MACHIAVELLI ON WAR
by John Sloan
This paper is intended to be an introduction to the study of the political
and military theories of Niccolo Machiavelli. Machiavelli has been one of the
most widely read and influential writers of the modern Western World. Yet after
450 years, students are still finding fresh ideas in his works. For further
discussion and permission for academic use please contact
the author.To return to the
introduction page gohere .
Outline of the contents
Life and Literary Works:
The Renaissance period was marked by a number of major changes in the
political and military affairs of Western Europe. Some of these changes were
the product of slow developmental processes which had been at work in Europe
during the Middle Ages. But during the early Renaissance the tempo of change
became more rapid. The age must have seemed a revolutionary one to a sensitive
individual living in fifteenth and sixteenth century Italy.Go to
Such a man was Niccolo Machiavelli. He was born on 3 May 1469 and grew up in
the Florence of the Medici and Savonorola. Three of the most dramatic events of
his youth were the death of Lorenzo de Medici on 8 April 1492, the invasion of
Italy by Charles VIII in 1494, and the death of Savonorola on 23 May 1498. In
addition of course the more distant discoveries by the period's active
explorers must have caused their share of excitement.
He joined the civil service under the republican regime of Piero Soderini in
1498. He served as Secretary to the Ten of Liberty and Peace, was secretary to
the Nine for Militia and Second Chancellor of the city. While in office he went
on man diplomatic missions, including posts in France, Germany, and Rome. His
duties placed him at the center of political affairs in Florence, where he had
ample opportunity to observe from the inside the tortuous machinations that
then characterized Italian politics.
The two critical experiences of Florentine political life at that time were the
siege of Pisa( 1496-1509) and the attempt to prevent the return of the Medici
to power. Due to his almost single-handed creation of the Florentine Militia,
Machiavelli was deeply involved in the successful completion of the former and
the disastrous failure of the latter.
With the return of the Medici in 1512, Machiavelli was dismissed from office,
tortured, and exiled to his ancestral home outside the city walls. there he
tried to satisfy his interest in politics by continuing his study of the
classics. he was not content with the life of a secluded scholar, however, and
attempted repeatedly to regain some position in the Florentine government. His
main avenue of approach to the ruling powers was by writing a number of books
designed to bring himself to their attention. his most important political
works were The Prince, 1513; The Discourses on the First Ten Books of
Titus Livy, 1513-1518; The Discourse on the War with Pisa, 1498;
Report on the Fortifications of Florence, 1526; The Life of
Castruccio Castracani, 1520; The Art of War, 1517-1520; Discourse
on the Reform of the Government of Florence, 1519; and The History of
Florence, 1520-1525. In addition, he wrote several literary works:
Mandragola, a very successful play; Clizia, an adaptation from
Plautus; Belfagor, a novel; A Discourse on Language; and several
poems such as On Ambition, The first Decade, and Ass of
Gold. Writing in an age when letter writing was a highly polished art, his
dispatches, both official and private also stand out as masterpieces.
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Machiavelli's efforts were successful in obtaining for himself several minor
diplomatic missions and a consulting role in the improvement of the city
fortifications during the emergency occasioned by the approach of Charles V's
army. He had just earned enough favor with the Medici, however, to arouse the
suspicion of the republican party that regained power in the wake of Charles'
victory over the pope.. Machiavelli applied for reinstatement in the republican
government but was turned down. Mercifully, he did not live to realize this,
however, but died peacefully at home on 22 June 1527.
Renaissance man strove to achieve immortality through his deeds. While
Machiavelli's political career was much more extensive than that of the great
majority of political theorists, it was not in such an exalted position as to
achieve for him the fame he sought. His books, however, far transcend in value
the purpose for which they were created and have earned for him even more
renown as an epochal political theorists than he could have possibly hoped.
Indeed, he is frequently considered to be the first modern political theorist.
The military side of Machiavelli's career is less well known. It is clear
that he dealt largely with military affairs while in office. He had, in fact,
more practical experience with military matters than many military theorists.
While considerable attention has been focused on Machiavelli as a political
theorists, especially in recent times, those portions of his writing concerning
military theory have also been relatively less studied by modern critics. The
few who have dealt with this aspect of Machiavelli's work differ widely in
their evaluations. J. H. Whitfield puts The Art of War aside as a mere
echo of Vegetius. Frederick Taylor, however, notes that Machiavelli has an
important place in the history of military theory and comments 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, and to regard it as a means to an end." Earle included
Machiavelli in his Makers of Modern Strategy. Probably the most thorough
analysis of the interrelationship between military and political theory in
Machiavelli's thought was made by Neal Wood in his introduction to The Art
of War. In any case, it is clear that The Art of War is the first
full scale modern attempt to revive classical military thought.
In addition to being the first modern political and military theorist,
Machiavelli is a superb prose stylist. his writing has been praised by
Macauley, and T. S. Eliot. His play, Mandragola, is considered the
finest play in the Italian language. His essay, On Language, is one of
the first to contain the principles of the science of semantics. Recently
management theorists have become increasingly aware that Machiavelli
anticipated them also in developing precepts for action applicable to the
problems confronting business executives.
Machiavelli's Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy contains
the fundamental modern treatise on political expansion. It is an indispensable
work for the interpretation of subsequent theories of expansion advanced by
Hobbes and Burke. It is often assumed that Hobbes was Machiavelli's disciple
and that Burke opposed Machiavelli's teachings. ON the contrary, Burke and
Machiavelli stand together as patriotic, liberal, and "imperialist"
philosophers against the anti-imperialist Hobbes, who, despairing of the
unpredictable forces of liberty and patriotism, left his Leviathan virtually
defenseless and incapable of expansion. The study of imperialism considered as
a political phenomenon should be based on the theories of Machiavelli and
Burke. They agree that the conquering force and the imperial capacity of any
state is determined primarily by its constitutional arrangements: further, that
a liberal constitution is an excellent foundation for an empire, as well as the
least impractical domestic system. As the supreme object of empire is lasting
fame, a liberal state is well constituted to seek such gratitude in return for
extending its own system. Aware of the dangers inherent in imperial rule,
Machiavelli and Burke both warn against arrogance, avarice, and rule by terror.
Go to top
Machiavelli drew on two sources for his theories the military history and
practice of contemporary Europe, especially Italy; and the military history and
practice of ancient world, especially the Roman Republic.
The Italian condotierri had long since established schools of warfare in which
they sought to study and develop both strategy and tactics. The international
character of armies aided the dissemination of information about the latest
developments in warfare during this revolutionary period. As an avid student of
the art, Machiavelli no doubt questioned every leader he met and engaged in
constant discussion of military affairs. One of the scenes of his discussions
was the Rucelli Gardens, where the Orti Oricellari met and in which locale
The Art of War is laid. he uses the distinguished condoterri, Fabrizio
Colonna, as his mouthpiece in this work. In the Orti Oricellari group he came
in contact with several leaders who were interested in military affairs, among
them Francesco Vettori, Luigi Alamonni, Zanobi Buondelmonti, Donato Giannetti,
and Benedetto Varchi.
At the siege of Pisa, Machiavelli had contact with Paolo and Vitellozzo
Vitelli, tow noted condoterri captains, and with the Florentines, Giovani
Batista Ridolfi, Luca Degli Albizzi, and Antonio Giacomini, all of whom were
interested in military affairs. Problems of a military nature were clearly of
primary importance at this time. The question of militia versus condoterri was
especially pressing. The use of militia involved becoming expert in the rest of
the art of war. It is not possible to determine how much or what Machiavelli
learned from these contacts, but he must have been influenced to some degree.
On the other hand, his books are polemical and much of his attention is devoted
to refuting arguments presumably held by his contemporaries, so that perhaps
their influence was mostly negative.
If Machiavelli's debt to Florentine writers and specific military leaders of
his acquaintance is unclear, his literary debts to the ancient Romans are quite
apparent. He obtained his knowledge of Roman military practice from his
extensive reading of the classical authors. He grew up and was educated in a
city noted as a center of the revival of learning and had available a wide
selection of contemporary editions of the classics. Father Walker, in his notes
to the Discourses, has given a thorough discussion of the sources and
possible sources of this work. The list reads like a catalog of classical
historical literature. In particular, Machiavelli relied on Livy, Xenophon,
Vegetius, Tacitus, Thucydides, Polybius, Cicero, Frontinus, Aelian, Sallust,
Diodorus Siculus, and Plutarch.Go to top
Machiavelli, in Prince Chapt 15 claims to depart from the method of
other writers, who have created imaginary republics. His argument is that:
- he is concerned with the discovery of truth and not the construction of
- that he is not concerned with what the moralists say ought to be done, but
with what is really done
In the Discourses, Preface, Book I, he repeats his claim and says
his method is different from that of any other writer, as new as the discovery
To see if his claim is valid, let us consider the main features of his method.
his most important work is the Discourses. The main content of this book
is comment on material taken from the first ten books of Titus Livy's
History of Rome. These books discuss Roman history from Rome's
foundation in 753BC to 293BC. Thus Livy covers the period during which Rome's
constitution, institutions, and empire were formed.
Rome is Machiavelli's favorite example because it established the greatest and
most lasting empire due to the "Virtu" of its citizens. Machiavelli
notes three reasons for this success:
- The Roman Constitution;
- Roman military organization
- the "virtu" of Rome's outstanding men.
Therefore, the Discourses is divided into three books, one
corresponding in subject matter to each of these topics. Since most of the
outstanding men were generals and the most important aspect of the constitution
for Machiavelli was its ability to generate military power, military affairs
dominate the book. Some 45 chapters being devoted to this topic. Machiavelli's
method in each book is to go through Livy in chronological order, selecting
important events relating to the topic. He uses these incidents as the basis
for one or more theorems. Many of these theorems are themselves quotations from
Livy's own comments on the events he is narrating. In fact, Machiavelli's whole
philosophy and outlook is almost identical with that of the Roman historian.
The Discourses reveal the influence of another Roman (Greek) historian,
Polybius. A comparison of Book VI of Polybius' History with the first 15
chapters of Book I, Discourses, shows an almost point by point
similarity in their discussions of the Roman constitution.
Machiavelli himself urges the student to study history for its practical value.
But what is it that gives a practical value to history? He sees history as a
laboratory for the study of human psychology. His basic propositions are that
history is a record of individual human activity. Political activity is
activity of individual leaders or groups of individuals. People act because of
motivations. Motives are the causes for the effects one sees in history. His
works are filled with such words as ambition, avarice, virtue, envious, blame,
praise, approbation, wisdom, imitated, weakness, indolence, necessity, vicious,
ingrate, just, courage, disgust, revenge, cupidity, ambition and the like.
What he seeks are laws of cause and effect of universal validity. He is
therefore especially interested in proving the universality of his theorems. To
do this he adds to the original citation from Livy, other examples drawn from
his memory of other historical literature and from current events.
The method used in the Prince is similar except in two respects;
- There is no basic incident from Livy's History.
- In the Discourses most of the chapter titles are themselves the
theorems (100 out of 142), while in the Prince only chapter 19 is headed
by a theorem.
In structure The Prince comes in four parts. Chapters 1 to 11 are a
discussion of the types of states (principalities) classified by the manner in
which they were created, organized and governed. There is evidence that this
was the original work and was titled "On Principalities". Chapters 12
to 14 are a discussion of military affairs, in particular the militia. This can
be considered a special plea for Machiavelli's favorite organization. Chapters
15 through 19 are a catalog of the real virtues needed by a prince. These are
the chapters that stand in such sharp contrast to the humanist literature, not
to mention the medieval literature, which preceded Machiavelli. Chapters 20 to
25 are further comments on psychological factors. Finally, Chapter 26 is a
patriotic exhortation, which some commentators believe was added as an
The use of ancient and modern examples is the same and each chapter develops
one or more theorems. The Prince is actually one of a very extensive
type of literature, the book of advice to a monarch, called "mirror of
princes" literature. This literature was widespread during the middle ages
and was developed by the humanist writers of the early Renaissance. To the
abstract theories of the medieval writers they added historical examples. They
attempted to provide new justifications for the legitimacy of rulers by
focusing on the ethical problems facing rulers. Machiavelli consciously sought
to refute the humanists while copying their literary form. Even the dedication
to the Medici is a copy of Isocrates address to Nicocles, a standard stylistic
formula of the period.
In writing the Art of War, Machiavelli followed tradition even more
carefully in respect to format. In fact, he copied the organization paragraph
by paragraph (and much of the opinion also) from the most influential military
work of the Western world, The De Re Militari of Vegetius. However,
Machiavelli adds his comparative method to the Roman's format, this time by
comparing Greek and Roman military technique with contemporary Swiss, French,
Italian and Spanish techniques. He combines all these to develop his plan for
the ideal military organization. Further, he includes a detailed example of a
hypothetical battle not found in De Re Militari but similar to a
description in Xenophon's Cyropaedia. Also included are a description of
an encampment from Polybius, stratagems from Frontinus, and drill orders from
Aelian Tacticus. The book is written in dialogue form, a common Renaissance
genre. The introduction contains a discussion of the connection between civil
and military affairs. The Topic of Book I is the recruitment of militia; Book
II is on arming, organizing and training the army; Book III describes an ideal
battle; in Book IV are found tactics, planning, stratagems, and generalship;
Book V is on the march; Book VI on encampment, provisioning and troop welfare;
and Book Vii is on defense and attack of towns and fortifications.
The formulation of generalizations and maxims is an important part of
Machiavelli's method. These maxims express or imply a relation between cause
and effect and imply an end (purpose) for the action involved, namely success.
The generalization can be converted into a maxim by reference to an end. His
generalizations therefore lead to different maxims for different people having
different ends. Thus he advises at the same time republicans and princes, those
in and out of power, those sup porting and attempting to overthrow governments.
He does not give advice to tyrants because he likes tyranny, but advises
everyone because his maxims are universally applicable. Go to
According to Father Leslie Walker, who presents his detailed analysis of
Machiavelli's work in the edition of the Discourses he edited, M's method
involves several propositions.
- He looks to history for an incident likely to recur and observes its
consequences; or having noted a consequence, he looks for the cause.
- He inquires further, whether there are any other similar instances in
history, especially in modern times.
- He formulates a generalization of, A often or always or sometimes follows
- He looks for negative instances, i.e. B but no A.
- He observes whether the result in question was beneficial to the party
concerned and then states the maxim that the course of action should be
followed or avoided.
- He judges the precepts of moralists as to their results in like manner and
accepts or rejects them depending on their consequences.
Father Walker notes that this is the inductive method. It can be found in
the works of no previous writer. It was Machiavelli, not Francis Bacon, who
invented this method. Bacon was actually a careful student of Machiavelli and
the first to apply Machiavelli's method to the realm of natural science. Thus
Machiavelli's contention is valid. Go to top
Machiavelli was not a philosopher or logician. Many of his main
generalizations are mentioned in passing while discussing other topics. Some of
the most important axioms are a
- Both physical bodies and political bodies are ever in process of
transformation, analogous one to the other. Hence it is possible to formulate
laws descriptive of processes in each area.
- Similar causes give rise to similar effects
- There exist similar causes and similar effects.
- Similar causes in dissimilar circumstances may not give rise to similar
- Similar effects may be due to dissimilar or even contrary causes.
- Dissimilar effects are not due to the same cause.
- A given effect may be due to a plurality of causes, such that, if any one
is lacking the effect will not ensue.
- In certain cases, the causes are so complex that it is impossible to
determine which effect will result; but the most one can do is calculate
An exposition of the influence of Machiavelli on the development of
military theory and practice is an essay in itself. The best and actually only
such essay is Neal Wood's introduction to The Art of War. The
development of the modern army by Maurice and Gustavus Adolphus was based on
Machiavelli as was the development of the first regiments in the French Army.
The Art of War was his first work published in English, whereby it was
influential in Elizabethan England. Montecuculi, Frederick the Great, Saxe,
Guibert, Napoleon I, Clausewitz, Marx and Engles are a few among those who
studied and were influenced by Machiavelli. That he is relatively unknown to
contemporary American military leaders is due to their general neglect of
philosophy, history and things theoretical. In the Soviet Union, however,
The Art of War was published by the state military department publishing
house in 1939 with an introduction which urged that all officers of the Red
Army should read Machiavelli to learn essentials of the theory of war.Go to top
Content of Military Theory:
In this essay we can discuss only a small part of Machiavelli's thoughts;
Machiavelli's general view of human nature and the causes of war. Then I will
summarize his views of the model commander and finally his description of the
model army.Go to top
Human Nature - The Fundamental Cause of War:
For Machiavelli, man is dominated by his passions. He is acquisitive,
shortsighted and imitative. His desires are unlimited and bear little relation
to his abilities. Not only is the supply of possessions limited, but man's
short-sighted, restless nature makes him constantly tire of what he has and
desire new and more interesting things. This selfishness leads to conflict
between those who desire to dominate and those who desire to be free from
domination. Domination is itself the most powerful of emotional desires. The
conflict is conducted both on the civil level between men and on the
international level between groups of men.
Since conflict stems from the fundamentals of human nature, it is at least
latent in all human societies and therefore inevitable. One of the fundamental
concerns of politics then is the control and application of conflict in the
interests of society. War and politics form an organic whole; while war is a
political instrument, politics itself is a warlike activity. You are all
familiar with the famous dictum of Clausewitz that war is politics conducted by
other, more violent means. This idea has also been adapted by Leninists. But
with a different concept of what politics is about. The Leninists actually come
closer to the original view of Machiavelli, which is that it is politics that
is war conducted by other, less violent means. Go to top
Specific causes of war:
Among the specific causes of particular wars Machiavelli mentions lack of
food, ambition of princes, internal security, avoidance of punishment,
miscalculation, and necessity. While these may be the immediate objects for
which a city goes to war "There are but two motives for making war against
a republic, one, the desire to subjugate her, the other, the apprehension of
being subjugated by her. Go to top
Kinds of war:
The various causes give rise to two different kinds of war, one caused by
the ambition of princes or republics and the other caused when an entire people
desire to overthrow the society of another people. Thus there is a qualitative
difference between wars waged for limited and unlimited objectives. The limited
political objectives involve the seizure of some territory and or domination of
another group or the unseating of a particular ruler. In total war the
objective is the complete destruction of the opposing social and political
order and if possible the extermination of the population itself. Moreover, the
intensity of war - the means and methods employed - is greater when the
objective is total. The unlimited character of the military operation stems
from the unlimited character of the political objective sought by at least one
of the belligerent. Go to top
The Model Commander:
For Machiavelli, strong and able leadership is an essential ingredient in
successful government, both political and military. His books are in effect
treatises on the requirements and methods of good leadership. He devotes
considerable space to what a good leader should know, how he should act, and
what his characteristics are, and how a city can secure and use good
leadership. And whole books have been written on this topic.
The ideal leader is the classical virtuous hero as exemplified by Romulus,
Theseus, Solon, Cyrus and Alexander. He is a statesman, ideally a founder of a
state or religion, or the organizer of an army. Leadership is a creative
quality. It is because of its creative nature that the military profession
qualifies as one of the highest. The virtue of a leader is not synonymous with
success, although success is an essential ingredient. Nor is mere technical
ability sufficient to make the leader virtuous. The pursuit of glory rather
than material goods is the highest aim of man. True glory is achieved in the
doing of something which will not only be remembered but cherished by mankind.
The leader therefore must exercise self-control and moderation. He must live a
Spartan daily life. He must be devoted to the common good, but so desirous of
glory as to prefer the short glorious life to the long mediocre one.
Leadership involves not only creative effort but also a constant struggle with
fortuna an idea derived from classical ideas of fate. The world is in a
constant state of change. Fortuna represents the incalculable in the
nature of events.
It is impossible for man to foresee everything in order to dominate
fortuna. Yet through the use of reason and dynamic leadership the
commander should be able to channel events to further his own designs. Of prime
importance in keeping ahead of fortuna is the ability to stay flexible enough
always to anticipate changing conditions and change with the times. The
inability of most men to change their habits and modus operandi constitutes one
of their major weaknesses.
The importance of good leadership for Machiavelli stems from his ideas on
imitation and his belief in the creative powers needed by the founders of both
cities and armies. The faults of people spring from the faults of their
Conducting warfare is one of the principal duties of the leader, hence it must
be the subject of careful study. "A prince should therefore have no other
aim or thought, nor take up any other thing for his study, but war and its
organization and discipline, for that is the only art that is necessary to one
who commands." This admonition is not meant to imply that war in the usual
sense is the only activity of a ruler, but that the procedures associated with
war have application to all phases of the ruler's activities. Go
Machiavelli applies his theory of human nature to military problems and
develops major roles for religion, appearances and necessity. He believes that
man's desires to acquire money, power, and glory are not sufficient in
themselves to overcome an even stronger desire to stay alive. Fear dominates
men's minds when they are faced with danger, and their desires cannot be
counted on to make them risk death in battle. The commander must have recourse
to other means to persuade his men to fight. Among these are music, oratory,
and rewards. Three additional means are religion, appearances and necessity.
Go to top
The role of money in war:
Machiavelli discusses this at length because he disagrees with the common
opinion that "money is the sinews of war". He notes that gold will
not buy trustworthy soldiers, but good soldiers will always find gold. The
small stipend given soldiers in not enough to make them die for their leader.
Riches along with natural geographic strength and the favorable disposition of
the people is one of the many secondary requirements for success, but the
primary one is a strong army. Go to top
Machiavelli emphasizes the importance of religion. He stresses its utility
as a means for instilling a willingness to fight. In this he is writing about
ideology in general. It served four military purposes for the Romans.
Predicting a favorable outcome increased confidence. The oath threatened
punishment from the gods for cowardice. Religion educated the troops in the
concepts of love of country and exalted the heroic individual devoted to public
service. Machiavelli does not mention religion as an ideological belief to be
fought for, for itself. Go to top
Since men are shortsighted and prone to believe what they want to believe,
the general should use every means possible to make his army appear strongest
and best. Appearances is also the foundation for use of stratagems and deceits.
Machiavelli mentions many of the stratagems employed by ancient armies.
Go to top
Necessity plays a determining role in military strategy. It is necessity
which causes many wars. Necessity will make one or the other side fight harder.
The able general takes necessity into account and actively uses it.
Go to top
Besides evidencing leadership traits and knowing how to use psychological
techniques, the commander must be thoroughly familiar with the tools of his
trade. Of fundamental importance is the appreciation of the necessity for
careful, detailed planning. Of equal importance is the recognition that there
are certain general principles which should not be violated. Machiavelli is one
of the first military theorists to point out that the scientific study of war
requires an understanding of the principles on which it is based.
Go to top
Estimate of the situation:
Proper planning and a careful estimate of the situation are important
before beginning a war. Machiavelli lists all the ingredients found in modern
estimates including enemy, own forces, terrain, weather, etc. Go
Principles of War:
Machiavelli's list of principles in The Art of War is a mixture of
general principles and specific tactical maneuvers. For a more interesting
approach I have taken the modern US list of principles of war and attempted to
collect all that Machiavelli wrote on each. Go to top
Machiavelli sees conquering and keeping territory at a profit as the
political objective. The defeat of the enemy army is the strategic and tactical
objective. While victory in battle is the objective of all armies, the general
should never come to a general engagement unless forced to do so. It is more
advantageous to defeat the enemy by destroying his will to resist through the
use of psychological warfare and "peace campaigns". It is always
possible to find allies within the opposing society who will act as a
"fifth column". Even so, the use of all these other methods
ultimately rests on having the undoubted ability to wage violent war in the
open and to make war "short and sharp". Since war is caused by a
"thirst for domination", it is foolish to try to appease an
aggressor. It is almost always better to allow something to be taken by force
than to yield it to the apprehension of force, because to yield from fear for
the purpose of avoiding war merely encourages the enemy to try for more.
Go to top
The offensive is the cardinal principle, because it enables the leader to
keep ahead of his enemies and fortuna. By keeping the initiative the ruler can
channel the course of history. The principle of the offensive must be applied
flexibly. When external and internal evils arise at the same time temporizing
may be necessary in order to be able to build up strength while one or the
other dies out. Machiavelli discusses in some detail the relevant
considerations one must take into account when deciding on taking the strategic
offensive or defensive.Go to top
Mass and economy of force:
Machiavelli discusses Mass several times and urges the commander to never
risk his whole fortune on only a part of his forces. He does not discuss the
modern concept of economy of force explicitly. Go to top
Unity of command:
This is one of Machiavelli's important principles. He discusses both the
necessity for unity of political and military leadership and the narrower
question of unity of command within the command element of a field army.
Go to top
Surprise and Security:
Machiavelli emphasizes the value of surprise and the consequent need for
security. Secrecy of plans is one of the most important aspects of all
operations. These principles rely on the use of deceit and the doctrine of
appearances. Machiavelli incorporated a large part of Frontinus'
Strategmata into his The Art of War. Go to top
Machiavelli has little to say on this subject directly. However it is
implicit in his advice not to rely on position defenses such as fortifications.
Of course he devotes much attention to maneuvering in the political sense, but
does not include much attention to it in his description of a set- piece
battle. Go to top
He does not mention this principle directly. He does note the requirement
for simple orders and the likelihood of misunderstanding and confusion in
battle. Go to top
Machiavelli thus seems well aware of objective, offensive, mass, unity of
command, surprise and security. He gives less attention to economy of force,
maneuver and simplicity. These three principles are relatively new and were not
stressed by the classical authorities upon whom Machiavelli relied.
Go to top
The Model Army:
Machiavelli devotes much attention to the proper composition of the army.
He denounces mercenaries and insists on the recruitment of a militia composed
of native citizens. These should be conscripted, not volunteers, but the
citizen's education should stress the necessity for military service as a civic
duty. He also does not approve of professional soldiers, even citizens, but
wants military service to be a temporary activity of citizens having other
means of livelihood. Machiavelli gives political as well as military reasons
for his views. In fact it is the political considerations which are paramount.
These extend also into the specific details of how the militia is to be
recruited, paid and commanded.
Machiavelli connected a militia with republican
government and despotic rule and corruption in society with control of the army
by an individual or group. He hoped that a corrupt society could be helped
toward reform by the institution of a militia. Go to top
The proposal to draw the citizen militia from an armed populace does not
mean to arm everyone. Machiavelli considers an armed mob to be dangerous and
worthless. Only selected, trustworthy individuals having specific character
traits and skills should be considered. Go to top
Discipline and Training:
The need for strict discipline cannot be stressed too often. It is
necessary for the internal security of a country because it makes the soldiers
less likely to violate the laws, even though they have the weapons. Rigorous
training in peacetime to include participation in sham battles is essential,
both to develop specific skills and to develop discipline. Go to
Machiavelli finds contemporary armies greatly lacking in proper logistic
procedures and recommends a return to the exemplary Roman routine. He
especially mentions food supply and medical practice as important areas for the
commander' s attention. Go to top
He describes the proper siting and layout of a camp in great detail. Again,
his model is the Roman practice. Go to top
Arms and Armor:
The roles that various weapons have played in the success or failure of
ancient and contemporary armies bear analysis. Machiavelli discusses the
strengths and weaknesses of the pike, sword, and firearms. He proposes to
organize his model regiment of 6000 men with 3000 armed with sword and shield,
2000 with pike and 1000 with arquebus . He mentions cavalry only briefly
because contemporary cavalry is already better than infantry, but it is the
infantry that is the key element in the army. Go to top
The army is to be formed of two native and two allied regiments of 6000 men
each. The regiment is composed of ten battalions of 400 heavy infantry and 50
light infantry each plus an extra unit of 1000 pikemen and 500 extra light
infantry. Each battalion is commanded by a Lt Col assisted by 5 captains and 45
corporals. The extra pikemen are also commanded by 3 Lt Co l's and the extra
light infantry by two Lt Co l's. A colonel commands the entire regiment.
Each battalion has 36 horsemen and the regiment has a unit of 150 heavy cavalry
and one of 150 light cavalry.
Promotion is up through the ranks and by merit. The senior Lt. Col commands the
first battalion and the junior the 10th, so that each promotion brings a
corresponding shift in position within the regiment. The officer corps is also
rotated between regiments to prevent anyone from acquiring a personal
Machiavelli gives a very detailed account of the basic formations to be used.
There are three basic combat formations for the battalion, the oblong
rectangle, the square with horns, and the hollow square. Go to
Order of Battle:
Machiavelli draws his army up on the battlefield in Roman fashion, in three
lines in which the battalions are disposed in checkerboard fashion. He gives a
full description of a set-piece battle to illustrate the formation and proper
interaction of each subunit. He also goes into considerable detail to explain
the proper formation and procedure for conducting a march, both in one's own
country and in the face of the enemy. The relative value of infantry and
cavalry was one of the current issues of the day to which Machiavelli addressed
himself. He clearly favors infantry. The role and value of artillery also
merits his attention. He disagrees with many contemporaries who said that
artillery would eliminate both the opportunity for individual valor and close
combat. In this he was correct, but at the same time he went too far the other
way and did not recognize the valuable role artillery would soon play.
Go to top
Fortifications and Siege Warfare:
Machiavelli was primarily concerned with the political and strategic use of
fortifications and their attack and defense. That he was aware also of the
technical aspects of fortification design is evidenced by his supervision of
the strengthening of the city walls of Florence. He was also called upon to
make a detailed technical report recommending new fortifications. He sent
Leonardo to assist with the fortification of Polbino. But he also approved
greatly when Duke Montefeltro demolished the fortifications of his own city,
Urbino, noting that a ruler should rely more on the virtu of his citizens than
on walls. He lived in an era which saw rapid changes in the design of
fortifications. He realized that a city could just as easily fall due to some
minor technical flaw in its fortifications as to errors in its grand strategy.
Go to top
Summary and Conclusions:
Machiavelli's philosophy is based on his pessimistic view of human nature.
He has been called a "pagan Augustinian". Aristotle and Plato also
called attention to the imperfect nature of man, but Machiavelli rejected their
approach. He follows Xenophon more closely. It was Xenophon who took a rational
organization, the army, and applied the lessons learned in its construction and
operation to the problems of society in general. Machiavelli follows his lead
in linking military and civil societies. He goes a step beyond Xenophon when he
applies the lessons of military practice to the internal affairs of his civic
body. For all his recognition of the failings of human nature, Xenophon could
not free himself from the Greek distinction between friend and foe. For him
coercion was to be applied to the enemy, and both the army and the polis were
to be based on friendship. Machiavelli does not recognize this distinction. To
him everyone is a potential enemy, hence the civic rulers must employ the same
measures employed by the general to defeat his enemies. This is the reason
Machiavelli makes no distinction between the statesman and military commander
and why his approach to politics is a military one.
Just as the unchanging character of human nature is the stable ingredient which
makes the study of history important for the statesman, the presence of man
himself at the controls in all human organizations makes the study of his
character the basic activity for the successful leader. Machiavelli's state and
army are not abstract entities endowed with human characteristics or desires.
All decisions are made by men and all evoke reactions in other men.
Machiavelli's insistence on this principle is seen in each of the diverse
topics included in this study. For him the proper decision to such questions as
whether to form alliances or not, when to invade the enemy territory, when to
use money, how to acquire and control colonies, how to use "peace"
offensives, how to organize a community and whether to appease an aggressor or
not are all based on an evaluation of the probable reaction of those humans
affected by the decision. Likewise, his criteria for the selection of a leader
and his precepts to guide the leader's actions in command of an army are based
on principles of psychology. The reaction of the army is itself governed by an
evaluation of the human material available to the leader. Such considerations
as the proper type of soldier, the discipline to be developed, the training
program to be followed, the most useful armament, the correct logistical
procedures, and the proper role of infantry, cavalry and artillery are all made
under the assumption that man has been, is, and always will be the central and
essential weapon in war.
Based on this assumption, some of Machiavelli's major points are as
(1) War between men is inherent and inevitable.
(2) War will be total or limited depending on the political objectives
(3) Uncontrolled and unprepared for, war is destructive; but properly channeled
and prepared for, it can serve socially useful purposes.
(4) The proper way to conduct a war is to carry it to the enemy; keep the
initiative; maintain exclusive decision-making power; do not try to buy
friends; do not remain neutral or passive when danger threatens, however
remotely; always present your side as peace loving and leave your opponent
every opportunity to retreat or surrender; use subversive agents inside the
other society to pave the way; govern acquired territories through local
intermediaries; do not risk total victory or defeat with less than all your
forces; be prepared to adapt to the times-- to retreat if necessary to await
(5) Leadership is a creative activity. It is the highest aspiration of man. It
is the essential element in victory. The leader can and should use every means
at his disposal to insure victory, including all manner of psychological tricks
and ruses. The leader should educate himself by studying the example of
virtuous heros of the past, especially Roman.
(6) The hold which fear and appearances have on the minds of men require the
leader to employ techniques designed to take advantage of these human
characteristics. In this connection money, religion, stratagems, and necessity
all have important roles.
(7) The leader must be able to analyze a situation objectively and base his
decisions on a careful estimate of the situation. He must not lose sight of his
major objective in war, which is the destruction of the enemy's will and/or
ability to resist.
(8) The army should be a citizen militia, highly trained and well disciplined,
organized in small flexible units, armed with weapons for close combat,
composed primarily of infantry. Quality is to be preferred to quantity.
Machiavelli's lasting importance is due to the way in which his theoretical
structure is firmly grounded in a realistic appreciation of human nature. His
uncritical acceptance of his sources led to some errors in his specific
examples. The polemical nature of his writing led to some overstatement of
position. He failed to appreciate the role of missile weapons in history. He
was perhaps over-optimistic in is expectation that an essentially amateur
militia would be able to defeat the professional armies of his day.
Nevertheless, much of what he wrote is still valid today. He understood the
importance of military factors in the achievement of political objectives, both
in foreign and domestic policy. He recognized the close interrelationship
between military organization and the social-political structure of a society.
He saw that warfare was no longer going to be the exclusive affair of a
specialized class of warrior who fought over largely private interests, but the
central activity of the then developing state and hence the concern of its
rulers and indeed off all is inhabitants. He warned that unless the people
understood and participated in military affairs they could not control the army
and if they did not control it, it would control them. He emphasized that the
creation of an army cannot await the existence of an emergency, but is the
result of long and careful planning. He believed that the discipline and other
virtues acquired in a properly functioning military organization had great
value to the civic life of a community. His appreciation of the importance of
psychological factors as being frequently decisive in any confrontation of man
by man requires continual renewal in this technological age. He outlines an
effective strategy for conquest which has modern imitators. A citizen militia
is still important in a modern army as a reserve element, but no major power
could achieve its policies today without at least part of its army being
professional. Discipline and training are as essential today as they ever were.
Weapons are different now, but the principles governing their use are the same.
Since Machiavelli equates political and military affairs so directly, it is not
surprising that his guides to action in the military field are so strikingly
similar to his pronouncements on political questions. An interesting question
then is which came first, the political theory or the military theory. In other
words did Machiavelli derive his military doctrines from political doctrine or
the reverse. To attempt to answer this question I have compared his three major
books (The Prince, The Discourses and The Art of War).
Machiavelli himself states that he differs from most authors on the subject of
rules and methods for a prince. His reference to imaginary republics is a clear
attack on political philosophers such as Plato and Dante. The comments on
making a profession of goodness refer to the mirror of princes literature in
general. He attacks ancient writers while praising ancient statesmen and
soldiers. It has been pointed out that The Prince does conform in style
to this tradition of mirror of princes literature, but that in content it is
radically different. Machiavelli can be taken at his word, that he does not
recommend the precepts of the classical or medieval political theorists
generally held in high regard in his time.
In his opinion the past is generally overrated by critics of contemporary
affairs. Men's appetites change, hence they judge differently when they are old
than they did when young and they tend to glorify the past. In spite of this he
constantly urges his readers to imitate the ancients.
Machiavelli begins the introduction to Book One of The Discourses with
the claim to have opened a new route, to have discovered new principles and
systems; to what end he does not say. Antiquity is held in great esteem and
imitated by artists; ancient virtue, however, is more admired than imitated. He
proposes that we imitate also ancient military and political systems. His route
leads to a revival of virtue. The Discourses also represents a departure
from anything previously written.
In the introduction to The Art of War Machiavelli discusses the
relation between civil and military affairs more explicitly. Men entering the
army transform themselves and appear quite different from civilians, but on a
closer look at civil and military institutions a close relation can be seen.
Once again, in this book as in the others, Machiavelli is quite specific in
denouncing the contemporary military practice and in recommending the ancient
practice, subject to certain modifications of his own design. This book
contains less political theory and more military details than the other two,
but all three repeat the same arguments. The style and content, however, are
noticeably different. Far from having no previous models, this book is copied
almost word for word from specific Roman military textbooks. While Machiavelli
does not mention who the writers are, he is careful to state his reasons
whenever he deviates from them, even in the order in which he treats the
Machiavelli writes that he does not agree with most political theory, ancient
or modern, nor with contemporary Italian military practice. What he does admire
is ancient (Roman) political and military practice, and ancient military
theory. The ancient political and military practices were in conformity and
were expressed more adequately in the military texts and histories than in the
political theory books. Contemporary political and military practice is
inadequate and is also not expressed adequately in contemporary literature.
In two books then Machiavelli expressly breaks with one tradition and establish
new precepts, while in the third he consciously stays as close to another
tradition as possible; yet the theories in all three books are almost
identical. It would seem unlikely that he would have devised the new precepts
in the first books from strictly political considerations and then found that
they corresponded exactly to the traditional ones followed in the third book.
Evidently he considered military theory applicable to political problems before
he wrote The Prince. This is further shown by reference to his
correspondence written while still in office, and especially in his activities
on behalf of the militia. Machiavelli's political theory then is an extension
of his military theory, and the whole is based on classical military doctrines.
His major contribution then to political theory is the view of the civic body
as a proper field for the employment of precepts derived from military
practice. Go to top