BMCR 2007.11.03

On the Wings of Time. Rome, the Incas, Spain and Peru

, On the wings of time : Rome, the Incas, Spain, and Peru. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007. xix, 320 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm. ISBN 0691126747. $35.00.

Table of Contents

Sabine MacCormack is a familiar name to all scholars of Late Antiquity because of her successful book Art and Ceremony (Berkeley 1981), which investigates with a fine sensibility for iconography the panegyric motifs and the sense of grandeur that pervaded late antique ceremonials, and her more recent book devoted to the examination of Saint Augustine’s aesthetic theories ( Shadows of Poetry. Vergil in the Mind of Augustine [Berkeley 1998]). Her second main field of interest is the history of Latin America and of Peru in particular, and the interaction, in terms of both conflict and accommodation, between Andean and European cultures and religions at the beginning of the modern era: she has already published a book in this field, Religion in the Andes: Vision and Imagination in Early Colonial Peru (Princeton 1991), together with many papers, among which worth mentioning are “From the Sun of the Inca to the Virgin of Copacabana,” Representations 8 (1984), 30-60; “Ethnography in South America: the First Two Hundred Years,” in F. Salomon and S. Schwartz (eds.), Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas, vol. 3.1 (Cambridge 1999), 96-187; and “Grammar and Virtue: The Formulation of a Cultural and Missionary Program by the Jesuits in Early Colonial Peru” in John O’ Malley and Frank Kennedy (eds.), The Jesuits, vol. II (Toronto 2006), 576-601. As I learned from her personal webpage, she is actively engaged in promoting interactions and exchanges between Peruvians and Americans by making it easier for Peruvian scholars and students to study in the USA and by fostering the teaching of Quechua at the University of Notre Dame, where she is Theodore Hesburgh Professor of Arts and Letters.

In discussing how classical sources were used by historians to describe the new realities of the Spanish Empire in the ‘Indies’ and to superimpose on it the ancient model of the Roman Empire, the present book bonds MacCormack’s scholarly interests together and displays a rich variety of information. The result is a perceptive and challenging work, which I read with pleasure and from which I learned a great deal. Indeed, such an investigation sounds rather unusual to a European audience (and to an Italian in particular), and is perhaps more familiar to a scholar of modern history than to a classicist. However, the author acknowledges on the first page her debt of gratitude to Italy, where she had the opportunity to deliver some lectures, which were the early kernel of the book; and, much more, her link to Italy is attested by the constant mention and reference to Arnaldo Momigliano, whose investigative method largely informs the structure of the book.

The book is meant to show how classical culture contributed to shaping the understanding of the new realities of the Spanish Empire in the Andes and therefore how it “provided a framework for the construal of historical experience” (p. xv): comprehensibly this role was played by learned people, both Europeans and natives, who spent most of their lives in Andean countries. After the destruction of the Inca empire, classical culture could, however, give rise to a new reality, in which classical models “became constituents of collective consciousness and identity” ( ibid.). A sort of mutual osmosis between conquerors and conquered peoples took place, testified at first by mixed marriages and unions: reciprocal perspectives changed and intermingled with one other. Thus, colonial Peru was able to invoke the classical heritage, in interpreting, for example, the political turmoil and civil war between Pizarro and Diego de Almagro, the founding of cities, or the shaping of agricultural techniques. A closer and comparative investigation of both classical and ‘local’ sources allows a better understanding of how the dynamics of transformation and re-appropriation worked. Haijo Westra provides a comparable case with his insightful contributions about the ethnographic accounts of native peoples in Canada, citing classical loci concerning the relationship between Rome and barbarian tribes.

“The influence of classical traditions from the ancient Mediterranean on the Andes was enormous” (p. 13): many characters, figures or events from the Greco-Roman past functioned as examples and explanations for the present. The case of Peru, as described by MacCormack, shares many similarities, for example, with the Italian Renaissance (a period closer to my cultural background), since classical writers such as Quintilian, Vitruvius, and Tacitus were employed and read in the same way by Guarino, Alberti and Guicciardini, to mention only the most important authors. At the same time, the different geographical, political and religious setting inspired new and original readings of classical antiquity. Indeed, the classical past was for many humanists the mirror to draw attention to European as well as extra-European society. Its function is clearly explained in MacCormack’s preface: “to compare the Incas and the Romans, to explain events in Peru in light of Roman precedent, and to use examples of Greek and Roman historiography in order to pinpoint the meaning of events was to incorporate Andean experience into human experience across space and time. Those who criticize these writings for imposing — as they perceive it — alien norms on Andean subject matter should consider the alternative: that the Andean world would remain forever separated and secluded from the rest of humanity” (pp. xvii-xviii). Furthermore, as is stated on p. 9, “the classical past in the Andes was a dynamic and far from uniform force that changed over the time … In one sense, throughout the Middle Ages, the figures of classical antiquity were simply absorbed into the fabric of present.” Of course, this statement is perhaps true for many other cultural contexts or social milieus, and should serve as a useful caveat for those who deny the value and effectiveness of the classical heritage.

Reading the book, which is divided into seven chapters plus an appendix, we become more and more familiar with historians such as Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, Pedro Cieza de León, Augustín de Zárate, José de Acosta, Garcilaso de la Vega, and others, not to mention the famous figure of Bartolomé de las Casas. They all perceived the destruction of the Inca reign and the construction of the new, hybrid, reality of the Spanish Empire through the lens of the Roman model. Still more surprising is the huge number of Greco-Latin authors and sources employed and adapted to the different purposes of the Spanish conquerors. Of course, some of them were ‘canonical’ authorities in the European Renaissance, such as Aristotle, Plato, Cicero, Tacitus, Seneca, Valerius Maximus, Quintilian, Vitruvius, Gellius, Lucretius, Vergil, Horace, Ovid, Lucan, and, among the early Christian literates, Augustine and Jerome; others sound rather uncommon, their employment distinct from that of favored writers, and a non-learned audience perhaps hardly recognized them — namely, Hesiod, Pindar, Boethius, the Latin Panegyricists, the Notitia Dignitatum, Flavius Josephus, Eusebius of Caesarea. In some cases the superimposing of the classical model upon the modern one became possible thanks to the cultural background of the writers, who were Jesuits themselves or had been educated in Jesuit schools. Furthermore, MacCormack stresses the fact that some of them were native people who were educated according to European criteria and who therefore in their writings exhibited this constant wavering between the two worlds: the most significant case is that of the Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, who is buried in the Mezquita-Cathedral in Córdoba (see pp. 199-200, and, generally speaking, chapter six). The conquest and subsequent destruction of the Incas as a political entity was of course a shocking event and was perceived in all its sadness by natives in particular. However, this book helps to dismantle the ‘black legend’ of the Spanish colonization by showing positive examples of integration between the two cultures. It is in considering those figures that the author offers tangible demonstration of the fact that indigenous culture was not silenced by the newcomers.

Each chapter is concerned with specific questions, even though a general thread can be easily detected. Furthermore, there are a number of cross references between some sections and others, by which I mean that the cursory mention of a theme is later developed at greater length, or, conversely, that some hints here and there point to a continuous, uninterrupted discourse (for example, the tension between past and present, the notion of patria, and so on). To this end, the book features useful indices.

I will summarize the central chapters. They mainly deal with practical questions. In chapter three, Conquest, Civil War, and Political Life, the author focuses on the historical setting of the conquest of Peru and the turmoil that followed. À propos of the political situation, she discusses the widespread phenomenon of European Tacitism, which, as is well known, was the way to hidden political burning issues — and Spain was no exception — but she significantly adds the example of how Lucan’s Civil War too provided a literary framework in which the new political events were inserted. As expected, a similar propagandistic function was carried on by Vergil’s Aeneid : a significant example of that is provided by a Spanish poem, the Araucana, written by Alonso de Ercilla between 1569 and 1589 (pp. 213 ff.), whose subject is a war in the Chilean region of Araucana, and is patterned on Latin epics.

A complementary perspective is offered in chapter four, “The Emergence of Patria: Cities and the Law,” where MacCormack discusses how classical sources were employed in reshaping court ceremonials and public rituals, which both provided a visual impact and guaranteed a disciplined order. Furthermore, another significant example is provided by the fortune of Vitruvius. His treatise was considered a paradigm for the building of an ‘ideal city,’ which could function as a microcosm within, and in accordance to, the universal macrocosm.

I found particularly captivating chapter five, “Works of Nature and Works of Free Will.” There the author examines how Pliny’s Naturalis Historia (together with some poetical intermingling from Vergil’s Georgics and Lucretius’ section on the human progress) was considered as a model and employed as a guideline for the descriptions of new forms of agricultural techniques, and of agricultural products such as maize. Pliny’s Stoic vision of a ruling and providential principle in the universe was easily substituted by Christianity. At the same time ancient curiosity for unexplored lands becomes a Leitmotiv in many sixteenth-century treatises, and ancient ethnography provides a framework for more general considerations of American peoples (for the theme of a mutual relationship between Roman and barbarian, see also the considerations concerning the paradigmatic example of the marriage between Galla Placidia and Ataulf, pp. 224 ff.).

Theoretical issues such as religion and language are considered as well. Quite interesting is the discussion of the interaction between Andean religion and Christianity, that is, how Spanish authors dealt with local religion in light of contemporary theological debates and, conversely, how Andeans sought to find in their myths and legends precursors to their new Christian faith. Chapter one, “Universals and Particulars: Themes and Persons,” and two, “Writing and the Pursuit of Origins,” provide significant examples of this. The first takes as paradigmatic a chronicle, written in a mixture of Spanish and Quechua, by Don Joan de Santa Cruz Pachacuti Yamqui Salcamaygua, a Christian nobleman of Peruvian ancestors. This work praises the Spanish newcomers and in particular deals with the conversion of the native people to Christianity, which, according to the chronicle, was willingly and happily accepted. Therefore, Don Joan tries to trace hidden antecedents of Christianity in the Inca foundation myths and, at the same time, adds colourful details to his narrative by reporting a dream concerning the first missionaries, which is, by the way, closely related to the famous account of Tarquinius and the Sibylline books.

A broader perspective is offered by the second chapter, which deals with various relations, histories, and chronicles. Since one aim of written history was to praise and preserve the memory of the origins of a country, MacCormack explains the transition from the quipus (the knotted strings used as a means of writing by the Incas) to the written text. It is worth noticing that ancient theories about the origin of language and technical cultures, such as those narrated by Lucretius in Book five or by Ovid at the beginning of the Metamorphoses, were partly adapted to the new situation and context.

Chapter six, “‘The Discourse of My Life’: What Language Can Do,” takes up these questions again. In particular, it presents examples of literates concerned about the origins and diversification of languages: this issue had practical reasons, insofar as the Spanish had to take into account the different languages or dialects spoken in Central and Southern America. It deals mainly with two figures, the grammarian Antonio Nebrija and the above-mentioned polymath Garcilaso de La Vega, who was well-acquainted with these questions, particularly because of his activity as a translator (he translated into Spanish the dialogues of the philosopher Leo the Hebrew). In considering speculative matters such as language and education, no wonder that Quintilian was largely used and commented upon: indeed, his Institutio oratoria had rapidly become a canonical text and the Jesuits in particular drew their educational system mainly on it.

The final chapter, “The Incas, Rome, and Peru,” and the epilogue, “Ancient Texts: Prophecies and Predictions, Causes and Judgments,” provide a recapitulation of many issues already hinted at or developed at greater length. They mark also a transition from a ‘physical’ facies (as in the construction of roads and bridges according to the scheme of Roman colonization) to a wider perspective. According to the concluding sentence of the book, in fact, “both in the world of letters and in the political world, the past engaged not just reason and authority, but also imagination and even emotion” (p. 274). The discussion presents, therefore, the motif of exploration and the crossing of borders, which was paradigmatically summarized in the famous motto of Charles V ( plus ultra, with a reference to the Column of Hercules). Comprehensibly, the classical reference was individuated in the Argonauts myth, as the numerous citations from Seneca’s Medea demonstrate (see pp. 248 ff.); a famous passage in Boethius was likewise worth mentioning (p. 159). Such a wider perspective involves philosophical questions too, that is, how far one can go without pride or committing the sin of arrogance: it is perhaps for this reason that Augustine’s model of the two cities, the earthly and the heavenly, stood firmly in the mind of many writers. At the same time, many texts are pervaded by apocalyptic feelings or concerns about mankind’s ultimate destiny.

As far as I can judge (that is, on the ‘classical’ field) bibliographical references are very accurate and exhaustive, and therefore I infer the same as far as the ‘modern’ section is concerned, where my knowledge is less detailed: indeed they cover more than thirty pages. MacCormack seems acquainted with primary and secondary literature as well, and in particular she draws on Spanish chronicles or treatises, some of which have been edited only in recent years.

In summary, this masterful and passionate book offers an interesting picture of the Latin American society of the sixteenth century. It challenges the paradigm of the Spanish ruling in Latin America as completely negative and dark-sided. The book reconstructs the classical roots of a period that is perhaps not very familiar to a classical audience and, conversely, shows how deeply indebted to Greco-Roman culture were the new realities of a modern empire, and how this ancient civilization and its canonical authors were read and perceived. Many fine illustrations (some by the author herself) provide a helpful corollary to the written text.