Machiavelli prefaces his discussion by taking up the question whether it is wise to “praise the olden time,” finding fault with the present by comparison, and he insists that anyone born in Italy can have no other view: (Article length: 5000 words)
I know not . . . whether I deserve to be classed with those who deceive themselves, if in these Discourses I shall laud too much the times of ancient Rome and censure those of our own day. And truly, if the virtues that ruled then and the vices that prevail now were not as clear as the sun, I should be more reticent in my expressions, lest I should fall into the very error for which I reproach others. But the matter being so manifest that everybody sees it, I shall boldly and openly say what I think of the former times and of the present, so as to excite in the minds of the young men who may read my writings the desire to avoid the evils of the latter, and to prepare themselves to imitate the virtues of the former, whenever fortune presents them the occasion. For it is the duty of an honest man to teach others that good which the malignity of the times and of fortune has prevented his doing himself; so that amongst the many capable ones whom he has instructed, some one perhaps, more favored by Heaven, may perform it.
Despite the manifest difference between the Italy of his day, the early 1500s, and the great epoch of Roman expansion that had occurred nearly two thousand years previously, Machiavelli finds the good and evil in the world is remarkably the same, but that virtú (a word sometimes translated as “virtue” but which for Machiavelli meant strength or manliness) was passed among the nations in a process corresponding with the rise and fall of military empires:
Reflecting now upon the course of human affairs, I think that, as a whole, the world remains very much in the same condition, and the good in it always balances the evil; but the good and the evil change from one country to another, as we learn from the history of those ancient kingdoms that differed from each other in manners, whilst the world at large remained the same. The only difference being, that all the virtues that first found a place in Assyria were thence transferred to Media, and afterwards passed to Persia, and from there they came into Italy and to Rome. And if after the fall of the Roman Empire none other sprung up that endured for any length of time, and where the aggregate virtues of the world were kept together, we nevertheless see them scattered amongst many nations, as, for instance, in the kingdom of France, the Turkish empire, or that of the Sultan of Egypt, and nowadays the people of Germany, and before them those famous Saracens, who achieved such great things and conquered so great a part of the world, after having destroyed the Roman Empire of the East. The different peoples of these several countries, then, after the fall of the Roman Empire, have possessed and possess still in great part that virtue which is so much lamented and so sincerely praised. And those who live in those countries and praise the past more than the present may deceive themselves; but whoever is born in Italy and Greece, and has not become either an Ultramontane in Italy or a Turk in Greece, has good reason to find fault with his own and to praise the olden times; for in their past there are many things worthy of the highest admiration, whilst the present has nothing that compensates for all the extreme misery, infamy, and degradation of a period where there is neither observance of religion, law, or military discipline, and which is stained by every species of the lowest brutality; and these vices are the more detestable as they exist amongst those who sit in the tribunals as judges, and hold all power in their hands, and claim to be adored.
In describing the Roman ascent, Machiavelli stresses the fact that Rome never fought two wars simultaneously. They “did not engage in war with the Latins until they had beaten the Samnites so completely that the Romans themselves had to protect them with their arms; nor did they combat the Tuscans until after they had subjugated the Latins, and had by repeated defeats completely enervated the Samnites. Doubtless if these two powerful nations had united against Rome whilst their strength was yet unbroken, it may readily be supposed that they could have destroyed the Roman republic.” But such was not the case. He provides a brief sketch of the succession of wars that successively subdued its enemies in Italy and abroad and notes that “when these had been victoriously terminated, there remained in the whole world neither prince nor republic that could, alone or unitedly, have resisted the Roman power.” The reason for its success was not good fortune but extremely clever and deceptive technique:
[I]f we examine into the cause of that good fortune we shall readily find it; for it is most certain that when a prince or a people attain that degree of reputation that all the neighboring princes and peoples fear to attack him, none of them will ever venture to do it except under the force of necessity; so that it will be, as it were, at the option of that potent prince or people to make war upon such neighboring powers as may seem advantageous, whilst adroitly keeping the others quiet. And this he can easily do, partly by the respect they have for his power, and partly because they are deceived by the means employed to keep them quiet. And other powers that are more distant and have no immediate intercourse with him, will look upon this as a matter too remote for them to be concerned about, and will continue in this error until the conflagration spreads to their door, when they will have no means for extinguishing it except their own forces, which will no longer suffice when the fire has once gained the upper hand. I will say nothing of how the Samnites remained indifferent spectators when they saw the Volscians and Equeans defeated by the Romans; and not to be too prolix I will at once come to the Carthaginians, who had already acquired great power and reputation when the Romans were fighting with the Samnites and the Tuscans; for they were masters of all Africa, they held Sardinia and Sicily, and had already a foothold in Spain. Their own power, and the fact that they were remote from the confines of Rome, made them indifferent about attacking the Romans, or succoring the Samnites and Tuscans, but they did what men are apt to do with regard to a growing power, they rather sought by an alliance with the Romans to secure their friendship. Nor did they become aware of the error they had committed until after the Romans, having subjugated all the nations situated between them and the Carthaginians, began to contest the dominion of Sicily and Spain with them. The same thing happened to the Gauls as to the Carthaginians, and also to King Philip of Macedon and to Antiochus. Each one of these believed that, whilst the Romans were occupied with the other, they would be overcome, and that then it would be time enough either by peace or war to secure themselves against the Romans. So that I believe that the good fortune which followed the Romans in these parts would have equally attended other princes who had acted as the Romans did, and had displayed the same courage and sagacity.
Despite Machiavelli’s praise of Roman “courage and sagacity,” he emphasized the lost liberty of the peoples they conquered, and seemed genuinely to mourn over it:
Nothing required so much effort on the part of the Romans to subdue the nations around them, as well as those of more distant countries, as the love of liberty which these people cherished in those days; and which they defended with so much obstinacy, that nothing but the exceeding valor of the Romans could ever have subjugated them. For we know from many instances to what danger they exposed themselves to preserve or recover their liberty, and what vengeance they practised upon those who had deprived them of it. The lessons of history teach us also, on the other hand, the injuries people suffer from servitude.
Machiavelli’s republican sympathies burn brightly as he contemplates whence arose the love of liberty among the independent nations, such as the Tuscans, the Romans, and the Samnites, who inhabited Italy before Roman expansion overwhelmed its rivals.
And it is easy to understand whence that affection for liberty arose in the people, for they had seen that cities never increased in dominion or wealth unless they were free. And certainly it is wonderful to think of the greatness which Athens attained within the space of a hundred years after having freed herself from the tyranny of Pisistratus; and still more wonderful is it to reflect upon the greatness which Rome achieved after she was rid of her kings. The cause of this is manifest, for it is not individual prosperity, but the general good, that makes cities great; and certainly the general good is regarded nowhere but in republics.
Reflecting on the causes of the great transformation such that “in ancient times the people were more devoted to liberty than in the present,” Machiavelli attributes this to a Christian religion that made men feeble and adds that another important reason was the Roman conquest itself, which kicked the life out of the subdued.
I believe that [the change in the affection for liberty between ancient and modern times] resulted from this, that men were stronger in those days, which I believe to be attributable to the difference of education, founded upon the difference of their religion and ours. For, as our religion teaches us the truth and the true way of life, it causes us to attach less value to the honors and possessions of this world; whilst the Pagans, esteeming those things as the highest good, were more energetic and ferocious in their actions. We may observe this also in most of their institutions, beginning with the magnificence of their sacrifices as compared with the humility of ours, which are gentle solemnities rather than magnificent ones, and have nothing of energy or ferocity in them, whilst in theirs there was no lack of pomp and show, to which was superadded the ferocious and bloody nature of the sacrifice by the slaughter of many animals, and the familiarity with this terrible sight assimilated the nature of men to their sacrificial ceremonies. Besides this, the Pagan religion deified only men who had achieved great glory, such as commanders of armies and chiefs of republics, whilst ours glorifies more the humble and contemplative men than the men of action. Our religion, moreover, places the supreme happiness in humility, lowliness, and a contempt for worldly objects, whilst the other, on the contrary, places the supreme good in grandeur of soul, strength of body, and all such other qualities as render men formidable; and if our religion claims of us fortitude of soul, it is more to enable us to suffer than to achieve great deeds.
These principles seem to me to have made men feeble, and caused them to become an easy prey to evil-minded men, who can control them more securely, seeing that the great body of men, for the sake of gaining Paradise, are more disposed to endure injuries than to avenge them. And although it would seem that the world has become effeminate and Heaven disarmed, yet this arises unquestionably from the baseness of men, who have interpreted our religion according to the promptings of indolence rather than those of virtue. For if we were to reflect that our religion permits us to exalt and defend our country, we should see that according to it we ought also to love and honor our country, and prepare ourselves so as to be capable of defending her. It is this education, then, and this false interpretation of our religion, that is the cause of there not being so many republics nowadays as there were anciently; and that there is no longer the same love of liberty amongst the people now as there was then. I believe, however, that another reason for this will be found in the fact that the Roman Empire, by force of arms, destroyed all the republics and free cities; and although that empire was afterwards itself dissolved, yet these cities could not reunite themselves nor reorganize their civil institutions, except in a very few instances.
Machiavelli considers the case of the Samnites, in antiquity a well governed and formidable rival to Rome, whose country was “thickly inhabited” and full of cities, but had in Machiavelli’s day become a virtual desert. The cause for this differing result arose from one overriding fact: “that formerly that people enjoyed freedom, and now they live in servitude, for . . . only those cities and countries that are free can achieve greatness.” Another lesson follows on the superiority of free government:
Population is greater there because marriages are more free and offer more advantages to the citizen; for people will gladly have children when they know that they can support them, and that they will not be deprived of their patrimony, and where they know that their children not only are born free and not slaves, but, if they possess talents and virtue, can arrive at the highest dignities of the state. In free countries we also see wealth increase more rapidly, both that which results from the culture of the soil and that which is produced by industry and art; for everybody gladly multiplies those things, and seeks to acquire those goods the possession of which he can tranquilly enjoy. Thence men vie with each other to increase both private and public wealth, which consequently increase in an extraordinary manner.
But the contrary of all this takes place in countries that are subject to another; and the more rigorous the subjection of the people, the more will they be deprived of all the good to which they had previously been accustomed. And the hardest of all servitudes is to be subject to a republic, and this for these reasons: first, because it is more enduring, and there is no hope of escaping from it; and secondly, because republics aim to enervate and weaken all other states so as to increase their own power. This is not the case with a prince who holds another country in subjection, unless indeed he should be a barbarous devastator of countries and a destroyer of all human civilization, such as the princes of the Orient. But if he be possessed of only ordinary humanity, he will treat all cities that are subject to him equally well, and will leave them in the enjoyment of their arts and industries, and measurably all their ancient institutions. So that if they cannot grow the same as if they were free, they will at least not be ruined whilst in bondage.
Two centuries after Machiavelli, Montesquieu wrote that the “spirit of monarchy is war and expansion; the spirit of republics is peace and moderation.” Machiavelli, by contrast, identifies war and expansion with republicanism, whether ancient or modern, and he seems to think that a prince, unless he was a monster, would treat a population he subjected much better than a republic, whose rule was to weaken its neighbors while increasing its own power. But there was a crucial difference among the ancient republics in how they sought the increase of their power that made all the difference. Whereas Athens and Sparta were hostile to strangers and refused to admit them to citizenship, Rome both broke its enemies and welcomed them. It tried by all possible means to increase its population, both by “making it easy and secure for strangers to come and establish themselves there” and, after destroying the neighboring cities, compelling “their inhabitants to come and dwell” among them.
These principles were so strictly observed by the Romans, that, in the time of the sixth king, Rome had already eighty thousand inhabitants capable of bearing arms. The Romans acted like a good husbandman, who for the purpose of strengthening a tree and making it produce more fruit and to mature it better, cuts off the first shoots it puts out, so that by retaining the sap and vigor in the trunk the tree may afterwards put forth more abundant branches and fruit. . . . Rome, from having by the above two methods increased its population, was enabled to put two hundred thousand men into the field, whilst Sparta and Athens could not raise more than twenty thousand each.
This difference in policy is one of Machiavelli’s most trenchant examples showing the effect of different policies, as opposed to better material circumstances or good fortune, in explaining Rome’s success. Lycurgus, the founder of the Spartan republic, “did everything possible to prevent strangers from coming into the city," prohibiting foreigners from becoming citizens through marriage and “all other intercourse and commerce that bring men together.” Nothing could compensate for the relative weakness that this comparative lack of population imposed on Sparta:
Now, as all the actions of men resemble those of nature, it is neither natural nor possible that a slender trunk should support great branches; and thus a small republic cannot conquer and hold cities and kingdoms that are larger and more powerful than herself, and if she does conquer them, she will experience the same fate as a tree whose branches are larger than the trunk, which will not be able to support them, and will be bent by every little breeze that blows.
Such was the case with Sparta when she had conquered all the cities of Greece; but no sooner did Thebes revolt, than all the other cities revolted likewise, and the trunk was quickly left without any branches. This could not have happened to Rome, whose trunk was so strong that it could easily support all its branches. The above modes of proceeding, then, together with others of which we shall speak hereafter, made Rome great and most powerful, which Titus Livius points out in these few words: “Rome grew, whilst Alba was ruined.”
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In chapter 4 of the second book of the Discourses, Machiavelli examined “the three methods of aggrandizement” employed by republics. One, observed by the ancient Tuscans and Greeks and by the modern Swiss, was “to form a confederation of several republics, neither of which had any eminence over the other in rank or authority.” The second method, employed by the Romans, “was to make associates of other states; reserving to themselves, however, the rights of sovereignty, the seat of empire, and the glory of their enterprises.” The third method, followed by the Spartans and the Athenians (and his own city of Florence), “was to make the conquered people immediately subjects, and not associates.” Machiavelli’s discussion of the best mode of aggrandizement—he hates the third, greatly admires the second, and has a grudging admiration for the first—is of key importance in understanding his approach to foreign policy.
Of these three methods [the third] is perfectly useless, as was proved by these two republics [Athens and Sparta], who perished from no other cause than from having made conquests which they could not maintain. For to undertake the government of conquered cities by violence, especially when they have been accustomed to the enjoyment of liberty, is a most difficult and troublesome task; and unless you are powerfully armed, you will never secure their obedience nor be able to govern them. And to enable you to be thus powerful it becomes necessary to have associates, by whose aid you can increase the population of your own city; and as neither Sparta nor Athens did either of these things, their conquests proved perfectly useless.
The condemnation given to Athens and Sparta for attempting to rule by violence is not based on moral grounds. Machiavelli sees it proceeding more from stupidity than evil intent. In the words of Talleyrand, the French foreign minister under Napoleon: “it is worse than a crime; it is an error.” This is made apparent in Machiavelli’s subsequent praise of Rome:
Rome followed the second plan, and did both things [making associates and increasing population], and consequently rose to such exceeding power; and as she was the only state that persistently adhered to this system, so she was also the only one that attained such great power. Having created for herself many associates throughout Italy, she granted to them in many respects an almost entire equality, always, however, reserving to herself the seat of empire and the right of command; so that these associates (without being themselves aware of it) devoted their own efforts and blood to their own subjugation. For so soon as the Romans began to lead their armies beyond the limits of Italy, they reduced other kingdoms to provinces, and made subjects of those who, having been accustomed to live under kings, were indifferent to becoming subjects of another; and from having Roman governors, and having been conquered by Roman arms, they recognized no superior to the Romans. Thus the associates of Rome in Italy found themselves all at once surrounded by Roman subjects, and at the same time pressed by a powerful city like Rome; and when they became aware of the trap into which they had been led, it was too late to remedy the evil, for Rome had become too powerful by the acquisition of foreign provinces, as also within herself by the increased population which she had armed. And although these associates conspired together to revenge the wrongs inflicted upon them by Rome, yet they were quickly subdued, and their condition made even worse; for from associates they were degraded to subjects. This mode of proceeding (as has been said) was practised only by the Romans; and a republic desirous of aggrandizement should adopt no other plan, for experience has proved that there is none better or more sure.
The trap into which Rome led its associates would seem not to be easily replicable. After all, the promise of nearly equal association was a false one, and meant, in the end, that Rome’s allies were “degraded to subjects.” Would not others given such assurances by a rising power, having absorbed Machiavelli’s history lesson, learn to distrust them? For what seems to distinguish the Roman from the Spartan and Athenian methods, apart from the crucial difference in population base, is that the latter openly proclaimed their ambition of ruling by violence, whereas the Romans hid their objective of subjugation and indeed covered it in the language of association and equality. Despite this evident duplicity, Machiavelli is in no doubt that the Roman method is the best; “next best” is the method of forming confederations:
[For if that method of confederation] does not admit of extensive conquests, it has at least two other advantages: the one, not to become easily involved in war, and the other, that whatever conquests are made are easily preserved. The reason why a confederation of republics cannot well make extensive conquests is, that they are not a compact body, and do not have a central seat of power, which embarrasses consultation and concentrated action. It also makes them less desirous of dominion, for, being composed of numerous communities that are to share in this dominion, they do not value conquests as much as a single republic that expects to enjoy the exclusive benefit of them herself. Furthermore, they are governed by a council, which naturally causes their resolutions to be more tardy than those that emanate from a single centre.
This is a perceptive discussion of what might be termed the modalities of multilateralism, suggesting why multilateral alliances have difficulty reaching consensus and are hobbled from energetic action by the difficulty of getting the parties to an agreement on cost and benefits. He goes on to argue that 12 to 14 is the maximum number of such confederate states, an argument with keen implications in the early days of the American union, with its thirteen united states, and not without relevance today in considering the dynamics of multilateral organizations.
Experience has also shown that this system of confederation has certain limits, which they have in no instance transgressed; being composed of twelve or fourteen states at most, they cannot well extend beyond that number, as their mutual defence would become difficult, and therefore they seek no further extension of their dominion, — either because necessity does not push them to it, or because they see no advantage in further conquests, for the reason given above. For in such case they would have to do one of two things: either to continue adding other states to their confederation, which would then become so numerous as to create confusion, or they would have to make the conquered people subjects. And as they see the difficulties of this, and the little advantage that would result from it, they attach no value to an extension of their dominion.
Machiavelli now summarizes his discussion, remarking again—in words implicitly condemnatory of Florence’s own policy--“that to make conquered people subjects has ever been a source of weakness and of little profit, and that when carried too far it has quickly proved ruinous to the conqueror. And if this system of making subjects is disadvantageous to warlike republics, how much more pernicious must it be for such as have no armies, as is the case with the Italian republics of our day?” With that method ruled out, there remains “the excellence of the plan adopted by the Romans, which is the more to be admired as they had no previous example to guide them, and which has not been followed by any other state since Rome.” Machiavelli wants his contemporaries to take seriously the admonition to imitate the Romans and is appalled that this rich experience has not “even been taken into account by anyone,” with the result that “Italy has become the prey of whoever has chosen to attack her.” But he also seems to ascribe the neglect of ancient precedents not simply to ignorance but also to the belief that such precedents were inapplicable to contemporary Italian affairs and therefore useless. On the face of it, Machiavelli does not accept this conclusion; he will only allow that if imitating the Romans seems too difficult, it should not be too difficult to imitate the confederate method of the Tuscans, “especially the Tuscans of the present day.”
For if [the ancient Tuscans] failed to acquire that power in Italy which the Roman method of proceeding would have given them, they at least lived for a long time in security, with much glory of dominion and of arms, and high praise for their manners and religion. This power and glory of the ancient Tuscans was first checked by the Gauls, and afterwards crushed by the Romans; and was so completely annihilated, that, although two thousand years ago the power of the Tuscans was very great, yet now there is scarcely any memento or vestige of it.
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Perhaps the most interesting feature of Machiavelli’s discussion is that one might from his premises reject his conclusion. Taking the horrific costs of the Roman conquest for subjugated peoples into full view, which Machiavelli seems perfectly willing to do; digesting the sheer unlikelihood of making commercial Florence, with its unarmed populace and dependence on mercenaries, the leader of a project to revive Roman glory; and accepting, too, that any prince who had the benefit of reading Machiavelli’s Roman history would see at once that the assurances of a rising power that modeled itself on Rome could not be believed, and that such a prince was thus more likely to ally with the weak than to succor the strong; it would seem to follow that the method of confederation offered a more eligible means to Italian security and freedom than the Roman method. That Machiavelli would not draw this conclusion is not easily understandable. It suggests that his thought remained wedded to ideals of glory and conquest, in preference to free association. That made him a poor guide—in profession, at least, if not in practice—in resolving Italy’s predicament. ("If not in practice" because, as Maurizio Viroli shows in his effusive and revealing biography of Machiavelli, Niccolo's Smile, Machiavelli did recognize the disease of excessive self-regard that made the Italian states incapable of effectual opposition to foreign invasion and occupation.)
We ought not to leave this discussion of Machiavelli without noting the parallel it suggests with a contemporary international order defined in terms of American hegemony. The “liberal Leviathan” that now presides—very shakily, it is true—over the international system lies somewhere between the ideal types of “confederation” and “empire.” It is usually described as a hegemony (or leadership in a coalition of allies). It partakes, however, of both confederal and imperial tendencies and is conscious that neither ideal type by itself can offer a solution to the problem of international order. Machiavelli’s ambivalence on the question—confederation or empire?—is suggestive of America’s own.
* * *I have used the edition of the Discourses available at Liberty Fund’s Online Library of Liberty. See also Max Lerner, ed., The Prince and the Discourses (New York: Modern Library, 1950). a cheap and handy edition. Both the online edition and the Lerner edition use the Christian E. Detmold translation, published as The Historical, Political, and Diplomatic Writings of Niccolo Machiavelli (Boston, 1882), 4 volumes. Portrait of Machiavelli by Santi di Tito from Wikipedia.