Machiavelli, Niccolo (Niccolo di Bernardo dei Machiavelli)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Machiavelli, Niccolo (Niccolo di Bernardo dei Machiavelli)

Machiavelli, Niccolo (Niccolo di Bernardo dei Machiavelli) (1469-1527) Florentine pamphleteer, historian, and political theorist Niccold Machiavelli, the second son of a lawyer, was born in Florence at a time of political turmoil and warfare among the city-states of Italy. Homeschooled on the writings of the Greek historian XENOPHON, the Roman orator Cicero, and the historian LIVY, he devoted himself to statecraft. He worked as a state secretary for the city of Florence and served as ambassador to the courts of Caterina Sforza of Forli; Louis XII of France; Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II; and Cesare Borgia of Rome, the prototype ruler for the author's II Principe (The Prince, 1514; published posthumously in 1532). After a power shift restored the Medicis, Machiavelli's old enemies, in 1509, he was demoted and then falsely charged with conspiracy in 1512. For a year, he languished in prison, enduring torture on the rack before being released. In the small town of Sant' Andrea he worked as a chancery clerk and chronicled provincial life.

After writing his masterwork in exile at San Casciano outside Florence, Machiavelli was consulted in 1519 on a constitution for Florence. He subsequently compiled his seven-book Dell’arte della guerra (The Art of War, ca. 1520), the only manuscript published in his lifetime. The text recommends the mustering of a local militia rather than the hiring of mercenaries to defend the Italian city-states. In his final days, he worked on Istorie florentine (published in English as The History of Florence and of the Affairs of Italy, 1521-25), a vigorous treatise that reflects his knowledge of Genoan, Milanese, Neapolitan, and Pisan influence and of the Venetian empire. He cites examples of conniving, sacrilege, jealousy, and double-dealing among emperors and lesser monarchs, which marked the history of Italy from the Middle Ages throughout the Renaissance. In his tribute to Lorenzo the Magnificent (Lorenzo de' Medici, 1449-92), Machiavelli maintains that the death of a great statesman leaves a vacuum of leadership so vast that chaos is bound to erupt. Following the sack of Rome on May 6, 1527, by troops of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and the temporary expulsion of Pope Clement VII on June 6, the Medicis were banished. Machiavelli sought his old position in Florence but within weeks died of peritonitis.

A Guide for Emperors

Machiavelli's engaging manual The Prince differentiates among republics, monarchies, and empires conquered in war, such as Naples under Spanish rule, the Turkish control of Greece, Pisans under Florentine control, Milan under the control of Louis XII of France, and Venice menacing Alfonso d'Este, the duke of Ferrara. The author degrades the autocrat as the least admirable leader: “All the Turkish monarchy is governed by one ruler, the others are his servants, and dividing his kingdom into ’sangiacates' [small governments], he sends to them various administrations and changes or recalls them at his pleasure” (Machiavelli 1952, 43). With regard to established families such as the Sforzas and d'Estes, Machiavelli esteems the nobility and valor of the head of clan: “We have in Italy the example of the Duke of Ferrara, who was able to withstand the assaults of the Venetians in 1484 and of Pope Julius in 1510, for no other reason than because of the antiquity of his family in that dominion” (34). His claim equates clan stability with a successful long-term rule.

Focusing on 15th-century Italy, Machiavelli’s rhetorical text covers difficulties in fortification and administration and incorporates elements of language, social class, religion, and customs. He reflects on the Spartan, Persian, Alexandrian, Roman, and Papal empires, particularly the Greek colony of Syracusa, Sicily. An admirer of the bold and the unscrupulous, the author cites as heroes the Greek Achilles, the Israelite Moses, Agathocles of Sicily, Hannibal and his conqueror Scipio Africanus, Julius Caesar, Lorenzo di Medici, and Cesare Borgia, the enemy of the warrior pope Julius II. Machiavelli’s reverence for local forces over mercenary forces derives from the experience of Milan under threat of Louis XII of France: “The inhabitants who had willingly opened their gates to him, finding themselves deluded in the hopes they had cherished and not obtaining those benefits they had anticipated, could not bear the vexatious rule of their new prince” (35). Admirers of The Prince include the French regent Catherine de Medicis, the English essayist Francis Bacon, the English explorer Sir Walter Raleigh, the English playwrights Christopher Marlowe and WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, and the Spanish epicist MIGUEL DE CERVANTES. The American libertarian Thomas Jefferson valued Machiavelli’s work with the histories of the Athenian soldier XENOPHON. The Prince also inspired the French emperor Napoleon I, the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, and Adolf Hitler, the author of MEIN KAMPF (1925-26).


Hornqvist, Mikael. Machiavelli and Empire. Cambridge:

Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Art of War. Translated by Christopher Lynch. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

------- . The History of Florence. Translated by Charles

W. Colby. New York: Colonial Press, 1901.

----- . The Prince. Translated by Luigi Ricci. New York: Mentor, 1952.