Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Fall of the Aztecs

Legend vs. reality.
Of course, by the time Tenochtitlan fell, Montezuma II had long departed this world. That is another common misconception; that Montezuma II was the last Aztec Emperor. He was not, in fact he was not even the next to the last or the next to the next of the last. But that brings us to one of the last and most ridiculous claims about this historical episode which is the “hierarchical” Spanish imposing their own system on an otherwise simple and egalitarian native society. This is clearly ridiculous but it plays upon some popular stereotypes. The Spanish were Catholics after all and the Catholic Church is “very hierarchical” (a bizarre phrase if ever there was one) and many people do have the perception of all Native American peoples being nature-worshipping egalitarians. Honestly, some Native American groups were fairly egalitarian but these tended to be the least advanced and a civilization as large and powerful as the Aztecs could certainly never have been built without someone being in charge and making use of a strict chain of command.

In fact, if anything, the Aztecs might have been “more hierarchical” than the Spanish. The Aztec Emperor was treated with extreme reverence, as a semi-divine figure, the earthly representative of the gods and had the most exalted position. He had the best of everything, including women (Montezuma II reportedly had around 1,000 wives and concubines all to himself) and slaves carried him on a litter everywhere he went or spread fine mats in his path as he walked as his person was considered too sacred for his feet to even touch the ground. This was obviously a far different position from the politics of the monarchies of western Europe in the High Middle Ages in which dealings between monarchs, nobles and common people had more of a contractual style about them. And, aside from the Aztec Emperor there was also an aristocracy and a priestly class who held special privileges. There is nothing, of course, wrong with any of that, but it is, again, another aspect of the Aztec civilization that many today seem to prefer to leave out.

So, we should try to keep a more honest and realistic view of such a significant historical event. Certainly neither side was perfect, there was a great deal of destruction, plundering and viciousness that accompanied the fall of Tenochtitlan, however the changes also brought an end to the barbaric practice of human sacrifice and at least some relief for those subject peoples who had been enslaved by the Aztecs. The fall of Tenochtitlan was a turning point in the history of the Americas but it was also by no means “the end” of the Aztecs. In fact, for several decades there continued to be an Aztec Emperor, the last one passing away in 1565. However, it was the end of a chapter and the beginning of a new one in the history of Mexico. (Read entire post.)