Drawing on indigenous accounts written in the aftermath of the Spanish conquest, Camilla Townsend aims to offer a new perspective on the culture and events of Aztec history.

* Lire en français. This text is based on the French translation of the book.

The culture of ancient Mexico is the subject of a craze that can be measured by a few figures: Don Miguel Ruiz's self-help book The Four Agreements, published in 1997 and based on ancient Toltec wisdom, is said to have been translated into 46 languages and sold 9 million copies. The interest shown by the new spirituality of the Western world in Mesoamerican prehistory is renewing a long-standing fascination with the peoples of ancient Mexico, whose human sacrifices had previously been the main focus of the grand narrative of world history, until recent Hollywood productions such as Mel Gibson's Apocalypto in 2006.

With this Fifth Sun (English 2019, French 2024), Camilla Townsend proposes to renew the history of the Aztecs by examining first and foremost the sources produced by the descendants of natives in the aftermath of the Spanish conquest. The conquistadors and Christian missionaries brought with them a system of writing and thought that led the heirs of the vanquished to fix the memory of their history and culture. Now translated from their original language (Nahuatl) into European languages, these sources serve as a starting point for the reconstruction of a world absorbed by the expansionism of modern Europe.

The Birth of an Empire

The term "Aztecs", popularized from the 19th century onwards, actually refers to a group of peoples who, at the time of the Spanish conquest, were subjugated by the Mexicas: a nomadic population from the south-west of today's United States, who settled around the 11th century in the central "plain" of Mexico, in reality an enclosed basin already occupied by numerous sedentary communities. Coming from the wild north to raid, these warriors began to cultivate corn in the manner of the populations of this fertile area surrounded by mountains, which had already seen several powerful kingdoms (Cuicuilco and Teotihuacan). The way of life of central Mexico imposes itself on the fierce conqueror – as Tacitus would say – who adopts the ideogram writing, the subtle civil and cultural calendar, and the team ball game played in the center of the village and unleashing the passions of the spectators. In local terms, the Chichimecas (barbarians) become Toltecs (civilized), the latter word referring to a legendary community symbolizing the ideal of civilization and referred to by the name of Tula – a real city, incidentally. This Mexica people, at the heart of the "Aztec" civilization to come, is just one of a group of migrants, collectively known as the Nahuas. The city they founded on an island for permanent settlement in the mid-1300s was given the name Tenochtitlan.

The hegemony of the Mexicas over the other Nahua peoples was built under the leadership of the kings Huitzilihuitl, Chimalpopoca, Itzcoatl and Moctezuma the Elder. It was based on the mastery of swamp resources (fish, mollusks, game, insects, algae, water garden crops), neglected by other farming peoples. Their exploitation favored the development of a stratified society, combining a nobility of warriors and priests with a laborious population. Less tied to agricultural cycles, it made men available for combat throughout the year, enabling Mexicas to specialize in mercenary warfare. During the reign of King Huitzilihuitl, they extended their influence thanks to the protection of the Tepanecs, the most powerful people in the area, whose auxiliaries they made their own. King Itzcoatl then succeeded in exploiting a succession crisis at the head of this hegemonic city to impose the Mexica people among a group of three leading city-states who rose to the summit of a confederation of the valley's peoples, in the form of a three-headed empire. On this basis, Moctezuma the Elder extended and further consolidated the Mexica zone of influence.

All Nahuas peoples practiced slavery and polygyny, which were at the heart of the international system: slaves were the spoils of foreign warfare, the exchange of wives sealed alliance pacts, and their abandonment was tantamount to a declaration of war... These institutions were also at the heart of political systems: slave ownership consolidated a warrior elite, while polygyny fostered rivalries between half-brothers within prolific royal families. To stabilize Mexican power, Itzcoatl succeeded in setting up a system of rotation of the royal office between ruling lineages, to protect it from factional strife. Mexican power also relied on a veritable policy of terror: populations that put up stubborn resistance were annihilated as an example, and the ritual of human sacrifice organized the elimination of prisoners of war. The ritual killing of members of subjugated groups was first and foremost a religious necessity born of the imperative to pay homage to the gods on whom the order of the world and the survival of the group depended ; but in the new imperial context, it thus helped to consolidate the power of the sovereign people. Last but not least, permanent foreign war was the price to be paid to maintain the lifestyle of the ruling class and its authority over all the peoples in its power.

The Golden Age and the challenge of spanish iron

The apogee of Mexican domination occurred in the 15th century, when an original culture unfolded, the memory of which has been preserved in writing by subsequent generations. Alongside polygyny, homosexual practices partly organized male sociability. At the center of the city, formed by the merger of the first villages, stands the pyramid dedicated to the sovereign god (Huitzilopopochtli), flanked by the sanctuary of the rain god (Tlaloc) and the royal palace. A masterpiece of a remarkably sophisticated water system, an aqueduct carries water to the island across the lake that separates it from the shore. It helps feed a network of shimmering gardens featuring a profusion of flowers and colorful birds in cages. A zoo displays wild animals donated in tribute by the Mexicas' client communities. The area's abundance of animal and plant resources fuels a particularly varied gastronomy and feasts that culminate in a chocolate drink. The priests cultivate an in-depth knowledge of the astral system. Camilla Townsend offers a striking guided tour of the city of Tenochtitlan, a city that appeals to all the senses and is home to a wide range of trades. She also offers a subtle vision of the respective roles of men and women, at once confined to polygamous households, specialized in certain productive functions, active in certain situations of war, sometimes in charge of policing the markets, sometimes prostitutes on the same markets...

The political edifice conceived by the first kings enabled the Mexican empire to confront dissidence, intervene in the internal affairs of its diplomatic partners and withstand several succession crises. The visible figure of the king, undoubtedly over-represented in written sources, was supported by a council, the veritable organ of the now-stabilized central government. On the eve of the Spanish Conquest, Moctezuma the Younger set about streamlining administration and creating a veritable state apparatus: provinces, governors and garrisons guaranteed economic activity, tax collection and the settlement of disputes. The prolific nobility was limited, and the rules governing the transmission of status were made more restrictive. Public boarding schools taught most teenagers to be wives or warriors – except for young men destined to become priests or merchants – and military merit offered commoners opportunities for social advancement. As for the priests, their task was to organize human sacrifices – the frequency of which turned them into a full-time activity – with gladiatorial performances between defeated enemies. The remains of the corpses produced during these ceremonies were displayed, and in part consumed by the warrior and priestly elites in magical potions; the spectacle of murder was more than ever at the heart of Aztec political culture.

The Mexicas were therefore at the height of their power when the Spaniards first landed in Mayan territory in 1518, then again in 1519. These foreigners were not totally unknown to the Maya, who had already encountered (and even captured) isolated Europeans. Hernán Cortés' men themselves had already taken Mayan prisoners, and were thus informed of the existence of the Mexica empire, whose gold and resources they coveted, and which were indispensable to the Spanish settlers in the Caribbean. Led by their interpreter, the young slave known by the distorted name of La Malinche, Cortés' men learn that many of the peoples under Mexica domination were ready to shake off their yoke. Armed with their technical superiority, the Spaniards succeeded in rallying the vassals of the Mexicas, who offered them women as a token of their loyalty. With their support, Cortés defeated Moctezuma's court. This is followed by a series of clashes between the various protagonists, a smallpox epidemic, famine and, finally, victory for the Spaniards, a succession of events that is chronicled and recounted in breathtaking detail in this book. The efforts made by the Mexicas only allow "the war to take a little longer", as one witness wrote at the time.

The myth of the conquistadors taken for gods by the future conquerors was, if not invented, at least abundantly relayed by the Christian-educated descendants of the conquered: they found in it an explanation for the defeat of their fathers and grandfathers, supposedly victims of blind religiosity. Another myth forged by this generation of natives explained the conquest in terms of the positive welcome given to Christians, who were seen as the avatar of a legendary, benevolent Toltec ancestor, the antithesis of the bloodthirsty Mexicas. The reality is that in the 1520s, the decisive peoples rallied to Cortés because the arrival of ships and equipment imposed the Spaniards as the masters to come, and for the local populations, the best option was to support the odds-on favorite.

Mexicas in the age of Mexico

In the 1520s, Spanish domination was exercised with the brutality we all know: destruction, murder, enslavement of recalcitrants and young women... Mexico's gold justified all the violence, before the Spanish Crown limited the excesses. The Spanish city of Mexico was built on the ruins of Tenochtitlan by native craftsmen trained in Renaissance-style construction techniques. Conquistadors were installed as prefects for life and hereditary at the head of each rural community, while local elites were associated with the government. To adapt to the particular circumstances of the local configuration, an original – but short-lived – governing solution was to entrust districts to native women married to Spaniards (the former slave known as La Malinche, or the former royal wife Tecuichpotzin renamed Isabel).

From the outset, missionaries from the Imperial Church set out to evangelize the Mexicas; the baptismal obligation imposed on Nahua chiefs wishing to be entrusted with responsibilities was a decisive argument for the conversion of the elites, deepened by the training of their young sons in Franciscan monasteries. Polygyny, homosexual practices and human sacrifice were forbidden – but this did not mean that they had come to an end. Faced with the disappearance of these traditions and the predicted swallowing up of their world, Nahua notables seized on the Latin alphabet (i.e. Phoenician and phonetic) to fix the myths and history of the Toltec Chichimecas that the elders still remembered.

In colonial Mexico, leadership of the indigenous populations was entrusted to heirs of the Aztec royal family, placed at the head of an indigenous council. Spanish power was limited to the exercise of law enforcement and the supervision of the colony's economic exploitation. Against this backdrop, a crisis erupted when the Crown, against the advice of all local authorities, forced the inhabitants of Mexico City to pay tribute in addition to the chores they were already doing. Faced with the Mexicas' refusal, the Crown's emissaries not only organized the suppression of the riot: they also endeavored to discredit the indigenous authorities and neutralize the influence of the Franciscans who supported them. They also planned to reverse the privileges of local Spanish prefects. In short, they were alienating all local forces, and whose coalition they've come to fear. This configuration explains the crackdown in 1566, even on the Spanish Grandees, who were feared to be leading the dreaded rebellion. All in all, the tension was less between the Aztecs and the Spaniards than between the Habsburgs and the whole of New Spain. Wrongly so, it would seem, since each of its components seems to have distinguished itself above all by its political docility.

To guarantee its economic exploitation, this New Spain soon received a new element: slaves from Africa, imported to Mexico more than to any other part of the world at the time. In Mexico City, they partly replaced a population decimated by epidemics; and their potential for revolt worried the Spanish authorities even more. As for the natives, some of them became involved in the work of the Church, and even in the evangelization of other unknown lands, in New Mexico, Japan, the Philippines...

Some of them acquire a taste for history. Trained in Latin, Catholic doctrine and Spanish law, but also in the art of meditating on the past in the Mediterranean tradition of Herodotus and Livy, indigenous scholars such as don Domingo de San Anton Muñon Chimalpahin Quauhtlehuanitzin set down the memory of the Mexican world "from its origins to the present day", i.e. before its discovery by Europeans and up to that fatal moment. Under their pens, a history of the "Aztecs" was written not by the vanquished, but by their grandsons.