The best books on the Aztecs and Spanish Conquistadors

Matthew Restall Author Of When Montezuma Met Cortés: The True Story of the Meeting that Changed History
By Matthew Restall

Who am I?

I spent a good part of my childhood in Spain and Venezuela while being educated in England, and early on I developed a fascination with the Spanish and Native American worlds. After traveling as a young man in Mexico and in Central America, I was hooked for life. With history degrees from Oxford and UCLA, for thirty years now I have been studying and writing books about the Aztecs and Mayas, Spanish conquistadors, and Afro-Mexicans—fascinating subjects from whom I continue to learn.


I wrote...

Book cover of When Montezuma Met Cortés: The True Story of the Meeting that Changed History

What is my book about?

A dramatic rethinking of the encounter between Montezuma and Hernando Cortés that completely overturns what we know about the Spanish conquest of the Americas. On November 8, 1519, the Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortés first met Montezuma, the Aztec emperor, at the entrance to the capital city of Tenochtitlan. This introduction—the prelude to the Spanish seizure of Mexico City and to European colonization of the mainland of the Americas—has long been the symbol of Cortés’s bold and brilliant military genius. Montezuma, on the other hand, is remembered as a coward who gave away a vast empire and touched off a wave of colonial invasions across the hemisphere.

The books I picked & why

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Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs

By Camilla Townsend,

Book cover of Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs

Why this book?

Townsend recently published three books on Aztec history, all excellent, but I recommend Fifth Sun be read first, as the most accessible and important (followed by Malintzin’s Choices, and then Annals of Native America). It is important because—more than any other book—it treats the Aztecs as human beings to whom we can relate, not as exotic or strange beings. She writes that the Aztecs would not recognize themselves in the portrait of their world created in films and books; her efforts to reconstruct their culture and past in ways that would make sense to the Aztecs result in a history that is an absolute revelation.

Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs

By Camilla Townsend,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Fifth Sun as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In November 1519, Hernando Cortes walked along a causeway leading to the capital of the Aztec kingdom and came face to face with Moctezuma. That story-and the story of what happened afterwards-has been told many times, but always following the narrative offered by the Spaniards. After all, we have been taught, it was the Europeans who held the pens. But the Native Americans were intrigued by the Roman alphabet and, unbeknownst to the newcomers, they used it to
write detailed histories in their own language of Nahuatl. Until recently, these sources remained obscure, only partially translated, and rarely consulted by…


The Death of Aztec Tenochtitlan, the Life of Mexico City

By Barbara E. Mundy,

Book cover of The Death of Aztec Tenochtitlan, the Life of Mexico City

Why this book?

Because Mundy is an art historian, this book is lavishly illustrated and rich in both images and their expert interpretation. It also offers a unique approach to Aztec art, culture, and history by focusing on their capital city, which is surely one of the most extraordinary urban creations in human history. Mundy explores the city both before and after Spaniards arrived and transformed it—although, fascinatingly, they did not transform it as much as one might expect. The book is very readable, despite being aimed at a more academic audience than Townsend’s Fifth Sun—with which it pairs well, perhaps best read after it.

The Death of Aztec Tenochtitlan, the Life of Mexico City

By Barbara E. Mundy,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Death of Aztec Tenochtitlan, the Life of Mexico City as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner, Book Prize in Latin American Studies, Colonial Section of Latin American Studies Association (LASA), 2016
ALAA Book Award, Association for Latin American Art/Arvey Foundation, 2016

The capital of the Aztec empire, Tenochtitlan, was, in its era, one of the largest cities in the world. Built on an island in the middle of a shallow lake, its population numbered perhaps 150,000, with another 350,000 people in the urban network clustered around the lake shores. In 1521, at the height of Tenochtitlan's power, which extended over much of Central Mexico, Hernando Cortes and his followers conquered the city. Cortes boasted to…


The Aztecs

By David Carrasco,

Book cover of The Aztecs

Why this book?

I love Oxford’s Very Short Introductions series (I have co-authored two books in the series, on The Conquistadors and on The Maya), and this is one of my favorite volumes in the series. It is a book I often use in the classroom and as a reference. Carrasco writes with clarity and wit, managing both to introduce readers to the Aztecs as well as to take us more deeply into various aspects of their history and culture. He has written a great deal on the Aztecs, particularly on their religion, and his depth of knowledge shows—but is not showy. His interpretation of Aztec culture is different from Townsend’s (and, to some extent, mine), but not confusingly so; in other words, you could read both this book and her Fifth Sun, get a sense of how scholars grapple with the tricky evidence that has survived, with both authors helping you to come away with your own opinions.

The Aztecs

By David Carrasco,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Aztecs as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This Very Short Introduction employs the disciplines of history, religious studies, and anthropology as it illuminates the complexities of Aztec life. Readers meet a people highly skilled in sculpture, astronomy, city planning, poetry, and philosophy, who were also profoundly committed to cosmic regeneration through the thrust of the ceremonial knife and through warfare. David Carrasco looks beyond Spanish accounts that have colored much of the Western
narrative to let Aztec voices speak about their origin stories, the cosmic significance of their capital city, their methods of child rearing, and the contributions women made to daily life and the empire. Carrasco…


Collision of Worlds: A Deep History of the Fall of Aztec Mexico and the Forging of New Spain

By David M. Carballo,

Book cover of Collision of Worlds: A Deep History of the Fall of Aztec Mexico and the Forging of New Spain

Why this book?

To complement the perspectives of historians and art historians, Carballo’s book offers the viewpoint and skills of an archaeologist. But Collision of Worlds is far from being a field report from a dig. Instead, Carballo combines the sources and methods of historians and archaeologists to present a thorough and deep-rooted account of the two civilizations that met in Mexico five hundred years ago, giving the reader a more extensive background on the Iberian and Mesoamerican past than the other books I have selected. Like the other books I have chosen, this is recent work, and thus together these books all represent slightly different takes on the topic.

Collision of Worlds: A Deep History of the Fall of Aztec Mexico and the Forging of New Spain

By David M. Carballo,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Collision of Worlds as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Mexico of five centuries ago was witness to one of the most momentous encounters between human societies, when a group of Spaniards led by Hernando Cortes joined forces with tens of thousands of Mesoamerican allies to topple the mighty Aztec Empire. It served as a template for the forging of much of Latin America and initiated the globalized world we inhabit today. The violent clash that culminated in the Aztec-Spanish war of 1519-21 and the new colonial order
it created were millennia in the making, entwining the previously independent cultural developments of both sides of the Atlantic.

Collision of Worlds…


Victors and Vanquished: Spanish and Nahua Views of the Fall of the Mexica Empire

By Stuart B. Schwartz, Tatiana Seijas,

Book cover of Victors and Vanquished: Spanish and Nahua Views of the Fall of the Mexica Empire

Why this book?

After reading one or more of my other recommendations, you might be ready for some primary sources. But the obvious, well-known sources written in the 16th century—such as those by Hernando Cortés and Bernal Díaz—are very long and tend to be misleadingly presented as straight-forward eye-witness accounts. In fact, conquistador accounts are full of inventions and distortions. Victors and Vanquished offers excerpts from such sources (Cortés and Díaz included), but with helpful introductions, carefully selected and juxtaposed with textual—and even some visual—sources by Aztecs and other Nahuas (the Indigenous peoples of Central Mexico). This is intended for the classroom, as the basis for discussion, so it might not be an engaging read the same way that the other books are. But there is no better way to access such a variety of primary sources in translation, presented in an informed, intelligent, and manageable way.

Victors and Vanquished: Spanish and Nahua Views of the Fall of the Mexica Empire

By Stuart B. Schwartz, Tatiana Seijas,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Victors and Vanquished as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Focusing on the major events and personalities during the fall of the Mexica empire, Victors and Vanquished helps you go deeper into this historical episode by revealing changing attitudes toward European expansionism.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the Aztecs, conquistadors, and the water supply?

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the Aztecs, conquistadors, and the water supply.

The Aztecs Explore 11 books about the Aztecs
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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

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