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Las Casas and the Classics

Chloe Lowetz

Texas Tech University

In the mid-sixteenth century CE, Bartolomé de las Casas, an encomendero turned Dominican friar, wrote a series of works decrying the inhumane treatment of indigenous Americans at the hands of Spaniards in the New World. Although the Laws of Burgos, passed in 1512 by Ferdinand II, allegedly held Spanish colonists responsible for their actions, Las Casas claimed that the distance from the law-enforcing crown allowed colonists to commit horrendous acts without consequence; furthermore, he claimed that the Laws’ ambiguity on eligibility for enslavement – that only those incapable or unwilling to convert could be enslaved – was being exploited through Spaniards’ inadequate attempts to communicate the required religious message to the natives. In his works, Las Casas assumes a position similar to the modern “ally,” imagining himself in the compromised situation of indigenous Americans as opposed to the dominating Spaniards (Abulafia 2008); however, while Las Casas does empathize with indigenous Americans, his characterizations of “Indians” in opposition to Spaniards (“Christians”) clearly indicate that he does participate in the continuing European “Othering” narrative.

In 1550, Las Casas participated in the Valladolid Debate, a critical discussion over indigenous peoples’ humanity, closely tied to their propensity for conversion to the Christian faith, something which defined their place in society and value to the crown. It is well known that both Las Casas and his opponent, Sepúlveda, used Aristotle’s Politics in their arguments, both interpreting the idea of “natural slavery” to prove each of their points (Hanke 1955). In this, Las Casas argues that by the Aristotelian definition, indigenous Americans are rational beings who follow natural laws, and thus are not inferior to Spaniards (Hanke 1955). Additionally, throughout his works, Las Casas describes indigenous Americans as innocent, simple, and childlike, depictions reminiscent of the “Golden Age” in Ovid (Met. 1.89-150) and Hesiod (Op.). Similarly, the dichotomy between “Indian” and Spanish/“Christian” that Las Casas does continue is similar to “soft” and “hard” peoples in Herodotus (Hdt. 9.122). It is important to note that Las Casas is choosing the same terminology as those opposed to his ideals – by reappropriating the language and images used to denigrate indigenous peoples, he aimed to alter the narrative.

In this paper, I will examine the known classical influences on Las Casas; Aristotle, Livy, and Pausanias, for instance (Lupher 2003). Lupher also argues for Las Casas’ explicit use of Herodotus. Next, I will investigate other potential classical influences; for example, Las Casas edited the Columbus journal, and his History of the Indies excerpts this journal. Columbus’s journal contains Homeric, Herodotean, Vergilian, and other themes and episodes. Additionally, the Renaissance popularized and disseminated Greco-Roman literature and philosophy; for example, Cicero’s de Legibus was used to argue that only Christians possessed reason, the one quality that differentiates man from beast (Abulafia 2008). Finally, I will discuss Las Casas’ role in the development of the American racial narrative, examining his characterizations of indigenous Americans as “Other” and his arguments concerning their humanity. 

Session/Panel Title

Subverting the Classics in the Early Modern Americas

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