The Twilight of the Empire

The Twilight of the Empire

On November 8, 1519, the Aztec world changed forever when a group of Spanish conquistadores, led by Hernán Cortés, arrived at Tenochtitlan to meet Motecuhzoma II. The ninth Aztec ruler had known of the impending arrival of white men from the east for a number of years and had sent messengers to the Gulf Coast to bring news of these strangers, whose approaching ships appeared to the Aztecs as houses floating on the sea. Upon his arrival, Motecuhzoma invited Cortés to Tenochtitlan, perhaps in the belief that he was Quetzalcoatl, the ruler-priest and god who had been banished and who, according to legend, would return from the east.

Cortés and Motecuhzoma met on one of the causeways that linked Tenochtitlan to the mainland. Here they exchanged words and gifts. Treated like gods, the Spanish were welcomed in Tenochtitlan, a city whose beauty and sophistication overwhelmed them. They were uncertain of Motecuhzoma’s intentions however, and, aware that they were outnumbered, they soon betrayed the Aztec ruler and took him hostage. In response, the Aztecs attacked the Spaniards, resulting in a war in which both sides sustained heavy casualties. Motecuhzoma died during the fighting, possibly killed by his own people as they threw stones at the conquistadores. In desperation, the Spanish finally fled the city by moonlight on late June 1520, an occasion that has come to be known as the Noche Triste (Sad Night) by the Spanish.

The following year a 900-strong Spanish army returned, beginning a nearly 3-month-long siege that claimed many Aztec lives through intense fighting, starvation, and disease. After fierce resistance, the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan finally fell to Cortés on August 13, 1521.

The Spanish conquest can be attributed to several factors, among them were their superior weapons, which included firearms and steel swords, and their military tactics, which, unlike Aztec warfare, focused on actually killing the enemy (rather than capturing them alive to be sacrificed to the gods later). Cortés also exploited underlying tensions between Tenochtitlan and other cities. He was helped in his negotiations with the Aztecs by an interpreter, an indigenous woman, Malintzin, whom the Spaniards renamed Marina and is known today in Mexico as La Malinche.

As might be expected considering the conviction with which they had practiced their own religion previously, the Aztecs’ conversion to Christianity was a slow and gradual process. For a while, the two religions existed somewhat uneasily together as the Aztecs were forced to relinquish their many gods and goddesses in favor of one supreme deity. Despite the eventual success of the Christian mission, some Aztec idols were still being worshipped more than 300 years later.

Further Explorations

The meeting between Cortés and Motecuhzoma II marked the encounter between two different civilizations who knew little of each other. Divide the class in half: one half will represent how Motecuhzoma II and his armies saw the invaders; the rest should imagine themselves as the Spanish expedition. Write scripts that demonstrate disparate points of view, and then stage a meeting envisioning what took place in November 1519, along the causeway leading to the Aztec capitol.


Much of what we know about the Aztecs comes from their beautiful, hand-painted manuscripts, or codices (singular: codex).

In their codices, Aztec painter-scribes used a form of picture writing, which resembled the ancient Egyptians’ hieroglyphics or the modern-day comic. This “writing” included pictograms, phonetic signs, religious emblems, and even mathematical symbols.

During the initial years of Spanish rule, many codices were destroyed, especially those that documented Aztec rituals. Today only a few pre-Hispanic painted books from Mexico survive.

View + Discuss

1. Examine the page from the codex, Lienzo of Quetzpalan. How many symbols (glyphs) can you decipher? Which symbols are difficult to equate with a meaning? Try to construct a narrative that describes what is being depicted.

Lienzo de Quetzpalan
Colonial-Puebla, late 16th century
Cotton and pigments, 154 x 183 x 53 cm
Fundación Cultural Televisa, Mexico City
REG 21 PJ 403
Photo: Michel Zabé, assistant Enrique Macías

Further Explorations

To practice communicating using glyphs, try a game of Pictionary® (picture charades). Divide the class in half. Each team should write a set of secret words that the other team will try to guess. Movie, play, and song titles are some possible categories. A player tries to draw symbols that will get their team to guess correctly. No talking or written words allowed.

Many codices document historical information and events. Choose a subject and create a set of graphic symbols (glyphs) to illustrate your codex.

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