Spain was grateful, according to Richard Lee Marks. The Spanish had endured through the Crusades, and they owed their lives and the glory of Spain to God. Marks sensibly begins his biography of the great conquistador by presenting the environment that shaped Hernan Cortes. The son of a poor farmer with pretensions to nobility, Cortes grew up cocky, reckless, and charming. His daring and his hunger for the risky benefits offered by adventure earned him the commission that would end one great civilization and exalt his own. Marks never forgets that Cortes’ mission destroyed the Aztec empire, neither does he dismiss the Indian cultures that then vanished. But he does point out that the descriptions we have of the Dream City of Tenochtitlan are Spanish descriptions that express a sense of awe that belies the common image of the sword-wielding, Indian-butchering Spaniard. Cortes was a diplomat as well as a warrior, and, though the thrust of his negotiations with Montezuma was outrageous, Marks argues that the intention was never to obliterate the city or the empire but rather to bring it under vassalage to Spain—which, after all, would be, in Spanish minds, a favor to the people they had conquered. For one thing, the Aztecs could expect to be forced to give up human sacrifice and cannibalism, which could only be a good thing.

Marks will strike some readers as too much inclined to dismiss Spanish atrocities as in keeping with the times. Nevertheless, his description of the months that Cortes spent in the Aztec capital reasoning, amusing, and deceiving his host will come as a surprise to anyone who has always believed that Cortes burned his boats, murdered Montezuma, and swept away Aztec civilization by the might of Spanish steel.