Gruesome pre-modern civilisations, and rule through terror

Inspired by reading a Cracked list of gruesome civilisations, I’d like to read more about brutality and especially “rule through terror” in pre-modern (say pre-1850) civilisations – for example, the Aztecs and their fascination with human sacrifice. Could you recommend some scholarly reading about this topic? I’d particularly like e-book suggestions. (I also have access to JSTOR if there are good relevant journal articles you can recommend) An in-depth study of Aztec society and religion is an obvious subject, but I hope you can also recommend other areas, eras, and societies I’m less familiar with.

Let’s also make this a thread for bringing up cultures and civilisations that might not have received enough press for cruelty, widespread human sacrifice, cannibalism, and/or wholesale slaughter. Thanks!

The Mongols and other steppe peoples have a reputation for merciless cruelty, but part of that has to do with the realities of war between nomadic peoples. In sedentary agricultural societies it’s possible to hold a defeated people in submission because ultimately their farms are held hostage: if they revolt and fail, their crops and homes get burnt and they freeze and starve to death. By contrast steppe nomads lived almost entirely by herding and hunting- home was wherever their tents were pitched and the sheep were grazing. Fleeing in the face of a superior enemy was always an option, and grudges were never forgotten. Massacring a defeated enemy’s tribe wasn’t cruelty for cruelty’s sake, it was simply the only way to make a victory final; make your enemies extinct or reduced to a handful of scattered survivors too few to retaliate.

How come the Romans got left off that list?

“As discontent arose, the Mexica themselves precipitated their own violent departure. Obeying the promptings of Huitzilopochtli’s priests, they approached Achitometl, one of the Calhua magnates, asking for his beautiful daughter as their “Sovereign” and “wife of Huitzilopochtli”. Not understanding the implications of this request, Achitometl acceded to the honor, his daughter went to Tizaapan where she was splendidly arrayed and sacrificed. Following the old custom, her body was flayed and a priest donned her skin in an ancient agricultural rite; symbolizing the renewal of life. The unsuspecting chieftain Achitometl, invited to participate in the concluding festivities, suddenly recognized the skin of his daughter on the priest. The outraged Calhua took arms and were joined by others and, in a wild melee of javelins and arrows, the Mexica were once again driven into the reeds and brackish swamps of Lake Tetzcoco”

The Aztecs
By Richard F Townsend

On human sacrifice, read Michael Harner, or Marvin Harris’ books Cannibals and Kings or Good to Eat. Harner’s controversial thesis (extended by Harris) is that Aztec human sacrifice wasdone in part because there were no large meat animals, and the Aztecs ate their sacrificial victims. There’s asctually much more to this than that bald statement suggests, and it’s worth reading Harner and Harris to get the full argument.

That makes sense as an explanation, though of course not as an excuse.

I’d guess it’s because the list is about terrifying civilisations, while the Roman empire, once it really got going, had a bit more of a carrot-and-stick approach. While you definitely didn’t want to end up fighting a war with Rome, being within the empire was pretty good - a fairly effective guarantee of peace and security, enhanced opportunities for trade, etc. Many of the barbarian attacks on the late Roman empire were really about peoples trying to become part of, or citizens of, the Roman empire, rather than about trying to destroy it. By contrast, the Spartans for example were all stick, and left nothing of value to posterity except a grossly exaggerated reputation for military prowess.

Chimera and CalMeacham, great tips, thanks! I’ll pick up those books. Do you have any similar tips regarding other civilisations?

Incidentally, I’ve heard of the Aztec cannibalism thesis before, so I’ll enjoy reading a full discussion of it.

Cheers, and keep it coming!

Nobody has any further suggestions, even after millenia of carnage and slaughter among mankind? Please, don’t be shy: anything goes, not just Mesoamericans. I hear Burma has a long history of mad kings, for example, but did they also terrorise their populations?

A contribution of my own: M.J. Trow’s Vlad the Impaler: In Search of the Real Dracula is an OK history, very readable, about Vlad III Tepes of Wallachia, including good detail about the mechanics and methods of impalement (…it’s harder than one might think) and other methods of execution and torture attributed to Vlad III and his contemporaries.

What was the worst thing Polynesians did to each other, throw someone to the sharks, or into the mouth of Kilauea?

How about the regime of Shaka?

I don’t have a book recommendation, but I’ve always considered Leopold II’s Congo Free State one of the more gruesome environments I’ve read about. And it happened remarkably recently.

Interesting thinking on both points! Any suggestions for where to start book-wise? The only recommendation I’ve ever had re: South African history is Michener’s The Covenant, which is on my reading list. I know essentially nothing about Polynesia but would love to learn.

Ah, a good recent case. King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild was a great book, although it’s been over a decade since I read it.

I have always wondered about the actual extent of Aztec human sacrifice. My take is that it was actually pretty rare, and it was either voluntary, or done to prisoners of war. Otherwise, it makes little sense:
-the meat that humans produce is pretty small compared to the cost of raising a human child
-sacrificing young people makes no sense-young people can produce children, which is a great resource. Killing elderly people would make more sense
-the Spanish priests were eager to portray the old Aztec religion as evil, so as to ease the acceptance of Christianity
So, I don’t really believe that legions of Aztec priests were working overtime, hacking the hearts out of doomed young men.

Read Harner (or Harris – he’s easier to come by) The arguments are much deeper than “well, we’ve got nothing else to eat”; they address many of the points you do above. For one thing, the Axtecs didn’t eat their own citizens – they sacrificed war captives. There’s plenty of documentation for this. The Aztecs didn’t have to take on the costs and difficulties of raising people, they simply resaped the benefits

In The Voyages of Captain Cook, they talk about encountering the Fijians (I believe, I’ll have to check the book) as they came back from a raid on another island. Dead men and children hanging from their canoes and being casually mistreated before being eaten.

When I get home tonight I’ll pull out the book and post the relevant passage.

They’re works of fiction, not the scholarly non-fiction that I think you’re looking for, but are by all accounts well-researched and will give you a feeling for general life during the time. Take a look at Gary Jenning’s Aztec and The Journeyer. Aztec deals with, well, the Aztecs while The Journeyer is a fictional retelling of Marco Polo’s adventures and paints a picture of the Khan’s court. If you can get past the Gary Stu-ness of the main character in each book (seriously; both main characters are nothing so much as epic wish-fulfillment), they’re pretty entertaining and definitely vivid. A good beach read. Take them with a grain of salt, probably, but I think they give a good flavor of how life was actually lived during the times (for a nobleman, to be sure, but it’s better than nothing).

While the Aztecs have gotten the lion’s share of press concerning sacrifice, torture, beheading and cannibalism, there is a wealth of evidence that these same practices were carried out by the Pueblo dwellers (the so-called Anasazi) who inhabited the American Southwest from about 700-1200 AD. This is a very touchy subject among the Hopi, who are the direct descendants of these people. That aside, the physical evidence is there: human bones that show the marks of butchering, skulls that show death from blows to the back of the skull, skulls that show clear evidence of decapitation, mortar & pestle type vessels with bits of ground finger bones in them, etc. Some thinking is that these practices were imported through trade contact with Aztec people.

There is also evidence of warfare within the Puebloan culture, with archaeological sites revealing rooms with entire families showing signs of violent and sudden death. I would suggest reading House of Rain, by Craig Childs. It’s very informative and written so a layman can stay awake while reading it.

A side note: the term Anasazi is distasteful and offensive to the Hopi, as it is a Navajo word meaning, roughly, ‘enemy ancestors’. It’s doubtful that it will ever fall out of common use, however.

These are two of my favorite historical novel reads. I was somewhat suprised to find artifacts depicting Aztec’s “Xipe Totec” in the LACMA (the ritual described above where a young maiden is flayed of her skin, which is then worn by a priest). Here I had thought the author created that scene, but evidently his research was true.

In The Journeyer, he depicts the “dying of a thousand cuts” punishment in China as well. In Raptor, the author covers the time of the Gothic take-over of the Western Roman Empire, with equal detail. Evidently, Jennings did extensive research for all of his books, and would weave real events and practices into his storytelling. Granted they are fiction, but for what they lack in scholarly fact, they make up for in accessibility.

Thanks for the recommendation, I just added it to my Kindle.

The Punic (Phoenician) religion practiced a form of human sacrifice so unspeakably awful
that I do not even wish to relate the details here. Existence of the ritual is corroborated by
the Bible, by Greco-Roman sources, by the early Christian writer Tertullian, and by modern
archaeology. Here are modern two sources for the topic:

Carthaginian Religion by Roy Decker

Cult and Belief in Punic and Roman Africa by Brent D. Shaw

The Revisionist historical faction contests the reality of Punic human sacrifice, but that is
only in keeping with its spurious lock-step agenda, which automatically dismisses unfavorable
depiction of non-Western culture, while never failing to depict Western culture in the worst
conceivable light.

Let’s face it. In the ancient world, death was all around. You had less than a 50-50 chance of surviving to adulthood (often much less) and could pretty much die at any time from disease, accidents, other people, etc.

So how do you honestly threaten people who live their entire lives surrounded by death? By making that death as horrific as possible.

Another excellent fictional – but astoundingly well-researched – treatment of a brutal ancient culture is Nicholas Guild’s two-volume epic, The Assyrian and The Blood Star. The narrator paints a vivid picture not only of life in 700 BC Mesopotamia, but describes his travels through Anatolia, Media, Sinai, Egypt, Ionia, and Sicily. The first volume isn’t difficult to find in used bookstores, but the second never went to paperback (despite being even better than the first), and it took me 20 years to pick up my own copy. Both are now available for download on i-Tunes.