Book Reviews, Charles, European History, Latin American History, Primitive Cultures, War
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Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs (Camilla Townsend)

I have long admired Hernán Cortes, conqueror of the Aztecs. He may not have gotten to Heaven, though who can say, but he exemplified the spirit of the West, that which from Charlemagne to Frémont drove the world forward. Fifth Sun would have us stop and shed a tear for the Aztecs, considering them on their own terms. It’s a modest request, and when done is modestly interesting. But we should remember that unlike the Spanish, the Aztecs never accomplished anything notable, and never would have accomplished anything notable. Which raises the question—what price glory?

It helps the reader of this book that the author, Camilla Townsend, is a very good writer. Her method is to use post-Conquest writings of descendants of the Aztecs, combined with a small number of plausible fictional vignettes, to attempt to recapture the history of pre-Conquest Mexico, to “conjure the world of [the] long dead.” (The book’s title comes from the Aztec creation myth, in which the cyclical rebirth of the Sun is triggered by an ordinary man choosing to sacrifice himself to the gods.) This method is more successful that it sounds it should be, but its accuracy is open to question. Nonetheless, I think it lets us get as much of a handle on the Aztecs as is worthwhile. Townsend further offers a good deal of detail about how she conducted her scholarship, her different sources, and an extensive bibliography, all of which are interesting in their own right.

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Why are there few writings of Aztecs prior to the Spanish conquest of 1519, that Townsend could have used instead? Townsend says in passing that many were burned by the Spanish, although many also simply decayed, being composed on plant material. But the far more important reason, which Townsend at no point specifically admits, is that the Aztecs didn’t have any writings in the modern sense, that would allow real transfer of information, because they lacked an alphabet. Their “writings” were mere pictographs, and Aztec culture an oral one, like primitive cultures the world over. We might learn a little if we had more of their pictures, but not likely much. Townsend claims the Aztecs used these pictographs as “records of business decisions and chains of authority,” but that seems very unlikely; certainly surviving pictographs don’t allow any such precision.

Moreover, Townsend faces two problems as regards accuracy of the post-Conquest writings she uses (none of which are newly-discovered, despite breathless claims made on the book’s blurb). First, those recording what supposedly happened decades before they were born are very likely to introduce distortions, either by choice or as a result of being given bad information by informants. Townsend claims to be able to tease out the truth; maybe she’s right, but probably not, in many instances. Second, those recording here were not Aztecs, nor were they, as the blurb also claims, “indigenous people”; they were Spanish subjects, largely or completely Hispanized, most or all devout Roman Catholics, some of them of mixed parentage. Townsend assumes that when criticizing the Aztecs, they were lying or exaggerating, and when saying something positive, they were recording accurately. When writing a revisionist history, this approach gives the desired result, but it’s not objective. And much of what these writers wrote are obvious tall tales and legends, so again, where the precise truth lies is open to question. On the other hand, this is often the historian’s lot. One cannot uncritically rely, either, on Spanish reports contemporaneous with the Conquest, in particular reports to the King or his ministers, and much Spanish history of Mexico in this period was also written well after the fact.

Townsend is most of all keen to dispel what she claims are simplistic myths about the Aztecs at the time of the Conquest, such as that their leader when Cortes arrived, Moctezuma II, believed the Spanish to be the returning god Quetzalcoatl (a story I learned as a child). This notion only appeared a few decades after the Conquest, and Townsend makes a strong case it is a fiction. The Aztecs were primitive, not dumb, and as I have said before, it is a great error to believe that people who came before us were stupid—in fact, they usually had to be smarter than modern people. When the Aztecs captured cannon or crossbows, they couldn’t use them, but they didn’t consider Spanish technology magic. As with all peoples of the Americas, when the Europeans arrived, they simply lacked good choices. That’s not some great tragedy; it’s the normal course of all human history. Reading books like this isn’t, or shouldn’t be, some call to a ludicrous irredentism, merely a way to learn more about the human story.

Townsend proceeds chronologically, covering events pre-Conquest, during the Conquest, and for a hundred years after the Conquest. In general, Townsend spends more time than I would have liked on trying to reconstruct Aztec lineages and politics, and not as much as I would have liked on Aztec daily life. But it’s her book. Other than a few ideological blind spots, she tries hard to not blur the truth, as when discussing population she calculates that the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, might have had a maximum of 50,000 people. She says claims for populations greater, up to 400,000, are “wild exaggerations,” and obviously so, because they claim a density greater than modern Manhattan for a clearly-defined area composed of single-story homes.

The Aztecs, whose youthful minor empire was centered on what is now Mexico City, had only arrived in the Valley of Mexico recently, and had cemented their power less than a century before the Spanish arrived in 1519. The Mexica, as they called themselves (though that covered their enemies, too, and those in Central Mexico were collectively the Nahua), came from the north; where exactly we do not know (although maybe this is one of the many historical questions DNA evidence will answer). Migrations of nomadic peoples are the norm throughout history, and the same was true in the Americas. They were farmers, after a fashion. In the Americas, farming arose millennia after it did in the Old World, and was considerably cruder than in the Old World, as well as always combined with hunter-gatherer activities, but still often provided enough surplus to allow stratified societies.

Aztec social organization was complex, with extended families sharing power. Constantly shifting alliances with other tribes and groups, combined with continuous warfare, was the norm in Mexico. Within the Valley, links of kinship and marriage bound most or all of the tribes, sometimes to a degree that prevented war, sometimes causing war as an ambitious man sought the main chance. Crucially, with polygamy and an extractive society that ensured the nobility was well-fed, along with wars that killed few because of crude weaponry and cultural dictates, elite over-production very rapidly became a problem; the cracks were showing in the Aztec edifice before the Spanish arrived.

The upper classes kept the lower classes down. Slavery was extensive. As Townsend delicately concedes, Aztec slavery is rarely mentioned today, but as with all ancient non-nomadic societies, it was a key part of the social structure. “Because the Aztecs were disparaged for so long as cannibalistic savages, serious scholars have been loath to write anything that might be perceived as detracting from their moral worth.” In other words, any “scholarship” about the Aztecs from the past sixty years or so should be considered prima facie unreliable, because edited by the authors to present the Aztecs in the desired positive light.

And, in fact, the Aztecs were cannibalistic savages. There’s no getting around that. They were cannibalistic, certainly, and they were savages in two ways. They behaved barbarously, famously engaging in massive amounts of human sacrifice, including of children, something Townsend tries to downplay but does not deny. And they were quite primitive, even by pre-modern standards, using only modest technologies (no smelted metal; no wheels) and developing none themselves. As extractive top dogs in the Valley, for a few decades, they were able to buy shiny baubles from far away (turquoise, feathers) and to use slave labor to build reasonably impressive temples, but that’s about it.

Townsend tries to claim that had agriculture existed in Mesoamerica for longer, the Aztecs would have been the equal of the Europeans, but that’s silly. The Europeans were unique in world history; as I like to say, without Europe, the world we live in would be the world of the sixteenth century, or before. How long the ground had been cultivated had nothing to do with it. Even by non-European, pre-Christian Old World standards the Aztecs were primitives. If not for the Spanish, we would probably know next to nothing about the Aztecs, as we know next to nothing about the other Mesoamericans who preceded them, whom they conquered or exterminated, because they would have been conquered or exterminated in their turn.

Unfortunately, one short section in Fifth Sun makes Townsend seem unserious, and casts doubt on the rest of her work. She pushes homosexuality among the Aztecs in an attempt to make them seem like good modern Americans. I know nothing about Aztec homosexuality, but Townsend’s claim is that for the Aztecs “there was a range of sexual possibilities during one’s time on earth, understood to be part of the joy of living, and it certainly was not unheard of for men to go to bed together in the celebrations connected with religious ceremonies, and presumably at other times as well.” Her footnote to this passage, however, lends exactly zero support to this contention, and Wikipedia, always aggressively curated to cosset sexual deviants, says (citing a Spanish-language source), “[Aztec] law punished sodomy with the gallows, impalement for the active homosexual, extraction of the entrails through the anal orifice for the passive homosexual, and death by garrote for the lesbians.” I’m putting my money on the impalement as the reality, not Townsend’s gauzy and unsupported fantasy. That elsewhere she notes that “Adultery, for example, was a crime for everyone, punishable by stoning or strangling,” suggests that in fact the Aztecs were very strict about sexual crimes. Once again, this sort of thing makes the reader wonder what else is being shaded.

The Aztecs were already tottering when Cortes arrived. Townsend admits that human sacrifice absorbed more and more of their energies and that “Moctezuma himself spent an exorbitant amount of time playing a sacrificial role,” so much that he couldn’t even attend battles. They also had innumerable bitter enemies surrounding them, and this, of course, is one important reason why Cortes was successful (the other reasons being steel, attitude, and the diseases the Spanish brought). Townsend insightfully points out that even had Moctezuma managed to defeat the Spanish, he still would have fallen, because the cost would have been enormous and the resulting weakness would certainly have led to the Aztecs being exterminated by their indigenous enemies. Thus, Moctezuma had to bargain, which is what he tried to do, but failed because he had nothing to offer the Spanish. He didn’t understand the bigger picture, that the Spanish had vastly more resources and power than he could ever hope to command.

Once they defeated the Aztecs, events Townsend describes relatively quickly and from the Aztec perspective, the Spanish only took a few years, less than a decade, to transform the Aztec capital into Mexico City. (Roma Agrawal’s Built describes in fascinating detail the engineering behind the five-hundred-year-old Cathedral of the Assumption, built by the Spanish on the site of a razed human sacrifice pyramid.) “By the early 1600s, Mexico City had become one of the wealthiest and most impressive metropolises in the world.” The Aztecs were, and are, nothing but a memory.

Would the Aztecs, and more broadly the Indians in Mexico, have been better off if the Spanish had never arrived? Not in the long run, and probably not in the short run, either, except for the upper classes. Switching suzerains has no moral component and little impact on most in a primitive society, and that’s what happened here. After all, the rest of the globe, disease and all, would have intruded sooner or later into Mesoamerica. Moreover, the Aztecs acted in an evil fashion; their human sacrifice alone made their destruction a virtue. It was less virtuous that the Spanish often mistreated the Indians, arguably worse than their own lords mistreated them, although to their credit they argued about it, and frequently undertook initiatives to curb the worst excesses. The Aztecs would have thought it bizarre to have an internal debate on how to treat their defeated enemies, and this debate shows how very different Christian Europeans were from any other human civilization (we retain some of these impulses, but they will soon be entirely gone).

The world is undoubtedly a better place, spiritually and physically, as a result of Cortes defeating the Aztecs. I shed no tears for their demise, any more than I shed tears for Neanderthals or the Hittites. In fact, less. The West was, before it fell in the twentieth century, an immeasurably superior civilization, and on balance, its expansion a high good in all the places to which it expanded. But what is the limiting principle in this conclusion? Or, as I asked at the beginning, what price glory?

Cortes, in the words of David Gress, “conquered Mexico for God, gold, and glory, and only a mundane imagination would distinguish these impulses, for they were one and the same.” But what acts should we allow to be washed clean by this goal? How much brutal seeking after gold, or more broadly material advantage and advancement, can or should we tolerate, if that is part of God and glory? Cortes was not a nice man, and although his sins have long been exaggerated, even in his own time, for propaganda purposes, they were real enough, as were those of his lieutenants, such as Pedro de Alvarado, who slaughtered the Aztec nobles while Cortes was absent. We retrospectively sanitize great men of the past, and yes, it is true that the past is a foreign country. Nonetheless, it can’t be that all violence and suffering inflicted on others is justified by the inseparable ends that drove Cortes. But if we can have “God, gold, and glory,” is that possibility, or its achievement, and the passage of time, enough to balance the scales of justice? I am not sure.

Certainly, for our own civilization to be renewed, or more likely a new one to be born, extremes of violence and cruelty will be commonplace, and the basest of motives compete eagerly with high motives. Such is the way of change, and the greater the change, the greater the sins in the transition, as men seek all of God, gold, and glory. I suppose my first-cut conclusion is that men being who they are, the evil will always accompany the good, and there is no cure for this. So we should accept it, as the price of necessary change. That, as with the Aztecs, what the West has become is truly evil makes this conclusion easier. We may not have racks of tens of thousands of skulls on display, but that’s just because we hide them in the abortionist’s dumpster, after we sell our children’s other organs for experimentation and profit. Therefore, we should accept the costs of renewal, and as the Spanish did, try to curb the worst excesses that result, both juridically and ad hoc, hoping to get to a more stable and less brutal future as quickly as possible.

No doubt that I ask these questions itself proves I will never be the Man of Destiny, yet who can tell, if participation is offered, and the exchange of God, gold, and glory for the death of globohomo is offered, whether I would yet not seize the brass ring? Probably I am too introspective, and ultimately fearful of judgment, and would rather participate in a secondary capacity. We will see, each of us, what our choices are, in the times ahead. With luck, they will be better choices than those faced by Moctezuma and his people.

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  1. bouncing ball says

    Good review – the addition of the “Aztecs were actually gay!” reeks of modernist revisionism. A key tenet of the satanic religion of Modernism being that sexual deviancy is actually a virtue, despite history showing us that even the most primitive societies usually instinctively recognized the destructive influence of homosexuality. Interestingly, it seems to homosexuality/pederasty typically arises in advanced cultures, a temptation of luxury and excess.

    Also, I find it a little amusing how much attention is given to the Aztecs by modern historians in general considering how less advanced and interesting they were when compared to their Mesoamerican predecessors, the Mayans. Really the most interesting thing about the Aztecs is their interaction with the Spanish.

  2. alex says

    Thanks, enjoyed the review.

    On this subject, I like Fehrenbach’s History of Mexico, which starts well before the Aztecs and doesn’t assume all people of the area were the same. Before the Aztec conquest, it seems to have been a fairly standard ancient world culture (i.e. basically 3000 years behind Europe) with multiple small states, some positive civilisation and limited human sacrifice. The Aztecs were a very unpleasant group of northern invaders – there’s a story where one of the local kings gives his daughter to them as a marriage alliance, and is horrified when the Aztec priest does a dance at a feast dressed in her flayed skin (intended as an honour). They gradually created a kind of ancient world totalitarian empire based on an unprecedented, industrial level of human sacrifice. (I used to love comparing Aztec gods to their Greek, Norse etc equivalents – other than the lost Quetzalcoatl, astonishing how nasty they were). That is, local history went badly wrong well before Cortez. I assume Fehrenbach isn’t just making this up.

    There’s no surprise in the Tlaxcalans and other oppressed tributaries supporting the Spanish and doing much of the heavy lifting of the Conquest. I wouldn’t mourn the Aztecs for one second, but I think it is a bit of a shame that the Spanish destroyed those people too.

    • Altitude Zero says

      No, Fehrenbach isn’t making this up. The Aztec religion was a nightmare, even by the standards of paganism. And I’m sure that the business about homosexuality is BS – the Spanish Priests reported that the Aztecs led “pure lives” aside from their abominable religion, and I doubt that homosexual sodomy was part of what a sixteenth century Catholic would have considered “pure”.

    • Prism says

      That leads to the interesting question as to what made the Aztecs develop such a cruel faith in the first place. I’m unread on them, but they seem to be some sort of Assyrian/Punic/Nazi cross-breed. Surely rare in human history.

      Perhaps that explains the fascination.

      • Altitude Zero says

        Yes, it makes you wonder. Many ancient civilizations had human sacrifice, but very few at the scale that the Aztecs did. But TBH, all of the Mesoamerican religions were pretty nasty, far nastier than the Andean or North American (ie, north of the Rio Grande) Indian religions. You do have to wonder why, personally I have no idea.

        • Charles Haywood says

          Beats me. Another thought occurred to me–why is it that the northern Indians seem universally, or near-universally, extremely susceptible to alcoholism, whereas the southern Indians not so? I could be understating the latter, but I’ve never heard of it as a big problem, no more so than alcoholism is among Europeans.

          • Altitude Zero says

            With regard to the alcoholism, you would have to think that there was some sort of genetic factor involved, but we’ll probably have to wait for a less politically correct time to find out. Too bad, men who wouldn’t flinch from any enemy on the field of battle have died in the gutter because of it. Yet another genuine tragedy.

          • Charles Haywood says

            Yes; the quintessential example was Ira Hayes, a hero of Iwo Jima who literally died in the gutter. Johnny Cash had a song about him.

          • Erik Nervik says

            I don’t know how to quantify it versus northern natives, but alcohol abuse is a problem in Mexico. My fiancé is Mexican American and her family has history of it. Although her parents don’t.

            If it is less then North American natives I would imagine partly it’s a combination of 1) there are very few pure natives in Mexico. The Spanish didn’t place them reserves like we did, the Spanish men of lower classes intermarried Indian women to a much greater degree meaning most Mexicans are mixed and not Indians.

            And also the Indians in Central Mexico had alcoholic beverages derived from agave nectar. These were fermented and more like beer. Tequila only came later after Spain had fully conquered

          • Charles Haywood says

            Makes sense. And the ability of Europeans to distil was a lot greater in the 18th century than in the 16th.

          • Erik Nervik says

            It seems to me like the cultures most vulnerable to alcoholism seem to be ones with no long term history of drinking. You see this in Asians too with the “Asian blush” or “Asian Rosecea” where East Asians get super red and flushed in the face when they drink. Often before they’re actually impaired.

            Whereas I’m not a terribly heavy drinker but when I was younger I could down a quite a bit before it even showed and I am largely German, Norwegian and Irish in my ancestry.

            I think it’s the same thing with sugar, you see many Indians get super obese. And while obesity is partly personal choice, I lived next to an Indian reserve in Washington State until I moved to LA to be with my fiancée. And there are Indians who can only be described as land whales but I don’t think their diet was gluttonous at least in comparison to Whites.
            I think the total lack of artificial sugars in their diet until Europeans introduced them and then all our other sh!tty food habits, while not good for us either, have devastated the Indians.

            Indians in Washington state where I used to live had a diet of fruits, venison, and salmon before Europeans showed up, very little in fats and processed sugar and carbs. So it wouldn’t surprise m If genetics evolved for such a diet suddenly exposed to a surplus of fatty meats like beef and pork and sugar laden foods and alcohol just kill them.

            Although back to Mexico obesity has become a major problem there because sugar is super cheap and with the growth in tourism and middle class trades and occupations most Mexicans don’t work the grueling life of a peasant anymore. Plus their culture is very big on eating and hospitality. My fiancé’s mother when I visit will offer me all kinds of food and be insulted if I don’t accept. It’s considered rude and if you’re a guest they’ll feed you in until you explode.

            Anyway those are just my thoughts

  3. Feher Peter says

    Very good review!

    I wholeheartedly agree with your final thoughts on God, Gold and Glory. Their inseparability doesn’t provide a full excuse for what will happen, it just provides for a certain leniency, and it is still our duty, as we have learned from Christ, to think of which action will provide the result with the least brutality and cruelty necessary. We need to know that another Harrowing of Hell is always a possibility, to give us peace of mind and strength to go forward, but never actually do it unless we are truly out of options.

    As for the development of Aztec „civilization”, I was also aware that they had decayed severely by the 16th century, in part due to increasing droughts(which seemed to have affected the Mayans as well), but in a much, much larger part due to a suicidal culture, as you have also pointed out. However, I was surprised when I read that there is a push in academia not just to rehabilitate them, but to promote them as equals, or even superiors(!) to the West in fields such as philosophy. One work that I know of to be highly praised on this is Aztec Philosophy by James Maffie(here:, which supposedly shows that the Aztecs had similar philosophical rigour to the Ancient Greeks, but rather than seek eternal truths, they seeked „how to keep balance in a world of slippery – mobile energy”, with this energy seeming to be a recurring theme in the book. While this book might be worth a review in order to show how an introspective and unambitious mindset at cultural level permeates even into what counts as philosophy, I reckon(and it might satisfy your curiosity on daily life, since I imagine their philosophers would’ve touched on it, at the very least, to merit that title), although I’d be curious if you’ve seen him(or any mention of Aztec „philosophy”) cited in the book. To me, this push seems to be part of a larger extension of the old Orientalism, when Westerners would go to India or the Middle East and think they have found a great civilization(maybe this is the result of a push for Glory without God?).


    • Charles Haywood says

      I’ll have to take a pass on that book; I’m having to triage books more and more. I’ve read several that I have not reviewed (e.g., Sohrab Ahmari’s latest), because they, and I, have nothing new to say. Still, if I wanted to focus more on the topics, I’d look at it.

  4. An interesting fictional treatment with a similar focus is the novel Azteca, by Gary Jennings.

    I read it as a teenager and absolutely loved it, although that now being an epoch as distant as The Conquest of Mexico in 1519, I won’t vouch for the book’s quality.

    Here’s a recent Amazon review of the book:

    “Gary Jenning’s Aztec is my favorite book of all time. I first read it about a decade ago, and have reread it numerous time since, and it gets better every time. I recommend it to everyone looking for a book recommendation and I have bought several copies to gift to people. The story is epic, beautiful spun, and easy to read (well, except for maybe the bits written in the voice of the priest, those can be pretty verbose with some impressive vocabulary). Its an exciting page turner about the entire life of the main character Mixtli, ranging from his young childhood to his old age while also informing the reader about many aspects of Aztec life and it was well- researched and historically accurate.

    One thing to note is that this is not a standard sized paperback – its a rather long book, but well worth it. If you like long epic stories definitely give this one a try

    One word of caution, there is a lot of blood, sex and violence in this book, so if you are easily offended it might not be for you, but if you love that stuff you’ll love this book. I’d say its a “Game of Thrones” level of sex and violence.”

    Aha!…that last paragraph would certainly explain my infatuation with the book when I read it as a teenager!

    • Charles Haywood says

      Interesting! I should read more fiction, but I will take a look at this.

    • Swapmos says

      Like Stephen King, Jennings’ novels have a lot of weird sexual stuff going on. Aztec and The Journeyer both describe incest between siblings. Raptor is about a hermaphrodite wandering around fifth century Europe. I read Aztec and I’ll never forget how Jennings, speaking through his Aztec protagonist Mixtli, made the case that the cannibalism and human sacrifice of the Aztecs were A-Ok but the Spanish practice of burning people alive was disturbing and incredibly immoral.

      Jennings was a member of the Silent Generation (born 1928) and got in on the ground floor of rebelling against Christian sexual mores, a motif that would be taken up by the boomers. He made a career out of churning out 700 page novels drenched in bloodshed and debauchery, almost like a proto George R.R. Martin. Today his novels seem to be largely forgotten.

  5. vxxc says

    No. Sorry, Sir Charles. If you want to believe in The Great Man, believe in Cortes.
    Cortes had not the resources of Spain, only his own. Cortes first march north to Mexico City has few battles, he then captured this “Venice of the New World “ intact for his King, violating his direct order to not war but only trade. Cortes was an outlaw and a Spanish magistrate sent to arrest him. The Spanish had just hanged another adventurer for a failed attempt at same against the Incas. Cortes must now leave his captured Montezuma and the prize – quite intact – in the hands of Alvarado so Cortes can return to (now) Puerto Vallarta to deal with the magistrate (by arresting him) and Alvarado responds to a veiled threat with a massacre of the Mexica nobles. When Cortes returns all is lost, he must retreat over the bridge losing his Montezuma to Aztec arrows. He then returned to the coast to begin his long march north with the last war he wanted- the entire reduction of the Mexica Empire- they refused to treat the entire way. Cortes must win or hang- from Spanish rope. He had only what he had.

    This is the Greatest Man of War in history, Charlemagne cannot hold his coat, Alexander mere Lieutenant, only Chinghis comes close – but all of them began with power and position, family- Cortes had none.
    This is history’s greatest Conqueror, bar none.

    Hugh Thomas
    Conquest: Cortes, Montezuma, and the Fall of Old Mexico.

    • Flotsam Jetsam says

      Well, that got the blood moving. Agree entirely. Cortez deserves the greatest cinematic treatment, spare no expense, to honor and chronical his conquest. The story is the greatest adventure ever told.

      • Charles Haywood says

        Yes–like so many movies that should be made, it has not been made. Not too late, though, when Foundationalism is in control!

    • Charles Haywood says

      Oh, I believe in Cortes, very much. Read Hugh Thomas’s Conquest! (No review, sadly; I read it long ago.)

    • “This is the Greatest Man of War in History”

      From the same theater Pizarro may want a word! Though if I was actually choosing a greatest man of war in history I would have several before Cortes, and I would probably give the title to Subutai.

      For anyone who likes their history in Science Fiction format you should give the short story “Despoilers of the Golden Empire” a read:

      • Charles Haywood says

        A good story. And it reminds me that Cortes gets all the attention; I need to find a good Pizarro biography.

      • vxxc says

        I greatly admire Subatai – BUT – Subatai and Chinghis are coming from a strong base and have the entire Mongol nation with them, same with all the rest. Cortes is 100% self starter, he has to do this on his own, facing the Spanish hangman if fails. Cortes is quite on his own until the middle/ end of part 2 when he finally got some help from Hispanola. At one point his men are descending into an active volcano to get sulfur for gunpowder. The boats were never burnt BTW – they disassembled them to haul overland to build fleet to attack Tenochitian aka Mexico City.

        • These kinds of discussions are inherently subjective.. but just briefly looking over Subutai’s record again, he:

          1) Raided for three years with 20,000 men and no support, supplies, nor rearmaments supplied. During this time he destroyed a brand new (heavy horse) Georgian army ready to set out on the fifth crusade and an 80,000 unit strong army of allied steppe people.
          2) After returning home, he found that the Mongols had been getting their teeth kicked in by the Chinese, and he took over the army an lead a huge body of men at arms in a four year long campaign that combined siege and reduce tactics with audacious movement/speed. It wasn’t simply superior Mongols vs. inferior Chinese, every time Subutai left the action the Mongols were pushed back and humiliated until he returned and set things right.
          3) As soon as northern China was buttoned up and the Song were put in their place as vassals Subutai turned to conquer Russia. He is in his 60s at this point, and still going strong. They destroyed the Bulgar, the Kiev Rus, and other assorted steppe peoples and claimed hegemony over much of modern day Russia.
          4) He spent his dotage subjugating the Hungarians, Poles, Transylvanians and other assorted eastern and central European peoples and lands.

          He excelled in completely unsupported reconnaissance in force tactics, moving up to 100 miles a day at times, siege/artillery warfare reducing a number of highly fortified cities, and mastered separate force deployment and decentralized command.

          I know this is off thread, but Subutai’s record is ridiculous! Not that that makes him the greatest man of war in history, I don’t know how to judge that.

          Also, I should note that Pizarro only had 200 men and very limited support when he defeated the Incan state (he was also essentially on an outlaw mission). He did it without support of other tribes, and basically through deception, but it showed an incredible amount of panache, arguably more than Cortes. I don’t know how to rate the Inca against the Aztec in war fighting ability.

    • bouncing ball says

      Cortes was exceptionally talented and driven, but Alexander is in a class of his own.. he singlehandedly conquered the known world in half of an average lifetime and has influenced the the culture and lives of more people than any single man not named Jesus Christ or Muhammad. He, more than any other single person, is the reason Greek (Western) thought has been the dominant cultural baseline since.

      Cortes fought against one (technologically inferior) empire and won.. Alexander first subjugated the Greeks (no easy feat) and then conquered the Persian Empire which at the time was the largest, wealthiest, and most powerful empire known to human history – the scale of that accomplishment is unmatched by any other single conqueror. Men like Caesar, Chingis, Sulieman, Cortes, and Charlemagne are incredibly impressive but none really compare to Alexander’s feat or impact.

  6. Flotsam Jetsam says

    Thank you for this review. I have a life-long interest in the conquest of Mexico and cannot resist a new book on the subject, even if she is entranced by the whiff of pederasty.

    The story of the Cortez remains incomplete. What remains is for a great poet, a man of Shakespeare’s stature, to do justice to his life expressed in high art. The material is all there, it begs to be told properly. Cortez has not received his rightful encomium, and to do so would raise both the artist and the great warrior into immortality. And it would be a fine curative to our debased and emasculated age.

  7. Altitude Zero says

    With regard to Cortez, I read Salvador de Madariaga, biography of him when I was a teenager, and it left me with the impression of a flawed, but very great man. I have not heard or seen anything since to make me change this view. Also, as noted above, the Aztecs were nasty pieces of work, even by the bloody standards of Mesoamerica. All of their neighbors hated and feared them. The real tragedy of the conquest of the Americas was disease, wich was responsible for 99% of Indian deaths, and, once contact was made, this was unstoppable, even if the Conquistadors had been pacifist hippies. A genuine tragedy.

    • Charles Haywood says

      I’ll see if I can get a copy of that . . .

      • Altitude Zero says

        It’s worth it, written in 1941, mercifully free of politically correct BS.

  8. I’m sure there was plenty of mistreatment of the indigenous by the Spanish, that is the way these things work. But, there is a lot of Black Legend mixed up in our popular imagination as well; and the Spanish took human treatment of their subjects pretty seriously.

    This Helen Andrews piece about “The Controversy of Valladolid” does a pretty good job of considering the claims of de la Casas in their historical(ish) context. I recommend it to everyone.

    • Charles Haywood says

      That’s an excellent piece by Andrews. I obliquely touched on this debate, but I didn’t know the vast majority of those details. And yes, a vast degree of what we, and our children, are taught is simply Black Legend stuff.

  9. Vxxc says

    What we need are leaders who are not afraid of consequences, as opposed to what we have….and who we have are the result of selecting for Intelligence- which is for doing TASKS, as opposed to men of duty who must selected for courage. Duties require Virtue, courage not “goodness.”

    For example, here we have an intelligent man who passed house arrest reading Camus et al, here he writes of the NKVD tracking down pneumonic plague outbreak in 1939 (true).

    His name is Theodore Dalrymple. He may be familiar to some. Yet his life long it never seems to occur to him to do other than chronicle our downfall, instead of ACT to stop it. This is our actual downfall, we worship smarts, the enemy pursues power.
    We pursue beauty, and truth, and reason while the enemy sees beauty as needing to be in porn, lies as bludgeoning clubs and reason only as a tool (correctly) all in the pursuit of POWER.

    So perhaps we should stop reading books and “go to the range” but in groups?

    For the Chroniclers are now as insufferable as the enemy, more so. The enemy wretched as they are at least goes after what they want. The only reason to fight then by the way is their insatiable.

    If only the opponents had a mere spark of their fire, we’d be safe.

    On another note; Ser Charles soldiers in war need up to 1 ton of supply a day – each.
    Perhaps someone could look into logistics next. Here’s a good top level start.
    ADP 4-0, Sustainment.

    And if you have a trade, or truck, do come.

    • Charles Haywood says

      I will shortly offer a book on the Nationalist effort in Spain, focusing on logistics and supply . . . .

      • Altitude Zero says

        Looking forward to it. The politics of the Spanish war so often take front and center, but there are lots of military lessons to be learned there as well.

  10. Vxxc says

    Strategy; The Logic of War and Peace by Edward Luttwak.

  11. “But we should remember that unlike the Spanish, the Aztecs never accomplished anything notable, and never would have accomplished anything notable.”

    What’s interesting is that had the Mongols not turned back from from their easy conquest of Europe due to various untimely deaths back home, or had any number of thing gone differently in our Revolution, an American ultra-nationalist wouldn’t be proudly telling their selective stories of survivorship bias; of manifest destiny in this instance.

    History especially of the political sort is just the self-aggrandizing stories people tell themselves, no different in kind now than back in day when it was heroic exploits of the hunt or war party. Founding mythologies and such obviously aren’t so much about facts as social indoctrination.

    • Charles Haywood says

      There is no evidence whatsoever the Mongols, any more than any other Asiatic people, would ever have accomplished anything notable. Past performance here is an indicator of future success. (By notable, I mean enduring additions to mankind; conquest itself is not notable.). I said nothing about Americans; it is the West, Christendom, that has done everything that matters for the modern world to exist as it is (good and bad). This is objectively obvious and provable; it is not a founding myth.

      • agent00F says

        The “everything that matters” you’re referring is funnily enough due to the post-enlightenment age of science, ie escape from biblical dogma & institution. Europe until these quite recent times out of history and modern human existence was nothing special through the dark/middle ages etc, and you would think someone who reads history books would know this. Eg. the story of the americas is literally the same one as Mongols rolling over everyone they did, except I suppose certain christians are more committed to the tale that this was due to some omnipotent god, who for some reason waited until the religion slowly moved northward from the middle east before telling a few adherents to start looking back at heathen greeks for academic inspiration.

        And even within this sliver of the timeline we’re talking about relatively few people doing the actual consequential discoveries a la Newton/Nobel. It’s certainly not the Christendom a la Trump/GOP, however enticing it is to ride the coattails of founders who look similar.

        • Charles Haywood says

          Only morons think the Scientific Revolution had anything to do with the Enlightenment, or was not driven by Western Christianity.

          Spanish conquest of the Americas was utterly different than Mongol conquest, as was what the Spanish built as a hybrid society. You are astoundingly ignorant.

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