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Alexander with the Macedonians, as their king, and Julius Caesar with the Romans, as their emperor, conquered the territories of which we read, but Your Excellency, attended solely by your own valor (virtud), without any other advantage, came to equal them--and I'm not sure I shouldn't rather say that you came to surpass them. Hence it is clear that your valor ought to be illustrious and marvelous, for it has proved strong enough that you have come by yourself alone (con sola su persona) to be lord of so many caciques and lords.Thus it was the lonely striving of Cortes, conquering vast territories "without the help of any king" [sin ayuda de rei alguno], that most spectacularly elevated him above the more politically powerful, socially prominent, and hence more efficiently supported heroes of antiquity.
I want you to know that there has not been a more fortunate man in the world than Cortes, and he has such captains and soldiers who could be named who are each and every one of them as fortunate in his undertakings as Octavian, as fortunate in conquering as Julius Caesar, and more fortunate in toiling and engaging in battles than Hannibal.In attributing these words to the defeated Narvaez, Bernal Diaz was not only claiming for himself and his companions a dignity equal to that of the Romans, he was also appropriating words originally intended for a major figure of the Reconquest and the civil conflicts of mid-fourteenth-century Castile. For in one of the most famous poems in Spanish literature, the Coplas por la muerte de su padre, Jorge Manrique (1440-79) celebrated his late father Don Rodrigo as
En ventura, Octaviano; [In luck, Octavian; Julio Cesar en vencer Julius Caesar in winning e batallar; and giving battle; en la virtud, Africano; in virtue, (Scipio) Africanus; Anibal en el saber Hannibal in wisdom e trabajar.17 and toiling.]With these words Jorge Manrique began a pair of stanzas of Roman comparisons characterized by Ernst Robert Curtius as "the monumental conclusion and highpoint" of a "national Spanish historical tradition" that had for at least two centuries sought to equate medieval Spain with ancient Rome. Indeed, it is tempting to imagine that the great poem that Bernal Diaz was here quoting and paraphrasing was securely lodged at the back of his mind as he wrote his Historia verdadera. Just after the "Roman stanzas," Jorge Manrique had declared that his father "did not leave behind great treasures, nor did he gain great riches," but, as the concluding lines of the poem note, "though he lost his life, he has left us as ample consolation his memory." Similarly, Bernal Diaz lamented in his preface: "I have no riches to leave my sons and descendants other than this truthful and important account of mine."
And furthermore I want to say something to let you see that I deserve more praise than I give myself, and that is that I have been in far more battles and engagements than the 53 battles writers say Julius Caesar was in. Also, though he had fine chroniclers, he didn't rest content with what they wrote of him, but he wrote with his own hand in his Commentaries about the fighting he had done personally, and so it's not out of line for me to write the heroic deeds of the brave Cortes-- and my own deeds and those of my companions who found themselves fighting alongside one another.Thus the celebrated Julius Caesar, though he may have been a "great emperor, whose chroniclers say he was very prompt in arms and mighty in giving battle," was surpassed a millennium and a half after his death by one among many valiant young conquistadors in the ranks. So, at least, it appeared to that conquistador's octogenarian older self, who grandly proceeded to bury Caesar's 53 battles under the crushing weight of a catalog of the 119 "battles and encounters in which I found myself," an astonishing climax to these latter-day Commentaries.
Excerpted from Romans in A New World: Classical Models in Sixteenth-Century Spanish America by David A. Lupher Copyright © 2003 by David A. Lupher. Excerpted by permission.
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|Ch. 1||Conquistadors and Romans||8|
|Ch. 2||The Model of Roman Imperialism in the Controversy of the Indies, First Phase: Vitoria and His Disciples||43|
|Ch. 3||The Model of Roman Imperialism in the Controversy of the Indies, Second Phase: Las Casas versus Sepulveda||103|
|Ch. 4||After Valladolid: The Fate of the Roman Model in the Continuing Debate over the Justice of the Conquest||150|
|Ch. 5||Romans and Iberians/ Spaniards and Indians||189|
|Ch. 6||Romans and Indians||235|
|Index of Modern Scholars||437|