ENLARGING THE WEST
THE HISPANIC WORLD AND THE LEGACY OF ALEXANDER
Christopher Columbus, by Adrian Collaert, circa 1575.
In The Man Who Would be King, Rudyard Kipling’s short story masterfully adapted for the big screen by John Houston, two opposed types of empire-seekers make an appearance. One is embodied by the character of Daniel Dravot, played by Sean Connery; the other is Peachey Carnehan, also memorably played by Michael Caine. When we first meet Dravot and Carnehan, they are just two former British soldiers at the service of the Raj roaming India and trying to strike it big without much luck. Their lot improved after their chance encounter with a journalist and fellow Freemason, Rudyard Kipling’s alter ego. Their new companion provided them with information to find the remote land of Kafiristan, in the confines of Afghanistan, which, in their audacious ingenuity, they hoped to conquer and loot. Their subsequent adventure was an ultimately doomed quest in search of riches and fame and a fateful journey inside the two character’s souls. For whilst Peachey Carnehan remained faithful to their initial purpose, namely to hit, loot and run, Daniel Dravot ended up believing that he was the reincarnation of Alexander the Great, the hero the local inhabitants of Kafiristan had been waiting for since he came to their lands in Ancient times and then vanished. Indeed, mystified by the masonic symbol the Englishmen carried with them, the Kafiris were convinced that Dravot was a deified Alexander. Despite Carnehan’s protestations to get back home before their game was unveiled, Dravot played the part with such conviction that he decided to take a local bride, by the name of Roxanne, marry her and establish a dynasty blending East and West, thus following in Alexander’s footsteps. At that point the two rascals’ paths were about to separate, but the accidental discovery by the local priests of Dravot’s human nature precipitates the dramatic end of the story. Once more, Alexander’s dream was to remain unfulfilled.
The Man Who Would be King’s poster of John Houston’s film
Daniel Dravot was not the first real or fictional character to be carried away by Alexander’s myth, nor was he the only one to be compared to the great Macedonian. Writing in Victorian times and having been born in India during the Raj, when Kipling was pairing the deeds of the British Empire with those of Antiquity he was using a well-known rhetorical device among his fellow countrymen. This was nothing new. It was a literary trope also frequented by historians, play writers, novelists and poets in an earlier European empire, the one created by Spain after 1492.
As in ancient times Alexander’s life and career had represented the superiority of the West over the allegedly despotic lands of the East, so in many contemporary Spanish minds and pens men like Hernán Cortés and other conquistadores came to symbolise the domination of the New World by the Old at the dawn of the Modern Age.
Getting back to Kipling’s colourful characters, the artificers of the Black Legend and their epigones in our days would like to make us believe that Cortés, like the rest of the conquistadores, belonged to the same category as Peachey Carnehan, the sort of Victorian adventurer just interested in plundering and pillaging. In fact, Hernán Cortés was closer to Daniel Dravot, though far more successful in his endeavours than the fictional bombastic Englishman. For if there is a man in Modern Western history who can be rightfully compared with the great Alexander as a political genius, a military strategist and a conscientious empire-builder, that man is the Spanish conquistador… true or not?
Encounter between Hernán Cortés and Malintzin, his future interpreter and lover, from the Durán Codex, 16th century
Let us start from the beginning. Unlike Hernán Cortés and his fellow Spaniards when they landed in America, when in 334 BC Alexander the Great set out to conquer Asia he knew fairly well the enemy he and his troops were about to confront on the other side of the Hellespont.
After all, the Greek world and the Persian Empire were old and quarrelsome acquaintances. Time and over again, the divided Greek poleis had been easy targets for Persian manipulative tactics; but, at the same time, the Greek world as a whole had proved to be resilient enough to fence off a final invasion by its Eastern neighbour.
The Persian Wars (499 BC- 449 BC) and the internecine Peloponnesian Wars between Sparta and Athens (431 BC-404 BC) had left, on the one side, a weakened but still formidable Persian Empire practically intact and still ruling over large Greek colonies in Asia Minor and, on the other side, a fractured and impoverished collection of Greek city states that would end up in the hands of Macedonia, a less culturally developed but militarily efficient kingdom under the rule of Alexander’s father, Philip II. Actually, it was Philip II who, as the new and self-proclaimed champion of the Pan-Hellenic cause, had envisioned a campaign to avenge previous Greek defeats, free the Greek enclaves subjected to Persian rule and punish those rebellious Greeks who had turned against the Macedonian king and had sought shelter in Persian lands. After Philip II’s violent death, his plans were carried out by his son who, in an attempt at supressing rumours that he was behind his father’s assassination, swiftly moved to annihilate any dissent in the bud and then embarked on his own Asian campaign. And here comes the first question about Alexander’s real place in history. Was he just envisioning another round of limited Greco-Persian hostilities or had he a larger design in mind, namely the definitive incorporation of Achaemenid Persia into the Greek oecumene? If the latter was the case, was the intended incorporation to be implemented by a policy of exclusion and imposition or, on the contrary, by a policy of mixing and inclusion?
In a nutshell: was Alexander the man destined to bridge East and West, to merge both halves of humanity into one? Or, more to the point, was he really willing to do so?
Probably, we will never know; but whatever his initial purpose was, it was not going to be an easy task. Exposed as we have been in the West to the Greco-Roman propaganda machinery, aimed at depicting the Persian rulers as archetypical Oriental despots and their empire as a motley collection of corrupted fiefdoms, we have a very distorted view of the complex and highly sophisticated Persian polity. The cult of Alexander the hero has reinforced this biased perspective. In a famous Roman mosaic found in Pompeii and depicting, probably, the battle of Issus, we are confronted with a young and determined Alexander chasing a cowardly Darius III as the later flees from the scene of the battle.
The image of Greek, and by extension Western civilised ascendancy and Persian barbarous decadence was thus visually fixated for centuries.
The so-called Alexander’s mosaic
Regardless of Alexander’s goals at the onset of his campaign, there is little doubt that after the series of victories that his army won against the Persians on the legendary battlefields of Granicus, Issus and Gaugamela he could have returned home with the spoils of war and ruled over the Greek world, leaving what was left of the once mighty Persian lands exposed to rot. The complete destruction of Persepolis seemed to point in that direction. But he did not follow the easy path.
He pressed downwards to Egypt and then, after the death of Darius III, further eastwards to the Punjab and the Indus, the edge of the known Ancient world. Along the way, he gradually started to experiment with a policy of accommodation, co-opting local officials and satraps into his army and even as administrators of conquered provinces.
But convincing the defeated surviving elites to accept Alexander’s rule was relatively straightforward when compared to the resistance that the king’s increasingly orientalising manners encountered among the Greek. Even some of Alexander’s closest friends and advisers resented his tantrums and what, to them, looked like a very un-Greek form of despotism. Some, like Cleitus, paid their vocal criticism with their lives.
In fact, Alexander had introduced Persian ceremonial customs into his court and, after his own marriage with a Sogdian woman, Roxanne, he encouraged his Greek companions to do likewise as a way to ease tensions with the locals and, maybe, as a means to create a mixed aristocracy befitting a blended empire.
In 324 he went as far as to stage a mass marriage among his closest associates and Persian noble women at Susa. Soon afterwards, he legalised the common law unions of thousands of his soldiers with as many local women, many of them taken as captives during the war campaigns. This inclusive policy was soon accompanied by the integration of more than 30.000 local troops – Persians, Sogdians, Bactrians…– into the Greek and Macedonian army, even as members of the elite units. All this took a heavy toll on Alexander’s reputation among his veteran rank-and-file soldiers and officers, those who had crossed the Hellespont years before, convinced that theirs was to be a campaign of retribution, looting and annihilation against the hated Eastern barbarians. To see their leader apparently becoming another Persian despot, encouraging all kinds of debasing unions with the conquered natives and, finally, according military responsibilities and awards to the very enemies they had been fighting against was a step too far.
And here, even before Alexander’s premature death on 11 June, 323, is the real conundrum, even more difficult to unmake than the legendary Gordian knot. For even if he had lived longer, how was he going to reconcile the initial Pan-Hellenic and anti-Persian plans that had mobilised the Greeks at the beginning of the campaign with the outcome of a new empire that implied subordinating the Greek sense of entitlement and superiority to a emerging semi-Asiatic polity where the Europeans were to be, more often than not, in a position of inferiority in numbers, ranks and honours?
Alexander the Great entering Babylon, by Charles le Brun, 1665
Alexander died without a recognised successor. Legend has it that when questioned about who would be the next king, he answered: the strongest. Not precisely a recipe for peaceful continuity and stability. No wonder that, though culturally brilliant, the Hellenistic period saw Alexander’s eastern empire disintegrate and Greece invaded and incorporated into Rome. The next time when a Western leader, Mark Antony, tried to emulate Alexander by creating a polity encompassing East and West it also ended up in disaster. When he and Cleopatra joined forces against Rome their navy was crushed at the battle of Actium, in 31 BC. With the victorious Augustus, the Roman Empire pivoted around the Mediterranean. Meanwhile, the lands to the east of the Hellespont became, again, more of a nuisance and a source of threats than an enticing land for Western seekers of fame and everlasting glory.
Later on, the fall of the last Roman emperor, Romulus Augustus, in 476, and the ensuing Middle Ages –with the advent of a Christendom divided between Rome and Byzantium and the rise of Islam– meant that the West remained fragmented, encircled and on the defensive for several centuries. It was only in the late 15th century when Europe initiated a new cycle of worldwide expansion thanks, mainly, to the Iberian explorers, conquistadores and administrators.
Geographically located at the far west of the Eurasian landmass, the Iberian kingdoms emerged from the Middle Ages as the most dynamic and outward looking European polities. More importantly, both Spain and Portugal were pioneers in consolidating a new political form fit for ruling over territories and populations vaster than the former Greek poleis or the Renaissance Italian city-states and far more efficient than the former Medieval kingdoms: the nascent modern state, soon to be transformed into the nation-state so prevalent in our own days.
Portrait of Ferdinand and Isabella, artificers of the modern Spanish state. Anonymous, 15th century
The most salient feature of the Modern Iberian state at that juncture was that it combined the capacity to mobilise material and human resources under an increasingly efficient and ruthless hierarchy while accommodating the agility and flexibility of pre-state networks of merchants, bankers, cosmographers, navigators and soldiers even at a multinational and, for the first time in history, truly global scale. This hybrid political form proved to be extraordinarily successful for the new round of Western expansionism.
At this point it is important to correct a mistake made by some historians with a hasty tendency for sweeping generalisations. When an author like Niall Ferguson devotes a small chapter of his recent book on ‘networks, hierarchies and the struggle for global power’ to the saga of the Spanish conquistadores in America he sums up the episode by stating that ‘what happened, in essence, is that a European network attacked a non-European hierarchy’[i].
This is obviously quite a simplistic view of those epoch-making events, the equivalent of saying that when the first man landed on the moon what happened, in essence, was that an animate object set foot on an inanimate surface; true enough, but not the entire truth and not, by far, the most essential part of it. Actually, the conquistadores were just one among many different and overlapping networks that operated within the context of a higher hierarchy… or rather two: the composite Hispanic Monarchy and the Catholic, meaning universal, Church. Though the conquistadores are often portrayed as members of armed bands free from any form of authority and acting under the orders of their own military leaders, we should not forget that they made war on behalf of the Crown and had to report to it once their limited mandate was terminated. To demonstrate the subordination of the ‘network’ to the ‘hierarchy’ suffice it to mention that despite the enormous distance between the conquered lands and the metropolis and the many difficulties that the Spanish authorities encountered to exercise their power overseas, it is remarkable that not a single conquistador was able, and very few were even willing, to create an independent overseas kingdom or republic. Furthermore, allowing for the odd exception, there were no conquistadores acting as mercenaries for other polities or pledging allegiance to foreign kings. True, there were quarrels and even civil wars among the first generation of conquistadores, particularly in the aftermath of the conquest of the Aztec and Inca empires, but the conflicting parties always took the caution to present theirs as a just cause in defence of the rights of the Spanish Monarchy, which always asserted its power, sometimes at the price of compromising with its distant subjects.
To put it in Niall Ferguson’s terms, the second great cycle of Western expansion since Antiquity was not simply a matter of agile and democratic networks vs. cumbersome and authoritarian hierarchies. It was a matter of networks and hierarchies working uneasily together and of hierarchies imposing their rule more often than not when some networks went out of hand.
The episode that best exemplifies this complicated process is the epic of Hernán Cortés and the conquest of the Aztec empire. It is a story that developed at the crossroads between Medieval and Modern times and between the old and the new worlds. Like Alexander the Great, Cortés bridged different times and spaces. No wonder that, as said, among his contemporaries his deeds were compared with those of the Macedonian. Now, we have to be aware of the dangers of using anachronistic analogies in history for all too often they are just a useful devise for myth-making and political propaganda of one sort or another. But there is a case in point here:
if Alexander tried to enlarge the West by incorporating the East, so Cortés tried to do the same with the Americas. There is, though, a big difference: whereas in the longer term Alexander failed and his empire collapsed in a few months after his death, Cortés and the Spanish crown succeeded in the conquest and incorporation of America into the West. Why was it so?
A conventional explanation is that, unlike the Greeks when they confronted the Persian Empire, the Spaniards had an overwhelming superiority over the pre-Columbian societies due to firearms, horses and the help of some unintended biological weapons in the form of illnesses, like smallpox, unknown to the natives. But things were not that easy. In Mesoamerica, the Aztec rulers could master forces of hundreds of thousands of experienced warriors whilst at the beginning of their campaign the Spaniards counted on just 600 soldiers, including 13 harquebusiers, a dozen horses and a few small cannons that had to be carried across almost impossible terrains and extraordinary long distances. As a comparison, when Alexander crossed the Hellespont—a narrow stretch of water a few kilometres wide—he did so at the head of an army of 160 warships and about 50.000 soldiers. In addition, the Greek army used Macedonian tactics and weapons that were also superior to those known by the Persians. Something, though, that Alexander and men like Cortés had in common was that through a combination of diplomacy and cunning they could swell their troops with the addition of local allies, normally from unhappy tributaries of their respective empires. In particular, the Spaniards enlisted thousands of native warriors who were all eager to fight along them against the Aztec tyranny and the same happened during the subjugation of the Inca empire. It comes as no surprise that, when the Amerindian allies of the conquistadores made their case for advancement in the new Hispanic regime, they usually represented themselves as equal to the Spaniards in the epic of the conquest. Such is the case of the famous Tlaxcala Codex, authored by a mestizo named Diego Muñoz Camargo around 1581 as a response to an imperial questionnaire. In the image below we can see a scene where Tlaxcala warriors and Spaniards charge against the Aztecs with equal zeal.
[i] Ferguson, Niall, The Square and the Tower. Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power. London: Allen Lane. 2017.
The Tlaxcala Codex, circa 1581. A more balanced image of the conquest from the point of view of the Spaniards’ native allies
In the case of Mesoamerica, it has also been mentioned that the Aztec religious system, with its emphasis on cycles of life and destruction and the belief in the imminent return of the god Quetzalcoatl as an omen for the arrival of a new ruler, had a bearing on the collapse of the empire and the relative ease with which the surviving Mexica accepted their lot within the emerging Hispanic order. This explanation, though, is in blatant contradiction with the fact that the Aztecs did not surrender peacefully to the white, bearded gods. On the contrary, they used every ruse and, in the end, fought fiercely against Cortés and his men with the intent of either expelling or exterminating them. At a psychological level, comparing Moctezuma II’s alleged gullibility with Cortés’ ruthlessness is given sometimes as an additional reason for the Spanish victory, though, it must be said, Moctezuma II had proved to be an experienced warrior and ruler. Regardless of the omens, he actually tried to prevent the Spaniard from reaching his capital and he almost succeeded. By contrast, the Spaniard’s record on politics and war was far more limited before his Mexican adventure. Unlike the Greeks with regard to the Persians, the Spaniards knew next to nothing about the intricacies of the Aztec system of government or their military machinery and tactics. They had to learn, so to say, on the go and so they did with amazing expediency.
Moctezuma witnessing a comet, a bad omen in Aztec cosmology, from the Florentine Codex
After the conventional explanations have been considered, there are no easy ways to ascertain the causes behind the ultimate Greek failure in Asia and the overall Spanish success in the Americas. Not, unless we look at the larger picture from a different perspective. Though opening up a new period in Antiquity, Alexander the Great and his quarrelsome successors operated politically and militarily within the confines of the Ancient World. Even if we accept that Alexander tried to create a hybrid empire, he simply did not have the materials to make it happen and, above all, to make it last after his untimely death. His empire was a hierarchy of one man imposed on the discontent of the many. Once the pinnacle of the pyramid collapsed, the entire edifice crumbled down. Simply put, most of Alexander’s closest companions, the hetairoi, did not believe in Alexander’s ultimate goal and had no incentive to keep it alive once the king was dead. They just fought among themselves over his legacy and that was the end of it. The Alexandrian hierarchy had no safety net.
Now, the composite Spanish Monarchy at the beginning of the 16th century was a very different political animal when compared to Ancient empires like Alexander’s or the medieval kingdoms. As a variant of the nascent modern European state, it was a new kind of hierarchy that co-opted existing networks and created new ones on the go. It did so in order to achieve two main purposes: to preserve its dynastic territories in Europe and, increasingly, to expand overseas in competition with similar emerging Western polities.
There was also an ideological side to it: the strife to maintain the unity of Christendom at home, particularly after the Protestant split, and to enlarge the domains of the Cross worldwide while rolling back the threat posed by Islam. The Spanish Monarchy had, therefore, a mission that was politically and spiritually larger than the mere sum of its parts. Confronting such an enormous challenge, there is no wonder that it had to use all the resources at hand.
Thus the main agents of empire at the onset of the Spanish overseas venture were neither emperors, nor kings like Alexander. They were men like Cortés, Pizarro, Jiménez de Quesada or Hernando de Soto. The conquistadores were not formal sovereigns in their domains. They did not command entire armies, though some of them ventured to go beyond the limits of the mandate negotiated with their Monarchy. Most of them were petty nobles, or hidalgos, captains and soldiers who had staked their own fortunes, provided their own weapons and horses and risked their lives in exchange of a hypothetical gain. In this sense, they have been defined, rightly, as typical Renaissance businessmen.
True enough, at times a few among the most successful and ambitious conquistadores tried to transform their networks into new hierarchies. Some of them did it just out of sheer lust for power like Lope de Aguirre, whose descent into madness and chaos was implacably narrated by Werner Herzog in his film Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Some years ago, the French historian Christian Duverger put forward the idea that even Hernán Cortés had in mind the creation of a politically syncretic Hispano-Mexican kingdom, based on religious and ethnic mestizaje and independent from Spain in all but name[i]. Duverger’s brilliant style as a narrator and his undisguised empathy with Cortés, an extraordinary man without doubt, makes a compelling but far from convincing reading. In a nutshell, Duverger has a soft spot for portraying Cortés as a romantic hero; the man who falls in love with the culture of the natives he is supposed to conquer; the outlaw who confronts the powers that be, meaning in this case both the Emperor Charles V and the authorities entrusted to act on his behalf in the Americas.
At times, Duverger’s Cortés looks like the leader of the Rebel faction against the dark powers of the Galactic Empire bent on exploiting and subjugating the idyllic American paradise in what seems like a pre-sequel of the Star Wars franchise. In Niall Ferguson’s parlance, Cortés would then be the hub in a network constantly outmaneuvering two menacing hierarchies, the Aztec Empire and the Hispanic Monarchy.
Obviously, history is not that simple. As it was the case with Alexander, we can hardly get into Cortés’ mind to read what his real intentions were. We have to stick to the verifiable facts about his life and deeds as well as to the very abundant records from the archives of the Hispanic Monarchy. What these facts and records tell us is that the objectives and methods of the Monarchy and those of its representatives and agents on the ground, including the conquistadores, were more often than not very similar. Whenever there were contradictions, they were solved by a complicated process of negotiations, of giving and taking so that all parties could be satisfied. When that was not possible or the Monarchy considered that its rights were been infringed upon, there was no doubt about who had the last word, as Cortés could experience first-hand.
After all, as said, the networks of explorers, conquistadores, missionaries and merchants and the hierarchy encompassing them all shared the same goals. The main one, apart from the very human quest for fame and riches, was to rule over as many territories and peoples as possible in order to get access to resources, to accrue the material and human power of the Hispanic Monarchy.
As Alexander probably thought, but not most of his contemporaries, this was not to be done just by hitting, looting and running. It was to be achieved by staying, populating, mixing with the natives and, ultimately, by ruling taking into account the local realities. Summing up, the purpose was to create one single polity out of two worlds with one political hierarchy at the top relying on a multitude of dependent and interdependent networks on the ground.
In fact, this is what happened. There were, obviously, tensions between the Monarchy and its representatives in the new conquered lands and between the Spaniards and the indigenous people. But the system as a whole held for almost three centuries and Alexander’s dream of enlarging the West by incorporating new worlds was finally achieved. His legacy has a name: the very much alive and thriving Hispanic World.
[i] Duverger, Christian, Hernán Cortés. Más allá de la leyenda. Madrid: Taurus, 2013.
If you want to read the full article, become a member of Global Square now!