Niccolò Machiavelli, a Tuscan political philosopher, lived in Florence, Italy during the Renaissance. He dreamed of reuniting Italy as it had been in the days of the Roman Empire. Machiavelli continually compared Florence with Rome which, in his opinion, reached its zenith under Marcus Aurelius in the second century. His inspiration came from Flavio Biondo’s work, The Decades, which narrated the history of Rome from the Gothic invasions to the Renaissance. Although Machiavelli’s book The Prince became famous for its political advice, his Discourses on Livy also provided insight into his true political theories. Each of Machiavelli’s works reflected the rebirth of classical antiquity which pervaded the Italian Renaissance.
Throughout his writings Machiavelli continually praised the Roman Empire for its republican government because he believed that ancient governments were superior to modern ones. Although he praised Rome’s individual freedom and self-government, he also believed that virtu created the great Roman Empire through the military and the constitution. It was this military and civic virtu that created fortuna which guided Rome through its golden age. But even great empires must end, and Machiavelli discussed how Rome fell into ruin because of moral, military, and religious complications.
Machiavelli believed Rome declined because of moral corruption coupled with human ambition. Rome’s expansion into Africa and Greece created a sense of false security because there were no more enemies to face. The Roman people elected lazy, corrupt leaders who won for popular reasons instead of intellectual or military prowess. Because of this moral corruption, the virtu of the Roman people was destroyed.
Human ambition also combined with moral corruption to cause Rome’s fall. Machiavelli believed Rome collapsed into tyranny because the ambition of the people forced them to reject the security offered by tribunes. This ambition was created by excessive wealth and power, thus citizens fought amongst themselves instead of providing a united front against the territorial provinces. The struggle for power became so great that military advances stopped, and the republican government collapsed inward.
Machiavelli also believed Rome declined because of military failures due to prolonged military commands and mercenary soldiers. The prolonging of military commands began with Proconsul Publius Philo who needed more time to successfully end his military campaign. The Senate’s approval set a precedent for future military leaders who abused the privilege. Prolonged military commands moved troop loyalty to the commander and from the Senate, and Machiavelli noted that Sulla, Marius, and Caesar used this very approach to take power away from Rome. Machiavelli also claimed that this problem could have been solved by shortening commands and limiting the extent of the empire.
Unfortunately, the use of mercenary soldiers also increased Rome’s military problems. The Senate approved of mercenaries because the extent of the empire was taxing native soldiers. However, the larger the empire grew, the more heavily Rome relied on mercenaries to guard its borders and rogue territories. These mercenaries claimed no allegiance to Rome and thus followed their commander because he paid them. Machiavelli argued extensively against the use of mercenaries in The Prince, and he advocated citizen-soldiers in The Art of War, especially noting the citizen-armies of Cincinnatus and Scipio Africanus. He believed that citizens fought for the common good of the republic and not for the personal will of tyrannical leaders. In the end, Machiavelli unhappily remarked that the barbarian invasions finalized the Roman military failures.
Machiavelli also believed Rome declined because of religious changes. He highly valued the old Roman religion which was manipulated by leaders to motivate armies or civilian populations, and he advised rulers to use religious ceremonies to their advantage in the pursuit of ambition and glory. He also opposed Christianity because it emphasized humility and blessing through pain and suffering instead of a zeal to achieve great things and thus enfeebled the militaristic Roman mindset. Decades of religious weaknesses caused Rome to fall to barbarian invasions. Machiavelli compared Roman Christianity to the Renaissance Catholic Church, and he bemoaned the power that the current church wielded over the secular state, a fact he blamed on Rome’s religious failures.
Fellow historians and philosophers of the Renaissance criticized Machiavelli’s arguments for Roman decline. They argued that no real lessons could be learned from Machiavelli’s analysis of the Roman Republic because he never made up his mind as to the true cause of modern corruption. The inconsistencies presented in his writings were clear when comparing The Prince with Discourses on Livy, and while he offered several reasons for the fall of Rome, none of them satisfied his contemporaries. They also resisted Machiavelli’s political theories because they were anti-Biblical and attacked the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.
Although his contemporaries dismissed Machiavelli’s theories, some later historians agreed with his ideas. Despite his occasional lack of logical argument, his observations on politics, military strategy, and leadership were applied to later centuries. Military dictators like Benito Mussolini extensively read and praised Machiavelli as the greatest Italian philosopher. Some historians noted the influence Machiavelli had on political theory, history, historiography, literature, warfare, and diplomacy, and they avidly disputed his ideas or incorporated them into their own writings. By the end of the nineteenth century, Machiavelli had gained so much respect that every future philosophy class included him as a topic for discussion.
Despite the controversial nature of his writings, Machiavelli truly believed Rome fell into ruin because of moral, military, and religious problems. At the end of his life, Machiavelli lived in exile on his estate outside Florence because the Medici family falsely accused him of conspiracy. During this time he wrote his political works and tried to revive his political career. His arguments for the decline of Rome wove throughout all of his writings, and although his theories were unpopular during his lifetime, future generations debated his ideas and even coined the new term “Machiavellian.”
– Hannah S. Bowers
Anglo, Sydney. Machiavelli: A Dissection. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1969.
Machiavelli, Niccolò. Discourses on Livy. Translated by Peter and Julia Bonadella. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.
Machiavelli, Niccolò. The Prince. Translated by Peter Bondanella. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Strathern, Paul. Machiavelli in 90 Minutes. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1998.