run around. Soon enough, Moctezuma sent another envoy which was largely met with the same reaction, though Cortes did graciously released a handful of Aztec tax collectors that had been seized by the allied city.

By all accounts, not only was Cortes not dissuaded by these envoys, he was actually encouraged. He sensed the Aztec’s weakness and desperation, knew they were terrified of his military power, and he even speculated that they thought the Spanish were divine beings. In other words, Moctezuma’s appeasement gambit completely backfired. Cortes took his money and marched on Tenochtitlan.

However, according to Townsend and my own reading of the situation, Moctezuma’s strategy was probably the right one. It had a high chance of failure, but was still probably better than the alternatives. Older sources painted Moctezuma as a contemptible coward who immediately buckled under the first sign of pressure, and indeed, many Aztecs in the Empire took this view. But to Townsend, he was an astute political leader who realized he was in an absolutely awful position surprisingly quickly and gambled on the only viable path to preserving the Empire. You could even say that it was brave of Moctezuma to sacrifice personal prestige for the sake of his people.                D:The march on Tenochtitlan. Battle-worn Spanish troops march out ...

The Long March

Less than a year after arriving in Mexico, Cortes left Santa Cruz to march on Tenochtitlan. His destination was about 250 miles away on a straight shot, but required a jagged 375 mile march for his army. Townsend doesn’t go into the logistics too much, but to me this march looked like a golden opportunity for Moctezuma. 375 miles is a lot for any army, but especially for one traveling through an undiscovered, hostile, notoriously hot land in steel armor while dragging around big-ass cannons. I can’t imagine the Spanish had enough provisions to survive on their own, even with foraging. Plus they would be surrounded by enemy armies and be moving ever closer to the core of the Aztec Empire, where larger and more elite forces could be rallied. If there was ever an opportunity for Moctezuma to beat the Spanish, this was it. Unfortunately for them…

The warfare paradigm emerged into something like an inverted insurgency. Cortes’s small army marched through Aztec territory while Aztec armies mostly danced around it to avoid major battles while occasionally picking off stragglers and hunting parties. Periodically, the Aztecs would amass forces and launch an ambush, but always with the same results – hundreds of Aztecs casualties to a handful of wounded Spanish and maybe 1-5 dead. With hindered scouting and little knowledge of the local terrain, the Spanish quickly resorted to torturing captured natives for intel, with cutting off fingers being a favored technique.

Though Cortes was constantly fending off military harassment, he just as often found support from Aztec lords. Townsend doesn’t give exact numbers, but the Spanish slave-wife caravan seemed to climb to absurd numbers as cities kept throwing women at Cortes and his men. And it wasn’t just random slave women either, Aztec lords were giving away daughters to their supposed liberator, though given how many daughters these polygamist lords had, I guess that wasn’t too big of a deal.

Cortes found a game-changing ally when he reached the lands of Tlaxcala consisting of 200 cities and towns in a loose confederacy (approximately a dukedom). The Tlaxcalan people were the historical rivals of Tenochtitlan and had been beaten into submission through a series of wars resulting in crippling taxation, regular human sacrifice tributes, and a near-total trade blockade. Yet Tlaxcala was still one of the militarily strongest components of the Aztec Empire. While other defecting Aztec vassals were motivated by cynical real-politic as much as resentment of Tenochtitlan, and just wanted to pay the Spanish off with tribute, Tlaxcala was in full revenge-mode and eagerly offered its full support to the Spanish after a few minor skirmishes.

Cortes accepted the help, and Tlaxcala produced the bulk of a 1,000-man native military contingent. The leader of the Tlaxcalans even marched alongside Cortes to Tenochtitlan.

Meanwhile, Moctezuma did everything he could to stop the bleeding. He sent runners to defecting cities to offer concessions and threats to bring them back into the fold, but few complied. Again, this was a colossal missed opportunity for the Aztecs. If the vassals hadn’t defected and given supplies to the Spanish, Cortes’s army would have perished in the jungle, or at least been starved back to the coast. Instead, not only did the Spanish cross the 250 miles inland to Tenochtitlan, but the Spanish force grew stronger in the process.

As the Spanish approached Tenochtitlan, Moctezuma launched a last-ditch diplomatic effort to stave off the inevitable. His envoys offered Cortes an enormous annual tribute, effectively making the entire Aztec Empire a personal vassal to Cortes. Cortes took the offer as yet another sign of Aztec weakness and marched on.

The Conquest of the Aztec Empire

A Most Awkward Welcome

Over six months after leaving Vera Cruz, Cortes arrived at Tenochtitlan with nearly all of his original 400-man Spanish army plus 1,000 native warriors and hundreds of retainers and slaves. Rather than gather his Empire’s forces and fortify one of the largest cities in the world – which was built on an island in the middle of the sizable Lake Texcoco – for a do-or-die siege against a brutal alien invader… Moctezuma parleyed.

After spending six months conquering, pillaging, torturing, and enslaving Aztecs, Cortes met Moctezuma on one of the bridges into Tenochtitlan and was greeted with the highest of praise and honors by the king and all the greatest lords of the Empire that remained loyal to the crown. Cortes was given a special ceremonial outfit and ushered into the city at the head of a massive parade. Then he and his men were given oodles of gold and women and set up in living chambers in some of the great pyramids.

I can’t imagine what was going through Cortes’s mind. His goal from day one was to conquer Tenochtitlan, extract all its riches, and set himself up as a loosely governed lord of Mexico, but after finally reaching his destination, he was basically being given everything he wanted except the conquest, which was ultimately the greatest source of prestige. Cortes certainly wasn’t above shooting his cannons into a bunch of defenseless, open-handed natives, but he must have figured that blatantly assaulting a welcoming city was a step too far for his public relations. So for a while, Cortes and his men kicked back and enjoyed the high life in Tenochtitlan (ie. they banged tons and tons of Aztec girls) while plotting their next move.

It’s also not clear what Moctezuma’s plan was at this point beyond offering the most ludicrously over-the-top bribes to the heralds of the apocalypse. He declared to the city’s people that the Spanish were indeed long-lost relatives of the Mexicas people, and therefore naturally allies. He even put a giant cross up to show respect to the Christian god. At one point, some Spaniards wandering around a temple stumbled upon Moctezuma’s secret treasure room and stole everything, and Moctezuma didn’t do anything about it.

Maybe I’ve watched too much Game of Thrones, but I would think that some crafty Aztec general could figure out how to murder most of the Spanish in their sleep, or at least imprison them in part of the city. I mean, there were fewer than 1,400 hostile soldiers and a few hundred more retainers in a city of over one hundred thousand… surely the Aztecs could do something about the enemy within their own gates.

Six days after his arrival, Cortes received a report from Vera Cruz that some Aztec warriors had killed a group of Spaniards, including the constable left behind to run the city-fort. Seeing an opportunity, Cortes and his captains approached Moctezuma and straight-up told him that he was going to surrender himself to the Spanish, or they were going to kill him right then and there.

the conquest of Mexico -- the campaign

Somehow this worked. Again, I have no idea how. Did Moctezuma, the king of the greatest empire of the Americas, not have bodyguards? I don’t know, but either way, Moctezuma was marched off to Cortes’s temple and held as a prisoner.

The sheer weirdness of the ensuing months seems impossible to exaggerate. A small foreign army was let into the capital of a massive empire, then it captured the king of the massive empire with no struggle, then it ruled the empire by holding the king hostage from a single building right in the center of a city of over one hundred thousand hostile locals who would tear the small army apart at the slightest prompting. And this went on for more than six months.

While Cortes settled into his rule, the rest of the Spanish lounged around the city casually extorting the people and having lots and lots of sex. Meanwhile, Moctezuma seemed to descend into fatalism and believe that the world was literally coming to an end, and he was not alone in this belief. To Moctezuma’s credit, at least when Cortes tried to order him to end human sacrifices in Tenochtitlan, he stood for his people’s religious traditions and refused.

Biography of Hernán Cortés, Ruthless Conquistador

Player 2 Enters the Game

In April 1520, Moctezuma must have lost any shred of hope as he received reports that another Spanish army had arrived on the coast. But when Moctezuma told Cortes, the swarthy Spaniard must have paled as he immediately deduced who these guys were and why they were in Mexico. Velasquez – Cortes’s old boss/rival in Cuba – had deployed an army (Townsend says 800 men, other sources say up to 1,400) to arrest or kill Cortes for treason. Cortes was suddenly trapped deep behind enemy lines in a hostile empire while simultaneously being hunted by a larger army of former compatriots.

How Moctezuma or the other Aztec lords reacted to the division in Spanish forces is unclear. I would think that they could figure out a way to parlay the situation to their advantage either by seizing Cortes and handing him over to Velasquez or by currying favor with Cortes by supporting his army against Velasquez. But no such diplomatic maneuvering occurred. It’s possible that they didn’t even understand that the two Spanish armies were enemies.

Cortes probably could have sat in Tenochtitlan and let the other Spanish army wander the jungle forever, but he must have figured that hiding would have weakened his prestige and claim on Mexico. So he decided to take most (numbers are unclear) of his Spanish and native soldiers, and march back to the coast to hopefully take out the other Spanish army in a single decisive battle.

Reading between the lines, it seems like Cortes was well aware that he was standing on shifting sands and was quite concerned not only that the Aztec lords might rise up against his rule, but that his own Spanish troops might very well mutiny, hand Cortes over to Velasquez, and take their boatloads of gold and slave-wives to retire on opulent estates in the Caribbean. So Cortes left behind his (quoting Wikipedia) “least reliable soldiers” in Tenochtitlan to hold down their presence in the city while keeping them far away from the other Spanish army.

Up until this point, one could question Cortes’s military skills given that his only opponents had been vastly technologically inferior natives. But then Cortes proved his mettle against a full-fledged, well-rested, larger Spanish army. After marching almost all the way back to the coast, Cortes led a night ambush against the Spanish army with his combined Spanish-native forces, which included Aztec soldiers wielding Spanish weapons (even guns!). Numbers are cloudy, but Velasquez’s army was smashed, its commander (not Velasquez himself, but a lieutenant) was captured, and the survivors all surrendered to Cortes.

Having no quarrel with the rank-and-file of the enemy army, Cortes told these men that if they marched with him back to Tenochtitlan, they could become rich beyond their wildest dreams and have sex with tons and tons of Aztec women. Nearly all the soldiers joined Cortes. By the time Cortes arrived back at the Aztec capital, he had about 1,300 Spanish soldiers, almost 100 horses, and 2,000 mostly Tlaxcalan native allies.

Pin en Spanish Conquest

The Empire Strikes Back

Cortes may have been a psychopath, but he seemed to be a stable, intelligent psychopath. The same could not be said for the commander Cortes left behind in Tenochtitlan who, for unknown reasons, led the Spanish forces to slaughter hundreds of mostly noble Aztecs at a celebration of their highest religious ceremony right in the middle of the city. Unlike most other events, we do have vivid details on the massacre from Aztec sources, and Townsend describes the Spanish carefully setting up an ambush between a group of pyramids, before jumping out and hacking/blasting the Aztecs at will. The commander claimed that the Aztecs were planning to kill the remaining Spaniards, but this was almost certainly bullshit.

Soon after Cortes arrived in Tenochtitlan with his army, the Aztec nobility launched a revolt, overwhelmed almost the entire garrison Cortes had left behind, and took them as prisoners. (This seemed like really bad timing on the Aztecs, but whatever.) Cortes rallied his forces around the temple where Moctezuma was being held hostage and ordered the king to speak to his people to restore order. Moctezuma stood on the balcony and did his best but was shouted down by the Aztec mob.

Montezuma speaks to the Aztec people, from Mexico by M.D. Kelly ...

Finding no more use for him, Cortes swiftly ordered the execution of King Moctezuma II of the Aztec Empire.

As an aside, while I was sympathetic to Townsend’s portrayal of Moctezuma as a courageous leader making the best decision in a terrible situation, I lost most of my sympathy once Cortes arrived in Tenochtitlan. Moctezuma’s best hope for defeating Cortes militarily was probably to force a siege of Tenochtitlan on his first arrival to the city. Cortes had no ships, the Aztecs controlled the bridges in and out of the city, and Moctezuma probably could have called for reinforcements from loyal vassals since most of the most powerful lords were in the Tenochtitlan with him. Instead, Moctezuma weakly parleyed, invited Cortes into the city, surrendered to captivity without a fight, served Cortes as a puppet leader, and basically tried appeasing the Spanish literally until his death. I think it’s safe to say that mistakes were made.

Unbeknownst to Cortes, the Aztec nobility had long ago written off Moctezuma. They had convened and elected King Cuitlahuac, a member of the faction which had counseled all-out war against the Spanish from the beginning. They weren’t actually sure if they could win, but they were ready to go down fighting in a blaze of glory if it came to that. Now they had the entire Spanish army and their traitorous allies in one place, at the heart of the empire, surrounded by a sizeable Aztec army (tens of thousands of warriors) and a mob of vengeful commoners. They would never get a better chance to destroy the Spanish menace once and for all. The Aztec commanders took down all the bridges around the city-island, barricaded the streets, and prepared for a massive urban assault against the Spanish.

But when the Aztec army finally descended on the Spanish forces in the heart of Tenochtitlan, they were reminded how they ended up in this situation in the first place – obsidian can’t penetrate steel.

Cortes and his army held the line and had a repeat of the dozen or so battles they had already fought against the natives. They slaughtered Aztecs in the streets, fired cannons into buildings, and mowed down soldiers until the Aztec army retreated to lick its wounds. As usual, the Spanish took almost no casualties, but that hardly cheered Cortes. His army was trapped on the city-island in the middle of Lake Texcoco. Even if the Aztecs could never defeat the Spanish in an open fight, they could starve them out. It was only a matter of time before Cortes would either surrender or fall where he stood.

Fortunately for the Spanish, they had prepared for this contingency by somehow building a portable bridge. The problem was how to get 1,500+ men across numerous layered canals throughout the city to the safety of the surrounding countryside without getting hacked to pieces along the way by not just the tens of thousands of hostile warriors in the city but also the thousands of war canoes on the lake.

Cortes decided to try the extraction at night. By seemingly impossible means unknown to me, the Spanish army somehow snuck out of their fortified encampment, past the barricades, made it a decent way through the city while carrying an enormous amount of looted treasure, and erected the bridge at the first of several causeways they would need to pass.

Finally, they were spotted, the alarm was raised, and the Aztecs descended upon Cortes’s forces. Order quickly broke down and the portable bridge was abandoned as the entire Spanish-native army desperately fled for their lives through narrow streets and canals. Without tight formations and Cortes’s orders, groups of soldiers were repeatedly surrounded and slaughtered. Men who tried to swim or wade through the shallow water were attacked by war canoes. The cannons were left behind and the cavalry ran ahead to fend for themselves. Even squads of fully armored Spanish soldiers were overwhelmed by native warriors, though they just as often drowned in the lake, often while carrying treasure looted from their former hosts.

Cortes staggered ashore with wounds that would result in two of his fingers being amputated. Only one third of his army made it out of Tenochtitlan. Nearly all of the Spaniards Cortes had picked up in Santa Cruz from the defeated army were lost. Over the following weeks, the Spanish and native prisoners left behind would be rounded up and sacrificed.

In the city, the Aztecs celebrated a great victory under King Cuitlahuac who had proven the natives could put up a fight. But the war was not won. Cuitlahuac immediately gathered as many Aztec warriors as he could muster and threw everything at what remained of Cortes’s army.

Battle of Otumba, July 7, 1520 | Aztec warrior, Aztec culture ...

Battle of Otumba

After fleeing Tenochtitlan, Cortes and his army of Spaniards and natives were beaten, bloodied, badly demoralized, and still trapped in the middle of the Aztec Empire. With few supplies and greatly diminished numbers, it was only a matter of time before they were overwhelmed and destroyed by the resurgent Aztec military. Ultimately, their fate would come down to one man… and it wasn’t Cortes.

According to Townsend, the leader of the Tlaxcalans seriously considered betraying the Spanish, handing Cortes over to Cuitlahuac, and begging for mercy. But the animosity between Tlaxcala and Tenochtitlan was too deep and the man knew the only hope for his people was to revive the Spanish conquest.

So the Tlaxcalan leader suggested that the only hope for the army was to run as fast as possible to the Tlaxcalan capital about 75 miles away where they could resupply, get more soldiers, and hold a fortified position. Cortes agreed to the plan and ordered a desperate forced march.

Four days later, the Aztec army caught up to the Spanish for the Battle of Otumba, the largest direct confrontation of Spanish and Aztec forces up to this point. Numbers seem hazy, but from Townsend and Wikipedia, Cortes probably had about 800 soldiers (I’m not sure about the split between Spaniards and natives) under his command, including nearly 100 cavalry, but no cannons. The Aztecs had 20,000 warriors.

While the battle seemed hopeless for Cortes, his army had a huge experience advantage. He and most of his men had fought and won many battles against native warriors, while the Aztec army he faced had never dealt with cannons, guns, armor, or European tactics, except in the disastrous urban assault and then while cutting down fleeing Spaniards in the middle of the night. The Aztecs were likely overconfident at the prospect of annihilating a handful of wounded, exhausted, evil Spaniards.

Cortes’s strategy for the battle seems to be based on those alien invasion movies where you just need to kill the hive leader and all the drones die. He ordered the cavalry to charge into the Aztec mass Battle of Winterfell-style while targeting key commanders to hopefully collapse the entire army. Apparently the initial charge went quite well and inflicted severe casualties, but there were 20,000 Aztecs, so there was only so far the horses could go before they got tired and retreated.

The battle continued into infantry clashes where, as usual, the Spanish wrecked the Aztec warriors with minimal casualties. But this time was different in the sense that the Aztecs finally had the numbers to weather their horrible kill:death ratios. How the 20,000 Aztecs didn’t completely surround and clobber fewer than 1,000 enemy soldiers, I do not know.

Eventually Cortes spotted the commander of the Aztec army because he was decked out in the fanciest clothes. Cortes himself led a cavalry charge through a sea of Aztecs and they managed to mow the general down. Just as planned, the Aztec warriors routed en masse.

Unfortunately, casualty figures are very unclear in the Battle of Otumba. Townsend doesn’t cover the battle, and Wikipedia seems to consider the Spanish losses from fleeing Tenochtitlan in with its casualty figures. But I’m going to guess that the Aztecs lost something like a shockingly large number of men and the Spanish lost an equally shockingly low number of men.

Aztecs came to Mesoamerica in the early 13th century and ...

Hearts and Minds

Cortes made it to Tlaxcala and his men gained a precious opportunity to regroup. Lacking the manpower to defeat the full Tlaxcalan military with Spanish support, the Aztec army returned to Tenochtitlan. Cortez and King Cuitlahuac both plotted their next moves.

According to Townsend, the remaining few hundred Spanish troops were badly demoralized and somewhere between many and most men wanted to gather what treasure they had left, march to the coast, and sail back to Cuba for their long-awaited retirement. This was an entirely understandable desire given how high the Spanish had climbed and how far they had fallen. I’m sure plenty of men were thanking their lucky stars to still be alive and didn’t want to tempt fate by hanging around in the jungle surrounded by hostile Aztec forces. After all, what hope did they have with so few men?

If the Spanish conquest was an epic movie, this would be Cortes’s big inspirational moment. Rather than cower back to Cuba (where he would likely be arrested for treason), Cortes doubled down – not until the Aztec Empire was dead and Mexico was under his rule. If any pathetic, craven, disloyal Spanish men wanted to flee to the sunny Caribbean, they could, but the rest would stay with Cortes and write themselves into the history books with eternal prestige and profit. They would stay and fight.

Cortes’s plan was to shift the paradigm of the Spanish invasion. He believed that the collapse of his “occupation” of Tenochtitlan was precipitated by the idea that the Spanish were this anomalous marauding army that would plunder and pillage until everyone died or got bored and went back from whence they came. If the Spanish were to be accepted in Mexico, and Cortes’s rule legitimized, he would need to make the case to the natives that the Spanish were here to stay, and more importantly, that Spanish rule would be better than Tenochtitlan’s rule. If Cortes could make this argument successfully, he could rally enough disaffected Aztec vassals, march on Tenochtitlan, overthrow the king, and place himself in the ultimate position of power in Mexico.

Dozens of miles away, King Cuitlahuac was coming to a similar realization. He may have triumphantly pulled off the first native victory against the Spanish, but the Battle of Otumba was yet another military disaster, and now the Spanish were being harbored by Tenochtitlan’s oldest and most powerful rival. If Cuitlahuac was to keep the Aztec Empire alive and defeat Cortes, he would need to convince the Aztec people to hurl the Spanish back into the sea. If he could make that case, then he could consolidate power in Tenochtitlan, bring enough vassals back into the fold, raise a mighty army, and crush the Spanish and Tlaxcalans once and for all.

With neither side possessing the military strength to defeat the other, the Spanish/Tlaxcalans and Tenochtitlan had a diplomatic showdown. A massive endeavor for the hearts and minds of the Aztec people and lords would decide the fate of Mexico.

The Aztecs mostly favored the carrot over the stick. Cuitlahuac dispersed emissaries throughout the Empire, including to cities that had previously backed Cortes, asking for support against the Spanish. They argued that the Spanish were brutal, rapacious, murderous, evil, heathen foreigners (where’s the lie?), and that Aztec people should support their own. They also made the case that life had been generally good and fair under Tenochtitlan’s rule, and that it would be better in the future. Cuitlahuac even offered a one year moratorium on tribute payments to any vassals who had defected to the Spanish that would once again bend the knee.

But Cuitlahuac was not all warmth and cuddles. To consolidate power at home, the king executed six of his sons who may or may not have been plotting to overthrow him. Cuitlahuac also publicly disparaged Moctezuma, blamed his cowardice for their predicament, and ostracized the former king’s loyal family members. Though to slightly soften that blow, Cuitlahuac awkwardly married one of Moctezuma’s daughters.

It should come as no surprise that Cortes primarily went with the stick over the carrot. His primary “diplomatic” strategy was to lead brutal raids of any Aztec town which even let Tenochtitlan’s emissaries into their gates. This tactic had a certain elegant simplicity to it… if you even talk to the enemy, you will die.

But Cortes also sent out his own emissaries led by Melincine, his translator/adviser/side piece. She made the case to the Aztec lords that Tenochtitlan had been cruel in the past with its extortionate tribute demands and human sacrifices. Not only would Cortes’s rule be better (lol), but with the might of the Spanish military, he could squash any lingering conflicts between lords, and Mexico would be more peaceful than ever.

If that argument didn’t work, Melincine told the lords what she, Moctezuma, and surprisingly few other Aztecs understood… the Spanish were inevitable. Every real battle that had been fought between Spanish and Aztec forces had resulted in a laughably lopsided Spanish victory. The best Aztec warriors couldn’t out-fight the weakest Spanish soldiers 5-to-1. And the Aztecs had nothing that could ever hope to match horses or cannons. Even if Cuitlahuac pulled off a miracle and crushed Cortes and his army, more Spaniards would follow from their land and complete the conquest.

Cortes also dabbled in local power politics. Occasionally, ambitious Aztec warriors would offer Cortes the full support of a city if he would help take out the current leader and elevate the warrior to power. Cortes seemed to enjoy these operations, and took a special liking to the aggressive (usually treacherous, backstabbing) allies he cultivated. Many of them were baptized as part of the arrangement, and some even took Cortes’s name as their own.

But Cortes was smart enough not to pin all of his hopes on a cowed, reluctant native coalition to take Tenochtitlan. He knew that Spanish troops would have to serve as the elite core of any army he cobbled together. So after his big “stay with me and fight” speech, he asked all of his loyal Spanish soldiers to cough up any treasure they might have squirreled away so they could send it to Cuba to buy more horses and cannons. With gold-in-hand, Cortes sent some of his most trusted lieutenants to Vera Cruz when they found to their surprise…

Seven Spanish ships packed with horses, cannons, and soldiers had already arrived. Cortes had sent a call for help many months ago and had seemingly forgotten about it (it’s easy to forget about fleets), but Cortes’s father back in Spain hadn’t. He organized a military relief effort at great personal expense and managed to round up hundreds of adventurers eager to share in the glory and plunder. Three more ships would arrive in the coming weeks, and within a few months, Cortes would bring his Spanish military count up to 1,000 men, 86 horses, three large cannons, and 15 smaller cannons. An army of this size could defeat any native force in Mexico in an open battle.

Though Townsend doesn’t give numbers, the Spanish also slowly edged out Cuitlahuac in the diplomatic war. A combination of fear of retribution, wanting to share the spoils of victory, and even fascination with Spanish technology combined to give Cortes the advantage over Tenochtitlan.

But still, the Aztecs were not beat. Cuitlahuac presided over an empire of millions which could not only call hundreds of thousands of warriors to bear, but had an actual economic engine rather than the proceeds of plunder. The Aztec Empire was fighting for its survival, Cuitlahuac was a tough bastard, and so the old Empire still had a chance to pull off an upset. That is until…

Aztecs Dying of Smallpox - Stock Image - C004/7308 - Science Photo ...

Another Invasion

Smallpox broke out in Tenochtitlan in September 1520, only two months after the Spanish were driven out. I think everyone knows the basics of what happened when smallpox hit the Americas, so there’s no need to go into too much detail. Suffice to say that any Aztec who didn’t think the world was ending when Cortes first arrived was surely convinced by this point.

Over the following few months, something like 25-50% of the Aztec Empire’s population died from the epidemic. Economic collapse followed as farmers, artisans, and merchants died in droves. Tenochtitlan was further weakened as the vassals still loyal to the empire stopped paying tribute due to population loss and poverty. Of course, Cortes’s native allies were hit just as hard, but the Spanish soldiers did not suffer a single death.

One of the many Aztecs to succumb to the disease was King Cuitlahuac. Though his diplomatic efforts were not especially successful, he had organized the Aztec Empire to put up a spirited resistance against an existential threat, and he had brought his people their one real victory over the Spanish. His presence would be missed. Due to dynastic machinations above my paygrade, Cuitlahuac’s successor was Cuauhtemoc, a twenty five year old cousin to King Moctezuma. He would be the last independent ruler of the Aztecs.

It’s worth noting that the Spanish never purposefully infected the Aztecs with smallpox via infected blankets. That appears to be a complete myth. The Spanish likely had smallpox and a whole host of other highly infectious diseases with them at all times, and only through sufficient contact with the locals did it accidentally trigger an outbreak.

While the smallpox was utterly devastating, a modern Aztec supporter can take an iota of solace in my personal completely unproven theory that the Aztecs were probably giving all the Spanish syphilis. After all, the Spanish were having lots and lots of (consensual and non-consensual) sex with a people who literally worshipped a syphilitic god.

Hernán Cortés conquers the Aztec Empire

The Siege of Tenochtitlan

In May 1521, ten months after fleeing Tenochtitlan, Cortes arrived back at Tenochtitlan with an army of somewhere between 100-200 thousand men, only a thousand of which were Spanish soldiers. Opposing him was King Cuauhtemoc at the head of up to 300,000 warriors. Recall that shortly after Cortes’s arrival, he inflicted the greatest defeat in Aztec history by killing a few hundred warriors. If these troop numbers are remotely accurate, then the Siege of Tenochtitlan was well beyond epic/Biblical/war-to-end-all-wars territory.

To be a buzzkill, I find the numerical estimates close to implausible even at the lowest end (80K vs. 80K). European nations rarely managed to field single armies up to 60,000 men until the Napoleonic Wars, though the Romans pulled it off once during the Punic Wars. Neither Townsend nor any other source I could find gives much detail as to how exactly these bronze age armies managed to gather, organize, march, and feed such colossal numbers. My best guess at how this was plausible was that Cuauhtemoc’s army was housed in Tenochtitlan where they would have ample food storage and optimal logistics, while Cortes’s army only had to march a short distance in the middle of the Empire where they could absorb supplies (willingly and unwillingly) from farms and towns over a wide swath of land. But that’s just my idle speculation.

Anyway, Cortes’s strategy for the siege was simple but effective. He would blast away at the city with his cannons to knock down the strongest fortifications and weaken enemy morale. Then he would send in his hordes of native warriors and provide support with his Spanish soldiers at key points and moments. Eventually, the defenders would get demoralized and surrender to their inevitable conqueror.

Cuauhtemoc’s strategy was to pull a Battle of the Trench. He needed to use his likely numerical advantage to hold the lake, keep the enemy army out of the main city, and wait out Cortes. Hopefully if the king could drag out the siege long enough, the delicate alliances in the enemy army would falter and Cortes’s coalition would collapse.

But Cortes had an ace-up-his-sleeve for the siege. While sitting around Tlaxcala for almost a year, he ordered his ship builder to teach the locals how to craft Spanish vessels. They ended up building twelve piece-meal boats which were then carried to Tenochtitlan and assembled on Lake Texcoco. Townsend notes that the natives involved in this process loved it. They were basically getting to fool around with alien technology and they were immensely proud when they saw the fruits of their labor arise on the lake. And with Spanish manpower being so sparse and valuable, the Tlaxcalans even got to operate the ships!

With twelve ships (which were on the smaller side by European standards, but leviathans by Aztec standards), Cortes would rule the lake around Tenochtitlan. In one battle, the dozen Spanish ships defeated over a thousand Aztec war canoes. To be fair, the Aztecs had no experience with naval warfare beyond shooting each other with arrows from canoes, and they certainly didn’t know how to board and seize frigates. So the Spanish ships could be used to deliver troops for assaults, secure bridges between the shore and the city itself, and protect foot soldiers from Aztec naval harassment.

The siege commenced and quickly turned into a meat grinder. Huge armies of almost entirely native warriors clashed in narrow causeways and hacked each other to bits to seize bridges, buildings, or small portions of the outer city. These fights mostly resulted in stalemates with heavy casualties on each side until Cortes carefully injected Spanish manpower to stabilize a front. The Spanish ships worked as intended, but they didn’t have the numbers to cover the whole lake, so soldiers were constantly getting ambushed by Aztec contingents. Any Spaniards or allied natives unlucky enough to get captured were usually brought to the great pyramids to be publicly sacrificed. In turn, the Tlaxcalans would sacrifice their own prisoners.

Timeline of Hernan Cortes' Conquest of the Aztecs

As the siege raged on for weeks, both sides began to weaken. With Spanish troops manning the fronts and Spanish boats protecting the flanks, Cuauhtemoc resorted to something like human wave tactics. He threw thousands after thousands of warriors against fortified Spanish positions to inflict few (often no) casualties. But this did have the effect of tiring the Spanish out, and more importantly, draining their resources. The Spanish soldiers were so important to holding the line that they couldn’t be easily cycled out, so men had to sit on bridges or causeways and weather attacks for weeks without rest.

Worse yet for Cortes, his allies began to falter. While the thousand Spaniards lost dozens of men, the native allies were losing thousands, eventually tens of thousands. With little progress made, and many native allies being rather unenthusiastic about the battle from the start, numerous ally lords began to quietly pull their warriors out and go home. More so than the manpower lost, this cost Cortes valuable supplies and logistical components.

The Aztecs had their best military moments here. One ambush may have killed or captured as many as 53 Spanish soldiers. The Aztecs even pulled off some flanking maneuvers with their war canoes, and at one point captured a few cannons, though they couldn’t figure out how to use them.

In the struggle between “Aztecs dying in droves” and “Spaniards holding off assaults day and night while their allies deserted,” the former eventually decided the battle for two reasons. First, after a few months the Aztec warriors in Tenochtitlan also began to run out of supplies. The city had already been devastated by smallpox and doubtlessly couldn’t hold off one of the largest army on earth for very long. Second, a bunch of Aztec priests made a prophecy foretelling the defeat of the Spanish on a certain day, and when that day came… the Spanish were not defeated. Many of the native allies who had deserted the Spanish suddenly flocked back to their side, and Cortes was able to use the valuable manpower to plug up some holes.

After almost three months of fighting, the Aztec army was ground down to almost nothing. The Spanish and their remaining native allies advanced into the city where what was left of the Aztec army fought them every step of the way in tight urban combat. Though it’s probably apocryphal, supposedly a contingent of Aztec warriors sacrificed seventy POWs as the enemy advanced through the streets, and ate their hearts to gain a burst of martial power.

The Aztecs gathered their forces in one last unoccupied part of the city. Peace offerings were made, but King Cuauhtemoc rejected unconditional surrender. As Cortes ordered the final assault, the king fled with as much treasure as he could carry, but was caught and arrested.

On August 13, 1521, almost two and a half years after Cortes had first set foot in Mexico, the Aztec Empire was conquered.

Conquest of Mexico: Hernando Cortes | PBS LearningMedia

Cortes the Conqueror

After years of wandering through the jungle, being constantly ambushed, winning hard-fought battles, and slogging through misery and discomfort I can’t imagine, the Spanish proceeded to treat conquered Mexico like their own Westworld. Pillaging, looting, plundering, extortion, rape, and murder became the norm. At first, the terror was unleashed chaotically as the Spaniards enjoyed the spoils of war, but eventually Cortes got his men under control and the pillaging, looting, etc. became institutionalized through his rule. He set about destroying Tenochtitlan and building Mexico City right on top of it as the capital of the glorious new Spanish colony, New Spain.

Nearly all of the Aztec lands were divided up into administrative districts and then turned into encomiendas, or parcels of land from which lords had the right to extract wealth and labor. Though the terms of encomiendas were variable, most Aztecs living within them became de facto serfs to whatever Spanish lord or captain was given title over them. Thus the Aztecs were treated barely better than slaves, taxes were crushing, encomiendas quickly became tyrannies, the Spanish lords were randomly cruel to their subjects, and the legal system systematically favored the Spanish.

I didn’t know exactly what to expect from a history of the Aztecs, but I most certainly didn’t expect so many lawsuits. Much of the post-conquest administrative history of New Spain consists of people suing each other over land, encomiendas, slaves, and anything else of worth. Spanish lords sued each other, Aztecs sued Spaniards, Spaniards sued Aztecs, royal agents sued Cortes, he sued them back, and so on. I guess that’s what happens when a foreigner randomly invades an entire country and then tries to integrate it into an existing legal system an ocean away.

Nevertheless, Cortes’s gambit to “ask forgiveness, not permission” initially paid off. After painting a big swath of the map yellow, the Spanish king chose to ignore Cortes’s past crimes and make him governor of New Spain, albeit with a handful of royal agents to advise/spy on Cortes. However, Cortes’s treatment of the natives got so bad that many newly arrived Spaniards were writing letters back home about their disgust at the wanton cruelty. Word eventually filtered to the king and he used it as leverage against Cortes.

So almost immediately after taking power, there was immense pressure on Cortes to give up New Spain. He was seen as untrustworthy by the crown, a renegade glory-hound by most of the Spanish nobility, the literal apocalypse by most of the Aztecs, and even his own men regarded him as a sociopath. His only real claim to ruling New Spain was that he had conquered the damn place.

This annoyed Cortes to no end, and he would spend much of the rest of his life bitching about how nobody respected him. He consoled himself by having sex with every woman in sight, including multiple daughters of Moctezuma, and by getting incalculably rich.

Maybe that’s why Cortes made the baffling decision to leave New Spain for Honduras in 1524 to once again try his hand at conquest. This time, his target was a rogue Spaniard who had claimed Honduras as his personal fiefdom. Or at least Cortes believed the man had went rogue, because that seemed to be a point of ambiguity to everyone else in the Spanish Empire. After winning the war and deposing the maybe/maybe not outlaw, Cortes returned to New Spain and was promptly fired for illegal conquest and insubordination.

While Cortes sat in Mexico City being supremely bitter about everything, his successor mysteriously died soon after taking office. Then his successor got so sick that he resigned. Nobody knows for sure whether Cortes poisoned these gentlemen, but it was widely suspected enough for Cortes to leave Mexico and return to Spain to beg forgiveness from the king.

In Madrid, Cortes didn’t bother convincing the king that he wasn’t a plundering, murderous, insubordinate, but rather appealed to the crown on the basis of his contribution to the Spanish Empire. He had conquered a huge amount of land, paid enormous taxes, and spent his own (practically infinite) fortune to build Mexico City. Didn’t he deserve a little respect?

And Cortes got it. He wasn’t reinstated as governor, but he was given a billion honorary titles and a ton of rich encomiendas to make him even richer than he already was.

The rest of Cortes’s life was a blur of reinstating order in New Spain, extracting maximal wealth from his Aztec subjects, more military expeditions, and countless lawsuits. He ended up with two wives and eleven acknowledged children, all of whom he legitimized, even the many half-Aztec ones. His son by Melincine, who was his designated heir for a time, was tortured to death by the New Spain government for allegedly plotting to seize power. Cortes also probably had dozens of more bastards throughout New Spain.

Cortes explored uncharted northern Mexico, fought the Barbary pirates in North Africa, and somehow spent himself into destitution. By his late 50s, he had been out of the public eye for so long that the Spanish king didn’t know who he was. When the king asked Cortes to identify himself, Cortes awesomely responded: “I am a man who has given you more provinces than your ancestors left you cities.”

Cortes died in 1547 of pleurisy at age 62. He was not a good man. He wasn’t a neutral man. He was a horrible man who caused untold misery for millions of people. But at the very least, one can say that Cortes was a man who lived a full life.

Mexico City - National Museum of Art MUNAL - Leandro Izagu… | Flickr

Fallen Empire

Shockingly, Aztec life under Spanish rule was not pleasant.

Townsend portrays the decades after the conquest as something close to a slow genocide, though she doesn’t use those words. The combination of crushing taxation, oppressive rule, and periodic plagues send the Aztecs into an economic and demographic death spiral. Agricultural and manufacturing productivity steadily declined even as the Spanish extracted more-and-more wealth from their subjects. While population figures are rough, Tenochtitlan/Mexico City’s Aztec population declined from 100-200 thousand in 1500, to 60,000 in 1550, to 20,000 in 1600.

After surrendering, King Cuauhtemoc was kept alive in captivity so he could lend an iota of legitimacy to Cortes’s rule. His cooperation was apparently not enough to stop regular bouts of torture by being poked with hot rods. Worried about what happened last time he left Tenochtitlan, Cortes brought Cuauhtemoc with him on his military expedition to Honduras to make sure there would be no misguided uprising in his name. For reasons unknown, Cortes casually executed Cuauhtemoc en route to Honduras. Any hint of an Aztec political resurgence died with him.

On top of most Aztecs being close to serfs in the encomiendas, a fair amount were turned into indentured servants or outright slaves. When Aztec citizens couldn’t pay their taxes, they were usually enslaved. When entire Aztec cities couldn’t pay their taxes, the Spanish would send in soldiers and enslave random people walking around the streets. To prevent racial-demographic drift, the Spanish reversed the longstanding Aztec law and declared all children of slaves to be born into slavery, thereby preventing the children of free Spaniards and Aztec slaves from gaining inheritance claims.

However, one of Townsend’s most novel arguments is that the Aztecs adapted to Spanish culture, law, and technology surprisingly quickly. While millions of Aztecs died under Spanish rule, the survivors integrated and helped produce a new hybrid Spanish-Aztec society which continues to this day.

Demographically, there was a surprising amount of intermixing of the populations. Despite legal attempts to resist miscegenation, many incoming Spaniards married into noble Aztec houses across multiple generations until they blended together. Eventually, a power-sharing system over local rule emerged in the major Mexican cities which was not too dissimilar from how the Aztec Empire balanced power during its heyday. Black slaves imported by the Spaniards interbred even more heavily with the Aztecs.

Though the Aztecs were always second-class citizens, they seemed to quickly figure out the nuances of Spanish governance. While under Cortes’s rule, Aztec nobles went over his head and appealed directly to the Spanish king for relief from his cruel treatment, and managed to prompt the creation of a permanent appointed position in the New Spain government to advocate for Aztec interests. As mentioned, the Aztecs also picked up on the power of lawsuits and were constantly engaged with legal disputes against aggressive Spanish lords. After losing his governorship and returning to Mexico, Cortes even sided with a large Aztec lawsuit against a government administrator.

Likewise, the Aztecs adopted Spanish technology. There was no hint of luddism or noble savagery in the population, just a desire to gain what few benefits Spanish rule might provide. One key development was the transition from a pictographic written language to the phonetic Latin alphabet. Much of Townsend’s book is based on sources written in pictograph in the few decades after the conquest which were later transcribed to the Latin alphabet by Aztec scholars trying to preserve their history.

Religion was a somewhat different matter. One of Cortes’s big boasts was that he converted the Aztecs to Christianity, but according to Townsend, the conversion process took far longer than he thought. Young Aztecs were converted fairly easily, especially if they lived through the conquest and witnessed Spanish power first-hand. This process was aided by eager missionaries who opened schools which converted Aztec children and offered economic and legal advantage in the new Mexican society. However, the elder Aztecs who lived mostly before the conquest were far less likely to fall to the sway of Christianity. Many probably pretended to convert while still harboring the old gods. Yet with human sacrifice outlawed and paganism somewhere between strongly discouraged and illegal, worship of the Aztec gods became an increasingly marginal practice. Within a few generations of Spanish rule, Aztec paganism was basically dead.

The one maybe, sort of, kind of bright spot in the post-conquest story was the outcome of Tlaxcala, Cortes’s biggest Aztec ally. Due to its loyalty, Tlaxcala was never divided into encomiendas and was largely left under autonomous rule, though it still had to pay taxes. Presumably the Tlaxcalan people still suffered under disease and economic decline, but they were spared from the brutalities of Spanish colonial rule, so I call that a win for the wise leaders of Tlaxcala.

La Malinche, the slave woman who guided Cortes to victory, continued to serve as his adviser and lover after the conquest, and even accompanied him to Honduras. Eventually she got tired of helping Cortes conquer things, so she retired to a massive estate outside Mexico City and lived out her days in wealthy peace. He reputation after her death has been hotly debated, with some sympathizers claiming she saved Aztec lives by blunting Cortes’s worst instincts, but most Mexicans consider her a traitor. Today, calling someone a malinchist is basically the Mexican equivalent of calling someone a cuckservative.

Apocalypto (film) - D23

What did I Learn From All This?

I don’t know. The Aztecs were so alien and Cortes’s conquest so unprecedented that I’m not sure if any military, economic, cultural, or civilizational lessons can be derived from Fifth Sun and generalized to history. For what it’s worth, my low-confidence takeaways are:

 

It’s probably better to appease an overwhelmingly powerful enemy than to fight

Moctezuma’s defense of the Aztec Empire is a fascinating case study in being horribly outmatched. Based on my extremely distant reading of the situation, his initial plan to appease the Spaniards was probably the right call, though maybe he didn’t go far enough. When faced with powerful, plundering, highly mobile invading armies, many Roman emperors offered a chunk of their land to the enemy leader to serve as a personal fiefdom, and that usually worked. To my knowledge, Moctezuma always tried to buy Cortes off with riches and slaves, but never offered a permanent place in the Empire.

Maybe Moctezuma was particularly unfortunate because his enemy was Cortes. A saner conquistador might accept the heaps of gold, tribute, and slaves offered to him and decide to avoid taking the risk of fighting a massive empire with 1,000 men. But Cortes seemed to be a uniquely ambitious figure who would stop at nothing but total conquest, so Moctezuma’s tributes only weakened his defense. Then again, maybe the only people who sail to the other side of the world to conquer mysterious undiscovered empires are uniquely ambitious and always stop at nothing to achieve ultimate glory. Who knows?

While Moctezuma was probably on the right track at first, his later actions seem cowardly. Yes, it is extremely easy to say this while sitting in my pajamas in my living room, but I would hope a bad ass fearless warrior of a highly militant society wouldn’t be captured so easily by a hostile army he let into his capital city. Moctezuma’s successor, Cuitlahuac, had the right idea of ambushing the Spaniards once they were firmly behind enemy lines, though he would have benefited from some more subtlety and better planning.

 

Picking the lesser of two evils can pay off

As mentioned, the Tlaxcalans came out of the conquest less worse off than all the other Aztecs. Considering how dishonest, brutal, and generally evil Cortes was, they ended up getting about as much as they could have out of the arrangement. Credit should be given to Tlaxcalan leadership for reading the situation correctly and making choices that would save many of their own people’s lives.

 

Treacherous diplomacy can be a great military weapon

I came away from Townsend’s book with a lot of respect for Cortes on a military and strategic level. I think his greatest skill might have been in using treacherous diplomacy to achieve military goals.

Cortes always wanted to conquer the Aztec Empire but he was smart enough not to announce these intentions until late in the game. During the first half of the invasion, he played along with Moctezuma’s peace overtures while bullying and cajoling disgruntled Aztec vassals into his coalition. Slowly he gained more power while maneuvering himself into better position to launch a killer blow. Even when Cortes captured Moctezuma, he still maintained the façade of having more modest goals, and used the captive king to better his position without opting for full-fledged dominance of the Empire. Ultimately, it would be Cortes’s diplomatic rallying of the Empire’s allies which gave him the manpower to strike the killing blow against Tenochtitlan.

 

Being horribly evil can be an asset

Much like in Game of Thrones, evil can win in real life. Even beyond his considerable competencies, Cortes relied on ruthlessness and disregard for basic human decency to gain an edge. He constantly lied to the Aztecs and his own men, he used torture, he bullied and coerced allies into obedience, he used fear as a means of repression, and all this stuff worked. Cortes was never liked, let alone loved, but he was respected, and he pulled off one of the greatest conquests in history.

 

Fairly small technological differences can result in enormous disparities

I’m still struck by how lopsided Spanish military victories were. This wasn’t the British rifleman against the spear-wielding Zulus; this was one side with melee weapons against another side with stronger melee weapons, a handful of guns, and a handful of animals. And yet, the Spanish were inflicting 20X casualties on the Aztecs.

The biggest-impact technology was steel. Though European armor had been around for hundreds of years, it vastly outclassed the best Aztec metallurgy. Maybe the steel alone was enough to give the Spanish a decisive military advantage, but I can’t say.

 

The Big Ass Story

I couldn’t figure out another place to put this, so I have to throw it in here at the end. I swear this is true.

According to Townsend, there’s an old Aztec myth about a great warrior chief who subjugates a bunch of surrounding towns and demands tribute. The leaders of the towns ask the chief what he wants. The chief says he wants a woman with an enormous ass and gives a minimal ass size measurement.

The town leaders scour their women and slaves and fail to find anyone with a sufficiently large ass. So they round up the women with the biggest asses they can find and hand them over to the chief.

The chief is so angered by the lack of ass that he sacrifices all the women to the gods. This enrages the town leaders, and they all work together to revolt against the chief. The great warrior chief is overthrown and killed, and the towns become free once more.

There’s a lesson in there somewhere… I’m pretty sure it’s that the Aztecs were awesome.

5 thoughts on “Polygamy, Human Sacrifices, and Steel – Why the Aztecs Were Awesome

  1. This is an impressively thorough article, thanks!

    I would love to see an Alternative History novel where the Aztecs just accepted the outsized losses, though. They definitely could have brought down the Spaniards, despite steel and guns; they had the numbers for it. The Incas elsewhere even more so.

    So basically, I really agree with your point about treacherous diplomacy, but I think it’s even bigger than that — the “divide and conquer” methodology as applied by Caesar against the Germans and Gauls is extremely effective.

    You may find this article interesting: https://digitalcommons.wou.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1171&context=his

    A relevant quote:

    ” The destruction of Tenochtitlan was not so much one of Spanish conquest, but of Aztec mismanagement, expansionism, and exploitation of other Native Americans. They built their empire with a policy of military subjugation and brute force. The Spanish did not defeat the Aztec with a handful of men, but with an alliance of natives who sensed a chance for revenge, plunder, and an end of servitude and vassalage. “

    Like

    1. I’m shocked that none of the big native empires managed to beat the conquistadors. It shows that regardless of the skill of Cortes and his men, their abilities weren’t THAT exceptional, and they probably didn’t just get super lucky. The natives really were the under dogs despite having an empire of resources at their disposal. I still find that mindblowing.

      I’m diving into the article now, thanks.

      Like

  2. This tops Mongol Apologia for most mind blowing. If not for this blog I wouldn’t know a single thing about The Hundred Yeras War, Napoleon, the Mongols, the Aztecs, or the Opium War. Keep pumping out the giant summaries, I live for this.

    Like

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