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Peter G. Tsouras


Sub-title: How the Mayans and Aztecs Ruled for more than a Thousand Years. -Skyhorse Publishing, N. Y., 2014, 289 pgs., index, bibliography, notes, illustrations, maps


Reviewer comments: This is an excellent book with fine illustrations and good maps. As the title indicates, the focus of narrative is on the individual rulers (leaders) on the Mayan - Aztec side, with the Spanish playing the supporting role toward the end period. This is a unique and excellent approach. However, there is one drawback. In a chapter focused on one 'warlord' of one city the ruler of a rival city will play the subordinate role in descriptions of a given battle between them. The, in a subsequent chapter focused on that second 'warlord' the same battle will be described with the first guy as the opponent. From a chronological perspective, since two 'war lords' are ruling simultaneously in two different cities the narrative has to jump back and forth. This is not a huge problem, but the reader has to be alert, especially since the names of all these guys are so strange and frequently so similar, with only small changes in spelling. One might quibble some with the subtitle: These Mayans and Aztecs ruled DURING parts of a period of more than a Thousand Years, but not continuously as the subtitle implies. There were various large time gaps between various rulers. While the entire story over the centuries is interesting, I believe the casual reader will be especially fascinated by the latter chapters in which the Spanish conquest is described from the Aztec view point and Cortez is the minor figure. Thank goodness also for those maps, because otherwise the relationships between all these relatively unknown towns would be incomprehensible. Which brings up a different question. The author describes most of these towns as being heavily fortified with impressive walls. When one reads about archeology in Mexico and Guatemala one learns about temples. One has to wonder if any record of these fortifications has been found in the ground in Mexico. They have been found around Tikal, the Mayan capital and described to some extent. The notes and bibliography indicate the author performed excellent research for the basis of his narrative and integrated the results into a flowing story. He also provides his own commentary and analysis. Anyone very interested in these events and leaders can find most of them with Google and on Wikipedia.


Chapter 1 - Smoking-Frog and the Maya Wars (Fourth Century): A brief summary description of the Maya at Tikal In Guatemala, in the 4th century from the point of view that it was conquered at that time by a ruler from Teotihuacan in the central valley of Mexico. The author concludes that these 'Teotihuacnos' brought a 'revolutionary' new style of warfare which enabled Tikal to expand its control over adjacent cities. One of his major sources, John Carlson, has related this warfare to Maya astronomy and their observation of Venus, and from this apparently he has coined the name 'Star Wars", which Tsouras then repeats. That seems a bit too cute for me. The story then jumps about 600 years, during which time, I believe all contact between Tikal and Teothuacan was lost.


Chapter 2 - Tolpiltzin Quezalcoatl, Our Lord the Feathered Serpent (Tenth Century): We are now about 600 years later and in central Mexico. Note that Tsouras shows the connection between the Toltecs and Yucatan and not Guatemala. But Wikipedia gives a long break between Topiltzin (877-947) and Huemac (1047-1122). Whatever, the point of the chapter is to notice the Aztec myth and belief that there was a Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl and that this god would return. No question this had great significance when the Spaniards arrived, as we learn in later chapters.


Chapter 3 - Tezozomoc, The Mexican Machiavelli: Now we jump again to (1320-1426) with the early days of the Aztecs arrival and 'conquest' of the central valley. The war lord here is Tezozomoc, whom Tsouras calls "The Mexican Machiavelli". This is the only issue I have with this book and its author. He is confusing Machiavelli with the straw man Machiavel of later polemical authors. The real Machiavelli was a poet, playwright, diplomat and especially, the equivalent of Secretary of Defence in the Florentine republican government. As with some other efforts to find real historical figures with whom to compare his 'war lords' Tsouras might have noted Sargon of Akkad or Tiglath Pileser III of Assyria. Otherwise, the chapter is an interesting study of the political-military policies and accomplishments of this Tezozomoc. The map is essential for following these various campaigns. I cannot comment much on the assessment that he was 'one of the most remarkable monarchs of all time.' I guess 'one of' is an adequate caveat to place him with the likes of the first emperor of China.


Chapter 4 - Nezahualcoyotl, The Poet Warlord (1402 - 1472): Here we arrive at the first of the simultaneous war lords as this Nezahualcoyotl was a rival of Tezozomoc, ruling a rival city. Still, describing the two each in his own terms is fine, as long as the reader pays attention. And there are other lords and towns entering the narrative as well. We are definitely in the direct back story of the Aztecs on the eve of the arrival of Cortez. Thus we learn about the nature of their warfare and religion (and their interconnections). Some modern apologists for the well-known Aztec human sacrifice like to claim that 'flower wars' were not as violent as European warfare. The author puts that misunderstanding fully to rest.


Chapter 5 - Three Hard Men of Tenochtitlan (1428 - 1469): Again, note the overlapping chronology. Our author, thankfully, establishes the genealogies and family relations of these leaders. And we also meet Chimalpopoca, the heir of Tezozomoc, but prisoner of Maxtla. The reader might make out a 'score card', after all one cannot keep track of the players without a 'score card'. All this family struggle reminds one of the Wars of the Roses. Tsouras introduces a large amount of conversation that enlivens the narrative. The detail in the narrative becomes much more extensive as it needs to be and as the primary sources enable it. The conclusion one can draw is that warfare in Mexico was just like warfare in Europe and China, a matter of contending individuals whose motivation was dominance.


Chapter - 6 - The Mighty Grandsons of Motecuhzoma I (1469-1502); The story continues, with three newly introduced principals. Axayacatl the Scourge (1469-1481) - Tizoc The Poor Ocelot Warriors (1481-1486) - Ahuitzotl, The Lion of Anahuac (1486-1502) plus many bit players and regional towns. Civil war becomes endemic. Again, the maps and color illustrations are critical for understanding the complexity.


Chapter 7 - Motecuhzoma II Xocoyotl: There Was Dread in the World (1502 - 1520): We learn that Motecuhzoma Xocoytotl was elected to succeed Ahuitzotl. We learn even more about this process. The legal electors were the rulers of specific semi-independent towns (something like the Electors of the HRE). And the candidates were such due both to their heredity and proven prowess in battle. We learn more about Aztec thinking from many well-chosen poems or hymns. The illustrations are terrific. And now the religious myths create a deadly superstition that make Motecuhzoma hesitate. Tsouras comments, no doubt rightly, that the cut throat Tlacaelel would not have hesitated to wipe out every Spaniard in sight immediately. But the ruler not only hesitates but eventually invites the strange Cortez right into his palace. Meanwhile Cortez soon learns of the deep hatred of the Aztecs so many of the other neighboring peoples harbor. The causes of this are well described by our author in previous chapters. One is reminded of the way the British gained control of India, how the Romans conquered Gaul and Asia Minor, how the Americans used Indian tribes against each other. Further contingencies enabled Cortez to capture all three of the key Aztec rulers, leaving the populace leaderless, in a society that was subservient to its anointed ruler. But the Aztec priests were not fooled and furthermore were incited by the Spanish attack on their gods. The chapter concludes with their uprising and the murder of Motecuhzoma.


Chapter 8 - O Mexica, Courage! (1520-1525): The narrative back tracks at first, as we find Motecuhzoma still alive. Cortez in another contingency let Cuitlahuac leave the besieged palace in which he executed so many of the other chieftains. The Aztecs elected Motecuhzoma's brother, Cuitlahuac, as new ruler and found a powerful warrior and commander. The chapter contains description of the next battles in the city and the Spaniards escape over a causeway, during which they lost most of the gold they had extorted.. Then comes the small pox epidemic in which thousands died including Cuitlahuac. At this, a nephew, Cuauhtemoc, became ruler. Cortez retreats, regains the alliance with powerful Mexican leaders and returns to besiege the capital. This battle again is described in detail, much of it from the Aztec point of view. The final chapter ends with Cuauhtemoc's surrender and then murder. The Spaniards are left to argue over what happened to all 'their' gold. The author concludes with the comment that Cortez's body lies in a church in Mexico city, which of course is correct, but is misleading in that he leaves out the years in which Cortez was honored, returned to Spain where he actually died, and then was brought back in honor to be buried where his descendents had received land.


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