8 Fun Facts About Montezuma — Starting with His Real Name

History has gotten little right about Montezuma—not even his name. These 8 fun facts reveal the true history and legacy of the last Aztec emperor.

Jul 3, 2024By Kristen Jancuk, Editor; Latin & South American History

montezuma fun facts

 

History, it is said, is written by the winners. In Montezuma’s case, this means that nearly everything “known” about him came not from his own people but from Mexico’s colonizers, whose version of history is biased at best. While it’s challenging to undo five hundred years of accepted history, thanks to persistent modern scholars, more and more information from primary sources, particularly indigenous sources, has become accessible, giving new insight into Montezuma, a complex figure who was deeply religious, a skilled leader, a curious scholar, and perhaps the world’s first chocoholic.

 

1. His Name Wasn’t Montezuma II

Illustration of Montezuma II from Historia de la benida de los Yndios a poblar a Mexico de las partes remotas de Occidente, or Codex Tovar, late 16th century CE, Juan de Tovar. Source: latinamericanstudies.org

 

Conquering an entire people is going to lead to some language barriers and Montezuma’s name is a perfect example. While “Montezuma” is the most prevalent spelling, it’s also among the least accurate. As the Spanish chroniclers began documenting the conquistadors’ exploits, they had to approximate the sounds of the indigenous language, Nahuatl, as best they could in Spanish. Nahuatl was a glyph-based language at the time, using different pictographs to represent whole words and combining them to create compound words and names—which didn’t give the Spanish much to go on in terms of spelling. As a spoken language, it has a number of sounds not found in Spanish that were, therefore, quite challenging to reproduce with the alphabet available to the colonizers.

 

Today, scholars believe the spelling that most accurately reproduces the leader’s actual name is Motecuhzoma, which in Nahuatl means “he frowns like a Lord.” As for the “II,” this was also a Spanish invention, as the Mexica didn’t use numbers for their leaders. To differentiate the most famous Motecuhzoma from his great-grandfather of the same name, they used the name Xocoyotzin, which roughly translates to “the younger.”

 

2. He Served as a Priest

Stone bust of Quetzalcoatl, c. 1325-1521 CE. Source: The British Museum, London

 

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Before rising to the supreme leadership of the Aztec empire, Montezuma was a high priest in Tenochtitlan. As a young man, he attended a calmecac, an institution where children of nobility were educated, many becoming priests-in-training. The Mexica practiced a polytheistic religion that differed considerably from European conceptions of religion, so his role as a priest bears little resemblance to Old World priesthood.

 

He was responsible for, among other things, studying and interpreting the Aztec calendar, as well as performing various rituals to honor the gods, including tending to their shrines and performing sacrificial bloodletting. He was so successful as a young priest he ultimately earned the dubious privilege of performing the human sacrifices for which the empire was notorious.

 

As ruler, Montezuma remained deeply religious. Chroniclers recorded tales of a series of omens prior to the arrival of the Spanish that Montezuma believed foretold disaster for the empire, including a fire at the temple of Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec sun god and patron of Tenochtitlan. His deep religious beliefs are often cited as a reason for his apparent acquiescence to the Spanish.

Some historical accounts of the time claim Montezuma believed Hernán Cortés to be Quetzalcoatl, an Aztec god who was predicted to return in the year One Reed, which, unfortunately for Montezuma, coincided with the year 1519 CE. Notably, a fair number of scholars dismiss this legend as nonsense cooked up by the conquistadors in the years after the conquest.

 

3. He Was More Than a King

Coronation Stone of Montezuma II, 1503, Tenochtitlan, Mexico. Source: Art Institute of Chicago

 

When speaking of the Aztec Empire, Montezuma is often referred to as the king or even emperor, but neither title quite captures his position, or that of his predecessors, in Mexica society. The empire had a well-organized administrative structure and was divided into states. Each state (altepetl) had a tlatoani, or “speaker.” The tlatoani of Tenochtitlan, the capital of the entire Aztec territory, served as the huey tlatoani, or “great speaker,” of the whole empire, and this was the position Montezuma held at the time of the conquest.

 

This highest leadership position among the Mexica, while almost always occupied by individuals from noble families, was filled by means of an election among a council of elders. Following the complex coronation ceremony, which included a war to obtain captives for ritual sacrifice, the new huey tlatoani took power, serving as the highest political, military, and religious authority and reigning until death. In this position, some scholars believe Montezuma was considered semi-divine by the Mexica people, as part of the coronation ritual was designed to empower the huey tlatoani to speak with the voice of the gods.

 

4. He Was a Chocoholic

Illustration of women preparing xocolatl, a cacao beverage, from the General History of the Things of New Spain by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, 16th century. Source: Library of Congress

 

While it’s most likely the Olmecs who first invented drinking chocolate, later adopted by the Mexica, Montezuma may be the reason chocolate blossomed into the $100 billion industry it is today. When the leader first met with Cortés and his conquistadors, he introduced him to a unique and highly prized beverage: chocolate.

 

Bearing little resemblance to today’s hot chocolate, xocolatl was then a bitter drink often spiced with chili peppers. In the Aztec Empire, it was reserved mainly for the elites and believed to be an aphrodisiac, among other medicinal uses, which may explain why the Spanish tolerated it despite the less-than-appetizing flavor.

 

Montezuma himself is often said to have drank 50 cups of chocolate a day from a golden goblet, which is likely an exaggeration based on Spanish chronicler Bernal Diaz del Castillo’s account, which reported,

 

“[From time to time the men of Montezuma’s guard] brought him, in cups of pure gold a drink made from the cocoa-plant, which they said he took before visiting his wives…I saw them bring in a good fifty large jugs of chocolate, all frothed up, of which he would drink a little.”

 

However, it does attest to Montezuma enjoying the drink—and possibly using it to improve his bedroom prowess.

 

5. He Was a Family Man

Illustration of Montezuma with his daughter, Tecuichpoch, and son, later baptized Pedro, from the Codex Cozcatín. Source: Bibliothèque Nationale de France

 

The Mexica’s great leader had more family than the average man—by the time he became huey tlatoani, he had not one but two official wives and would go on to have numerous lesser wives as well as concubines.

 

Among the named wives of Montezuma were Tlapalizquixochtzin and Teotlalco, both daughters of a tlatoani of the state of Ecatepec. Lesser wives, the daughters and nieces of regional leaders, may have been taken to solidify political alliances. Through these wives, mistresses, and concubines, Montezuma is acknowledged to have fathered many children, though the exact number of offspring is disputed. One Spanish chronicler alleged he had 100 children and fifty pregnant wives and concubines at the time he was captured.

 

Most of these children were considered illegitimate, and their names were lost to history, but a few were recorded by chroniclers, including sons Tlaltecatzin and Chimalpopoca, who were killed during the conquest, and daughter Tecuichpoch, said to be his favorite, who would later be baptized Isabel. She is often called the last Aztec princess, as she was the only surviving legitimate heir recognized under Aztec law.

 

Several additional children survived the conquest and, under Spanish law, were recognized as heirs. They were baptized and given the Spanish names Pedro, Maria, and Mariana.

 

6. He Was a Zookeeper

Illustration of Montezuma’s zoo from the General History of the Things of New Spain by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, 16th century. Source: Library of Congress

 

He may not have been parceling out food and cleaning cages, but several historical accounts maintain that Montezuma, a curious student of the world around him, built a zoo in Tenochtitlan filled with hundreds of different wild animals and possibly even humans, like dwarves. Montezuma’s zoo boasted two aviaries, multiple ponds with fish and waterfowl, and numerous mammals.

The exact species were often not noted because the Spanish did not have names for them, but wild cats, wolves, and birds of prey were reportedly found there, as well as monkeys, bears, sloths, and reptiles, and what sounds very much like an American bison.

 

While the zoo may have impressed the Spanish colonizers, it seems not everyone was a fan, with chronicler Diaz de Castillo also noting, “Let me speak now of the infernal noise when the lions and tigers roared and the jackals and foxes howled and the serpents hissed. It was horrible to listen to and it seemed like hell.”

 

The zoo was ultimately destroyed during the Spanish siege of Tenochtitlan, with Cortés acknowledging in his letters that while he appreciated the zoo, he thought its destruction necessary to subjugate the Mexica people.

 

7. His Death is Still a Mystery

The Death of Montezuma, illustration from the General History of the Things of New Spain by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, early 16th century, Source: UCLA

 

More than a year after meeting Montezuma, Cortés wrote letters to the Holy Roman Emperor detailing how Montezuma had immediately surrendered to him and willingly submitted his people to Spanish rule and Christianity—a rather stark, perhaps unbelievable, contrast to the skilled, seasoned warrior who had expanded the Aztec empire to its greatest size. Yet letters like his were one of the few sources of information about what was happening in the “new world” and formed the primary basis of historical records at the time.

 

When Spanish chroniclers recorded that Montezuma was killed by his own people, enraged with him for betraying them and submitting to Spanish rule, the claim fit neatly into the narrative Cortés had established and was long accepted as the truth. Yet, while there are few available, scholars have indicated that nearly all Indigenous sources, which includes one recorded in the Florentine Codex, claim that Montezuma was killed—either strangled or stabbed—by the Spanish themselves when he was no longer of use to them.

 

Both parties have reason to claim it was the opposing side who took down the last Great Speaker of the Aztec Empire, so the truth behind Montezuma’s death remains a mystery.

 

8. His Legacy Lives On

The Meeting of Cortés and Moctezuma, artist unknown, c. late 17th century. Source: Library of Congress

 

Both literally and figuratively, Montezuma’s legacy lives on 500 years after his death. Though the history books have paid little notice, Montezuma’s descendants continued to shape the history of Mexico after the conquest. Through marital alliances and political maneuvering, his children and grandchildren were able to maintain their elite status in early colonial Mexico under Spanish rule, where their “noble blood” still held some sway. His descendants held swaths of land and occupied positions of local and regional power for centuries after the conquest.

 

Montezuma’s favorite daughter, Isabel, came under the protection of Cortés following the death of her third Mexica husband, Cuauhtémoc. She was granted an encomienda—as were his two other daughters—and went on to marry several Spanish husbands. She bore Cortés’s illegitimate daughter, whom she refused to recognize, as well as several legitimate children with her fifth and sixth husbands, who were recognized as Spanish nobility. They continued to collect a pension from the government specifically for Montezuma’s heirs until the 1930s.

 

Portrait of Montezuma II, artist unknown, c. late 17th century CE. Source: Mutual Art

 

His other known daughter, Mariana, also married several conquistadors, earning her lands including Ecatepec and Tarimbaro, while Montezuma’s son Pedro and his heirs also appeared to embrace Spanish rule following the huey tlatoani’s death. Pedro’s son moved to Spain, where his son was ultimately named a Count by Philip IV in the mid-17th century, a title later elevated to Duke by Queen Isabella II in the 19th century.

 

Montezuma’s family line continues to the present day, as does his legendary figure. Whether emblazoned on modern chocolate confections and tequila, dubiously honored by national parks unrelated to him, or credited with taking revenge on modern man through intestinal distress, Montezuma’s misunderstood and controversial figure continues to loom large for Indigenous and colonizers alike.

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By Kristen JancukEditor; Latin & South American HistoryKristen received her MA in Latin American and Hemispheric Studies from George Washington University, and a BA in Spanish and International Relations from Bucknell University. After receiving her MA, Kristen began working on international drug policy for the Organization of American States. She is certified for Spanish-to-English translation by the American Translators Association, specializing in translating national and international policy as well as academic content focused on the Latin American region. One of her greatest and most impractical ambitions is to learn Quechua.