- Historic Sites
The City Of The Living God
From a long-obscure life of Cortés, written by his own secretary, comes a narrative of the incredible splendors of Moctezuma’s Axtec capital
April 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 3
Moctezuma was profoundly shaken and said with all gravity: “My person is not such as can be taken prisoner and, even if I should consent to it, my people would not suffer it.” The two spent more then four hours discussing the matter, at the end of which Moctezuma said he would go [with Cortés], because he had to rule and govern. He ordered a room to be well furnished and prepared for him in the house and court of the Spaniards, and went there with Cortés. Many lords, barefoot and weeping, undressed him, put his clothes under their arms, and bore him off in a rich litter. When it was noised about the city that the king was a prisoner in the hands of the Spaniards, it erupted in a great tumult. But Moctezuma comforted those who were weeping, and told the rest to desist, saying that he was not a prisoner, nor was he there against his will, but much to his liking.
Cortés put a captain and a guard over him and changed the guard daily, so that there were always Spaniards to cheer and entertain him. For his part, Moctezuma greatly enjoyed their company, and always gave them something. He was served there by his own people, as in his palace, and by the Spaniards also, who put themselves out to please him, and Cortés himself brought him every kind of gift, begging him at the same time not to feel badly about it, and leaving him free to hear suits, dispatch his affairs, attend to the government of his realms as before, and to speak publicly and privately with all those of his people who wished to see him—which was the bait that caused Moctezuma and his Indians to take the hook.
Never did Greek or Roman, or man of any nation, since kings have existed, do what Cortés did in seizing Moctezuma, a most powerful king, in his own house, a very strong place, surrounded by an infinity of people, while Cortés had only 450 companions.
With Moctezuma their hostage, the Spaniards remained in the Aztec capital for another six months. But Cortés, who had never received official approval from the Crown, suddenly found himself threatened by a rival expedition of Spaniards. Leaving a garrison behind, he hastened to the coast, and forced the newcomers to submit to his leadership. Meanwhile, in the city of Mexico, his men had goaded the Aztecs into an open uprising; Cortés returned to find them barricaded in their quarters at the palace of Axayacatl. When he pushed a reluctant Moctezuma in front of his angry people, they proceeded to stone their onetime god-king and wound him mortally. Cortés now had no choice but to retreat. On the night of June 30, 1520—remembered ever after as la noche triste— his troops fought their way out along the causeway, and only escaped with heavy losses. But by the end of the year, Cortés was back with reinforcements. One by one, the towns surrounding the Aztec capital succumbed; in May, 1521, the actual siege of the city of Mexico began. It lasted three months. On August 13, when the Spaniards finally entered the city, most of it was a smoking ruin. What little was left, they destroyed .