Pizarro's Conquest & the Inca Civil War

Joseph Cataliotti, Christopher Muscato
  • Author
    Joseph Cataliotti

    Joe Cataliotti holds a Master of Arts degree in World History from Northeastern University. He earned a B.A. in History and Political Science from the same university and wrote his senior thesis on the history of radical right-wing movements in the United States.

  • Instructor
    Christopher Muscato

    Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Learn about the Spanish conquest of Peru, the Inca Civil War, and the Inca Empire's decline in power. Read about Francisco Pizarro's conquest of Cusco. Updated: 04/28/2022

Who Conquered the Inca People?

In 1492, Italian explorer Christopher Columbus sailed across the Atlantic Ocean, arriving in the New World. As agents of the Spanish Empire, Columbus and the Spanish conquistadors were eager to seize new lands, get rich from the New World's resources, and spread Christianity. At the time, the Inca Empire was one of the largest empires in the world, ruling over much of the Andean Mountains. The Spanish Conquest of the New World would occur over the next few decades: the Aztec and the Inca Empires were conquered by Hernán Cortés and Francisco Pizarro, respectively. By taking over such a large expanse of territory, especially its lucrative gold and silver mines, Spain became a world power. Meanwhile, the indigenous peoples of the Americas were subjected to slavery. Inca resistance to the Spanish Empire, however, would only end in 1572.

Empires at War

In the early 16th century, during a period called the Age of Exploration, great empires who had never met suddenly discovered each other as Europeans began travelling the world. In South America, the greatest clash was between the Spanish explorers and conquerors, called conquistadores, and the powerful Inca Empire, the largest empire in the western hemisphere. Eventually, the Spanish defeated the Inca, and the mighty empire fell.

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  • 0:08 Empires at War
  • 0:36 The Invasion of Peru
  • 2:31 Empires Meet
  • 4:30 Lesson Summary
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Inca Decline: Background

The Inca Empire, or Tawantinsuyu as it was known in the dominant language at the time of Quechua, had its origins in the conquest of the Andean mountains by the rulers of the city of Cusco, in modern-day Peru. From 1438 to the 1520s, the Inca rulers added vast swaths of territory to their empire. While the Inca Empire lacked certain technologies present in the Old World, such as gunpowder and the wheel, they did possess metallurgy and a strong central government, as the emperor was worshipped as a god. However, the Inca Empire was unable to make full use of their strengths against the Spanish Empire, as the Spanish conquistadors invaded during a moment of extreme weakness. Following the arrival of diseases and the eruption of civil war, the period of the Inca decline began.


Machu Picchu was an Inca citadel located high in the Andean Mountains.

Machu Picchu


The Spanish Conquest of Central America

The Aztec Empire was the hegemon of modern-day Mexico since the early 1400s, ruling from the city of Tenochtitlan. The Aztec rulers, however, did not have absolute power, and their practice of human sacrifice meant that many subjects of the empire were eager to revolt.

In the early 1500s, the Spanish Empire sought to expand its power in the New World. After conquering all of Hispaniola, the Spanish conquistadors next took over all of Cuba. Soon, Spanish expeditions were arranged across the Caribbean. The Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés, in search of opportunities for wealth and glory, led an expedition into Aztec territory in 1519. Cortés led a small band of Spanish soldiers, but was joined by a greater number of indigenous allies who were motivated to overthrow the Aztec Empire. Aztec Emperor Montezuma II invited the Spanish conquistadors into Tenochtitlan as guests, but soon Cortés seized Montezuma as a hostage. While the historical accounts are unclear about who was responsible, Montezuma was soon murdered and the empire fell into chaos. The Spanish conquistadors retreated from the city, then sieged it with superior forces. Smallpox, brought to the New World by the Europeans, burned through Tenochtitlan. Soon, the Spanish Empire ruled over modern-day Mexico, with Cortés as the governor.

The Inca Civil War

The smallpox brought by Europeans spread quickly throughout the New World, arriving in the Inca Empire in the 1520s. The indigenous peoples of the New World lacked any natural immunity to this foreign disease, so huge percentages of the population died. Even the Inca Emperor Huayna Capac and his heir fell to the disease. One of his other sons, Huáscar, was proclaimed emperor and plotted to defeat his brother Atahualpa, who was a rival to his power. War broke out between the two brothers, though Atahualpa won their battles, seized the capital, and arrested his brother. While Atahualpa was now mostly unchallenged as emperor, the city of Cusco preferred his brother, and many had died from the fighting and the disease. This period marks the decline of the Inca Empire. Soon after his victory, the Spanish conquistadors arrived.

The Spanish Conquest of Peru

While the Spanish conquistadors tended to lead small armies, Europeans possessed advanced technologies that gave them advantage in combat: chiefly, gunpowder and steel. Early cannons and firearms, while not as lethal as their modern successors, were effective weapons. Steel armor gave the conquistadors a strong defense against Inca weapons, while steel swords could cut through Inca armor. The conquistadors also had horses, which could travel long distances and carry heavy burdens. Disease, too, was devastating. Nevertheless, the Inca Empire resisted for decades after Pizarro's first contact.

Francisco Pizarro and the Inca People: Contact

In 1526, Pizarro and 150 men traveled south from Panama in search of new opportunities for conquest. After discovering indigenous people in possession of gold and silver, they returned to Spanish territory to gather permission for another, stronger expedition. Pizarro returned to Spain and personally requested the king permit the expedition, promising to conquer rich lands for the Spanish crown. Pizarro received his permission, traveled back to the New World, and launched the expedition in 1530.

With only a few hundred men, Pizarro marched into the Inca Empire. In 1532, he finally had the opportunity to meet with Atahualpa. While the emperor's army was large, Pizarro planned to isolate the emperor and then seize him, as Cortés had done with Montezuma. The two met in Cajamarca under diplomatic pretexts. Pizarro's men were positioned to ambush the emperor, who arrived without his army.

While hindsight would warn Atahualpa not to meet with Pizarro, Atahualpa had no real reason to expect the conquistadors to attack. Furthermore, their numbers were so few that they did not seem like much of a threat, especially after Atahualpa had defeated his brother's much larger armies. Pizarro had his friar urge Atahualpa to convert to Christianity and become a tribute to the Spanish king, though Atahualpa refused. This was the Requerimiento: before every battle, Spanish traditions required that the enemy be offered the chance to convert to Christianity and surrender as a tributary. Once the enemy (in this case Atahualpa) refused, battle was permitted.

Invasion of Peru

In 1521, the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés and an alliance of native Mexican armies toppled the powerful Aztec Empire and made Spain instantly rich. Inspired, other Spaniards began exploring more of Central and South America in search of other wealth. One of these men, named Francisco Pizarro, began exploring the coast of northern South America with his brothers. In 1526, they started hearing stories about a powerful, and rich, empire that ruled from the high peaks of the Andes Mountains. Pizarro went back to Spain to ask permission to conquer this empire and returned in 1532 with the blessing of the Spanish Empress.

What Pizarro did not know, as he began his conquest of South America towards modern-day Peru, was that he was not seeing the Inca Empire at its best. Smallpox, which swept down from Mexico years before, had decimated the population. Additionally, the Empire was still recovering from a civil war. When the Sapa Inca, Inca emperor, named Huayna Capac died in 1527, his sons Huáscar and Atahualpa started fighting over the throne. Atahualpa had just defeated Huáscar in 1532 when he heard news about new invaders attacking villages near the coast, the Spanish. Atahualpa hadn't even made it back to his capital city, Cusco, but was still at the site of the last battle, Cajamarca.

Atahualpa was feeling pretty victorious after defeating Huáscar, so despite that fact that the entire empire was weak from war, he sent messengers inviting Pizarro to meet him at his camp in Cajamarca, where 80,000 Inca warriors guarded the emperor. Pizarro had amassed an army of local soldiers who didn't like the Inca Empire and wanted to see Atahualpa dethroned, but he decided to accept the Inca emperor's invitation and only took a small number of his best men.

Empires Meet

When Pizarro arrived in Cajamarca, Atahualpa welcomed him as a guest into his own tent, a Mesoamerican gesture to indicate that the emperor was strong enough not to have any reason to fear the Spanish. Per Spanish law, a conquistador had to offer a foreign emperor the chance to convert to Christianity by reciting a speech called the Requerimiento. The Requerimiento explained, in Spanish, that God had chosen the Spanish emperor to conquer the world, and that anyone who refused was a heretic and enemy of Spain.

Pizarro read the Requerimiento, but translation was very difficult and Atahualpa didn't understand. He tried to clarify, but Pizarro lost his temper and his soldiers killed Atahualpa's men inside the tent, capturing the emperor. In Inca culture, attacking someone during a diplomatic meeting was so dishonorable that it would never have been attempted, which is likely why Atahualpa allowed the Spaniards into his tent without bringing many of his own guards.

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Video Transcript

Empires at War

In the early 16th century, during a period called the Age of Exploration, great empires who had never met suddenly discovered each other as Europeans began travelling the world. In South America, the greatest clash was between the Spanish explorers and conquerors, called conquistadores, and the powerful Inca Empire, the largest empire in the western hemisphere. Eventually, the Spanish defeated the Inca, and the mighty empire fell.

Invasion of Peru

In 1521, the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés and an alliance of native Mexican armies toppled the powerful Aztec Empire and made Spain instantly rich. Inspired, other Spaniards began exploring more of Central and South America in search of other wealth. One of these men, named Francisco Pizarro, began exploring the coast of northern South America with his brothers. In 1526, they started hearing stories about a powerful, and rich, empire that ruled from the high peaks of the Andes Mountains. Pizarro went back to Spain to ask permission to conquer this empire and returned in 1532 with the blessing of the Spanish Empress.

What Pizarro did not know, as he began his conquest of South America towards modern-day Peru, was that he was not seeing the Inca Empire at its best. Smallpox, which swept down from Mexico years before, had decimated the population. Additionally, the Empire was still recovering from a civil war. When the Sapa Inca, Inca emperor, named Huayna Capac died in 1527, his sons Huáscar and Atahualpa started fighting over the throne. Atahualpa had just defeated Huáscar in 1532 when he heard news about new invaders attacking villages near the coast, the Spanish. Atahualpa hadn't even made it back to his capital city, Cusco, but was still at the site of the last battle, Cajamarca.

Atahualpa was feeling pretty victorious after defeating Huáscar, so despite that fact that the entire empire was weak from war, he sent messengers inviting Pizarro to meet him at his camp in Cajamarca, where 80,000 Inca warriors guarded the emperor. Pizarro had amassed an army of local soldiers who didn't like the Inca Empire and wanted to see Atahualpa dethroned, but he decided to accept the Inca emperor's invitation and only took a small number of his best men.

Empires Meet

When Pizarro arrived in Cajamarca, Atahualpa welcomed him as a guest into his own tent, a Mesoamerican gesture to indicate that the emperor was strong enough not to have any reason to fear the Spanish. Per Spanish law, a conquistador had to offer a foreign emperor the chance to convert to Christianity by reciting a speech called the Requerimiento. The Requerimiento explained, in Spanish, that God had chosen the Spanish emperor to conquer the world, and that anyone who refused was a heretic and enemy of Spain.

Pizarro read the Requerimiento, but translation was very difficult and Atahualpa didn't understand. He tried to clarify, but Pizarro lost his temper and his soldiers killed Atahualpa's men inside the tent, capturing the emperor. In Inca culture, attacking someone during a diplomatic meeting was so dishonorable that it would never have been attempted, which is likely why Atahualpa allowed the Spaniards into his tent without bringing many of his own guards.

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Frequently Asked Questions

When did the Inca Empire end and start?

The Inca Empire approximately began in 1438, when Pachacuti began the Inca conquest of the Andes. While the Spanish Empire would take control of much of the empire in 1533, the Inca people were only completely defeated in 1572.

How were the Inca people conquered?

The Inca Empire was conquered by Spain because of a combination of factors. Disease, brought from Europe, devastated Inca society and brought civil war. At this time of weakness, Francisco Pizarro invaded and kidnapped the Inca emperor. The Spanish conquistadores also had access to superior technology, such as guns and steel.

Who conquered the Inca Empire in 1533?

Francisco Pizarro, leading a band of a few hundred soldiers, executed the Inca emperor and seized the capital of Cusco in 1533. However, indigenous resistance would last decades.

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