Today in the Middle Ages: April 28, 1521

The final defeat of the Aztec empire began when Hernan Cortes laid siege to the capital city of Tenochtitlan on April 28, 1521.

The picture of 550 white men with guns conquering a great empire is striking but false. Cortes was able to win the decisive battle because he had allied with coastal tribes who had been unwilling subjects of the Aztecs, and because he surrounded the city when it was suffering from epidemic smallpox brought by the European invaders.

Late in life, Cortes struggled in the Spanish courts for the honors to which he believed his conquest entitled him. His most lasting souvenir from the New World was the syphilis he contracted there.