Gateway to the Classics: Display Item
Frederick A. Ober

At Montezuma's Court


The Spaniards made their memorable entry into Montezuma's capital on November 8, 1519, seven months after their arrival on the coast of Mexico. On the day following, attended by four of his captains and five soldiers, CortÚs set out for the palace of Montezuma, which occupied an extensive area on the opposite side of the square. The emperor received his visitors graciously, placing CortÚs at his right hand, and soon showed great curiosity concerning the land from which the Spaniards had come to Mexico, their origin, and especially the great ruler whom they professed to serve.

He still held to the theory that they were, perhaps, related in some manner to the God of Air, whose coming the Mexicans had so long expected, and appealed to CortÚs for information. The crafty conqueror (having now an inkling of the importance and significance of this connection) eagerly assured him that he was correct; but he could not explain to Montezuma's satisfaction how it was that disciples of the Prince of Peace should have appeared (as they had) with fire and sword. After CortÚs had concluded his address, with the assurance that the Spaniards worshipped "the only true God," while the gods of the Aztecs were false, and would lead them "into everlasting flames," there was silence for a space, then Montezuma replied: "Malintzin, I have already heard, through my ambassadors, of those things you now mention, and to which hitherto we have made no reply, because we from the first worshipped the gods we now do, and consider them just and good. So, no doubt, are yours. In regard to the creation of the world, our beliefs are the same, and we also believe that you are the people who were to come to us from where the sun rises. To your great king I feel indebted. There have been already persons on our coasts from your country; I wish to know if you are the same people?"

CortÚs answered that they were all subjects of the same sovereign, and Montezuma continued that from the very first he had desired to see them, which privilege his gods had now granted him. They should therefore consider themselves perfectly at home, and if ever they were refused entrance into any of his cities it would not be his fault, but that of his subjects, who were terrified by the reports they had heard: such as that they carried with them the thunder and lightning; that their horses killed men, and that they were furious teules  with blood in their eyes.

Throughout the interview—and, in fact, during all his intercourse with the Spaniards—Montezuma was extremely affable, and yet bore himself with dignity. Just before his visitors took their departure he made a sign to his officials, who brought in ten loads of rich mantles, which, together with as many collars of gold and golden ornaments, he divided among his guests. "The gold alone amounted to above woo crowns," says one of them, "and he gave it with an affability and indifference which made him appear a truly magnificent prince. . . . We then retired, impressed with respect for the great Montezuma, his princely manners and liberality."

The "great Montezuma," and a "truly magnificent prince," he may well have been termed, not only because of his kinglike greatness and air of majesty, but on account of the regal luxuriousness of his surroundings. The palace in which he had received the Spaniards was but one of many which he owned, yet this vast structure contained more than a hundred rooms, and three interior courts, or patios, adorned with fountains, flowers, and cages filled with beautiful birds. One of its reception halls was finished in marbles and jasper, and could hold 3000 persons. The roofs of the palace were flat and battlemented, with ample space (the Spaniards said) for them all to hold a tourney.

A thousand people is a goodly number for even a royal household to contain, but that of Montezuma boasted this large retinue; while his cooks, of whom he had scores, could serve his meats in thirty different styles. Three hundred dishes were prepared for his table alone, and for his guards above a thousand. The royal table was set with snowy napery and the earthenware of Cholula, while for finger-bowls four beautiful women presented the emperor with xicales, or calabashes, containing perfumed water for laving his hands.

Torches of aromatic wood diffused a grateful fragrance while they burned above the board, and gilded screens of wood were placed so as to shield his majesty from the vulgar gaze. Although he could command a profusion of viands, Montezuma ate but sparingly, his favorite food being fruits and vegetables, and his drink the Mexican pulque  (pronounced pool-kay) and chocolate. Fifty cups of chocolate were usually served at a meal, and while he sipped it he was amused by singers and dancers, sometimes by acrobats and jesters. After the chocolate came tobacco, the smoke of which he inhaled through hollow canes or reeds, and immediately upon the conclusion of the repast he took his siesta.

There was a daily interchange of visits after the Spaniards had made themselves "at home" in the palace of Axayacatl, and on the fourth day CortÚs and his staff went out to inspect the great temple-pyramid, the teocalli, which rose to a height of more than 100 feet above the plaza. Montezuma met them by appointment, having been conveyed thither in his palanquin, and when arrived at the summit-platform of the vast pyramidal structure of stone took CortÚs by the hand and pointed out to him, the various objects of interest in and about the city.

The glorious view outspread before the Spaniards that day—at least its natural features—may be seen from the bell-towers of the great cathedral, which was later erected on the site of the teocalli. Environed on every side by great mountain ranges, the valley of the table-land, S000 feet above the sea, stretched away as far as eye could see. Westward rose the sacred "Hill of the Grasshopper," Chapoltepec, which may be seen to-day, as then, covered with groves of giant cypresses.

Directly at the feet of the mailed conquerors lay the city, with its great squares and straight, wide streets; its palaces, market-places, pyramidal temples and towers. They had passed through the largest of the markets, known as the tianguis, where they were struck with admiration of its system and orderly arrangement, and the profusion of supplies from every zone.

Near the great pyramid was another temple, containing the skeletons of sacrificial victims who had perished in the past, where skulls were piled up (one of the conquerors avers) to the number of 136,000. A great wall surrounded the vast enclosure, pierced by four gateways, above which were chambers used as the royal armory. Here were collections of barbaric weapons which had been accumulated during many years.

There were wonders on every side, such as the great towers and smoking teocallis. The bosom of the lake was animated with thousands of Indians in canoes; the noise of the great market could be heard miles away; but the Spaniards on the temple-platform scarce gave heed to all these, so amazed and horrified were they at what they beheld immediately about them. They had ascended to the platform of the temple by climbing more than 100 steps, which wound around its terraced sides in successive stages. The first object that stared them in the face was grim old Huitzilopochtli, or Mexitli, the Aztec war-god, in whose name and before whom all the bloody sacrifices took place. He had a "great face and terrible eyes," says one of the party that day; "his figure was entirely covered with gold and jewels, his body bound with golden serpents; in his right hand he held a bow and in his left a bundle of arrows. Before this idol was a pan of incense, with three human hearts burning as an offering. Near him stood another hideous idol, Tezcatlipoca, or the god of the infernal regions, with a countenance like a bear and great, shining eyes of the polished substance (iztli, or obsidian) whereof their mirrors are made." Both great idols overlooked the Sacrificial Stone, nine feet in diameter, three feet in height, with a sculptured border of conquering kings. This stone had a deep bowl in its centre, with a channel leading from it to the edge, through which flowed the blood of the victims.

It was upon this stone that the high-priests of Montezuma's charnel-house threw the human victims selected for sacrifice, with knives of obsidian cut open their breasts, and then tore out their hearts, which they offered to those great stone idols looking on in grim approval. More than 60,000 victims were sacrificed here in a single year, tradition relates, and for how many years no chronicle can tell.

Would you see these objects that CortÚs gazed upon that day when, with Montezuma, he ranged the temple-pyramid nearly 400 years ago? Then go to Mexico, seek the great museum of its capital city, and there you will find them: grim Huitzilopochtli, bear-faced Tezcatlipoca, the blood-stained Sacrificial Stone, and hundreds of the tepitolones, or little gods, which had their places in the Aztec pantheon.

So accustomed to these hideous objects was Montezuma that he calmly went about among them, pointing out their excellences, and with no misgiving, apparently, except as to the manner in which they would be received by his guests. He could not but observe their horrified looks and their disgust; but these he ignored, until finally CortÚs, unable longer to endure the bloody scenes, reasoned with him upon the folly, the wickedness, of adoring such hideous images. "I wonder," he said, "that a monarch so wise as you are can worship as gods those abominable figures of the devil."

He tried to treat the whole thing as a grim and ghastly joke, speaking half-jestingly, but Montezuma was grieved and shocked. He looked at CortÚs in wonder, then sadly answered: "If I had known that you would have spoken so lightly of my gods, I should not have allowed you to visit the platform of my temple. Go, now, to your quarters; go in peace, while I remain to appease the anger of our gods." He spoke calmly, but his eyes flashed angrily, and as the priests of the temple, their hair matted with gore, and their black robes stained with human blood, began to gather ominously, the Spaniards beat a retreat to their quarters in the palace.

It had been the intention of CortÚs to apply to Montezuma for space upon the pyramid-platform in which to erect a chapel, but from this he was dissuaded. When, however, he asked permission to erect an altar in Axayacatl's palace, it was gladly given by the emperor, who furnished workmen and materials, so that in three days a separate apartment was provided for the purpose. Sounding the walls for a niche in which to place the cross, the workmen found a concealed door, which, when opened, revealed a room filled with gold, gems, silver, jewels, feather-work and gorgeous fabrics. "We there saw riches without end," wrote Diaz, the conqueror, "and I thought that if all the treasures of the earth had been brought into one place they could not have amounted to so much."

The secret of the treasure-house soon spread abroad, and every soldier as well as officer in the command got a glimpse of it. They could scarce keep themselves from appropriating and sharing it then and there, but by orders of CortÚs the wall was closed up again and the treasure left for "a more convenient season."

It may as well be stated here that Montezuma was later compelled to deliver up this treasure to the Spaniards, who broke up the beautiful ornaments and cast them into bars, which were stamped with the imperial arms. The articles of gold alone formed three great heaps, exclusive of the jewels, silver, pearls and feather-work, and the whole was valued at more than $6,000,000.

The soldiers then considered themselves rich "beyond the dreams of avarice"; but they still had CortÚs to reckon with, and this is how he divided that imperial loot: First, he laid aside a fifth for his majesty in Spain; then another fifth for himself. Of the remaining three-fifths a generous portion was set off to "reimburse the Cuban expedition," the expense of which had been mainly borne by CortÚs; fourthly, for the expenses of the agents sent to Spain from Vera Cruz; fifthly, for the soldiers at Villa Rica; sixthly, for the horses killed in battle; seventhly, for the Rev. Father Olmedo and the captains; eighthly, double shares for the cavalry, musketeers, and cross-bowmen; ninthly, the foot-soldiers, whose shares by this time were hardly worth stooping for. In fact, out of that vast hoard, amounting to more than $6,000,000, the infantry's share, as allotted by CortÚs, was less than $1000 to each soldier.


The sacrificial stone.

Little wonder that there were mutterings, loud and deep, that many of these heroes, upon whom the commander had relied in battle, and to whom he had made repeated promises of wealth and honors, were ready to return at once to the coast and to Cuba. Some of these CortÚs quieted with gold, others with more promises; but they all knew him now as cunning, covetous, and mercenary.

At the end of a week the Spaniards had visited nearly every nook in the city, and the natives no longer paid attention to them, save to supply their wants by orders of Montezuma. They, as well as their allies, were tired of inaction, and the sight of the vast treasure having excited their cupidity, they were anxious to be off with it to a place of safety. These were the feelings of the rank and file. They were shared by their commander only in part. He desired not only treasure, but conquest, and the problem which confronted him was how to achieve the conquest of 300,000 people with less than 7000. His days and nights were full of anxiety, for he saw that, having hitherto played a deep, bold game, he could only win by artful strategy and yet bolder moves. The strategy of CortÚs was subtle but shallow. The invasion of the capital appeared to have been a mistake; but a much greater one was his next move, which was the securing of Montezuma as a prisoner. By doing this, he argued, he might either remain in security or retreat in safety; but, in point of fact, he was unable to do either. Though the fears of the Spaniards may have suggested a possibility of treachery on the part of Montezuma, they could not point to a single act in proof of it. On the contrary, his conduct, and hitherto that of his nobles, had been exemplary. He had been generous beyond precedent, and had treated his uninvited guests with a consideration vastly greater than they deserved.

So CortÚs cast about for a pretext, though, in truth, he was base enough and bold enough to proceed without one, and found it in an event which had occurred at Vera Cruz. The lord of a province contiguous to the Totonacs had tried to collect tribute of them in the name of Montezuma. The Spanish garrison at Villa Rica had gone to their assistance, but had been defeated with the loss of seven soldiers, including among them the commander, Juan de Escalante. One soldier had been captured alive and sent to Montezuma, but had died on the way. His head was cut off, however, and, as a hideous trophy, arrived in Mexico at the time CortÚs and his men were in Cholula.

CortÚs had knowledge of these things before he entered the capital, but he kept it to himself, biding his time. The time had now arrived, he believed, when Montezuma should be taxed with his treachery, and, confiding this sentiment to his captains, he secured their hearty assent. They resolved, in secret council, to seize the person of the emperor.