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Book Summary: Fifth Sun – A New History of the Aztecs

Fifth Sun (2019) recounts the epic rise and tragic fall of the Aztec Empire. Using powerful, firsthand accounts written by the Aztecs themselves as its source material, this summary provides a new narrative of the Spanish conquest of Mesoamerica. It is the story of a people who resisted colonization and, although defeated militarily, never fully relinquished their indigenous identity.


Humanities, Latin America, Pre-Columbian Era, Mexico, Native American, World, Indigenous Studies, Arts, History, Revolutions, Rebellions, Caribbean, Non-fiction, Politics, World History, Religion, Historical, Archaeology, Literature, 16th Century

Who is it for?

  • History buffs
  • North and South Americans looking to learn about the colonization of their continents
  • Anyone looking for an inspiring tale of courageous resistance against brutal oppression


“History is written by the victors.” It’s a saying you’ve probably heard before. And sadly, most of the time, it’s true. Take American history, for example. Kids are still taught in school that, in 1492, Columbus “discovered” America.

But what about the indigenous people who were already there when the Spanish arrived? What about their history? How did they end up in the Americas?

Book Summary: Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs

Welcome to the summary to Camilla Townsend’s Fifth Sun.

Professor Townsend has spent years researching works on Aztec history, history written by the Aztecs themselves. And let’s just say, her research shows the Spanish didn’t get everything right.

So, in these summaries, you’ll discover a revised account of what actually happened when the Spaniards arrived on the beaches of modern-day Mexico.

You’ll learn how the Aztecs went from being a small tribe to founding one of the most impressive civilizations the world had ever seen. And although that civilization was brutalized by European imperialism, you’ll also learn that the Aztecs were never truly defeated. Today, one and a half million people still speak their language, and countless more consider themselves their direct descendants.

But the history of the Aztec people, or the Mexica, as they called themselves, wouldn’t have been possible without the efforts of dedicated intellectuals living many centuries ago. As their world crumbled around them, they made sure its history would not be forgotten.

The collection of history and the birth of an empire

The recording of history was something the Mexica had been doing for centuries before the Spanish arrived. In fact, they had a word for this process in their native Nahuatl language: xiuhpohualli, meaning the yearly collecting of history into annals.

Every year, communities gathered to take part xiuhpohualli ceremonies. One by one, people came forward to give their account of the past year. These stories were then collected and archived by priests using pictographic symbols representing the rise and fall of emperors, important wars, and natural phenomena.

But xiuhpohualli didn’t only involve gathering recent history; the community also used these events as an opportunity to recount ancient anecdotes. Sitting around campfires, elders spoke of how their people came to inhabit the Valley of Mexico. How their ancestors hailed from lands to the distant north, and had trekked over mountains and across deserts to reach their current home.

By around 11,000 years ago, the Ice Age was over, and the land bridge sank beneath the rising seas. The Old World was separated from the New.

It’s likely the Mexica were aware of at least four of the great wars and famines that drove their ancestors south. In fact, their religion was based on the belief that the universe had been destroyed four times before – and they were now living in the era of the “Fifth Sun.”

The Mexica were among the last to arrive in the fertile Mexico Valley. With all the best land already occupied, they set up shop on a small island on Lake Texcoco. They named their village Tenochtitlan.

To make up for the lack of fertile land in Texcoco, the Mexica piled mud and silt in the swampy waters surrounding the island. They made mounds of earth above the water, trapped with straw and wood. And so the village slowly transformed into a city. Rows of houses and floating gardens sprung up, and Tenochtitlan’s population and prestige grew.

From their island base, the Mexica slowly began exerting political influence on their neighbors. The most effective way of doing this was through polygamous marital alliances with the nobility of surrounding city-states. Marriages could be used to prevent (or start) war, strengthen economic ties, and unite dynasties.

By the end of the fifteenth century, the city was truly a sight to behold. Its majestic painted pyramids could be seen from miles away. Its library consisted of hundreds of books detailing Mexica history through intricate pictographs. Music and dance filled the streets, and its sprawling marketplace drew in tens of thousands of people every day.

However, the empire was not born without oppression. And its continued renown relied upon extracting tribute from conquered peoples and, occasionally, sacrificing dozens of prisoners in public spectacles. The Spanish would later label these sacrifices as barbarian acts undertaken purely to please the indigenous gods. But, in reality, the rationale was much more political. After a military victory over a rebelling neighbor, for example, sacrificing prisoners of war served as a public statement. The news of these sacrifices would spread far and wide – and keep enemies in check.

By the turn of the sixteenth century, the Aztec Empire had established stability throughout Mexico Valley. Its population, around five million people, lived in relative peace. Little did the Mexica know that across the ocean, another empire was making plans that would put an end to the world as they knew it.

Strange warriors from across the ocean

The Mexica paid a price for the political stability they created. Enduring resentment was felt by the nobility from conquered lands. After a neighboring city-state was captured, the chief’s daughters would be divided up. Daughters of the more powerful wives were sent back to Tenochtitlan to marry unmarried princes, while daughters of the lower wives were often sold off as slaves.

One such unlucky daughter was called Malinche. Malinche spent her whole childhood serving these foreign masters.

Then, one day, something happened that changed her life forever. Strange warriors came ashore from huge boats, and defeated her masters’ warriors in battle. As a result of this loss, the Chontal offered the strangers tribute in the form of food and enslaved people, one of whom was Malinche.

After being handed over to her new owners, Malinche befriended their interpreter. His name was Jerónimo de Aguilar. Eight years earlier, Jerónimo had been taken prisoner by Mayans after his ship capsized off the coast. During this time, he learned the Mayan language, which meant that Malinche could easily communicate with him.

Aguilar explained to her that his people came from a land across the ocean. He also told her what had transpired during the recent battle between her people and the Spanish. Although the Chontal were far superior in number, they suffered heavy losses against the Spaniards’ superior technology. The Spanish had powerful weapons made of metal, and armor that could withstand even the sharpest of stone arrows. The Spaniards also rode on horses, powerful animals that were ten times stronger than deer, and all of this meant they had cut down their adversaries with ease – and at great speed.

The Spanish were heirs to a Eurasian civilization that had developed sedentary lifestyles 7,000 years before anyone in the Americas.

In terms of technological development, that’s a long time. So, while the Mexica were political and cultural equals to the Spanish, they hadn’t had the necessary conditions to discover the power of metal, build huge ships, or develop the wheel.

Anyway, back to Malinche. Aguilar told her that his leader, Hernán Cortés, had heard that a rich nation existed somewhere to the west of Mayan lands. Hernán Cortés was determined to find – and conquer – this nation. And in so doing, he would take the nation’s riches and make a name for himself back home as a great discoverer.

It wasn’t long before Cortés and his party crossed into Mexica lands.

They were soon intercepted by a small Mexica party. Aguilar stepped forward, intending to continue his role as interpreter. But they were no longer in Mayan territory; the Mexica spoke Nahuatl, which Aguilar had zero knowledge of. As Cortés grew increasingly angry, Malinche decided to step in. She told Aguilar that they were speaking the language of her people, and that she could help him interpret.

Today, Malinche is often painted as a traitor who helped the colonists conquer her fellow indigenous people. But at the time Malinche had no concept of “indigenous” or “natives.” To her, the Mexica were the ones who had conquered her own people – and sold her into slavery. No other indigenous American at the time would have questioned her motives for helping the newcomers.

The Mexica at war

Moctezuma, the Mexica emperor, was a pragmatic man.

These strangers were turning his neighbors against him, and threatening the stability of the region. He decided, finally, to grant Cortés the meeting he so desperately wanted. As the two men finally came face to face at the gates of Tenochtitlan, gifts were exchanged. Then, Moctezuma announced that the hospitality of Tenochtitlan lay at the Spaniards’ disposal. By hosting them in his city, Moctezuma would be able to learn more about these powerful newcomers – and identify their weaknesses.

The Spanish were not only impressed; they became increasingly excited. Cortés couldn’t believe his luck. With so much wealth to plunder, he would surely return to Spain a rich man.

Cortés and his men were to stay in the palace of a former emperor. And for the next few months, they were treated like honored guests. All the while, Moctezuma was gathering intelligence on the Spaniards.

One day, Moctezuma received information that thirteen new Spanish ships had been sighted. He decided it was now or never – he ordered his people to prepare for war. Cortés, however, was even faster – he had Moctezuma kidnapped and taken to the Spanish quarters. They proclaimed that any rescue attempt would result in Moctezuma’s immediate execution. War had begun.

It was the Mexica who attacked first. Warriors attempted to gain entry into the fortress, but to no avail. After many days of fighting, Moctezuma was sent to the fortress walls, and yelled out to his people to lay down their arms. He knew the situation was hopeless, and that even more Spaniards were on their way. The technological imbalance was too great to defeat, he proclaimed.

His people didn’t listen, however. They decided instead to starve out the Spaniards, and went about destroying all the causeways connecting the island to the mainland. If the Spaniards tried to escape, they would have nowhere to run.

The plan worked. Seven days later, Cortés planned a late-night escape for him and his forces. They would use wooden planks as makeshift bridges. And, before leaving, they would kill Moctezuma. That way, his people would have no leader to rally around.

Suddenly, as they attempted to quietly cross the lake, canoes descended upon them from all directions. It was a massacre. Most of the makeshift bridges were destroyed; arrows and spears rained down upon the swimming Spaniards and their local allies. By the end of the night, more than two-thirds of the Spaniards and their horses were dead. Many had drowned, weighed down by their armor or the gold they had hoped to smuggle out. Their native allies suffered even heavier losses.

Back in Tenochtitlan, the joy of victory was short-lived. The city went into a state of mourning over Moctezuma’s death. And although the Spanish were gone, they had inadvertently left behind a deadly, invisible enemy.

An invisible enemy

It turned out that superior technology wasn’t the only thing the Spaniards had brought from the Old World. The most recent arrivals had introduced smallpox to Tenochtitlan.

The devastation spread quickly. Within two months of their heroic victory against the Spanish, more than a quarter of Tenochtitlan’s population was dead.

Meanwhile, events were moving fast outside the city. Neighboring states, also dealing with smallpox outbreaks, faced a reckoning. They’d heard about the Mexica’s victory against Cortés, but word was spreading that thousands of Spanish reinforcements were on their way. Even the mighty Mexica would be unable to defeat such a formidable force.

Maintaining history in the face of conquest

Cortés, now in control, finally shed any semblance of diplomacy he had previously shown. When indigenous leaders didn’t reveal where they kept their gold, they were tortured. And if not enough gold was found, prisoners of war were branded as slaves – and sent off to the Caribbean to be sold.

Even women were not spared the violence; many were forced into prostitution. Things got so bad that two years into the new colonial regime, the Spanish King issued a proclamation. His conquistadors were told to dial it back – in particular, to stop their sexual enslavement of indigenous women.

The brutal violence eventually decreased. Cortés carved out new fiefdoms and gifted them to his conquistadors. Indigenous inhabitants were to pay tribute to their new Spanish lords, as well as provide regular amounts of manual labor. Such labor power was immediately put to use in Tenochtitlan. A new city was to be built on top of the rubble, together with a new name: Ciudad de México, or Mexico City.

Throughout the 1520s, an endless stream of Europeans arrived. Among them were Catholic friars. Their job was to rid the land of what they perceived as its sacrilegious, pagan religion – and replace it with Christianity. The friars started by trying to convince the indigenous chiefs to change their ways, but to little effect. Some chiefs, such as don Alonso Chimalpopoca, decided to convert in order to maintain his position – and keep the peace.

The friars then turned their attention to the chiefly sons. If the old wouldn’t listen, they would instead indoctrinate a whole generation of indigenous princes.

Don Alonso’s son Cristóbal was one of these young men who were taken away to missionary school. He returned home three years later speaking fluent Spanish, writing beautiful Latin letters, and praying to the God of Abraham. Cristóbal’s newfound skills fascinated don Alonso. He explained to his father that Latin letters could be understood by millions of people all over the known world. This was in stark contrast to the indigenous pictographic symbols only understood by a select few. Even if all the friars were to die, Cristóbal said, the words in their books would live on.

It was with this knowledge that don Alonso set out to write a history of his people. He and other elders would do the talking, while Cristóbal and other youths would do the writing. They would use Latin letters, but write phonetically in Nahuatl. The history would serve practical purposes, he hoped. For example, it could function as a record of landholding arrangements – and be used as evidence in the new Spanish courthouses.

But don Alonso knew such a work should also hold a deeper purpose. As a chief, he was all too aware that the memories of the past were fading around him. He could see it in his own son. And he knew that ordinary people, having to contend with extreme poverty, had little time or energy to spend on passing down history to the next generation.

Don Alonso, along with the others who had the foresight to write down their history, turned out to be half-right. It did turn out that their descendants forgot how to read the pictographs of the past. And by the eighteenth century, the tradition of collecting yearly annals was extinct. The history of the Mexica and their neighbors slowly faded to myth.

However, the indigenous people of the Mexico Valley did not die out. They continued speaking their native languages. And even as centuries passed, the majority maintained an awareness that they descended from a great civilization.

Don Alonso would be overjoyed to find out that, today, nearly two million people still speak his language. And while many still live in poverty, others write, research, and teach in Nahuatl. Some indigenous poets even write that we are now living under the Sixth Sun.

About the author

Camilla Townsend is an American historian and professor at Rutgers University. Her work specializes in the history of the Americas and its indigenous peoples. Other titles she’s authored include Malintzin’s Choices: An Indian Woman in the Conquest of Mexico and Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma.

Table of Contents

Mexica Royal Family Tree
Chapter 1: Genghis Khan on Foot
Chapter 2: People of the Valley
Chapter 3: The City on the Lake
Chapter 4: Strangers to Us People Here
Chapter 5: A War to End All Wars
Chapter 6: Early Days
Chapter 7: Crisis: The Indians Talk Back
Chapter 8: The Grandchildren
Annotated Bibliography

Before 1299
The Indians Talk Back 1560s
How Scholars Study the Aztecs


In November 1519, Hernando Cortés walked along a causeway leading to the capital of the Aztec kingdom and came face to face with Moctezuma. That story–and the story of what happened afterwards–has been told many times, but always following the narrative offered by the Spaniards.

After all, we have been taught, it was the Europeans who held the pens. But the Native Americans were intrigued by the Roman alphabet and, unbeknownst to the newcomers, they used it to write detailed histories in their own language of Nahuatl. Until recently, these sources remained obscure, only partially
translated, and rarely consulted by scholars.

For the first time, in Fifth Sun, the history of the Aztecs is offered in all its complexity based solely on the texts written by the indigenous people themselves. Camilla Townsend presents an accessible and humanized depiction of these native Mexicans, rather than seeing them as the exotic, bloody
figures of European stereotypes.

The conquest, in this work, is neither an apocalyptic moment, nor an origin story launching Mexicans into existence. The Mexica people had a history of their own long before the Europeans arrived and did not simply capitulate to Spanish culture and colonization.
Instead, they realigned their political allegiances, accommodated new obligations, adopted new technologies, and endured.

This engaging revisionist history of the Aztecs, told through their own words, explores the experience of a once-powerful people facing the trauma of conquest and finding ways to survive, offering an empathetic interpretation for experts and non-specialists alike.

Read an Excerpt

Read an Excerpt of Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs


“It is admirable how Townsend exploits the details of microhistory based on Native accounts to answer bigger questions, reveal meanings behind particular events, and offer the reader macro-level conclusions … through this book we actually experience the past rather than simply read about it. It is
not only convincing; it is simply captivating. Townsend has the courage to resort to “poetic license”, but even then we do not lose the sense of transparency as the endnotes provide a full disclosure, informing critical readers about exact sources, possible discrepancies, uncertainties about the
facts, and the source of the historian’s preferred interpretation. By combining deep reading of Native sources with reexperiencing the emotions of their actors and reliving their deeds and decisions, Townsend puts into practice an ideal of historical writing.” – Justyna Olko

“A revolutionary history.” – Ben Ehrenreich, The Guardian

“Camilla Townsend has made the extraordinary happen. She has written a chronological history of the Mexica (Aztecs) from their origins into the sixteenth century relying principally on documents that they themselves generated…Camilla Townsend has provided scholars and the reading public with a
wonderful history of the Mexica. By relying closely on Native texts, she has avoided the tropes normally associated with books on the precontact populations of Mexico. The writing itself is lyrical…Everyone with any interest at all in Mexico should read this work.” – John F. Schwaller, Hispanic
American Historical Review

“Camilla Townsend’s incredibly compact and helpful Fifth Sun will serve equally well professional historians, upper-division undergraduate and graduate students, and the general public.” – Andrae Marak, World History Connected

“This is the best book on the Aztecs yet written, full stop….The value of Fifth Sun lies in how it rescues Aztecs and Nahuas from centuries of colonialist caricature and renders them human again – fully human, with flaws, people capable of brutal violence but also of deep love.” – History

“This wonderfully fresh, readable new work invites you to reconsider everything you think you knew about them.” – Jonathan Gordon, All About History

“Spanning the thirteenth to the seventeenth centuries, this book recreates key moments in the Mexica past as the Mexica themselves experienced and remembered them. We meet real men and women whose actions changed the course of history. We see time as the Mexica did, a sequence of years extending
unbroken from mythic origins to intrepid migration to imperial splendor to the challenges of living with the Spanish colonial presence. Never before has the Aztecs’ own epic story been so vividly and engagingly recounted for readers of English.” – Louise M. Burkhart, author of Aztecs on Stage:
Religious Theater in Colonial Mexico

“From the initial migration southward, to the second generation after the conquest, Fifth Sun is a masterful account of the history of the Aztecs in their own words. A whole world arises from the pages: vivid, complex, and much closer to us than expected. Townsend’s understanding of the indigenous
annals is unmatched, and her book reads like a novel. You simply cannot put it down.” – Caterina Pizzigoni, author of The Life Within: Local Indigenous Society in Mexico’s Toluca Valley, 1650-1800

“Never before has the political history of the Aztecs, who knew themselves as the Mexica, been told with such sweeping élan. Townsend brings keen insight into the motivations of the players, be they seasoned warriors, shackled slaves, or calculating concubines. Her gripping narrative, underscoring
Aztec tenacity and endurance before and beyond the Spanish conquest, is sure to captivate readers.” – Barbara Mundy, author of The Death of Aztec Tenochtitlan, the Life of Mexico City

“Camilla Townsend has an unusually profound understanding of Nahua culture, before and during the colonial period. She also has a rare set of research, linguistic, and writing skills. That combination of expertise and talent make her uniquely positioned to offer us a new book on the Aztecs, one that
manages to be-despite the plethora of existing studies-both original and mandatory reading. This is a page-turner that is nonetheless packed with new insights and interpretations.” – Matthew Restall, author of When Montezuma Met Cortés: The True Story of the Meeting That Changed History

“A compelling drama… After centuries of the end of the Aztec empire being related through a Spanish lens, Fifth Sun and its use of Mexica firsthand accounts and perspectives is a needed corrective. It helps fill in a story that’s been one-sided for far too long.” – Foreword Reviews, Starred Review

“Historian Camilla Townsend continues her groundbreaking work in the field in the marvelous Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs, a dramatic and accessible narrative that tells the story as the Nahuas saw it.” – BookPage, Starred Review

“A landmark masterpiece, powerful in its precision and subtle in its weaving of tragedy and glory.” – Foreign Affairs

“Ms. Townsend has combed the extraordinary accounts of the early colonial era written by indigenous historians to paint a far more complex picture of persistence by the Aztecs and their descendants. It is a vivid account of what Aztec writers and chroniclers had to say about their own history and of
a world decimated through constant change and loss… Fifth Sun provides essential reading on the complex cultural fabric of Mexico, helping to rescue a deep and layered history that might otherwise have fallen into oblivion.” – Wall Street Journal

“This wonderfully fresh, readable new work invites you to reconsider everything you think you knew about them.” – All About History

“Vivid narratives.” – Library Journal

“This is the best book on the Aztecs yet written, full stop… The value of Fifth Sun lies in how it rescues Aztecs and Nahuas from centuries of colonialist caricature and renders them human again – fully human, with flaws, people capable of brutal violence but also of deep love.” – History Today

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