Book Review. Tenochtitlan 1519-1521 by Si Sheppard.

Author: Si Sheppard
Illustrator: Peter Dennis
Short code: CAM 321
Publication Date: 31 May 2018
Number of Pages: 96

I’ve been waiting ages for a campaign book on the conquest of Mexico.
Si Sheppard sets out to do two things. First narrate a concise account of a three year drama and second to emphasise the contribution of the Spanish allied tribes, this is also convincingly done. Happily Sheppard does not speak of Aztecs, but of the Mexica and as far as he can he uses more indigenous spellings, such as the Mexica honorific, Malintzin as opposed to the more popular Spanish Malinche.

A great controversy of the conquest is, ‘what was Moctezuma thinking!’ Was he indeed afraid that he was facing a divinity, or was he merely hopeless? Or is there another answer? This is not to book to investigate this, nevertheless it is at the heart of the campaign. Some feel that Moctezuma has been the victim of post conquest press, painting him as ineffectual.

Sheppard, briefly flirts with the old idea that Moctezuma II could not at first rule out that there was something divine about the newcomers and acted indecisively. But the author observes later in the introduction that any suspicions the tlatoani had about the divinity of the strangers would have been dispelled after the massacre at Cholula, and demonstrates, though does not state, that Moctezuma was focused entirely on turning the invaders back and kept his options open until he met the Spanish. Sheppard avoids coming to a conclusion about Moctezuma in his assessment of the opposing commanders. He does lend himself somewhat to the idea that once Cortes got to Tenochtitlan he became indecisive and lays a great deal of blame for the Mexica disaster at Moctezuma’s feet.

The issue with upholding the righteous cause of the triple alliance is that they become victims. And while it is undoubtedly right that the conquest be criticised, the Mexica became victims because they lost, not because they could not challenge the Spanish. The author attempts to arrive at a parity of ruthlessness and cruelty between Cortes and Moctezuma, and does not indulge in championing either the conquerors or the downtrodden, which would be a mistake in such a book, nonetheless he cannot avoid offering his sympathy to the Mexicans and his relative condemnation of the cruelty of the Spanish. Being primarily a military work, Cortes is given great credit for his leadership and skill as a commander and indeed as diplomat, as is Cuatemoc, who emerges as the most effective Mexica leader. All in all very little of the dark side of anyone’s personality surfaces in this book except in deed. In such a small book, I think, this is a fair enough discussion of the subject.

Full and rightful credit for the success of the Spanish conquest is given to the commanders of the Tlaxcalan alliance, without whom, Cortes must certainly have failed and the people of Central America might have achieved a measure of self-determination away from Spanish interference. To some extent, Sheppard goes so far as to suggest the calamity was therefore not just a plague from Spain, but in a way a calamity of Mexico’s own making and as much as possible sketches an impartial picture of one empire battling against another, sympathising in sum with the defeated no more than he would with any nation. There are merits to this, as it removes the usual discussion about right and wrong, but sails dangerously close to ignoring the fact that unlike other conquests around the world, this one all but obliterated the culture of the government it overthrew.

The theme of two rapacious empires locked in a death struggle continues through the opposing forces section. Great stress is placed on the minority of the Spaniards, estimating that only “one half of one percent” of the army besieging Tenochtitlan in 1521 was from Spain. Supporting the idea that the conquest was driven by Spain but not won by it. Instead the Spaniards with their small herd of horses, and small arsenal of guns which they could not shoot at the battle of Otumba due to a crippling lack of supplies, were dwarfed by the Quadrupal Tlaxcalan Alliance, and allied kingdoms all of whom shouldered the main burden of casualties and fighting.

Sheppard hardly goes so far as to suggest the Spaniards in their steel armour could not outfight a Mexica warrior man to man, all of that is gone into quite thoroughly, but the author convincingly shows that they were quite aware that any campaign fought without native support was doomed. Rejecting the common idea that the Spanish vanquished the Mexica by dint of their technology, hard bitten prowess and fatalistic ideology. Indeed it is shown that the Spanish leaders were so aware of their dependence on their allies that they were at pains to cover up their contribution, which does both a disservice to the allied kingdoms and the Mexica themselves.

Sheppard has also found no indication that the allied tribes felt in any way conquered by the Spanish, (until after the conquest) and that they acted as allies and Cortes treated them as such. So instead of supermen, superior in every way to the enemies they fought, save for their greed, many proofs are presented to show that the greatest Spanish contribution was impetuous and the incidental introduction of pathogens into Mexico. The danger here is that the approach of marginalising the Spanish is to suggest that they are not as culpable in the subsequent colonisation of Mexico. So while it provides a more mature version of how the conquest occurred, some of its assertions will be problematic.

The Mexica, usually described as brave but outmatched are given a much more formidable aspect in this book. A fighting force that waged war differently but were quite acquainted with the idea of annihilating an enemy in the name of divine glory and the betterment of their leader’s power. The Mexica alliance are represented as using wars, flower wars, and economic sanctions on neighbours to wear them down. Tlaxcala was in this position when the Spanish came. They are also shown as disciplined and highly organised fighters, for whom warfare was both the most natural and the easiest way to achieve social mobility. Once more an attempt has been made here to reorient common conceptions about the two sides.

The book appraises the fighting with a cool impartiality, following the written accounts and always placing a great importance on the Spanish allies. The Mexica posited as at a disadvantage due to a lack of experienced officers. Highlighting the massacre of many of their leaders by Alverado as key in the subsequent lack of command and control.
The Battle of Otumba is not covered in any detail. A half page description of one of Peter Dennis’ paintings suffices to give the broad outline of his epic clash. Interestingly it gives a cynical verdict about this Spanish victory. Arguing that the Mexica had to withdraw after their system of communication was ruptured allowing the Spanish to escape, logically labelling what is often called a great Spanish victory as an inconclusive and desperate delaying action. This ties into the author’s theory that the Mexica were under-officered after the massacre at the festival of Texcoco.

Once more the Tlaxcalan alliance and the part played by he other states around the valley of Mexico is at the fore. Not as forced or unwilling vassals but full allies with a stake in the political future of the country, who dictate terms to Cortes, while other nations declare their neutrality and await the outcome. The Great siege of Tenochtitlan is portrayed as a relentless grinding nightmare of win and loss for both sides. Here actual Spanish fighting prowess is better highlited than in any other place in the campaign, but it was only allowed to be displayed because of massive native effort that accompanied it as, one by one, Cortes separated the Triple Aliance from its vassals and allies.

Having done his best to strip back legend and sentimentality from his narrative, we are not shown monstrous conquerors or naive victims but two sides equally mature in their development and goals. And in that sense this is a very mature account that tries to focus mainly on the military course of events. In his closing comments, Sheppard argues that the record of Mesoamerican civilisation suggests that Tenochtitlan would have eventually suffered the fate of Teotihuacan, and that even if Christians of a later less belligerent century arrived in Mexico their diseases would have done the work of conquest wether they liked it or not. This follows the trend of the book, which teeters very close at times to ignoring that this conflict did not lead merely to the change of governments but the evaporation of a civilisation.

Three exciting colour plates form the bedrock of the illustrations. Peter Dennis has created images that show the core events of the fighting. All of which interestingly highlight the Spanish rather than their allies. Otumba sees the Spanish cavalry in action, the fighting in Tenochtitlan has the Spaniards storming the peak of a temple and the final siege shows the vital contribution of the Spanish ships. All of which are full of the artist’s usual verve and energy.

At the heart of Sheppard’s narrative is the argument that the Spanish contributed a limited amount of technology and engineering knowledge, core political unification of intent, and most decisivly, pandemic levels of pathogens to the struggle, the old enemies of Tenochtitlan did the rest. And it is in this that an underapprecisted tragedy is revealed. Not the destruction of a city that even it’s destroyers believed to be a marvel, but the betrayal of the allies, who although involved for their own interests, nonetheless became some of the first in America to learn the hard way about how little the eastern newcomers cared about promises.

Book Review: Greek Hoplite vs Persian Warrior by Chris McNab.

Author: Chris McNab
Illustrator: Adam Hook
Short code: CBT 31
Publication Date: 9 Mar 2018

The Combat series, when it is done right, is an excellent format for the nuts and bolts of Battle. Instead of grand strategy we see how individuals dealt with it. In the case of the Greek and Persian War I think author, Chris McNab has done it right, the attraction of this title is for me the glimpse it gives on the Persian side of the combat. Much like the Romans we have a schoolboy image of Ancient Greek Warfare. The rundown of the classic Hoplite and his tactics is not hard to grasp, as is the basics of why they successfully defended themselves against the Persians.

Very little credit is usually given to the invaders, they are either hopelessly outmatched or their capabilities are stupidly overestimated so as to inflate the reputation of the Greeks. Here the author does a good job of observing the simplistic nature of the Hoplite system against the more sophisticated Persian model, while at the same time noting that the Persians had no binding system that would train their giant vassal armies into a unified host, and that the Greek reliance in heavy infantry was a factor to their advantage.
What will become clear here is not the superiority of the Hoplite over the Persian, it is the factors in aid of the Hoplite. The peninsula of Greece is a poor place to fight if your army needs room to manoeuvre. The Greeks had no cavalry and little by way of archers, they had one tactic, to get as many heavy infantry into combat as possible at the same time. The Spartans were noted as excellent in war not only because their citizens were trained from birth, but because to everyone else, the art of war consisted of forming up in ranks, eight odd men deep and then walking in a straight line towards the enemy and battering him until he ran away.

Persian troops, drawn from many fighting cultures, preferred the use of masses, cavalry and range firepower to break up an enemy, with key units in reserve, before a final rush. Technically this should have had more flexibility, but not when confined to narrow beaches, or mountain valleys, or when Persian commanders would insist on allowing themselves to be fixed and charged by the enemy. Notable also is much evidence of what the staff colledge would call command and control.

The Greeks had no real answer to cavalry, or massed archers, and the Persians had no answer to heavy infantry. In the end the Greeks made the right tactical decisions and the Persians made the wrong ones. This book highlights these factors in a bright, well written way. It falls down a little in the fact that it strays away from being a combat book, not really discussing ways the opposing forces used their weapons in combat with any depth, and this is a flaw in the Combat series in general where authors take on subjects that would require a great deal of focus on experimental archeology. Nevertheless, both sides’ weapons, training and basic statistics are considered, and three well known battles are given to exemplify what elements made up a battle in this time. Marathon, Thermopylae and Platea.

What emerges from these engagements is what has already been observed, though a few interesting thoughts occurred to me as I read the familiar retellings based mostly on Herodotus. Foremost is the length of some engagements, indicating that Persian infantry could not be cut through in the commonly thought knife through butter manner, but could sustain a prolonged engagement and presumably heavy losses throughout each of the three battles. Second, that Platea offers the most interesting examination of combat due to the nature of the ground suiting both sides, and the Greeks almost coming undone by active Persian use of cavalry and a refusal to engage until an advantage presented itself, had perhaps the Persians been faced with less crack troops on the right, we might have had a fairer appraisal of the two styles of fighting.

But there it is, the book cannot help ending up one sided in the sense that the Greeks always get the better end of the fight. The author warns the reader about this in his analysis and very properly points out that the Greeks adopted widespread light infantry tactics in the wake of the invasions. I had expected to see some discussion about how the Immortals were utilised at  Thermopylae but the focus is generally on the Greeks. It is just possible that because the Greeks told the story, we aren’t getting the other half and never will.

The scarcity of evidence for Persian arms and warfare and Persian voices is crippling to being able to fully appreciate what was going on, for with the Greek sources as our only guide we must understand that any favourable advantage the Persians showed would be played down. And considering how vast and multi-ethnic the Persian forces were this is perhaps not so surprising the difficulty of trying to examine their forces. But this book nonetheless gives a flavour of what was going on and does give the much denigrated enemies of democracy as detailed an overview as space allows.
I’m not sure if Adam Hook was given the best brief for this book, there is something in the scale of the split screen composition that makes it look more like a reenactment than a battle, but the Thermopylae scene is interesting for the inclusion of the famous wall.
Honesty demands I inform readers this is a fairly by the numbers retelling of the major elements of the pre Macedonian Persian Wars, but it nevertheless is of interest as a window onto this conflict.