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Blood and Treasure

Western historians must interpret Aztec culture on its own terms.

Hernan Cortes takes prisoner Moctezuma II. Colored engraving, 1875.
(Photo by Prisma/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Conquistadors and Aztecs: A History of the Fall of Tenochtitlan, by Stefan Rinke, Oxford University Press, 328 pages.

Contemporary historiography aims above all to treat native peoples seriously, in particular to recognize them as potent political actors in their own right. This approach has obvious benefits, but it also has its flaws. At times this historiography has a tendency to treat all its subjects as functionally equivalent, wearing various cultural skins but remaining liberal individuals underneath. Anthropologist Marshall Sahlins argued persuasively in How Natives Think that to understand native Hawaiians, we must take seriously the idea that they actually believed Captain James Cook was a god. In 1996, the book felt like a decisive blow against critics like Gananath Obeyesekere, who claimed that to take Cook-worship at face value was a kind of Western chauvinism, a mocking of savages. 


Conquistadors and Aztecs: A History of the Fall of Tenochtitlan, a new history of Cortes’s conquest by Stefan Rinke, ably describes the basic beats of the encounter but fails to bring to life the fundamental otherness of Aztec culture. The book’s publication comes on the 500th anniversary of the fall of Tenochtitlan, the Mexica (as Rinke refers to the Aztecs) capital. The author sets out his historiographical goal in the introduction: “to question the manner in which contemporary witnesses and later historians constructed and represented their subjects.” But although he fairly describes them, Rinke can’t quite make them legible in full color.

Conquistadors and Aztecs is at its strongest in its presentation of Hernan Cortes. While Golden Age poets glorified Cortes as a new Mars, he was in many ways vicious, murdering fellow Spaniards while still in Cuba, and venal (likely syphilitic). The popular narrative accurately captures his almost unfathomable greed, which seemed to surpass that of his contemporaries. The reader cringes when Cortes repeatedly insists to natives that his men “suffered a disease of the heart that could only be satisfied with gold.” 

But he and his men were also genuinely motivated to end the barbarism of human sacrifice and cannibalism. In one tense political negotiation, Cortes killed a man who had offered him a bowl of human blood. All sources highlight his intensity and his power to win men over.

The men he led came from a social class of petty nobility, all between twenty and forty years old, pushed into the new world when their ambitions in the Old were stymied. Many of his men sold all their possessions to outfit themselves for the conquest. Drawn mostly from Andalusia, they inherited a cultural memory of the Reconquista, and styled themselves after the heroes of Troy and the Punic Wars.

Perhaps the social precarity of Cortes and his men explains their best quality: a bias to action, an alea iacta est instinct which time and again served them well in the New World. Cortes keenly understood that in an era of distended communication and fragmented political authority, almost any insubordination could be swept under the rug or rewritten later. But he took pains to publicly follow the letter of the law. The Aztecs mocked Cortes’s “womanliness” for his insistence on reading out royal proclamations before acting.


Rinke struggles to explain the motivations for Mesoamerican human sacrifice, and he doesn’t articulate the fundamental rift the practice caused between Aztecs and Spaniards. According to John Keegan’s History of Warfare, “there is a cruelty in the warfare of some pre-Columbian peoples of North and Central America that has no parallel elsewhere in the world.” When the Aztecs are compared to other ancient empires, it is the centrality and regularity of ritual torture and killing that stands as unique. At a temple in Tlaxcala, one valley away from Tenochtitlan, a conquistador counted one hundred thousand skulls. Twenty-thousand were slaughtered at the inauguration of one new temple. That some, perhaps many, victims were complicit partners in their own days-long murders makes the Aztecs that much harder to understand.

Inga Clendinnen, an authority on the Aztecs from an era of less circumspect historiography, argued that the practice can only be understood as self-justification by the Aztecs. To make this number of sacrifices, constantly, to the ravenous gods proved their devotion and therefore their moral standing. Rinke elides this insight, preferring language like “political purposes” or “demonstrations of political power.”

Of course Tenochtitlan was the center of an incredibly powerful political order, larger than every European city bar Constantinople. But its success held the seeds of its downfall. An empire that had reached its apex through killing had spent several generations training itself to fight only to wound and capture, the better to harvest sacrifices with. The conquistadors were saved from slaughter largely because Aztec warriors competed to capture rather than kill them.

It is hard for any Western history to capture a culture this foreign, worshiping gods who, in Keegan’s words, demanded constant sacrifices “of everything and anything of value, even of the most trivial value, but above all of human life itself.” But if it can’t capture how its subjects perceived the world, even the most accurate history will remain incomplete.