Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Discourses on Livy: II.17

Renaissance cannon from the Estense castle, Ferrara, Italy


Just how much does what we read about the ancient military apply to a modern world where warfare is defined by gunpowder and firearms? Already in Machiavelli’s day—when guns had only barely begun to affect combat—people were ready to jettison the lessons of the past for the battlefield:

There came into my consideration the universal opinion of many who would have it that if there had been artillery in those times, the Romans would not have been permitted—or not so easily to take provinces and make peoples pay tribute to them, as they did, nor would they in any mode have made such mighty acquisitions. They also say that by means of these firearms men cannot use or show their virtue as they could in antiquity. They add a third thing: that one comes to battle with more difficulty than one came to it then, and that one cannot keep there to the orders of those times, so that war will in time be reduced to artillery. (II.17.1)

In other words, the three objections people have to using the ancient world as a source learning virtue or military science are:

1) The fact that our modern technology creates a vast gap between us and them. Had the Romans faced artillery, their history would have been significantly different. Because they did not, we cannot draw lessons from their experiences.

2) Firearms eliminate virtue from the battlefield (presumably especially the virtue of courage).

3) Maintaining that kind of discipline is so challenging now that eventually all war will be determined by guns alone.

Machiavelli responds in this chapter to each of these criticisms. Again, I’ve got to give the disclaimer that this is all beyond my expertise, so feel free to offer corrections/emendations as needed. By and large, I’m going to pass over the claims that Machiavelli makes that no longer apply because of advances in technology, such as this one:

for it is a maxim that where men can go en masse and with a thrust, artillery cannot stand up against them. (II.17.1)

I assume this is no longer true in modern combat, though again please do offer corrections as needed. I’m also going to largely leave off discussion of his specific examples, since it would be easy to get bogged down in those (and again, it’s out of my area anyway). Instead I’ll stick to Machiavelli’s general principles and hopefully come away with something still substantially worth reflection.

In response to the first opinion, that modern technology has revolutionized war to the point where ancient examples are irrelevant, Machiavelli points out that whatever the level of technology, war is still a matter of offense and defense. Those who take the offense always have an advantage, while defenders are always, well, playing defense. They are stuck protecting land, or guarding a fortress, or with some kind of limitation on where they can go or what they can do. Because the Romans were so often on the offensive, the change in technology in no way negates the usefulness of their example. Besides, truly clever leaders will be aware of technological differences and use terrain, their own technology, or other military factors to offset any advantage it might give the other side, reducing combat to a question of virtue in the end anyway. If anything, given what we know about the Romans and their way of warfare, at the end of the day “they would have had more advantage, and would have made their acquisitions more quickly, if there had been [artillery] in those times” (II.17.3).

In response to the second opinion, that virtue is now irrelevant in the face of gunpowder, Machiavelli reminds us that projectile weapons are no new thing on the battlefield. Courage in the face of someone who can potentially kill from a distance has always been a requirement in combat. And while it may be true that from time to time both common soldiers and generals are in greater personal danger than they may have been in the past, it’s also true that siege warfare has become much more common these days than direct assaults on walled cities. Given this difference, the dangers modern soldiers face are roughly the same as those of their ancient counterparts. Which leads Machiavelli to argue that the problem of declining virtue in the military is not a problem of changing technology but rather of changing people and times. “If men do not particularly demonstrate their virtue, it arises not from artillery but from bad orders and the weakness of armies” (II.17.4). This is not to completely discount the place of artillery in warfare—”artillery is useful in an army when ancient virtue is mixed with it, but without that, against a virtuous army, it is very useless” (II.17.6).

In response to the third opinion, “that one cannot get hand to hand and that war will be conducted altogether by artillery—I say this opinion is altogether false, and thus it will always be held by those who will try to put their armies to work according to ancient virtue” (II.17.5). And while to some extent I can’t get around noting that technology really has moved on in this area—hand-to-hand wars do appear to be a thing of the past—we can at least grant that Machiavelli has hit something true here. From the little I understand, modern militaries do still teach hand-to-hand combat and marching in formation to their soldiers in order to instill a discipline that looks an awful lot like that of the ancient Roman military, even if behavior on the battlefield is significantly changed. I wouldn’t presume to try to explain how the one influences the other—are armies that still teach personal combat more likely to win a battle than those that do not? At the risk of too much repetition, I don’t know.

I would love to hear from you military history experts—how do you read this chapter? Is Machiavelli on to something here? Or is this one of those places where we just say a great philosopher ends up being disproved by history, as when Hegel argued for animal magnetism/telepathy?


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

2 Responses to “Discourses on Livy: II.17”

  1. gabe


    Avoiding any discussion of specific technological advances and their supposed effects (or affects, as well), and looking at much of what is currently being written and discussed in current news / journals, etc, concerning the limits of airpower (simply a modern version of Nicci’s *artillery) it is clear that the infantry soldier (Spec Ops as well) is still required to both take and hold territory, interdict supply lines and exercise sway over populations.
    To the extent that this is correct (and I believe that it is) the old *virtues* are still essential – or as the Roman’s may have said: “Strength and Honor” – with strength not simply being physical prowess but also character.
    To the extent that one may create / sustain such a military force, one improves one’s chance of success as in Nicci’s day.

    One wonders how much longer we may be able to generate such *virtuous* young soldiers given the essential corruptness of the regime and the ongoing squandering of their efforts.

    Even worse than, well, back when….

    • Coyle Neal

      Fair enough, gabe. Like I said this is really out of my expertise (and I suspect to some extent out of Machiavelli’s).
      I suppose we could make the argument that as long as our military is strictly “volunteer,” then there will be some level of virtue attached to it. That said, I still know so little about the training and operation of our military I just can’t argue either way.


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