Iain King examines the relationship between war and thought in the writings of Niccolò Machiavelli.
“Men rise from one ambition to another; first they seek to secure themselves against attack, then they attack others.”
– Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, 1532
Machiavelli was many things: a scholar and writer, a spin doctor for the government of his city-state of Florence, a civil servant and diplomat, and, later, a political prisoner denounced as a traitor. But, for all his achievements, Machiavelli himself was most proud of his time as a soldier.
Machiavelli was born in 1469. His father was well established within Florence’s aristocratic elite, but, crucially, came from an illegitimate branch of the ruling dynasty. This meant Machiavelli was destined to be close to power, but never to wield it in his own name.
He was soon inducted into the inner sanctum of Florentine authority, and – following the death of the long-time ruler of the city state, Lorenzo Medici – rapidly gained a reputation for political effectiveness.
Aged just 29, Machiavelli was appointed to manage Florence’s military affairs – an important role in the midst of the Italian Wars, and one which, for the mercantile city of Florence, initially involved more diplomacy than fighting.
Energetic and determined, Machiavelli journeyed to the most magnificent courts of the day: to France, Germany, and an exhausting number of other city-states in Italy, including the Vatican, often several times.
As he would disclose in his later writings, Machiavelli felt no compunction to be consistent in his dealings with foreign leaders. Indeed, he regarded the art of shuttle diplomacy to be about putting ‘patriotic’ interests above his respect for those he was meeting. And, anticipating Clausewitz, Machiavelli saw a continuum between war and politics: he regarded diplomacy and the threat of military action as inseparable, almost interchangeable.
Machiavelli survived the downfall of his patron, Savonarola. Indeed, he managed to consolidate his power when Piero Soderini became head of state in 1502. Machiavelli was soon given responsibility for one of Florence’s most-sensitive issues: re-establishing authority over Pisa.
Pisa had revolted from Florentine rule in 1495, during the French invasion, and, though the French had been driven out, Pisa remained brazenly independent. Previous attempts to reassert control had failed – largely because the Florentines had relied on Swiss and other mercenaries, who had refused to advance, even after their cannon had breached Pisa’s city walls.
A citizen army
Machiavelli’s approach was different, arguing loyalty to the cause was more important than military professionalism. In 1506, he persuaded the Grand Council of Florence – by 817 votes to 317 – to back his idea for a citizenbased army.
He spent several months recruiting volunteers from around Tuscany, and had soon assembled a force of some 5,000 volunteers. Most were peasants with minimal training; Machiavelli was more certain of their patriotism than he was of their military effectiveness.
So he sought complementary ways to force Pisa to yield. He consulted Leonardo da Vinci, who sketched a plan to divert the River Arno, Pisa’s main water-supply. But several of Machiavelli’s men drowned trying to implement it: Da Vinci’s hydroengineering project was beyond the technology of the day.
Machiavelli was more successful at starving Pisa out: he bought off the besieged city’s main ally, the city of Lucca, which had been supplying Pisans with food. Machiavelli made sure that, when Pisa eventually did capitulate in June 1509, his loyal citizen army distributed food among the hungry inhabitants, welcoming the Pisans back into the fold in an early ‘hearts and minds’ operation.
But Machiavelli’s military triumph was short-lived. The Florentine premier Soderini remained allied to France, against Machiavelli’s advice, entangling Florence in further intrigue. Further political mis-steps irked Spain, which invaded in 1512 with a full and professional army.
Machiavelli’s citizen militia, and his embryonic cavalry force, were soundly defeated: 5,000 Florentine citizens were killed, many women raped, and the city’s churches looted.
The Medici were returned to power, and Machiavelli was swiftly turfed out of his multiple official positions. He was even imprisoned and tortured, before being exiled to his estate several miles from the city of Florence.
The Prince and The Art of War
Bitter at being ousted, and still ambitious for political power, he wrote The Prince in 1513. The book offers advice to the ruler of a state, richly informed by Machiavelli’s own experiences.
The text has been interpreted as a very long job-application, since Machiavelli was obviously pitching to be taken back on as an advisor to the ascendant Medici dynasty. He was turned down, and so began concentrating on other written works, which included a masterful history of Florence, political analyses of Imperial Rome, a novella, a comedy, and a satirical play.
Machiavelli’s 1520 book The Art of War was his most widely read publication during his lifetime. It sought to define a philosophy of warfare, drawing lessons from both Renaissance Europe and ancient civilisation. As might be expected from such a political figure, Machiavelli advocates psychological measures over brute force, recommends avoiding unnecessary battles, and discusses at length the requirements for a successful ambush.
Partly because of his military writings, Machiavelli was eventually hired by the Medici, in 1526, to review the city’s fortification. When they were overthrown the following year, however, the 58-year-old Machiavelli was already terminally sick: he died one month later.
The political scientist
To describe someone as ‘Machiavellian’ is almost always to insult them: the Renaissance scholar’s name has become synonymous with skulduggery, cunning, and immoral power-politics. Some of Machiavelli’s analysis is so cynical, JeanJacques Rousseau suggested it might have been a spoof, written to expose the underhand tactics of his contemporaries.
Machiavelli’s two most-famous books – The Prince and Discourses on Livy – offer practical advice for political leaders. Machiavelli sets out to discover the best way to govern a state, and uses contemporary and Classical examples to deduce brutal lessons.
To maintain power, he says, leaders should inspire fear rather than seek popularity. They must pretend to be virtuous, while using all means to eliminate any potential opposition to their rule. Machiavelli regards religion and ethics as mere tools to establish social order, which, in turn, he values only because it allows a ruler to preserve his authority.
Even though several of his books were banned, Machiavelli’s work became and remains very influential. Earlier writers had set out high-minded notions of what leaders ought to do, but Machiavelli drew lessons from what they really did, pioneering the modern study of political science.
Machiavelli himself was intelligent enough to anticipate that leaders of all shades would follow his ideas, while disowning them in public.
This article appeared in issue 52 of Military History Monthly. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.