Machiavelli: Discourses on Livy

October 2, 2017

Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livius
Niccolò Machiavelli
Translated from the Italian by J.C. & P. Bondanella
(Oxford, 2003) [c.1515]
xxxii + 413 p.

Casting about for supplementary material to accompany my reading of Livy’s Roman history, I discovered that Machiavelli had written this analysis and commentary on Livy’s first ten books, covering Rome’s history from her origins down to the end of the Samnite Wars, c.300 BC. Intrigued, and anticipating that reviewing important episodes in Livy would help to cement my knowledge, I thought that I would glance at it, and I ended up reading it cover to cover.

Machiavelli wrote these Discourses at a country villa near Florence beginning in about 1513, at around the same time that he was writing The Prince, but, like that more famous volume, it was not published until after his death. (The Discourses appeared in 1531.) I am probably one of the few modern readers for whom the Discourses are my first encounter with his writing; he has a reputation as an amoral but brilliantly perceptive analyst of politics and strategy, and I was curious to see to what extent that reputation would be confirmed in this context.

The book is not a section-by-section commentary on Livy, but a collection of wide-ranging political and military analyses, with historical illustrations drawn principally, though not exclusively, from Livy’s Books 1-10. From time to time he draws also on later books of Livy, from other ancient sources, and, quite often, from Italian history of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. As such, the Discourses can, I think, be seen as belonging to the tradition of Italian Renaissance humanism, for which antiquity was a special source of interest and inspiration for contemporary intellectual and political life. He states his purpose as follows:

“I shall be bold to speak freely all I think, both of old times and of new, in order that the minds of the young who happen to read these my writings, may be led to shun modern examples, and be prepared to follow those set by antiquity whenever chance affords the opportunity. For it is the duty of every good man to teach others those wholesome lessons which the malice of Time or of Fortune has not permitted him to put in practice; to the end, that out of many who have the knowledge, some one better loved by Heaven may be found able to carry them out.” (II, preface)

It is a book that displays to very good effect his talent for keen analysis of complicated political problems. That said, the Machiavalli I met in these pages was not the ruthless strategist whom I had expected to meet, but rather a thoughtful and careful student of human nature and history, with a distinct preference for honour and honesty, about which more below.


The book is divided into three sections, the first dealing mainly with matters of internal politics, the second addressed mainly to military affairs and international politics, and the third being something of a grab bag (or, at least, a section for which Machiavelli states no particular objectives). Each section is divided into about fifty topics, usually treated analytically and augmented with historical data as evidence. It is, therefore, a difficult book to summarize, but I will try, in what follows, to pull on a few of the common threads that I found woven through it. There is, for those interested, a quite detailed overview of the contents on the book’s Wikipedia page.

Machiavelli is interested, for instance, in the strengths and weaknesses of different forms of government. He sketches out six principal types, corresponding to the same six defined by Aristotle, as principality, aristocracy, and democracy, and their corrupted forms of tyranny, oligarchy, and anarchy. He sees something bad in all of them: the corrupt ones are bad, of course, from their nature, but the good ones are also defective on account of their generally brief duration. He is not an advocate for any one form, and in fact recommends (which I think Aristotle also did, if memory serves) that different forms be instantiated at different levels of governance, so that each may serve as a check upon the others. He is interested in how political power is exercised; he praises the Romans, for instance, for replacing the kingship with the consulship, an office having the same powers but having their exercise distributed among persons and alternating in an orderly fashion.

To the question of whether nobles guard freedom more effectively than do the people, he answers in the affirmative, citing the examples of Sparta and Venice in contrast with that of Rome. But he then later argues that “a people is wiser and more constant than a Prince”, especially when judging of particular, concrete matters (I, 43), and are wiser than a prince when choosing men to fill political offices so long as they are comparably well informed (I, 34). On the other hand,the people are vulnerable to flattery and demagoguery, for “large hopes and brave promises easily move them” (I, 53). A great leader is of inestimable value — citing the example of Camillus, he writes that

“a great man is constantly the same through all vicissitudes of Fortune; so that although she change, now exalting, now depressing, he remains unchanged, and retains always a mind so unmoved, and in such complete accordance with his nature as declares to all that over him Fortune has no dominion.” (III, 31)

Yet even the power granted to such a man must be circumscribed and defined, for hazards attend the giving of too much power to any one man:

“Where an uncontrolled authority is given, no security is afforded by the circumstance that the body of the people is not corrupted; for in the briefest possible time absolute authority will make a people corrupt, and obtain for itself friends and partisans. Nor will it be any hindrance to him in whom such authority is vested, that he is poor and without connections, for wealth and every other advantage will quickly follow” (II, 35)

There is much in these pages about good governance. When, for example, a citizen attempts to gain power through false accusations, he points to the example set by the Romans as a remedy:

“The Romans demonstrated exactly how false accusers must be punished. Indeed, they must be turned into public accusers, and when the public indictment is found true, either reward them or avoid punishing them, but when it is found false, punish them as Manlius was punished.” (I, 8)

(Manlius, I remind you, was thrown from the Tarpeian Rock.) To preserve justice, a state must always uphold the rule of law:

“In a republic, nothing should be left to be effected through irregular methods, because, although for the time the irregularity may be useful, the example will nevertheless be pernicious, as giving rise to a practice of violating the laws for good ends, under colour of which they may afterwards be violated for ends which are not good.” (I, 34)

There must, for example, be no-one who is above the law, whether because of their wealth, power, or renown:

“Nothing, I think, is of worse example in a republic, than to make a law and not to keep it; and most of all, when he who breaks is he that made it.” (I, 45)

“No well-ordered State ever strikes a balance between the services of its citizens and their misdeeds; but appointing rewards for good actions and punishment for bad, when it has rewarded a man for acting well, will afterwards, should he act ill, chastise him, without regard to his former deserts. When these ordinances are duly observed, a city will live long in freedom, but when they are neglected, it must soon come to ruin.” (I, 24)

By way of illustration he cites the example of Horatius, a man celebrated for his courage and credited with saving the city from destruction, but then subsequently found guilty of homicide and punished in accordance with the law.

He seems not to have much to say on economics, though he does argue that “it should be the object of every well-governed commonwealth to make the State rich and keep individual citizens poor” (I, 37). He is endorsing here the Roman ideal of the farmer-statesman, especially exemplified by Cincinnatus, who was summoned from ploughing his family farm to the office of dictator in a time of crisis.

He is also aware of the importance of a shared vision and common values for a healthy polity. He advocates a kind of political ressourcement, because “for a sect of commonwealth to last long, it must often be brought back to its beginnings”. The United States, with its strong civic emphasis on the founding fathers, illustrates this virtue. Machiavelli illustrates the principle with reference to the Catholic Church:

“For had not this religion of ours been brought back to its original condition by Saint Francis and Saint Dominic, it must soon have been utterly extinguished. They, however, by their voluntary poverty, and by their imitation of the life of Christ, rekindled in the minds of men the dying flame of faith; and by the efficacious rules which they established averted from our Church that ruin which the ill lives of its prelates and heads must otherwise have brought upon it.” (III, 1)

The Machiavelli we know from The Prince — the master of the tactical art of politics — can also be found in these Discourses. The centrepiece of this aspect of the book is unquestionably the section “Of Conspiracies”, a long (~35 pages in this edition) analysis of types of conspiracies that arise in a state, their origins and objectives, the conditions under which they succeed and fail, and how they can be countered and exposed. It’s an excellent, potted example of Machiavelli’s talent for analysis.

He warns rulers about the dangers that arise when a leader harms those under his authority:

“never … think so lightly of any man as to suppose, that when wrong upon wrong has been done him, he will not bethink himself of revenge, however great the danger he runs, or the punishment he thereby brings upon himself.” (II, 28)

When such dangers do arise, he advises that “it is safer to temporize with than to meet it with violence”, and this, I think, applies when the danger arises from below. But the situation is reversed when one is threatened from above, or by a superior power, for in that case he counsels confrontation as the better tactic, and the passage is worth quoting in full:

“It is better that a thing be taken from you by force than yielded through fear of force. For if you yield through fear and to escape war, the chances are that you do not escape it; since he to whom, out of manifest cowardice you make this concession, will not rest content, but will endeavour to wring further concessions from you, and making less account of you, will only be the more kindled against you. At the same time you will find your friends less zealous on your behalf, since to them you will appear either weak or cowardly. But if, so soon as the designs of your enemy are disclosed, you at once prepare to resist though your strength be inferior to his, he will begin to think more of you, other neighbouring princes will think more; and many will be willing to assist you, on seeing you take up arms, who, had you relinquished hope and abandoned yourself to despair, would never have stirred a finger to save you.” (II, 14)

There is no one size fits all solution for those threatened unjustly by an authority, but those finding themselves in such a situation would do well, I think, to take a good, long look at this passage.

Machiavelli does not dwell in these pages on the relationship of politics to religion, but he does make a few brief comments that illuminate his views. He notes, quite properly, that religion had an essential civic role for Romans, who saw it as “absolutely necessary for maintaining a civilized society” (I, 11), and he seems himself to endorse this view when he says that “there can be no greater indication of the ruin of a state than to see a disregard for its divine worship” (I, 12). But his attitude to religion appears to be rather practical rather than devout; he speaks of the advantages of religion “when it is properly used” (I, 15), and thereby makes it subservient to political ends. Still, his general view on the close affiliation of politics and religion, especially considered as an echo of the ancient understanding, serves as a corrective to what I think is a fairly common misapprehension today — namely, our tendency to think that the union of politics and religion was a peculiarly medieval phenomenon undone in the early modern period, whereas in truth this union was strong in the ancient world, was stressed, teased apart, and clarified by distinctions in the medieval period, only to be recovered in its more ancient form, in the vogue for antiquity, during the Renaissance (Machiavelli being a case in point) and early modern period. It was not until the eighteenth century that the assault on the fittingness of this close alliance began in earnest.

Another recurrent theme throughout these Discourses concerns the risks and advantages of “regime change”, of efforts to alter the form of government of a people. Machiavelli understands that the virtue of a people (or its absence) is relevant to the type of government appropriate to that people (“different institutions and ordinances are needed in a corrupt State from those which suit a State which is not corrupted; for where the matter is wholly dissimilar, the form cannot be similar.” (I, 18)) and that, therefore, no one form of government is suitable for all (“Let a commonwealth, then, be constituted in the country where a great equality is found or has been made; and, conversely, let a princedom be constituted where great inequality prevails. Otherwise what is constituted will be discordant in itself, and without stability.” (I, 55)). The attempt to introduce democracy to a polity that has previously been under a powerful prince is especially fraught, and one must, in Machiavelli’s words, “kill the sons of Brutus” — that is, remove all those tho had specially benefitted under the prince, lest they conspire against the new order. That this counsel might be pertinent to our contemporary affairs has not been entirely overlooked.

Many hazards attend efforts to change social institutions:

“It is no less arduous and dangerous to attempt to free a people disposed to live in servitude, than to enslave a people who desire to live free.” (III, 8)

Rapid social or political change is disruptive and requires or produces violence, and slow change is difficult to motivate and manage. He sees slow change as being, on balance, preferable, and counsels authorities to proceed by subterfuge and misdirection:

“Whoever takes upon him to reform the government of a city, must, if his measures are to be well received and carried out with general approval, preserve at least the semblance of existing methods, so as not to appear to the people to have made any change in the old order of things; although, in truth, the new ordinances differ altogether from those which they replace. For when this is attended to, the mass of mankind accept what seems as what is; nay, are often touched more nearly by appearances than by realities.” (I, 25)

Even in ideal circumstances, however, when foresight and cunning are used conscientiously, success is elusive, and this for a basic reason that is one of the main grounds for a principled conservatism:

“In close vicinity to every good is found also an evil, so apt to grow up along with it that it is hardly possible to have the one without accepting the other. This we see in all human affairs, and the result is, that unless fortune aid us to overcome this natural and common disadvantage, we never arrive at any excellence.” (III, 37)


I mentioned at the beginning that the middle section of the book is devoted to an analysis of international affairs, including warfare, and there is a fair bit of material about specifically military strategy and tactics. He writes focused analyses, for instance, of the role of artillery in warfare (II, 17) and on the disadvantages of fortresses (II, 24). (The Romans, he notes, conquered many fortresses and, upon conquering them, invariably pulled them down.) He discusses the causes of war, the value of strength over reputation, and the dangers of using hired soldiers. Occasionally he lets drop a sentence that has something of the aphorism about it:

“We should never hazard our whole fortune where we put not forth our entire strength.” (I, 23)

“Men fighting in their own cause make good and resolute soldiers.” (I, 43)

“Not gold but good soldiers constitute the sinews of war” (II, 10)

His main argument is that military leaders of his own time were incompetent because they failed to follow the military example set by the Romans.


In order to bring this long discussion to a close, I’d like to return to the question of Machiavelli’s reputation as an immoralist, or at least an amoralist. These Discourses do not really support that appraisal. It is true that he does not hesitate to describe ruthless or underhanded tactics that will be effective, but this is not the same as endorsing those tactics. The most morally troublesome argument I could find concerns what actions may or may not be licit in the conduct of war; he takes an extreme position:

“When the entire safety of our country is at stake, no consideration of what is just or unjust, merciful or cruel, praiseworthy or shameful, must intervene.” (III, 41)

This is inconsistent not only with modern standards, but with the Just War tradition as a whole. It is also inconsistent with what he says elsewhere, as, for instance, when in a section that would seem to be an illustration of the above principle (“That Fraud is fair in War”), he qualifies it in important ways:

“I would not have it understood that any fraud is glorious which leads you to break your plighted word, or to depart from covenants to which you have agreed; for though to do so may sometimes gain you territory and power, it can never, as I have said elsewhere, gain you glory.”

Similarly, after describing candidly the violence which a king will sometimes have to commit in order to preserve in existence a corrupted state, he remarks as follows:

“These indeed are most cruel expedients, contrary not merely to every Christian, but to every civilized rule of conduct, and such as every man should shun, choosing rather to lead a private life than to be a king on terms so hurtful to mankind.” (I, 26)

All of which makes me think he might have been, after all, a pretty decent fellow.


My interest in these Discourses was first aroused on account of their relation to Livy, and I certainly did appreciate the chance to revisit episodes in his history, but, as is probably evident from the comparative lack of references to Livy in these notes, I soon found that the book took on independent interest. Reading The Prince has never been very high on my list of priorities, but it is now higher than it was before.


[Law and custom]
Just as good customs require laws in order to be maintained, so laws require good customs in order to be observed. (I, 18)

[Power, real and statutory]
Power may readily give titles, but not titles power. (I, 34)

[Gratitude and vengeance]
Tacitus said, “Men are more inclined to repay injury than kindness: the truth is that gratitude is irksome, while vengeance is accounted gain”. (I, 29)

…which has such dominion in their hearts that it never leaves them to whatsoever heights they climb. For nature has so ordered it that while they desire everything, it is impossible for them to have everything, and thus their desires being always in excess of their capacity to gratify them, they remain constantly dissatisfied and discontented. And hence the vicissitudes in human affairs. (I, 37)

[A hierarchy of praise]
Among all men who are praised, the most highly praised are those who have been leaders and founders of religions. Close afterwards come those who have founded either republics or kingdoms. After them the most celebrated men are those who, placed at the head of armies, have enlarged either their own realm or that of their native country. To these may be added men of letters… (I, 10)

[Adversity unifies]
The causes of division in a commonwealth are, for the most part, ease and tranquillity, while the causes of union are fear and war. (II, 25)

4 Responses to “Machiavelli: Discourses on Livy”

  1. Jim Says:

    I’m pretty strongly of the opinion that the Discourses is the Machiavelli that everyone should read–its a book for adults in a way that the Prince isn’t. And, there is a scholarly debate about how much of a satire the latter ought to be understood as.

  2. cburrell Says:

    This surprises me! I’d never heard of the Discourses before stumbling on it, and I assumed that it was the neglected sister of the pair. Is this opinion of yours shared very widely?

  3. Jim Says:

    probably not–The Discourses is almost never taught to undergraduates as part of the history of political thought and the Prince almost always is–but I do think the Discourses is a wise book in the way that the Prince isn’t. But, then influence and wisdom are different things.

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