Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Discourses on Livy: II.3-4

Immigrants entering the United States through Ellis Island, 1902


In order to achieve a great empire, the state needs a large population. Simple reproduction alone presumably isn’t enough to accomplish this. (Here it’s helpful to remember that infant mortality was high and life expectancy low prior to the middle of the twentieth century.) The sort of population growth requisite for greatness happens

by love and by force. By love through keeping the ways open and secure for foreigners who plan to come to inhabit it so that everyone may inhabit it willingly; by force through undoing the neighboring cities and sending their inhabitants to inhabit your city. (II.3.1)

So a state needs an inherent attractiveness that entices immigration combined with loose laws that allow easy assimilation, or it needs an aggressive policy of imperialism. What we find in practice, however, is that a combination of the two is really what works best. Sparta and Athens both attempted imperialism without immigration and assimilation and collapsed quickly under the weight of the empires they built. Rome, on the other hand, allowed for both. They grew their own population by absorbing willing allies and conquered peoples alike, so that as they conquered more cities they maintained a population base sufficient to hold onto their expanded territories.

To be fair, Machiavelli is once again playing fast and loose with his history here. Rome in fact was not necessarily open and welcoming to all comers—there were a series of wars throughout the later republic dedicated to expanding the franchise to native non-Roman Italians. And of course isolated groups like the Druids and the Jews never really were accepted and occasionally persecuted. Even into the time of the empire the question of “who should be a citizen?” was never really a settled one.

Setting aside the question of immigration, Machiavelli engages the question of expansion. Specifically, he argues that there are three ways republics expand:

  1. By forming a league of equal republics;
  2. By forming a league of unequal republics under the leadership of the dominant state;
  3. By simply conquering other states and subjugating them with no idea of “league” at all.

The last of these, Machiavelli argues, is “entirely useless” as a starting point for expansion (II.4.1). Both Sparta and Athens attempted this as their means of growth, and both found that they did not have the domestic resources to support or defend the empire they built.

Again, I might quibble with Machiavelli’s history here a bit. At least theoretically the Athenian Empire started out as a league of equals, in which Athens was a bit more equal than others. However, that devolved into simple conquest so quickly that maybe Machiavelli’s categorizing it in the third group isn’t completely off-base.

The first method of expansion, forming a league of equal republics, has key strengths and weaknesses. Its strengths are that the league tends to be solid and defensible, while not actually having to go to war very often. Machiavelli uses the examples of the Tuscan league from the early days of Rome and the Swiss Confederation of his own time. The weakness of this method is that it cannot expand beyond very small limits. Because only a few can participate effectively in a confederation where all states are equal, the geographic limits of this form of league tend to be pretty strict. What’s more, the members of the league tend to realize these limits and do not want to go beyond them in the first place. So maybe “being content with what you’ve got” isn’t a weakness for some of us, but for Machiavelli it’s at least some kind of limitation. Another weakness is that the league will not be able to make decisions very quickly. Again, where all are equal consensus must either come slowly or not at all—which is fine in the normal course of affairs but can be devastating in an emergency. These weaknesses are not necessarily, in Machiavelli’s mind, greater than the strengths of this approach. While the geographic limits can indeed be small, the republics within those limits can become very great. Again, the Tuscans and the Swiss are Machiavelli’s examples of this. So why do we know almost nothing of the Tuscans today? (And in our own time we can ask why the Swiss are so obscure.) Machiavelli suggests that this is a problem of memory, which he takes up in the next chapter.

The second method of expansion—that of one republic gathering client states around itself—needs to be surveyed in more detail. In Machiavelli’s view this method is “the true mode” (II.4.2). When combined with its open citizenship, Rome was able to make its “city massive with people” and gradually build a state second to none in history:

For it got many partners throughout all Italy who in many things lived with it under equal laws, and, on the other side… it always reserved for itself the seat of empire and the title of command. So its partners came to subjugate themselves by their own labors and blood without perceiving it. (II.4.1)

These “partners,” teamed up with Rome and under the Roman banner, went abroad and conquered other nations, who were used to ruling under kings and didn’t realize they had been conquered by an alliance of republics. All they saw was the Roman banner flying and the Roman governor as their new “king,” until finally

the partners of Rome who were in Italy found themselves in a stroke encircled by Roman subjects and crushed by a very big city, such as Rome was. And when they perceived the deception under which they had lived, they were not in time to remedy it, so much authority had Rome taken with its external provinces and so much force had it found within its breast since it had its city very big and very armed. (II.4.1)

When the “partners” finally dared to rebel it was too late and “they too became subjects” (II.4.1).

Machiavelli argues that of all nations, only Rome has ever truly pursued the second method of expansion. And I think I’m on board with that. American expansion as a nation into the West and through our wars with Mexico and Spain might be regarded as the third method, but I think that’s a stretch. And I suppose it could be argued that our expansion into the West as regards the Native Americans was something akin to what the Romans did with their Italian allies in terms of playing them against each other, but that seems to be pushing the formula too far. There might be a stronger argument to be made concerning American international hegemony and how we arrived at it after World War II. But even then I’m not sure we quite fit the formula, and I’m happy to leave that to those of you who know international relations better than I do.

Where we do fit Machiavelli’s formula is with regard to ease of immigration and assimilation. Or at least, we once did:

Entering the United States, these immigrants were as free as air, free as the Indians in their forest heyday, for no papers were required of them, there were no regulations to bind them, there were no privileges of birth, no tithes, no guilds. No one asked them even to be naturalized and there was work and abundance for all, for the labour-shortage was acute, with turnpikes and canals a-building, and presently railroads. The nation was growing by leaps and bounds, and cities sprang up overnight, while the older towns could scarcely meet the demand for new streets, houses, docks and stores. For these were the days of Andrew Jackson, and a fury of energy drove the people, who felt that the nation belonged to them at last. Travellers observed that Americans lived twice as much as other folk and accomplished twice as much in the span of their lives, for they plunged into the stream of enterprise in their early teens; and David Crockett’s “Go ahead” had become a national slogan that often omitted [his] words “Be sure you’re right.” (Van Wyck Brooks, The World of Washington Irving, 313–14)

Whatever the state of immigration and immigration law today, the fact is that people from around the world want to live in the United States. Expansion for us, leaving the question of whether it was a moral or immoral expansion aside, has never been a problem of either population or resources. If we collapse, it won’t be because we made the mistakes of Athens or Sparta in overextending ourselves, it will be because we made the mistakes of Rome. Whatever those were…

Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri.

5 Responses to “Discourses on Livy: II.3-4”

  1. gabe

    An interesting piece coming as it does after the discussion we had on religion in previous essay.

    It strikes me that Rome was able to *assimilate* (such as it were) new citizens in part because the Romans were quite willing to, and understood the value of, incorporating the GODS of the subjected peoples into the Pantheon of Roman Gods. How much more welcoming can a conqueror be than to accept your Gods. In a sense this was a great strength of the Roman paganism. No proscription against “false gods” being recognized allowed for, or even conduced to, greater and quicker assimilation of subjected peoples.

    Oddly enough, the most notable example of incorporating “subject” gods was the eventual Roman incorporation of Christianity as its one GOD. (We’ll not go into the specific history here). This both contributed to the spread of Christianity and the cohesion of Rome. Yet, ultimately as Nicci illustrates there is a fatal flaw in the combination of Christianity and the greatness of a Republic. It is somewhat difficult to inculcate the older pagan virtues of “strength, honor, courage” (though not impossible, see the Ante-bellum South (and even current South and its military history)) into a citizenry who is instructed to “turn the other cheek.” In this sense Nicci is correct about two masters. Yet, it is not impossible to produce good citizens – just not good pagans willing to sacrifice all for earthly glory and honors.

    And yet, we find during post Roman times and Middle Ages (and then some) a rather unique combination of State Glory and Christianity. The Medieval European (nation?) states simply co-opted Christianity. It was both the State religion and the tool of the Monarch and as such was used to advance the rather “princely” ambitions of the monarch.
    In a rather unique sense, it was not Christianity which lead to the destruction of the State, for the State has continued to grow, and ambitious men continue to pursue “princely” ambitions, cloaked now in the rhetoric of democratic republicanism; rather, it was Christianity which has been, if not destroyed, dealt a truly staggering blow as a result of its assignation with the State.

    Heck, I am not certain what to make of all this. Nicci is fairly sound on this pagan-centric critique of Christianity but…… Perhaps he could not see the end state of the comingling of Christianity and State.

    • Coyle Neal

      Interesting thoughts, gabe. Again, I suspect we’re going to both agree and disagree. You’re right on about Christianity producing “good citizens” as well as anything else, within certain limits. And I suspect you’re right about the Medieval states just co-opting Christianity, especially on any kind of popular level. (I think that in a pretty real sense we can say that most of Europe was never really evangelized–“yesterday we were pagan, today our king has decided we will be Christian” doesn’t really do the trick.) And I think you’re absolutely right that Christianity is ultimately the loser when it allows itself to be tied to the state.

      Where I suspect we’ll differ is that I’d argue this started not with the democratic republicanism of the modern world–though you’re right that it certainly is a major opponent of Christianity–but with Constantine’s adoption of the church for political ends. It’s not a coincidence that this is when monasticism takes off, and not during the three centuries of persecution prior to this time.

      That said, I’m also on board with not really knowing what to make of NM here. I think he’s got some kind of point, but I also think that I really don’t want to live in a state governed by his principles…

      • gabe


        You are absolutely correct re: Constantine; no question about it. I think more than anything HE was responsible for the spread / growth of Christianity (no aspersions are being cast here re: doctrinal values, etc; only a statement about political support / encouragement for a previously persecuted sect).

        This act by Constantine was both beneficial in that it spurred adoption of the Christian dialogue and ultimately destructive as it served as the template for later rulers to further diminish the “separateness” of the Church. How can one render unto Caesar when Caesar has aligned himself (facially, at least) with God? What is then distinct.
        That being said, to some extent it did work for a millennia (sp?) and in some measure did produce *good* citizens – yet, the church was diminished / corrupted.
        I am not learned enough to advance any strong argument regarding the extent to which early church Fathers fought this; suffice it to say that it was insufficient and there were far too many that “bought” (literally) into it.

        Thus, Luther and his Theses! (an oversimplification, to be sure).

        Yet as you say, there were the monks and their attempt at *separateness*
        In the end, all I can say is thank God for the monks. The contributions they made not just to religiosity but to science, agriculture, art, learning, etc. etc. etc. Amazing what one can do when not “blessed” with the benefits of the State assistance – gee, it almost sounds like today!!!

        take care

  2. wlindsaywheeler

    America, I find is already a failed state. It has no cultural, racial, ideological or religious homogeneity. My sixth grad teacher back in the 60s told me that America is a Second Rome. We are just like Rome. The only way to hold it together now is thru tyranny.


Please Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Basic HTML is allowed. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS

%d bloggers like this: