Moctezuma: Aztec Ruler

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British Museum, London

History has not been fair to Moctezuma, the last emperor of the Aztecs (also known as the Mexica). He has been portrayed as a weak and superstitious figure who buckled when the Spaniards marched inward to his city. A new exhibition at the British Museum shows him as the powerful imperial ruler he was.

In August 1519 Cortés, who led the conquistadores, rode into the Great Temple in the city of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, firing his noisy (but ineffective) arquebuses. Montezuma welcomed him courteously, but with a clear sense of his own power. From 1502 Moctezuma ruled an empire which had conquered and subdued much of what is modern Mexico. They were less brutal imperialists than the Incas, allowing subject people to retain their gods and social organisation, but their "wars of flowers" still demanded both tribute and the hearts of conquered soldiers for sacrifice.

It suited the Spaniards to represent the Mexica as barbarians, but the extraordinary city that the Spaniards entered took their breath away: Tenochtitlan was built on islands in the lake of Texcoco, criss-crossed with canals and great causeways. Its population was around 200,000. There is a model in the exhibition which gives some idea of the grandeur that Bernal Diaz, a foot soldier in the conquering army, still remembered 60 years later, when he wrote his account of the conquest.

One illustration shows Moctezuma kneeling before Cortés - but this is Spanish wish fulfilment. The head of such an empire would never bend the knee before a couple of loud explosions and a necklace of beads. For several months the Spaniards roamed the city, but when Cortés left to subdue a rising in his own ranks at the port of Veracruz, the population rose up and drove the invaders out. It was bloody, and many Spaniards drowned in the lake under the weight of the booty they had stolen. When the Spaniards returned they laid waste to the city, took Moctezuma prisoner and forced him onto the balcony of his palace to call for calm. An enraged population hurled darts and stones, and he died shortly after in circumstances which remain unclear. Did he die of his injuries or was he killed by the furious Spaniards?

History is written by the victors, so Moctezuma is portrayed as welcoming Cortés as a returning god - Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent of Aztec mythology. It's a doubtful, if familiar, justification for conquest.

The exhibition displays some beautiful artefacts and some exquisite painted histories (the Codices) - the few that survived the destruction of Aztec records by order of the church. But the focus on Moctezuma leaves many questions unanswered about the society that he belonged to and its internal life. Even an absolutist ruler is shaped by the society he lives in.


Moctezuma: Aztec Ruler is at the British Museum until 24 January.