Machiavelli appropriately starts with a discussion of the origin of cities. “I say that all cities are built either by men native to the place where they are built or by foreigners” (I.1.1). That is, cities begin either when smaller communities coalesce into large cities, or as colonies. The former, including cities like Athens and Venice, are founded for purposes of military defense. Geography tends to dominate—as well as make or break—these cities.
Colonies, on the other hand, can have a variety of purposes behind their founding. They might be established “to relieve their lands of inhabitants” (such as Greek colonization projects), “or for the defense of a country newly acquired” (largely the Roman reasons for colonization), “or for the glory of the founder” (as with the numerous “Alexandrias” founded by Alexander the Great) (I.1.3).
But, on occasion, there is a third category, a sort of in-between kind of founding, that occurs when a whole people moves and resettles elsewhere. This means either conquest and settling in previously built cities (as with Moses and the Israelites) or the construction of new cities from scratch (as with Aeneas and the Trojans). “In this case, one can recognize the virtue of the builder and the fortune of what is built, which is more or less marvelous as the one who was the beginning of it is more or less virtuous” (I.1.4).
It’s easy to see why Machiavelli sets this kind of city into its own category (technically, it is still in the category of colonies, in that foreigners are building in a new land). The founder of the city will set the tone for everything that comes after in a way that just does not apply to the two primary categories of city founding. Colonies and cities founded for defensive purposes will to some extent already have laws in place governing the action and growth of the city. This can be an advantage, of course, but it also means there’s a limitation on the potential for virtue from the outset as a result of external factors, a limitation that does not necessarily apply to this third in-between category.
Machiavelli then asks what should be done for such a founding:
Because men work either by necessity or by choice, and because there is greater virtue to be seen where choice has less authority, it should be considered whether it is better to choose sterile places for the building of cities so that men, constrained to be industrious and less seized by idleness, live more united, having less cause for discord, because of the poverty of the site… (I.1.4)
(Almost as a tangent, Machiavelli suggests that virtue comes more from our response to “necessity,” rather than from our choices.) “If men were content to live off their own and did not seek to command others,” setting up a city in a barren wasteland would be ideal because then the city would have no choice but to either develop the kind of unity and virtue necessary to survival in difficult circumstances, or die (I.1.4).
Men, of course, are not content with such small successes. We crave greater glory than mere existence. And as a result, the “most fertile places “are going to be chosen as sites for the city, which in turn requires that the city maintain greatness so that it is not continually conquered by others desiring the same site. The enemy of those cities founded in pleasant and lush locations is going to be idleness, which ultimately leads to being conquered. In order to offset this enemy, “the laws should be ordered to constrain it by imposing such necessities as the site does not provide” (I.1.4). Egypt, both ancient and under the protection of the Mamelukes, is an example of this kind of legal wisdom being used to offset the potential indolence that comes from prosperity.
Finally, we get to Rome, which was founded either by Remus or by Romulus in a fertile place but which had leaders wise enough to put down such laws that “the greatness of its empire could not corrupt it for many centuries,” and it was kept “full of as much virtue as has ever adorned any other city or republic” (I.1.5).
In this chapter, we get our introduction to three key Machiavellian themes: necessity, fortune, and virtue. I know it’s technically “virtú” and untranslatable into English, along the lines of Aristotle’s “spoudaios.” But I’m going to follow Mansfield and generally use “virtue” anyway, so please remember that we’re not referring specifically to the Christian virtues when this comes up.
Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri.