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For other uses, see Cuauhtémoc (disambiguation).
11th Tlatoani of Tenochtitlan
Ruler of the Aztec Triple Alliance
Bust of Cuauhtémoc (Zócalo, Mexico City).jpg
Bust of Cuauhtémoc in el Zócalo, Mexico City.
Reign 1520–1521
Predecessor Cuitlahuac
Successor Tlacotzin
Father Ahuitzotl
Mother Tlilancapatl
Born Circa 1495
Died 28 February 1525 (aged 29–30)

Cuauhtémoc (Nahuatl pronunciation: /kʷaːʍˈtemoːk/, About this sound kwauˈtemok  also known as Cuauhtemotzin, Guatimozin or Guatemoc; c. 1495) was the Mexica ruler (tlatoani) of Tenochtitlan from 1520 to 1521. The name Cuāuhtemōc means "One That Has Descended Like an Eagle", commonly rendered in English as "Descending Eagle" as in the moment when an eagle folds its wings and plummets down to strike its prey, so this is a name that implies aggressiveness and determination.

Cuauhtémoc took power in 1520 as successor of Cuitláhuac and was a cousin of the former emperor Moctezuma II. His young wife, who would later be known as Isabel Moctezuma, was one of Moctezuma's daughters. He ascended to the throne when he was 25 years of age, as his city was being besieged by the Spanish and devastated by an epidemic of smallpox brought to the New World by Spanish invaders. Probably after the killings in the main temple, there were few Aztec captains available to take the position.

Capture and Torture[edit]


Cuauhtémoc called for reinforcements from the countryside to aid the defense of Tenochtitlán, after eighty days of warfare against the Spanish. Of all the Nahuas, only Tlatelolcas remained loyal, and the surviving Tenochcas looked for refuge in Tlatelolco, where even women took part in the battle. Cuauhtémoc was captured on August 13, 1521, while fleeing Tenochtitlán by crossing Lake Texcoco in disguise with his wife, family, and friends. He surrendered to Hernán Cortés along with the surviving pipiltin (nobles) and, according to Spanish sources, he offered Cortés his knife and asked to be killed.

According to the same Spanish accounts, Cortés refused this offer and treated his foe magnanimously. "You have defended your capital like a brave warrior," he declared, "A Spaniard knows how to respect valor, even in an enemy."[1] At Cuauhtémoc's request, Cortés also allowed the defeated Mexica to depart the city unmolested. Subsequently, however, when the booty found did not measure up to the Spaniards' expectations,[2] Cuauhtémoc was tortured in an unsuccessful attempt to discover its whereabouts.[3] Eventually some gold was recovered, though far less than Cortés and his men expected.

Cuauhtémoc continued to rule under the Spanish, ordering the construction of a renaissance-style two-storied stone palace in Tlatelolco, where he resettled after the destruction of Mexico City. The building survived and was known as the Tecpan or palace.


Mosaic of what is considered to be Cuauhtemoc's last address as tlatoani in Nahuatl and Spanish

In 1525, Cortés took Cuauhtémoc and several other indigenous nobles on his expedition to Honduras, fearing that Cuauhtémoc could have led an insurrection in his absence.[4] While the expedition was stopped in the Chontal Maya capital of Itzamkanac, known as Acalan in Nahuatl, Cortés had Cuauhtémoc executed for allegedly conspiring to kill him and the other Spaniards.

Statue of Cuauhtémoc on Avenida Reforma in Mexico City. The inscription at the bottom of the statue translates as "In memory of Cuauhtémoc (spelled Quautemoc) and his warriors who battled heroically in defense of their country."

There are a number of discrepancies in the various accounts of the event. According to Cortés himself, on 27 February 1525 it was revealed to him by a citizen of Tenochtitlan named Mexicalcingo that Cuauhtémoc, Coanacoch (the ruler of Texcoco) and Tetlepanquetzal (the ruler of Tlacopan) were plotting his death. Cortés interrogated them until each confessed, and then had Cuauhtémoc, Tetlepanquetzal, and another lord named Tlacatlec hanged. Cortés wrote that the other lords would be too frightened to plot against him again, as they believed he had uncovered the plan through magic powers. Cortés's account is supported by the historian Francisco López de Gómara.[5]

According to Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a conquistador serving under Cortés who recorded his experiences in his book The True History of the Conquest of New Spain, the supposed plot was revealed by two men, named Tapia and Juan Velásquez. Díaz portrays the executions as unjust and based on no evidence, and admits to having liked Cuauhtémoc personally. He also records Cuauhtémoc giving the following speech to Cortés, through his interpreter Malinche:

Oh Malinzin [i.e., Cortés]! Now I understand your false promises and the kind of death you have had in store for me. For you are killing me unjustly. May God demand justice from you, as it was taken from me when I entrusted myself to you in my city of Mexico!

Díaz wrote that afterwards, Cortés suffered from insomnia due to guilt, and badly injured himself while wandering at night.[6]

Fernando de Alva Cortés Ixtlilxóchitl, a Mestizo historian and descendant of Coanacoch, wrote an account of the executions in the 17th century partly based on Texcocan oral tradition.[4] According to Ixtlilxóchitl the three lords were joking cheerfully with each other, due to a rumor that Cortés had decided to return the expedition to Mexico, when Cortés asked a spy to tell him what they were talking about. The spy reported honestly, but Cortés invented the plot himself. Cuauhtémoc, Coanacoch and Tetlepanquetzal were all hanged, as well as eight others. However, Cortés cut down Coanacoch, the last to be hanged, after his brother began rallying his warriors. Coanacoch did not have long to enjoy his reprieve—Ixtlilxóchitl wrote that he died a few days later.[7]


"The Torture of Cuauhtémoc", a 19th-century painting by Leandro Izaguirre.
Monument to Cuauhtémoc in Veracruz, Mexico

Tlacotzin, Cuauhtémoc's cihuacoatl, was appointed his successor as tlatoani. He died the next year before returning to Tenochtitlan.

The modern-day town of Ixcateopan in the state of Guerrero is home to an ossuary purportedly containing Cuauhtémoc's remains.

Many places in Mexico are named in honour of Cuauhtémoc. These include Ciudad Cuauhtémoc in Chihuahua and the Cuauhtémoc borough of the Mexican Federal District, as well as Ciudad Cuauhtémoc, in the state of Veracruz. There is also a Cuauhtémoc station on the Mexico City metro and the Monterrey Metrorrey.

Cuauhtémoc is also one of the few non-Spanish given names for Mexican boys that is perennially popular. Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas Solórzano, a prominent Mexican politician, is named after him. In the Aztec campaign of the PC game Age of Empires II: The Conquerors, the player plays as Cuauhtémoc, despite the name Montezuma for the campaign itself, and Cuauhtémoc narrates the openings and closings to each scenario. In the next installment to the series, Age of Empires 3: The War Chiefs, Cuauhtémoc was the leader of Aztecs. The Mexican football player Cuauhtémoc Blanco was also named after him.

In the 1996 Rage Against The Machine single People of the Sun, lyricist Zack De La Rocha rhymes "When the fifth sun sets get back reclaimed, The spirit of Cuauhtémoc alive an untamed".

Cuauhtémoc, in the name Guatemoc, is portrayed sympathetically in the adventure novel Montezuma's Daughter, by H. Rider Haggard. First appearing in Chapter XIV, he becomes friends with the protagonist after they save each other's lives. His coronation, torture, and death are described in the novel.


  1. ^ William H. Prescott, History of the Conquest of Mexico (New York, 1843), vol. 3, p. 206.
  2. ^ Prescott, vol. 3, p. 211.
  3. ^ Prescott, vol. 3, pp. 234-235.
  4. ^ a b Restall (2004, p.148).
  5. ^ Restall (2004, pp.149–150).
  6. ^ Restall (2004, pp.150,152).
  7. ^ Restall (2004, p.152).


Andrews, J. Richard (2003). Introduction to Classical Nahuatl (revised edition ed.). Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 0-8061-3452-6. OCLC 50090230. 
Restall, Matthew (2004). Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest (1st pbk edition ed.). Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-517611-1. OCLC 56695639. 
Gillingham, Paul (2011). Cuauhtémoc's Bones: Forging National Identity in Modern Mexico. University of New Mexico Press. 

External links[edit]

Preceded by
Tlatoani of Tenochtitlan
Succeeded by
Diego Velázquez Tlacotzin