This collection of articles (resulting from a symposium and exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum, The Aztec Pantheon and the Art of Empire, 2010) juxtaposes the history and representation of the Roman and Aztec Empires, as seen in particular through the eyes of the Spanish who first encountered Mexico and its advanced civilization in the sixteenth century. At the same time that Europeans were rediscovering their own classical past, they were also encountering the “living past” in Mexico, a confrontation that often prompted conquistadors and missionaries to think ethnographically and synthetically as they saw the Aztecs through the lens of classical Rome and Roman imperialism.

As these essays convincingly demonstrate, there is much that is comparable between Rome and Mexico, both in terms of broad generalizations and granular specifics. As Walter Scheidel’s overview essay explains, we can rightly categorize Aztec...

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