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

The Books I Picked & Why

Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs

By Camilla Townsend

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.


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The Death of Aztec Tenochtitlan, the Life of Mexico City

By Barbara E. Mundy

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.


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The Aztecs

By David Carrasco

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.


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

By David M. Carballo

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.


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

By Stuart B. Schwartz, Tatiana Seijas

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.


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