Young Folk's History of Mexico - Frederick Ober

Last Years of the Mexican Empire

[A. D. 1502.] In the year 1490, in one of the expeditions to the Gulf coast, there came into prominence, through his display of valor, one of the royal princes named Montezuma. He was a son of the famous and terrible Axajacatl, and had been in many campaigns, though his warlike father had died before he was old enough to accompany him far. By the law of the kingdom, the throne vacated by the death of Ahuitzotl should descend to one of the grandsons of the preceding king. The choice fell upon Montezuma, called Xocojotzin—to distinguish him from the great Montezuma who died in the year 1464. He was not a son of the first Montezuma, but of his brother, Axajacatl, who had succeeded him to the throne. He had shown great bravery as a general, but of late had joined the priesthood, preferring to sacrifice his victims on the altar of the war-god to slaying them in the heat of battle.

When the news of his election reached him he was found sweeping the temple, to which occupation he returned, with great affectation of humility, as soon as he had been confirmed in his exalted position.

It is said that the great Nezahualpilli made a noted speech on the occasion of his coronation, congratulating him upon having such an empire to govern, and the people upon having such a king to preside over their destinies. But this address of Nezahualpilli (like those of men like him who have retired from business and spend their time in domineering over their wives) is too long for repetition. Montezuma II.—for this was now his title—was much affected by this speech; but whatever good resolutions he may have formed did not prevent him from hurrying off to secure some wretched captives to be murdered at the subsequent ceremonies.

A convenient quarrel was opened with a neighboring tribe, and a sufficient number of unfortunates dragged from their homes to be slaughtered on this occasion. The games, dances and illuminations were so varied, the value of the tributes paid by different provinces was so great, that visitors came from all over the country—even the fierce Tlascallans, between whom and the Mexicans existed perpetual enmity. To all these were assigned choice seats,—as at the dedication of the temple, in 1486,—and all departed greatly impressed with the magnificence of Montezuma's court. The rejoicings of his subjects were, however, of short duration, for the veil of humility was soon drawn aside, and Montezuma showed himself the proud, arrogant, and oppressive ruler that his subsequent acts proved him really to be.

Montezuma Xocojotzin.


Disregarding the advice of his counselors, Montezuma pursued a course directly opposite to that of his predecessors. They had been accustomed to bestow rewards for valor upon deserving men, without regard to rank or birth, and in this manner many plebeians had attained to high office. Montezuma degraded these officials, and surrounded himself only with the nobility. As had been predicted, this conduct soon alienated the hearts of the people; though he made them fear him, they at the same time hated him. His attendants in the palace were all persons of rank; several hundred noble young men especially waited upon him at dinner. Every morning, he gave audience to six hundred nobles and lords of tributary provinces, whose retinues were so numerous that they filled three small courts of the palace. All these rulers over distant dependencies were obliged to reside several months of each year at court, or leave some near relatives as hostages for their fidelity in case of absence. When they appeared before the king they wore only the coarsest garments, laying off their rich robes in an outer apartment. As they approached the king they made three bows, saying at the first, "lord," at the second, "my lord," and at the third, "great lord." They replied to his questions in a low tone and humble manner, and soon retreated from the room, always with their faces to the throne.

In a future chapter we shall describe his palace and the state and ceremonies there, as observed by the Spanish conquerors on their arrival at the Aztec capital. Our object now is to inquire into the causes that contributed to the subsequent destruction of the empire, and to trace the succession of events up to the year 1520.

This ninth King of Mexico, Montezuma, committed a fatal error in separating from him the common people, who constituted the mass of his fighting men, and surrounding himself only with persons of nobility and members of the priesthood. He was digging the ground from under his own feet; the glittering fabric he was rearing was top-heavy, and would have been precipitated to the ground of its own weight, even had not the Spaniards appeared to hasten its downfall! He even carried his arrogance so far as to deprive the travelling merchants of all the privileges they had enjoyed under previous monarchs. Now, these travelling merchants, as we have seen in a previous chapter, were important aids in the extension of the Aztec dominion. They entered the country of an enemy, or one not subjected to Mexican rule, in the character of merchants, but really performed efficient work as spies. They had almost invariably been advance couriers, who had preceded the coming of an army of subjugation. Under one of the kings, a party of these merchants had been cut off in the country of the Miztecas, and there they seized a town and fortifications and held out for four years, until relieved by the approach of a Mexican army.

All these valuable spies and skirmishers, who traversed the country at their own expense and added vastly to its material wealth, were degraded to the ranks of the plebeians, without hope of elevation. His armies were constantly employed in quelling revolts, but they succeeded in adding little new territory.

The arrogance and severity of Montezuma, while they disgusted his subjects and caused them to desire nothing so much as a change of government, were somewhat modified by his liberal spirit on great occasions and his generosity towards deserving officials. By keeping his subjects employed he smothered discontent, and by building temples and keeping the altars smoking with sacrifice, he gained a reputation for devoutness and devotedness to their gods.

[A. D. 1503.] Within sixty miles of the Mexican capital there existed the republic of Tlascala, small but warlike, a thorn in the side of the Aztecs, a perpetual menace to them. No one knows why this belligerent people had been allowed to exist so long near the centre of Mexican power, when—notwithstanding their bravery—the Aztecs could doubtless have crushed them by mere weight of numbers. Some have thought that they were allowed to remain there in order that the Mexican troops might have an enemy near to be exercised against, and a place whence they might draw victims for the altars without fatiguing marches to distant provinces.

Sacrifice to the Gods.


At all events, the brave little republic sat intrenched among the mountains of Tlascala, and had never been subjugated since the entrance of its people into the Mexican valley. Montezuma at last resolved to severely punish these people, if not to conquer them, and sent against them an army commanded by his son. This army was defeated, and his first-born and much-beloved was slain. A second army sent against the Tlascalans was also vanquished, and these victories the heroes celebrated with great rejoicings.

There was in Tlascala a famous general called Tlahuicol, celebrated for his great strength and courage, and for his skill with the maquahuitl, or the Mexican sword, the one he carried being so heavy that an ordinary man could hardly lift it. By some mischance he got embedded in a marsh, and his enemies, who had hitherto fled in terror wherever he appeared, captured and placed him in a cage and sent him to Montezuma.

The generous nature of the king impelled him to set the hero at liberty: but Tlahuicol refused to return to Tlascala after having suffered the disgrace of being taken a prisoner, and demanded permission to die in honor of the god. Montezuma offered him the command of his armies, as general-in-chief, but the noble-minded Tlascallan refused, saying he would not be guilty of such treason to his country. He, however, accepted a command of a body of troops against Michoacan, enemies to both nations, and acquitted himself so bravely that Montezuma renewed his offers of reward and liberty. This great man would accept neither, but steadily persisted in being allowed to die before the god. At last, after having dwelt with the Mexicans for three years, his request was granted.

There were two kinds of sacrifice, one performed by the Priests, in which the victim was stretched upon the convex surface of the great sacrificial stone, his hands and legs held by four attendants, while the chief priest cut open the protruding breast and tore out the yet palpitating heart. This was offered to the god, either by being thrust between his lips in a golden spoon, or roasted on the coals before him, and the body was thrown down the steps of the great temple-pyramid to the people assembled below. This ceremony took place on the summit of the great teocalli.

The other mode of sacrifice was the gladiatorial. Near the middle of the vast square of the temple was a low, broad stone, upon which, tied by one foot to a ring in its centre, any prisoner who had gained a reputation for bravery was allowed to battle for his liberty. Should he vanquish six Aztec warriors in succession he was allowed to go free. Fettered in this way, the valiant Tlahuicol  killed eight of Mexico's bravest warriors and wounded twenty, when, falling senseless from a fearful blow on the head, he was taken before the idol, Huitzilopochtli, and his heart torn out, as a precious morsel for the god.

A Gladiatorial Sacrifice.


[A. D. 1505.] Two years of famine reduced the people to such a condition that the king was obliged to throw open the royal granaries, and even to allow them to wander away into other countries to seek for food. In 1505, an expedition was undertaken to Guatemala; nearly nine hundred miles distant, and a temple was erected to the goddess Centiotl,—the goddess of Maize,—and consecrated by sacrifice of the prisoners taken in this year. A bad omen for them, at this time, was the burning of the turret of another temple, which was struck by lightning. The people of Tlaltelolco seeing the fire, and thinking an enemy had got possession, hurried into the Mexican portion of the city with arms in their hands. This act was construed by Montezuma as rebellious, and he deprived them of all offices and looked upon them distrustfully till his wrath was spent.

The Festival of the New Fire

[A. D. 1506.] At the end of this year occurred the ceremonial of "tying up the cycle," or the festivities attending the close of one of their cycles and the beginning of another. You must know that the Mexicans divided the duration of the world into four ages. The first they called the age of water—Atonatiuh, or "first age of the sun,"—which lasted from the creation of the world until the destruction of mankind in the great flood. The second—Tlaltonatiuh—the "age of earth," was that period when giants dwelt here, and was concluded by terrible earthquakes. The third age—that of air—Ehecatonatiuh, ended in great whirlwinds, in which everything perished along with the third sun. The fourth, the "age of fire "—Tletonatiuh—was to be the last; it began with the restoration of the human race, and, according to their mythology, was to end with the fourth sun. It was owing to this superstition that the closing years of their cycle were full of anxiety; they regarded every omen in the sky, they were never free from the fear that the god of fire would devour them at the termination of every cycle.

Mexican Century


This century, or cycle, contained fifty-two years, divided into four periods of thirteen years each. Two of these centuries made up an "old century"—Huehuetiliztli—of one hundred and four years. Their years had four names only, they were: Tochtli, the Rabbit; Acatl, the Cane, or Reed; Tecpatl, Flint; Calli, House. The first year of the century was (1) Tochtli;  the second (2) Acatl;  the third (3) Tecpatl;  the fourth (4) Calli;  while the fifth was (5) Tochtli;  and so on to the thirteenth year, which ended with Tochtli. The second period, of course, began with Acatl, the third with Tepatl, the fourth with Calli. By this ingenious arrangement there was no repetition of the symbols and their corresponding numbers and no confounding of the years one with the other, Now, as a century was completed, they called the end of it by a name, Toxiuhmopia—signifying the "tying-together-of-the-years," because at this time the two centuries were united to form an age. On the last night of the century, terror and anxiety prevented every one from sleeping, even had it been allowed by the laws. All the fires were extinguished, both in temples and houses, and all articles for domestic use, especially earthenware and kitchen utensils, were broken and destroyed. Some hours before midnight "the priests, clothed in various dresses and insignias of their gods, and accompanied by a vast crowd of people, issued from the temple out of the city, directing their way towards a mountain—Huixachtla—near the city of Iztapalapan, a little more than six miles from the capital. They regulated their journey in some measure by observation of the stars, in order that they might arrive at the mountain a little before midnight, on the top of which the new fire was to be kindled. In the meantime, the people remained in the utmost suspense and solicitude, hoping, on the one hand, to find from the new fire a new century granted to mankind, and fearing, on the other hand, the total destruction of mankind if the fire by divine interference should not he permitted to kindle." The faces of the children were covered, and they were net allowed to sleep, to prevent their being transformed into mice. All those who did not go out with the priests mounted upon roofs and terraces to observe from thence the event of the ceremony.

Upon the breast of the human victim selected for this event were placed two pieces of wood, and as one of the priests gave him the fatal stab with the knife of flint another kindled the wooden shield by friction, and the flame flew upwards. Then the victim and the blazing wood were cast into a pile of combustibles, and as the flames leaped up they were received by the assembled multitudes with shouts of gladness. The signal fire in the mountain top was seen all over the valley. "Myriads of upturned faces greeted it from hills, mountains, terraces, temples, teocallis, house-tops and city-walls; and the prostrate multitudes hailed the emblem of light, life, and fruition as a blessed omen of the restored favor of their gods and the preservation of the race for another cycle. The priests carried the new fire to the temple, and in every temple and dwelling it was rekindled from the sacred source; and when the sun rose again on the following morning, the solemn procession of priests, princes and subjects, which 124 had taken up its march from the capital on the preceding night, with solemn steps, returned once more to the city, and, restoring the gods to their altars, abandoned themselves to joy and festivity, in token of gratitude and relief from impending doom."

This was the last  celebration of the festival of the sacred fire in Aztlan. Nearly eight cycles have rolled their rounds of years since then, but at the termination of none of them has been performed the ceremony of the "tying up of years." At that last rejoicing, in 1506, they felt themselves safe for another century; but, as a nation, they were to be swept from the earth. The age of fire, indeed, this proved for them, for their fair land was to be swept by fire and sword; the victims they had sacrificed were to be amply avenged!