The Aztec Empire was a large society that placed immense social importance on a man’s capability as a warrior. Given the militaristic nature of the Aztec culture combined with its large population, a small group of foreigners seemed unlikely to facilitate the total destruction of the vast society.
Nevertheless, when the Spaniards arrived in Mexico they were able to conquer the Aztecs in a relatively short period of time. Though the reasons for the Spaniards’ accomplishment are numerous and complex, three general advantages contributed to the effectual conquest. First, the Spaniards had the beneficial element of surprise. The political structure of the Aztec society was also ideal for overthrow. Primarily, the religious belief system held by the natives had a paralyzing effect that was easily exploited.
Element of Surprise
For the Spaniards, the element of surprise was more than simply showing up unannounced. They also possessed advanced knowledge of the society that they were approaching because of native guides and interpreters. In contrast, the Aztecs had never seen white people and were unsure about the nature or motives of the visitors. They were also intimidated by the Spaniards control of horses, animals that they had never seen. It soon became apparent that the newcomers bore weapons and shields that were superior to those of the Aztecs. Based on these observations, some believed that they could not defeat the strangers in battle.
Aztec Political Structure
The political structure of Aztec society was another weakness. The Aztecs had overpowered other peoples to create the empire, but allowed their subjects to retain autonomy, so long as they paid tribute and offered people for sacrifice. This probably served as an effective way to maintain control of the empire, but it also left it without unification. It was not difficult for the Spaniards to convince the oppressed to betray an empire that they both resented and felt no allegiance toward. Another weakness that can be attributed to the political system was the supreme authority held by the Aztec leader, Moctezuma. He decided to deploy no defense against the invaders, and his people obeyed.
Quetzalcóatl & Religious Belief
The most powerful reason for Aztec defeat was religious in nature. It is thought that Córtez was believed to be the returning god, Quetzalcóatl. His landing on the shores of Mexico coincided with the year the god was to return and had been preceded by events that were considered religious omens. This may be why Moctezuma was fraught with indecision about whether or not to crush the envoy.
As the Spaniards moved inland, they disregarded Aztec war rituals and protocol, often turning on natives who had received them as gods. They triumphed over peoples who believed they would be saved by their gods; the population became demoralized by the apparent defeat of their deities. Despite an increase in sacrifices designed to ensure protection, the Spaniards continued to prevail. Moctezuma received the Spaniards in peace, apparently believing that his gods had abandoned him or that the invaders themselves were gods.
Defeating the Spanish
It seems certain that if swift defensive action had been taken on the part of the Aztecs early on, they would have crushed the conquistadores, easily. Instead they were blitzed by surprise and intimidated by superior technology. They were then helpless to take action against the will of their leader.
Meanwhile Córtez turned other natives against them and increased the size of the army as he continued to approach the seat of Aztec power. By the time they reached Tenochtitlán it had become painfully apparent that the Christian god was far “superior” to those of the natives. Thus, a modest number of enterprising Spaniards were able to topple the immense empire of the Aztec against all odds.