Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Discourses on Livy: II.9-10

Alexander the Great and Bucephalus at the Battle of Issus, Museo Nazionale di Napoli, Italy


Wars, according to Machiavelli, start by chance or by choice. That is, either two powers accidentally stumble into war with each other, or one power intentionally picks a fight with another. Interestingly, the examples Machiavelli uses of each of these involve some level of oblique maneuvering by the states in question. In terms of wars that arise by chance, Machiavelli gives two examples where one power attacked a second power (the Samnites attacked the Sidicini and the Carthaginians attacked the Messinians), and that second power just happened to be an ally of Rome. Rome, in turn, had to get involved “since Rome had as its end empire and glory and not quiet” (II.9.1). So even where chance is cause of war, there is still some level of choice on the part of the original aggressor. While they may not have meant to engage Rome specifically and so went to war “by chance,” they did mean to go to war.

In terms of wars that arise by choice, again we have an example of one power attacking another, this time with the intent of bringing war to Rome. The Carthaginians under Hannibal attacked the Saguntines in Spain knowing full well that Rome was their ally and would respond. This latter is especially important as a method of subtly breaking years of prosperous peace among allies:

This mode of setting off new wars has always been customary among the powerful, who have some respect both for faith and for each other. For if I wish to make war with a prince and solid treaties have been observed between us for a great time, I will with more justification and more color assault a friend of his than himself. For I know especially that if I assault his friend, either he will resent it and I will have my intention of making war with him, or by not resenting it he will uncover his weakness or faithlessness in not defending a client of his. Both the one and the other of these two things are able to take away his reputation and to make my plans easier. (II.9.1)

If you told me that Machiavelli had been gazing through time at the beginning of World War I, I would be tempted to believe it.

When considering whether to undertake a war—whether by choice or because chance has offered the opportunity—we need to consider whether we can actually win it. And this is a function of the quality and size of one’s military, not wealth or location or alliances or any of the other factors that we tend to assume matter most:

I say therefore that not gold, as the common opinion cries out, but good soldiers are the sinew of war; for gold is not sufficient to find good soldiers, but good soldiers are quite sufficient to find gold. (II.10.2)

Machiavelli gives a long list of nations that would have won wars if gold and the goodwill of friends was all that was needed . In fact, we find that all these things “increase your forces well, but do not give them to you well, and by themselves are null and do not help anything” (II.10.1). While money of course is important, it is never of more than secondary importance. Livy tells us what matters most in war:

Titus Livy is a truer witness than any other for this opinion, where, in discoursing of whether Alexander the Great would have conquered the Romans if he had come into Italy, he shows that three things are necessary in war: very may and good soldiers, prudent captains, and good fortune. Examining there whether the Romans or Alexander would have prevailed in those things, he then comes to his conclusion without ever mentioning money. (II.10.3)

This is one of those questions ancient history and military history nerds like to kick around: what would have happened if Alexander had gone West instead of East and faced the Roman Legions instead of the Persian Immortals? Livy’s answer (found in Book IX.17-19) is that Alexander may or may not have actually been “great,” but he was just one man. Rome at the time was full of men who were at least his equal, if not his betters. What is more, even if we assume that at one point Alexander was truly a great military leader, by the time he finished with Persia and was able to turn his attention westward, he was so corrupted by wealth and Oriental opulence he would have had no chance against the virtuous Roman Republic. After all, hadn’t Rome seen something similar happen to Pompey the Great? (The same would eventually be said of Mark Antony.) The rebuttal—not given by either Livy or Machiavelli—is that in Alexander’s day Rome was still a relative backwater compared to any one of the Greek states or Alexander’s eventual empire. What is more, Alexander never lost a battle, despite facing every known type of warfare and military unit in the ancient world but one. The one he never faced was the Roman legion, which leaves us without a satisfying answer of any kind. If you’re interested, the ancient world had its own ideas about what Alexander might have done had he not died young. How he invented the airplane, the submarine, and planned to conquer Rome can all be read about in the Greek Alexander Romance.

Whatever the result of our theoretical throw-down between Alexander the Great and the Roman Republic, Machiavelli’s point is still clear: money alone will not defeat a better trained and prepared army. This is not to say that money is irrelevant, just that it’s not everything.

It would be useful to have a military historian speak to these chapters (and the following ones) in Machiavelli. From the little bit I understand of the subject, as with so many other things, tactics in the Middle Ages and early Renaissance really left something to be desired compared to what came before and after. There is a reason the great military biographer Theodore Dodge skips chronologically from Julius Caesar to Gustavus Adolphus—there just isn’t much to be had by way of stunning military brilliance in the Western world. While Machiavelli’s points are useful and interesting from the perspective of political theory, “wars happen either intentionally or unintentionally” is hardly groundbreaking military thought, though I don’t know that he would necessarily claim it to be such in the first place.


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

3 Responses to “Discourses on Livy: II.9-10”

  1. gabe

    Never mind Machiavelli looking into the future and seeing WWI, how about Obama and the middle east.
    “For I know especially that if I assault his friend, either he will resent it and I will have my intention of making war with him, or by not resenting it he will uncover his weakness or faithlessness in not defending a client of his. Both the one and the other of these two things are able to take away his reputation and to make my plans easier. (II.9.1)”

    Paying attention of course to the issue of faithlessness to an ally.
    I suspect that this may be a means of *stumbling* into war as well.


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