Over the weekend, I read Eleni Kefala’s book, The Conquered: Byzantium and America on the Cusp of Modernity (Dumbarton Oaks 2020). It’s really great.
The book juxtaposes the “Lament for Constantinople” which describes the fall of Constantinople in 1453 with the nearly contemporary fall of the Mexica empire and a pair of poetic laments that appeared after these events: “Huexotzinca Piece,” and the “Tlaxcala Piece.” She explores the complex textual related to these works and offers the original texts and translations. More importantly, she attempts to locate these works in the subsequent history of the communities shaped by these events at the “cusp of Modernity.”
Of particular interest to Kefala is the role of these texts in creating a sense of intergenerational trauma grounded in the social memory of the fall of these cities. For the Greeks, who positioned themselves as the heir to the Roman Empire, the memory of the fall of The City became a significant touchstone to their identity fueling ultimately the emergence of a Greek, Orthodox national identity and, of course, the early-20th irredentism of the Megali Idea. In contrast, the laments produced after the fall of Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco to the Spanish remained marginal pieces of literature whose origins and even meaning remained difficult to unpack. The emergence of a “Mestizaje” (or mixed-race) identity at the center of Mexican national identity especially in the 20th century (and roughly contemporary with the most destructive episodes associated with the Megali Idea in Greece), created a deep ambivalence toward the memory of the fall of Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco. This ambivalence is clear in modern historical accounts of the siege and sack of the city that emphasize the key role that indigenous allies played in the Spanish conquest of the Mexica empire. In fact, the difficulty in interpreting the two dolorous poems, “Huexotzinca Piece,” and the “Tlaxcala Piece,” stems in no small part from inability to clearly contextualize these works in the ethnic, political, and cultural landscape of 15th century Mexico. In contrast to the millenarianism of the Byzantine aristocracy, the indigenous elite in Mexico were far more likely to view the world in a cyclical way and see the destruction of the Mexica empire and its capital as part of the regular ebb and flow of history and events. Like the Byzantine elites who soon found themselves in positions of power in the Ottoman state, indigenous elites likewise negotiated positions of authority in Spanish Mexico. In a Mexican context, however, this tempered any tendency to present the fall of Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco as the opportunity for generational trauma. Among the Greeks, in contrast, the fall of Constantinople remained a persistent trope for morning and loss. Kefala notes that even today the Laments are included in textbooks.
The book is notable for the modesty of its claims and the clarity of its argument. In a time when we seem to mainly celebrate big books espousing big ideas, The Conquered is a small book that bring attention to two distinct situations and their aftermath at the beginning of the modern era.
This may reflect my waning attention span or the fatigue caused by big problems and even bigger solutions.
It may also reflect my growing affinity for small books.
One last comment… the book is $25. I’d spend that much just to be reminded that the story of the snake and the eagle features in both the founding of Constantinople and Spanish versions of the Aztec foundation legend.