BMCR 2004.07.49

Romans in a New World: Classical Models in Sixteenth-Century Spanish America

, Romans in a New World : classical models in sixteenth-century Spanish America. History, languages, and cultures of the Spanish and Portuguese worlds. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, [2003]. vi, 440 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 9780472112753. $59.50.

After 1492, and more particularly after the invasion of the Central American mainland and the ensuing conquests of the Aztec and Inca empires, the Spanish found themselves not only in control of a vast amount of territory, but ruling over — and exploiting — millions of native Americans from Hispaniola and the Antilles to Peru. Unlike other imperial acquisitions, however, the Spanish Empire of the Indies was not simply greeted as windfall profit and accepted as unproblematic but rather, over the course of the sixteenth century, became the object of intense debate — and debate often sponsored by the Spanish crown itself. What justification was there for Spain’s rule over the new world? How should all these millions of new subjects be treated — and who or what in fact were they? For Spain, unlike England or the United States of Manifest Destiny, imperial expansion was not a self-evident truth. What right does Spain have to rule over Mexico and Peru? What is the relationship between Christian evangelism and conquest? And what natural rights of the natives must Spain respect?

The result of this self-questioning came to a head in what is undoubtedly the single most extraordinary moment in the history of European imperialism. At the instruction of Charles V, there took place in 1550-51 at Valladolid a debate over the justification of the empire of which Charles was head. Formally, the question at hand was whether permission should be granted for the publication of the pro-imperial dialogue Democrates Secundus by the humanist (and translator of Aristotle’s Politics) Juan Ginés de Sepulveda. Sepulveda presented his case (orally and in writing) before a board of judges including some of the most notable scholars and theologians of the day; the response was made (on a separate occasion) by Bartolomé de las Casas, the Dominican Bishop of Chiapas. Although not all the judges rendered their opinions (at least one was called away to attend the Council of Trent) and thus a final decision was never reached; the majority were against Sepulveda, and his work was not in fact published for nearly four centuries.1

Arguably the most memorable aspect of Democrates Secundus and of las Casas’ numerous responses is the debate over the status of the Amerindians. Sepulveda argued, on the basis of Aristotle’s account of natural slavery, that the native population were barbarians and natural slaves, and therefore that Spanish conquest and exploitation of them was justified — and, through the opportunities for conversion to Christianity, for their own good. The natives were as much below the Spaniards “as are children to adults, women to men, the cruel and inhuman to the very gentle, the prodigiously intemperate to the self-controlled, and finally I would almost say monkeys to men.”2 His arguments ranged from praise of the greatness of Spain and Spanish intellectual accomplishments (including the Senecas and Lucan among his examples) to denial of the sophistication of Amerindian civilizations to horror at the use of human sacrifice by the Aztecs. Las Casas’ response included recognition of the social and civic achievements of the Aztecs and a brilliant analysis of the meanings of the term ‘barbarian.’

But Aristotelian natural slavery was only a part of the debate, either in the climactic encounter at Valladolid or in the larger context of argument over the justification and interpretation of empire that lasted for several generations. It involved a whole set of complicated questions, ranging from Spain’s legal justification for control over the Indies to the assessment of Aztec and Inca civilization to Spanish national identity to the understanding of the progress of human civilization at large. To deal with these issues, conquistadors, officials, and scholars alike looked for precedents and analogies for what Spain did and what Spain found in the Americas; and in almost all these issues, the models that they turned to came from Roman history.

It is the use of Rome in the Controversy of the Indies that is the subject of David Lupher’s remarkable new book, Romans in a New World. L. has written a complex work of wide learning and profound scholarship, a substantial contribution not only to the study of Spanish and Latin American intellectual history but to the reception of the classics, above all to understanding the remarkably complex and changing image of Rome in early modern Europe. The Valladolid debate is inevitably at the center of his discussion, but he goes far beyond that. After a chapter devoted to the topos of ‘besting the ancients’ as employed by the conquistadors themselves, he devotes three chapters to formal arguments about the justification of empire, the central one focussing on Valladolid. The final two chapters, perhaps the most fascinating in the book, concern first (Chapter 5) the ways in which las Casas and others drew a parallel between the brutal treatment meted to the pre-Roman Iberian population by the Romans and the treatment of the Amerindians by the Spanish themselves, and second (Chapter 6) the comparisons made between Aztec and Inca civilization and the civilizations of the Greco-Roman world. In the end, the exposition comes full circle: L. starts from the relatively simple rhetorical trope by which the extent and difficulty of Spanish conquests were made greater by comparison to Roman feats of arms and, in the last chapter, elaborates on the ways in which the Aztecs themselves were viewed as a civilization comparable to, and often superior to, that of Rome. The Spanish achievement is greater not merely because they accomplished more, and under more difficult circumstances, than the Romans, but because they defeated a civilization comparable to Rome itself. From savages and barbarians, the Amerindians become exemplars of a great — and destroyed — civilization.

The formal issue of the justification of empire is the most complex of the topics L. discusses, because it was treated in several different ways and involved many problems of interpreting history, both ancient and recent. In the first place, there was the question of the legitimacy of conquest: under what circumstances is it right to subdue another population? That depended in part on the causes of war, in part on (as in Sepulveda’s argument) the status of the conquered people. Rome, in this case, provided a useful analogy: it was argued, on behalf of empire, that Rome had gained its empire through just causes, defensive wars, and, from a Christian perspective, divine sanction. On the other hand, beginning from a very early stage in the controversy, Domingo de Soto argued that the justification for Rome’s conquests was simply conquest itself and that it had no legitimacy other than force. Soto’s role as the originator of an important stage in the argument against empire is L.’s discovery, and he follows closely the development of anti-imperial arguments from Soto through the far more famous (and ambivalent) Vitoria, to Vitoria’s pupils and las Casas.

But Rome is not merely an analogy: the second type of argument used Roman power — and the idea of sole jurisdiction over the world — as the origin of Spanish power. In this instance, it did not hurt that Charles V was both King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor — and some of these arguments began to fade after he abdicated the imperial throne — but the details of the argument involve some extraordinary interpretations of Roman history. In essence, a great deal of the argument that Lupher traces with great care and detail concerns the interpretation of a few texts which rarely appear in modern accounts of the Roman Empire. In terms of the universal dominion of Rome, the census of Luke 2 is crucial; in terms of the divine justification of empire, there was heated debate over the interpretation of Augustine, City of God, Book 5. The conduit of power, moreover, lies through the church: Christ’s dominion over the world passed to the Popes, and (in some interpretations) that was in turn passed to the King of Spain by Alexander VI Borgia in his Bull of 1493.

The justification of both Spain’s empire and Rome’s, clearly, rested on a Christian reading of ancient and modern history. At one point, Fernandez de Oviedo compared the sack of Tenochtitlan by Cortes to the sack of Jerusalem by Titus. Since, as L. explains (38), the sack of Jerusalem was interpreted from the time of Orosius as God’s vengeance, through Titus, on the killers of Christ, the analogy allowed the Spanish to see their conquest of Mexico as simultaneously an act of valor surpassing the victories of the Romans, an act of piety in defeating enemies (the non-Christian Amerindians) of Christ, and a continuation of the Reconquista, the destruction of the Moorish kingdom of Granada. Indeed, more than one writer seems to have viewed the Mexicans not merely as analogous to the Jews, but as in fact the descendants of the Jews: Bernal Diaz reported that some people described golden ornaments brought from Yucatán to Cuba in 1517 as “the work of the Jews whom Titus and Vespasian exiled from Jerusalem and had cast forth onto the sea” (40).

Other writers had equally strange views of the justification of Spanish power and the continuity of ancient and modern. It was claimed, for instance, that a coin of Augustus was found in Darién, showing that Rome had in fact had dominion over the new world. Indeed, the Croatian priest Vinko Paletin argued — and then retracted the argument — that the Carthaginians had established colonies in the new world and that Rome acquired dominion through its conquest of Carthage. L. devotes many pages to this strange text and to unravelling its complex manuscript attestation: it is one of the many places where he has not only constructed an original and compelling argument but has identified and clarified the sixteenth-century texts themselves.

Throughout his book, L. makes it abundantly clear that the Controversy of the Indies marked a crucial step both in the development of scholarship on Rome and in the development of a sense of nationality and identity in early modern Europe. The arguments made and rebutted about Rome’s imperial role and the justification of power involved detailed interpretation of texts — the set of readings of Augustine by various Dominicans in the 1530s and 1540s is a fascinating demonstration of how humanists learned to read critically. The Spanish questioned their own role through Roman images: perhaps the most striking is the text by the Franciscan Antonio de Guevara in the 1520s known as the ‘Danubian peasant’ — a diatribe against imperial abuse addressed to Marcus Aurelius, embedded in a fictional biography designed as a handbook for Charles V. L.’s discussion of this strange work in its context is illuminating: the Spanish crown — unlike some more recent imperial powers — was genuinely concerned that its rule rest on justice as well as on force.

In moving from relatively legalistic discussions of power and morality to broader ethnographic concerns in the last two chapters, L.’s material becomes ever richer and more fascinating. Above all, his discussions of Oviedo and las Casas are exemplary, particularly in dealing with the analogies between the old world and the new. Las Casas, the most bitterly anti-Roman of the writers discussed by L., chose to see the modern Spaniards as the direct descendants of the pre-Roman Iberian population; by comparing the brutal suppression of Spain by Rome to the equivalent behavior of Spain in the Indies, he hoped to make his readers realize the injustice and cruelty of their behavior. The idea that the ‘real’ Spanish were not the Romans but the victims of the Romans had great importance in the development of Spanish national identity; and it was not for nothing that Cervantes wrote a play in the 1580s about the siege of Numantia in which, it has been argued, some passages were modelled on parts of Ercilla’s Araucana — an epic about a Chilean rebellion against Spanish rule.3 Roman history was influenced by the new world as much as the other way around. That picture only becomes more complex when we learn (230-34) of the Colegio de Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco, established in 1536, where young Nahua men learned about the similarity of their own situation to that of the Spanish defeated by Rome, and learned to speak Latin and write hexameters. Las Casas, in certain respects, also ‘invented’ cultural anthropology: by arguing that the Amerindians now were no worse in civilization than the Greeks and Romans — who after all were also not Christians — he implied a theory of cultural progress and comparison. He constantly showed that ‘our’ ancestors behaved no better, and were often at much lower levels of civilization, than the alleged ‘savages’; notoriously, he went so far as to argue that even human sacrifice (which of course was also practiced by the Romans, the Gauls, and the proto-Spanish) is a sign of respect for the divine, in giving to the gods that which one most values.

L.’s book is dense and detailed, and it would serve no purpose simply to point to various texts and arguments. A few more general comments, however, are in order. L.’s general procedure, throughout the book, is to take one text at a time, explain and elucidate it, and bring out its relevance to his subject. He goes into great detail about some of the texts and their problems of attestation and authenticity and in many cases makes fundamental contributions to the subject: he uses with great skill all the tools of philology in an area that needs them. But the amount of detail at times disturbs the balance between exposition and argument in favor of the former, and it is too easy to lose track of the argument. Some of this material could well have been put in appendices or separate articles, without great detriment.

In the second place, by concentrating on the interpretation of particular texts, generally in chronological order within his three main areas of interest, L. not only at times repeats himself (we return more than once to some of the same passages of Oviedo and las Casas) but loses the chance to draw broader connections. When he does so, they are important and illuminating: when, in introducing Sepulveda, he discusses Sepulveda’s role in attacks on Erasmus by Italian humanists and brings in the connections between Erasmus and the great Spanish humanist Juan Luis Vives, one realizes that the Controversy of the Indies is not merely a Spanish concern, but is part of a far larger European intellectual context. The same is true when, in his final chapters, L. compares the rise of ethnography in Spanish writing on the Indies to developments in the rest of Europe a century later, and when he draws attention to the different styles of Protestant and Catholic versions of aetiologies of religious customs: one has a sense that L. is drawing attention to a broader context without actually incorporating it into his own argument. One would also have liked some indication of how the debate on empire fared in the next generations, as Spain’s European empire revolted. Vitoria is often taken as an antecedent for the development of international law in Grotius; but do the arguments about empire have any resonance in the imperial attitudes of the greatest seventeenth century interpreter of imperial Latin literature, Justus Lipsius?

In another direction, the same is true of L.’s treatment of the classical texts themselves. The Spanish scholars whom he discusses had what is, to a classicist, a very strange picture of the ancient world, one drawn largely from Christian sources and with strange overlays: the Augustan peace as the vehicle for Christian expansion (first found in Orosius) is one; Titus’ destruction of Jerusalem as revenge for the killing of Christ is another. L. rarely steps back and explains how Vitoria or las Casas knew about Rome and why they used it as they did. Equally wanting, particularly from a classicist’s point of view, is an exploration of the ancient parallels for the arguments made in the sixteenth century. The ‘Danubian peasant’ has clear ancestry in the letter of Mithradates in Sallust and the speech of Calgacus in Tacitus: did Guevara know those texts at all? And one would very much like to know how well las Casas knew the version of the Carneadean debate on justice reported by Lactantius — a text that was of great importance to Grotius a century later. Perhaps, however, that is asking too much; it is an indication of the fascination of L.’s book that I wish he had done more.

In the acknowledgments to Romans in a New World, L. remarks that he embarked on his subject because of “the happy accident of finding himself assigned to teach Bernal Diaz’s engrossing chronicle of the Spanish conquest of Mexico” (vi). By a similar happy accident, this reviewer encountered the Valladolid debate and the work of las Casas; but although I have done some small reading around this subject, it took only a very few pages of L.’s book to find out how little I knew — and how much L. himself has learned. Would that we all had the courage to embark on such complex and difficult new fields; would that we all had the patience, ability, and intelligence to master them as well as L. has. This is one of the most sustained and intelligent pieces of serious scholarship and interpretation that I have read in a long time.

The Controversy of the Indies matters, in more ways than one. It is of immense importance in the development of the historiography of the ancient world and in the study of ancient religion. It shows some very learned and intelligent scholars — Vitoria, las Casas, Melchor Cano, and others — struggling to use the past in order to find moral and legal guidance for the present. Current scholarship (in the work of Anthony Pagden, Anthony Grafton and others) tends to view the Spanish as somehow prisoners of their classical past, suggesting that they could only interpret what they saw in the Americas through the lens of what they had read of the classics. L. implicitly rejects that point of view: his Spanish are active and critical readers and viewers, using, but also criticizing, ancient natural historians like Pliny and ancient rulers like Caesar. They attain an impressive scholarly distance on the interpretation of the ancient world — while retaining, with the support of the Emperor himself, an equally impressive engagement with the moral and social dilemmas posed by the new empire. L. has clearly been working on his book for a long time, and he did not write with current circumstances in mind, but it is in fact a very topical book, and one wishes that not only academics would read it: where is Bartolomé de las Casas when we really need him? and where is a government that would listen to him?


1. As Lupher notes, it has never been translated into English, although I note with parochial pride that a translated selection of Democrates Secundus was published for use in Contemporary Civilization at Columbia more than half a century ago: Chapters in Western Civilization, edited by the Contemporary Civilization staff of Columbia College (ed. 3, New York, 1961-62).

2. Lupher (117) points out that in the fullest manuscript the last phrase is erased.

3. 224-25. L. gives a much fuller discussion of the Araucana — a text which will be familiar to readers of David Quint’s Epic and Empire — as the conclusion of his last chapter (298-316).