Fall of the Aztec Empire

Spanish chamfron
Spanish chamfron (armoured headpiece) for a horse
Image: Jorge Vértiz
Source: Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes - Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia

When the Spanish arrived in 1519, Tenochtitlán was nearly two hundred years old. The Aztecs were at the peak of their civilisation.

Two key players in the fall of the Aztec Empire were the Aztec ruler Moctezuma II (c. 1460–1520) and the Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés (1485–1547). Two aggressive, expansionist powers came face to face.

The Spanish Mindset

The Spanish arrived in Mexico seeking gold, new trade opportunities, and to spread the Catholic faith. Having already established settlements on several islands, they turned next to the mainland.

The political marriage of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand II in 1492 reunified Spain after years of instability. Under their rule, the Catholics defeated the Moors at Granada. Jews and Muslims converted to Christianity or faced exile from Spain. Spanish patriotism awakened and the country's wealth and power grew as its territory expanded. The voyages of Christopher Columbus launched the Age of Exploration and opened up new territories just when the monarchy’s finances were dwindling. Spanish culture was entering the modern era.

The Mēxihcah Mindset

Although the Aztecs flourished in the 15th and early 16th centuries, the Mēxihcah culture was still pre-modern.

Religion was not just a system of belief but an explanation of how the world worked. Tradition and ritual, rather than empirical observations, dictated every aspect of life. Priests mediated relationships with the divine.

Customarily, the Aztecs captured rather than killing their enemies in war. This was a key point of difference between the Aztecs' method and purpose of war, and the Spanish who killed to conquer.

Colliding Cultures

Aztec warriors were accustomed to victory and dominated their neighbours. However, their obsidian blades and shields made of reeds were no match for Spanish steel armour and swords. The Spanish also brought horses, allowing them to cover distances at speed, and haul heavy loads such as cannons. After two years, the Aztecs were defeated. Their culture virtually disappeared when Spanish conquerors destroyed Tenochtitlán in 1521. The key events - meetings, conflicts, acts of war and the spread of disease - are detailed in the timeline.

The codices and accounts from eyewitness Spanish historians describe this clash between two civilisations. These primary sources represent one path to understanding an ancient culture. The artefacts excavated from ruins in Mexico provide another means to interpret the lives of the Aztecs.

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