Throne of Montezuma

Throne of Montezuma

The magnificent stone monument variously referred to as the Monument of Sacred War, the Teocalli of Sacred War, the Temple Stone or, more simply, the throne of Motecuhzoma II (Montezuma), the Aztec king (tlatoani) who ruled at the time of the Spanish conquest, is covered with relief carvings of symbols, gods and Motecuhzoma himself. The throne, carved in the shape of a pyramid temple, commemorates the New Fire Ceremony of 1507 CE and, through art, demonstrates the inseparable link between fire and water and between this world's rulers and the eternal cosmos. It is one of the masterpieces of Aztec art and can be admired in its permanent home in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.


Discovered in 1831CE near the palace of Motecuhzoma II under what is now Mexico City, the throne was carved in 1507 CE from volcanic stone and measures 1.23 metres in height and around 1 metre in both depth and width.The object as a whole celebrates the triumph of the sun and the top is inscribed with the year 2 House which translates as 1345 CE, regarded as the traditional founding date of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan. The throne appears in the form of a typical Aztec stepped pyramid with the back representing the sacred temple which stood at the top of such monuments. The stone may, in fact, be considered as a votive commemorative or teocalli (meaning 'house of god') of sacred warfare and the New Fire Ceremony (Toxiuhmolpilia). This ritual, held only once every 52 years on the completion of the full Aztec calendar cycle, was perhaps the single most important event in Aztec religion and life in general.

The throne appears in the form of a typical Aztec stepped pyramid with the back representing a sacred temple.

Presided over by the Xiuhtechutli, the god of fire, the purpose of the ceremony was to ensure the successful renewal (or re-occurrence) of the sun. Atop Mt. Uixachtecatl (or Citlaltepec), near the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán, priests gathered at midnight and awaited a precise alignment of the stars. Then a sacrifice was made to Xiuhtecuhtli by cutting out the heart of a sacrificial victim. Fire was then kindled inside the open chest cavity and if the fire lit successfully all was well. If the flame did not light then it was believed to signal the coming of terrible monsters, the Tzitzimime, who would roam the darkness eating all mankind.

With the unthinkable possibility that the sun might not actually reappear, every ceremony was a crucial moment in Aztec society, but perhaps the one of 1507 CE was more significant than most. The Aztec empire had suffered several misfortunes leading up to the event, notably a devastating famine and destructive snowstorms, so that a new cycle and a fresh start was just what Motecuhzoma needed. Ultimately, the sun did appear again to welcome in another 52 years of cosmic harmony but, in reality, it was only 14 years later that strangers from the west would bring about the cataclysmic collapse of the Aztec civilization.


The twelve steps which approach the seat are flanked by an image of a rabbit on the left signifying the calendar date 1 whilst on the right side reeds represent the date 2. It has been suggested by scholars that these dates represent either the first and last years of the 52-year cycle or the years in which this particular New Fire Ceremony crossed over. Above these symbols, again, one on either side, are representations of cuauhxicalli - the vessels used to hold offerings such as the hearts of sacrificial victims during religious ceremonies. The one on the left has markings indicating a jaguar skin and the one on the right has eagle feathers.

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The back of the seat of the throne carries a large sun disk on which are indicated the cardinal and inter-cardinal points, a common motif in Aztec art. On the left of the sun disk stands the figure of Huitzilopochtli, the god of war and the sun, wearing his usual hummingbird headdress and with his left foot in the shape of a fire serpent whilst on the right stands Motecuhzoma II performing a sacrifice to the god. The seat of the throne has a relief of the earth monster Tlaltecuhtli of Aztec mythology. Therefore, when Motecuhzoma sat on the throne, he was in contact with both the earth and sun, and so was fulfilling his role as sacred guardian of both, separating them with his person and preventing the sun from collapsing onto the earth.

The large eagle on the back of the throne reminds of the legend of the founding of Tenochtitlán when Huitzilopochtli indicated the correct site with an eagle sitting on a cactus. The figures are the Aztec people who offer their hearts in sacrifice and homage to their gods and ruler. At the sides of the stone seated gods, each with a tetl or stone symbol on their backs, self-sacrifice blood from their loins, a typical ritual of Aztec religion. The four deities represented are Tlaloc (god of rain), Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli (Dawn), Xiuhtecuhtli (god of fire), and Xochipilli (god of flowers, summer and music). There are also marked the dates 1 Flint and 1 Death and a smoking mirror to represent Tezcatlipoca, the god of destiny. These scenes, therefore, combine with the other relief carvings on all sides of the stone to give compelling testimony of the divine favour enjoyed by Motecuhzoma's reign.

A preview of Moctezuma: Aztec Ruler

Y our face is reflected in the black mirror, but you can't see yourself clearly. Your features swim in and out of view, like a vision in smoke, in one of the eeriest objects (and that's saying something) in this autumn's sensational blockbuster at the British Museum.

It is easy to imagine why mirrors like this, made from a highly polished sliver of the dark mineral obsidian, were coveted by magicians in Renaissance Europe after the conquest of the indigenous American civilisation that made them. There is an occult quality to the image of yourself that materialises for a moment, making you wonder exactly who you are. Did Moctezuma, last ruler of the Aztec empire, suffer that same anxiety when he gazed into his black mirror? It was said he saw disturbing omens there – signs of strangers coming. Premonitions of imminent catastrophe.

The black obsidian mirror captures the mystery and tragedy at the heart of the British Museum's new exhibition. Moctezuma's story is one of absolute power – and abject surrender. The real emotional power of this show comes at the end, when you see the armour and banners of the Spanish soldiers who destroyed this ruler and his world, and are confronted with a detective puzzle. Why did he make it so easy for them?

A true-life epic

The fall of Moctezuma is a fabled chapter in the bloody European road to world conquest and it makes a fitting conclusion to the British Museum's series of exhibitions about great rulers. This series began with the First Emperor of China it ends with one of the last native rulers of the Americas. The tale it tells – and one of the virtues of this compelling show is that it gives a distant place and time a graspable human narrative – is one of the most haunting of all true-life epics.

In 1519 the Spanish adventurer Hernan Cortés and his 450 men, their minds full of gold, landed on the Mexican coast. As they approached the dominant city of the region, Tenochtitlan, its all-powerful god-king Moctezuma II wondered what to do. In the end he decided to meet the foreigners in peace, give them gifts and invite them to stay. When they suddenly proposed to arrest him, he went along peacefully. His final act was to address his rebellious subjects, who were on the point of finally rising against the vicious intruders, and urge them to keep calm – to be passive like him. He was hit by stones hurled by the vengeful crowd. Three days later he died of his wounds – or so his Spanish captors reported. Evidence presented in this exhibition suggests they simply stabbed him to death when they realised he had become so unpopular that he had no influence on his people, who had so recently all but worshipped him.

Moctezuma is a kind of cross between Tutankhamun and Neville Chamberlain – a splendid king turned craven appeaser. This exhibition doesn't so much overturn that image as complicate, enrich and reframe it, fleshing out the myth, making history from legend.

It gets better and better, from an unnecessarily baffling start. The British Museum in recent years has projected itself as a liberal meeting place of world cultures – rightly, and with hugely popular results. But just occasionally its determination to say the right thing can get a bit prissy and worthy. I find it irritating to come into an exhibition that says on the poster "Moctezuma: Aztec Ruler" only to be met by a towering and very long wall-text firmly explaining that we are no longer to call the Aztecs "Aztecs" at all. Apparently this name was imposed in the early 19th century. The correct name is Mexica. Throughout this show, you are warned, the name Mexica will be used – we shall hear no more of Aztecs! And by the way, it adds, Montezuma, the name by which its hero will be familiar to many, is an English misspelling. From now on it's Moctezuma, thank you very much.

If you don't feel just slightly put upon by this stern lecture, you are probably a Mexica, quietly satisfied that a centuries-old misnaming has been corrected. Myself, I found it distracting and a bit pointless, because we won't pronounce Mexica correctly anyway, any more that we get Michelagnolo's name right, and anyway no one is going to come away from this exhibition thinking cosy thoughts about pre-conquest American cultures. For it soon becomes clear that Aztecs by any other name are just as blood-soaked.

No amount of hand-wringing or good intentions can turn the civilisation the Spanish encountered in 1519 into some benign pre-colonial paradise. When you finally recover from the show's pedantic beginning, one of the first things to catch your eye is a colossal stone eagle with a basin carved out of its back – a receptacle for human blood from sacrifices at Tenochtitlan's Templo Mayor.

And that's just the start of it. Three stone skulls in a row are a sculptural representation of galleries of real skulls of sacrificial victims that towered over the city. Two beautiful pottery vessels also have startling three-dimensional skulls bursting from them. These skulls are painted red and white – brilliantly imitating, points out the catalogue, the bits of bloody fat still clinging to freshly flayed skulls.

If the opening rooms of the exhibition seem a bit fussily correct, the style of presentation soon starts to make sense. The curators make no attempt to disguise or apologise for Mexica human sacrifice. On a model of the city's sacred precinct, they show rivers of blood streaming down the white steps of the great temple. This gift of blood to the gods was necessary to ensure the very survival of nature. Moctezuma ritually wounded himself and gave his own blood when he was crowned in 1502 he then had to lead his army in a "coronation war" whose goal was to provide captives for human sacrifice.

All of this is coolly and – perverse word – sensitively expounded. This is an exhibition that sets out to reconstruct an entire social, political and religious universe around the figure of one man, Moctezuma. It can easily make us study detailed exposition, and listen to a bit of lecturing even, for the fire of Mexica art is so intense that all the anthropological texts serve the usefully cooling function of sour cream with chilli.

A massive carved stone block that to me looks like a throne – but the catalogue describes as a sculpture celebrating sacred warfare – towers at the very heart of the exhibition, directly under the oculus of the Reading Room's dome. Death-faced gods parade on it in a blocky frieze, below a spiky disc representing the sun. It is one of the most rightly renowned Mexica sculptures, a highlight in a storm of fire serpents, feathered gods and shape-shifting warriors that entrances the imagination.

Detail from a portrait of Moctezuma from the Uffizi Gallery, on show in the Moctezuma: Aztec Ruler exhibition at the British Museum. Photograph: Felix Clay

A history cut short

Moctezuma inherited one of the world's richest visual traditions. All the styles of art in this show have origins going back 3,000 years to the age of the Olmecs. Not only the art but the ideas of the Mexica drew on the long history of city states in the region now known as Mesoamerica. Even the complex calendar Moctezuma used can be traced back to the Maya and ultimately the Olmecs. What we see here is a snapshot of a long history just before it was violently cut short – and it was in no sense a world in decline. The Mexica had a special feel for realism, for vivid observation. A gigantic stone snake's tail has a finely observed rattle. A mask's twisting, apparently abstract turquoise decoration turns out on closer inspection to depict two intertwining snakes: as the catalogue points out, this is an accurate portrayal of the way snakes mate. The Mexica looked hard at snakes.

The most moving observations these artists made were of the human face. "Portrayal" is probably a misleading word. There were no "portraits" in this world. The Mexica images of faces are archetypal, but arresting. The grey ashen face of the god Tezcatlipoca held me for a long time. His features carved in smooth greenstone are as lifelike as if it were a clay mask moulded on a real face: the nose with its vivid flanges and strong bone, the lips parted to reveal square teeth. Equally beguiling is the head of an eagle warrior, his bird of prey helmet declaring he belongs to the elite of Moctezuma's army. Hollow eyes gaze from a powerfully accurate human face of a man who has assimilated the strength of an avian raptor.

Which brings us back to the enigmatic story this exhibition tells. If it starts clunkily, it ends brilliantly. Spanish and colonial paintings and objects, and codices – Mexica books – telling the story of the conquest, give a complex and unsettling account of the fall of Moctezuma. Did he really, as the manuscripts here claim, see prodigies in the heavens and other omens of the Spanish attack? Was his paralysis somehow dictated by prophecy, or is that just a European myth?

Moctezuma was a great war leader, and the images of eagle and jaguar warriors and the throne-like image of war itself make it clear how martial Mexica culture was. So what went wrong? In a way, it's obvious. One of the exhibition's most startling objects is a sacrificial dagger. Its handle is fabulously decorated. But its blade is knapped flint – a kind of blade that had stopped being used in the Old World with the passing of the Neolithic. For all the richness of their civilisation – the elaborate calendar and stupendous architecture – the Mexica were literally living in the stone age. They worked gold, but not iron. The steel conquistador breastplate and sword say it all – and that's without the Spanish horses, new to America, and guns.

This exhibition succeeds in revealing a lost world. Moctezuma's passive acceptance of Cortés suggests he simply didn't see the use of fighting. Maybe he was a wise ruler doing his best for his people by urging them not to waste their time against impossible odds. Obviously that was never going to get him a reputation as a Mexican national hero. Anyway, fighting was even more irrelevant than he realised. The Spanish accidentally brought smallpox, which reduced the indigenous population by 90% in a few years. The Mexica feared the end of the world their rituals tried to hold it off for one more period of 52 years. History's incredible cruelty was written into their beliefs. Moctezuma could see it in his black mirror.


The monolith was carved by the Mexica at the end of the Mesoamerican Postclassic Period. Although the exact date of its creation is unknown, the name glyph of the Aztec ruler Moctezuma II in the central disc dates the monument to his reign between 1502 and 1520 AD. [6] There are no clear indications about the authorship or purpose of the monolith, although there are certain references to the construction of a huge block of stone by the Mexicas in their last stage of splendor. According to Diego Durán, the emperor Axayácatl "was also busy in carving the famous and large stone, very carved where the figures of the months and years, days 21 and weeks were sculpted". [7] Juan de Torquemada described in his Monarquía indiana how Moctezuma Xocoyotzin ordered to bring a large rock from Tenanitla, today San Ángel, to Tenochtitlan, but on the way it fell on the bridge of the Xoloco neighborhood. [8]

The parent rock from which it was extracted comes from the Xitle volcano, and could have been obtained from San Ángel or Xochimilco. [9] The geologist Ezequiel Ordóñez in 1893 determined such an origin and ruled it as olivine basalt. It was probably dragged by thousands of people from a maximum of 22 kilometers to the center of Mexico-Tenochtitlan. [9]

After the conquest, it was transferred to the exterior of the Templo Mayor, to the west of the then Palacio Virreinal and the Acequia Real, where it remained uncovered, with the relief upwards for many years. [8] According to Durán, Alonso de Montúfar, Archbishop of Mexico from 1551 to 1572, ordered the burial of the Sun Stone so that "the memory of the ancient sacrifice that was made there would be lost". [8]

Towards the end of the 18th century, the viceroy Juan Vicente de Güemes initiated a series of urban reforms in the capital of New Spain. One of them was the construction of new streets and the improvement of parts of the city, through the introduction of drains and sidewalks. In the case of the then so-called Plaza Mayor, sewers were built, the floor was leveled and areas were remodeled. It was José Damián Ortiz de Castro, the architect overseeing public works, who reported the finding of the sun stone on 17 December 1790. The monolith was found half a yard (about 40 centimeters) under the ground surface and 60 meters to the west of the second door of the viceregal palace, [8] and removed from the earth with a "real rigging with double pulley". [8] Antonio de León y Gama came to the discovery site to observe and determine the origin and meaning of the monument found. [8] According to Alfredo Chavero, [10] it was Antonio who gave it the name of Aztec Calendar, believing it to be an object of public consultation. León y Gama said the following:

. On the occasion of the new paving, the floor of the Plaza being lowered, on December 17 of the same year, 1790, it was discovered only half a yard deep, and at a distance of 80 to the West from the same second door of the Royal Palace, and 37 north of the Portal of Flowers, the second Stone, by the back surface of it.

León y Gama himself interceded before the canon of the cathedral, José Uribe, in order that the monolith found would not be buried again due to its perceived pagan origin (for which it had been buried almost two centuries before). [11] León y Gama argued that in countries like Italy there was much that was invested in rescuing and publicly showcasing monuments of the past. [11] It is noteworthy that, for the spirit of the time, efforts were made to exhibit the monolith in a public place and also to promote its study. [11] León y Gama defended in his writings the artistic character of the stone, in competition with arguments of authors like Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, who gave lesser value to those born in the American continent, including their artistic talent. [11]

The monolith was placed on one side of the west tower of the Metropolitan Cathedral on 2 July 1791. There it was observed by, among others, Alexander von Humboldt, who made several studies on its iconography. [8] Mexican sources alleged that during the Mexican–American War, soldiers of the United States Army who occupied the plaza used it for target shooting, though there is no evidence of such damage to the sculpture. [8] Victorious General Winfield Scott contemplated taking it back to Washington D.C. as a war trophy, if the Mexicans did not make peace. [12]

In August 1855, the stone was transferred to the Monolith Gallery of the Archaeological Museum on Moneda Street, on the initiative of Jesús Sánchez, director of the same. [8] Through documents from the time, it is known of the popular animosity that caused the "confinement" of a public reference of the city. [8]

In 1964 the stone was transferred to the National Museum of Anthropology and History, where the stone presides over the Mexica Hall of the museum and is inscribed in various Mexican coins.

Before the discovery of the monolith of Tlaltecuhtli, deity of the earth, with measurements being 4 by 3.57 meters high, it was thought that the sun stone was the largest Mexica monolith in dimensions.

Plaza Mayor of Mexico City by Pedro Guridi (c.1850) shows the sun disk attached to the side of the cathedral tower, it was placed there in 1790 when it was discovered and remained on the tower until 1885

The Swiss artist Johann Salomon Hegi painted the famous Paseo de las Cadenas in 1851, the sun stone is distinguishable below and to the right of the ash tree foliage

Image of the stone in the Metropolitan Cathedral

The Stone of the Sun as it was exhibited in the National Museum, photograph taken in 1915

Photograph from 1910 of the sun stone with (then president) Porfirio Díaz

Photograph from 1917 of the Piedra del Sol with (then president) Venustiano Carranza

The sculpted motifs that cover the surface of the stone refer to central components of the Mexica cosmogony. The state-sponsored monument linked aspects of Aztec ideology such as the importance of violence and warfare, the cosmic cycles, and the nature of the relationship between gods and man. The Aztec elite used this relationship with the cosmos and the bloodshed often associated with it to maintain control over the population, and the sun stone was a tool in which the ideology was visually manifested. [13]

Central disk Edit

In the center of the monolith is often believed to be the face of the solar deity, Tonatiuh, [14] which appears inside the glyph for "movement" (Nahuatl: Ōllin), the name of the current era. Some scholars have argued that the identity of the central face is of the earth monster, Tlaltecuhtli, or of a hybrid deity known as "Yohualtecuhtli" who is referred to as the "Lord of the Night". This debate on the identity of the central figure is based on representations of the deities in other works as well as the role of the sun stone in sacrificial context, which involved the actions of deities and humans to preserve the cycles of time. [15] The central figure is shown holding a human heart in each of his clawed hands, and his tongue is represented by a stone sacrificial knife (Tecpatl).

Four previous suns or eras Edit

The four squares that surround the central deity represent the four previous suns or eras, which preceded the present era, "Four Movement" (Nahuatl: Nahui Ōllin). The Aztecs changed the order of the suns and introduced a fifth sun named "Four Movement" after they seized power over the central highlands. [16] Each era ended with the destruction of the world and humanity, which were then recreated in the next era.

  • The top right square represents "Four Jaguar" (Nahuatl: Nahui Ōcēlotl), the day on which the first era ended, after having lasted 676 years, due to the appearance of monsters that devoured all of humanity.
  • The top left square shows "Four Wind" (Nahuatl: Nahui Ehēcatl), the date on which, after 364 years, hurricane winds destroyed the earth, and humans were turned into monkeys.
  • The bottom left square shows "Four Rain" (Nahuatl: Nahui Quiyahuitl). This era lasted 312 years, before being destroyed by a rain of fire, which transformed humanity into turkeys.
  • The bottom right square represents "Four Water" (Nahuatl: Nahui Atl), an era that lasted 676 years and ended when the world was flooded and all the humans were turned into fish.

The duration of the ages is expressed in years, although they must be observed through the prism of Aztec time. In fact the common thread of figures 676, 364 and 312 is that they are multiples of 52, and 52 years is the duration of one Aztec "century", and that is how they can express a certain amount of Aztec centuries. Thus, 676 years are 13 Aztec centuries 364 years are 7, and 312 years are 6 Aztec centuries.

Placed among these four squares are three additional dates, "One Flint" (Tecpatl), "One Rain" (Atl), and "Seven Monkey" (Ozomahtli), and a Xiuhuitzolli, or ruler's turquoise diadem, glyph. It has been suggested that these dates may have had both historical and cosmic significance, and that the diadem may form part of the name of the Mexica ruler, Moctezuma II. [17]

First ring Edit

The first concentric zone or ring contains the signs corresponding to the 20 days of the 18 months and five nemontemi of the Aztec solar calendar (Nahuatl: xiuhpohualli). The monument is not a functioning calendar, but instead uses the calendrical glyphs to reference the cyclical concepts of time and its relationship to the cosmic conflicts within the Aztec ideology. [18] Beginning at the symbol just left of the large point in the previous zone, these symbols are read counterclockwise. The order is as follows:

1. cipactli – crocodile, 2. ehécatl – wind, 3. calli – house, 4. cuetzpallin – lizard, 5. cóatl – serpent, 6. miquiztli – skull/death, 7. mázatl – deer, 8. tochtli – rabbit, 9. atl – water, 10. itzcuintli – dog, 11. ozomatli – monkey, 12. malinalli – herb, 13. ácatl – cane, 14. océlotl – jaguar, 15. cuauhtli – eagle, 16. cozcacuauhtli – vulture, 17. ollín – movement, 18. técpatl – flint, 19. quiahuitl – rain, 20. xóchitl – flower [19]

Second ring Edit

The second concentric zone or ring contains several square sections, with each section containing five points. Directly above these square sections are small arches are said to be feather ornaments. Directly above these are spurs or peaked arches that appear in groups of four. [19] There are also eight angles that divide the stone into eight parts, which likely represent the sun's rays placed in the direction of the cardinal points.

Third and outermost ring Edit

Two fire serpents, Xiuhcoatl, take up almost this entire zone. They are characterized by the flames emerging from their bodies, the square shaped segments that make up their bodies, the points that form their tails, and their unusual heads and mouths. At the very bottom of the surface of the stone, are human heads emerging from the mouths of these serpents. Scholars have tried to identify these profiles of human heads as deities, but have not come to a consensus. [19] One possible interpretation of the two serpents is that they represent two rival deities who were involved in the creation story of the fifth and current "sun", Queztalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca. The tongues of the serpents are touching, referencing the continuity of time and the continuous power struggle between the deities over the earthly and terrestrial worlds. [20]

In the upper part of this zone, a square carved between the tails of the serpents represents the date Matlactli Omey-Ácatl ("13-reed"). This is said to correspond to 1479, the year in which the Fifth Sun emerged in Teotihuacan during the reign of Axayácatl, and at the same time, indicating the year in which this monolithic sun stone was carved. [19]

Edge of stone Edit

The edge of the stone measures approximately 8 inches and contains a band of a series of dots as well as what have been said to be flint knives. This area has been interpreted as representing a starry night sky. [19]

From the moment the Sun Stone was discovered in 1790, many scholars have worked at making sense of the stone's complexity. This provides a long history of over 200 years of archaeologists, scholars, and historians adding to the interpretation of the stone. [21] Modern research continues to shed light or cast doubt on existing interpretations as discoveries such as further evidence of the stone's pigmentation. [22] As Eduardo Matos Moctezuma stated in 2004: [19]

In addition to its tremendous aesthetic value, the Sun Stone abounds in symbolism and elements that continue to inspire researchers to search deeper for the meaning of this singular monument.

The earliest interpretations of the stone relate to what early scholars believed was its use for astrology, chronology, or as a sundial. In 1792, two years after the stone's unearthing, Mexican scholar Antonio de León y Gama wrote one of the first treatises on Mexican archaeology on the Aztec calendar and Coatlicue. [23] He correctly identified that some of the glyphs on the stone are the glyphs for the days of the month. [21] Alexander von Humboldt also wanted to pass on his interpretation in 1803, after reading Leon y Gama's work. He disagreed about the material of the stone but generally agreed with Leon y Gama's interpretation. Both of these men incorrectly believed the stone to have been vertically positioned, but it was not until 1875 that Alfredo Chavero correctly wrote that the proper position for the stone was horizontal. Roberto Sieck Flandes in 1939 published a monumental study entitled How Was the Stone Known as the Aztec Calendar Painted? which gave evidence that the stone was indeed pigmented with bright blue, red, green, and yellow colors, just as many other Aztec sculptures have been found to have been as well. This work was later to be expanded by Felipe Solís and other scholars who would re-examine the idea of coloring and create updated digitized images for a better understanding of what the stone might have looked like. [19] It was generally established that the four symbols included in the Ollin glyph represent the four past suns that the Mexica believed the earth had passed through. [24]

Another aspect of the stone is its religious significance. One theory is that the face at the center of the stone represents Tonatiuh, the Aztec deity of the sun. It is for this reason that the stone became known as the "Sun Stone." Richard Townsend proposed a different theory, claiming that the figure at the center of the stone represents Tlaltecuhtli, the Mexica earth deity who features in Mexica creation myths. [21] Modern archaeologists, such as those at the National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City, believe it is more likely to have been used primarily as a ceremonial basin or ritual altar for gladiatorial sacrifices, than as an astrological or astronomical reference. [4]

Yet another characteristic of the stone is its possible geographic significance. The four points may relate to the four corners of the earth or the cardinal points. The inner circles may express space as well as time. [25]

Lastly, there is the political aspect of the stone. It may have been intended to show Tenochtitlan as the center of the world and therefore, as the center of authority. [26] Townsend argues for this idea, claiming that the small glyphs of additional dates amongst the four previous suns—1 Flint (Tecpatl), 1 Rain (Atl), and 7 Monkey (Ozomahtli)—represent matters of historical importance to the Mexica state. He posits, for example, that 7 Monkey represents the significant day for the cult of a community within Tenochtitlan. His claim is further supported by the presence of Mexica ruler Moctezuma II's name on the work. These elements ground the Stone's iconography in history rather than myth and the legitimacy of the state in the cosmos. [27]

Connections to Aztec ideology Edit

The methods of Aztec rule were influenced by the story of their Mexica ancestry, who were migrants to the Mexican territory. The lived history was marked by violence and the conquering of native groups, and their mythic history was used to legitimize their conquests and the establishment of the capital Tenochtitlan. As the Aztecs grew in power, the state needed to find ways to maintain order and control over the conquered peoples, and they used religion and violence to accomplish the task. [28]

The state religion included a vast canon of deities that were involved in the constant cycles of death and rebirth. When the gods made the sun and the earth, they sacrificed themselves in order for the cycles of the sun to continue, and therefore for life to continue. Because the gods sacrificed themselves for humanity, humans had an understanding that they should sacrifice themselves to the gods in return. The Sun Stone's discovery near the Templo Mayor in the capital connects it to sacred rituals such as the New Fire ceremony, which was conducted to ensure the earth's survival for another 52-year cycle, and human heart sacrifice played an important role in preserving these cosmic cycles. [28] Human sacrifice was not only used in religious context additionally, sacrifice was used as a military tactic to frighten Aztec enemies and remind those already under their control what might happen if they opposed the Empire. The state was then exploiting the sacredness of the practice to serve its own ideological intentions. The Sun Stone served as a visual reminder of the Empire's strength as a monumental object in the heart of the city and as a ritualistic object used in relation to the cosmic cycles and terrestrial power struggles. [29]

The sun stone image is displayed on the obverse the Mexican 20 Peso gold coin, which has a gold content of 15 grams (0.4823 troy ounces) and was minted from 1917 to 1921 and restruck with the date 1959 from the mid 1940s to the late 1970s. Different parts of the sun stone are represented on the current Mexican coins, each denomination has a different section.

Currently the image is present in the 10 Peso coin as part of the New Peso coin family started in 1992 having .925 silver centers and aluminum bronze rings changing in 1996 where new coins were introduced with base metal replacing the silver center.

The sun stone image also has been adopted by modern Mexican and Mexican American/Chicano culture figures, and is used in folk art and as a symbol of cultural identity. [30]

In 1996 the Mexican national football team employed a depiction of the sun stone image on to its home, away and third match kits. With each individual shirt being assigned the green (home), white (away) and red (third) colors of the Mexican flag respectively. The kit was featured until the 1998 World Cup in which the Mexican side impressed the world with satisfying results.

Impact of Spanish Colonization Edit

After the conquest of the Aztec Empire by the Spanish in 1521 and the subsequent colonization of the territory, the prominence of the Mesoamerican empire was placed under harsh scrutiny by the Spanish. The rationale behind the bloodshed and sacrifice conducted by the Aztec was supported by religious and militant purposes, but the Spanish were horrified by what they saw, and the published accounts twisted the perception of the Aztecs into bloodthirsty, barbaric, and inferior people. [31] The words and actions of the Spanish, such as the destruction, removal, or burial of Aztec objects like the Sun Stone supported this message of inferiority, which still has an impact today. The Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan was covered by the construction of Mexico City, and the monument was lost for centuries until it was unearthed in 1790. [20] The reemergence of the Sun Stone sparked a renewed interest in Aztec culture, but since the Western culture now had hundreds of years of influence over the Mexican landscape, the public display of the monument next to the city's main cathedral sparked controversy. Although the object was being publicly honored, placing it in the shadow of a Catholic institution for nearly a century sent a message to some people that the Spanish would continue to dominate over the remnants of Aztec culture. [32]

Another debate sparked by the influence of the Western perspective over non-Western cultures surrounds the study and presentation of cultural objects as art objects. Carolyn Dean, a scholar of pre-Hispanic and Spanish colonial culture discusses the concept of “art by appropriation,” which displays and discusses cultural objects within the Western understanding of art. Claiming something as art often elevates the object in the viewer's mind, but then the object is only valued for its aesthetic purposes, and its historical and cultural importance is depleted. [33] The Sun Stone was not made as an art object it was a tool of the Aztec Empire used in ritual practices and as a political tool. By referring to it as a "sculpture" [33] and by displaying it vertically on the wall instead of placed horizontally how it was originally used, [20] the monument is defined within the Western perspective and therefore loses its cultural significance. The current display and discussion surrounding the Sun Stone is part of a greater debate on how to decolonize non-Western material culture.

There are several other known monuments and sculptures that bear similar inscriptions. Most of them were found underneath the center of Mexico City, while others are of unknown origin. Many fall under a category known as temalacatl, large stones built for ritual combat and sacrifice. Matos Moctezuma has proposed that the Aztec Sun Stone might also be one of these. [34]

Temalacatls Edit

The Stone of Tizoc's upward-facing side contains a calendrical depiction similar to that of the subject of this page. Many of the formal elements are the same, although the five glyphs at the corners and center are not present. The tips of the compass here extend to the edge of the sculpture. The Stone of Tizoc is currently located in the National Anthropology Museum in the same gallery as the Aztec Sun Stone.

The Stone of Motecuhzoma I is a massive object approximately 12 feet in diameter and 3 feet high with the 8 pointed compass iconography. The center depicts the sun deity Tonatiuh with the tongue sticking out. [35]

The Philadelphia Museum of Art has another,. [36] This one is much smaller, but still bears the calendar iconography and is listed in their catalog as "Calendar Stone". The side surface is split into two bands, the lower of which represents Venus with knives for eyes the upper band has two rows of citlallo star icons. [35]

A similar object is on display at the Yale University Art Gallery, on loan from the Peabody Museum of Natural History. [37] [38] The sculpture, officially known as Aztec Calendar Stone in the museum catalog but called Altar of the Five Cosmogonic Eras, [35] bears similar hieroglyphic inscriptions around the central compass motif but is distinct in that it is a rectangular prism instead of cylindrical shape, allowing the artists to add the symbols of the four previous suns at the corners. [35] It bears some similarities to the Coronation Stone of Moctezuma II, listed in the next section.

Calendar iconography in other objects Edit

The Coronation Stone of Moctezuma II (also known as the Stone of the Five Suns) is a sculpture measuring 55.9 x 66 x 22.9 cm (22 x 26 x 9 in [39] ), currently in the possession of the Art Institute of Chicago. It bears similar hieroglyphic inscriptions to the Aztec Sun Stone, with 4-Movement at the center surrounded by 4-Jaguar, 4-Wind, 4-Rain, and 4-Water, all of which represent one of the five suns, or "cosmic eras". The year sign 11-Reed in the lower middle places the creation of this sculpture in 1503, the year of Motecuhzoma II's coronation, while 1-Crocodile, the day in the upper middle, may indicate the day of the ceremony. [39] The date glyph 1-Rabbit on the back of the sculpture (not visible in the image to the right) orients Motecuhzoma II in the cosmic cycle because that date represents "the beginning of things in the distant mythological past." [39]

The Throne of Montezuma uses the same cardinal point iconography [40] as part of a larger whole. The monument is on display at the National Museum of Anthropology alongside the Aztec Sun Stone and the Stone of Tizoc. The monument was discovered in 1831 underneath the National Palace [41] in Mexico City and is approximately 1 meter square at the base and 1.23 meters tall. [40] It is carved in a temple shape, and the year at the top, 2-House, refers to the traditional founding of Tenochtitlan in 1325 CE. [40]

The compass motif with Ollin can be found in stone altars built for the New Fire ceremony. [35] Another object, the Ceremonial Seat of Fire which belongs to the Eusebio Davalos Hurtado Museum of Mexica Sculpture, [35] is visually similar but omits the central Ollin image in favor of the Sun.

The British Museum possesses a cuauhxicalli which may depict the tension between two opposites, the power of the sun (represented by the solar face) and the power of the moon (represented with lunar iconography on the rear of the object). This would be a parallel to the Templo Mayor with its depictions of Huitzilopochtli (as one of the two deities of the temple) and the large monument to Coyolxauhqui. [35]

Cortes Meets Montezuma

When the Aztec ambassadors brought to Tenochtitlan the news that Cortes, heedless of Montezuma's wishes, was already over the mountains, and moving across the plains to Mexico, the Emperor, beside himself with terror and anxiety, shut himself up and refused to eat, finally convinced that the Spaniards were indeed sent by the gods to overturn the might of his mountain empire, which had been so secure until these strange white beings had invaded his land.

Despondently Montezuma summoned his nobles in council. Cacama, the King of Tezcuco, not knowing how he was to hate the white men later, advised the Emperor to receive Cortes courteously as ambassador of a foreign prince. Cuitlahua, the Emperor's brother, urged him to gather his forces and drive back the white men before they set foot in the kingdom. Hopelessly Montezuma disregarded both suggestions.

"Of what avail is resistance when the gods have declared against us?" he answered, and prepared to send one more embassy to Cortes almost at his gates.

Cacama himself headed this embassy which was to invite Cortes to Tenochtitlan. He was a young fellow, only twenty-five, strong and straight. He traveled in a litter decorated with gold and gems and covered with green plumes.

Cacama found Cortes in the town of Ajotzinco on Lake Chalco, where the natives were entertaining the Spaniards most hospitably. He told Cortes that he came from Montezuma to bid him welcome to Tenochtitlan, and, as proof of Montezuma's friendship, Cacama gave Cortes three large pearls. Cortes in return gave the Indian prince a chain of cut glass, which was as valuable to him as were the pearls to the Spanish general. Then with many assurances of friendship, Cacama went back to Tenochtitlan and Cortes resumed his march.

The way lay along the southern shore of Lake Chalco, through beautiful woods, cultivated fields and orchards of fruit trees unknown to the white men. Finally they came to a great stone dyke five miles long, which separated the fresh water of Lake Chalco from an arm of the salt lake of Tezcuco. In its narrowest part, the dyke was only a lance's length in breadth, but in its widest, eight horsemen could ride abreast. The white men crossed it with eyes open for all the strange sights about them: the floating gardens, rising and falling with the swell of the lake the canoes filled with Indians, darting hither and thither like swallows the many small towns built out on piles far into the lake and looking, at a distance, "like companies of wild swans riding quietly on the waves." Halfway across the dyke, they found a good-sized town, with buildings which stirred great admiration in the Spaniards. They stopped for refreshment and here, so near to the imperial city, Cortes heard no more of Montezuma's cruelty and oppression, only of his power and riches.

After this brief rest, the white men went on. Their march was made difficult by the swarms of curious Indians who, finding the canoes too far away for a complete view of the strangers, climbed up on the causeway to gaze at them. Cortes had to clear a way through the crowd for his troops before they could leave the causeway and reach Iztapalapan, the city of Montezuma's brother, Cuitlahua, on the shores of Lake Tezcuco.

Cuitlahua had invited many neighboring caciques to help him receive Cortes with proper ceremony. The Spaniards were welcomed with gifts and then invited to a banquet in Cuitlahua's palace, before they were assigned their quarters.

Cortes greatly admired Cuitlahua's city, especially the prince's big garden. It was laid out regularly and watered in every corner by canals which connected it with Lake Tezcuco. The garden was filled with shrubs and vines and flowers delightful to smell and see. It had fruit trees, too in one corner was an aviary of brilliant song birds in another a huge stone reservoir stocked with fish. The reservoir was almost five thousand feet in circumference and the stone walk around it was broad enough for four persons to walk abreast.

"In the city of Iztapalapan, Cortes took up his quarters for the night. We may imagine what a crowd of ideas must have pressed on the mind of the conqueror, as, surrounded by these evidences of civilization, he prepared with his handful of followers to enter the capital of a monarch, who, as he had abundant reason to know, regarded him with distrust and aversion. This capital was now but a few miles distant, distinctly visible from Iztapalapan. And as its long lines of glittering edifices, struck by the rays of the evening sun, trembled on the dark-blue waters of the lake, it looked like a thing of fairy creation, rather than the work of mortal hands. Into this city of enchantment Cortes prepared to make his entry on the following morning." [Prescott's Conquest of Mexico ]

It was on the 8th day of November, 1519, that Cortes started on the march that was to take him into the City of Mexico. The general with his cavalry was in the van behind him came his few hundreds of infantry—weather-beaten and disciplined by the summer's campaign next, was the baggage while the six thousand Tlascalans closed the rear. The little army marched back along the southern shore of Lake Tezcuco until it reached the great causeway of Iztapalapan, which ran across the lake straight north to the very heart of the City of Mexico. The dyke was broad enough for ten horsemen to ride abreast Cortes and his army, as they advanced, still wondered at the strange, beautiful sights about them. Less than two miles from the capital the dyke was cut by a shorter dyke running in from the southwest, and at the point where this dyke joined the main causeway of Iztapalapan there was built across the causeway a stone fortification twelve feet high, which could be entered only by a battlemented gateway. It was called the Fort of Xoloc.

At Xoloc Cortes was met by a body of Aztec nobles who, in their holiday dress, came to welcome him. As each noble separately had to greet Cortes, and as there were several hundred of them, the troops had time to get acquainted with the Fort of Xoloc. Later they grew to know it even better.

After the ceremony was over, the army went on along the dyke of Iztapalapan, and presently came to a canal cut through the causeway and spanned by a wooden drawbridge. To Cortes, as he walked over it, must have come the question whether getting out of Mexico would be as easy as getting in.

There was not much time to wonder about the future, however, for now Montezuma, the great Emperor, lord of Anahuac, was coming forth to meet Cortes. In the midst of a throng of great men, preceded by three officers of state bearing golden wands, came Montezuma's royal litter shining with gold, shaded by a canopy of brilliant feather work, adorned with jewels and fringed with silver, and borne on the shoulders of his nobles who, barefooted, walked with humble, downcast eyes.

The royal train halted and Montezuma descended. His attendants spread down a cotton carpet, that his royal feet might not touch the earth, and over this, supported on one side by Cuitlahua and on the other by Cacama, Montezuma came to greet Cortes.

He was about forty years old—six years older than Cortes. His dark, melancholy eyes gave a serious expression to his copper-colored face, with its straight hair and thin beard. He moved with the dignity of a great prince, and as he passed through the lines of his own subjects, they cast their eyes to the ground in humility.

As Montezuma approached, Cortes threw his reins to a page and dismounted, and with a few of his chief men went forward to meet the Emperor. The two great men looked at each other with a keen interest.

Montezuma very graciously welcomed Cortes to his city, and Cortes answered with great respect, adding many thanks for all the Mexican's gifts. He hung on Montezuma's neck a cut glass chain and, except for the interference of two shocked nobles, he would have embraced him.

Montezuma appointed Cuitlahua to escort the Spaniards to their quarters in the city, while he himself entered his litter and was carried back to his palace, followed by the Spaniards with colors flying and music playing. Thus Cortes triumphantly entered Tenochtitlan.

The Spaniards looked around them with the keen interest of people in a place of which they have heard much and see now for the first time. As they had entered by the southern causeway, they were marching through the broad avenue which led from the Iztapalapan dyke straight to the great temple in the center of the city. The houses on this street belonged to the nobles and were built of red stone with broad, flat roofs defended by the parapet which turned every housetop into a fort. Wonderful gardens surrounded the houses and sometimes were laid out on the roofs.

The streets were crowded with people, as eager to see the Christians as the Christians were to see them. The Indians were awed by the white faces and the glittering armor and the horses, but they had only anger for the Tlascalans. The white men might be gods, but the Tlascalans were the Aztecs' bitterest enemies, and it was not pleasant to Aztec eyes to see their foes walking confidently through the Mexican city.

The procession, crossing many bridges where the canals cut the avenue at various places, came at length to the heart of the City of Mexico, the great square, from which ran the four broad avenues. North, south and west these avenues ran to the three causeways that joined the city to the neighboring mainland. The avenue running east stopped at the lake front. In the center of the square stood the great temple in its courtyard surrounded by a high wall cut by a gate opposite each avenue. The temple itself was, excepting the sacred temple of Cholula, the largest and most important of the land.

Opposite the temple, on the southwest corner of the great square, was the royal palace which Montezuma had erected. On the west side was the old royal palace built fifty years before by Montezuma's father, Axayacatl. This palace was given to the Spanish army for their quarters.

Montezuma was in the courtyard of the palace of Axayacatl waiting to receive Cortes and his train. He took from a vase of flowers a chain made of shells ornamented with gold and joined by links of gold, and as he threw it over Cortes' head, he said, "This palace belongs to you, Malinche, and to your brethren. Rest after your fatigue, for you have much need to do so, and in a little while I will visit you again."'

Then he and his followers withdrew, and the white men were left with their allies in their palace in Tenochtitlan. Through much danger and untold hardships, in the face of Montezuma's commands, they had reached his city, and he had housed them in a royal palace. The Spaniards must have wondered that night if the thing were real or if they were in a dream.

Aztec Emperor Montezuma II

One of the most well known Aztec rulers in history, Montezuma II met his end in 1520 during the Spanish conquest of Tenochitlan.

Originally a priest in the temple of the war god Huitzilopochtli, Montezuma II rose to power only to lose his capital, Tenochitlan, to the Spanish conquistadors and then be killed in Spanish custody.

Montezuma II’s Early Years

Montezuma was born in Tenochitlan (now Mexico City) in 1480. He spent much of his formative years studying science, art and more than anything else religion as his training to become a priest in the temple of Huitzilopochtli, the god of war. Also trained in warfare, Montezuma played an integral part in the numerous Aztec wars.

Aztec Emperor Montezuma II

Montezuma rose to power in 1502, succeeding his uncle Ahuitzotl to the throne. Several sources describe Montezuma as a proud ruler who instead of focusing on reality, gave into the power of omens and prophecies. When Montezuma assumed control of the Aztec Empire it was at its largest, stretching from modern Honduras to Nicaragua, but during his reign it was weakened but the resentment of subject tribes because of his need for more tribute and more human sacrifices. He increased taxes on merchants trading withing his boundaries and had all the plebeians removed from his court. Because of his actions as Emperor, revolts and wars broke out between several different tribes and the Aztec capital of Tenochitlan.

The Conquest of Tenochitlan

Being a priest, Montezuma believed that Quetzalcoatl, the white, bearded god of civilization was about to return to the Aztecs and rule over them. In 1519, Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortez (a white man with a thick beard) arrived on the shores of Mexico and Montezuma and the Aztecs instantly assumed that Cortez was Quetzalcoatl. Montezuma sent a group of nobles to meet the Spanish and offer them gifts. But on his way to the city Cortez had met and sided with the Tlaxcala who had been one of the tribes who had led revolts against the Aztecs.

Unaware of the alliance, Montezuma welcomed Cortez into the city and allowed him and his men to live in his palace for several months. During this time the Spanish captured Montezuma, holding him prisoner in his own palace and forcing him to be their political puppet. They made him summon all his chiefs and order them to obey the Spaniards and to begin collecting tribute of gold for the Spanish King. Cortez didn’t remain in Tenochitlan for long as he heard that a group of men from Spain was coming to limit his power. So Cortez left Tenochitlan to try to convince this new group to join him, leaving one of his lieutenants in charge of the city when he was gone.

Montezuma took advantage of his departure, leading an uprising against the remaining Spaniards and barricaded them inside the palace with no food. When Cortez returned, his men were starving and he ordered Montezuma to get them supplies, but he refused so Cortez released one of the Aztec chiefs named Cuitlahuac to do it instead. Cuitlahuac used this freedom to take control of the Aztec revolt and a riot broke out in the city. Cortez, in an attempt to quell the fighting, eventually convinced Montezuma to address his people and tell them to obey the Spanish.

Cortez believed that if had control of Montezuma that he could control the Indians as well, but instead of listening to what Montezuma had to say, the Aztecs threw stones and shot arrows at him. Three days later on June 30, 1520, Montezuma died, although no one knows whether it was from injuries sustained while giving his address or by the hands of the Spanish who didn’t need him anymore.

The Aztec Empire

Civilization in the Valley of Mexico has always centered around despotism, a system of government in which power is entirely in the hands of one person — which, in Aztec times, was a king.

Independent cities peppered the land, and they interacted with one another for the purposes of trade, religion, war, and so on. Despots frequently fought with one another, and used their nobility — usually family members — to try and exercise control over other cities. War was constant, and power was highly decentralized and constantly shifting.

Political control by one city over another was exercised through tribute and trade, and enforced by conflict. Individual citizens had little social mobility and were often at the mercy of the elite class that claimed rulership over the lands on which they lived. They were required to pay taxes and also volunteer themselves or their children for military service as called upon by their king.

As a city grew, its resource needs grew as well, and in order to meet these needs kings needed to secure the influx of more goods, which meant opening new trade routes and getting weaker cities to pay tribute — aka pay money (or, in the ancient world, goods) in exchange for protection and peace.

Of course, many of these cities would have already been paying tribute to another more powerful entity, meaning an ascending city would, by default, be a threat to the power of an existing hegemon.

All of this meant that, as the Aztec capital grew in the century after its founding, its neighbors became increasingly threatened by its prosperity and power. Their feeling of vulnerability often turned into hostility, and this turned Aztec life into one of near-perpetual war and constant fear.
However, the aggression of their neighbors, who picked fights with more than just the Mexica, wound up presenting them with an opportunity to seize more power for themselves and improve their standing in the Valley of Mexico.

This was because — fortunately for the Aztecs — the city most interested in seeing their demise was also the enemy of several other powerful cities in the region, setting the stage for a productive alliance that would allow the Mexica to transform Tenochtitlan from a growing, prosperous city into the capital of a vast and wealthy empire.

The Triple Alliance

In 1426 (a date known by deciphering the Aztec calendar), war threatened the people of Tenochtitlan. The Tepanecs — an ethnic group that had settled mostly on the western shores of Lake Texcoco — had been the dominant group in the region for the previous two centuries, although their grip on power did not create anything that resembled an empire. This was because power remained very decentralized, and the Tepanecs’ ability to exact tribute was nearly always contested — making payments difficult to enforce.

Still, they saw themselves as the leaders, and were therefore threatened by the ascendancy of Tenochtitlan. So, they placed a blockade on the city to slow the flow of goods on and off the island, a power move that would put the Aztecs in a difficult position (Carrasco, 1994).

Unwilling to submit to the tributary demands, the Aztecs sought to fight, but the Tepanecs were powerful at the time, meaning they could not be defeated unless the Mexica had the help of other cities.

Under the leadership of Itzcoatl, the king of Tenochtitlan, the Aztecs reached out to the Acolhua people of the nearby city Texcoco, as well as the people of Tlacopan — another powerful city in the region that was also struggling to fight off the Tepanecs and their demands, and who were ripe for a rebellion against the region’s current hegemon.

The deal was struck in 1428, and the three cities waged war against the Tepanecs. The combined strength of them led to a quick victory that removed their enemy as the dominant force in the region, opening the door for a new power to emerge (1994).

The Beginning of an Empire

The creation of the Triple Alliance in 1428 marks the beginning of what we now understand as the Aztec Empire. It was formed on the basis of military cooperation, but the three parties also intended to help one another grow economically. From sources, detailed by Carrasco (1994), we learn that the Triple Alliance had a few key provisions, such as:

  • No member was to wage war against another member.
  • All members would support one another in wars of conquest and expansion.
  • Taxes and tributes would be shared.
  • The capital city of the alliance was to be Tenochtitlan.
  • Nobles and dignitaries from all three cities would work together to choose a leader.

Based on this, it’s natural to think that we’ve been seeing things wrong all along. It wasn’t an “Aztec” Empire, but rather a “Texcoco, Tlacopan, and Tenochtitlan” Empire.

This is true, to an extent. The Mexica relied on the power of their allies in the initial stages of the alliance, but Tenochtitlan was by far the most powerful city of the three. By choosing it to be the capital of the newly-formed political entity, the tlatoani — the leader or king “the one who speaks” — of Mexico-Tenochtitlan was particularly powerful.

Izcoatl, the king of Tenochtitlan during the war with the Tepanecs, was chosen by the nobles of the three cities involved in the alliance to be the first tlatoque — the leader of the Triple Alliance and the de facto ruler of the Aztec Empire.

However, the real architect of the Alliance was a man named Tlacaelel, the son of Huitzilihuiti, Izcoatl’s half-brother (Schroder, 2016).

He was an important advisor to the rulers of Tenochtitlan and the man behind many of the things that led to the eventual formation of the Aztec Empire. Due to his contributions, he was offered the kingship multiple times, but always refused, famously quoted as saying “What greater dominion can I have than what I hold and have already held?” (Davies, 1987)

Over time, the alliance would become much less prominent and the leaders of Tenochtitlan would assume more control over the affairs of the empire — a transition that began early, during the reign of Izcoatl, the first emperor.
Eventually, Tlacopan and Texcoco’s prominence in the Alliance waned, and for that reason, the Empire of the Triple Alliance is now remembered mainly as the Aztec Empire.

Ensured a Food and Water Supply

The Valley of Mexico where the Aztecs ruled contained about one million people during Montezuma's reign. "This Aztec heartland included not only Tenochtitlan, but at least nine provincial centers and a large number of smaller settlements, the largest and densest population concentration in the entire history of pre-Hispanic American. The only way to feed everyone was by efficient, government-controlled agriculture," explained Brian Fagan in The Aztecs. Montezuma employed inspectors to make sure that every bit of land was planted and that extra food was sent to the capital.

In 1449 Lake Texcoco flooded the city of Tenochtitlan. Rain and hail ruined the harvests and famine struck the Valley of Mexico. Montezuma asked his cousin Nezahualcoyotl, ruler of Texcoco, for help. Nezahualcoyotl directed the construction of a nine-mile-long dike that would help control the water level and also lessen the saltiness of the water so it could be used for farming. The immense project took almost ten years and tens of thousands of workers to complete. After the dike was finished, Montezuma requested that Nezahualcoyotl direct the construction of a three-mile-long aqueduct to bring more drinking water to the city.

In the first half of the 1450s many disasters struck the Aztecs. Grasshoppers and frost destroyed two harvests. Snow and rain caused terrible flooding one year and the next two years saw an extended drought. People had no food, and some even sold their children to distant tribes for corn. Famine led to rebelliousness among the tribes paying tribute to the Aztecs. Montezuma and Tlacaelel met with the provincial puppet rulers of these tribes and arranged for phony wars, called "Flower Wars," in which the chieftains told the Aztecs the size and location of their armies, guaranteeing an Aztec win.

In 1455 the Aztec calendar's 52-year cycle ended and the calendar began again, an occasion marked by fasting and making new fire. Also at this time, the famine ended because of abundant harvests. Worried about future famines, Montezuma decided to ensure a reliable food supply by conquest and the collection of tribute. In 1458 he and his army attacked and conquered the province of Panuco, thus extending the Aztec empire to the sea. In 1461 the army conquered the lands of the Totonacs to the south, along with the people of Coatzocoalcos, and four years later Montezuma defeated the Chalca. His last war, against the Tepeaca in 1466, solidified a course of military expansion that determined Aztec policies until the Spanish arrived in 1519.

During Montezuma's rule, an old garden in Huaxtepec was rediscovered. Montezuma hired an overseer named Pinotetl to renovate the garden's stone fountains, as well as the area's irrigation system. While Pinotetl worked, Montezuma sent requests to the Lord of Cuetlaxtla for vanilla orchids, cacao trees, and other valuable plants, as well as for gardeners who would know how to replant and care for them. The replantings were successful, giving Montezuma great joy, for which he thanked the gods.

Throne of Montezuma - History


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Massacre of Toxcatl and Return of Cortes

In May of 1520, Cortes had to go to the coast with as many soldiers as he could spare to deal with an army led by Panfilo de Narvaez. Unbeknownst to Cortes, Montezuma had entered into a secret correspondence with Narvez and had ordered his coastal vassals to support him. When Cortes found out, he was furious, greatly straining his relationship with Montezuma.

Cortes left his lieutenant Pedro de Alvarado in charge of Montezuma, other royal captives, and the city of Tenochtitlan. Once Cortes was gone, the people of Tenochtitlan became restless, and Alvarado heard of a plot to murder the Spanish. He ordered his men to attack during the festival of Toxcatl on May 20, 1520. Thousands of unarmed Mexica, most of the members of the nobility, were slaughtered. Alvarado also ordered the murder of several important lords held in captivity, including Cacama. The people of Tenochtitlan were furious and attacked the Spaniards, forcing them to barricade themselves inside the Palace of Axayácatl.

Cortes defeated Narvaez in battle and added his men to his own. On June 24, this larger army returned to Tenochtitlan and was able to reinforce Alvarado and his embattled men.

Conquest of Tenochtitlán

Many Indians welcomed Cortés as a deliverer from Aztec control. Montezuma himself refused to fight Quetzalcoatl emissaries and invited Cortés into the capital. Fearful that the Aztecs might rebel against the Spanish presence, Cortés seized Montezuma, thus becoming the master of the Aztec empire without a struggle. Using Montezuma as his mouthpiece, he governed from behind the throne. Montezuma summoned all his caciques (chiefs), ordering them to obey the Spaniards and to collect tribute and gold for the Spanish monarch.

Cortés and his men remained in Tenochtitlán for several months. By then a new Spanish expedition from Cuba had reached the Mexican shores with orders to limit Cortés's power. Leaving one of his lieutenants in command, Cortés marched to the coast and persuaded his compatriots to join him.

In the meantime an Indian uprising occurred in Tenochtitlán as a result of the ruthless policies followed by Cortés's lieutenants. Cortés hastened back only to find his men barricaded in the palace and threatened by starvation. He ordered Montezuma to arrange for supplies, but the Emperor refused. Cortés then released one of the Aztec chiefs, Cuitlahuac, with orders to open the markets and bring back food. Instead, Cuitlahuac assumed the leadership of the revolt. There was furious fighting in the capital.

Cortés finally convinced Montezuma to address his people and to order them to obey the Spaniards. The angry Indians, however, refused to listen to their captive emperor and showered him with stones. Montezuma died several days later, in June 1520, either from wounds inflicted by the mob or at the hands of the Spaniards.

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