Ever wondered why history books seem to tell one side of the story? It’s because history is often written by those who win, shaping our understanding of the past in their favor.

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“History is written by the victors,” a phrase famously attributed to Winston Churchill, sheds light on the inherently biased nature of historical narratives. It suggests that the winners of conflicts have the power to craft and dominate the stories that are passed down, often sidelining the defeated. As we dive into this concept, let’s unravel who gets to tell the story and whose stories are left out.

winston churchill
Image: azquotes.com

Victors not only win battles but also the privilege to narrate their stories. These narratives often emphasize their valor and righteousness, crafting a legacy that overshadows the defeated. This selective recounting influences how societies remember past events, molding collective memory to reflect the victors’ virtues and, at times, justifying their actions under the guise of heroism or divine mandate.

The Silenced Stories of the Conquered

Perhaps nowhere is the maxim “History is written by the victors” more vividly illustrated than in the conquest of the Aztec Empire by Hernán Cortés in the early 16th century. This episode showcases how the Spanish victors controlled the narrative, portraying their conquest as a noble mission to civilize and spread Christianity, while the catastrophic impact on the Aztec civilization—ranging from cultural erasure to demographic collapse due to violence and disease—was minimized or outright ignored in mainstream historical accounts.

In this context, the Aztec perspective is often overshadowed, if not lost, painting an incomplete picture of the conquest. The voices of the Aztecs and their interpretations of the events, their rich culture before the Spanish arrival, and their resistance during and after the conquest are relegated to the margins of history, if mentioned at all.

AspectMain Ideas
The Fall of the Aztecs 🌅In the 1500s, Hernán Cortés led a Spanish expedition defeating the Aztec Empire. The Spanish framed this as a mission to bring civilization and Christianity, minimizing the violence and suffering inflicted.
Silenced Voices 🤐The Aztec view is rarely found in history books. Most accounts come from the Spanish, leading to a one-sided story that glorifies the conquest while ignoring the Aztecs’ suffering and loss.
Reexamining the Narrative 🔍Modern researchers are digging deeper into Aztec and indigenous accounts, using archaeology and surviving texts to reveal a more complete story of the conquest, including the rich Aztec culture and the tragedy of their downfall.

The realization that history is shaped by the victors challenges us to critically examine the sources of our historical knowledge. It encourages us to question who is telling the story, whose interests are being served, and what might be missing from the narrative. This critical approach to history is not about dismissing the accomplishments of the victors but about recognizing the biases that influence historical accounts. It calls for a more inclusive historiography that amplifies the voices of historically marginalized groups and acknowledges the complexities of power dynamics in shaping history.

Hernan Cortes The Conquistador Who Beat the Aztecs
Image: ancient-origins.net

Wrap Up

The phrase “History is written by the victors” serves as a powerful reminder of the biases inherent in historical narratives. It underscores the importance of approaching history with a critical and inquisitive mindset, seeking out diverse perspectives to gain a fuller understanding of the past.


What is an example of how victors have shaped historical narratives?

A classic example is the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire in the early 16th century. The victorious Spaniards portrayed the conquest as a noble mission to civilize and Christianize the indigenous peoples, largely omitting the violence, diseases, and exploitation that accompanied their victory. This narrative minimized the devastating impact on the Aztec civilization and marginalized their perspective in historical accounts.

How are historians working to address the biases in historical narratives?

Modern historians and scholars are striving to present a more balanced view of history by seeking out and amplifying the voices and perspectives of those who were defeated or marginalized. This includes examining archaeological evidence, indigenous art, and surviving pre-Columbian and early colonial texts to uncover a fuller understanding of events like the Aztec conquest.

Why is it important to question and reexamine historical narratives?

Questioning and reexamining historical narratives is crucial for several reasons. It allows us to recognize and address the biases and omissions that have shaped our understanding of the past. By considering multiple perspectives, especially those of marginalized groups, we can develop a more accurate, comprehensive, and inclusive view of history. This approach helps us understand the complexities of past events and the diverse experiences of all people involved, fostering a more empathetic and informed perspective on history.

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