Military history


Unquestionably Niccolò Machiavelli is one of the great political theorists and literary artists of our civilization. But his importance as a military thinker has been generally overlooked in the English-speaking world, perhaps because many historians have tended to ignore the theory and practice of war. To some extent, the neglect of this aspect of Machiavelli’s virtuosity may be remedied by reprinting the eighteenth-century translation by Ellis Farneworth of the Arte della guerra, the least known of the major “non-literary” works of the Florentine. However, another reason for the reprinting exists. Only by the careful consideration of The Art of War in relation to The Prince and The Discourses can one fully grasp the relevance of Machiavelli’s military thought for his political ideas, a relevance seldom appreciated by scholars.

The introductory essay, therefore, will serve a dual purpose: to discuss the work as a military classic, and to suggest the nature of the connection between the author’s military and political theory. Readers who are concerned primarily with military history will have a special interest in the first three sections. Students of political ideas may find more to their taste in the last four sections.


Machiavelli’s lifelong preoccupation with military affairs should surprise no one who is familiar with the politics of his day, with his activity in the Florentine civil service, and with his intellectual pursuits. Born in 1469, Machiavelli reached manhood at the close of Italy’s long period of relative isolation from European affairs.1 By the middle of the fifteenth century, an unstable balance of power began to characterize the relations among the various Italian republics and principalities, a harbinger of the nation-state system which was to crystallize later in Western Europe. The Italian experience produced the new diplomacy with resident ambassadors and the beginnings of regularized procedures in the intercourse of states. But the reduction of tensions and overt military conflict that resulted from a balance of power in miniature was abruptly terminated in 1494 by the invasion of the French under Charles VIII, who was bent upon the conquest of Naples. Until 1529 the peninsula was a battleground in the struggle for power among the rulers of France, Spain, and Germany. Four French expeditions followed that of Charles, one organized by Louis XII in 1499, and three by Francis I, in 1515, 1525, and 1527. French intervention ended in 1529 with a renunciation of all claims to Italian territory and a permanent withdrawal. The internal condition of Florence—like the domestic politics of her neighbors—had to a great extent become a function of the international conflict on Italian soil. For example, the citizens of Florence had twice managed to throw off the rule of the Medici, in 1494 and 1527; in both cases, however, the intervention of Spanish troops returned the family to power: first in 1512, serving the Holy League of Julius II, and then in 1529, serving the Emperor Charles V. Affairs of the city were rendered more difficult by the fact that two of the Popes were Medici, Leo X (1513-1521) and Clement VII (1523-1534). So actively engaged was the Church in the complex diplomatic maneuvering and political intrigue of the age, that it alternated support between France and Spain some ten times, changes in policy that resulted from the personal ambitions of the Popes.

In an age of constant warfare, of alliance and counter-alli-ance, of assassination and coup d’état, the only feasible solution to the civic ills of a small state like Florence might very well appear to a contemporary observer to be of a military nature, as suggested perhaps by the exploits of Cesare Borgia, son of Pope Alexander VI. Initially aided by Louis XII, the young Borgia, who combined violence and cunning with a rough justice toward his subjects, had created between 1498 and 1503, in a very vigorous and ruthless manner, the basis for a unified, powerful papal state. Had it not been for his own illness at the time of his father’s death and the election of Julius II to be Pope, Cesare might well have become the supreme force in Italian politics. To the patriotic, republican Machiavelli, a Borgia-like figure could very well be the answer to Italy’s predicament. A savior with a sword—in the style of the classical hero-founder—might, by replacing the customary mercenary troops with a citizens’ militia, be able to carve an orderly commonwealth out of tumultuous north-central Italy, drive forth the foreign barbarians, and end the temporal ambitions of Rome. So Machiavelli pleaded in the final chapter of The Prince, to which he added a brief explanation of the technical military innovation by which he believed his dream would become an actuality.2

Machiavelli’s faith in a military remedy for the ills of Italy is certainly in part a reflection of his own practical experience in government. Although never a soldier, as a bureaucrat he was extremely active in military matters.3 The fourteen years (1498-1512) during which he served Florence in a permanent official capacity were largely devoted to the problems of war and defense. In 1498 he was appointed second Chancellor and Secretary of the Ten on Liberty and Peace, an executive body concerned with military and foreign affairs. Most of his diplomatic missions, in the course of which he was to visit France, Switzerland, and Germany, were either directly or indirectly related to military concerns and provided him with the occasion to broaden his knowledge of the art of war by observation and discussion. Between diplomatic missions he was often occupied with military duties, which were necessitated primarily by his government’s continual efforts to reconquer Pisa after her successful revolt in 1495. In fact, Machiavelli’s first official mission was in regard to the Pisan war in 1498. His career as a theorist began and ended with state papers on military subjects: in 1498 he wrote The Discourse on the War with Pisa, and in 1526 he reported to the Pope on the defenses of Florence. Apparently his initial experience with an actual military operation came in the summer of 1500 when he was secretary to the two Florentine Commissioners of War who had been assigned to oversee the army of Gascon and Swiss mercenaries at the siege of the rival city on the River Arno. The recalcitrance of the troops over a question of payment turned the campaign into a fiasco. Because of this unfortunate experience and previous ones of a similar nature, Florence, in order to be less dependent upon mercenaries, began to rely increasingly upon levies of conscripts from the rural areas for auxiliary garrison and pioneer duties. In preparation for what proved to be the unsuccessful summer campaign of 1503 against Pisa, Machiavelli was charged with raising 2,000 rural conscripts as an auxiliary force for some 3,500 mercenaries. The failure of the campaign apparently emboldened Machiavelli’s advocacy of the replacement of mercenaries by a regular combat militia. He found an enthusiastic supporter of the scheme in Cardinal Francesco Soderini, brother of Piero Soderini who had been elected Gonfalonier of Justice, or Chief Magistrate, of Florence for life in 1502. But Piero and other Florentine leaders evidently believed that for the present the institution of a citizens’ militia was politically unfeasible. In the summer of 1504 Machiavelli was associated with the highly imaginative but impractical effort to divert the Arno so as to cut Pisa’s line of communication to the sea. This ingenious venture, with which Leonardo da Vinci seems to have been connected, may have been the brain-child of the Secretary. Finally in December 1505, after another disastrous summer campaign, Soderini and the Ten, at the end of their resources, authorized Machiavelli to raise a militia. However, full legislative approval was not sought until the Secretary could show something for his efforts.

Like other medieval city-states, Florence had in times past depended upon a citizens’ army. Since the beginning of the fourteenth century, increasing prosperity and the refusal of the wealthy to bear arms had resulted in a general reliance upon mercenaries by the Italian commercial states. The condottieri often proved more dangerous to their civic employers than to the enemy. In order to extract funds from their employers, soldiers of fortune might unnecessarily prolong a campaign, or engage in a kind of sit-down strike, or threaten to retire altogether in an hour of crisis. Many did not hesitate at blackmail or treachery if profit were involved, and some even seized power for themselves in the states that they were supposedly defending. Besides endangering the finances and civic order of a commonwealth, the condottieri were often militarily ineffectual.4 Perhaps the chess game style of their mode of warfare has been exaggerated; nevertheless, mercenary captains tended to be more intent upon preserving their own forces and drawing their ample stipends than upon destroying the enemy. The military weakness of the condottieri became all too apparent in their appalling defeat at the battle of Fornovo on July 6, 1495, inflicted by the numerically inferior —but seasoned and determined—troops of Charles VIII.

Clearly some answer to the problem of the condottieri had to be discovered if civil order in Florence were to be secure internally and externally. Yet no alternative to an army of native or foreign mercenaries was without serious objections. A professional standing army of citizens would be an exhaustive drain upon the already depleted finances of the state and could very well become an instrument of a would-be tyrant. A militia, recruited from volunteers, would probably be numerically inadequate, while a conscripted militia might, like a standing army, constitute a menace to the republic. In addition, a part-time militia, volunteer or conscript, might be incapable of mastering the complexities of modern warfare against fully trained and experienced soldiers. Machiavelli, enchanted as he was with the idea of the ancient republican citizens’ armies of Greece and Rome, believed that the conscription of a combat militia was the only viable course for his city. The nature of the Florentine state, however, presented an obstacle to the project. Any large body of disciplined infantry could not be recruited from the city itself, for citizens would expect to serve in the cavalry and certainly were more eager to command than to be commanded. Hence, Machiavelli concluded that instead of citizens of full status, the subjects of the city would have to be conscripted; of these subjects, the residents of the cantado, the rural areas, were to be preferred to the inhabitants of subjugated urban centers, such as Arezzo and Pistoia, within Florentine territory. The difficulty with the plan was that a militia of non-citizens from the cantado would never display the loyalty and enthusiasm of citizens in defending the interests of the republic. Nevertheless, since there was no very obvious alternative, the chance would have to be taken. Just after Christmas Day 1505, Machiavelli left the city with his commission to begin to enroll a militia from the cantado. His efforts were interrupted by the routine affairs of office in the spring of 1506, and again in October by the task of supplying the troops of Julius II, which were passing through the territory. At this time Machiavelli estimated that more than 5,000 men had been recruited. Since the Florentine citizenry seemed less skeptical about a militia after seeing the fruits of the Secretary’s year of labor, the famous militia ordinance, largely drafted by Machiavelli, was passed on December 6, 1506. The ordinance provided for the enlistment of at least 10,000 infantry by the summer of 1507 to consist, after the model of the Swiss formations, of seventy per cent pikemen; the remaining thirty per cent was to be made up of all other arms. Responsibility for implementing the statute naturally fell to Machiavelli who was named Secretary of the newly constituted Nine of Militia. After two busy years we find him, in the spring of 1509, at the siege of Pisa where he is superintending the three camps of the Florentine army, directing their supply, keeping the behavior of the men under constant surveillance, and informing his government of all developments. The laurel for Machiavelli’s long and arduous toil was the fall of the city on June 8, with the resulting glory for his victorious militia. Authority was soon granted to raise a force of light cavalry, a commission at which he worked intermittently for the next two years. A cavalry ordinance was passed on March 23, 1512, under the threat of an invasion by Imperial forces. Machiavelli skillfully mobilized the 12,000 militiamen for the city’s defense. But the amateur citizen-soldiers were completely routed by the professional Spanish troops of the Emperor. The Medici and their followers, banished since 1494, once more came to power. Unjustly accused of participating in a treasonable conspiracy, Machiavelli was imprisoned and tortured early in 1513. After a month of confinement he was released and allowed to live in retirement at Sant’ Andrea, seven miles from Florence, on the small estate that he had inherited from his father.

Although he was never to regain his former office, he was once more to participate in Florentine military affairs during the last year of his life. Visiting Rome in 1525 to present Clement VII with the completed History of Florence, which the Pontiff, as Cardinal Giulio de’Medici, had commissioned in 1520, Machiavelli failed to convince his old friend Francesco Guicciardini, the President of the Romagna, that a militia should be raised for the defense of that realm against the Emperor Charles V, the recent victor at Pavia. Machiavelli’s failure, however, must have been somewhat lightened by learning that he was again eligible to hold public office in Florence. In the spring of 1526 he was called upon by Guicciardini, who was acting for the Pope, to assist Count Pietro Navarra, a distinguished military engineer, in strengthening the fortifications of Florence. Machiavelli’s report to Rome included a proposal for a design that has been lauded by modern experts. Subsequently, he was appointed Secretary of the newly created Five of the Walls, which was to supervise the renovation of the city’s defenses. During the next months, almost up to his death, Machiavelli was in the field with the papal armies serving his city and the newly appointed Lieutenant General of the allied forces, Guicciardini.

Fortune, however, was as fickle as ever, for the Medici-controlled government of Florence, whose full confidence Machiavelli appears to have won after so many years, was overthrown by the republican party. As in 1512, Machiavelli lost his position; a month later on June 21, 1527, he died. Ironically his end came just when it seemed that a new force of militia would be created. Since the early part of the year, a heated debate had been taking place about the advisability of reviving the militia to prepare for the attack of Charles V. Following the successful May revolution, Clement VII settled his differences with Charles, who in turn promised to return the Medici to power after the capture of Florence. The matter of raising a militia for the defense of Florence, therefore, was of the utmost urgency. Conscription of citizens, as well as of non-citizens from the cantado, was authorized by an ordinance of November 6, 1527, which was drafted and executed by the secretary of the newly resurrected Ten, Donato Gianotti, an old friend and admirer of the author of The Art of War. Florence fell in 1530 but not before the urban militia had given a courageous account of itself. Among the fallen conscripts of that year, was Lodovico Machiavelli, son of Niccolò.

Machiavelli’s actual participation in the military affairs of Florence was combined with a keen intellectual interest in the art of war. He was sensitive to the traditional humanistic veneration for the military greatness of the Romans, and to the pleas of Petrarch and Salutati for an Italian resurgence, beginning with the expulsion of the foreign barbarians. Another important influence was the continuing debate during the Quattrocento concerning the relative merits of militia and mercenary forces, and the position taken by men like Leonardo Bruni and Flavio Biondi—wholehearted protagonists of a militia to be patterned along the lines of a Roman legion. But the principal fount of the military ideas of Machiavelli was the thought of the ancients. The standard classical military treatises by Frontinus, Aelian Tacticus (Aelianus), Vegetius, and Modestus were readily available. They were published in a single volume in Rome in 1487 by Eucharius Silber, reprinted in 1494 and 1497, and also appeared in a Bolognese edition, 1497. Both Latin and Italian translations of the works of Xenophon—Machiavelli did not know Greek—also existed. Xenophon wrote only one technical military manual, the Hipparchicus (On the Cavalry Commander), and Machiavelli may have read it. However, the views upon military and civic leadership and organization expressed in the Hiero and in the Cyropaedia, a work described by Major General Fuller as “largely a textbook on generalship,”5 would seem to have influenced the Florentine.6 After Livy, Xenophon is the most widely cited author in The Discourses.7 Whereas Livy along with Frontinus, Plutarch, Polybius, Tacitus, and Vegetius were to a great extent used by Machiavelli as compendia of facts about ancient politics and war, Xenophon may well have been an important source of idea and insight. Machiavelli’s intellectual interest in the art of war is by no means confined to antiquity; numerous examples from modern history are cited in his writings. Early evidence for his research into modern military history is the description in his handwriting of the battle of Anghiari found in Leonardo da Vinci’s manuscript known as the Codex Atlanticus; it is there to guide that artist in a painting for the city of Florence, one of the many commissions he never executed. Machiavelli’s intellectual passion for the military art, however, is not so much demonstrated by referring to the numerous military examples and precepts cited in his works as it is by realizing that for him, as for Xenophon, a military model is apparently crucial for a theory of politics.8


Machiavelli’s reputation as a military theorist rests primarily upon The Art of War (1521), the only one of his major works to be published during his lifetime, and the one which he may have believed to be his most important.9 Even if he had never written the book, his name would still figure in military annals as an early champion of a popular militia, and because of his recommendations on warfare in The Prince and The Discourses. These scattered recommendations are elaborated in The Art of War, in dialogue form, a common Renaissance genre for certain kinds of technical treatises. The preface of the work, dedicated to a young friend, Lorenzo Strozzi, to whom Machiavelli was indebted for a recent kindness, explains the intimate relationship existing between military and civic affairs. Book I discloses a convivial scene during 1516 in the gardens of the Florentine gentleman, Cosimo Rucellai, who died in 1519. Those present besides the host are his guest of honor, the Papal Captain, Fabrizio Colonna,10 who has paused for rest and refreshment upon his way to Rome from the wars in Lombardy, and a group of Cosimo’s intimates: Zanobi Buondelmonti, Battista della Palla, and Luigi Alamanni. Dinner and entertainment concluded, the friends escape the afternoon sun in a shaded corner. In fact, the gathering is the Orti Oricellari, a circle for literary, philosophical, and political discussion founded by Bernardo Rucellai and revived by his grandson, Cosimo.11 Machiavelli, who probably joined this society of intellectuals in 1515 or somewhat later, wrote for its edification The Discourses, which is dedicated to Cosimo and Zanobi. Another work, The Life of Castruccio Castracani (1520), is inscribed to Zanobi and Luigi Alamanni. The seven books in The Art of War are virtually the monologue of Fabrizio about the military precepts of the ancients and their application to the reformation of contemporary military science. Cosimo, the principal interlocutor of the first two books, retires in favor of Luigi in the third book; the last four books are divided between Zanobi and Battista. Always referring to the practice of the ancients, Fabrizio begins by analyzing the deplorable condition into which the Italian art of war has fallen. He strongly urges the resuscitation of the art by means of a citizens’ militia and discourses at length upon the recruitment of the men and officers for such an army. Next, in Book II, he discusses the proper arming, organization, and training of the militia. Two books follow on the order of battle. Book III offers a detailed examination of classical battle formation and method, and includes a description of a model battle which incorporates the lessons previously learned. The subjects of Book IV are tactics, planning, stratagems to be used before, during, and after a battle, generalship, and morale. In the last three books the topics are the order of march (V); encampment, including decampment, and the provisioning and welfare of troops (VI); and the defense and attack of towns and fortresses (VII). Fabrizio concludes with a comment upon the superior discipline and military skill of a militia organized according to ancient practice, condemns mercenary armies, and laments that fortune has never provided him with the opportunity of creating and leading the kind of ideal army he has been describing.

The Art of War is the first full-scale modern attempt to revive and popularize classical military thought. While Machiavelli was working on the book, he referred to it by the Latin title De re militari.12 The principal ancient sources upon which he relies are Vegetius, Frontinus, Polybius, and Livy.13 In addition he makes use of Caesar, Josephus, Plutarch, and others. Aelian Tacticus, the early Greek mathematician who wrote on the formation and drill of the phalanx, may also have been employed. At least Aelian was available to Machiavelli in Latin translation in the various one-volume editions of the time that included Vegetius and Frontinus. Clearly, Vegetius, the author of the famous De re militari (4th century of the Christian Era), a compendium on Roman military practice, is the primary source. Machiavelli follows very closely the organization of De re militari, which is divided into five books: selection and training of soldiers (I); organization (II); tactics (III); sieges and fortifications (IV); naval warfare (V). The final book, of course, is not employed by Machiavelli, since he is not concerned with naval warfare. In his first book, Machiavelli’s remarks about the nature of the men to be selected for military service rely heavily upon the first part of Book I of Vegetius. Polybius is also followed for the procedures of Roman recruitment. The discussion of the training of troops, their drill, and exercise, in the second book of The Art of War draws upon the second part of Book I of the De re militari. The description of Roman weapons and armor is largely taken from Polybius. Book III of The Art of War, which deals generally with the order of battle, reaches a climax in the description and discussion of a model battle. Fewer classical sources are used in this section than in any other. Although Machiavelli’s model battle is usually thought to be unprecedented in military literature,14 he may have been inspired by the lengthy description in Xenophon’s Cyropaedia of the battle between Cyrus the Great and the forces of King Croesus of Lydia before the city of Sardis. Certainly the details of the battle as told by Xenophon are fictional, designed to demonstrate the military principles that his life of Cyrus is an excuse for expounding.15 Concerned as he is in Book IV with tactics and generalship, Machiavelli turns to the third book of Vegetius. Here, for the description of the various stratagems used in ancient times, he relies extensively upon Frontinus, as he does throughout the remainder of the book.16 Machiavelli’s concern with the order of march in Book V draws to a limited extent upon the corresponding section in the third book of Vegetius. Although Machiavelli’s prescriptions for the ideal encampment in Book VI are his own, the model is the lengthy treatment of Polybius; 17 Vegetius is also of some importance.18 In his final book, Machiavelli makes good use of the material on sieges in the fourth book of the De re militari. But he does not simply use the classical sources for factual information. For example, key passages from Vegetius on the principles of war are reproduced almost word for word by Machiavelli.19

With all his reliance upon, and plagiarism of, the ancient sources, Machiavelli has done something more in The Art of War than to produce an anthology of classical military theory. In a way, he has compiled a critical synthesis of ancient military wisdom, modified to some extent to suit the changing times. He selects and discusses the methods of the ancients, weighing one against the other, and choosing and combining those that seem to be the most advantageous for the modern era. Although Roman practice predominates, examples are cited from the Greeks, Carthaginians, Gauls, Scythians, and Assyrians. Nor are the techniques of the moderns—the Swiss, the Spanish, and the French—overlooked. To a limited degree he does realize that the technology of his age renders some of the procedures of the ancients obsolete; for instance, the use of artillery requires fundamental modifications in battle formations. 20 Despite his dependence upon Vegetius, Machiavelli differs with him on a number of essentials. Whereas the fourth-century commentator, who was writing in the period of Roman military decline, believes in the desirability of a professional standing army, Machiavelli returns to the more ancient Roman republican institution of a popular militia. The use of cavalry is given slightly greater emphasis by Machiavelli, although for both writers the infantry is the core of the army. Machiavelli’s combination of pikemen and short-swordsmen within the same basic tactical unit is a departure from the views of the Roman. Vegetius says little about actual battle, a subject which is at the heart of The Art of War. Differences also exist between the two thinkers upon the questions of recruitment, promotion, weapons, combat methods, the ordering of troops, and encampment. A final word of caution is necessary in regard to Machiavelli’s use of the classical sources. Although he was influenced appreciably by the Romans, it should be stressed that he misunderstands certain aspects of the Roman art of war. Apparently he never realizes that Vegetius fails to distinguish between early and late Roman practice, treating examples of both as if they coexisted. Moreover, the important role of Roman missile weapons and the use of pikes tends to be overlooked by the Florentine in his historical researches.

Although Machiavelli’s military theory is fundamentally Roman, it breaks radically with many elements of medieval practice still in vogue in the Quattrocento.21 Emphasis in this respect must be upon the difference from medieval practice, rather than theory, because the actual conduct of war violated the precepts of Vegetius, who paradoxically was the most studied and honored military writer during the Middle Ages. The absence of any centralized state, the general lack of any idea of nationhood or national citizenship, and the whole unique structure of feudal society left their imprint upon the medieval art of war. Armies were little more than ad hoc collections of local contingents; companies were commanded by the various royal tenants who rallied to the king’s assistance as part of their obligation under the feudal system of land tenure. Organization, staff services, and hierarchy of command in the modern sense were nonexistent. Codes of military law were lacking. Each company captain believed that he was the equal of the others. Regular training and discipline were practically unknown. The typical medieval army was always formed just prior to the campaign and disbanded immediately afterward. Moreover, the rank and file of each company possessed no sense of loyalty to the whole; their allegiance was only to their manor, their village, their county. Consequently, a sustained military effort on a large scale was virtually impossible. The complicated tactics of a long strategic retreat could not be entertained, much less executed. If for some reason the king was not ready to give battle to his opponent, his only practical alternative was to retire to a well-fortified stronghold which would protect him from the enemy while he was able to complete his preparation, and which at the same time would serve to prevent his army from disintegrating. Cavalry, consisting of the knights and their men-at-arms, was the major force; the basic strategic principle was to give immediate battle with a mass charge. After the initial clash, in which maneuverability was at a minimum, the medieval battle became a melee of individual struggles. With all the defects of the medieval military art, the medieval soldier displayed great courage and enthusiasm, toughness and fighting spirit.

Christianity had a part in fashioning medieval warfare in both theory and practice. The central idea of a just Christian war for the sake of punishing evildoers was perhaps of little real significance for practice. But the same cannot be said of the military guild of knighthood with its strong individualistic moral code of chivalry shaped by a common Christian outlook. Widespread belief in the chivalrous virtues and in the Christian faith, the idea of common membership in the Republica Christiana, may have helped to prevent warfare from becoming the very bloody and total kind of activity that it had been among the ancients. Between medieval foes there was the bond of Christian conduct and gentlemanly behavior that tended to mitigate the nature of the punitive action resorted to by the victor. This may account for the fact that medieval commanders did not make full use of the stratagems that had been a common part of the classical military leader’s repertoire. Conversely, the medieval commander seemed particularly susceptible to the employment of deception and trickery by a ruthless and unchivalrous opponent. Finally, it should be noted that the medieval soldier could think only of his Christian faith as the supreme end to which all other activities were subordinate, an attitude completely alien to the idea that religion could be an effective means of increasing the morale, determination, and loyalty of the soldier, a means to the ultimate military goal of victory. If the good military commander instinctively realized this, he was never able to conceptualize it, as did classical writers and commanders like Polybius. Machiavelli has little sympathy for these medieval values. War for him is war, a no-holds-barred contest. Victory is the aim to which all other considerations on the battlefield must be subordinated. Behavior toward the enemy is not subject to common moral considerations. Every type of trickery and violence is legitimate when used against the enemy. The ideal military commander is one capable of constantly devising new tactics and stratagems to deceive and overpower the enemy.


Historians of modern military thought are as quick to point out the strength of Machiavelli’s general principles as they are to criticize them for their weakness. Almost unanimous praise is bestowed upon his idea that politics and war constitute a kind of functional unity, with war serving as an instrument of politics. The author of one of the first histories of military theory, Colonel Carrion-Nisas, is quite eloquent in his enthusiasm. 22 As one might expect from the nation of Scharnhorst and Clausewitz, the great German students of the history of war like Max Jähns and Hans Delbruck find the idea particularly congenial.23 F. L. Taylor summarizes the consensus by writing that Machiavelli “is the first secular writer to attempt to allot to the practice of arms its place among the collective activities of mankind, to define its aims, to regard it as a means to an end.”24 And this has been the general emphasis given to Machiavelli’s political doctrine and its influence by the German philosophic historians who have examined the rise of theMachtstaat and Realpolitik, and the development of the idea of Staatsräson in the modern world.25

Wide approval, even by the usually hostile Sir Charles Oman,26 is also accorded Machiavelli’s condemnation of the condottieri and their method of waging war, and to his desire to replace them with national troops who would have a vital stake in the defense of their country. All are critical, however, of his conviction that part-time citizen-soldiers, instead of a standing army of professionals, would be a viable substitute for foreign mercenaries in a period when war was becoming an increasingly complex activity. This criticism is tempered occasionally by some charitable remark, such as Jahns’ that Machiavelli is the “true prophetic spirit” of the modern conscript army.27 However, it is usually unrecognized that political advantage counts for more than military advantage in Machiavelli’s calculations. First, the armed citizenry would be a very definite obstacle in the path of anyone who contemplated seizing power. Second, a militia would always, in Machiavelli’s speculations, serve as the fundamental instrument of civic education, a means of instilling a people with respect for authority and a sense of common purpose. Third, a militia would be less costly to the state than a standing army. In sum, a militia is always an instrument and a bulwark of republicanism. Moreover, whatever the military demerits of the citizens militia, the inglorious defeat of the Florentines at Prato in 1512 was hardly a fair trial of Machiavelli’s views.28 We have previously observed that the militia then assembled was a compromise required by the peculiar circumstances of Florentine society and politics, not the embodiment of Machiavelli’s ideal. The militia was composed of non-citizens, the Florentine subjects of the rural cantado, not of the citizens with a patriotic devotion to their country as prescribed by Machiavelli in The Art of War. On this score the behavior of the non-citizen conscripts of 1512 should always be compared to the fortitude of the armed citizenry in 1530, although they too were defeated. Moreover, the discipline and unity of the 1512 force were seriously affected by the continuation in the ranks of the old local jealousies and feuds between rural communities, by the poor and sporadic remuneration of the troops, and by the completely inadequate peacetime training resulting from the government’s financial straits. Finally, before they confronted the Spanish veterans in 1512, the militia from the cantado had never faced competent, well-trained opponents in the field, an experience altogether different from participating in the lengthy siege of Pisa.

Machiavelli’s emphasis upon the infantry as the “nerve of the army,” with cavalry relegated to a supporting function, in opposition to the practice of the Middle Ages and of the condottieri, is warmly applauded by the commentators. On this point as in so many of his other recommendations, the author of The Art of War is clearly adhering to Roman practice, yet he is by no means oblivious to the increasing prominence of the infantry in his day. Swiss and German pikemen and Spanish short-swordsmen were proving to be the most formidable fighters in Europe, and Machiavelli took the contemporary lesson to heart. But his concept of the infantry suffers from several glaring deficiencies which are singled out by the critics. Infantry, he explains in The Art of War and elsewhere, should combine the advantage of the phalanx and of the legion, and consequently of the Swiss pikemen and the Spanish swordsmen. Small-arms have a meager role to play in all his speculations. In actual practice pikemen continued to be used, albeit in decreasing numbers, until the invention of the socket bayonet and its general adoption by the beginning of the eighteenth century; the swordsman was replaced, in the main, by the musketeer before the end of the Cinquecento. The companies of Maurice of Nassau consisted approximately of an equal number of pikemen and musketeers, with no swordsmen; somewhat later, in the army of Gustavus Adolphus, the balance tipped in favor of the musketeer. Besides Machiavelli’s grievous underestimation of the significance of small-arms in modern warfare, he fails to assign to artillery more than a very minor part in combat. Perhaps, in part, this neglect can be explained by his fixation on what he thought was the quintessential element of all warfare, the human factor, the quality of the soldier. And, of course, the new missile weapons were crude, inefficient, and unreliable. Also, the reader must remember that Machiavelli is always the zealous advocate who constantly resorts to overstatement and exaggeration in an effort to make the most favorable case for his proposals. He also slights the potential of a well-ordered force of heavy cavalry; to him cavalry means light cavalry, useful in scouting and skirmishing, but never as a major force with a major tactical role. Machiavelli does, however, include more cavalry in his legions than either of his two authorities, Polybius and Vegetius, who are describing Roman practice. Finally, on the basis of his 1526 report on the defenses of Florence with its recommendations for some innovations, Machiavelli may be the first modern writer on the subject of fortifications; but since the report was not published, his impact upon subsequent developments seems negligible.29

The full story of Machiavelli’s influence upon subsequent, military theory and practice has never been told. I do not intend to do so here, although a few remarks, mainly suggestions and speculations as to the nature and direction of the influence, are necessary. Evidently, The Art of War was widely read and highly esteemed throughout the sixteenth century. Besides the two Florentine editions of 1521 and 1529, there were six other Italian editions before the end of the century.30 In Valencia the work was plagiarized in the seven books of Diego de Salazar’s Tratado de re militari (1536). Perhaps the very fact that in the dialogue Salazar substitutes the great Spanish captain, Gonzalo de Córdoba, for Fabrizio Colonna, indicates the value he placed upon the doctrine of Machiavelli.

A French translation by Jehan Charriers, in a volume that included his translation of Onasander’s Strategicus, was published in Paris in 1546.31 Peter Whitehorne’s English translation appeared in London in 1560, and was reprinted in 1573 and 1588. In the early part of the next century, Latin and German translations were published. Just as important as these numerous editions in the dissemination of the Florentine’s military ideas was the 1548 publication in Paris of the anonymous Instructions sur le faict de la guerre,often attributed to Guillaume du Bellay, but actually the labor of Raymond de Beccarie de Pavie, sieur de Fourquevaux (1508- 1574), distinguished French soldier and diplomat. Fourquevaux’s book is one of the most notable and frequently cited works of the time.32 Not only the organization, but also the substance of the work owes more to The Art of War than to any single source.33 Indeed, the Frenchmen’s debt to Machiavelli is acknowledged by the new title given to the edition of 1549, Instructions sur le Faict de la Guerre, extraicts des livres de Polybe, Frontin, Vegece, Cornazon, Machiavelle, et plusiers autres bons autheurs. Machiavelli’s growing prestige as a military thinker is perhaps indicated by the juxtaposition of his name with those of the ancients, a prestige which is seemingly confirmed in a similar way several decades later by Montaigne’s observation:

It is related of many military leaders that they had certain books in particular esteem, as the great Alexander did Homer; Scipio Africanus, Xenophon; Marcus Brutus, Polybius; Charles the Fifth, Philip de Commines; and in our times it is said that Machiavelli is still held in repute in other countries.34

Perhaps Machiavelli’s most immediate, and, indeed, most significant contribution to the development of modern military science resulted from his revival of the idea of Roman legion organization, and all that is entailed by such organization. His proposal for tactical organization is based upon the Roman army of 24,000 men, divided into four legions. The legions would consist of ten battalions, each of 450 men. In theory this arrangement, as presented in The Art of War, would seem to be a definite tactical advance over the medieval army, which was a motley assembly of companies of varying size incapable of a planned and coordinated action of complexity. In practice, a legion divided into four battalions is still a cumbersome unit for modern warfare. Actual proof of this came with the institution in 1534 of legion organization for the French provincial militia by Francis I, guided, perhaps, by the recommendations of the Florentine Secretary. Although the French legions proved to be tactically ineffective and generally failed to distinguish themselves in battle, they did constitute the nucleus of the Crown’s infantry during the Wars of Religion; in the seventeenth century, the two legions that had not been disbanded were the basis of the regiments of Champagne and Picardy. Fourquevaux’s Instructions,inspired by Machiavelli, was addressed to the reform of the French legionary system. But if Machiavelli in theory and the French in practice had failed to exploit fully the tactical possibilities of legion organization, others who followed did not. Roman legion organization was the source for the ideas of Maurice of Nassau and his famous disciple, Gustavus Adolphus, who between them launched the modern art of war. In order to achieve maximum flexibility, maneuver, and control, Maurice ultimately decided to divide his army into units of 1,000 men, comprising groups of 80 to 100 soldiers.

But the essence of the Roman legion was discipline. And this discipline depended upon the careful selection of recruits, extensive drill and training, a hierarchical chain of command, functional arrangements defined by rules, and a code of military law. To Machiavelli, discipline is of paramount importance, particularly because of his advocacy of pikemen. As he knew from the Swiss experience with the phalanx, nothing but the most severe discipline and drill would make this method of combat successful. In addition, Machiavelli’s combination of pikemen and swordsmen within the same basic unit required even greater discipline than might otherwise be needed. If, in the actual development of modern warfare by Maurice of Nassau and Gustavus Adolphus, legion organization was greatly modified, the iron discipline of the legion became even more significant because of the very nature of the modifications. Once infantry, equipped with firearms and pikes, becomes the major combat force, and once small tactical units, singly and in varying combinations, are expected to execute with exactitude their different combat missions without endangering the unity of the battle plan, disciplined coordination must supercede individual virtuosity. The army must operate with machine-like precision.

Regardless of Machiavelli’s lack of prescience in regard to professionalism, small-arms and artillery, and cavalry, his emphasis upon infantry as the nerve of the army and upon legion organization indicated a direction to be taken by military reform, while his insistence upon the revival of ancient discipline truly heralded the future. All of this is suggested by Voltaire, who was far from enchanted with the Florentine:

Let us observe that the arrangements, the marching, and the evolution of battalions, nearly as they are now practiced, were revived in Europe by one who was not a military man—by Machiavel, a secretary at Florence. Battalions three, four, and five deep; battalions advancing upon the enemy; battalions in square to avoid being cut off in a rout; battalions four deep sustained by others in column; battalions flanked by cavalry—all are his. He taught Europe the art of war; it had long been practiced, without being known.35

The Art of War, then, is the first classic of modern military science.36 Machiavelli’s achievement is the rejection of medieval practice and the attempt to revive the ancient art of war. From a technical point of view, he is not a particularly keen observer or accurate analyst of either ancient or contemporary military affairs. His is not a scientific or logically rigorous mind. Deeply in love with everything Roman, he is the impassioned littérateur whose very passion not only tends to blind him to the significance of the military developments in his world, but also to some features of antiquity. But it is precisely this ardent love affair with mistress Rome that is responsible for his deep imprint upon the emergence of modern military science. This is the reason why Sir Charles Oman’s verdict is at once true and irrelevant:

But unfortunately for his reputation as a prophet in the military sphere, all his recommendations of a practical sort bear no relation whatever to the actual development of tactics and organization during the later years of the century. He “backed the wrong horse” in almost every instance; he thought that artillery was going to continue negligible, that the day of cavalry in battle was quite over, that infantry was going to continue in very huge units, like the legion, and that the pike was destined to be put out of action by short weapons for close combat, like the sword of the ancient Roman or of the Spanish footman of Gonsalvo de Cordova. In every case his forecast was hopelessly erroneous.37

Sir Charles fails to understand that the revolution in warfare in early modern Europe owed less to technology—the invention and application of small-arms and artillery—than to changes in human relations established by Maurice of Nassau and Gustavus Adolphus in their model armies. The revolution in discipline and drill wrought by these military virtuosi made the efficient use of modern missile weapons possible, a fact succinctly expressed by Max Weber almost half a century ago:

The kind of weapon has been the result and not the cause of discipline…. It was discipline and not gunpowder which initiated the transformation. The Dutch army under Maurice of the House of Orange was one of the first modern disciplined armies…. Gun powder and all the war techniques associated with it became significant only with the existence of discipline—and to the full extent only with the use of war machinery, which presupposes discipline.38

German military historians have long recognized that the new emphasis upon discipline and drill is directly related to the revival of interest in the ancient military art.39 Before Machiavelli’s time, the systematic conception of troop formations is virtually unknown; after his time, ancient drill manuals and military ordinances are translated. The ancient orders of battle, of the march, and of the camp are resurrected; even ancient weapons become models to be imitated.

The great value given to military discipline during the second half of the sixteenth century is indicated in two fundamental ways. One is the development of military law. Fourquevaux’s book stresses the subject of military justice, and contains the first complete code of military discipline in the French language.40 It is followed by Gaspard de Coligny’s Le Reglement au siege de Boulogne (1551), which is generally believed to be the foundation of modern military law. A second expression of the new premium placed upon discipline is the appearance of a variety of tactical tables for the convenience of the commander in planning operations; in these, men are reduced to numbers to be manipulated arithmetically. Among the first of the compilations of tactical tables was that of the military engineer, Girolamo Cataneo, who also wrote on fortifications and bombardment.41 Mathematics, of course, was being applied increasingly to the problems of military engineering and artillery. But the tactical tables represent the application of mathematics to the organization and control of human beings. The use of the quantitative method for the planning and direction of troop formations and maneuvers presupposes an emphasis in theory and practice upon discipline and drill. About the same time that the men who were revolutionizing warfare were applying mathematics to questions of military organization, the pioneers of modern science were beginning to describe the relations of natural phenomena in quantitative terms. The marriage of the two interests is found in the person of the illustrious astronomer and mathematician, Thomas Digges. Highly esteemed by Tycho Brahe, this fascinating figure of Elizabethan England, was a Copernican who, however, rejected the idea of fixed stars. He is most widely known for his theory of the infinity of the celestial system which he advanced before Giordano Bruno’s views were known. From 1586 to 1593 he served as muster-master-general of English forces in the Netherlands, a position acquired through the influence of his patron, the Earl of Leicester. Evidently one result of his military experience was the publication in 1590 of An arithmetical warlike treatise named Stratioticos, the revised edition of a book which first appeared in 1579.42 Described by Cockle as “one of the best military books of the time,”43 it includes a treatise on arithmetic and algebra, calculations for the officer, the duties of the officer, a discussion of military law, and mathematics for artillery. On the basis, then, of books like those by Cataneo and Digges, it seems that military arithmetic preceded Sir William Petty’s discovery of political arithmetic by a century. Notions of a mechanistic system of nature and a mechanistic military system seem to have arisen about the same time. The application of mathematics to military organization suggests that the army began to be thought of as a deliberately created system of interacting parts,44 the movements of which are susceptible to quantification, years before Thomas Hobbes, the first modern political thinker, employed the Galilean method to describe the state as a mechanical contrivance. These facts and conjectures underscore Max Weber’s argument that the new military discipline, rather than the new technology, is the fundamental factor in the transformation of military science during the early modern period, and they suggest the crucial role of Machiavelli’s plea for rational military organization.

As we have seen, although in a form somewhat different from his intentions, the ideal of Machiavelli was to a great extent realized in the efficient military mechanism created by Maurice of Nassau, who was evidently acquainted with the precepts of the Florentine both directly through The Art of War and indirectly through the writings of Fourquevaux and Francesco Patrizi (1529-1597).45 However, the thinker more than any other responsible for shaping the outlook of the prince is the all but forgotten Justus Lipsius (1547-1606).46 While the Belgian savant, famed for his critical edition of Tacitus (1575), was teaching at the University of Leyden between 1579 and 1591, the young Maurice was his student for a brief time. In 1589 Lipsius published his Politicorum Libri Sex and presented a copy to the prince. Fifteen editions of the book appeared in the next decade as well as translations into Dutch, French, English, Polish, and German, and somewhat later, into Spanish and Italian. The treatise is judged by Oestreich to be the theoretical foundation for the military reforms of Maurice47 and a prime intellectual force upon the distinguished Austrian generalissimo, Montecuccoli, the first to attempt rigorously to systematize the art of war.48 If this estimation of the impact of Lipsius is correct, then Machiavelli must be allotted a share in the honors. For Lipsius, a devotee of the Florentine, is one of the few modern writers to couple his idol with the venerated names of Plato and Aristotle.49 Machiavelli is the only modern thinker whom he recommends to his readers. Lipsius, like his master, roundly condemns the use of mercenary troops, and dwells upon the indispensability of the careful selection, training, and discipline of soldiers.50 However, Lipsius calls for a national cadre-conscript army instead of a militia. The most interesting intellectual link between the two thinkers is in Lipsius’ concept of a neo-stoic military morality or ideology. Central to the concept is the idea of constancy which involves duty, self-control, temperance, life-giving energy, and strength of soul. Here is a distinct echo of the Machiavellian virtù, one that was destined to become the military counterpart of the Calvinistic outlook in the economic world.51

From the time that the importance of discipline and training began to be taken for granted by soldiers, that is, from the time of the pioneer achievements of Maurice and Gustavus, and of the emergence of the national professional army, Machiavelli’s reputation as a military thinker suffered.52 Obviously, many of his technical recommendations could not be followed in the newly developing warfare of maneuver, movement, and firepower. The decline of his reputation was also related to the abuse directed against his political views, the moral indignation with Machiavellism expressed in a series of anti-Machiavellian tracts, the most famous of which was by Frederick the Great. Accordingly, from the middle of the seventeenth century until the early part of the nineteenth, his military ideas are openly criticized; his name is seldom mentioned in the military classics then being written. But the chief critics are often men of little military reputation, while the obligation of some of the major military classics to his ideas is very obvious. Among the critics were Brantôme, Algarotti, and Maizeroy. The notorious Mémoires of Brantôme (1540- 1614) were not published until 1665-1666. Although the work is a valuable exposé of the life and manners of the sixteenth-century French court, the author’s historical naïveté is quite evident. A soldier of considerable experience, Brantôme nevertheless was more of a courtier than a military figure; he gained a greater reputation for his boudoir adventures than for his skill on the field of battle. A second critic, Count Algarotti (1712-1764), the friend of Voltaire and Frederick the Great, although of some importance in the sphere of art and literary criticism, is scarcely a judge of military questions. Of these critics, Maizeroy (1719-1780), who served with distinction under the great Marshal de Saxe in Bohemia and Flanders, and who devoted many years to a study of the ancient military art, is the only one fully qualified to evaluate Machiavelli’s military thinking. Much of his criticism, particularly of Machiavelli’s understanding of ancient military practice, is sound and erudite. But taken as a whole, Maizeroy’s analysis tends to be more pedantic than illuminating.

Of the five classic military thinkers writing in the eighteenth century-Montecuccoli, Folard, Saxe, Frederick the Great, and Guibert—only Folard mentions and praises Machiavelli. Raimond de Montecuccoli (1608-1681), the skillful antagonist of Turenne, was too cautious and prudent, too much of a Fabius Maximus, to rank among the greatest of the military practitioners. Great he was, nevertheless, and even greater was his posthumous fame of being the modern Vegetius, which was gained by his Mémoires, first published in Vienna in 1718. His theoretical exploits have been likened to those of Bodin in political science and Bacon in philosophy.53 He was the first to conceive of the art of war as a science by attempting to systematize its principles. The father of the Prussian military reforms at the opening of the nineteenth century, Scharnhorst, found a stimulus and a model in the conception of Montecuccoli. 54 He is quite definitely the intellectual heir of Machiavelli and Lipsius. Yet, unlike them, Montecuccoli brings to his material the sure touch of the experienced man of war, with a discerning eye for the logic of the activity he has mastered. The very organization of the work and the terse prose style testify to a new approach. The first book explains the principles of military science in an extremely concise, systematic, and forceful way; maxims that are relevant to various principles are contained in the second book; a more detailed application of some of the principles is illustrated in the third book by the author’s reflections upon the war with the Turks in Hungary from 1661 to 1664. Characterized by an absence of rhetoric, the work opens with the statement that the purpose of war is victory; and victory depends upon the preparation, the disposition, and the action of the troops.55 Three lengthy chapters on each of these factors follow. Preparation is concerned with the quality, arms, training, and discipline of soldiers and officers, with artillery, munitions, supply, and money. Disposition of troops is contingent upon the nature of the forces to be used, the country in which the action is to take place, and the nature of the operation: whether it is for attack, defense, or relief. Action in marching, camping, and battle should be executed with resolution, secrecy, and rapidity. Not the least interesting of Montecuccoli’s remarks are on generalship.56 The general must have certain natural or inborn characteristics: a warlike spirit, vigorous health, majestic appearance. Much more essential are the acquired attributes, of which the most important is a vast knowledge of war to be learned, not from books, but from long military experience. Next among the acquired qualities is la vertue morale: prudence, justice, temperance, and force. The last, which embraces courage, fortitude, energy, and determination, is the uniquely military virtue, the attribute of the good soldier, and especially the good officer. By setting an example of force the good general will be able to stir his army to a vigorous and skillful attack. In times of adversity his force will inspire his soldiers with the powers of resistance, endurance, and steadfastness. Force is the inner spiritual strength of the man of war. Here is the virtù of Machiavelli, the neo-stoic constantia of Machiavelli’s disciple, Justus Lipsius. Whatever Folard, Saxe, Frederick the Great, and Guibert may think of the Florentine, they laud this modern Vegetius.

After Montecuccoli, the Chevalier Folard (1669-1752) is the first theorist of significance. Folard was an experienced soldier of valorous service with the Swedish forces of Charles XII as well as with the French. Because of his difficult and fiery temperament—in this respect he was a kind of military Rousseau—he never rose beyond the rank of Master-of-Camp. His commentary upon the Histories of Polybius was published from 1727 to 1730 and went through several editions, enlarged and revised by the author during his lifetime. The detailed analysis of ancient practice in the work is an excuse for the exposition of his own tactical views. Despite the antagonism that his vigorous and polemical arguments aroused, his work continued to be read for many years. His single comment upon Machiavelli is both a eulogy, and an attempt to discredit The Art of War. Folard, in treating coup d’oeil, the able commander’s intuitive grasp of the military situation, cites and praises Machiavelli’s stress upon hunting as a means to this end.57 The Art of War,however, is a thinly disguised plagiarism, hardly worthy of the author of the immortal works, The Prince and The Discourses, which warrant the careful scrutiny of all men of war. Thus the irascible Chevalier is the sole military thinker of stature to dismiss unreservedly The Art of War.

Whether Folard’s one-time pupil, the renowned Marshal Maurice de Saxe (1695-1750) would agree with his mentor’s abrupt dismissal of The Art of War is doubtful, since he pays homage to the Florentine in spirit, if not by name, in Mes Rêveries (1757).58 This facinating essay is claimed by its author to have been completed in December of 1732 after thirteen nights’ work in an effort to dispel his boredom.59 The advocacy of conscription; the concern with the human factor in war and with the quality, welfare, and morale of the troops; the admiration for the Roman legion and the proposal for the modification of legion organization which is in effect the anticipation of the divisional army; the attention to the problem of discipline; the perceptive remarks upon leadership—all bring Machiavelli to mind.60

For Frederick the Great (1712-1786), a firm admirer of Saxe, The Art of War was a “favourite book.”61 A number of themes of the Prussian King’s Military Instructions,62 originally written in 1747 to be circulated secretly among his top commanders, would tend to indicate the influence of Machiavelli: discipline, estimate of factors, supply, encampment, secrecy, and deception. The good general must conceal his thoughts, for he should always be an actor on stage, thereby able to shape the mood of his army.63 But there are important differences in the outlooks of the two men. Although Frederick is convinced that knowledge of terrain is essential to good generalship, he does not recommend the chase as a means of acquiring this knowledge.64 Moreover, his belief in firepower and in the tactical role of cavalry is at variance with the teachings of the Florentine. But in spite of such differences, the true Machiavellian spirit is manifested in Frederick’s constant emphasis, in theory and practice, upon the attack. Even when on the defensive, one should always attempt to seize the initiative in an audacious manner. The best defense is a vigorous and purposeful offense. Frederick’s boldness and daring as a military commander won the praise of Napoleon.

A more striking parallel to some of the ideas of the Renaissance thinker is found in the influential Essai général de tactique (1773) by the Comte de Guibert (1743-1790)—so much so that Carrion-Nisas notes the absence of any acknowledgement. 65 It is particularly in the preliminary discourse that the hand of Machiavelli is seen,66 although his influence can also be detected in parts of the technical treatment of tactics, for example, in regard to the march.67 From Guibert’s dedication to his fatherland, to his concluding plea for a national leader of genius to regenerate France, the discourse is animated by a fervent patriotism. One wonders whether The Prince was a model. The heart of the introductory statement is reminiscent of Machiavelli’s opening and concluding statements in The Art of War. Guibert begins by describing the corruption of France, and of Europe in general, contrasting this self-seeking world of avarice and luxury, in which all sense of the common interest has been lost, with the hardiness, vigor, and solidarity of Rome. He insists upon the intimate connection between military and civic life.68 The military skill of the Romans and the amazing prowess of their legions, on the one hand, and their manners and values, their social and political arrangements, on the other, were mutually sustaining. Hannibal, despite his consummate military ability, was doomed in his contest with Rome because his army and men were the products of a corrupt city.69 Once Rome found a general to equal the Carthaginian, her triumph was assured. The chaotic condition of the art of war of his day, Guibert contends, arises from the corrupt civic order. A new foundation, which will be at once political and military, is the only solution; a founder-hero is the only means by which the new order can be achieved.70

Napoleon Bonaparte in many ways is the embodiment of the ideals of Machiavelli and Guibert. Le grand constructeur, as Madelin calls the Corsican,71 studied Guibert closely, and read and admired Machiavelli.72 He respected The Art of War;73 he commented upon The Prince;74 he carried The Discourses with him on his campaigns; 75 he outlined The History of Florence.76 In 1808 the Emperor ordered a special portable library of one thousand volumes, including The Discourses , which was to be used in the field.77His library in the Trianon contained a nine volume edition of Machiavelli’s works, translated by Guiraudet.78 Napoleon turned to Machiavelli the military thinker for broad principles rather than for technical advice.79 War as a political instrument, the purpose of which is to defeat the enemy, is axiomatic for both thinker and soldier. Similarly, they believed—the one in theory, the other in practice—in the importance of careful planning, of seizing the initiative, of the use of deception, and of swift execution. Again the human factor in war is vital for each. Finally, the role of the leader is essential to success: his courage, energy, foresight, and coup d’oeil.

When we turn from le grand constructeur, himself, to nineteenth-century military practitioners, theorists, and historians who were influenced by his accomplishments in war, we find high praise for the Florentine man of letters. Marshal Gouvion-Saint-Cyr (1764-1830), referred to by Napoleon as a “military genius” and who was responsible for the important military reform of the French army after the Restoration, esteemed the writings of Machiavelli, Montecuccoli, and Frederick the Great.80 He regarded Machiavelli as a great man of war, although ignorant of the actual practice of arms. Colonel Carrion-Nisas, classmate and officer of Napoleon, one of the first competent military historians, urges his readers to study carefully The Art of War.81 He compares Machiavelli to Polybius; just as Polybius stands between the Greeks and the Romans, so the Florentine bridges the ancient and modern military worlds.82 General Bardin believes that no educated man of war can dispense with reading The Art of War.83

Not least among the admirers and interpreters of Napoleon’s military prowess is Karl von Clausewitz (1780-1831), whose Vom Krieg,84 published posthumously by his wife in 1832, became the foundation for the far-reaching changes in the art of war in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Clausewitz, the protégé and intellectual heir of Scharnhorst, is without doubt the greatest military theorist of the West. His doctrines of unlimited war and of war as an extension of politics are found in Machiavelli. Much of the insight of the Florentine is summarized in Clausewitz’s view of the central problem of war: to gain “a preponderance of physical forces and material advantages at the decisive point.”85 A similarity to the ideas of Machiavelli is seen in the Prussian’s concern with the estimate of factors, knowledge of terrain, and his comparison of the conduct of war to the “workings of an intricate machine.” 86 Evidence of the legacy of Machiavelli is also apparent in Clausewitz’s stress upon the principle of attack in his discussion of strategy. Use one’s “entire forces with the utmost energy” is his famous maxim.87 In fact, Clausewitz hails Machiavelli as possessing “a very sound judgement in military matters.”88 But to one who has read Clausewitz for the first time, his treatment of the moral factors in war provides the most striking parallel to the precepts of Machiavelli. The analysis of the qualities of generalship and of military virtue can be interpreted as an illuminating commentary upon Machiavelli’s concept of virtù.89 Since war is conceived of by Clausewitz as “perpetual conflict with the unexpected,”90 two qualities in the general are needed above all: a “lucid intellect” and a “great moral courage,” reminiscent of Machiavelli’s prudenza and virtù. Clausewitz’s “lucid intellect” is coup d’oeil in a broad sense—the ability to penetrate swiftly to the reality of a situation that is not apparent to the average mind. An emotional force, the source of energy, bravery, and spiritual strength are included in the meaning of moral courage. Its foremost characteristic is boldness, the dynamic creative power that in armies must be subject to obedience, and that in generals must be directed by great intellect.91 The military genius is born with boldness; a mark of his genius is the ability to instill his army with boldness. Clausewitz’s final advice in the memorandum to the Prussian crown prince, the future King Friedrich Wilhelm IV, might have been penned by Machiavelli to Lorenzo de’ Medici, duke of Urbino, to whom he dedicated The Prince:

Be audacious and cunning in your plans, firm and persevering in their execution, determined to find a glorious end, and fate will crown your youthful brow with a shining glory, which is the ornament of princes, and engrave your image in the hearts of your last descendents.92


Machiavelli evidently believes that the basic relationships between the arts of war and of politics are as follows:

1. Military power is the foundation of civil society.

2. A well-ordered military establishment is an essential unifying element in civil society.

3. A policy of military aggrandizement contributes to the stability and longevity of civil society.

4. The military art and the political art possess a common style.

5. A military establishment tends to reflect the qualities of the civil society of which it is a part.

The first three need to be discussed only briefly because of their more or less explicit treatment by Machiavelli. But the last two warrant a more detailed examination because they are only implicit in his writing. In addition, analysis of these two relationships proves to be the most rewarding in the attempt to ascertain the role of the military in his political thought.

The preface to The Art of War contains a clear formulation of the close tie between military power and the civil order. A current opinion maintained that military and civilian life are antithetical. The transformation in the behavior of the civilian who dons uniform and engages in soldiering endangers the peace and order of his city. Machiavelli challenges the universality of this generalization, although he admits its veracity as a description of the corrupt situation in Italy. He contends that ancient history demonstrates that the military and the civilian need not be in opposition. All that men cherish—art, science, religion, and civic order—depends upon the security provided by military might. Laws, no matter how well-designed, are of little value in safeguarding internal order unless the military establishment is sufficient to protect a community from foreign aggression. Without benefit of such protection, a state is like a splendid palace filled with rich furnishings and costly jewels, yet exposed to the elements because of the lack of a roof. That in our hostile world of perpetual struggle, “No state… can support itself without an army,” 93 is Machiavelli’s conclusion, one which he had already expressed by the aphorism that good laws rest upon good arms.94 Machiavelli’s quite natural preoccupation with military security is further manifested in his description of the civil ruler. Mastery of the art of war is absolutely essential to successful civic leadership.95 Indeed, Machiavelli, sometimes, uses the term principe to designate army commander as well as civil ruler. Scrupulous attention should be given to military affairs in times of peace as well as in war. Constant training and discipline will keep an army in top form, ready for instant action. Moreover, the ruler and his subordinates must themselves always be in the excellent physical condition necessary for service in the field. For this purpose the best peacetime school for the prince and his associates is the chase.96 On this score Machiavelli alludes to Chiron, the centaur, fabled tutor of the princes of antiquity, who included in his curriculum the art of hunting, a gift bestowed upon him by the Gods.97 Hunting is an imitation of war which involves strenuous physical exertion on all kinds of terrain in all weather, and the employment of various stratagems in order to outwit and track down the prey. Intimate acquaintance with the lay of the land of his dominion, and an intuitive feel for topography in general can also be acquired by the prince who energetically practices the art. Constant study of history and of the actions of the military figures of the past, whose examples are worthy of emulation, should be the foremost way of training the intellect of the prince.

A well-ordered army, besides guarding civil society against outside interference, should have a primary integrating and stabilizing function in internal affairs. Along with family upbringing and religion, the military training received by the citizen who actively participates in a militia is fundamental to civic education. Machiavelli attributes Roman supremacy to her excellent military organization which schooled the populace in discipline.98 Hence, the civic agitations for which the Republic was noted stayed within bounds and had an invigorating rather than a debilitating effect. At least as Machiavelli views Roman history, from the time of the Tarquins to the Gracchi—a period of over four hundred years—the continual internal conflict was never so serious as to necessitate the widespread infliction of penalties, either exile or execution, or fines against individual citizens. Social conflict, he claims, never degenerated into the factional menace to the public welfare that it did in many lesser states. Romans who served in the legions learned to be loyal, to love peace and order, and to fear the Gods. Respect for law and authority, a spirit of self-sacrifice, and exceptional personal courage were other qualities acquired from the common military experience. Good military organization making for good civic discipline was, therefore, a decisive factor in the stability and grandeur of the republic. An important reason, Machiavelli believes, for the serious decline of parental, religious, and civic authority in his own Italy is the lack of good military organization. Schooling the populace in civic discipline by establishing citizens’ armies would be one of the surest ways of arresting internal disintegration at the same time that maximum security against external dangers is being provided.99

Machiavelli also suggests what might be called a general theory of human “salvation” through the military.100 The word “salvation,” however, must be used rather gingerly in reference to Machiavelli’s ideas, because his radically pessimistic view of man and human relations precludes his envisioning the possibility of attaining permanent temporal peace and well-being in a rationally organized and regulated society. No civil society, however well-constructed, will endure forever, as the story of the world’s two most durable and stable civic orders, Rome and Sparta, indicates. At best, all that men can hope for, before the inevitable decay and death of the body politic occur, is a long prosperous civic life free from the worst of the more common afflictions. Premature decline can be avoided, and unity and vigor can be maintained if our approach to political problems is rational. But the flux of history and institutions cannot be permanently stayed; change will always win out in the long run. Delay of the inevitable fall, then, is the only hope of earthly salvation that Machiavelli extends to us. The military can be crucial in this postponement of doom; nothing will prevent the ultimate fall.

Man’s inherent egoism means that conflict is the basic pattern of social behavior. Individuals, families, and states exist in a condition of ceaseless tension and war. Civil society produces two qualitatively different kinds of conflict, corrupt and ordered. Corrupt conflict is the struggle among men for aggrandizement and domination without respect for the authority of law, religion, and age, and without concern for the common good. In the corrupt civil society, one dominated by corrupt conflict, economic avarice is the common mode of behavior, and sensual gratification by means of the money wrested in the social contest is the common goal. Politically speaking, corruption means factionalism, violence, conspiracy; in republics, an alternation between anarchy and tyrannical rule. Ordered conflict takes place within a framework of law, and is always subordinate to the common good, never erupting into violence and civil war. Religious belief prevails in the good society; parents and elders are esteemed and respected. Citizens generally fulfill their civic duties and obligations. Honesty is the rule in private and public affairs. Men are not judged upon the basis of their wealth—economic ends are the least esteemed—but by their dedication to the community. Honor and glory in the service of the fatherland are the most highly regarded values. Self-discipline and frugality, rather than the uncontrolled pursuit of power, wealth, and sex, are the cherished principles of personal conduct. Whereas Florence typifies the corrupt civic order, the Roman Republic is the model of the good society. To each Machiavelli devotes a work of analysis, The History of Florence and The Discourses.

Corruption is the central domestic problem of the statesman. In order to prevent a good civic order from being corrupted or to make a corrupt society good, the ruler must understand the causes of corruption. Corruption appears in an overly successful society whose collective efforts no longer have to be concentrated for the sake of survival upon a particular aim, for example, the resisting and taming of nature, constant vigilance against a potential external threat, continual active struggle with an enemy, or a program of military aggrandizement. The conquest of nature, the removal of the potential external threat, the destruction of a traditional enemy, or the consummation of military policy by conquering all there is to conquer, causes a people to relax their effort, to seek to live the luxurious life, to become soft and self-seeking. Expansionism seems to be the most viable means of preserving social solidarity and morale, and of strengthening the virtues of courage and endurance, and thereby, of holding corruption in check. Military expansionism is preferable to any of the alternatives because it enables a people to exert greater control over their own destinies than if they were to struggle against nature, or continually to counter the threats and attacks of neighboring powers. A society must act boldly and purposefully if it is not to become the plaything of fortune. And the initiative once seized should always be held firmly. Keeping the example of the doughty Roman republicans ever before him, Machiavelli contends that the strongest possible instrument of expansionism is the well-ordered force of citizen-soldiers who will be fighting for their own honor and glory. Corruption, therefore, can be checked in a republic that sends its sons out to perform valorous deeds. But success in these martial adventures is ultimately its own undoing; with no more worlds to conquer, corruption can no longer be contained. Salvation by the military will postpone, not prevent, the inevitable decay. Of course education—in the broadest sense to include the instruments of social control such as religion and law, if rationally utilized—can deter civic corruption. But without some perennial challenge to existence, education alone is insufficient.


By stipulating that the successful statesman must be a capable general, Machiavelli closely associates the political and the military arts. For a single individual to be proficient in both arts would be an exceedingly difficult and rare accomplishment unless a single style or mode of activity were common to both. Machiavelli seems in every way to suggest exactly this. Founders and reformers of states and military commanders are grouped together with founders of religions and men of letters as those who achieve the highest fame.101 Again, statesman and soldier are linked in the only two examples given by Machiavelli of double glory and double shame. He who founds and maintains a state or an army will win double glory; he who is given a state or an army and loses it will be disgraced by double shame.102 Four specific references to artistic activity occur in The Prince, The Discourses, and The Art of War.103 Two of these are observations that a sculptor can carve a much finer statue if he starts with a piece of unblemished stone. In one case Machiavelli compares sculpture to statecraft, in the other, sculpture to generalship. The founder of a state will be able to create a more perfect work by beginning with a simple, rustic, uncorrupted people like the Swiss.104 The general will be able to create a better army out of untrained and untried citizens than if he attempts to use the military adventurers and riffraff that fill mercenary armies.105 Once more, then, Machiavelli has placed statecraft and generalship in juxtaposition. The reason is obvious: both are creative arts concerned with molding raw human material into the form desired; and the models to be imitated, Machiavelli never tires of repeating, should be taken from classical antiquity.106

Another example of the close connection between the military and the political in Machiavelli’s mind is his concept of virtù.107 Although his use of virtù is often confusing, much of the apparent ambiguity in his general theory is dispelled as soon as the special meaning that he often gives to the term is clarified. Virtù is a necessary quality of effective military and political leadership, and it is essential to the survival and well-being of a people in this alien and hostile world. Whether an individual or a people, a general or a statesman are being discussed by Machiavelli, virtù in the special sense is basically a military quality. There is no synonym for this use of virtù. Machiavelli employs it to characterize masculine and aggressive conduct that is exhibited in a dangerous and uncertain situation of tension, stress, and conflict. The concept entails the idea of tremendous force of will and inner strength that will enable one to overcome the most recalcitrant opposition and to endure the most perilous adversity. Among the attributes included in virtù are boldness, bravery, resolution, and decisiveness. A tour de force, military or political, results from the vital creative energy so much a part of virtù.

True virtù in an individual or in a people always involves the greatest discipline and training. Without these, there will not be the vital capacity for endurance and firmness, the necessary resilience, the power of sustaining a course of action until the end is achieved. The leader possessing extraordinary virtù is born with certain qualities that are strengthened and shaped by conditioning; a people usually acquire virtù by being conditioned in the proper way. A people like the Gauls may be naturally warlike and spirited, but because they lack adequate discipline, their natural propensity will soon be weakened in any test of endurance. The Romans, not so warlike and spirited by nature as the Gauls, are nevertheless a people of exceptional virtù because their conduct has been molded by excellent civic education and organization. Virtù, therefore, is not simply unruly energy, unbridled ferocity, and a rapidly exhausted boldness. Virtù to be a virtue must be virtù ordinata.

Just as no single term can do justice to Machiavelli’s special meaning of virtù, so no word alone can stand for the opposite quality. One possible antonym is ozio: indolence, inaction, a lack of energy. In a sense, all that characterizes a woman in Machiavelli’s view is opposed to virtù: faintheartedness, irresolution, and hesitancy. The archetypal product of virtù is the foundation of a state or an army; the archetypal figure of virtù is the military hero-founder, Romulus or Cyrus the Great. Virtù may be associated with extreme wickedness and with the pursuit of power and self-aggrandizement by any means and at any price; for example, the career of the bloody and ferocious Roman emperor, Septimius Severus, displays virtù. But when superior virtù is found combined in an individual with pre-eminent prudenza, as in Romulus and Cyrus, dedication to the common good will characterize his behavior. Machiavelli believes that the strongest motive for altruism is a selfishness directed by intelligence. For the prudent man of virtù will soon recognize that his labor in behalf of the common good will bring him the greatest personal power and security from conspiracy, and will win for him the truest glory. On the other hand, leaders like Piero Soderini and Numa Pompilius, the successor of Romulus, who are interested in the well-being of the citizenry, may not be men of great virtù. And some leaders, petty tyrants especially, may lack both virtù and a concern for the common good.

If generalship and statecraft are creative activities requiring extraordinary virtù, what of the techniques employed in the two arts? Does Machiavelli think that they are similar in any significant respects? He writes that “every art has its general rules and principles upon which it is founded.”108 The inference can be drawn from all that he says that a single set of “general rules and principles” is common to both the art of war and the art of politics. Furthermore, it is arguable that these common rules and principles are of an essentially military nature. Machiavelli’s conception of politics and the political art may well be derived in part from his theory of war and the art of war. Much of one activity appears to be similar to the other activity. The style of the statesman resembles in many ways the style of the military commander. According to Machiavelli, whose gloom in certain respects is Augustinian, man is incurably perverse, avaricious, and power-seeking; selfishness is the heart of all human relations.109 Consequently, life in general, and political life in particular, tend to be vicious struggles for domination and aggrandizement, potentially or actually conditions of war. Each new political situation in civil society is comparable to a battle between the “army” of the political leader and the forces of his enemies. The outcome of the struggle depends upon the strategy, tactics, and leadership of the opponents. Whether one side emerges with a clear victory, or whether—and much more likely—the conclusion of the engagement is indecisive, new conflicts between new antagonists arise in a never-ending sequence.

What kind of argument will help to demonstrate that Machiavelli often conceives of the art of politics in military terms? To begin with, his approach to politics differs substantially in several respects from all previous political thinkers in the western tradition. His focus is always upon the detailed mechanics of acquiring, holding, and increasing political power. Before him, Xenophon alone had concentrated upon the techniques of effective military and civic leadership, but the Greek never went so far as Machiavelli in the advocacy of force and deception against fellow-citizens, for reasons which will soon be made clear. Aristotle, in the fifth book of the Politics, discusses the seizure of power; however, it is always as an illegitimate kind of political activity. Nor does he dwell extensively upon the minutiae of method and organization necessary for a successful coup. An important reason for these differences between Machiavelli and the ancients is the idea so prominent in the classical outlook: the fundamental distinction between friend and foe, and the different treatment which should be accorded to each. The result is a basic intellectual—if not practical—division of labor. Ancient political theory is almost entirely concerned with the proper relationships among friends or fellow-citizens. Military theorists take for their sphere of activity the relation between friend and foe. Ideally, the citizens of a classical polity are thought to be partners, joined by an intimate bond of friendship and common values, who seek the good life through mutual aid and cooperation. The ideal nature of the relationship desired among fellow citizens is to some extent expressed by the meaning of societas, a fraternity or group of comrades. Among friends—for example, the citizens of a polis—differences of opinion are resolved in an orderly fashion by rational discourse without resort to deception or violence. Anyone of the friends who refuses to conform to the commonly accepted rules is subject to punishment; if his transgression is serious enough, he may be expelled from the circle of friends into the external world of foes. Ancient works of political thought are always addressed to the partners in the common life of the city. The purpose is to enlighten them as to the nature of the ends for which they should strive and to describe the social arrangements needed for their attainment. The conduct between friend and foe is expected to be different from the conduct between friends. Deceit, trickery, and violence against a foe are justifiable. The classical military treatise is the analysis of just how this behavior may be most effectively applied to the defeat and the capture of the foe. Xenophon made the brilliant discovery that an army, like a city, is a community of friends. Although, like Machiavelli, he often sees statecraft in the image of generalship in this regard, he thinks always of the general’s relation to his own army as one to a community of friends. Xenophon never recognizes that fellow-citizens or fellow-soldiers can be treated legitimately as foes. Machiavelli, of course, would be the first to admit that a statesman needs loyal friends and allies just as a general requires a devoted army. But he recognizes that at best a civil society and an army are complex mixtures of friends and foes, individuals and groups contending for different interests; they are certainly never a totality of friends completely united in pursuing a common good. Within the group immediately supporting the political leader, the friendship of some is usually more apparent than real. The allegiance of the “friend” may be only temporary, ready to be transferred to someone else when advantage is to be gained. Even the most intimate of friends may, without warning, prove unfaithful in an hour of need, because the strongest self-discipline implanted by convention under certain circumstances is not enough to prevent the outburst of the self-seeking ego. Friendship, Machiavelli seems to imply, is not so much the precious union of hearts so dear to the classical theorists, as it is a tenuous, external bond of self-interest. By the very fact of their egoistic natures men are forever isolated and alone, whether they are friends or foes. With Machiavelli the classical distinction between friend and foe is blurred. Since every friend is a potential foe, there is considerably less reluctance to employ deception and violence in dealing with a fellow-citizen. The ways of peace are in many ways now like the ways of war because peace is no longer thought of as the natural condition of man, a time for the positive pursuit of the common good. Civic peace to Machiavelli is an interlude between wars in which overt conflict and violence diminish but do not disappear, in which tensions accumulate below the surface to erupt anew.

If Machiavelli does not agree with classical theorists about important aspects of the nature of politics, he does tend to discuss politics as classical military writers discuss the art of war.110 For example, there follow forty-three topics or categories of stratagems listed and analyzed by the Roman Frontinus (ca. A.D. 35 or 40-103),111 general, consul, and governor of Britain:

1. On concealing one’s plans

2. On finding out the enemy’s plans

3. On determining the character of the war

4. On leading an army through places infested by the enemy

5. On escaping from difficult situations

6. On laying and meeting ambushes while on the march

7. How to conceal the absence of the things we lack, or to supply substitutes for them

8. On distracting the attention of the enemy

9. On quelling a mutiny of soldiers

10. How to check an unseasonable demand for battle

11. How to arouse an army’s enthusiasm for battle

12. On dispelling the fears inspired in soldiers by adverse omens

13. On choosing the time for battle

14. On choosing the place for battle

15. On the disposition of troops for battle

16. On creating panic in the enemy’s ranks

17. On ambushes

18. On letting the enemy escape, lest, brought to bay, he renew the battle in desperation

19. On concealing reverses

20. On restoring morale by firmness

21. On bringing the war to a close after a successful engagement

22. On repairing one’s losses after a reverse

23. On ensuring the loyalty of those whom one mistrusts

24. What to do for the defense of the camp, in case a commander lacks confidence in his present forces

25. On retreating

26. On surprise attacks

27. On deceiving the besieged

28. On inducing treachery

29. By what means the enemy may be reduced to want

30. How to persuade the enemy that the siege will be maintained

31. On distracting the attention of a hostile garrison

32. On diverting streams and contaminating water

33. On terrorizing the besieged

34. On attacks from an unexpected quarter

35. On setting traps to draw out the besieged

36. On pretended retirements

37. On stimulating the vigilance of one’s own troops

38. On sending and receiving messages

39. On introducing reinforcements and supplying provisions

40. How to produce the impression of abundance of what is lacking

41. How to meet the menace of treason and desertion

42. On sorties

43. Concerning steadfastness on the part of the besieged

This catalogue listing the precepts of the military art recommended by Frontinus is strikingly similar to a collection that might be made of Machiavelli’s political principles. The same could not be said of Plato or St. Thomas. The military rules, of course, must be adapted to the political context.

It is quite possible to isolate and describe something approaching a style that is, in certain respects, peculiar to the outlook, thought, and behavior of military theoreticians and practitioners since the century of Xenophon and Alexander the Great. Military leaders approach a military situation from a particular perspective. Their task, as they see it, is to solve the problem presented by all factors involved, according to certain necessary procedures, and then to translate the solution into action that will defeat the enemy. Toward non-military situations, they tend to think and to act in a similar fashion. Now the so-called Principles of War, the standards for planning and executing military operations, provide us with the main features of this military attitude. Although the principles are found in varied combination and phrasing in different treatises and manuals, military experts nevertheless agree as to the essentials.112 A military operation must be secretly and meticulously planned upon the basis of the detailed assessment of all information and intelligence collected about the enemy. The forces, reserves, and allies that are available and that can be relied upon are to be ascertained, and an estimation is then made of all advantageous and disadvantageous factors. This informed calculation will determine the fundamental objective of the operation, the direction and nature of the central and auxiliary thrusts, and the general disposition of troops. A clearly defined and rationally devised strategy requires the choice of techniques for implementation that are adequate for the prevailing conditions and that are flexible enough to be changed with changing conditions. One’s own base of operations and forces must be secured. The initial blow should be delivered with rapidity and energy at the decisive moment in as economic and concentrated a fashion possible at the enemy’s weakest point. Throughout the operation, the advantage of surprise and deception must be fully exploited. After the initial blow, the impetus of the attack cannot be allowed to slacken. Finally, the most carefully devised strategy and tactics are of little purpose unless the commander can control and direct his own forces with great precision. His troops must be loyal, determined, spirited, and disciplined, ready to follow their leader through the direst perils. Leadership is the key to victory; the ability to exact willing and devoted obedience is the test of leadership.

In large measure these are Machiavelli’s major concerns in his discussion of domestic politics as well as in his advice on the conduct of foreign affairs and warfare. The military style or cast of mind, just described, informs not only the purely military proposals ofThe Art of War and his other works, but also the political analysis and recommendations of The Prince and The Discourses. The necessity of foresight, planning, and preparation for the future constitutes a favorite political theme of Machiavelli,113 one that emphasizes the need of expert advice and the gathering of intelligence, the importance of gaining friends and allies as insurance against contingencies in the future, the estimate of factors, and the rational calculation of the objective. Trickery, depending upon secrecy, deception, and surprise, are axiomatic to the political theory of Machiavelli.114 Flexibility, the ease with which one can continually adapt one’s plans and behavior to the changing times and circumstances, is among the chief requisites of success on a domestic political level.115 Machiavelli constantly warns the leader against the half-way measure, the practice of taking a middle course, the attempt to have the best of two possible and diametrically opposed modes of behavior.116 The blow must not be delivered against the political opponent until all preparations have been made. Until they are, a policy of temporizing must be followed. But once the political forces are ready, there can be no hesitation; the attack must be launched vigorously and decisively.117The skillful statesman always seeks to seize the initiative in domestic and foreign affairs and to cling to it tenaciously. He must do more than react to the maneuvers and pressures of others. Whenever possible it is he who must set the pace, who must see that every action of the enemy is a reaction to the behavior of his own forces which are operating according to clearly defined plans and purposes. A knockout blow should always be sought in preference to a long war of attrition. Before the major political conflict comes to a head, the leader should safeguard his position and those of his supporters as best he can.118 In addition, he should block the political ambitions of others by seeing that the governmental offices which they covet are securely filled by his own friends and allies.119 One of Machiavelli’s lasting preoccupations is the problem of political and military leadership in which the command-obedience relation is central.120 Whether he is writing on civic matters or generalship, he stresses the methods whereby willing obedience can be exacted and hatred avoided. Hatred of an army for its commander, or of a citizenry for its ruler, is the prime evil that jeopardizes all leadership.

The general, therefore, seems to be a model for Machiavelli’s statesman in the handling of supporters and in the tactics to be used against the domestic political enemy. Perhaps another indication of Machiavelli’s military style is his assumption that the end of the political struggle is power, just as the military commander’s goal is power over the enemy. The political art and the military art, therefore, are largely a matter of the means necessary to achieve a common aim of aggrandizement. Both statesman and general are principally concerned with devising and using instruments by which they can exert their will over the will of others: those of violence, deception, manipulation, and control. Important differences, however, exist between their respective activities—differences fully appreciated by Machiavelli. The statesman can never be so ruthless about the use of force as the general is against his enemy. Moreover, his use of the various techniques required in the struggle to gain and maintain power must be disguised from the view of fellow-citizens. His power will be imperiled if he gains the reputation for being brutal and deceitful. Brutality and deceit may well prove necessary, but the political leader should, as much as possible, never appear to have to resort to them in domestic politics.


It is evidently the military animus of so much of his thought that leads Machiavelli to emphasize the conspiratorial and counter-conspiratorial nature of politics and to outline the first general theory of political conspiracy in western thought.121 Classical political thinkers have little to say about conspiracy, except to condemn its practice. Although historians since Herodotus describe many conspiracies, some in great detail, only military theorists—before Machiavelli—had attempted to systematize the art of conspiracy by formulating general rules for its conduct. Conspiracy falls quite naturally within the classical military perspective, since it is a friend-foe relationship attaining a characteristic military form in civil war. The ancient military thinkers had contributed to a theory of conspiracy in several ways. They had suggested methods by which discontent and unrest, and even armed uprisings, could be incited within the enemy forces, particularly within an armed fortress or city that is besieged, and they had dis-cussed counter-measures.122In their more general consideration of tricks and ruses to be used to deceive, confuse, and overpower the enemy in the field, they had provided numerous tactical procedures that could be applied by conspirator and counter-conspirator to any intra-mural engagement of their forces. Machiavelli discovers two fundamental political situations. One is the foundation of a new state, or the radical reform of an already existing civil order—two activities that are practically identical. Each is a conspiratorial operation entailing the transformation of an existing arrangement of things. Many individuals and groups, having a vested interest in the prevention of change, will resort to force and treachery to block the endeavors of the founder or the radical reformer. The second political situation, the maintenance of an already founded or reformed civic order, requires that conditions unfavorable to conspiracy must be fostered by the ruler. Close vigilance over the populace must be exercised by the ruler so that he may detect and eliminate any plot or intrigue against his regime. Political power is acquired by conspiracy and is preserved by counter-conspiracy. To be proficient in either requires a thorough acquaintance with the other. The nature of conspiratorial politics is examined in each of Machiavelli’s “political” works. The Prince can be divided roughly into two parts: the first (Chapters 1-11), deals with the conspiratorial phase; the second (12-26), stresses the counter-conspiratorial aspect. Chapter 7 of the first section treats in detail the conspiracy of Cesare Borgia, abetted by his father Pope Alexander VI, to found a strong united papal state; Chapter 19, at the very center of the second half, is devoted to the problem of maintaining power by the prevention of conspiracy. In The Discourses, Chapter 6 of Book III, “On Conspiracies,” is the longest of the work. It is the first systematic treatise on the conspiratorial art in the West, and it is the clearest expression in all the author’s writings of his debt to military science. The essay, Machiavelli explains at the beginning, is written to aid rulers in understanding the nature of conspiracy so that they will be able to take every precautionary measure to prevent it. Actually, the information provided is as helpful to conspirators as it is to counter-conspirators. An indication of the importance of the chapter is its place in the context of the work as a whole. The Discourses are divided into three books: the first analyzes the domestic affairs of the Romans; the second, the foreign and military affairs; and the third, the contribution to Rome’s greatness made by the virtuous actions of some of her outstanding citizens. The statement describing the purpose of the third book comes at the end of its opening chapter; there Machiavelli stresses the importance of periodically bringing a body politic back to its first principles in order to arrest the growth of corruption and the accompanying civic disorder. This perennial revitalization of a people can be accomplished either by the activity of an exceptionally virtuous individual or by vigorously executed laws, which, of course, also depend upon the intervention of virtuous individuals. There follow seven chapters dealing specifically with conspiracy and counter-conspiracy in domestic Roman politics, and including the theoretical discussion, “On Conspiracies.” The story of the plot led by Junius Brutus, the liberator of Rome, against his uncle Tarquinius Superbus is the example dwelt upon most extensively. The irony in the example of Junius Brutus is that his very success in expelling the Tarquins subsequently involved him in the task of participating in the trial and execution of his sons who conspired against the new republican order then being established. Even Tarquinius Superbus, who was unable to oppose the coup of Junius and his fellow republicans, had himself acquired power by assassinating his predecessor, Servius Tullius, whose crown had in turn been gained by conspiracy. The lesson is obvious: conspiracy in the acquisition of power is of no avail unless firm measures to prevent conspiracy can be taken once power is achieved. Even in the best ordered republic, Machiavelli affirms that the danger is ever-present; he cites a number of other Roman conspiracies, and concludes Book III with a reference to three of the most famous, the methods that were employed to put them down, and a eulogy to Q. Fabius Maximus Rullianus for his part in ending one of them. Most of Book III, however, is concerned with recounting the measures taken by Roman military leaders against the enemies of the Republic and with the way in which they managed and disciplined their troops; it is an extremely significant discussion in view of our argument, for it further suggests that conspiracy and war are closely related activities. Civic and military leaders must contend with the problem of maintaining discipline and preventing conspiracy and mutiny among their followers. Machiavelli’s last major work before his death, The History of Florence, more a theoretical treatise on civic corruption than a particularly trustworthy chronicle of his city, describes one conspiracy and counter-conspiracy after another. Its final book, devoted explicitly to the theme of conspiracy, commences with two chapters on the Pazzi plot against Lorenzo de’ Medici, a discussion which proceeds along the general lines of the precepts set forth in “On Conspiracies.” It is more than fitting that a work which is the natural history of a single city’s civic corruption should close with such a topic, since Machiavelli insists that the best preventive measure against civic conspiracy, i.e., the best form of counter-conspiracy, is to see that a polity is well ordered.123

Machiavelli’s approach to counter-conspiracy is most adequately summarized by his belief that, “Government is the management of citizens so that they are neither able nor inclined to oppose you.”124 The task is the same for the general who commands an army and for the statesman possessing supreme political power. At the heart of all leadership is the problem of obedience, the problem of the ways and means of exacting obedience from one’s troops and subjects and of avoiding their contempt and hatred. Disorder and conspiracy will inevitably result from the leader’s failure to win the respect of his followers. In The Prince and The Discourses, Machiavelli largely examines the problem of obedience in terms of whether the leader should seek to command on the basis of love or of fear. The conclusion in the earlier work, that deals primarily with the relation of the civic leader to his subjects, is that ideally a ruler should be both loved and feared by his people; but if there must be a choice between the two, fear is preferable to love, providing the fear is of a quality to induce respect, and not hatred and contempt.125 Machiavelli reasons that the prince can more effectively control his citizens by fear than by love, because fear arouses a greater sense of obligation than love, and because fear is dependent upon the will of the prince, whereas the source of love is the will of the people. To avoid being hated, the prince must take pains to gain an excellent reputation. Negatively, this means that he should avoid unreasonable, tyrannical violation of the possessions, the persons, and the honor of his subjects. Positively, he must always appear to be good, even if for reasons of state he has to act in a cruel and ruthless fashion. One of the crucial ingredients in successful leadership is the talent to appear to be what one is not, as long as actual ability is not counterfeited. In addition, the prince must punish evil severely, reward the skill, competence, and goodness of his subjects, and everywhere encourage initiative, enterprise, and industry. Finally, the performance of great enterprises, both domestic and foreign, will bring the ruler great prestige and fame, and his state, glory and honor. This princely mode of behavior, when joined with energy, foresight, and determination, with a majestic manner marked by a lack of pride and arrogance, and when supported by a rationally organized state founded upon informed policy decisions, the rule of law, and good arms, is the best insurance against conspiracy. Machiavelli is never an advocate of tyranny, in the sense of the unrestrained and arbitrary use of cruelty and force to satisfy the irrational caprice and appetite of a sovereign. Civil order is not the order of the graveyard. Tyranny arises in a weak corrupt society, and is, despite its appearance of absolute sovereignty, a relatively feeble, unstable form of government, an ideal breeding ground for every kind of disorder and conspiracy. The position of The Discourses on the proper relation between the general and his troops 126 is similar to the recommendations of The Prince on the behavior of the civic ruler. Machiavelli thinks that if a military commander is competent, it makes little difference whether he is severe or humane in the handling of his men. But humane or severe, he can never afford to lose the respect of his troops by becoming an object of contempt or hatred. Humaneness must be firm without any sign of weakness or indecisiveness. Severity must be tempered by moderation and justice, and distinguished by an absence of arrogance.

In The Art of War, Machiavelli draws attention to the fact that of all social organizations, an army is the one requiring the greatest discipline. Like civic discipline, military discipline depends to a great extent upon the reputation and conduct of the general. Unless he acts properly, he will fail in his efforts to create an efficient military instrument. Military law should be rigorous and severe. Decimation and running the gauntlet were among the chief punishments by which the Roman armies became the most disciplined forces the world has known. Machiavelli recommends that punishment by the soldiers themselves, and in civic society by the citizens, is an important deterrent to violation of the law. Ringleaders of any conspiracy or mutiny must, of course, be dealt with in an exemplary fashion. Just as the general should be ruthless in his punishment, so he should be generous in rewarding and praising good conduct. Perhaps the most suitable policy is to maintain order in camp by fear and punishment, and in the field by hopes and rewards. Each soldier should be paid well and what is due him; all booty is to be distributed equitably. Caring for the physical well-being of an army is an important way by which the general can secure a willing obedience and avoid the perils of disunity and low morale. When not engaged in battle, troops can be kept from mischief by seeing that they are continuously occupied in various labors. Gambling and women, always a source of trouble in camp, should be strictly prohibited. All soldiers are entitled to a secure rest from their work; and a rationally designed, well-defended encampment will allow them to do so, as well as enabling the commander to keep their actions under the closest surveillance. Good health in the camp, another basis of good discipline, will be the responsibility of an adequate medical staff. Daily exercise of all troops and a sufficient but not luxurious diet are also means to this end. Other techniques of ensuring discipline are suggested throughout the book. Rational organization, in which each man knows his place and function, what is expected of him and what he can expect from others, is basic. Religion is one of the strongest bulwarks of morale and martial spirit. An army which is rigorously and continuously trained in times of peace will be much less likely to disobey in attack and retreat. Commands can only be obeyed if they are understood; hence, clear and intelligible communication is decisive. The quality of the communication is also important. Orders should be designed to inspire obedience, courage, and spirit. A good military commander should also be an effective orator, able to arouse his troops to enthusiastic devotion to the enterprise which is being undertaken. Other devices, such as regimental colors and music, are aids in instilling self-confidence and a determination to overcome the enemy, in addition to their usefulness to the general in the direction and control of his army. By rotating his subalterns’ commands and by ensuring that no officer commands troops from his own district, the general can take precautions against the possibility of the formation of potential nuclei of insubordination and mutiny. A kind of fundamental social division of power between an infantry recruited from the rural areas and an urban cavairy may also contribute to the same end. In the course of his experience, the able commander learns that restlessness and discontent among his own troops will give way to a high degree of unity resulting from fear of the enemy. This is particularly true when the army is in a do-or-die situation, one of necessity, in which there appears to be no alternative to victory except death. The demand of unconditional surrender by the enemy may prove a potent weapon that can be turned against them. For general and statesman, the danger of mutiny and conspiracy can be minimized by a rationally conceived and prudently executed policy of control.


The study of Machiavelli’s social and political thought might well begin with The Art of War, rather than in the conventional fashion with The Prince and The Discourses. By reading first The Art of War, the student might grasp more readily the nature of a well-ordered state and of able civic leadership as discussed in the other works. One of Machiavelli’s assumptions, although it is never clearly articulated, is that an army tends to reflect the quality of the civil society of which it is a part. To observe an army in training, in camp, on the march, and in combat, is to observe how a people act in the most arduous circumstances. A factional, corrupt society will put a feeble and undisciplined fighting force in the field. The army of a well-ordered polity will perform with spirit and efficiency. Military behavior, in fact, tends to magnify civic characteristics; the strengths and weaknesses of the civil parent are more easily perceived and identified in the military offspring. But why can we not apply this insight to the analysis of Machiavelli’s ideas? The theory of military organization and leadership in The Art of War does seem to represent in rather bold relief what Machiavelli values in regard to political organization and leadership. Moreover, when used in this way, The Art of War does help to clarify some of the apparent ambiguities, vaguenesses, contradictions, and omissions in the political works. It is neither as diffuse as The Discourses and The History of Florence, nor as compressed as The Prince. In writing on highly controversial political, moral, and religious issues, a man of the Cinquecento might find plain speaking extremely dangerous. However, a technical military treatise would be another matter; everything was to be gained by being lucid and precise.

The army depicted by Machiavelli in The Art of War is a supremely rational mechanism. Its function can be succinctly defined as military victory over the enemy. Every part and activity of the military community exist simply and solely for the sake of this primary function assigned to the whole. Rational efficiency in terms of the best possible means to the end of victory is the criterion by which all arrangements and kinds of conduct are instituted or permitted to exist. Direction of this community is assured by a hierarchy based upon function. At the top there is a unity of direction in the hands of a single individual, and from him a regularized chain of command extends downward. Each person in the chain is directly responsible to the person above him for all that goes on below him. His rights and duties are fully and clearly prescribed by the rules which govern the community as a whole, setting forth routinized procedures to be followed by all, and stipulating the punishment for their violation. All of this contributes to the sense of security and well-being felt by the individual who is a part of the system. He is able to predict the consequences of his activities, to know what he can and cannot do with impunity. Remuneration is in proportion to the function performed. Advancement in the hierarchy depends upon one’s ability to perform his allotted function. It is quite possible for the individual who first enters the society at the bottom of the hierarchy to advance to the top on the basis of personal merit. In fact, the leading members of the hierarchy are expected to have passed through and gained experience in all the levels below them. Selection for membership in the military community is in strict accordance with rational criteria such as age, physical condition, occupation, and moral character, all with an eye toward the contribution that the individual will be able to make. Training for the various functional roles is determined by detailed regulations prescribing the nature and frequency of the exercises, the type of arms, equipment to be used, etc. The military community is divided into different kinds of functional units, each kind identical in composition and equipment. Operations of the community whether in camp, on march, or in battle are conducted in a routinized, orderly fashion according to the methods learned while training. If the military community is the most rational of communities, its most rational aspect, perhaps, is the encampment which Machiavelli describes in considerable detail. It is a triumph of planning and functional efficiency. Designed for an army of 24,000, the camp is in the form of a square with a regular grid of streets, and plazas designed for particular functions. The camp will always be the same, facing the same direction, no matter where it is erected. Encampment and decampment proceed according to the most efficient method that can be devised. Within the camp, each man and his unit will always occupy the same position, and the different kinds of units will be distributed in accordance with the kind of contribution they can make to the defense of the camp. Internal and external security are the main considerations in the over-all design.

With certain changes and with a decrease in the degree of regularity and discipline, the ideal military community that is prescribed by Machiavelli in The Art of War becomes something like the well-ordered civic community which he advocates in The PrinceandThe Discourses. The civic community should also be a rational mechanism so designed and operated as to make the citizens secure and prosperous. Rational functioning in terms of the most efficient means to achieve these social ends characterizes the good civic order. The individual’s contribution to the functioning of the civic mechanism determines his position in the social scale and his share in the distribution of honors and rewards. Advancement is on the basis of personal merit. A system of rules controls social behavior. Over-all direction and the power to enforce conformity to the stipulated norms of conduct are concentrated at the top of the social hierarchy. Regardless of the frequent organic analogies to be found in his writings,127 Machiavelli’s conception of the civic community is mechanistic. The state possesses neither a life, nor a soul, nor a personality, nor an interest of its own. No higher end, final cause, or spiritual meaning, gives purpose and orientation to the state’s existence. Both military and civic communities are artifices constructed by men to prevent human beastliness from reducing life to primitive anarchy. Man’s primordial and destructive first nature is kept in check by the imposition of a second nature through rational social organization. Discipline and courage, self-control, self-sacrifice, and cooperation—qualities so vital to what we call civilization—are the products of social artifice and invention. Far from being a natural harmony of the inner spiritual life common to all men, the order upon which civilization depends is the welding together of a variety of conflicting interests by the instruments of force, law, example, and religion. Civic mechanisms do not grow of their own accord. They must be designed, constructed, maintained, and adapted to changing conditions by the conscious and purposeful efforts of men.

If Machiavelli’s rational military order serves as a model for his concept of civil society, his idea of the nature of civic law and civic leadership seems also in part to be derived from the same source. Law in one of Machiavelli’s important senses is the command ofil principe, either the general, the prince, or the legislative assembly.128 Law arises historically from the human need for social unity and protection. By rewarding or punishing soldiers and citizens for obedience or disobedience, law can be one of the principal instruments of social control. Machiavelli judges all laws by their utility in advancing the ends which are dear to him. The test, therefore, of a good law is its contribution to maintaining a disciplined, spirited, and rational social organization, to preventing or checking corruption, and to promoting the subjects’ security and well-being. If law is to control social behavior effectively it cannot be the arbitrary whim of an arbitrary ruler. All laws must be made known to all soldiers and citizens, and should never be retroactive. Each law must apply equally to all under the law; each infringement must be punished no matter who the culprit is. Bills of attainder and ex post facto laws defeat the very purpose for which Machiavelli conceives the law to be instituted. He whose command is the law, should always, if only on expediential grounds, set an example before his subjects of scrupulous obedience to his own directives. Law, military and civil, cannot be changed too frequently without seriously disturbing the security and contentment of the subjects. Yet legal change is necessary to meet changing conditions. Flexibility of law is a requisite of a rational society as long as the orderly routine of a people is not constantly upset by too much and too radical change. Substantively, civil law—and we should ever keep in mind the military counterpart—must sustain and strengthen the other levers of social control: the religious and military establishments. The lives and possessions of all under the law are to be scrupulously safeguarded. A degree of social equality is to be assured, and a life given over to lust and avarice is to be discouraged by strictly enforced sumptuary laws which are imposed to suit the need of the times. Industry and enterprise in every sphere of socially beneficial activity should be rewarded; sloth and the absence of initiative, penalized. Law then is the framework of rules holding together the civil and the military mechanisms in order that they may function. Laws are good or bad as they add to, or subtract from, the rational functioning, as defined by Machiavelli, of these mechanisms.

As we have emphasized, traits of the competent general characterize il principe, the source of law. This means that the ideal statesman is a cool, rational, calculating individual who prudently plans his action and adjusts his style to fit the circumstance. He cannot fail to use force and deception when necessary to ward off threats to his power. If, on occasion, he must be violent and ruthless, he must never lust for blood or relish cruelty. No good general loves to kill for the sake of killing; no good statesman can be a sadist.Il principe plays the part demanded by the situation in which he finds himself. The test of his prowess is not only a facility in assuming many roles, but also a chameleon-like aptitude to suit the right role to the particular situation. Emotional self-discipline as well as energy is at the root of what Machiavelli means by virtuous leadership. Even if the leader has to take on a charismatic aura for the purpose of consolidating and manipulating his followers, he always remains beneath the disguise a man who has critically examined himself, who knows his own strengths and weaknesses, and who acts rationally in the light of this self-knowledge. To act like God may be essential for the statesman; to think that he is God is the end of his skill and the beginning of his downfall. Despite the concessions which the leader has to make to satisfy popular sentiment for a dux, he must be of sterner stuff than the common rabble-rouser or idol of the masses. Machiavelli’s ideal seems to be the vigorous, courageous, and noble Roman republican, a man of first-rate mind, whose leadership depends more upon his military virtuosity and humaneness than upon fear. It is to the “liberal” and “great-souled” Scipio Africanus that Machiavelli is inclined instead of to the outspoken, doughty moralist, Marcus Cato Major.129 Of statesmen today, Charles de Gaulle seems to be in some ways the type Machiavelli has in mind. But the Florentine’s preferences cannot be easily stereotyped, for certainly he would have approved of much of Lenin’s activity. However inconclusive such speculations may be, we can be positive that neither Mussolini, nor Hitler, nor Stalin were Machiavellian types, even if The Prince was their bedtime companion. The first became a debauchee, the second was a madman, and the last ended his days as an oriental despot.

The argument that Machiavelli’s concept of the ideal army is in many respects relevant to his view of the rational civic order should not suggest that he identifies or confuses the civic community with the military community. The two communities are distinct, yet related, although the relation is not one of parity. Machiavelli is quite explicit that the rational military mechanism should never be confounded with the rational civic mechanism. The well-ordered state should be governed by its citizens; the army cannot be governed by its soldiers. An army is an instrument of the state, and should always be subordinate to it. War is only one of the means, albeit a very important one, at the disposal of civil society to achieve its goals. The aim of the general and his army is victory over the enemy for the sake of the civic purpose of security and prosperity. All soldiers should be citizens, but soldiering should be only a part-time occupation of the citizen. Besides the relation of subordination between the military and civil communities, there is also another important distinction. Civil society is always much less organized, less rationalized, and less disciplined than the military mechanism. The civic mechanism always will be, and always should be, less of a rational mechanism than the army. To borrow a distinction made by Aristotle in his criticism of Plato’s republic, an army acts in unison, while a civil society should be a harmony. The unison of the military mechanism precludes internal conflict. Harmony in the civic community precludes neither conflict nor competition. Conflict in the form of an open clash of diverse interests will destroy the army. Within certain limits, such conflict is a source of strength and vigor for civil society. These limits are a respect for authority, a desire to abide by the rules, and a consideration for the interests of others that will lead to a belief in the primacy of a common good. A conflict of interest arises from the very nature of man. It may be temporarily eliminated as in an army, or directed, contained, and utilized as in civil society, but its total extinction is found only among the dead. Machiavelli is too much of a republican, too much of the very kind of man he is so fond of describing as “human nature,” too much of an admirer of Rome, ever to believe that the civil order should be an army.



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