“It would be an history of a large volume,” wrote Captain John Smith in his A Description of New England (1616),

to recite the adventures of the Spaniards, and Portugals, their affronts, and defeats, their dangers and miseries; which with such incomparable honour and constant resolution, so far beyond belief, they have attempted and endured in their discoveries and plantations, as may well condemn us of too much imbecility, sloth, and negligence….

In issuing his rallying call to his compatriots to engage in “the erecting of a colony,” Captain Smith challenged them to action by reminding them of the example of the Iberians in finding “new lands, new nations, and trades,” and cast a baleful eye on England’s failure to accept “that honest offer of noble Columbus.”1

At the heart of the history of Western imperialism and overseas expansion lies a story of imitation and competition between states. It began in the fifteenth century with the rivalry between two of the states of which the Iberian peninsula was then composed—Castile and Portugal. Between 1474 and 1479 they were at war, as Alfonso V of Portugal sought to prevent the accession of Isabella, the heiress presumptive, to the Castilian throne. After the war ended in the victory of Isabella and her husband, Ferdinand of Aragon, the rivalry continued and became a contest for space. The rounding of the Cape of Good Hope in 1487 by a reconnaissance expedition under the command of Bartholomeu Díaz opened the way to the establishment of a maritime route which would give the Portuguese access to the spices of Asia. It was to steal a march on the Portuguese monarch that Ferdinand and Isabella agreed in 1492 to accept “that honest offer of noble Columbus” to bring them the riches of the East by sailing westward across the Atlantic.

“It would,” as Captain John Smith observed, “be an history of a large volume to recite the adventures of the Spaniards,…their affronts and defeats, their dangers and miseries” in the aftermath of Columbus’s epic voyage. It is just such “an history of a large volume” that Hugh Thomas has now triumphantly given us in his Rivers of Gold. A historian who has also enjoyed a career in public life, Hugh Thomas, it should be said, has never been a man for small volumes. He first made his name with his groundbreaking history of the Spanish civil war,2 and his subsequent publications include Cuba: The Pursuit of Freedom3; An Unfinished History of the World4; Conquest: Montezuma, Cortés, and the Fall of Old Mexico5; and, most recently, The Slave Trade.6 Between them they add up to thousands of pages and represent an impressive record of achievement.

All these books display an author with a voracious appetite for information. They are based on enormously wide reading, in primary as well as secondary sources. Comprehensive in approach, meticulous in their presentation of detail, they enlighten by recounting. Hugh Thomas belongs in the line of the great narrative historians, skilled in the art of evoking people, places, and events, adept at keeping the story moving, and not afraid to pass judgment. This narrative tradition, represented in the nineteenth century by such historians as Ma-caulay, Froude, and Prescott, and in the twentieth by G.M. Trevelyan, C.V. Wedgwood, and Garrett Mattingly, has in recent decades been under something of a cloud among professional historians, but it has never lost its appeal to the reading public. Too easily dismissed as “old-fashioned,” it reminds us of the continuing importance of the part played in history by human choice and the contingency of events, and helps us to recover a sense of the past as movement over time.

Written with enormous verve and panache, Rivers of Gold tells a story that will be broadly familiar to many readers, but it is recounted with an abundance of detail that makes the familiar unfamiliar. The story of “The Rise of the Spanish Empire,” Thomas’s subtitle, has been told many times, not least by the Harvard historian Roger B. Merriman, in his four-volume work The Rise of the Spanish Empire in the Old World and in the New, published between 1918 and 1934.7 But much has been discovered since Merriman’s time, and the story was ripe for retelling. Merriman, who is far more concerned than Thomas with institutional history, begins his account with a volume devoted to medieval Spain, and ends it three volumes later with the death of Philip II in 1598. Thomas’s narrative starts with “Spain at the Crossroads” in the autumn of 1491 as Ferdinand and Isabella prepare for their final assault on the city of Granada, the last Islamic outpost on Iberian soil, and ends in the early 1520s with Cortés’s conquest of Mexico and the return of Magellan’s expedition to Spain after circumnavigating the globe. The foundations of Spain’s global empire have been laid, but Peru is yet to be conquered.


This truncation of the story of Castilian overseas expansion at a point soon after the opening of the reign of the Emperor Charles V in 1519—a reign to which Merriman devotes a large volume on its own—seems strange, and raises inevitable questions about the scale of Thomas’s work. Did he simply run out of space, or is there an undeclared intention to produce an updated Merriman by continuing the story with a further volume or volumes on the conquest of Peru and the consolidation of the Spanish Empire in Europe and America? The book concludes, rather surprisingly, with a vivid evocation of Seville as the capital of a rapidly developing Spanish Atlantic, a chapter which might have seemed more appropriate as the curtain raiser for a second volume than as a conclusion to the present one.

Narrative history is not a form of history conducive to economy, and while Thomas achieves in this volume a major feat of condensation in his account of the conquest of Mexico, a subject on which he has already written at length, he luxuriates in the details of people and places that bring his story to life: Columbus, a “prematurely white-haired man—it had once been red—his eyes blue, his nose aquiline, and his high cheeks often turning scarlet, on a long face”; Alonso de Hojeda, one of Columbus’s captains, “a clever, good-looking man, small in build, with large eyes”; or the conquistador Pedrarias Dávila, the commander of the 1514 expedition to the New World, “tall, with a pale complexion, green eyes, and red hair” and notorious for his “cruelty, [and] his arrogance.” As for places, he has visited almost all of them, even “small towns scarcely marked on any map, old or new,” like the Extremaduran towns of La Abertura, “on a hilltop,” with “a number of lovely streams nearby,” or Madrigalejo, where Ferdinand the Catholic died in “a single-story building unchanged and unimproved by time.”

The story as Thomas tells it is essentially a story of Spaniards, rather than of the peoples they conquered and killed. It is written as an epic and reads like one—an epic of Spanish “courage and cruelty,” as the conquistadors hack their way through impassable jungles and slaughter terrified indigenous inhabitants as they cower in their villages. It has no central argument, other than that the conquistadors displayed astonishing audacity and determination, and does not take us much further in solving the great historical problem of how it was that a “Spain” consisting of the recently, and nominally, united crowns of Castile and Aragon should have emerged in the course of little more than a generation as a dominant European power with a worldwide empire.

Unlike Merriman’s account, however, Thomas’s has the great merit of integrating simultaneous developments on both sides of the Atlantic into a whole, thus providing readers with a sense of the interconnection of decisions and events. At the same time, while beginning and ending with the well-known and well-rehearsed stories of Columbus’s voyages and the conquest of Mexico, Thomas’s concentration on the less familiar story of the Spaniards’ gradual domination of the Caribbean and their incursions into the Central American mainland places the conquest of Mexico and the later conquest of Peru in a clearer perspective than has so far been available in general accounts of the period.

This Caribbean period, which saw the occupation of Jamaica in 1509 and Cuba in 1511, and Balboa’s claiming of the Pacific Ocean for the monarch of Castile after crossing the isthmus of Panama in 1513, was to be critical for the future pattern of Spanish overseas expansion. In what is almost a throwaway line at the beginning of his account of the conquest of Cuba, Thomas writes: “The Spanish Empire expanded as if it had been a vast growth; locally driven, locally motivated.” These words in fact provide the key to much that happened afterward. Local initiatives, and the local mobilization of resources, largely determined the character and pace of Spain’s American land grab.

To understand local initiatives one needs to know the people who undertook them. During the years of Spain’s conquest of the Caribbean we make our first acquaintance with Cortés and Pizarro in their initial walk-on parts, and come face to face with such major figures as the governor of Cuba, Diego Velázquez, who would, to his eternal regret, authorize Cortés’s expedition to Mexico in 1519. As Thomas introduces his large cast of characters, many of them now largely forgotten, and chronicles their feuds and rivalries, his concern with men and events pays handsome dividends in explaining and clarifying how local initiatives developed, and how the crown found itself compelled time after time to accept a fait accompli.


In one of his lesser-known books, Who’s Who of the Conquistadors,8 Thomas produced an indispensable source of biographical information about the conquerors of Mexico. In Rivers of Gold he similarly seeks to track down the family backgrounds and personal relationships of the figures who, on both sides of the Atlantic, were caught up in Spain’s “enterprise of the Indies”—men like Bishop Juan Rodríguez de Fonseca, who was in effect Spain’s first minister for the Indies and organized in Seville the arrivals and departures of the fleets, or Nicolás de Ovando, who was sent out by Ferdinand and Isabella to Hispaniola (later divided into the Dominican Republic and Haiti) to bring order to a lawless island. Such biographical details, here patiently collected from a wide range of sources, provide important clues for understanding how the Spanish Empire was first acquired, and subsequently settled, governed, and conserved. Some of the clues raise intriguing questions. How many, for instance, of those who participated in the conquest and colonization of America were, like Pedrarias Dávila, of Jewish ancestry, in spite of restrictions on the emigration of conversos to the Indies? Hispaniola, allegedly, was full of them. What conclusions should we draw?

Recent research has emphasized the essential contribution made by family and local networks to the process of conquest and settlement. Nicolás de Ovando, Hernán Cortés, and Francisco Pizarro, for example, all came from the parched region of Extremadura, and it is impossible to understand the conquest and settlement of America without taking into account the part played by the Extremadura connection, one of several such connections based on clientage, friendship, and family ties.9 By including such personal details, even if at moments they may threaten to swamp his narrative, Hugh Thomas has eased the task of historians who will one day produce a systematic survey of the careers and interconnections of the people who created and held together Spain’s empire in Europe and America, or, in the terminology of contemporaries, the “Spanish Monarchy.” Just as the conquistadors ransacked America for nuggets of gold, so they will ransack his book for nuggets of information. Others will simply prefer to let themselves be swept along by a fascinating chronicle of extraordinary events that changed the face of the earth.


Near the end of his book, writing of the generation that grew up in the first twenty years of the sixteenth century and created an empire out of Castile’s conquests in the Indies, Hugh Thomas notes that “all had a vision of ancient Rome that inspired them, even if that old empire was deemed by all wise men unsurpassable.” In a remarkable book, Romans in a New World, which sheds new light on the Spanish conquest of America, David Lupher writes that “while no living and breathing ancient Romans ever set foot in the New World,” the Romans did in fact “accompany the Spanish conquistadors every league of the way.” If it was the creation of Portugal’s overseas empire that provided the initial spur for Spain’s enterprise of the Indies, it was the creation of the Roman Empire that provided the model against which Spaniards came to measure their achievements.

Historians have long been aware of the ghostly presence of ancient Rome hovering over the Spanish imperial enterprise of the sixteenth century. Hernán Cortés, the most literate of the conquistadors, had a way at critical moments of coming out with an apt classical allusion, while his followers, admirers, and publicists had no hesitation in comparing his feats with those of Julius Caesar. The conquistadors themselves were in no doubt that they had surpassed the accomplishments of the Romans. Bernal Díaz del Castillo, who late in life produced his incomparable History of the Conquest of New Spain seen through the eyes of a soldier in the ranks, wrote proudly: “I have been in far more battles and engagements than the fifty-three battles writers say Julius Caesar was in.” Friars who came to America to convert its indigenous peoples, and royal officials who came to govern them, found useful analogies in classical texts to the enterprise on which they were engaged, as they struggled to bring the blessings of Christianity and “civility” to barbarous peoples. Finally, the election in 1519 of Charles of Ghent, the King of Castile and Aragon, as Holy Roman Emperor not only incorporated Roman origins and parallels into official imagery and terminology, but suggested to contemporaries that they were on the point of witnessing the revival of “universal monarchy.”

While these classical allusions and parallels have long since been incorporated into the historical literature, little attempt has been made to survey systematically the sources used by those who created and ran Spain’s American empire, or the ways in which they were read and interpreted. This is the kind of work that requires scholars with classical training, and David Lupher, professor of classics at the University of Puget Sound, has now taken up the challenge.10 In reading sixteenth-century Spanish texts with the eyes of a classical scholar, Professor Lupher has made an original and exciting contribution to our understanding of the history of Spain’s conquest and colonization of America.

His book, Romans in a New World, it has to be said, is not for the faint-hearted. While forcefully argued and lucidly written, it inevitably depends on a close reading of the texts, and not all will feel themselves equipped to join the author in this particular “agon,” to employ one of his favorite words. For those, however, who are interested in immersing themselves in sixteenth-century Spanish debates about the legitimacy of Castile’s title to the Indies, or who want to know more about the ways in which observing the wider world through classical spectacles affected the observer’s vision, this book is indispensable reading.

Although it opens with a fascinating chapter on the uses made by conquistadors and their historians of classical analogies, a substantial part of the book is devoted to the “controversy of the Indies.” This controversy was launched in the lecture halls of the University of Salamanca in the 1530s by the neo-Thomist theologian Francisco de Vitoria, and reached its climax in the famous Valladolid debate of 1550 between the humanist scholar Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda and the Dominican “apostle of the Indians,” Bartolomé de Las Casas, who figures prominently in Hugh Thomas’s history. At the heart of this debate, which has received an enormous amount of attention in the historical literature, lie the interrelated questions of the right of Spaniards to conquer and occupy other peoples’ lands and the treatment to be accorded to the indigenous populations they subjugated. As has often been observed, no other empire has agonized so long and hard over its right to dominion over others.11

The controversy is normally seen as revolving around the applicability of Aristotle’s theory of “natural slavery” to the indigenous inhabitants of America. Lupher, however, makes a powerful case for seeing the controversy as turning on opposing interpretations of the historical record of imperial Rome. Although its starting point was the juridical question of Rome’s global sovereignty and the precedents this might or might not provide for the establishment of a Spanish world monarchy, the controversy soon came to involve a reassessment of the entire character of the Roman imperial experience, as the participants ransacked the classical authorities in their search for ammunition to be used against their opponents. Sepúlveda showed himself to be a fanatical supporter of Roman virtues and achievements, while Las Casas was an obsessive anti-Romanist, for whom the Romans, far from conducting a civilizing mission, were the true barbarians as they extended their tyrannical domination over innocent peoples. What sort of model was this for Spain to follow?

Lupher’s meticulous scrutiny of Las Casas’s numerous long-winded texts makes clear the extraordinary range of the Dominican’s reading in classical sources. Yet if Las Casas was the most persistent, as well as the most celebrated, of the participants in the debate, there were many others, several of them more or less unknown until Lupher dredged them up from their obscurity. He turns his powerful searchlight, for instance, on a Dalmatian Dominican, Vinko Paletin. As a young man, Paletin spent four years participating in the conquest of Yucatán and wrote a description, with an accompanying diagram, of the Mayan remains at Chichén Itzá, where he claimed to have found inscriptions in Punic. Apparent evidence that the Carthaginians possessed territory on the American mainland lent credence to the claim that the Romans, as heirs to the Carthaginians, had once been lords of the Indies, although another manuscript indicates that Palatin had second thoughts about this conclusion. Unlike his fellow Dominican Las Casas, however, he remained an ardent Romanist.

Lupher’s exhaustive survey of the published and unpublished contributions to the polemic of the Indies leads him to the final, and extremely suggestive, section of his book, in which he describes how the controversy over the character of the Roman imperial legacy came to influence perceptions of the Spanish past. By drawing parallels between the Spanish invasion of the Indies and the Roman invasion of Spain, Las Casas and his supporters stimulated a reassessment of the early Iberians, who had heroically resisted the Romans at the siege of Numantia, and had been exploited for hard labor in the mines of southern Spain, just as the Indians were being exploited for hard labor in the mines of Peru. Perhaps, after all, it was not the Roman conquerors and settlers but the early Iberians who were the true ancestors of modern Spaniards.

The final section of Lupher’s book provides a valuable demonstration of how, in due course, events in the New World came to influence perceptions among Europeans of their own civilization and threw into question the validity of the classical interpretative model to which they had resorted in their attempt to deal with the astonishing variety of peoples and civilizations revealed by their overseas voyages. It marks a fitting conclusion to a rich work of scholarship, which provides new insights, from a fresh perspective, on how early modern Europeans saw themselves and the “Other.”

Strangely missing from such a comprehensive survey is any examination of the word “colony” and of the ways in which the founding of colonies in classical antiquity may have influenced the colonizing activities of early modern Spaniards and other Europeans.12 Originally, the Roman colonus was simply a farmer who cultivated the land, but the word also came to be applied to members of colonias, emigrant settlements of veteran soldiers outside Rome, and later Italy. The original usage, however, persisted, and became associated not only with tenant farmers but also with those who became tied to the land. It was presumably because of this pejorative connotation that the settlers of Hispaniola, when rebelling against the government of Columbus, rejected the name of colonos, insisting that they were householders, with all the rights that this entailed.

A Spanish dictionary of 1611 defines colonia in its Roman sense, as “a piece of land settled by people from outside, taken from the city which is master of that territory, or brought from elsewhere.” Spain’s territories on the American mainland, however, were never referred to as “colonies” before the eighteenth century. It was only in the later part of that century that ministers in Madrid took, at least among themselves, to following the practice developed by the English of describing the American territories as “colonies.” When Captain John Smith wrote of “erecting a colony,” the words “colony” and “plantation” were interchangeable in English usage, and meant a plantation of people, like the Roman colonia. By the eighteenth century, however, the term was coming in England to connote dependent status, on the model of the Roman province.

In practice the Spanish “Empire” deviated from the Roman imperial model in being less an empire with dependent provinces than a complex of territories, each with its own recognized laws, institutions, and privileges, but all sharing allegiance to a common sovereign. Even the American territories, although possessing a subordinate status as conquests of Castile rather than being united to it by dynastic inheritance, were treated as a complex of distinctive kingdoms and territories, and acquired over time their own specific laws and ordinances. Inevitably, the complications of governing a global monarchy constructed on these lines were enormous, and the effectiveness of their government ultimately depended on the quality of the royal officials who staffed the imperial bureaucracy.


One of the most hard-working and efficient of these officials in the sixteenth century was Juan de Ovando, the subject of a new study by Stafford Poole, an independent researcher who has translated and edited a work by Las Casas, and published the biography of a sixteenth-century archbishop of Mexico.13 Ovando, a member of the same Extremaduran family as Nicolás de Ovando, whose achievement in stabilizing the infant settlement of Hispaniola is recounted by Hugh Thomas, climbed the bureaucratic ladder under Philip II to become president of the Councils of the Indies and Finance, and an outstanding reformer. It was he who tried to bring order to the complex legislation for the government of the Indies that had grown up so haphazardly, by ordering its codification. Among his numerous reforming activities he was also the instigator of the famous questionnaires designed to provide a vast corpus of data which would make possible the informed government of Spain’s American territories.

Unfortunately, even Poole’s exhaustive researches have failed to turn up much personal information about a royal minister who has long been a subject of historical interest. But he uses the archives to good effect to do what has long been needed, and provide us with a clear and authoritative survey of the career and activities of this outstanding servant of the royal bureaucrat, Philip II. As the minister responsible for the government of the Indies, it fell to Ovando to wrestle with the implications of the campaign of Las Casas and his colleagues for justice for the Indians, and in 1573 he produced a set of ordinances for new discoveries and settlements that were intended to prevent the repetition of the earlier atrocities. These ordinances, writes Poole, “still stand out as unique in modern history. No other colonial empire went to such lengths to regulate its expansion and to see that it was done without detriment to the indigenous peoples.” Unfortunately they might also be described as a desperate attempt to close the stable door after the horse had bolted.

An administrator in the Roman mold—and one whose personal library, like that of any respectable royal official, contained, alongside volumes on Roman law, the works of well-known classical authors—Ovando was also an administrator with a Christian conscience. It was in upholding the Christian faith and bringing the benefits of Christianity to formerly pagan peoples that Spaniards who consciously turned to imperial Rome for inspiration believed themselves to have transcended the Roman model. “It is obvious beyond any need for proof,” wrote a seventeenth-century Spanish jurist, “how much the Spaniards excel the Romans, and that they have passed on to the Indians much more useful and healthy laws, customs, arts and many other things for living a truly human and civilized life.”

Yet as new generations of Spaniards struggled, like Ovando, to extend Spain’s civilizing mission, and govern an empire that their predecessors had only been preoccupied with acquiring, the analogies with Rome began to look rather too close for comfort. By the early seventeenth century a number of them were turning to Sallust and to Seneca to ask whether their country, corrupted by riches, was not going down the same slippery slope as Rome. For the Romans provided a model not only for the acquisition and government of empire, but also for its decline and fall.

By the later seventeenth century, Spain and its empire were widely perceived to be in a state of terminal decline, and where Captain John Smith and his contemporaries had looked to the Spanish model for inspiration, the British now turned their backs on it. Models can serve as warnings, as well as offering inspiration. Spain’s possession of overseas colonies, it was coming to be thought, had been the origin of its downfall, draining the mother country of its population and giving it a false set of values by fostering the impression that the only true riches consisted in the silver of Mexico and Peru. The exploitation of their American mines, argued Sir Josiah Child in his A New Discourse of Trade (1693), had caused the Spaniards to “neglect in great measure cultivating of the earth, and producing commodities from the growth thereof….”

The British Empire of the eighteenth century, therefore, unlike that of Spain, was envisaged as an empire of commerce, not an empire of conquest.14 As a commercial empire, its successes were spectacular, and Britain’s rapidly growing wealth and prosperity made it the envy of its rivals. Among these rivals was Spain, where the Bourbon dynasty, which had succeeded to the throne in 1700, was attempting to reform the ramshackle inheritance left it by its Habsburg predecessor. What more natural, then, than for eighteenth-century Spanish reformers and would-be reformers to look to a new model for inspiration, this time not Rome but Britain? The creation of a genuinely commercial empire, which would involve a reorganization of the government of the American territories and a rational exploitation of their resources for the benefit of the mother country, now looked like the one and only way of salvation for an underdeveloped and backward Spain.

It is the attempt of the government of Charles III, its ruler from 1759 to 1788, to revive and modernize Spain and its overseas empire, that provides the theme for the major new study, Apogee of Empire, by Stanley J. Stein, emeritus professor of Spanish culture and civilization at Princeton University, and Barbara H. Stein, the university’s former bibliographer for Spain and Latin America. Well-known for their influential book The Colonial Heritage of Latin America,15 they recently produced a precursor volume to Apogee of Empire, which scrutinized Bourbon attempts at reform in the earlier part of the century.16 The new volume, although standing independently, therefore completes what may be regarded as a two-volume project.

Their work is a monumental contribution to our knowledge and understanding of the inner workings of the eighteenth-century Spanish Empire, involving as it does a double lifetime of research. The authors have ferreted out a mass of documentation, and they know every twist and turn of Spanish colonial and commercial policy. We can follow that policy in these volumes from memorandum to memorandum, as reforming ministers struggle to “modernize” in the face of every kind of vested interest and entrenched opposition. There is no one I would trust more than the Steins to lead me through the corridors of power in eighteenth-century Madrid, or to explore the secret recesses of the mercantile houses of Mexico City and Cadiz. Much stamina, however, is needed, for the degree of detail in their discussion is almost overwhelming.

While the earlier of the two volumes was to my mind vitiated by what struck me as antiquated assumptions about the incapacity of Spaniards to embrace the cause of economic growth and set out on the road to modern civilization, Apogee of Empire is less condemnatory, and at one point explicitly recognizes the need to take into account “the context of the conditions and momentum” of time and place. This makes it a better balanced, and more persuasive, book than its predecessor. Like the other books here under review, it has the great merit of treating Spain and its American empire within a single frame, and it has some excellent set pieces, in particular in its analysis of the overthrow in 1766 of Charles III’s reforming minister, the marquis of Esquilache, through a combination of mob violence and the conspiracy of vested interests.

The implications of his overthrow for the future of the Bourbon reforms were profound, and the Steins trace them closely as they follow the story of the government’s attempts to increase its revenues and liberalize Spain’s monopolistic system of trade with America. The Bourbon reform program, inspired by English successes and driven by “rational” considerations of maximizing colonial resources in order to restore Spain to its proper place among the nations of Europe, is widely credited with undermining the structure of Spain’s empire of the Indies, and opening the way to the independence of Latin America. Yet it was Britain, consciously turning its back on the example of Habsburg Spain, that lost its American empire first.

David Lupher reminds us that the eighteenth-century agricultural theorist Arthur Young, ignoring the influence of the Roman model on Spain, wrote of the Spanish Empire in the days of its greatness: “We, at present, have her example to guide our reckoning; she had none by which to frame her conduct.” Four years after these words were written, Britain’s American colonies declared their independence. The Spanish Empire, by contrast, overcame its crisis of the 1770s and 1780s, and lived on for another generation, until its Creole populations, following the example of the North American colonists, broke free from the mother country. Three hundred years of empire had finally come to an end.

That empire had many failings, but there is still widespread ignorance and misunderstanding in the Anglo-American world of the more positive aspects of the achievements of imperial Spain. An opportunity to redress the balance will be provided in Seattle beginning in mid-October, when the Seattle Art Museum, in partnership with Spain’s Patrimonio Nacional, will be hosting an exhibition on “Spain in the Age of Exploration, 1492–1819.” The Patrimonio Nacional has done remarkable work in recent years in conserving, restoring, and displaying the extraordinary wealth of architectural and artistic treasures entrusted to its charge, and, as the handsome catalog makes clear, the exhibition will provide a unique opportunity to view many works of art which have never before been seen outside Spain.

Some of these will come as a revelation. It is, for instance, widely assumed that, in the words of a recent review, “Until the Dutch arrived in the 1630s, the New World had never been examined scientifically. Its flora and fauna had never been catalogued; its peoples had never been systematically described.”17 One of the four themes of the exhibition is “Science and the Court,” and in his catalog essay “‘The World Is Only One and Not Many’: Representation of the Natural World in Imperial Spain,” Jesús Carrillo Castillo gives an account of the scientific expedition commissioned by Philip II in 1569 to study the flora of Mexico and Peru. This was the same year as that in which Juan de Ovando sent out his questionnaires asking for descriptions of the American territories, and testifies to the interest of the court in securing accurate information about the vast expanse of land now under Spanish rule.

The expedition was led by the royal doctor, Francisco Hernández, who never reached Peru, but spent seven years in Mexico examining and struggling to classify its flora and fauna, so novel to Europeans. The result was sixteen manuscript volumes, describing more than three thousand plants, forty quadrupeds, fifty-eight reptiles, thirty insects, and thirty-five minerals. Tragically, this monumental labor was destroyed in a fire at the Escorial in 1671, but two copies of the original illustrations taken from another manuscript and displayed in the exhibition suggest something of the riches that were lost.

The other themes of the exhibition are “Images of Empire,” “Spirituality and Worldliness,” and “Exchange Across Cultures,” and they are all explored in clear and informative catalog essays. In a lively and suggestive treatment of Spanish royal portraiture, Sarah Schroth notes how the descendants of Charles V borrowed directly from ancient and Renaissance portraits of the twelve Roman emperors when they had themselves depicted in battle armor or victorious parade armor and holding a general’s baton. They might not technically be emperors, but the model provided by imperial Rome was never far away.

In reminding us of some of the achievements that accompanied Spain’s acquisition of an American empire, the exhibition, spanning three centuries, reminds us also of its durability—a durability comparable to that of the Roman Empire which it simultaneously sought to imitate and surpass. Conscious both of the encouragement and the warning afforded by imperial Rome, Spain’s empire developed its own survival mechanisms, which for a long time stood it in good stead. Examples, whether positive or negative, are not infallible guides to policy. But those who claim that they are somehow exempted from the historical process of imperial rise and decline are all too likely to find that history will have the final word.

This Issue

November 4, 2004