Machiavelli refers us to the Prince for his extended thoughts on the use of mercenaries in warfare. Here, he notes that mercenary forces “are the most harmful, for the prince or republic who puts them to work in his aid does not have any authority over them, but he who sends them alone has authority there” (II.20.1). Every state at the end of the day ought to rely on professional citizen armies (or at least just “citizen armies”) for its own defense, rather than outsourcing combat to those who work only for pay. Machiavelli extends this to include not only mercenaries according to the strict definition of “those without a home country who fight for pay,” but also armies of allies sent to assist. While there may be a place for such assistance, when these foreign armies form the primary means of defense, all that has really happened is that the host state has opened itself up for conquest. This is even more true when the war is an offensive one rather than a defensive one—the temptation on the part of the state offering assistance to conquer its ally is simply too great to expect anyone to resist.
Having conquered new territory, the Romans had a particularly excellent method of administration of subjugated peoples. Namely, so long as these subject peoples kept certain broad rules and performed a handful of specific duties, “they [the Romans] let those towns they did not demolish live under their own laws, even those that surrendered not as partners but as subjects” (II.21.1). Machiavelli gives the example of the Romans sending an official to govern the conquered city of Capua—the first such Roman official dispatched in nearly four hundred years of expansion, and in this case done at the request of the Capuans themselves.
One sees, therefore, how much this mode made Roman increase easy. For those cities especially that are used to living freely or accustomed to being governed by those of their own province remain content more quietly under a dominion they do not see, even though it may have in itself some hardship, than under one they see every day that appears to them to reprove them every day for their servitude. There follows closely from this another good for the prince. Since his ministers do not have in hand the judges and magistrates who render civil or criminal justice in those cities, there can never arise a judgment with disapproval or infamy for the prince; and in this way many causes of calumny and hatred toward him are lacking. (II.21.2)
For what it’s worth, Machiavelli is sort-of right and sort-of wrong. The Roman style of administration was pretty much what he identifies here. Having first conquered a new territory, they would lay down a handful of broad and fairly loose regulations and a light(ish) tax. These regulations and taxes for the most part fell on the nobility rather than on the common people, who as commoners would have little noticed a change in leadership. And if in order to meet these rules or pay these taxes the local aristocrats had to oppress the common people, the Romans really didn’t care about that so long as it did not lead to rebellion. And even if it did lead to rebellion, the Romans could always sweep in to the rescue and look like the good guys when they removed the local aristocrats from office and took control themselves. Any hatred on the part of conquered peoples was aimed at the people and laws closest to them, not the distant Roman administration that was little seen and rarely felt.
At least, that was the theory. In practice, this tended only to work well in settings that were already urban and somewhat civilized when the Romans arrived on the scene. Rural and tribal societies were rarely smoothly brought into the Roman fold, and usually either successfully resisted Roman rule or had to be eliminated. Likewise the Romans never really figured out how to rule people with exclusivist or isolationist ideologies. With that said, those are the exceptions—and big ones—but not the rule. The norm was that the Romans did administer conquered lands with great ability and generally without alienating conquered peoples. Machiavelli thinks that this sort of open-handed generosity and tameness is the key ingredient in modern versions of expansion and conquest.
So why don’t more nations follow these wise guidelines clearly articulated in the history books? In part, it is because we don’t listen to those who give wise advice when times are good:
Excellent men in corrupt republics, especially in quiet times, are treated as enemies, either from envy or from other ambitious causes, one goes behind someone who either is judged to be good through a common deception or is put forward by men who wish for the favor rather than the good of the collectivity. (II.22.1)
Additionally, fortune sometimes throws a wrench into the decision-making process by bringing up an issue that appears to be simply solved in the eyes of “men who have not had great experience of things.” So, for example, following a war, it might be easy to assume that even the victorious side is weakened and unable to resist an attack. This mistake was made by the Latins concerning the Romans, and in Machiavelli’s day by the pope concerning the French.
Machiavelli’s argument does not so much concern the nature of warfare as it does the fact that the situation which appears simple is in reality fairly complicated and requires a wise and virtuous leader to sort it out. But, because it appears simple, few are willing to defer to the wise and instead pursue a foolish course that can only be seen to be destructive in hindsight when it’s too late.
Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri.