History could be defined as wisdom gained by civilization. Just as one hears the tales of life lessons learned the hard way and draws subsequent wisdom from the mistakes of others, in an ideal situation society would draw wisdom from the lessons history can teach us. These are situations in which a historian often shows the most interest. Those moments in history where our ancestors dealt with situations that still plague us today, most generations must deal with the complexities of corrupt governments, epidemics, and war. All one can hope to do is to study how the people of the past dealt with their difficulties and hope to draw the wisdom and strength from their accounts that enable us to deal with our own similar modern complexities.
In order to draw this wisdom, one must first have an understanding of the historical situation presented for examination. Unfortunately due to the fact that humanity is all too fallible, it is often not as simple as finding a primary source and accepting their account as perfect. For instance, much of what we know about the fire of Rome in 64 A.D we draw from the account of Roman aristocrat Tacitus, and in his account he implicitly blames the Emperor Nero for the catastrophe. Tacitus even goes so far as to claim that Nero watched Rome burn as he merrily played his fiddled. Although Tacitus' primary account is very useful in determining the date, the ferocity of the fire, and the portions of Rome it destroyed, roughly two-thirds of the city: his account of Nero's actions is far from being without bias. As an aristocrat Tacitus was part of a decades old battle between the senate and the emperor for power, as such his account of the emperor that night maybe tainted by the inherent dislike of his class for the emperor. In fact by sourcing other eye witness accounts and further archeological evidence it can be found that Nero was far from merrily playing his fiddle that night, actually took a very active role in attempting to staunch the flames and accepted refugees into his own home. This is not to say that Nero was a saint or a hero, far from it as he was known to be an active participant in all forms of debauchery, however in the Roman fire of 64 A.D. There is a good chance that he was not an arsonist.
Perhaps a puzzle is the best analogy when one is approached with the enigma of historical thinking. This is due to the fact that often we have to piece together the story from many sources primary, eyewitnesses, and secondary, accounts written after the event. This is especially true in situations where any evidence is spotty at best. For instance, in the sinking of the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald, we may never know what the final factor that left the ship in the bottom of Lake Superior. We have no primary sources and a dismal amount of secondary sources from which to draw or data. By contrast we have a rather complete series of sources when documenting the sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic. As we have the accounts of passengers, rescuers and other individuals connected to the event. The perspective that evidence is viewed from is always the largest factor in how it is viewed by later generations.
One example of this is the Trojan Wars, an event we cannot prove, but one that shows up with startling regularity in historic documents. This story is commonly understood through the eyes of the Greek Homer. However, if that account is to be seen as true Paris is a rapist playboy and Achilles is a god. However even Homer could not deny that weak Paris killed invincible Achilles. I doubt this was an accident. Is it possible that in real life Paris was a far better warrior than Homer likes to give him credit for?
Equally intriguing is the thought that although we cannot be sure the Trojan War, it is still possible that it may be proved by some yet turned up source. After all we only received confirmation of Troy's existence as late as 1870 in the evacuations of Heinrich Schliemann. The site contains nine cities built on top of each other. There is a citadel in the middle and a town around it. A high wall fortified the town. Today archaeologists believe that the sixth and seventh oldest cities found in layers at Hissarlik are the best candidates for the Troy of The Iliad.
Resplendent and strong, city number six looks like Homer's Troy. The problem is that this city's destruction in 1250 B.C. does not appear to have been caused by war but an earthquake. However even with this disheartening information to the believers of The Iliad, it cannot be ruled out that the war did take place. Although it is more than likely the war was not about a pretty woman, however beautiful Helen of Troy have been.
Another difficulty is history is the attempt to remain objective. It is often too easy to pick a side. In an attempt to remain as objective as possible one must look at both the good and the bad of history. As with Troy, when the subject of interest is the conquering of a people, objectivity attains a higher level of difficulty than it would if one were discussing a pandemic. Particularly when one discusses the conquest of Mexico, it may be said that the greatest weapon of the Europeans in the conquering and colonization of the New World was disease. However, as the Spanish were unaware of the danger they brought to the natives of their New World, it is hard to hold them accountable for the rampant spread of disease among the natives caused by their arrival. Nonetheless they can be held accountable for the introduction of the African slaves into the New World, the creation of the encomienda, similar in make up to the serf system of the Middle Ages, and the disregard in which they held the mestizos.
To exonerate them of these charges one must also point out several other unavoidable facts. They also introduced into the New World items like wheat, rice, sugarcane, grapes, and many garden vegetables and fruits. Even more revolutionary were their animals — horses, pigs, cattle, goats, sheep — all of which were new to the Americas. They understood, on a small scale, what most of these resources meant to the Natives and it cannot be denied that this changed a way of life for many people, for better or for worse. They expanded the horizons of the Old World and while doing so also expanded the horizons of the New World.
However, despite these additions they made to the New World, to prove the Spanish sinless in the Spanish Conquest of New Mexico would be a near impossible task. Nonetheless Cortez himself may be seen in a little more favorable light if one takes into account the fact that he was far from home or reinforcements. The Spanish Conquistadors were far from being good men, however there is a certain greatness in the fact that months away from reinforcements they chose to undertake the conquest of a much larger civilization. Should they have been unsuccessful it is doubtful they would have been remembered at all. Sad as the fact maybe it can be seen in most situations that good mane are not great men. Were the Spanish good? One can assume that is a label they will not bear. Were they great? They truly and whole heartedly believed in a purpose and pursued it despite the obstacles that stood in their way. At the very least history must call them determined.
In this essay word I may be seen as taking a Spanish viewpoint on the events that took place in the conquest of Mexico. However, it seems the easiest view to take for several reasons. First, history is told through the eyes of the conqueror, and second because taking the view of an Aztec may change depending on the view of the individual. Obviously, Dona Marina, Cortes' translator and guide, was enthusiastic about the Spanish conquest. It may be assumed that Moctezuma was substantially less thrilled with the Spanish invasion. Nonetheless the Spanish were aided and abetted in their conquest by a portion of the Aztecs themselves, making an objective viewpoint almost an impossibility. History is written by the conqueror, and this was the Spanish conquest of Mexico.
All in all, history is a growing, living, and breathing entity that continues to evolve just as morality evolves. We continue to find new evidence to complete the story. We also continue to practice the hypocrisy as we commit similar crimes to the ones for which we hold our ancestors accountable. Who are we to say how our descendants will see the history of our modern time, for what crimes will they hold us accountable? And who will chronicle them? In all situations it may be said that history is seen through the eyes of the conqueror and the chronicler. It can also be said that it is seen through the eyes of our contemporary world. In the age of the Greeks the Amazons were a horrendous, though beautiful, freak of nature. Today one of our modern superheroes comes from this legendary tribe, Wonder Woman. As such when perceiving history, as in reading Shakespeare, one must attempt to understand the time in which the event took place, its social taboos and its class framework before attempting to draw a conclusion. True objectivity and understanding of a historical event can only be reached by remembering two very important truths: first that culture can change a viewpoint, and second that at the end of the day we all laugh, cry, and love as humans, regardless of the time to which we belong. If one can truly balance humanity and its social timeframe, then you have obtained a true understanding of history, and can reap from it the wisdom and strength required to deal with your own modern catastrophes.