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Inga Clendinnen (1934–2016)

Author of Aztecs: An Interpretation

13+ Works 1,088 Members 20 Reviews 2 Favorited

About the Author

Inga Clendinnen was born in Geelong, Australia on August 17, 1934. She studied history at the University of Melbourne. She became a historian of Aztec and Mayan culture and society. She taught at the University of Melbourne and La Trobe University. She wrote numerous books during her lifetime show more including Reading the Holocaust, Tiger's Eye, Dancing with Strangers, and Agamemnon's Kiss. She died on September 8, 2016 at the age of 82. (Bowker Author Biography) show less
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Works by Inga Clendinnen

Associated Works

The Penguin Book of War (1999) — Contributor — 451 copies
The Best Australian Essays: A Ten-Year Collection (2011) — Contributor — 29 copies
The Best Australian Essays 2008 (2008) — Contributor — 28 copies
The Best Australian Essays 2002 (2002) — Contributor — 22 copies
The Best Australian Essays 2007 (2007) — Contributor — 21 copies
The Best Australian Essays 2005 (2005) — Contributor — 17 copies
The Best Australian Essays 2011 (2011) — Contributor — 16 copies
The Best Australian Essays 2003 (2003) — Contributor — 15 copies
Seams of Light: Best Antipodean Essays (1998) — Contributor — 7 copies

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The pre-Columbian Aztecs are a tough people to really know, not only given their own tendencies towards self-glorification, but also because the systematic Spanish attempt to eliminate the existing structure and memory of Aztec society in order to replace it with something more palatable and familiar was successful, and therefore scattered records and summarized codices are in large part all we have. Clendinnen has written a very sympathetic, very detailed attempt to capture what Aztec society felt like for the average person - warriors, priests, merchants, women - and to recreate as much as possible of the world that was lost. This means that her interpretive efforts are therefore more than a little speculative in many parts, yet she does a magnificent job of conveying the appeal of the culture while not downplaying the miserable relationship the Aztecs had with their neighbors, in particular the grim horrors of their most infamous ritual practice.

One of the interesting things about the Aztecs is how different their attitude towards empire was than that of natural comparisons like the Romans. From their founding as the "Triple Alliance" union of the city-states Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlateloco in 1428, they fought nearly continuous wars against nearby cities until the Spanish conquest in 1521, but instead of aggressive expansion and incorporation of subject peoples in order to increase their strength for the next war, they preferred to merely acquire fealty from the enemy nobility and exact regular tribute. There might be several reasons why the Aztecs did not have the same urge to imperiogenesis as other civilizations: James Scott's book Against the Grain argues in part that grain cultivation is uniquely well-suited to despotism, and perhaps corn is less so; or perhaps the mountainous terrain in central Mexico is more similar to Greece, which also remained hard to consolidate for a long time, than the easy plains of Italy, making lasting conquest more difficult (though compare against the Incas to the south). There was a good chapter in Peter Turchin's Ultrasociety that explored how the nearly impassable mountains of Papua New Guinea allowed just enough contact between tribes to permit warfare, but not enough to make lasting conquest feasible. This did not encourage peaceful coexistence: the near-constant low-level warfare was less deadly in any given clash than in, say, a typical Roman battle, but there were far more of them, and so overall mortality in war was higher in a society of small-scale villages then in large-scale complex societies. Clendinnen emphasizes the almost nonexistent unifying forces at work in the imperial hierarchy:

It is worth taking time over this oddly based polity, crucial as it is for an understanding of the city's workings, as for the process of its final destruction. Tenochtitlan was no Rome, despite the magnificence of its monuments, the steady inflow of tribute goods, and their spectacular consumption in a state-financed theatre. Subjugation did not mean incorporation. There was no significant bureaucracy in the Mexica 'empire', and few garrisons either. Marriage alliances linked the leading dynasties, while lesser local rulers were typically left in place and effectively autonomous, at least for as long as their towns delivered the agreed tribute to the imperial city. Even in those rare cases when the defeated ruler was killed, the dynasty was usually allowed to survive. But if local rulers spent months in the Mexica capital, they did not thereby become Mexica, and when their military contingents were called on to fight for the Triple Alliance they did so under their own leaders and banners. The 'empire' was an acrobats' pyramid, a precarious structure of the more privileged lording it over the less, with those poised on the highest level triumphant, but nervously attentive to any premonitory shift or shuffle from below.

The human sacrifice is of course the most famous form of tribute the Aztecs demanded, like Theseus and the Minotaur on a much larger scale. Sacrifices were done as triumphs after a successful military campaign, as commemorations of important events like the ascension of a new ruler or the completion of a major temple, or to propitiate the rain god Tlaloc as part of the regular rotation of harvest festivals like Tlacaxipeualiztli, Etzalqualiztli, Ochpaniztli, and Panquetzaliztli. About this practice of human sacrifice, which is rightly the become the main thing people know about Aztec culture, perhaps the only thing that can be said is that those unhappy victims had plenty of company, as Aztec culture was pretty brutal even for Aztecs:

When the spoils of war and the tribute from other towns subject to the conquered overlord city came into the hands of the Mexica ruler, he chose to distribute them not to the collectivities of the calpullis, but to specially distinguished warriors in the form of offices and titles, with attendant privileges and worked lands, so, it is said, creating a nobility and a bureaucracy at a blow.
Warrior arrogance always commanded a wide social space in the city. Given their reward-by-privilege expectations and their systematic elevation over lesser men, extortion was always a tempting possibility. From time to time it was discovered that warriors had levied an unofficial tribute on the town, 'perchance of chocolate (cacao), or food'. Such gross invasion of the prerogative of the state invoked the punitive violence of the state, and Mexica state justice was summary, brutal, public, and often enough lethal. Most offenders against Moctezoma's laws died most publicly, with the marketplace the favoured venue, where adulterers were stoned or strangled and habitual drunkards had their heads beaten in by Moctezoma's executioners.

Fun stuff. Clendinnen is careful to note that, as with all societies, vicious cruelty lived alongside warmth and humanity, and she works as hard as she can to convey the magnificent grandeur of the Aztecs. The read can judge for themselves which aspects of Aztec culture were most affecting, but by the end of the book, as the Aztec's neighbors and subjects joined with the Spanish to destroy their vampiric clench, I still felt for them, though not too much. The Spanish had plenty of admiration for the Aztecs as builders and administrators, and indeed as Clendinnen points out, it is telling that one of the laments written after the Spanish conquest is really mourning for the city more than it is for the people:

Broken spears lie in the roads;
we have torn our hair in our grief.
The houses are roofless now, and their walls
are red with blood.
Worms are swarming in the streets and plazas,
and the walls are splattered with gore.
the water has turned red, as if it were dyed,
and when we drink it,
it has the taste of brine.
We have pounded our hands in despair
against the adobe walls,
for our inheritance, our city, is lost and dead.
The shields of our warriors were its defence,
but they could not save it.
… (more)
 
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aaronarnold | 3 other reviews | May 11, 2021 |
Agamemnon's Kissby Inga Clendinnen I was looking forward to reading this book.
 
The title was intriguing and the cover looked good. (Sorry but that's how it works!)I really enjoyed the essays about her illness and the essays about the Aboriginies. They were vibrant, empathic and engaging. Brilliant.The rest were academic, dry, boring and non-inviting. Shame.
 
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Ken-Me-Old-Mate | 1 other review | Sep 24, 2020 |
A strange book of history, which engages imagination more than most. When you're talking about the Aztecs, though, that might be necessary. I'm not sure how well it holds up, but regardless of the historical accuracy I think Clendinnen unearths some real human truths. This was a much more emotional and, in parts, disturbing read than most accounts of a world long gone. Not disturbing because I felt the Aztecs were in some way "wrong," but because the worldview that Clendingen describes begins to make so much sense that it's painful to know how it ended.… (more)
 
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Roeghmann | 3 other reviews | Dec 8, 2019 |

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