The Fall of the Aztec Empire

Don Hernándo Cortés, a man described as ‘ruthless, single-minded and ambitious,’ landed at Veracruz with a ‘rabble’ of Spaniards on Good Friday, 22nd of April 1519. It would take less than two years to conquer the Aztec Empire. The reasons why the Spaniards were able to conquer a ruthless and feared empire that spanned 125,000 square miles has been much debated. Was it the superiority of Spanish ‘military introductions to the New World’or was it the Aztec’s own ‘fatalism and obsession with ritual,’ Imagethat allowed the Spanish to destroy them? Undoubtedly the tactical alliance of the Spaniards with the native Tlaxcaltecas was a turning point in the campaign. However there are other factors that will also concern this discussion.

The alliance with the Tlaxcalan Indians was one of the best tactical moves made by the Spaniards after arriving in Mexico. Without the native help, smaller Spanish forces would have been overrun by the greater numbers of Aztec soldiers. The Aztec forces exceeded 300,000 warriors by the time Tenochtitlan was besieged, and the Spanish arrived with less than 840 troops, including 16 horses. But why would the Tlaxcaltecas side with these strange, European aliens? Tlaxcala was a confederacy of around two hundred towns that had been fighting nearly a century of ‘flower wars’ with the Aztecs. These were battles during which the aim was not to kill the enemy, but to capture the opposition’s warriors for sacrifice. This meant the two were in an almost constant state of war without the Aztecs actually moving to take over Tlaxcala. In this respect it’s understandable that the Tlaxcaltecas harboured a great deal of hate and bitterness towards their oppressors. There is also evidence to suggest that the city states of the Puebla-Tlaxcala valley had already loosely aligned together, showing that hostilities were mounting even before the arrival of the Spanish forces. While the Spanish wanted to search for riches and gain personal honour, the Tlaxcaltecas wanted revenge. The mix created a potent fighting force that had sufficient numbers to threaten the Aztec Empire. Without the alliance it would have been close to impossible to defeat the far superior numbers of the Aztec army, who despite having inferior weaponry and tactics, would have been able to overwhelm the Spaniards with numbers. The Tlaxcaltecas also contributed to Spanish success by providing native knowledge of the land, and in one notorious case foiled Motecuhzoma’s plan to send a double of himself to meet the Spanish.

However, if there had not been instabilities in the Empire itself, this alliance would not have been formed at all. Years of expansionist policy had alienated other indigenous people, leaving the Aztecs with few allies to unite with them against a common enemy. The fact that they instead joined forces with the invaders who promised an end to Aztec subjugation is clear evidence of the sociopolitical weaknesses embedded in the Aztec high command. Townsend maintained that it was this rigid high command and inability for the Aztec lords to adapt that allowed the Spanish to manipulate the tense political situation and literally walk into Tenochtitlan.

Aztec religion may also have been an important factor, as it seemed to them that the arrival of the Spanish had a particularly religious connotation – the possible return of Quetzalcoatl. Quetzalcoatl was the God King of the Totlecs, who had left the land and sailed east, promising his return to claim the throne. It is possible that Emperor Motecuhzoma lived in fear of his return. However, it is conceivable that this legend was a post-Conquest fabrication that gave the Spanish legitimacy. For example, Aztec sources reveal that the Chollolans believed the Spanish would not defeat them as Quetzalcoatl was fighting on their side. However, there is no doubting the significance these strangers would have had to the Aztec leaders. The physiological implications of the legend meant that the Spanish had a special control over their enemy in a way that they may not have immediately realised. IImaget meant that, unlike lesser Mayan war chiefs, the fearsome Aztecs did not act with the immediate hostility that could have saved the empire from destruction.

We’ve already seen that the Spanish were weak in terms of numbers, but did the Tlaxcaltec alliance alone give them the edge? Without a doubt European military innovations gave the Spanish the upper hand, but not in ways you might think. For example, the Spanish guns were actually of little use due to long reloading times compared the quick-fire Aztec slingshots. The Mexican weather was also considerably more humid than Spain, rendering the gunpowder often close to useless, and heavy artillery was only effective against amassed native armies. It was in fact the sword that gave the Spanish the edge (pun intended). The native macuahuitl were clubs edged with razor-sharp obsidian, but they could not be used to thrust. This allowed the Spaniards to keep a tight formation whilst the swordsman remained out of reach of the natives slashing weapon. However, it’s the introduction of horses and wolf hounds that some historians believe to be the turning point in the conquest. Horses had never been seen before by the Indians and were powerful tools for destroying morale. In the 1520 Battle of Otumba a whole Aztec army was terrified into fleeing the battle after just twenty-three cavalrymen charged against them and trampled down their commander. Similarly, wolf hounds were terrifying devil-beasts to the native eyes; bold, savage and blood thirsty. A contemporary account claimed that a Spaniard was as safe with one hound as he was with 100 men. Another key military factor was that the Spaniards fought to wipe out their enemy; a completely alien idea to warriors who sought glory in individual battles and hostage-taking. Fundamentally the two forces did not understand each other, and that gulf between them sealed the Aztec downfall.

There is, of course, another factor that I will mention briefly (as I hope to write a full post on the subject). The transfer of European diseases to the Americas was utterly devastating, killing many more natives than any other Spanish weapon. Blankets infected with small-pox were circulated throughout the capital, weakening moral and killing huge numbers of warriors and civilians. When Cortes finally claimed his prize, it was a stinking wreck, filled with corpses and death. Had it been worth it?

To sum up, it’s very difficult to attribute the fall of the Aztec empire to a single factor. Religious differences, native alliances, Spanish weaponry and the transfer of disease all played their part in the Empire’s destruction. However, I’ve come to believe that the Aztecs and Spanish simply weren’t on the same page. The Spanish fought for conquest and the Aztecs for honour, and they did not understand each other’s approaches to war. Simply put, the playing field was far from level, and if the legends are to be believed, the Aztec world was nearing another cyclical destruction. This raises the question – did the Aztec’s simply give up?  To find the truth requires a life-time of reading, and maybe I’ll get a little closer to it as I research the even darker side of the conquest; the spread of disease. Fundamentally the conquest changed the face of the Americas forever, and is still subject to fierce debate.

Sources –

Ian Heath, Aztec and Inca Empires, other native peoples of America and the Conquistadores: 1450-1608, (Burlington, Press 1999).

Miguel Leon-Portilla, The Broken Spears, (Beacon Press, 2006).

John Pohl and Charles M. Robinson, Aztecs and Conquistadores, the Spanish invasion and the collapse of the Aztec Empire (Osprey Publishing Ltd, 2005).

Hugh Thomas, Conquest (Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, 2005).

Richard F. Townsend, The Aztecs (Thames and Hudson Ltd, 2nd revised edition 2000).Michael Wood, Conquistadors (BBC Worldwide Limited, 2000).

Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, writing in The Art of War, edited by Andrew Roberts (Quercus, 2008).

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4 thoughts on “The Fall of the Aztec Empire

  1. The debate is indeed fierce! Especially between historians and archaeologists in Mexico. One of the things that I find extremely fascinating, of some of the discussions, is the contrasting differences on both sides of the ‘ring’. For historians, especially León Portilla, this is a tremendously important period as is the first time that direct descriptions of pre-hispanic society exist! These descriptions not only come from the missionaries but also from Cortéz himself. Making these sources difficult to ignore. The problem comes when we turn to the archaeological evidence of such moment. In archaeology there has been a titanic task to detect such a short-lived event and very little, if any, evidence of the struggle between Europeans and prehispanic people can be seen here (the actual battle). I think that your story will benefit largely if you could see it from a wider (chronologically speaking) perspective. Archaeologists Lenoardo López Luján or Eduardo Matos Moctezuma (unfortunately not related to the last king of the Aztecs) have come across very interesting ideas of how the conquest might have happened, in particular with reference with your last section: the way they fought. Here I can say that the Spaniards were fighting not for conquest but for syncretism. There are huge examples of the understanding between Spaniards and indigenous populations. My favourite example is the early christian representations in churches and monasteries, clearly painted by native artists. Malinalco’s frescoes or Cholula’s church are amongst my favourites. a process that took much longer than just a battle. On the other hand, The Aztects or Mexica, (as these where mostly involved in the rebellion), where fighting to keep their traditions alive. From my point of view the tipping point of the Conquest is not the battle between Mexica and the alliances but the replacement of a culture with another from inside, a much longer process.

    1. Thank you ever so much for you comment! You’ve brought forward some really interesting points here that I’ll be sure to keep in mind for future studies.

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