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Alfred MacAdam Newsday Conquest makes such exciting reading one forgets that these things actually happened. Hugh Thomas documents characters and events in as much detail as humanly conceivable....Monumental.
Thomas Christensen San Francisco Chronicle Thomas balances writerly skill, exhaustive research, and scholarly documentation to make his book as useful as possible to both general and more involved readers....Essential.
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt The New York Times So dramatic is the account in Mr. Thomas's telling, that...you almost don't want to give the story away....Compelling recounted.
Wendy Smith Chicago Sun-Times Thomas does full justice to a titanic subject in his vigorous narrative, which contains enough heroism, cruelty and pathos for ten Greek tragedies.
Harmony and order
"The fashion of living [in Mexico] is almost the same as in Spain with just as much harmony and order..."
Hernán Cortés to Charles V, 1521
The beautiful position of the Mexican capital, Tenochtitlan, could scarcely have been improved upon. The city stood over seven thousand feet up, on an island near the shore of a great lake. It was two hundred miles from the sea to the west, a hundred and fifty to the east. The lake lay in the centre of a broad valley surrounded by magnificent mountains, two of which were volcanoes. One of these was always covered by snow: "O Mexico, that such mountains should encircle and crown thee," a Spanish Franciscan would exult a few years later. The sun shone brilliantly most days, the air was clear, the sky was as blue as the water of the lake, the colours were intense, the nights cold.
Like Venice, with which it would be insistently compared, Tenochtitlan had been built over several generations. The tiny natural island at the centre of it had been extended to cover 2,500 acres by driving in stakes, and throwing mud and rocks into the gaps. Tenochtitlan boasted about thirty fine high palaces made of a reddish, porous volcanic stone. The smaller, single-storey houses, in which most of the 250,000 or so inhabitants lived, were of adobe and usually painted white. Many of these had been secured against floods by being raised on platforms. The lake was alive with canoes of different sizes bringing tribute and commercial goods. The shores were dotted with well-constructed small towns which owed allegiance to the great city on the water.
The centre of Tenochtitlan wasa walled holy precinct, with numerous sacred buildings, including several pyramids with temples on top. Streets and canals led away straight from the precinct at all four points of the compass. Nearby stood the Emperor's palace. There were many minor pyramids in the city, each the base for temples to different gods: the pyramids themselves, characteristic religious edifices of the region, being a human tribute to the splendour of the surrounding volcanoes.
Tenochtitlan's site made it seem impregnable. The city had never been attacked. The Mexica had only to raise the bridges on the three causeways which connected their capital to the mainland to be beyond the reach of any plausible enemy. A poem demanded:
Who could conquer Tenochtitlan?
Who could shake the foundation of heaven...?
Tenochtitlan's safety had been underpinned for ninety years by an alliance with two other cities on, respectively, the west and east sides of the lake -- Tacuba and Texcoco. Both were satellites of Tenochtitlan, though Texcoco, the capital of culture, was formidable in its own right: an elegant version of the language of the valley, Nahuatl, was spoken there. Tacuba was tiny, for it may have had only 120 houses. These two places obeyed the Emperor of the Mexica in respect of military affairs. Otherwise they were independent. The royal houses, as there is no reason not to call them, of both were linked by blood with that of Tenochtitlan.
These allies helped to guarantee a mutually advantageous lacustrine economy of fifty or so small, self-governing city states, many of them within sight of one another, none of them self-sufficient. Wood was available for fire (as for carved furniture, agricultural tools, canoes, weapons, and idols) from the slopes of the mountains; flint and obsidian could be obtained for some instruments from a zone in the north-east; there was clay for pottery and figurines (a flourishing art, with at least nine different wares) while, from the shore of the lake, came salt, and reeds for baskets.
The emperors of Mexico dominated not only the Valley of Mexico. Beyond the volcanoes, they had, during the previous three generations, established their authority to the east as far as the Gulf of Mexico. Their sway extended far down the coast of the Pacific Ocean in the west to Xoconocho, the best source of the much-prized green feathers of the quetzal bird. To the south, they had led armies to remote conquests in rain forests a month's march away. Tenochtitlan thus controlled three distinct zones: the tropics, near the oceans; a temperate area, beyond the volcanoes; and the mountainous region, nearby. Hence the variety of products for sale in the imperial capital.
The heartland of the empire, the Valley of Mexico, was seventy-five miles north to south, forty east to west: about three thousand square miles; but the empire itself covered 125,000 square miles.
Tenochtitlan should have been self-confident. There was no city bigger, more powerful, or richer within the world of which the people of the valley were informed. It acted as the focus for thousands of immigrants, of whom some had come because of the demand for their crafts: lapidaries, for example, from Xochimilco. A single family had ruled the city for over a century. A "mosaic" of altogether nearly four hundred cities, each with its own ruler, sent regular deliveries to the Emperor of (to mention the most important items) maize (the local staff of life) and beans, cotton cloaks and other clothes, as well as several types of war costumes (war tunics, often feathered, were sent from all but eight out of thirty-eight provinces). Tribute included raw materials and goods in an unfinished state (beaten but not embellished gold), as well as manufactured items (including amber and crystal lip plugs, and strings of jade or turquoise beads).
The power of the Mexica in the year 1518 or, as they called it, 13-Slate, seemed to rest upon solid foundations. Exchange of goods was well established. Cocoa beans and cloaks, sometimes canoes, copper axes, and feather quills full of gold dust, were used as currency (a small cloak was reckoned as worth between sixty-five and a hundred cocoa beans). But payments for services were usually made in kind.
There were markets in all districts: one of these, that in the city of Tlatelolco, by now a large suburb of Tenochtitlan, was the biggest market in the Americas, an emporium for the entire region. Even goods from distant Guatemala were exchanged there. Meantime, trade on a small scale in old Mexico was carried on by nearly everyone, for marketing the household's product was the main activity of family life.
The Mexican empire had the benefit of a remarkable lingua franca. This was Nahuatl: in the words of one who knew it, a "smooth and malleable language, both majestic and of great quality, comprehensive, and easily mastered". It lent itself to expressive metaphors, and eloquent repetitions. It inspired oratory and poetry, recited both as a pastime and to celebrate the gods. An equally interesting manifestation was the tradition of long speeches, huehuetlatolli, "words of the old men", learned by heart (as was the poetry) for public occasions, and covering a vast number of themes, usually affording the advice that temperance was best.
Nahuatl was an oral language. But the Mexica, like the other peoples in the valley, used pictographs and ideograms for writing. Names of persons -- for example, Acamapichtli ("handful of reeds") or Miahuaxochitl ("turquoise maize flower") could always be represented by the former. Perhaps the Mexica were moving towards something like the syllabic script of the Maya. Even a development on that scale would not have been able to express the subtleties of their speech. Yet Nahuatl was, as the Castilian philologist, Antonio de Nebrija had, in the 1490s, described Castilian, "a language of empire". Appropriately, the literal translation of the word for a ruler, tlatoani, was "spokesman": he who speaks or, perhaps, he who commands (huey tlatoani, emperor, was "high spokesman"). Mexican writers could also express elegiac melancholy in a way which se
Posted September 23, 2011
Hugh Thomas has written one of the most intriguing books of history I have read in a long while. Conquest is a detailed, well documented, straight-forward account of what really happened in Old Mexico during its conquest by Cortes, its sacking and the destruction of its arts, its decimation by smallpox, and the tragic downfall and death of Montezuma.
There is plenty of human vice, on both sides, to keep the reader glued to his seat . The Mexica, (Aztec) had an exceptional, highly evolved, civilization. It included books, art, poetry and a well-developed legal system. They valued the same human traits that Western civilization admired. However, their religion included ritual human sacrifice and cannabalism. They were superstitious.
The Spanish Conquistadores were Christian zealots, who had grown up on the medieval concepts of honor and the romantic tales of warrior knights. Cortes was brilliant, gutsy, a superb tactician, an astute politician, and a man of elegant words. He was also ambitious and greedy for gold. With a few men, he conquered an empire and changed the world.
The Mexica, though ferocious warriors were faced many new things they had not seen before -- not only with bearded men with fair skin, whom they suspected were their own returned gods. They were also awed by war-horses, arqbusters, cannon and cross-bows. Cortes had a will of steel, and he "followed his daemon" to the end, always just one step ahead of the wily Mexica. He kidnapped Montezuma and mesmerized him with his dazzling personality, destroying Montezuma's will to defend his empire. This was a fatal relationship for the Mexica. Thomas brings us all those intriguing little details that make history so interesting ... and so unbelievable.
The book is replete with pictures, notes, and unpublished documents. One has to be impressed with Thomas' thoroughness and his monumental knowledge of his subject matter. For me, this is an exciting new find! I have already purchased Thomas' next two books (Rivers of Gold and The Golden Empire), and plan to devote the next couple of months to reading more!
Posted March 12, 2008
Hugh Thomas weaves an outstandingly readable history on the conquest of the Mexica by the Spanish forces under the command of Cortes. A wonderful take on major turning point (albeit, an utterly tragic one) in the age of discovery. No matter how you spell 'Montezuma,' you'll be sure to find this book interesting (not to mention entertaining) if you enjoy your history.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 3, 2006
I'm very disapointed about the spelling of the emperador's name. I was born in Mexico and did all my studies in Mexico, and I know for sure that the emperador's name is spell wrong. If you are going to write about the history of a country please make sure your findings are right. The emperador's name, real name is MOCTEZUMA no montezuma. Sincerely, CONCERN ABOUT MY COUNTRY'S HISTORY.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 10, 2010
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Posted March 29, 2010
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Posted January 7, 2010
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