Part One (ii):
Justin Lyons’ parallels
Alexander the Great and Hernán Cortés
Ambiguous Legacies of Leadership (2015)
Justin D. Lyons
This is a biographical pairing of two of the greatest conquerors in human history, drawing its inspiration from Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. Like Plutarch, the purpose of the pairing is not primarily historical.
While Plutarch covers the history of each of the lives he chronicles, he also emphasizes questions of character and the larger lessons of politics to be derived from the deeds he recounts. The book provides a narrative account both of Alexander’s conquest of the Persian Empire and Cortés’s conquest of the Aztec Empire while reflecting on the larger questions that emerge from each. The campaign narratives are followed by essays devoted to leadership and command that seek to recover the treasures of the Plutarchian approach shaped by moral and political philosophy. Analysis of leadership style and abilities is joined with assessment of character. Special emphasis is given to the speeches provided in historical sources and meditation on rhetorical successes and failures in maintaining the morale and willing service of their men.
Book review at: https://www.worldcat.org/title/alexander-the-great-and-hernan-cortes-ambiguous-legacies-of-leadership/oclc/898161610
Part Two: Would a C16th AD Spaniard likely have encountered an Aztec empire?
“When Worlds in Collision was published, four Yale University professors had collaborated in preparing a rebuttal in the American Journal of Science, where one of them ridiculed the suggestion that the Mesoamerican civilization appeared to be much older than conventional history allowed. Five years later, the National Geographical Society announced: “Atomic science has proved the ancient civilizations of Mexico to be some 1,000 years older than had been believed.” The Chief of the Bureau of American Ethnology at the Smithsonian Institution declared this to be the most important archeological discovery in recent history”.
James P. Hogan
James P. Hogan wrote this paragraph in his book, Kicking the Sacred Cow: Questioning the Unquestionable and Thinking the Impermissible.
I recently wrote to a Canadian correspondent along the lines that:
My own view is that a Cortes, had he really gone to Meso-America in the 1500’s AD, would have had as much likelihood of encountering a thriving Aztec civilisation as would Napoleon have had of encountering a full-blown Ramesside civilisation when he rode up to the pyramids on his camel around 1800 AD.
Part Three: Cortes a composite character
In this series Hernán Cortés will emerge as a composite character based upon
some great luminaries of the BC past: Moses; Alexander the Great; even Saint Paul.
Matthew Restall introduces his article, “Moses, Caesar, Hero, Anti-hero: The Posthumous Faces of Hernando Cortés” (2016):
https://www.academia.edu/32132886/Moses_Caesar_Hero_Anti-hero_The_Posthumous_Faces_of_Hernando_Cort%C3%A9s_Restall_2016_ as follows:
‘There is so much to say about the prowess and invincible courage of Cortés that on this point alone a large book could be written.’ 1 These words, written by Toribio de Motolinía, one of the first Franciscans in Mexico, were more far-sighted than the friar could have imagined.
When Motolinía penned that prophecy, Hernando Cortés (1485-1547) was still alive, and his secretary-chaplain, Francisco López de Gómara was soon to begin composing a ‘large book’ on the famous conquistador that would first see print a decade later as The Conquest of Mexico. 2 Using Cortés’s own so-called ‘Letters to the King’ as crucial building material, Gómara laid the foundation for a literary tradition that combined a narrative of the Spanish-Aztec War of 1519-1521, styled as a glorious, predestined Conquest of Mexico, with a life of the conqueror as a hagiography, hero-worshiping and legend-forming. Gómara’s book and Cortés’s Second and Third Letters were thereby planted as the urtexts, the trunk from which all branches of the traditional Conquest narrative grew. 3
Blooms of intense popularity have periodically blossomed, but the topic’s essential popularity has remained deeply rooted for five centuries. 4
Serious attempts to uproot the legend, or see ‘beyond’ it (to quote the subtitle of one recent biography), are few and far between; almost every book has sought to lionize or demonize, to celebrate the hero or denounce the anti-hero. As the author of that recent biography noted, Cortés was long ago transformed from a man into a myth,
a myth whose aspects have always been disputed by concurrent schools of thought and ideological rivals, in such a way that allowed each one to think of ‘their’ Cortés: demigod or demon, hero or traitor, slaver or protector of the Indians, modern or feudal, a greedy or great lord. 5
To see ‘beyond the legend’, its nature must first be understood. To that end, the discussion that follows traces the posthumous development of Cortés as Caesar, Moses, Hero, and Anti-Hero. The latter pair are two sides to the same coin, for the Anti-Hero image has tended to maintain the Cortés myth rather than undermine or shatter it. I suggest that two mythical Cortesian qualities (identified at the essay’s end) underpin his legend; upending them might lead to a deeper understanding of both the historical Cortés and the era of the Spanish-Aztec War of 1519-1521. ….
Cortes to Mexico ‘like a new Moses to Egypt’
As an historical revisionist I cannot help being suspicious whenever I read of a supposed historical character being described as a ‘second’ or ‘a new’ version of someone earlier.
A ‘second David’, or ‘a new Solomon’, ‘a second Judith’, and so on.
In this case, Hernán Cortés – considered to have been ‘like a new Moses’.
Matthew Restall points out some comparisons between Moses and Cortes in his article, “Moses, Caesar, Hero, Anti-hero: The Posthumous Faces of Hernando Cortés” (2016): https://www.academia.edu/32132886/Moses_Caesar_Hero_Anti-hero_The_Posthumous_Faces_of_Hernando_Cort%C3%A9s_Restall_2016_
Following the logic of the Cortés legend, political disunity among Mesoamericans has traditionally been read as the conqueror’s achievement, with the question being whether his ‘divide and rule’ strategy was influenced more by Julius Caesar, Cesare Borgia and Machiavelli, or the Bible. 20 The Christian element (Solana’s ‘mystical crusader’) inevitably gave Cortés the moral edge over any of his possible influences (the Bible aside). Thus beginning with the earliest writings on the Conquest by Franciscans and other ecclesiastics, Cortés was promoted as a pious version of a classical general, better than the ancients because he carried the true faith with him.
‘I do not wish to deride the noble achievements of the Romans,’ wrote Diego Valadés in 1579. ‘Yet one must exalt with the highest praise and with new and illuminating phrases the unprecedented fortitude of Hernando Cortés, and the friars who came to these new worlds.’ Comparing the possessions of the Roman Empire with ‘the parts of the Indies that have come into our hands, ours are infinitely greater.’ But for Valadés, it was not just a question of size. The Cortesian achievement was a religious one, and thus ‘the sign of how Cortés exercised his power for the good’ was how he and the earliest friars destroyed temples, expelled priests, and prohibited ‘diabolic sacrifices.’ It was thus the nature, as well as the magnitude and speed, of the enterprise that made it ‘the most heroic.’ 21
Valadés, the son of a Spanish conquistador and a Nahua mother from Tlaxcala, was the first mestizo to enter the Order of Saint Francis. 22 His perspective was thus as much colonial Tlaxcalan as it was Franciscan. Valadés was one of the earliest to articulate the invented tradition that Tlaxcalans were the very first – at Cortés’s urging – to receive baptism as new Christians in Mexico. Another Tlaxcalan mestizo, Diego Muñoz Camargo, likewise the offspring of a Spanish conquistador and Nahua mother, also contributed to this core element of the Cortés-as-Moses legend. His History of Tlaxcala, completed in 1592, recounted a meeting that supposedly took place in 1520 between Cortés and the four rulers of Tlaxcala in the middle of the Spanish-Aztec War. At the meeting, Cortés delivered a virtual sermon, confessing that his true mission in Mexico was to bring the true faith. Explaining Christianity and its rituals, he urged the lords to destroy their ‘idols’, receive baptism, and join him in a vengeful campaign of war against Tenochtitlan. The lords then persuaded their subjects, who all gathered for a public mass baptism, at which Cortés and Pedro de Alvarado acted as godfathers. 23
This incident, part of a mythistory that survived into the modern era, 24 was likely a combination of Muñoz’s imagination and Tlaxcalan folk history. 25 But it took root as fact, because it placed both Tlaxcala and Cortés in positive light, promoting one as the voluntary starting point for Christian baptism, and the other as an effective agent of proselytization. This Cortés was a pacifier, not a violent conquistador, a spiritual conqueror who deployed the word not the sword, inspiring conversion without coercion.
This Franciscan promotion of Cortés as a New World Moses, both during and long after his lifetime, had three roots. First, the twelve founding fathers of Catholicism in Mexico were Franciscans, arriving in 1524 with Cortés’s support. Second, many of the Twelve shared a millenarian vision of their mission; their goal was to convert indigenous Mexicans in order that Christ could return, a holy task made possible by Cortés. 26
Third, the Cortés-Franciscan alliance became cemented by the political schism that divided Spanish Mexico in the 1530s. The Franciscans were forced to compete in Mexico with secular clergy and rival orders, especially the Dominicans, who aligned themselves with the first royal officials sent to govern New Spain, all critical of Cortés; the Franciscans penned narratives that praised him. 27
One such Franciscan was fray Gerónimo de Mendieta. He spent the last quarter of the sixteenth century composing his Historia Eclesiástica Indiana in the Franciscan convent in Tlatelolco, once part of the Aztec capital and in Mendieta’s day a Nahua neighborhood of Mexico City. Although Mendieta’s history of the evangelization in Mexico was denied publication permission, it reflected opinion of the day and influenced subsequent chronicles and accounts of the Spiritual Conquest.
Mendieta believed that Martin Luther and Cortés were born the same year, and that this was part of God’s plan for the Spaniard. This providential numerology was reinforced by the bloody orgy of human sacrifice that Mendieta thought occurred in Tenochtitlan that same year. God’s remedy for ‘the clamor of so many souls’ and ‘the spilling of so much human blood’ was Cortés, dispatched to Mexico ‘like a new Moses to Egypt.’ 28 ‘Without any doubt,’ wrote the friar, ‘God chose specifically to be his instrument this valiant captain, don Fernando Cortés, through whose agency the door was opened and a road made for the preachers of the Gospel in this new world.’ Mendieta’s nineteenth-century editor printed in the margin: ‘Cortés chosen as a new Moses to free the Indian people.’ Proof of Cortés’s role, divinely appointed since birth, was another meaningful synchronicity with Luther: in the same year that the German heretic ‘began to corrupt the Gospel,’ the Spanish captain began ‘to make it known faithfully and sincerely to people who had never before heard of it.’ 29 No less a ‘confirmation of the divine election of Cortés to a task so noble in spirit’ was the ‘marvelous determination that God put in his heart.’ 30
Down through the centuries, authors writing in multiple languages wove these threads of Cortés’s religious devotion and the evidence of God’s intervention in the Conquest story. The conquistador guided indigenous people to the light so effectively that ‘the reverence and prostration on their knees that is now shown to priests by the Indians of New Spain was taught to them by don Fernando Cortés, of happy memory’ (as García put it in 1607).
31 In the hands of Protestant authors in later centuries, the Moses leitmotif shifted into something slightly different – ‘religious fanaticism,’ one American historian put it in 1904 – but the core legendary element persisted. Upon assuming command of the expedition to Mexico, Cortés took up his ‘heavenly mission’ with the zeal of ‘a frank, fearless, deluded enthusiast.’ His destiny was ‘to march the apostle of Christianity to overthrow the idols in the halls of Moctezuma, and there to rear the cross of Christ.’ 32 In the less judgmental words of another turn-of-the-century historian, Cortés’s ‘religious sincerity’ was ‘above impeachment.’ Indeed, he was virtually a saint, ‘a man of unfeigned piety, of the stuff that martyrs are made of, nor did his conviction that he was leading a holy crusade to win lost souls to salvation ever waver.’ 33
Cortes as a Caesar, Julius or Cesare?
“Meanwhile, Cortés was promoted inside and outside the
Spanish world as a model, modern Caesar”.
Comparisons of anyone – or any supposed someone – with Julius Caesar are not helped by the fact (that is, if I am right) that ‘Julius Caesar’ and certain other legendary and most famous Roman Republicans (and don’t even start me on the Roman Imperialists) were composite, non-historical characters. See e.g. my article:
Horrible Histories. Retracting Romans
In what follows, Matthew Restall will point to some comparisons between the historically most dubious Cortes and Julius Caesar (and even with Cesare Borgia and others) in his article, “Moses, Caesar, Hero, Anti-hero: The Posthumous Faces of Hernando Cortés” (2016):
The motto chosen by Cortés for his coat of arms was Judicium Domini apprehendit eos, et fortitudo ejus corroboravit bracchium meum (The judgement of the Lord overtook them, and His might strengthened my arm). Taken from an account of the siege of Jerusalem by Titus Flavius Josephus, the line implied that Cortés had besieged and captured a second Jerusalem. 6 The reference reflected Cortés’s own embrace of the exalted notion that his actions in Mexico were divinely guided, that his role was that of a universal crusader. It also reflected the Spanish tendency, commonplace in the early modern centuries, to compare Spain’s imperial achievements to those of the ancient Greeks and Romans. 7
A specific leitmotif developed, within that larger pattern, whereby Cortés was compared to Julius Caesar. Cortés made no such claim, the purpose of his Letters was, after all, to display his undying loyalty to a king who, as Holy Roman Emperor, was the Caesar of the day. But the clerics and intellectuals who formed the pro-Cortés, anti-Bartolomé de Las Casas faction in Spain during the conquistador’s final years pointed out three supposed similarities: both men were remarkable generals; both were unique literary figures for recording detailed accounts of their greatest campaign (Cortés’s Letters; Caesar’s Gallic Wars); and both had administrative vision, guiding the Mexican and Roman worlds respectively into new eras. Comparisons were not restricted to Julius Caesar – in his ode to Cortés of 1546, for example, Francisco Cervantes de Salazar also compared Cortés to Alexander the Great and to St. Paul – but, the Caesar reference tended to predominate. 8
Gómara made much hay with the comparison to ancient Rome, featuring Cortés’s coat of arms in the frontispiece to his Conquest of Mexico, and in his larger History of the Indies (see Figure 1). ‘Never has such a display of wealth been discovered in the Indies, nor acquired so quickly,’ enthused Gómara; not only were Cortés’s
many great feats in the wars the greatest [of any Spaniard in the New World] but he wrote them down in imitation of Polybius, and of Salust when he brought together the Roman histories of Marius and Scipio. 9
Gómara used his giddy comparisons of Cortés to the great generals of ancient Greece and Rome – and to their historians – as buildings blocks for his construction of the exemplary conquistador. By contrast, the other famous conquistador, Francisco Pizarro, was portrayed as illiterate, ignoble, and avaricious. This allowed Gómara to better promote Cortés as the noble, pious model of a literate man-at-arms, and his invasion of Mexico as ‘a good and just war.’ 10 Gómara went a little too far–his criticism of the Conquest of Peru prompted his History to be quickly banned in Spain. But by century’s end there were ten Italian editions, nine in French, and two in English, making it ‘so widely read that it served, almost by default, as the official history of the Spanish New World.’ 11
The Cortés-Caesar leitmotif lasted for centuries.
In his 1610 account of the Spanish conquest campaigns in New Mexico, composed as an epic poem, Gaspar de Villagrá repeatedly invoked Cortés as the paradigmatic conquistador. When, in Villagrá’s telling, Cortés’s efforts to campaign in northwest Mexico were opposed by Viceroy Mendoza of New Spain, the conflict had classical echoes: ‘Greed for power, like love, will permit no rival. Even as Caesar and Pompey clashed over their rival ambitions for world power, so now Cortés met with opposition.’ 12 Similarly, the splendors and religious devotion of Mexico City were
‘all due to the noble efforts of that famous son who set forth to discover this New World, whose illustrious and glorious deeds, after the years have passed, will surely be seen as no less great and admirable than those of the great Caesar, Pompey, Arthur, Charlemagne, and other valiant men, whom time has raised up.’ 13
The theme was prominent too in Bernal Díaz’s history, as in Antonio de Solís’s–the latter prefaced with the assertion that ‘whoever will consider the Difficulties he overcame, and the Battles he fought and won against an incredible Superiority of Numbers, must own him little inferior to the most celebrated Heroes of Antiquity.’ 14 Solís’s book was a bestseller in multiple languages for well over a century. 15 Meanwhile, Cortés was promoted inside and outside the Spanish world as a model, modern Caesar. For example, in his History of the Conquest of Mexico, By the Celebrated Hernan Cortes (first published in 1759 but seeing dozens of editions into the twentieth century), W. H. Dilworth sought to improve and entertain ‘the BRITISH YOUTH of both Sexes.’ The book claimed to contain ‘A faithful and entertaining Detail of all [Cortés’s] Amazing Victories,’ with a story ‘abounding with strokes of GENERALSHIP, and the most refined Maxims of CIVIL POLICY.’ 16
From Dilworth to Prescott to modern authors (who have devoted entire books comparing Cortés to Caesar or to Alexander) the Spaniard has generally come off well in relation to ancient generals, 7 be the focus on military logistics, governmental vision, or moral justification. For a 1938 Mexican biographer of the conqueror, Julius Caesar was more self-interested than Cortés: the Spaniard was not only glorified, but also sanctified, an ‘epic boxer’ and ‘mystical crusader’ who embodied his age more than his own personal ambitions. 18
Other Latin American intellectuals suggested that Cortés ‘was a Caesar, but more like Caesar Borgia than Julius Caesar’ – meaning Cesare Borgia, the duke made famous by Machiavelli in The Prince – and that Cortés’s ‘political vision’ was so similar to Machiavelli’s that one imagines him reading The Prince. That is an impossible scenario, for the now-classic political treatise was not published until 1532, as literary scholars acknowledge. But some have argued that Machiavelli’s ideas were circulating before his book saw print, allowing Cortés to be ‘the practical Spaniard’ to Machiavelli’s ‘theoretical Italian.’ 19
adulatory, arguing that Cortés and his colleagues were, ‘so far as religion was concerned, simply products of their times.’ But many remained convinced that Cortés’s character and goals were, above all, religious, and that no other