Cuauhtemoc: Last Aztec Emperor

David Bowles
5 min readMay 25, 2023

One of the things I loved about writing Secret of the Moon Conch was including historical figures who were in and around the Isle of Mexico during the siege of Tenochtitlan in 1521.

Among these people was the last true tlahtoani or king of Tenochtitlan and therefor Aztec emperor: Cuauhtemoc.

You’ve probably seen the name before, but what does it mean? And what was this final Aztec ruler like?

Cuauhtemoc was born in 1497, the firstborn legitimate son of Emperor Ahuitzotl, who died just five years later and was succeeded by Cuauhtemoc’s much older cousin Moteuczoma Xocoyotzin (i.e., Emperor Moctezuma II). His mother was Tiyacapantzin, daughter of the rebel king of Tlatelolco, Moquihuix (who had been killed by Emperor Axayacatl during a Mexica civil war) and Chalchiuhnenetl I (sister of Axayacatl and Moteuczoma’s aunt).

If we indicate the length of vowels, his name can be written Cuāuhtemōc. The word is constructed as a compound verb. “Temōc” is “descended,” past tense of “temo,” which means “descends.” The root “cuāuh-” or “eagle” appears to have been compounded onto it. This blend creates a new verb, “cuāuhtemo,” or “eagle-descends” or “descends like an eagle.”

The upshot is that Cuāuhtemōc literally means “[he] descended like an eagle.” Most sources you see get this slightly wrong (“he who descends like an eagle” or “falling eagle”). Here’s Cuāuhtemōc’s name glyph or royal seal: an eagle dropping toward its prey.

Though the kingship of Tlatelolco had been eliminated by the Aztec Empire after the rebellion of his grandfather Moquihuix, Cuauhtemoc was appointed by the Emperor as that city’s cuauhtlahtoani or military governor in 1515, at the age of eighteen.

Six years later, Cortés arrived at the main causeway into Tenochtitlan, having brokered a treaty with the enemy of the Aztec Empire, the Republic of Tlaxcallan. Months of friction and house arrest then led to the death of Emperor Moteuczoma and the forceful expulsion of the Spanish.

Next followed the brief reign of Cuitlāhuac, who succumbed to smallpox when that disease swept across the Isle of Mexico, killing thousands. The governing council selected Cuauhtemoc to succeed him, just as word came that the Spanish and the Tlaxcaltecah were gearing up for a siege of the capital city.

The new emperor was married to Tecuichpo, Moteuczoma’s favorite daughter, just before the enemy surrounded the Isle of Mexico and began to squeeze.

The siege lasted ninety-three days.

Cut off from clean water and food, the population decimated, every human in the twin cities fought desperately, valiantly, to stave off the invaders. And they DID, in fact, expel them from the city again, on June 29th, 1521.

But Cuauhtemoc chose not to follow and destroy them.

Monument to Cuauhtemoc in Mexico City. From Wikipedia.

In hindsight, it’s clear that this was the biggest mistake the twenty-three-year-old Aztec emperor made. You see, after a couple of weeks, the Tlaxcaltecah and Spanish were back in full force, having regrouped and cut off Cuauhtemoc’s reinforcements and allies.

In another month, the cities were literally rubble, utterly flattened by canonfire. The vast majority of Tenochcah and Tlatelolcah were dead.

By August 13, 1521, activity inside the cities ground to a halt. The streets were full of rotting corpses, writhing with worms. Blood and brains were smeared on the walls. Dysentery and starvation had reduced the Mexica to shells. They had withstood three months of constant warfare.

So on that day, Cuauhtemoc got into a canoe along with Empress Tecuichpo and his closest advisers. They rowed to a Spanish brigantine just offshore.

When the Spanish realized who was approaching, every weapon on that ship was trained on Cuauhtemoc’s canoe.

“I surrender,” the emperor announced, “on the condition that my people be allowed to leave the island to search for food and that my wife be left unharmed.”

Cuauhtemoc was taken captive. Word began to spread — leave in peace. Widows, children and elderly men spilled from the ruins, crossing to the western shore to seek food in the countryside or among relatives in distant towns. Tenochtitlan was no more. Tlatelolco had fallen.

But the tragedy of the Mexica had not quite concluded. The night Cuauhtemoc finally surrendered (after weeks of failed negotiations), the heavens opened up in a massive downpour, as if the tlaloqueh sought to quench the fires that still raged across the island.

The following morning, the ruins of the island were still smoking. It was like hell, one Spaniard would recall. Virtually no buildings had been left intact. Cortés held a feast. Then he started trying to find the gold. Women fleeing the island underwent cavity searches.

Cuauhtemoc was imprisoned (though he asked to be executed). Cortés appointed his cihuacoatl or prime minister, Tlacotzin, as puppet ruler. When Tlacotzin couldn’t satisfactorily account for what Cortés believed was the missing treasure of Moctezuma, he tried torture.

Julian de Alderete was put in charge. He took both Cuauhtemoc & the king of Tlacopan, Tetlepanquetzatzin, tied them to poles, applied oil to the soles of their feet, and set it alight.

The king of Tlacopan turned to silent Cuauhtemoc, groaning, “I am in pain, Your Majesty!”

Cuauhtemoc looked back at him fiercely and snarled between gritted teeth. “Am I enjoying a delightful steam bath?” That shut Tetlepanquetzatzin up. Neither revealed the location of the gold. There wasn’t any. The Spanish had already taken it.

Moteuczoma’s treasure?

It was the island itself, that jewel of Mesoamerica. A smoking ruin. Full of the stench of rotting bodies.

Emperor Cuauhtemoc was permanently damaged by the torture, and he would walk with a limp the rest of his life. Which didn’t last much longer, unfortunately.

After four years of captivity, Cuauhtemoc was forced to accompany Cortés on an overland expedition to remove Cristóbal de Olid from Honduras, where rumor claimed he’d set up a rival colony. With them came the disabled king of Tlacopan and the governor of Tlatelolco, Tlacatlec.

It was slow going. Resting at the Chontal Maya capital of Itzamkanac, with the Aztecs called Acalan, Cortés received word of a conspiracy among the heads of the fallen Triple Alliance to kill him and his men, reinstating the empire. But his prisoners had just been joking.

The trip was grueling, Cortés exhausted, supplies dwindling. Cuauhtemoc, Tlacatlec, and Tetepanquetzatzin wondered quietly to one another whether Cortés had had enough and would turn back now, giving up.

The humor was excuse enough. Cortés hanged them from a ceiba tree.



David Bowles

A Mexican American author & translator from South Texas. Teaches literature & Nahuatl at UTRGV. President of the Texas Institute of Letters.