The Siege of Tenochtitlan

  By Timotheus, 30 January 2007; Revised
Contents »
How It Began
Hernan Cortez
Hernan Cortez

Possibly no other conquest has been so amazing as Hernan Cortes’s. That one thousand three hundred men, no matter how well armed, could topple an empire with a population reaching into the millions, seems as amazing today as it was for the men who lived concurrently with the events. How did Cortes do it? Why was the mighty Aztec Empire destroyed by a handful of adventurers far from any logistical base?

Cortes first arrived at Tenochtitlan on November 8th, 1519. At the time, it was one of the largest cities in the world; Cordoba before the Reconquista, Constantinople before its fall, and Baghdad before the Mongols burned it would have been larger, but now this city, which Spaniards swore in later accounts was more beautiful than any city they had ever seen, was only outranked by some cities in China. Cortes had, on his march over, variously made wars and alliances with the other Mesoamerican tribes; by dint of force and the general hatred of Aztec hegemony, he had acquired a number of allies, most notably the Tlaxcalans.

By sheer good fortune, the cyclical nature of the Aztec calendar and some ancient Aztec prophecies had foretold a return of their god Quetzalcoatl around this time. Thus, Cortes was welcomed into Tenochtitlan and, initially, given everything they desired. The idea of the Spaniards being gods quickly wore off as the Aztecs grew suspicious of their incessant demands for gold, the removal of the idols of Quetzalcoatl, and the times when they grew sick and bled and died like men, instead of like gods. In fact, once the Spaniards had the notion in their heads that the Aztecs treated them like gods, it nearly became their downfall, for they marched unsuspecting into the Aztec trap when they returned to the city the second time.

The Aztecs Resist

Cortes had, in fact, left Cuba for Mexico hours before the Spanish government would have replaced him as leader of the expedition, and had the status of renegade and traitor. Thus, a man named Panfilo de Narvaez was sent to capture Cortes, put him in custody, and take charge of the expedition. When Cortes heard this, he left a small force behind him under the command of a vindictive and evil-spirited lieutenant called Pedro de Alvarado. After marching quickly to the coast, Cortes’s troops surprised Narvaez at Vera Cruz, left him as prisoner, and subsumed Narvaez’s army of nine hundred into his of about two hundred and sixty. He then returned to Tenochtitlan.

Unbeknown to him, however, Alvarado had massacred a number of the nobility in the MainTemple. There is much confusion as to why he did this. Some sources suggest that he was trying to stop a human sacrifice, or that he had learned of an Aztec attack and was pre-empting it; others say that the nobles had refused him some gold. It is possible he did it for no reason at all. Alvarado was a man who would do things like that; on the escape from Tenochtitlan, he was the sole survivor of a body of Spanish troops he had been entrusted to lead. At any rate, rage now simmered against the Spaniards among the Aztecs of Tenochtitlan. Cortes’s allies in Tlacopan had urged him not to re-enter the city, but his desire for gold and his high opinion of himself, along with his low opinion of the Aztecs, made him disregard their warnings. He marched into the city, joined Alvarado’s men, and, promptly, found all causeways out of the city blocked by thousands of Aztec warriors. He was in a position that no soldier would ever want to be in: surrounded on all sides and outnumbered seventy to one.

Cortes sent Diego de Ordaz with his best technology: crossbowmen, harquebusiers, cannon, war dogs, horsemen, steel swords and lances. The carnage was horrible – but the conquistadores could not kill the Aztecs as fast as they came, and four hundred Spaniards were killed. Undoubtedly, each man dead had killed thirty Aztecs himself, but even this did not improve odds. Cortes told Emperor Montezuma to speak to the Aztecs, but he was stoned by the multitude and died later of his wounds.

La Noche Triste

Victor Davis Hanson writes: “Cortes was at a crossroads. The choice was clear-cut: either flee empty-handed, or stay and die with the gold in Tenochtitlan. Characteristically, he chose neither.” (Carnage and Culture, 176) Each Spaniard would take as much gold with him as he wanted, and the entire army would slip out at night and make a run for safety with their Tlaxcalan allies. On July 1, 1520, forever known in history as “La Noche Triste”, the Sad Night, the conquistadors slowly and softly crept out of the city they had hoped to make theirs.

At first it seemed that the plan was working. The Spaniards crossed the first three canals that lay between them and the exit, but, while crossing the final canal, which was named Mixocoatechialtitlan, they were spotted by a woman getting water in morning’s early light. The alarm was sounded, and escape was cut off. Thousands of Aztecs swarmed the causeways while the Spaniards rushed to move into battle order. But weighted down with the gold they had filled their armor with, they were routed. The Spaniards fled and drowned in the causeways; those behind them crossed on their dead bodies. And here passed the Aztec’s greatest opportunity to destroy Cortes.

For too long, the Aztec warrior had been trained to strike to stun, not to kill; to bind up their captives and either eat them or sacrifice them to their gods. They were beginning to realize that such ideas would not work against the merciless Spaniards, yet their superstitions persisted. If only they could capture Cortes and sacrifice him, surely these Spanish demons would cease marauding the land. So Cortes was struck and nearly bound, but two knights nearby, Olea and Quinones by name, saved him. Had they killed him there, the Spanish, leaderless, would soon have been completely destroyed. Cortes lived – and lived to conquer once more.

Eight hundred and sixty-nine conquistadores lay dead. A thousand native allies were fallen with them. As for the Aztecs, who could tell? Likely, their casualties ran into the thousands, but what was that? These people were as the sand of the seashore, as numerous as the stars in heaven. And they were still following the Spanish army. On the Plain of Otumba, the next day, the four hundred Spaniards left without any horses but twenty, without cannon, harquebus, or crossbow, were attacked by forty thousand Aztecs, with some natives who had switched alliances. Yet, Cortes won a victory: the European cavalry charge was still fearsome with twenty lancers on wounded horses. These twenty were able to rout forty thousand because they were able to kill an important general, named Cihuacu, and several other high ranking Aztecs, identifying them by whoever had the most colorful plumes. The Aztec army, without any leader, broke and ran. Spanish discipline had won the conquistadores a reprieve, and they safely arrived in Tlaxcala.

The Return
The Battle
The Battle

All would have been for naught had the Tlaxcalans taken advantage of them then and there. They surely were able to. The Spaniards were exhausted and few; if the Tlaxcalans proved unfaithful, their last hope was gone. But the Tlaxcalans realized the power of Spanish arms and their cunning ingenuity. They decided to stand or fall with the invaders, not wishing the terrible punishment of the Aztecs once the Spanish troops had left. Of course, most of the Spanish men wished nothing more than to go home to Cuba and forget all of their pain, misery, and broken dreams. Cortes, however, was an outlaw. It would only go the worse for him if he returned in defeat – but, if he conquered, even if the odds were slim, he would become a hero. Cortes, thus, roused his troops and gained ten thousand Tlaxcalan soldiers to make another attempt on Tenochtitlan.  Martin Lopez, the Basque shipwright who had survived all the trials of battle, was set to work constructing some modular brigantines which Cortes would use to take control of Lake Texcoco and win himself the city.

There was another killer in those days. He did not strike discriminately, but slew Spaniard, Tlaxcalan, and Aztec alike. The disease of smallpox had come to the New World. The Spaniards, somewhat immune, did not die like the Aztecs, among whom thousands fell without being even touched by a weapon. The suffering was even greater among the Spaniard’s native allies, who, being more proximate to the origin of the disease, fell in terrible amounts. Yet, smallpox strengthened the Spanish cause more than it weakened it. Inside Tenochtitlan, the Aztecs were becoming demoralized.   Two hundred conquistadores landed at Vera Cruz, joining Cortes’s army with fresh horses, new cannon, and large quantities of crossbows, harquebuses, and gunpowder.

On May 30th, after being carried overland in pieces from Tlaxcala, Martin Lopez’s brigantines were assembled and launched in Lake Texcoco. The Spaniards were now safe to attack along the causeways with impunity, not in danger from water-borne Aztec attacks as they had been in the past. Instead, the many food-bearing canoes which were responsible for supplying Tenochtitlan were unable to come into the city. Tenochtitlan would starve to death. As the Spaniards slowly advanced block by block, they were fiercely resisted by the Aztecs, thus, making it necessary to destroy whole neighborhoods in order to kill all enemy fighters (much like what is happening today in Iraq). The city, called the most beautiful in the world by the invaders, was in ruins when the starving emperor Cuauhtemoc surrendered.

How Did It Happen?

Though they bravely resisted, the Aztecs were unable to counter the inevitability of the Spanish conquest. Four thousand years of the European tradition of rational inquiry had given the Spaniards an insuperable technological advantage. Even if the Aztecs had been able to destroy Cortes’s invasion entirely, there would surely have been another, and, if that had been turned back, there would have been another. Tenochtitlan may have become like the Yucatan Peninsula, falling after seventy years of resistance instead of in one brilliant assault, but it would have fallen just the same. The reason why Cortes won, rather than a subsequent commander, is somewhat due to the incredible and unlikely chain of events that led history during these thirteen months, but it primarily has to do with this commander’s unshakable tenacity. Lesser men would have turned back after defeat, reasoning that they had tried their best, and failed with it. Cortes risked all, and gained his goal.


Victor Davis Hanson, Carnage and Culture, p. 170-232 and related pages