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Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs

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In November 1519, Hernando Cortés walked along a causeway leading to the capital of the Aztec kingdom and came face to face with Moctezuma. That story—and the story of what happened afterwards—has been told many times, but always following the narrative offered by the Spaniards. After all, we have been taught, it was the Europeans who held the pens. But the Native Americans were intrigued by the Roman alphabet and, unbeknownst to the newcomers, they used it to write detailed histories in their own language of Nahuatl. Until recently, these sources remained obscure, only partially translated, and rarely consulted by scholars.

For the first time, in Fifth Sun, the history of the Aztecs is offered in all its complexity based solely on the texts written by the indigenous people themselves. Camilla Townsend presents an accessible and humanized depiction of these native Mexicans, rather than seeing them as the exotic, bloody figures of European stereotypes. The conquest, in this work, is neither an apocalyptic moment, nor an origin story launching Mexicans into existence. The Mexica people had a history of their own long before the Europeans arrived and did not simply capitulate to Spanish culture and colonization. Instead, they realigned their political allegiances, accommodated new obligations, adopted new technologies, and endured.

This engaging revisionist history of the Aztecs, told through their own words, explores the experience of a once-powerful people facing the trauma of conquest and finding ways to survive, offering an empathetic interpretation for experts and non-specialists alike.

320 pages, Hardcover

First published October 4, 2019

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About the author

Camilla Townsend

25 books54 followers
Camilla Townsend (Ph.D., Rutgers University) is professor of history at Rutgers University (New Brunswick, NJ). Her special interest is in the relations between indigenous peoples and Europeans throughout the Americas.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 228 reviews
Profile Image for Meganators.
195 reviews
November 18, 2019
Well I've only just started reading this, but this page 2 quote:

"Libraries are generally thought to be very quiet places, whether they shelter stacks of rare, leather-bound books or rows of computers. Another way to think of a library, however, is as a world of frozen voices, captured and rendered accessible forever by one of the most powerful human developments of all time--the act of writing. From that perspective, a library suddenly becomes a very noisy place. In theory, it contains fragments of all the conversations the world has ever known. In reality, some conversations are almost impossible to hear. Even someone who is desperately trying to distinguish what an Aztec princess is shouting, for instance, will generally have a hard time of it. She appears atop the pyramid, facing brutal sacrifice, but she usually remains silent. The voice overlaying the scene is that of a Spaniard, telling us what he is sure the girl must have thought and believed. Instead of her words, we hear those of the friars and conquistadors whose writing line the shelves of the library."

Yep, I'm hooked.
Profile Image for Krista.
1,333 reviews492 followers
April 10, 2021
The Aztecs would never recognize themselves in the picture of their world that exists in the books and movies that we have made. They thought of themselves as humble people who had made the best of a bad situation and who had shown bravery and thus reaped its rewards. They believed that the universe had imploded four times previously, and that they were living under the fifth sun, thanks to the extraordinary courage of an ordinary man. Elders told the story to their grandchildren: “When all was in darkness, when the sun had not yet shone and the dawn had not yet broken, the gods gathered and spoke among themselves.” The divinities asked for a volunteer from the few humans and animals creeping about in the darkness. They needed someone to immolate himself and thus bring forth a new dawn.

Fifth Sun attempts a “revisionist history” of the Aztec peoples; one based primarily on their own writings. And while author Camilla Townsend (Distinguished Professor of History at Rutgers University) has put together a comprehensive and multi-sourced timeline (there are fifty-four pages of endnotes, eighteen pages of bibliographical references, and the lengthy descriptions of nearly thirty original “annals”, “libros”, and “codices”), this book is more thorough than interesting. I ultimately learned quite a bit about the Aztec (including the fact that “Aztec” is a pretty meaningless name that no Mesoamerican peoples would have used for themselves) but it was a bit of a slog with repetitions, the intrusion of authorial bias, and no clear through-line to the narrative. I am glad to have read this for what I learned but it was more work than pleasure.

For generations, those who have wanted to know about the lives of ancient Native Americans have studied the objects uncovered in archeological digs, and they have read the words of Europeans who began to write about Indians almost as soon as they met them. From these sources more than any others, scholars have drawn their conclusions and deemed them justified. But it was a dangerous endeavor that inevitably led to distortions. To make a comparison, it would never have been considered acceptable to claim to understand medieval France with access to only a few dozen archeological digs and a hundred texts in English — with nothing written in French or Latin. Yet different standards have been applied to Indians.

It’s a truism that history is written by the victors, but when the victorious Conquistadors established their Spanish culture in Mesoamerica and encouraged indigenous young males to be baptised and educated (in order to read the Bible), they were unwittingly giving the conquered the means to record their history, too. Some of these newly literate young men — grasping that their history could literally be erased — began to record the oral histories of their elders and to transliterate their culture’s pictographical records; and based on her translations and intertextual understandings of these, Townsend believes she has been able to put together the most accurate picture of Aztec society (from about two hundred years before Cortés to eighty years or so after the death of Moctezuma). What I learned of the precontact society: the central valley of what we know as Mexico was settled by successive waves of indigenous people from elsewhere (“Aztec” means “people from Aztlan”; a mythical place in the north, which several tribes claimed as their origin), and when the people who called themselves the Mexica moved in, the only land they were allowed was an unwanted reedy, inarable island in the middle of Lake Texcoco. Over the years, the Mexica people built the impressive city of Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City), and through warfare and intermarriages, they would eventually share ruling power over the valley with the Tlacopan and Tetzcohco peoples. Townsend is very thorough in her recounting of this “prehistoric” time, and while I confess to finding much of it confusing, she does make it very clear that by the time Cortés arrived, Tenochtitlan was rich and powerful, first among equals, and rival (not to mention subservient) cities were only too eager to aid in its downfall.

It would become accepted fact that the indigenous people of Mexico believed Hernando Cortés to be a god, arriving in their land in the year 1519 to satisfy an ancient prophecy. It was understood that Moctezuma, at heart a coward, trembled in his sandals and quickly despaired of victory. He immediately asked to turn his kingdom over to the divine newcomers, and naturally, the Spaniards happily acquiesced. Eventually, this story was repeated so many times, in so many reputable sources, that the whole world came to believe it. Moctezuma was not known for his cheerful disposition. Even he, however, had he known what people would one day say, would certainly have laughed, albeit with some bitterness, for the story was, in fact, preposterous.

Townsend busts the myth that Moctezuma bowed down to Cortés as the return of the god Quetzalcoatl (as a seasoned diplomat and compassionate ruler, Moctezuma sued for peace on behalf of his people and was betrayed and murdered by Cortés), and with a detailed recounting of the story of Cortés’ interpreter La Malinche, Townsend goes to great pains to bust the idea that she was a traitor to her people (as an “Aztec” woman from a rival tribe, Malinche was sold into slavery as a child and would have had no loyalty to Moctezuma or the Mexica people of Tenochtitlan). I appreciate that Townsend gave so much space to the story of Malinche (I appreciate any effort to put women’s stories into the historical record), but as she never wrote down her own thoughts and experiences, she is essentially unknowable. I thought it was a reach for Townsend to make references to Pocahontas and Sacagawea, and while again, I do appreciate efforts to bring in women’s stories, the few references that she found to various princesses, daughters, and wives in her source materials were repeated too many times. I also found it odd how many times (at least three?) that Townsend brings up the fact that Europeans had been farming for millennia longer than the Mesoamericans and that that fact alone would explain their dominance at first contact:

The Mexica knew that they were losing. They had no way to explain the discrepancy between their power and that of their enemies; they had no way of knowing that the Europeans were heirs to a ten-thousand-year-old tradition of sedentary living, and they themselves the heirs of barely three thousand. Remarkably, through it all, they seem to have maintained a practical sense of the situation: they knew what needed to be explained. They did not assume greater merit or superior intelligence on the part of their enemies. Rather, in the descriptions they left, they focused on two elements: the Spaniards’ use of metal, and their extraordinary communications apparatus. The old men talking about their experiences used the word tepoztli (metal, iron) more than any other in reference to the Spaniards: “Their war gear was all iron. They clothed their bodies in iron. They put iron on their heads, their swords were iron, their bows were iron, and their shields and lances were iron.” They grew ever more specific: “Their iron lances and halberds seemed to sparkle, and their iron swords were curved like a stream of water. Their cuirasses and iron helmets seemed to make a clattering sound.” When the elderly speakers paused to wonder at the events, it was to ask how the word had gone out so efficiently to so many people across the sea about their marvelous kingdom. The warriors had seen the ships — but not the compasses, the navigation equipment, the technical maps, and the printing presses that made the conquest possible. What is striking is how quickly they realized that these issues were at the heart of the matter.

Does anyone “assume greater merit or superior intelligence on the part of” the Spaniards? That feels like an argument that doesn’t need to be made...repeatedly. The final sections of the book — recounting the first eighty years of colonialism — felt like a familiar story: the decimation of indigenous people by small pox and other diseases; the greed for gold and power by settlers; the importation of slaves from Africa; the rise of Catholicism and use of Inquisition-like torture to stem insurrection. I did find the Appendix (How Scholars Study the Aztecs) to be very interesting — I wouldn’t have thought that a person would need to argue for the importance of letting a group of people speak for themselves — and ultimately, I am very grateful that Townsend gave them this forum. I just wish it felt less of a slog.
Profile Image for chcubic.
71 reviews1 follower
August 24, 2020
The book claims to be a revisionist history of Aztecs, to revolutionize almost everything we thought we knew about the civilization. In some sense these big claims are justified, because the author takes her information not just from the traditional Spanish side, but also from many "local" transcripts written in Nahuatl. The author should also get her credit for trying to introduce more personal voices into the history.

However, for my personal taste I feel she overdoes it. There are just too many trifles without clear purpose, narrative, or consequence. Granted, it would still be a certain form of "history" if we collected all diaries and newspapers then throw them together to make an exhibition. But without an intended storyline it is very unorganized and dull.

What makes things worse, when the author rarely leaves those personal accounts and tries to explain something like most normal history books do, the explanation can be very simplistic and banal. For why Aztecs were defeated by Spaniards, for instance, the author concludes it's because:

(page 98) ... in the Old World, people had been full time farmers for ten thousand years. Europeans had by no means been the first farmers, but they were nevertheless the cultural heirs of many millennia of sedentary living... In the New World, people had been full-time farmers for perhaps three thousand years. It was almost as if Renaissance Europe had come face to face with the ancient Sumerians."

This is actually not the first time such naïve "superiority of agricultural society" idea appears in the book:

(page 18) ...the Europeans, later famous for their fighting, were not the ones to create the first explosives; the supposedly peaceful and self-contained Chinese did that. The point is that farming peoples[sic] always developed mightier civilizations in the sense of being able to defeat people who had not developed comparable weapons and goods, and whose populations had not grown equivalently.

So, farming people always defeat other people (and actually Peaceful and self-contained Chinese is also a quite wrong stereotype). I can appreciate the authors good intention to bring more attention to the voice of the local people, unfortunately she does it in a way with many hackneyed and incorrect/inaccurate ideas. That's not what I expect from a decent history book.
Profile Image for Andrew.
655 reviews183 followers
June 16, 2021
Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs, by Camilla Townsend, is a fascinating book looking at Aztec history from the lens of both Aztecs, and of women. This book dismisses many of the historical claims made by Spanish conquistadors, who have largely written the history of the Aztecs as a conquered people up to this point. Instead, this book looks at the writings of later Aztec histories and Mexica peoples, who learned to write in the Roman Alphabet, and recorded their stories, as well as the verbal history of their peoples, and translations or discussions on the glyph-based writings, archeological evidence, and oral traditions of the Aztec peoples. The term Aztec is a loose term, denoting an Empire that contained numerous peoples who spoke a common Nahuatl tongue, or peoples conquered by them. This Empire spanned the central valley of the Mexican peninsula, and the earliest chapters of this book is a fascinating telling of the oral traditions of how the Mexica people came to Mexico, and began to dominate the landscape. Later in the book, we also here the of the invasion of Mexico and the crushing of the Aztec's by Spanish invaders. This book looks at the tropes that the Spanish placed on the Mexica people - cowardly, superstitious, and prone to massive human sacrifices, and puts them in their place. Far from cowardly, the Aztec Empire consisted of highly intelligent politicians, who sought out rumors, built intelligence networks, traded, conquered and reformed. The political history in this book is fascinating, recounting the power struggles the Aztec faced on succession, the social and familial structures that denoted their everyday lives, the trade goods and economies they built, and the tales and myths they told.

Townsend has done an excellent job writing an interesting short account of Aztec history that refutes many of the tropes placed upon indigenous Americans by European conquerors. This is the history of a complex and intertwined group of people that inhabited the North and South American continent thousands of years before the Europeans arrived, and subsequently built a unique set of politics, social customs, and perceptions on reality that were novel, beautiful and thrilling to read about. This was a very good read, and one to take a look at if you wish to move away from Euro-centric recordings of history, and examine the history of Mexico and the Aztecs in a far more historically grounded context.
Profile Image for Siria.
1,715 reviews1,226 followers
November 16, 2022
A readable account of the Mexica people (or as they're often referred to, the Aztecs) before and after the arrival of the Spanish in what is now Mexico in the early sixteenth century. Camilla Townsend places a great deal of emphasis on the surviving sources written by Indigenous people, primarily in Nahuatl, since they have often not been given their due in the existing scholarship, and certainly not in standard educational/pop culture accounts of the colonisation of Mexico. (I'm side-eyeing the several Goodreads reviewers who expressed great bafflement as to why Townsend felt the need to repeatedly refute the idea that the Spanish were innately smarter or better than the Mexica. "How could anyone possibly think that!" they say, as if that kind of wilful, defiant ignorance of how deeply embedded racist, anti-Indigenous assumptions are in mainstream historical narratives doesn't prove the necessity of Townsend's stance.)

As someone without any real grounding in Mexican geography or Central American history, I did at times find this a dense read and the large cast of characters difficult to keep track of. I was also not keen on Townsend's strategy of providing speculative thoughts/emotions and sometimes even experiences for people. I'm sympathetic to why Townsend felt the need to do that, given the fragmentary nature of the source base, and it's not unreasonable to imagine that someone who lived through traumatic events might have reacted to them with sorrow or grief. But to invent a whole passage—about the experiences of one Cristóbal at the Franciscan-run boarding school of Tlatelolco (149-150)—and to only make clear in the end notes that this is fictional is, to me, not fair play. These issues, and a couple of other more minor quibbles, meant that I did not truly enjoy reading The Fifth Sun, but with some caveats I think it could provide a useful introduction to this aspect of Mexican history for the interested reader.
Profile Image for Emma Deplores Goodreads Censorship.
1,095 reviews1,131 followers
March 29, 2022
3.5 stars

An informative history, beginning with the Aztecs’ origins and rise to power (focusing particularly on 15th century history, which has the most reliable sources), covering the Spanish conquest in the middle, and then the post-conquest years and how the indigenous people adapted in the later chapters. I can’t claim much enthusiasm for the book but I did come out of it knowing more than before. It’s detailed, enlightening, respectful and includes a lot of information not otherwise easily available to the general reader.

Townsend relies primarily on histories written in Nahuatl in the decades after the conquest, which allows her to provide a more holistic picture than we get through Spanish sources, and also to do some myth-busting. For instance, Moctezuma didn’t think Cortez was a god: that story was invented many decades later. In reality, he did everything he could to prevent Cortez from entering Tenochtitlan, but when that failed, greeted him like a distant relative for political reasons, namely that allowing war in the heart of his empire (regardless of outcome) would have fatally weakened his political power, so acting like everything was happening according to plan was the next best choice.

Meanwhile, the interpreter Malintzin (or la Malinche as she’s known in Spanish; both were bastardizations of her baptismal name Marina, while her original name is unknown) was not seen at the time as a Benedict Arnold, as she is in Mexico today. Her people were at war with Tenochtitlan, she in fact had been given away as tribute and subsequently sold, so only long after the fact—when the full scope of European colonization became clear—did anyone feel that she owed them loyalty. There was no indigenous nationalism at the time and she was in general highly respected.

There are a lot of interesting details here, including plenty of information on lesser-known topics. That said, it’s primarily a political and military history, quite depressing in places (and including a graphic torture bit), with some deviation into individual lives where there’s enough information to piece them together. I also appreciated learning how to pronounce names in Nahuatl; once you get the hang of it they’re much easier than they initially appear!

Unsurprisingly with a history professor for an author, it’s also on the denser side, though readable for non-academics. I’m not sure how much of this is about formatting: the text is only 208 pages long, but densely packed pages; my reading experience might have been quite different had font and spacing been adjusted, stretching it over twice as many pages that would turn more quickly.

I was deeply unimpressed by the bit where Townsend describes in detail the inner experiences of a young indigenous boy at a post-conquest boarding school in Mexico City, then reveals in the notes that she made it all up based on her best guesses. She says this is the only place in the book where she invented (other than the initial paragraphs of each chapter, which are deliberately novelistic and set apart in a different font from the rest of the text), and claims “poetic license.” Um. This is not poetry, those paragraphs are not art; sticking to known facts is kind of the whole point of writing history. If you want “make-shit-up license,” write a novel, don’t try to sneak it into nonfiction and bury the truth in endnotes most readers won’t read.

Overall, this is worth a read for those who are interested in the topic, especially since we get so many sensationalized depictions of the Aztecs and so little serious study of them accessible to a general audience. But for those who know nothing about the pre-contact history of the Americas, this is not the place to start. Try 1491 instead!
Profile Image for nastya .
400 reviews211 followers
December 8, 2020
This is my first encounter with "Aztec" - they never called themselves Aztecs - culture and history, not counting Apocalypto. This book uses new sources by indigenous peoples and tells a lot of memorable stories and recently won Cundill History Prize.
If you were disappointed by Black sun like I was, I highly recommend this non-fiction book!
Profile Image for Lauren .
1,680 reviews2,290 followers
March 14, 2022
"The Aztecs would never recognize themselves in the picture of their world that exists in the books and movies we have made. They thought of themselves as humble people who had made the best of a bad situation and who had shown bravery and thus reaped its rewards. They believed that the universe had imploded four times previously, and they were living under the fifth sun..."

From FIFTH SUN: A New History of the Aztecs by Camilla Townsend, 2019 by Oxford University Press.

Early chapters in FIFTH SUN start way back - migration patterns to the Americas, relations between groups of people, and the various groups that lived and thrived in what is now the central regions of modern Mexico in the 14th - 16th century: the Nahua peoples (made up of many sub-polities), who speak the Nahuatl language.

Townsend's historical writing blends set pieces of imagined, yet highly probable scenes, as well as documentary reiteration. Each chronological chapter opens with a storytelling scene - some of them based on artistic renderings, others on a document - but some are (well researched) speculation.

I'll admit that this method doesn't always appeal to me - my warning bells often sound off when I see phrases like "She would have said ...", "He would have felt this way...". The truth is we *don't* know and never will... But at least there are some best guesses based on artifacts/archaeology, a few first-person manscripts, and other accounts witnessed by the Spanish colonizers in the 16th century.

Later chapters in the book give concrete documentary evidence, as many pull from manuscripts written by Spanish-educated Indigenous people and Spanish colonizers who record history and culture in 16th century Tenochtitlan - But this statement still reveals who is / and isn't telling the history.

Granular details about culture, belief system and worldview, timelines and acculturation, Córtes, the Nahuatl language, relationships between Indigenous and Black enslaved peoples - there's much more to learn here.
Profile Image for David.
Author 58 books975 followers
May 31, 2020
A very good book (with a couple of hiccups) that illuminates the culture of the Mexica and the Triple Alliance they forged with Tlacopan and Tetzcohco, using lesser known Nahuatl manuscripts to bust multiple myths.
Profile Image for David.
1,381 reviews
October 3, 2021
This book retells the story of the Aztecs before and after the arrival of the Spaniards in the early 16th century in Mexico. The Aztecs have been known as a blood-thirsty people who enslaved and sacrificed a great many to appease their gods (see the film Apocalyptico by Mel Gibson, which is mentioned in this book).

Before we get going, we need to clear up something. The Aztec name was given by the colonizers to these people living in the great valley of central Mexico, now Mexico City. They were known as the Mexica (pronounced Meh-She-Ka) people who spoke Náhuatl. Their capital was Tenochtitlán, an island in the lake Texcoco.

September 2021 is the 200th anniversary of Mexico’s independence so it makes great sense to read this book. 2021 is also the 500th anniversary of the fall of Tenochtitlán to Cortez and his men.

With all this said, the book is a thorough and eye opener about this period of Mexican history. As the subtitle says, “a new history” of these people. The history of the people of Mexico was in flux. In the 1200s, the Olmecs and the people of Teotihuacán were gone. Four suns (or peoples) had been destroyed. It begins with the arrival of the Mexica on the island, Tenochtitlán where cactus pear grew in abundance. They developed canals and raised platforms to grow crops and fished the lake. They created powerful ruling units of the altepetl that all fell under the powerful king or tlatoani.

The royal families intermarried to spread power via marriage and offspring. They raised their boys to be warriors and within a short time took control of the valley. They danced and sang at their festivals and sacrificed prisoners to appease their gods. The Fifth Sun had risen.

For me the next hundred years after the conquest that was enlightening. It was here that the book shines. Camila Townsend is a master of story telling as well as history. As she notes in her Appendix, to retell history She used a variety of sources, including Náhuatl as well as Spanish writers.

The indigenous woman Malintzin or “Malinche” was a slave that become Hernando Cortés’ translator but Townsend digs into her history, her travels and even her demands as her own power rose. The child of Malinche and Cortés, Martín Cortés, is equally interesting. And of course, so are the stories of the many offspring of Moctezuma, the leader who fell to Cortés such as his daughter Tecuichpotzin, or the last of the tlatoani, Cipac. Powerful if not challenging stories.

When the Spaniards arrived, Náhuatl was a spoken language. The painted glyphs were mostly records. The priests taught them Roman letters and that in turn, became written Náhuatl.

Thankfully writers like Domingo Chimalpáhin and Hernando Alvarado Tezozomoc wanted to remember their people. Chimalpáhin, recalled a time when as a youth, the students put on a play at a school in Tlatelolco, Mexico in the late 1500s. A student notes,

“According to the opinion of many, we the Indians of New Spain are shams, like magpies and parrots, birds that with great effort learn to talk, and soon forget what they have been taught.” P 202

He wrote his “Annals” of the early 17th century to recall and remember the history of the the great change that had befallen the indigenous people of Mexico with the arrival of the Spaniards. By 1624, a great major of these people had perished, from drought, floods, numerous infections like whooping cough, measles and small pox, and of course at the hands of their Spanish overlords. Chimalpahin “feared collective amnesia” of the Nahuatl speaking people. So he wrote in Náhuatl.

Each chapter begins with a story drawn from the sources as well as an illustrations taken from the Codex found in the Bodleian Library at Oxford. I must point out that Townsend’s footnotes are important part of the book. Well worth the read.

Today, Mexico City sits on that lake bed of Lake Texcoco surrounded by mountains. As the Spaniards built their new city over Tenochtitlán, they had a problem. Flooding often destroyed what they build so in the 1600s they began to divert the runoff waters, and in doing so could reclaim the land. An engineering marvel that the Mexica could never dream of. Sadly it was the Mexica who much of the work.

So much had changed since the arrival of Hernando Cortés in 1519.
Profile Image for Faustibooks.
15 reviews6 followers
January 1, 2023
I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed with this book. The Aztecs have always interested me, but for some reason I didn’t enjoy all of the chapters. Throughout the book Townsend focuses on a certain individual to explain the context in which they lived and their stories, but this could get really boring for some of them, especially as it kept going on and on about something I’m not really interested in. There were some though that I really enjoyed, such as when she looked at the life of Malintzin, or her half European son by Hernán Cortés, Martín Cortés.

I had hoped that I would like the pre-Columbian history of Mesoamerica, but sadly I didn’t for some reason and I really had to get through it. The part I really liked was when the Spanish arrived, as usually we are told the story from the Spanish perspective, the well known story of the conquistadors entering an unknown and mysterious land. But in this book, we are told the story from the indigenous perspective, which was really interesting and fun to read, as at first there are many rumours about strangers having arrived, followed by a wave of disease and then followed by an encounter with the conquistadors themselves. But as much as I enjoyed this part and some other ones, I don’t think I can rate this book much higher than three stars.

I really liked Townsend’s use of indigenous sources and the many Nahuatl annals, while also criticising some of the ‘traditional’ sources we use to learn about the Aztecs, that were heavily influenced by the Spanish and their views on the Mexica culture. The Aztecs actually referred to themselves as the Mexica which I thought was really interesting, but I thought it was strange for Townsend to point this good thing out, while still referring to them as ‘Indians’ throughout the book. This felt awkward. All in all it was a fine book and deserving of three stars. Hopefully I will learn more about the Mexica some day and enjoy it more.

1,005 reviews5 followers
January 14, 2021
My rating is on the low side because I really trudged through this book. As a few readers mentioned, having some familiarity with the history of the region the Aztecs inhabited helps a lot. I had virtually none. I appreciate that there is a lineage chart at the beginning of the book, but there were so many characters and so many interrelated families that I could not keep them sorted out.

Townsend states that she was trying to balance a scholarly perspective with the needs of non-scholarly readers. The problem with this compromise is that it perhaps does not satisfy either group. There are a lot of footnotes at the end, and they are generally filled with information, but I did not have the patience to keep turning to the back of the book to find out what was in each note.

I was surprised that I ended up being a bit repelled by Aztec culture. Gender roles were rigid; men all had to be warriors (and something else in the rare times when a war was not on), and women had so many tasks that mothers told their daughters not to expect to get much sleep as an adult. Human sacrifice grew in volume as time passed. Rich men (and only rich men) could have several wives.

Of course I accept Townsend's point that the Mexica shared the normal range of human emotions. (Did anyone ever believe otherwise?). The City of Tenochitlan is an impressive achievement, and the market place was unexpectedly remarkable to me. Many of the rulers, though not all, tried to treat their people well.

Townsend points out several times that the Mexica had been non-nomadic for only 3000 years, compared to 10000 for Western Europe. This did lead to a technology gap. It makes sense, then, that Mexica polity would be reminiscent of Europe a few hundred years ago, in the Middle Ages. War was incessant, rivalries between rulers and towns were endless, and much of diplomacy was organized around arranged marriages which were akin to mergers.

The book seems to me to be less effective in discussing the colonial period. The Spanish were erratic in governing and in social policies, but in general seem to have exhibited the usual painful downsides of colonial governments. I ended up with even less of a sense of the Spanish population than I retained of the indigenous peoples.

Sadly, though, after reading this book, my take-ways are the things I just wrote. None of the characters stick with me. And one of my ways of rating a book is how much I enjoyed reading it. I do respect this book, but reading it too often was like doing school-assigned homework.

I also can't help but mention that (and this is a first for me), I feel the book is badly designed. There are too many words on a page, and as I mentioned above, the footnotes are at the end. The cover blurbs are in white type on an orange background, and I found them utterly unreadable.
Profile Image for Charles Haywood.
488 reviews676 followers
July 19, 2021
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.

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.
Profile Image for Jason Honeycutt.
21 reviews2 followers
May 11, 2020
Plods along mired in the extravagance of minutia, and a multitude of clear biases. That said, there are some moments that are of genuine interest (historical and otherwise) and a few well written lines
Profile Image for Ashlee Bree.
516 reviews55 followers
August 23, 2019
Forget everything you thought you knew about the Aztecs. Or the Mexica, as they were more commonly known amongst themselves. A fresh and insightful, sometimes familiar, history splashes across these pages which will open your eyes, ears, and heart to Nahua culture pre-and-post colonization. It resounds in a way that makes you realize how - for far too long - we’ve been missing more than half of the story, and it’s one we all need to hear. To learn. To know.

Townsend winds a vibrantly complex and well-researched narrative here that spans four centuries. In doing so, she highlights the ever-evolving world of an indigenous people, showing with elaborative skill, with acute delicacy, that theirs’, like anyone’s, was a life full of paradox. Although it was often rife with trauma and struggle, it was also one they breached with fortitude, with an admirable ability to adapt. Whether it’s through someone like Malintzin, a respected female interpreter who was integral in helping the Spaniards succeed; or Moctezuma, a powerful ruler who alternated power between different lineages, readers are granted better insight into who these figures were. What they valued and preserved. And why they matter still.

Only by listening to the Aztecs discuss their experiences in their own words, in their own way, can we endeavor to understand all that occurred. Thanks to this book, they’re finally given a real voice. A real chance to be heard and understood.

It was so captivating to be reinstructed - reintroduced, rather - to their history in its many layers and dimensions. Mind-bending in the best way. (Also re: let us all collectively agree that Hernán Cortés was a big ‘ol pompous, self-promoting, conquistador-ing knucklehead, shall we?)

All in all, I think this book should be circulated broadly. A solid 3.5 stars from me.

Thanks to Edelweiss for the ARC!
Profile Image for Anna Kennedy.
18 reviews
May 2, 2022
This book honestly really disappointed me. It is clear that the author is writing about Central American Indigenous pre-conquest lives as an older American white woman and I think that should have lowered my expectations immediately but I was honestly shocked by her frequent use of terms like "Indian", perpetuating the idea of the Old World vs the New World, and her weird obsession with the fact that the Spanish were 'more powerful' than the Mexica because they came from a longer history of agrarian living like... no?? I had really high hopes for this and it just didn't deliver at all. She really ended up telling more loosely connected personal histories translated from Spanish and Nahuatl from various Annals and Codices that were really dull after a while. I did enjoy learning about pre-Spanish Mexica figures and the presence of enslaved Africans in the area, although even then her language around the subject was... interesting.
Profile Image for Marc Gerstein.
517 reviews132 followers
November 6, 2020
This book covers a lot of ground, a heck of a lot, as would be expected of a historical survey. But readers having a least some familiarity going in can help cope with voluminous information — names, groupings, places, etc. I’d benefit from that in many historical topics, but not here. My prior knowledge of the Aztecs was limited so more than usual was new to me, meaning it was a challenge to keep all the new information straight. I’ll probably need to come back and re-read this.

At least I do have a motive to do a re-read. The topic, the story of the Aztecs, or rather the Mexica people (which is where Mexico gets its name), is a fascinating one. It’s hard for writers to give a non-judgmental treatment of this topic, since there are people here who demand to be judged, whether the Mexica for brutal subjugation of others around them and, of course, human sacrifice, and, of course, the Cortes and Conquistadors who, essentially wiped out a civilization through the combination plain-old violence and the diseases they brought from home, where they (the more civilized peoples, were used to living with their farm animals and, hence, had developed more immunities).

On the whole, though, I think Townsend does a pretty good job. One Goodreads reviewer who gave a one-star review took Townsend to task for having written “in the Old World, people had been full time farmers for ten thousand years. Europeans had by no means been the first farmers, but they were nevertheless the cultural heirs of many millennia of sedentary living... In the New World, people had been full-time farmers for perhaps three thousand years. It was almost as if Renaissance Europe had come face to face with the ancient Sumerians.”

But it’s a reasonable point, not meant to gratuitously insult pre-agricultural societies. Many writers have explained the implications of the agricultural revolution, that allowed populations to stay in place, work less strenuously to be better nourished, specialize and free up many for other task such as those that led to more complex societal institutions and better technology. Townsend is not by any means unique in this notion, and it goes a long way to explain why Western Hemisphere indigenous populations fell to those from across the sea. My impression here is that indigenous societies had a lot, a heck of a lot and more than many acknowledge, with those of Europe except for pacing. My sense from this is that the Europeans were like one who would take am 8 AM Metroliner express from NYC to Washington DC with the indigenous societies of the western Hemisphere get on a 1 PM slow stop-everywhere local from NYC to Washington. They’re both traveling along the same path and given enough time, will get to the same destination. But one party started a lot earlier and moved a lot faster. No wonder the Europeans (analogous to those who got to DC early, had plenty of time to get checked into a hotel, unpacked, have a leisurely lunch and enjoy some sites were in a better place when they eventually met up than the Mexica, who just arrived harried after a long slow trip. In an arm wrestling competition at Union station, I’d be my money on the Europeans.

The reason for the late start of the Western Hemisphere folks is obvious. The Eastern Hemisphere was well in motion by the time anyone found the Bairing land bridge to the West and took the time to migrate a long way down. As to the speed of development, Townsend doesn’t go there, but I am reminded that it may be time to re-read Jarred Diamond (“Guns, Germs and Steel”) — so Townsend did leave some things untreated. That’s OK. Waht she did was plenty.
Profile Image for Erica Tofu.
13 reviews1 follower
March 24, 2020
There is so much information in this book. It tickles me how the author uses themselves as a source. There is no pretending to have an understanding of a people who were so complex. Individuals who made history are given a voice like I have yet to read in other textbooks. I look forward to a reread.
Profile Image for Harooon.
69 reviews8 followers
September 1, 2021
If we think of the Aztecs, we usually think of a violent, spiritual people, who built temples and pyramids in the middle of the jungles of Mexico, where they sacrificed their victims by the thousands, ripping out their still-beating hearts in orgiastic ceremonies, lest the sun should fail to rise.

Then strange men landed on the far-eastern shores. They came on enormous boats, with cloth unfurling from their long masts. They rode muscular, deer-like beasts and wore metal armour and carried metal weapons. Their leader, the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés, was greeted as an incarnation of the god Quetzlcoatl.

Within two years of his arrival Cortés had brought the Aztecs to ruin. In a number of key battles his men had demonstrated the superiority of their weapons. They were also helped by the repressed peoples that had been formerly enslaved and sacrificed by the Aztecs.

Now the temples stood empty, the priests of this violent empire were overthrown, and their bloodthirsty religion, with its demands of human flesh, gave way to a Catholic, hispanicised Mexico.

The received narrative is very wrong, or at least, very misleading, says Camilla Townsend. Her recent book Fifth Sun aims to overturn this narrow conception of the Aztecs as a uniquely bloodthirsty people in favour of a more nuanced view, which views them, like all peoples everywhere, as capable of both good and evil, beauty and horror.

To do this she has drawn upon texts written by the Aztecs themselves in the wake of the Spanish conquest. The arrival of literacy gave those first generations afterwards the opportunity to record their history while its memory and cultural imprint was still fresh in their minds.

While Cortés may have destroyed the Aztec empire, the people in it never went anywhere - or the peoples, I should say, for one of the very first things Townsend clarifies is that the term Aztec is, in many ways, misleading. There are many different peoples in Mesoamerica. Many of them spoke Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. Many did not. There are still millions of native speakers of Nahuatl.

In the late 1400s and early 1500s the Nahua had organised their societies in similar ways. They had similar (though not identical) mythologies, gods, rites, and rituals. Numerous loyalties placed one in their standing to the wider world: what mattered was not just whether you spoke Nahuatl or which tribe you belonged to, but which god was your tribe’s primary god, in which altepetl (city-state) you lived, and what family you came from.

The Nahua had migrated into the Valley of Mexico over several centuries. They came from what is now the south-western United States, from a semi-mythological homeland called Aztlan (from which comes the name Aztec). Legend has it that there were seven tribes that came from seven caves. One of them, the Mexica, would found the city of Tenochtitlan, built on the swamps of the western-side of Lake Texoco, on which stands modern-day Mexico City.

The Aztec empire was a confederation of three altepetl - Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan - collectively known as the Triple Alliance. They waged frequent wars against their neighbours, from whom they demanded tributes of food (corn and beans), slaves, gold, gems, hand-made goods, and other resources. The Mexica supplemented this agricultural tribute with birds, fish, insects, algae, and cactus. They also built chinampas - irrigated gardens - on the marshy lake, which yielded produce year-round.

With this abundance, Tenochtitlan grew to become the largest and most powerful altepetl in the Mexico Valley. Some estimate that it had up to 250,000 inhabitants, but Townsend sensibly points out that this would have required a population density greater than that of modern day high-rise Manhattan. A population of no more than 50,000 people is more likely, out of a total of about 1.5 million in the Mexico Valley.

It was a highly planned city that grew seemingly overnight. Two great aqueducts gave it drinking water. A huge pyramid stood at its centre, cutting the city into four quarters. Each quarter was further cut up into various neighbourhoods, bazaars, temples, and markets. It was a busy city, with goods and tribute from the surrounding land flowing into it everyday. The city’s permanent inhabitants were mostly skilled craftsmen or professionals: priests, builders, traders, weavers, gem-cutters, boatsmen, judges, and others.

There were slaves, too, but the scope of slavery was much broader than what we usually associate with the word. Slaves could be prisoners from neighbouring tribes, but usually they were ordinary people who could not repay their debts. This condition was not hereditary; a slave’s child was born a free person.

Each altepetl was ruled over by a tlatoani (literally “speaker”). Within the Mexica, the tlatoani was semi-elected, being a noble son of one of the two major families who had founded Tenochtitlan. Sharing power in this way prevented one family from dominating politics, while also giving the Mexica enough constitutional flexibility to shake off the prospects of a bad heir.

The tlatoani not only had to be competent in the rituals of his people - he was the representative of the Gods on earth - he also had to be a good wartime leader. The ascension of each new tlatoani called for a new wave of military campaigns against their neighbours. If they paid the demanded tribute - food, slaves, goods, handiworks - then their neighbours would be spared, and their altepetl allowed to function in its own way, according to its own laws and rituals. If they fought back, their fate would be like that of the Huaxtecs:

The soldiers from all the allied provinces took many captives, both men and women, for they and the Mexica entered the city, burned the temple, sacked and robbed the place. They killed old and young, boys and girls, annihilating without mercy everyone they could, with great cruelty and with the determination to remove all traces of the Huaxtec people from the face of the earth.

Captives were distributed among nobles. Women might be taken as wives (polygny was a practice among the nobility) or domestic servants. Otherwise a slave might be sacrificed or sold to the slave markets.

Townsend tries very hard to present a nuanced picture of slavery and sacrifice as the Aztecs must have seen it. She is fiercely critical of past historians who have been excessively judgemental about these practices and made more of them that they should have, allowing moral outrage to cloud historical judgement. Yet she is very quick herself to condemn the Spanish for their actions. This uneven treatment comes across as mere moralising from the other direction, and tends to downplay the slavery and sacrifice which evidently did happen in the empire. Her need to damage-control these practices often brings her voice into the book in places where I wish she had simply let the history speak for itself.

To be sacrificed was seen as something of an honour. The ceremony itself was sombre in tone, with the viewers having fasted beforehand and standing in silence, flowers in hand, as it was carried out. Those victims who showed bravery and defiance until the end were greatly respected.

What was the point of it all? According to Townsend, it was a way to thank the Gods. “They are the ones who taught us everything,” their priests would later explain to the Spanish. “Before them, we kiss the ground, we bleed. We pay our debts to the gods, offer incense, make sacrifices… We live by the grace of the gods.” (49).

This isn’t quite on the level of “the sun won’t come up”, but it’s not far off it, and we’re struck with a cart-horse dilemma: are thanks being given because of what the Gods have done, or are the Gods only doing it because thanks are being given? Both seem to be the case. At different times, a priest or tlatoani may have been motivated by one reason or the other. And there’s also every possibility that some may have kept the practice alive for purely political reasons, to simply brutalise their neighbours and maintain the hegemony of the Triple Alliance.

Townsend is eager to demolish many of the myths and misconceptions surrounding slavery. She resists the characterisation of the Aztecs by sacrifice or slavery or violence. Perhaps her explanations are more nuanced than those of the past, which have tended to neglect Nahuatl sources in favour of the friars and conquistadors who legitimated their actions as the deliverance of human beings from an evil empire. But is this characterisation entirely wrong? Is the empire she describes not one ultimately based on extraction, tribute, and slavery? Is it not the case that its religion saw human sacrifice as a moral imperative, necessary to keep the universe ticking?

As Tenochtitlan grew larger, so did the number of sacrifices. In its early days, “only a few people would have been sacrificed on the monthly religious festival days.” (49). Townsend calls it a “horrible misconception” to think of thousands of sacrifices being marched to their death everyday. Yet she later admits that, by the time the Spanish had arrived, emperor Moctezuma was too busy presiding over sacrifices to take part in military campaigns: “going to the battlefield was no longer feasible as he would have been too busy participating in the public ceremonies that ran with blood.” (79).

More and more sacrifices were needed. They were increasingly drawn as tribute from rival altepetls, rather than from the city’s own sons and daughters. The dominance of the Triple Alliance became frozen, and conflict with their neighbours was crystallised into a highly-ritualised series of yearly sports games, known as the flower wars. These sports games were essentially a war-by-proxy, and the losers would be sacrificed.

The number of nobles in Tenochtitlan exploded too. There weren’t enough high positions for them, so they took on new roles in the expanding bureaucracy, as priests, judges, and administrators. The Mexica lacked writing (though they had a rich tradition of ideographic codices), but they still recognised a customary law and had a tributary calendar, which they pushed on their neighbours and were always trying to synchronise, so as to ensure the steady flow of tribute into Tenochtitlan. Maintaining this required young, educated, competent men.

This was becoming a problem though. The description of late Tenochtitlan brings to mind Peter Turchin’s theory of the overproduction of elites: that too many people, trained for too few high positions, often fail to achieve the recognition they feel they deserve, and in compensating for this, put new strains on the foundations of trust and cooperation on which their society was built.

Moctezuma dealt with the problem in numerous ways: the flower games made violence more controlled and less bloody; family life became more strictly regimented, with succession was limited to the father’s side only; and the state grew, with new positions for young men to fill. These administrators made the extraction of tribute more efficient, but this also made society more brittle, as Tenochtitlan’s people took on more specialised roles and became increasingly dependent on tribute to fulfill their basic needs.

Perhaps the Triple Alliance would have kept trudging along though, were it not for the arrival of Hernán Cortés, an extremely ambitious explorer and adventurer who was acting more on behalf of himself than the Spanish crown. He landed on the Yucatan peninsula and, hearing of the riches of Tenochtitlan, cut his way to Mexico through the jungle. He was able to inspire people, though he was not well-liked and had many enemies. When he landed, he burned his ships to discourage anyone from turning around. And he was playing a game of cat-and-mouse with the governor of Cuba, who disliked him and kept trying to reign in his destructive exploits, which so often ended in disaster for the native peoples.

The Spaniards must have looked very imposing in their metal armour, wielding their metal swords and cannons. On his march to Tenochtitlan, Cortés picked up several allies who resented their Mexican overlords. Along the way, the Spaniards lay waste to Cholula (the city the hot sauce is named after), which must have left a deep impression on the Nahua peoples. Having seen what the Spaniards were capable of, Tlaxcala, a confederation of four altepetl that had long been rivals to the Aztec Triple Alliance, decided to throw in their lot with these foreigners.

By the time Cortés arrived, Moctezuma had already heard of him and his exploits, including the destruction of Cholula. He bid his men stay in the royal quarters, where they were lavished with food and gifts. According to the Florentine Codex (an ethnography that was edited by a friar who wasn’t actually there), Moctezuma promised his kingdom to the Spanish. This promise was important to Cortés, because it allowed him to frame the subsequent conflict with the Aztecs as an uprising against Spanish territory, hence guaranteeing support from the Spanish crown. Townsend thinks this promise was an outright fabrication by Cortés.

It’s also at this point that Moctezuma is supposed to have revered Cortes as a god. According to Townsend, this is based on a linguistic misunderstanding. Moctezuma use the word teotl, which can mean both a god and that god’s representative on earth (i.e. a priest). These faraway invaders, not bound to any known altepetl, of unknown lineage, speaking their garbled and unintelligible language, nonetheless claimed to be representatives of some new, previously unknown God. It therefore made sense to address them as the representatives of this god - hence, teotl.

Moctezuma’s gestures towards Cortés may not have encompassed a desire to give away his kingdom. His polite, flowery language was in a register of speech the Nahua used to express dominance, and he fed and hosted the Spaniards and Tlaxcalans like honoured guests, as any tlatoani was expected to do.

But in some of his actions, I can’t help but see an expression of weakness. For instance, he showed the strangers “maps and tribute lists”, clearly hoping to “convince them to leave and to have established the most favorable possible relationship with them by the time they did.” (110). Townsend’s wording here makes it quite clear that Moctezuma’s offers were intended as tribute, and weren’t some kind of misconstrued gift. The Spaniards were terrible guests and rudely demanded the riches they saw around the city. Perhaps Moctezuma was trying to slake their greed, but he only fed it.

Did Moctezuma really envision these strangers as his inferiors or equals? If so, I don’t see why the divinely-ordained emperor of most of the known world would offer them tribute and let them overstay their welcome - unless he had to, as a matter of survival. He probably never gave up his kingdom; the notion may not have even been intelligible to him, given differing notions of Spanish and Aztec sovereignty. For a start, as long as an Aztec vassal state paid its tribute, it did not have to give up its laws, customs, and religion, as the Spanish were clearly expecting.

Yet insofar as there was a common political language, Moctezuma’s actions don’t seem like the actions of a sovereign equal. They look like submission. I’m not sure Townsend is justified in dismissing Cortés claim as an outright fabrication on nothing more than his untoward character. I think it’s entirely possible to suggest Moctezuma willingly surrendered something, though he may have thought it was only material riches, and not absolute sovereignty.

During the stay in Tenochtitlan, the governor of Cuba landed in the Yucatan. He had come to put an end to the expedition. Cortés rode out from Tenochtitlan to meet the governor in battle. He defeated the governor and convinced the rest of his men to join him in Mexico.

While he was gone, Cortés left a small detachment at Tenochtitlan who got into a serious conflict with their hosts. Accounts differ as to what happened. The Spaniards claim to have intervened in a ritual to stop human sacrifices, while the Aztecs, who had gotten permission for the celebrations to go ahead, claim the Spanish attacked them for the gold with which they had adorned their sacrifical victims. Either way, it was a bloodbath; a number of nobles and priests were killed.

By the time Cortés returned, the Aztecs had elected a new tlatoani who was not so concilliatory. Long fed up with their impudent guests, they were beginning to turn on them. The Spaniards withdrew to the royal quarters to plan their next move. Cortés took Moctezuma as a hostage and tried to use him as a mouthpiece through which he could command the city’s defenders to let the Spaniards leave in peace. It didn’t work; Moctezuma’s people jeered him.

Accounts diverge on what happened next. According to Spanish sources, Moctezuma was stoned to death by his own people. Nahuatl sources suggest that he was killed by Cortés, and this is clearly what Townsend believes. Frustratingly, she gives little argument here beyond a general appeal to Cortés and his ruthless character.

What’s clear was that the Spaniards and Tlaxcalans weren’t leaving the city without a fight. The Mexicans had destroyed most of the causeways out of the city, but there was a causeway remaining on the western side, and they made for it at night. The alarm was sounded as they tried to cross. Hundreds of canoes suddenly appeared in the waters around them. They were slowed down by the rain and their own greed, from all of the gold they had looted which they tried to take with them. Hundreds of Spaniards and Tlaxcalans died. To make it to shore they had to wade over the corpses of their comrades and horses.
Profile Image for Patrice Cazeault.
Author 23 books72 followers
July 8, 2022
Lecture fascinante !

J'ai redécouvert l'infini complexité des sociétés qui peuplaient le bassin autour de Tenochtitlan.
Ça poursuit le fil de mes lectures qui fracassent les mythes et les idées préconçues sur les peuples amérindiens avant l'arrivée de Christophe Colomb.

J'aurais aimé en apprendre encore plus sur la culture, sur le quotidien des Mexicas.

Points bonus: l'auteure se base en grande partie sur les écrits colligés peu longtemps après la chute de Tenochtitlan, par les enfants et les petits-enfants des Mexicas vaincus par Cortès, quand les Mexicas ont utilisé l'alphabet pour rédiger la mémoire de leur peuple en nahuatl.
10 reviews
June 19, 2021
The book is good and informative about history but the way the author sets it up in the introduction makes it hard to take everything seriously. The book opens on the premise that most Aztec history is based on European sources and that paints the Aztecs in a horrible light when in reality they were just a normal society like anywhere else. But then when you actually read the history you get lines like "it was the children of less powerful mothers who generally found themselves in harm's way. Unless the aggressors happened to be in need of child sacrifices for the annual festival of Tlaloc, no one thought of killing the young." Oh good. I too only think of sacrificially murdering children when I need to please Tlaloc. Otherwise, enslaving them is clearly the line. :/

Townsend tries really really hard to mitigate the centrality of ritual sacrifice (both by downplaying it and by equivocating with societies like the Celts) but unavoidably has to talk about how Moctezuma couldn't even participate in actual battles because he was too busy participating in death rituals and how priests had to train to clean skulls for tzompantli (skull towers of sacrifices). The Aztecs were definitely not mindless savages but despite how hard the author wants to sell the impression that they were just a young society trying to make it in the world even her own description of history can't hide how horrific their culture could be.

I think this book is good and having a clear bias does not invalidate an academic work. I just want to complain about how the author lays that bias out up front and then can't convincingly make a case as to why the common impression is wrong due to the facts being so clear. The Aztec method of governance and their religion (closely intertwined) were just obviously monstrous abominations.
Profile Image for Joe Flynn.
133 reviews7 followers
July 16, 2022
The end of the world of the Fifth Sun

An excellent modern history of the 'Aztecs' - with the author clearly at pains to even use that label, explaining its inaccuracy as she does with so many other commonly believed myths about these fascinating peoples.

Both the history and the narrative here are very impressive. The author succinctly explains the decisions made to make the book both accessible to lay people, and accurate to the new data. The recent breakthroughs in understanding the Nahuatl language spoken at the time are the bedrock of the 'new' history. It's a story written by the the locals, some of whom were there at the time of contact with the Spanish, or were directly told by people who were. It is a new point of view, lost in plain sight for centuries. This is combined with the oral histories of their peoples written down at the same time.

She creates a strong narrative from this data. It stays true to its point of view, not becoming a tale of Cortez or the Spanish once their writings become accessible - they are used as condiments not the main dish. I was left saying "but what happened to Cortez!?" at one point, slipping back into the traditional story, missing a lot of the point. We have the history of the Mexica, mostly shared myth, then their better documented rise from wandering warriors for hire to top of the local system, ruling from their impressive self built capital city Tenochtitlan.

The complex local system is well explained and provides many answers to question about how a few hundred Spaniards were able to wreak such havoc. Firstly, they had a lot of help from the enemies of the Mexica. Both other clans, and some crucial individuals, non more so than Malintzin/Malinche Cortez's interpreter, later lover, and famed Mexican 'traitor' who is recast here in a fair light. She was a survivor, a incredibly bright and industrious woman sold into slavery who had a chance at a better life, especially for her children.

Her story is symptomatic of all of the peoples of the area. The worst aspect of contact was disease. There several were truly devastating epidemics. Though the political order and local way of life did not change that much, the Spaniards, indeed aided by horses, war dogs, and most of all steel were not there to wipe them out but to take over at hegemons. It was an extractive exercise, brutal at times, but it was a slow process. Peoples in the countryside decades later may have never seen a Spaniard. The local elites were demoted, but used by the Spanish. This is in stark contrast with the methods used further North, here it was slow destruction of the peoples by any and all methods.
Explored here in the excellent "Journey of Humanity" https://www.goodreads.com/review/show... or here in fictional form by Dee Brown - https://www.goodreads.com/review/show... .

The local way of life is vividly portrayed, both before and after conquest. Is is very different to the societies we live in, fascinating. My only little issue is that it could have been more lurid, more brutal. The author does not hide from the gore of human sacrifice or the desperate battles, but she does not revel in it either. On the podcast "History on Fire" I get that. Lots of cannibalism, human sacrifice, dogs eating people. As a proper historian I'm sure she wanted to avoid sensationalism but I am looking for it here!

Should be a first stop for anyone wanting to understand the 'Aztecs' !
64 reviews7 followers
January 22, 2021
This book is an accomplishment: Well-written, thoughtful, painstakingly researched. Townsend relies throughout on indigenous sources, supplementing with Spanish records only when the native sources aren't available. It's a work of advanced scholarship that still manages to be accessible to the layman (me!) who can't tell an Acamapichtli from an Axayacatl.

Even the framing of the subject is original. Instead of focusing on the conquest with a brief overview of the pre-Colombian period, or focusing on the pre-Colombian era with the conquista looming at the end, Townsend puts Hernan Cortes' arrival smack in the middle of the book, and covers roughly four generations on either side of that cataclysm.

I was educated, I was entertained, and I was charmed by the grace and power of the writing. Very highly recommended!
Profile Image for Alvin.
Author 6 books102 followers
September 28, 2022
A mostly fascinating read that seemed well-researched and quite credible, drawing as it did from indigenous as well as colonial sources. I did, however, find back and forth political/military history of the warring city states pre-conquest impossible to follow and would have preferred that part to have been summarized. The description of day-to-day life was very comprehensible, but too brief. I would've loved to hear a little more about the religious rituals, technology, art, food, and especially the architecture.
Profile Image for Melanie.
1,649 reviews11 followers
November 13, 2021
I found this to be an interesting book looking at the Aztecs through their own words and not through the Spanish influence that we have only received. I think it was well researched, however, it was hard to keep my attention. There are many interesting facts that were brought to light. I hope more of these sources are explored.

How did I find this book? It is a recommendation though CloudLibrary.
Profile Image for Sierra Lynn.
81 reviews42 followers
July 8, 2022
Very good, informational book. I really appreciate how the author brings different historical figures to life every chapter to really explain what was happening before going into more general approaches. Only giving 4 stars instead of five because this was dense at times and difficult to parse through. Definitely happy with what I learned from this book though!!
Profile Image for Mac.
276 reviews4 followers
June 2, 2022

An important, vital and needed companion piece to European-sourced accounts of the history of the Aztecs and arrival of the conquistadors. I think this work could have been maximized by being integrated into a more comprehensive history of the people and period that also incorporated European sources, but I understand why that was not done.
Profile Image for Timothy.
108 reviews
August 23, 2022
Great book on Aztec history using a nice variety of sources, primarily indigenous histories generally untouched (at least at the level of popular history/non-specialst history). I also really enjoyed Dr. Townsend's section on the state of the field and annotated bibliography of primary sources. It was a joy to read.
534 reviews
January 6, 2021
Another one of those books that I intended to read little bits of and ended up inhaling the whole thing. And now have a long list of other titles, should I ever want to go down the Aztec rabbit hole.

Of course, there were no Aztecs. That is the first thing I learned, and smacked my forehead because I should have known--the ethnic group that rose to power in the Valley of Mexico called themselves the Mexica. People of the wider region who shared a language, Nahuatl, called themselves Nahuas. People who were from a particular town called themselves by their demonym. The literate Indigenous writers around the time of Spanish conquest called themselves (in translation) "us people here" (as opposed to Europeans who came from elsewhere). The only people who called anybody "Aztec" were scholars writing long afterward. This kind of thing happens a lot.

What Townsend writes is primarily a political history of the Mexica and their empire, telling the stories of individual people and detailing how families rose and fell from power. She doesn't dwell that much on daily life or make heavy use of archaeological sources. But that is part of her point, to use the precolonial Nahuatl sources and be led by the priorities of those texts. She is a gifted storyteller and, for lack of a better word, humanist, and both are essential to the way she makes intuitive leaps to fill in gaps or figure out relationships.

There is a lot in this book that makes sense. There is much that surprised me. A lot of things fell into place about my brief experience of Mexico City after reading this, and a lot of new questions and interests opened up. To my mind, that's a glowing review.
Profile Image for Samantha Crisford-Eade.
19 reviews1 follower
October 10, 2022
I commend Camilla Townsend for taking such time and persistence for the Mexica (Me-shee-ka) to life by telling from their perspective. The indigenous perspective, just like the female journies are so easily lost in history. There are 3 sides to an event - the Spanish, the Mexica and then the truth. By bringing the Mexica side to light we are now closer to the truth.

My little knowledge of the culture and time period made this a difficult read for me. This perplexed me as a history lover, however Camilla makes a good point (pg 210), that the social side of history, such as revealing tales, poems, jokes, fears or anger are mostly not recorded. Camilla creates wonderful, illuminating tales at the beginning of the chapters, but perhaps too much of the small, human details are missing to inspire me on. As Camilla did state in an interview, the further away a point of time becomes for us, we can lose so much knowledge and understanding of events and people. Which is perhaps the overarching saddest element that leapt out to me - the fight for a group of people for their future and to be remembered - and the failure and loss we now have in missing the history and stories of so many.
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