ART OF WAR
prepared by: John Sloan
Table of Contents
The general theme is that the modern Italians have become so degenerate and
corrupt in their ways that their lack of knowledge of military affairs and lack
of military discipline have led to the ruin of the nation. Italy has become the
battleground for foreign "barbarians", that is the Germans, French
and Spanish. Machiavelli advocates creatively adapting ancient military
practices, but points out how difficult this would be to accomplish. In reading
this book as all of Machiavelli's works one should note the strong emphasis on
psychological factors as the rationale for recommendations. Click here to
return to Machiavelli home page.
The dedication is to Lorenzo Strozzi, one of Machiavelli's Florentine
friends. M states that the common view that there is an unbridgeable separation
between civil and military affairs is wrong. The ancients saw no such
separation. There in fact is a close interrelationship between the two. Even
the best civil ordinances require the backing of military power for their
effectiveness. Military power lies at the base of all civil order, internal as
well as external.
(This key observation is discussed at greater length in Prince and Discourses.
He derives it primarily from Xenophon. Lenin and other communist commentators
on Clausewitz are always pointing out that he missed this critical point when
remarking on the relationship of politics and war, but do not give M credit for
preceding Clausewitz let alone for having developed the even more valid
proposition that it is "Politics that is war, but conducted by other
In order to achieve the hoped for revival of Italian fortunes it will be
necessary to have a great revival of discipline .Go to
The discussion is on virtu and fortuna. Fortuna
provides opportunities but virtu is needed to seize control of our lives
and obtain real success.
The book establishes the stylistic format for the work, that of a conversation
between the prominent condoterri, Fabrizio Colonna, and a group of Florentine
citizens. Colonna sets forth M's ideas on military reformation in response to
leading questions from the group.
The first general topic is how to organize a military establishment and recruit
forces. The internal role of army and military affairs in the political life of
the community is also emphasized.
It is unfortunately nearly impossible to imitate the ancients due to the
advanced corruption of the modern age. But the institutions of the Romans are
worth study and imitation if possible. They might be introduced into a less
corrupt society. We should endeavor to adopt their principles. Of these the
following are noteworthy: all public honor and reward should be reserved for
virtu; do not scorn poverty; value good order and discipline in armies;
decline factionalism; oblige the citizens to love each other; prefer the public
good to private interest.
Before commencing a great undertaking men must first make necessary
preparations so that later, when the opportunity arises, they will be ready to
execute their design.
War is not an occupation by which a man can earn a living honorably at all
times, i.e. during peacetime. It should not be followed as a business by anyone
except the ruler. The profession requires its practitioners to commit all
manner of crimes to survive. "War makes thieves and peace hangs
them." M gives a long list of examples, mostly contemporary and Roman.
Roman republicans did not make war their sole occupation and the Republic
continued uncorrupted, but when Caesar and others became military in peacetime
and subverted the army corruption set in.
"Every well governed commonwealth should take care that
the art of war is practiced in peacetime only as an exercise and in time of war
only out of necessity and for the acquisition of glory, and practiced by the
No infantry can be so dangerous as that which is composed of men who make
war their only calling, because the prince either must keep them continually
engaged in war or must constantly keep them paid in peacetime or must run the
risk of their stripping him of his kingdom.
The Roman emperors disarmed the people to preserve their tyranny.
M favors a militia organized from citizens who support themselves with other
To win a war one must seek victory on the battlefield. This requires a well
organized, equipped and trained army. We must have quality recruits obtained by
conscription, not volunteers. However the conscription must be based not on
undue compulsion but a population educated in the virtue of public service. The
best entrance age is 17.
M again describes the link between the advent of a standing army in Rome and
the loss of citizen's liberty. The state must keep commanders from having too
much power. Go to Contents
The first topic is individual armament and organization of small units
based on the arms carried by the troops. The Romans divided their infantry into
two parts, light and heavy. Basic weapons were swords and pikes. M favors the
Roman example in a combination of the current Swiss and German pike and Spanish
sword. The basic regiment would have 3000 swords, 2000 pikes and 1000
Infantry is the basic arm and is superior to cavalry. However contemporary
infantry falls far short of the required standard while cavalry is not so bad.
Therefore M concentrates more attention to reviving infantry standards. He
discusses training exercises, use of music, drill, how to organize the
regiment, battle formations and details of only limited interest to us today.
The roles of virtu and fortuna are again discussed. M notes that the Christian
religion has changed men by making them more pacifistic. It has changed the way
of life and values of mankind (at least European). Now that people do not feel
the need to defend themselves,since defeat is not accompanied by utter ruin and
slavery or death, they will not undertake stern measures for defense. Ancient
war was more destructive and resulted in total loss. The dread of danger caused
more attention to maintaining good discipline. The worst people fear now is a
payment of tribute. "Men no longer care to submit to rigor and continual
hardship of military discipline to ward off evils which they are little afraid
of." "A state will not expose itself and its subjects to the
continual anxiety of military discipline and exercises when these anxieties not
only seem largely unnecessary but also are attended with much trouble and
inconvenience." The people prefer to rely on fortuna than their own
(This is a central theme also of the Prince and the Discourses.)
Go to Contents
M proceeds now to discuss the formation of the army in various orders of
battle and gives a narrative account of an imaginary set piece battle to
illustrate the formation's key attributes. He briefly mentions Greek and Roman
methods. M recommends the use of sham battles (field maneuvers) as a training
The greatest error of a general is to draw up the army in one line. The
ancients deployed in three lines in depth to provide a reserve. In addition,
the Romans used light troops as skirmishers. M describes the Greek and Swiss
phalanx. He favors a combination of the phalanx and legionary open order. These
are to be combined by having subunits of each type. The army is composed to two
regiments modeled on Roman legions and two allied regiments corresponding to
the Roman auxiliaries. Each regiment has 10 battalions. They are deployed in a
formation of 5 battalions for the first line at intervals, three in the second
line with larger intervals, and two in the third line also with large
intervals. Additional light troops and pike units are deployed in key
locations. The cavalry is on the flank. The two native regiments are in the
center with their allies flanking them. The army artillery is in a line in the
center slightly in front of the army. A regiment occupies a total space of 572
by 400 feet.
The set piece battle opens with a single salvo from the heavy artillery
answered in like manner by the enemy. Both do little damage. The skirmishers
and light cavalry charge to seize the enemy artillery in the process masking
their own artillery. The artillery thus is quickly either out of action or
useless. M discusses the role and value of artillery at some length,since his
opinion varies from the current popular notions. He believes that since one
cannot shelter from artillery on the battlefield one must take aggressive
measures to capture the enemy artillery as soon as possible, even if this means
one' s own artillery is rendered ineffective. The attacking force must be in
open order as skirmishers, otherwise it will incur too many casualties. The
more we fire artillery in preliminary salvos the more time we give the enemy to
do likewise. He quotes ancient examples to show the value of knocking out enemy
weapons quickly by rapid assault. He also wants to avoid the considerable
confusion and disruption caused by the smoke from our own artillery. He
believes that small arms and light cannon do more damage anyway.
M is much criticized by commentators for his assessment of artillery. See
Discourses Book II, Chapter 17 for a fuller discussion. I believe that
his proposal stems not so much from an underestimation of artillery as from his
more general advocacy of immediate aggressive offensive measures.
The order of battle described herein is only the basic plan. There are many
variations. The general must suit the particular order of battle to the nature
of the terrain and the enemy force. "Every art has its general rules and
principles upon which it is founded". "Never draw up an army so that
the front cannot be relieved by the rear". M gives much detail on the
drills needed to train troops in the intricate maneuvers required of this
combined force. He mentions use of signals, standards, locations for all key
personnel, etc Go to Contents
The discussion on forming an army continues. M takes up the precautions
required of the general before battle. He again stresses that one must suit the
formation to the terrain and the size of the force itself. One should use
natural obstacles to defend flanks if one's force is small, but seek battle in
an open plain if it is large. Try to overextend the enemy and force him to
deploy in a thin line. Avoid locations in which the enemy can easily gain
higher ground. Pay particular attention to the directions of wind and sun and
their effect on the troops. Try to surround the enemy. Try to insure safe
routes to the rear in case retreat is necessary. M makes frequent references to
Hannibal's and Scipio' s use of stratagems during deployment of the army.
The general should try to create confusion and terror in the enemy army. Use
ambushes. (Most references are to examples from The Strategmata by
A general rule is "to frustrate any of your enemy's designs, it is best to
do of your own volition what he endeavors to force you to do." "Never
engage the enemy unless you have the advantage or are compelled to act."
It is better to try fortuna while she is still favorable than to try
nothing and allow her surely to destroy you."
M places great emphasis on the importance of proper psychological preparation
of the troops for battle. He uses such phrases as "animate men",
"inflame them with desire to fight", "bolder more courageous and
resolute". He recommends keeping the soldiers' pay with the army to reduce
their incentive to run away. The general needs to be a great orator as well as
a soldier to inspire the men. Religion and the soldiers's oath are to be used
to inspire the men - put the fear of God in them. M gives many more ancient
examples of this technique. Go to Contents
The first topic is proper march orders, both when advancing in a safe
location and when in the face of the enemy. Again, the Roman example is
followed. The scouts lead and adequate flank guards are provided. Units are
organized to facilitate their deployment into proper order of battle. The
baggage is behind each unit. M describes at considerable length his concept of
the "hollow square" formation to be used when moving in hostile
territory. The army must be prepared for immediate action to front, either
flank or rear. M gives details of exact frontages and depths for each subunit
and the proper location for all officers and special troops.
( This is one of the most detailed descriptions of a "hollow square"
to be found in the theoretical literature. One often encounters the claim that
this formation was invented by some general or other much later in history.)
M comments on the necessity for clear and unambiguous commands and signals and
on the frequency of error and confusion in battle caused by failure to insure
this clarity. He notes that the army should travel light and unencumbered.
Logistics is a common problem for commanders. Too many supplies can be as much
a difficulty as too little. Ancient soldiers made their own bread and did not
miss their wine, but moderns can't do without wine or commercially baked bread.
Consequently it is much more difficult to provision a modern army and it cannot
travel far. M recommends reintroduction of the ancient methods.
He writes that "Wars as currently conducted impoverish not only the
beaten, but also the conquering." It was not so in ancient times when the
conqueror was always enriched by victory. The reason is than now plunder is not
taken by the state but by the private individual. The modern soldiers are too
greedy for spoils. Again, the ancient practice is to be preferred.
M provides a long section on the pitfalls to avoid during the march to contact,
such as enemy ambushes. "Be careful of trusting to flattering
appearances". (See Discourses I - 25 and Prince 18 for his
doctrine on appearances.) He notes the importance of good maps and expert,
reliable guides. (See Prince 14 and Discourses III - 39 on
topography.) The book concludes with many more examples of ancient practices
mostly taken from Frontinus. Go to Contents
The discussion turns to proper encampments, security provisions, and
intelligence activities. The basic army has 24,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry.
M gives very detailed dimensions for the camp including its internal layout and
the placement of each subunit and facility. The camp is modeled on the Roman
practice on nightly encampments. The plan is square with broad cross streets
and a wide space for mustering troops between the tents and the outer perimeter
berm. Every unit has an assigned location. The camp should be laid out and
constructed by expert engineers.
At night one third of the army is kept to arms with one quarter of this force
actually mounting guard at all times. M describes password procedures and
stresses that the commander must develop procedures for watching all comings
and goings from the camp. It is essential to prevent treason and disrupt secret
correspondence between enemies and persons in the camp. He advocates severe
punishments such as decimation and rewards for virtue.
Of course the ancient policy of prohibiting women and gambling in camp must be
re-instituted. "The Romans were so busy they had no time to think of
women, gambling, or any of those vile avocations which commonly make soldiers
idle and seditious."
M stresses the importance of proper health and medical measures. It is
necessary to avoid unhealthy locations for the camp. The general must avoid
famine and give the troops plenty of exercise. "The general should be very
well acquainted with the nature and situation of the country he is in."
Intelligence operations and methods are stressed. Concealment, deception,
secretiveness, and security against the enemy's counterparts are critical.
There are many examples from ancient history. One idea is to use any enemy
agent one may discover as the conduit for introducing false information into
the enemy headquarters. (This is the classic route still favored today.) Try to
divide the enemy's strength by making the commander suspicious of his own key
advisors. Divide the enemy forces by conducting wide scale raids on his
territories, which he will have to defend.
"What most commonly keeps an army united is the reputation of the general,
that is, of his courage and good conduct; without these, neither high birth nor
any sort of authority is sufficient." M again stresses psychology and
"gaining the hearts of the people".
The book ends with an extended discussion of the reasons one should not
campaign in winters.. Go to Contents
The topic is fortifications and sieges. (M was called upon for advice on
this subject and wrote a famous treatise on fortifications.) He advocates the
construction of high walls with the main ditch inside rather than outside. This
is to be backed with an earthen rampart on which the artillery is to be
mounted. If possible, another ditch can be dug outside. The walls have towers
at close intervals and the ditches are provided with casements from which the
defender can cover all parts. M writes that it is impossible to defend small
places against artillery. Therefor one should not even build detached forts
whose loss will reduce the reputation of the commander and morale of the
troops. Note the application of psychology even in a discussion of
fortification engineering. He also recommends against building too many
successive places into which retreat is planned as their existence will itself
cause the troops to abandon the main walls prematurely.
M likes the current French practice in fortification. He again gives many
examples of stratagems used in defense and attack of forts and stresses the
importance of intelligence.
He next gives a list of his 27 general rules of military discipline which
- Whatever is of service to the enemy must be prejudicial to you; whatever
is prejudicial to him must be of service to you.
- He who is most careful to observe the motions and designs of the enemy and
takes the most care in drilling and disciplining his army, will be least
exposed to danger and will have the most reason to expect success in his
- Never come to an engagement until you have inspired your men with courage
and see them in good order and eager to fight, nor hazard a battle until they
seem confident of victory.
- It is better to subdue an enemy by famine than by sword, for in battle,
fortuna has often a much greater share than virtu.
- No enterprise is more likely to succeed than one concealed from the enemy
until it is ripe for execution.
- Nothing is of greater importance in time of wars. than knowing how to make
the best use of a fair opportunity when it is offered.
- Few men are brave by nature, but good discipline and experience make many
- Good order and discipline in an army are more to be depended upon than
- If any of the enemy's troops desert him and come over to you, it is a
great acquisition - provided they prove faithful, for their loss will be more
felt than that of those killed in battle, although deserters will always be
suspected by their new friends and odious to their old ones.
- In drawing up an army in order of battle, it is better to keep a
sufficient reserve to support your front line than to extend it so as to make
only one rank, as it were, of your army.
- If a general knows his own strength and that of the enemy perfectly, he
can hardly miscarry.
- The virtu of your soldiers is of more consequence than theirs. numbers.;
sometimes the location of the place is of greater advantage and security than
the virtu of your soldiers.
- Sudden and unexpected accidents often throw an army into confusion, but
things that are familiar and have come on gradually are little regarded;
therefore, when you have a new enemy to deal with, it is best to accustom
yours. men to their sight as often as you can by slight skirmishes before you
come to a general engagement with them.
- He whose troops are in disorder while pursuing a routed enemy will most
probably lose the advantage he had previously gained and be routed in his turn.
- Whoever has not taken proper care to furnish himself with a sufficient
stock of provisions and ammunition bids fair to be vanquished without striking
- He who is stronger in infantry than cavalry, or in cavalry than infantry,
must choose his ground accordingly.
- If you would know whether you have any spies in your camp during the day,
you have nothing more to do than to order every man to his tent.
- When you are aware that the enemy is acquainted with your designs, you
must change them.
- After you have consulted with many about what you ought to do, confers.
with very few concerning what you are actually resolved to do.
- While your men are in quarters, you must keep them in good order by fears.
of punishment; but when they are in the field, by hopes and rewards.
- Good commanders never come to an engagement unless they are compelled to
by absolute necessity, or occasion calls for it.
- Take great care that the enemy may not be apprised of the order in which
you design to draw up yours. army for battle; make such a disposition that
yours. first line may fall back with ease and convenience into the second, and
both of them into the third.
- In time of action, be sure not to call off any of your battalions to
service different from what they were destined to do at first, lest you should
occasion disorder and confusion in your army.
- Unexpected accidents cannot be easily prevented, but those foreseen may
easily be obviated or remedied.
- Men, arms, money, and provisions are the sinews of wars., but of these
four, the first two are the most necessary; for men and arms will always find
money and provisions, but money and provisions cannot always raise men and
- A rich man without arms must be a prey to a poor soldier well armed.
- Accustom your soldiers to abhor fastidious living and luxurious dress.
Machiavelli next returns to the opening discussion on the possibility of
introducing reforms into Italy. He mentions several topics such as naval
matters which he purposely excluded. He writes that the qualifications a
general ought to possess are those already discussed in the course of the book
plus the "ability to strike out something new of his own
occasionally." "For no man ever excelled in his profession who could
not do that, and if a ready and quick invention is necessary and honorable in
any profession, it must certainly be so in the art of war above all
The work concludes with a scathing denunciation of the current corruption of
Italians and the plea for some prince to follow this advice. "In Italy,
therefore, it is not enough to know how to command an army already raised and
disciplined. A general must first raise and discipline it himself before he
puts himself at its head. Nobody can do that unless he is a prince possessing
large territories and a great number of subjects." "For my own part,
I cannot help complaining of fate, which either should not have let me know
these things, or given me power to put them in execution; this is something I
cannot hope for now.... I cannot expect to see so happy a change at my time of
life.... I shall venture to affirm that the first state in Italy that will take
up this method and pursue it will soon become masters. of the whole
province." Go to Contents Or to return to introductory
page go to Machiavelli home page