Review of The Aztecs by Michael E. Smith

Eras Journal – Tovias, B: Review of “The Aztecs”, Michael E. Smith

Michael E. Smith, The Aztecs,
Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, 2002, second edition
Isbn 0 63123 016 5

The appearance in 1996 of Michael Smith’s The Aztecs provided, for the first time, a reliable, engaging and well-written one-volume introduction to the history and archaeology of the Aztecs and their empire. Whereas students of ancient Mesoamerica have been well served by the literature on the Maya, for whom several excellent introductory texts exist, no such counterpart was available on the Aztecs. The volume under review is the first paperback edition. An anthropological approach structures the narrative of this survey text, which touches on every aspect of Aztec life from their arrival in the Valley of Mexico (AD 1150-1350). Smith traces their historical trajectory from modest beginnings to their eventual domination of a vast empire up to the last century of their rule and their eventual conquest by Spain, with a coda outlining the Aztec ‘legacy’ in colonial and present-day Mexico. Rather than leaping straight into hard historical data, Smith provides a cogent and clear exposition of the main archaeological and written sources, with a brief discussion of the way several disciplines – Archaeology, Ethnohistory and Linguistics – combine to broaden our understanding of the Aztecs. By foregrounding the methodologies of these disciplines, he is able to demystify the production of Aztec history.

The volume’s fresh view of the Mesoamerican context emphasises social formation and social interaction within the surrounding city-states, going beyond the usual concentration on the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan. It draws a rich picture of their everyday experiences, such as farming, the production of crafts, food preparation, family life, commerce, social mores, politics, urban environments, religion and ritual life, and scientific and artistic endeavours. Smith’s strategy is to highlight not just the role of the noble classes, as is often the case in studies of this type, but also to cast light onto areas that have, until now, received little attention: the life experiences of the peasant and rural classes, rather than the metropolitan grandeur, noble lords and gods that have hitherto dominated Aztec studies. Smith is admirably placed to provide a synthesis of Aztec civilisation, being one of the foremost scholars in this field, as attested to by his numerous publications on the Aztecs and their empire. However, he goes well beyond his own field of expertise, incorporating the work of specialists in related disciplines.

Smith begins with a survey of the geographical context and its significance in the development of Aztec communities, chiefly by providing a diversification in their means of sustenance, and creating opportunities for exchange of surplus products. This is followed by a concise but key chapter dealing with the Aztec’s predecessors, their arrival in the Valley of Mexico, and their interactions with their neighbours until the arrival of Cortés’s forces in 1519. The three subsequent chapters are dedicated to every conceivable activity that took place within the Aztec empire to ensure its maintenance and survival. Here, the archaeological record reveals a rich material culture, the processes involved in its production, as well as the modes of exchange. The central role of the marketplace is explored, stretching from the social categories that describe the producers of raw materials, craftsmen, and merchants, to the complex social and cultural dynamics associated with commercial activity. This is then complemented by three chapters dealing with the social organisation of the Empire. Starting with the family, it traces an individual’s trajectory from birth, through schooling, marriage customs and death rites, before moving to the wider social sphere and its categorisations, culminating with the political organisation of the empire and the role of the city-state within it. A detailed chapter on religion and ritual will not disappoint those fascinated by the bloodthirsty Aztec practices, and another on their artistic and scientific endeavours aptly presents a view of the degree of sophistication achieved by the Aztecs preceding the conquest. Smith is brief in his recounting of the Spanish Conquest and destruction of the Aztec empire, a transformation on which there exists an enormous bibliography. Thus, he dedicates most of this volume to describe the world that first met the gaze of the Spanish conquistadors, on the one hand attracting them with its astounding and complex sophistication, while on the other repelling them with its brutal religious sacrifices (to which some of them succumbed).

This text is wholly accessible to newcomers to the field of Mesoamerican studies, not only because of its wide scope, but above all because it is written in an easy, flowing prose devoid of alienating specialist’s jargon. The user-friendly table of contents provides quick access to specific information, and the numerous visual images and tables further facilitate and enhance the reader’s understanding of the subject matter. To do justice to such a vast area of knowledge within the limits of a textbook calls for tight organisation of the areas under discussion. This is one of the many strengths of this volume. Smith moves with ease between the macro- and the micro-history, always providing thorough explanations when incorporating concepts that held special meaning in Aztec civilization.

His approach to the narration of history is also worthy of special mention. It is evident that a great deal of care has been taken to engage readers by creating an atmosphere of witnessing history from a front-row seat. This is achieved by striking an even balance between interpretation and exemplification, allowing the vivid language of the sources to be ‘heard’ by readers, creating a feeling of ‘being there’. Such is the effect created by using a translation of an entry describing a commoner household from a c .1540 census to open the chapter on family and social class. Another novel strategy is the inclusion of fictional vignettes to give life to the description of the important Aztec cities Amecameca, and Tenochtitlan. Combined, these strategies make this text an enjoyable learning tool. Readers seeking to expand on any topic will find the bibliography provides an excellent guide for further reading. The many notes in this volume are unusually informative for a textbook, and the index is detailed and helpful. Michael Smith’s one-volume study will for long remain the best introduction to the Aztec state and empire and to the society they constructed.

Blanca Tovías
School of History, University of New South Wales