The Rise and Fall of the Aztecs: Nahuas in 15th- and 16th-Century Mexico (1990s)

R. Douglas Cope

In this course, we will examine the creation and expansion of the Triple Alliance (better known as the “Aztec Empire”); Aztec society, economy, and religion (including the role of human sacrifice); the Spanish conquest of 1519-1521; and the impact of Hispanic colonization on indigenous culture during the sixteenth century.

This is a seminar, meeting once a week on Wednesdays. Students are expected to attend regularly and participate in the discussion. Each student will also:

Submit five short papers. These papers will be analyses of the weekly readings, based on questions handed out by the instructor or selected by the student. They should be no longer than three pages, and will be due at the beginning of class

Prepare a longer paper (8-10 pages) which will engage broad themes from the course. This final paper will be due on 8 December.

Grades will be based on these papers and on participation in the discussion.

Textbooks for this course (available at the University Bookstore):

  • Bakewell and Hamann, Mesolore: Exploring Mesoamerican Culture (CD) (Now
  • R. C. Padden, The Hummingbird and the Hawk
  • David Carrasco, Quetzalcoatl and the Irony of Empire
  • Geoffrey W. Conrad and Arthur A. Demarest, Religion and Empire: The Dynamics of Aztec and Inca Expansionism
  • Frances F. Berdan and Patricia Rieff Anawalt, eds., The Essential Codex Mendoza
  • Inga Clendinnen, Aztecs: An Interpretation
  • Ross Hassig, Mexico and the Spanish Conquest
  • Louise Burkhart, Holy Wednesday
  • Articles/chapters from books for this course will be found in journals placed “on reserve” at the Rockefeller Library.

The course schedule and weekly readings are given below.

History 197, sec. 79

8 Sept. Orientation

No readings

15 Sept. The Rise and Fall of the Aztecs: An Overview

C. Padden, The Hummingbird and the Hawk, entire

22 Sept. The Sources, I: Codices

David Carrasco, Quetzalcoatl and the Irony of Empire, pp. 11-62
Mesolore: Read Tutorials: “Mesoamerican Screenfolds-The Ñudzavui Screenfolds”; “Introdution to the Codex Nuttall “€” Summary + Contents of the Codex Nuttall Obverse”; “Introduction to the Codex Nuttall “€” Performance and Power”; “Colored Lyrics.”
Mesolore: Listen to the “History vs. Propaganda” Debate comments by Elizabeth Boone, Joyce Marcus, John Pohl, William Sanders.
Mesolore: Explore the Codex Nuttall, including pp. 14-16, 20-22, 25
The Codex Borgia, pp. 32-45 (read in reverse), commentary on pp. xxiv-xxvi [on reserve]
Frances F. Berdan and Patricia Rieff Anawalt, eds. The Essential Codex Mendoza, part. 1, pp. 3-7, parallel image section, pp. 7-9
John Bierhorst, trans., History and Mythology of the Aztecs: The Codex Chimalpopoca, pp. 139-162

29 Sept. Sacred Time, Sacred Space

Carrasco, pp. 63-170
Kay Almere Read, Time and Sacrifice in the Aztec Cosmos, pp.1-3, 47-120
Mesolore: Read Ñudzavui tutorial on“Keeping Time”
Mesolore: view (under Scholars) Profile: Barbara Tedlock “€” “Daykeeping”
Video: The Five Suns

6 Oct. The Sources, II: Encyclopedias and Chronicles

Bernardino de Sahagun, The Florentine Codex
Diego Duran, The History of the Indies of New Spain, pp. 387-444, 452-455, 460-464, 528-548
Chimalpahin, Mexican History or Chronicle, pp. 28-59
Bernal Díaz, The Conquest of New Spain, pp. 216-277

13 Oct. Human Sacrifice and Imperial Expansion

Marvin Harris, Cannibals and Kings, pp. 147-166
Geoffrey W. Conrad and Arthur A. Demarest, Religion and Empire, entire

20 Oct. The Structure of Empire

Berdan and Anawalt, part. 2, pp. 37-40, 44-46, 63-68, 85-89, 98-101, 116-119, 122-124; parallel image section, pp. 40-115 (sample)
Ross Hassig, Trade, Tribute, and Transportation, pp. 41-126
Michael E. Smith, The Aztecs, pp. 173-185
Frances F. Berdan, “Economic Alternatives under Imperial Rule,”
Mary G. Hodge and Michael E. Smith, eds., Economies and Polities in the Aztec Realm, pp. 291-312
Manlio Barbosa-Cano, “Huaxyacac: Aztec Military Base on the Imperial Frontier,” in ibid., pp. 377-404

27 Oct. Life in Tenochtitlan

Berdan and Anawalt, part 3, pp. 145-237; parallel image section, pp. 118-148
Mesolore: Read “The Ñudzavui Body” Ñudzavui tutorial

3 Nov. The Aztecs on the Eve of Conquest

Inga Clendinnen, Aztecs: An Interpretation, entire

10 Nov. The Conquest Revisited

Ross Hassig, Mexico and the Spanish Conquest, entire
Carrasco, pp. 170-202
Susan D. Gillespie, The Aztec Kings: Construction of Rulership in Mexica History, pp. 173-207

17 Nov. The Cultural Impact of Colonization

James Lockhart, Nahuas and Spaniards, pp. 2-22
David Damrosch, “The Aesthetics of Conquest: Aztec Poetry Before and After Cortes,” Representations, 33 (Winter 1991), pp. 101-120
Mesolore: Read the Ñudzavui tutorials on “Painted Landscapes“€“Introduction,” and “Painted Landscapes “€” Reading Place Glyphs.”
Mesolore: Explore the Codex Selden
Barbara Mundy, The Mapping of New Spain: Indigenous Cartography and the Maps of the Relaciones Geograficas, pp. 60-179


1 Dec. The Clash of Cosmologies

Louise Burkhart, Holy Wednesday, entire