Colonization in the Americas unfolded as Spaniards were rediscovering their own heritage, both through the revival of Latin literature and the materiality of the past. During the 1500s, antiquarian and royal collectors assembled cabinets of ancient art and artifacts. Ruins of Roman provincial towns were scattered all over Spain’s landscape, particularly in Extremadura, the homeland of many conquistadors. Classical antiquity provided a yardstick by which to reckon with the peninsula’s past as Roman Iberia and the validity of its “civilizing” mission abroad. A burgeoning awareness of Mediterranean antiquity supplied a critical foundation for reactions to the material world of the Mexica (Aztecs), Incas and other Amerindian peoples, from figurines to sculpture and buildings.
Early attempts to explain civilizations separated by a gulf of time and space anticipated comparative approaches that are regularly employed by historians and archaeologists today. Precisely because the New World developed in isolation from Afroeurasia, it offers “the unique gift of a natural experiment in parallel evolution” (Scheidel 2016). Following a review of the influence that classicism exerted over interpretations of the Mexica, this paper poses several questions. To what extent can parallels be usefully drawn between incommensurate cultures, utilizing archaeological evidence to reveal state ideologies and social structures? What are the values and limitations of analogy?
Two recent exhibitions, The Aztec Pantheon and the Art of Empire and Golden Kingdoms: Luxury Arts in the Ancient Americas, offer points of departure for approaching these issues. Aztec Pantheon invited explicit comparisons of the ways that monumental constructions, mythic imagery, ancestral traditions, and pageantry were harnessed by “theater states” to magnify imperial regimes (Pohl and Lyons 2010 and 2016). Adopting a Silk Road model, Golden Kingdoms traced the circulation of luxuries through the Andes and Mesoamerica to highlight shifting notions of value (Pillsbury et al. 2017). Focusing on large-scale visual programs and small-scale valuables suggests how analogy can be an effective tool (Scheidel and Mutschler 2017, Papadopoulos and Urton 2016). Both displays were premised on objects and beliefs that expose shared historical and economic patterns. Even when cross-cultural analogies throw differences into high relief, interpreting ancient cultures from outside disciplinary comfort zones inevitably generates new and unexpected insights.
Rome and the Americas