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Hispanic American Historical Review 84.2 (2004) 337-338

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Romans in a New World: Classical Models in Sixteenth-Century Spanish America. By David A. Lupher. History, Languages, and Cultures of the Spanish and Portuguese Worlds. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003. Notes. Index. Bibliography. iv, 440 pp. Cloth, $59.50.

Numa Pompilius, the alleged second king of Rome, reportedly received from Jupiter a magical seal, a sacred shield in the figure of an eight (the ancile), to protect the city. Eighteenth-century creoles maintained that Mexico, altera Roma, had a pelta (crescent-shaped shield) of its own. Mexico's sacred talisman was Our Lady of Guadalupe—Domini ancilla, the servant of God—whose miraculous image could be deployed to shield Mexico from the plague. Engraved in Latin in the frontispiece of El escudo de armas de Mexico (1746), this story shows that Iberians and their descendants understood their actions in the New World as both following in the footsteps of Rome and "topping off" Rome. Lupher's Romans in a New World explores in fascinating detail the politics of these two interwoven themes.

Following in the footsteps of classicists such as Sabine MacCormack and David Quint, who have turned their considerable linguistic skills toward the study of early modern Iberian sources in the New World, Lupher offers a thoroughly fresh and surprising reading of familiar authors (Bernal Díaz, Francisco Vitoria, Las Casas, Sepúlveda, Oviedo, Garcilaso de la Vega, and Alonso de Ercilla). He achieves this by pairing these known authors with many others who wrote in Latin and whose works "Latin" Americanists seldom read (Miguel de Ulzurrún, Antonio de Guevara, Domingo de Soto, Miguel de Arcos, Vinko Paletin de Korçula, Ambrosio de Morales, Flavio Biondo, Wolfang Lazius, Polydore Vergil, and Guillaume du Choul). The result is a learned treatise on how ancient Rome became a model against which conquistadors compared their exploits, jurists and theologians weighed imperial claims to sovereignty, missionaries evaluated the piety and intelligence of their Amerindian charges, and intellectuals assessed the very nature of "Spanish" identity.

Lupher first sets out to explore how Rome became the standard against which soldiers and writers measured their feats in the New World. Conquistadors repeatedly found Julius and Augustus Caesar wanting: petty, insignificant conquerors in a small corner of the world. Poets ridiculed Aeneas as a small hero whose adventures and ordeals had been put to shame by the new Iberian Argonauts. Naturalists dismissed Pliny as a provincial cataloguer of curiosities. And settlers presented the Roman conquest of Jerusalem as prefiguring the fall of Tenochtitlán. Lupher then [End Page 337] revisits the debates over the rights of Spain in the New World. Building and improving on the account offered by Anthony Pagden, Lupher shows that the Roman model helped all parties to bolster their arguments. Those who believed Spain had the right to occupy the new lands and dispossess the natives argued that Spain, particularly under Charles V, was the rightful heir to Rome and therefore entitled to be "ruler of all the world"—for even the Bible and the writings of such worthies as St. Augustine had long acknowledged as providential the justice of this Roman title. And some jurists and theologians argued that Spain, like Rome in the past, had gained the right to conquered lands by helping allies fend off enemy attacks (for example, Cortés helping the Tlaxcalans defeat the Aztecs). Finally, writers such as Sepúlveda maintained that Spain, like Rome, had embarked on a civilizing mission, one in which all barbarians were natural slaves to a culturally superior master.

Critics of these specious arguments, however, portrayed Rome as an evil cultural and religious force. Lupher shows, for example, that Las Casas's anthropology was driven by the need to refute Sepúlveda's humanist infatuation with Rome. Las Casas's project of "comparative ethnology" sought to invert Sepúlveda's model by casting the Romans as primitive, credulous, bloody barbarians and the natives as their cultural superiors: more pious and more civilized...


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