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Fifth Sun

A New History of the Aztecs

Camilla Townsend

Publication Date - July 2021

ISBN: 9780197577660

336 pages
5 1/2 x 8 1/4 inches

In Stock

Retail Price to Students: $21.95

A new history of the Aztecs based on indigenous Mexican written sources


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.


  • Winner of the Cundill History Prize
  • Based on a comprehensive reading of rarely used Nahuatl-language sources
  • Spans the pre- and post-conquest periods

About the Author(s)

Camilla Townsend is Distinguished Professor of History at Rutgers University. She is the author of numerous books, including Malintzin's Choices: An Indian Woman in the Conquest of Mexico, Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma, and The Annals of Native America: How the Nahuas of Colonial Mexico Kept Their History Alive (OUP, 2016), which won multiple prizes, among them The Albert J. Beveridge Award awarded by the American Historical Association.


"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 Today

"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

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