Byline: Tom Holland
WE ARE not the first people to worry about the future of the planet. A sumptuous new exhibition at the British Museum is devoted to a civilisation that, if anything, was even more paranoid about climate change than we are. Back in the early 16th century, the Aztec king Moctezuma II ruled an empire that covered much of Mexico -- and yet, for all his wealth and splendour, he and his subjects were pessimists to put Al Gore to shame. The world, they thought, was as fragile as the universe was pitiless. Their anxiety, however, was not global warming. Rather, what they dreaded was that the sun might fade and go out.
Panic reached a fever pitch one night in 1507, five years into Moctezuma's reign. The year, according to the Aztecs' own calendar, marked the century's end: the moment when the world was at its greatest risk of ending. As the sun vanished behind the western mountains on the evening of the new year, no one could be certain whether it would ever rise again. All night, people stood gathered in massive crowds, waiting, praying, holding their breath. Adding to the mood of dread was the fact that everywhere, across the whole of Mexico, the lights that would normally have burned in the great cities and in the countryside had all been extinguished. The darkness was total.
But the Aztecs were not entirely helpless in the face of the mortal danger. Priests had gathered on the top of a sacred mountain, there to study the prospects for the future in the stars. Then, at the due moment, a prisoner was brought forwards. He was stretched out on his back. A knife of flint was smashed into his chest. His heart, still pumping, was held up by the priest. Blood, so the Aztecs believed, was what nourished the sun. Without it the gods would go thirsty, and the universe wither into ruin. Sacrifice, human sacrifice, was the only sure way to banish the darkness.
Now, with the blood still dripping from the gaping wound, came the moment when everything hung in the balance. Kindling was laid inside the dead man's shattered chest. A fire-stick was set to spin. A spark -- and there was light. Cries of joy rose from the crowds. Torches were lit, and messengers began running with the holy fire to every corner of the Aztec heartlands. The onslaughts of oblivion had been kept at bay. The sun would rise again. Everything would continue as it had done before.
A happy reassurance for the entire Aztec nation, of course -- but especially so, perhaps, for the man charged with caring for it, "as though it were a baby in a cradle", as one courtier put it. Moctezuma had come to the throne when he was just over 30. He was a man of formidable abilities. A successful general, he had also served as high priest. Although occasionally given to uncontrollable fits of giggling, he was generally grave in demeanour and renowned for his eloquence. He was, in short, everything that the Aztecs expected of an emperor. "None of his predecessors," so one of them declared ringingly, "attained a fourth part of his majesty."
True, Moctezuma was only the eighth king the Aztecs had ever had. Their empire was a young one. For a long while they had been nothing but nomads. Then, in the mid-14th century, they had arrived in central Mexico, on the shore of a beautiful lake, where they had seen an eagle sitting on a cactus holding a snake in its beak: a self-evident sign from the gods that they should found a city on the very spot. By 1375, the Aztecs had succeeded in establishing both a monarchy and an army. By 1430, they had toppled the Tepanecs, the one-time regional superpower. By 1500, they had conquered much of central America. No wonder, then, that Moctezuma should have taken it for granted that he was the greatest ruler in the world.
NOR, by many standards, was he far wrong. Tenochtitlan, the capital founded a mere century and a half before on an island in the lake where the eagle had been sighted, had grown so rapidly that under Moctezuma it could boast a population of almost 300,000: five times the size of Henry VIII's London. …