Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Discourses on Livy: II.32-33


Just how did the Romans go about getting themselves an Empire? Machiavelli was clear in the previous sections that it was neither through wicked/unwise financial dealings, nor through supporting the return of exiles to their native lands. In his interpretation, the Romans conquered new cities by means of warfare, which we may as well go ahead and read as meaning from Machiavelli’s perspective by means of virtue.

In Machiavelli’s day, taking a city often meant some type of lengthy siege—especially if the city was accompanied by a castle or some sort of fortress. This meant time, patience, attention, thoughtful tactics, and all the other characteristics Medieval armies generally failed to display relative to their Roman forbears. At least, that’s what Machiavelli seems to think. In his view, the Romans almost never engaged in siege warfare because the returns simply did not outweigh the costs of this lengthy endeavor. Instead, the Romans tended to either storm cities or force a quick surrender.

When they stormed cities,

storming was either by force and open violence or by force mixed with fraud. Open violence was either by assault without knocking down the walls… or, if this assault was not enough, they addressed themselves to breaking the walls with rams and with other of their war machines… (II.32.1)

Whatever the merits of Machiavelli’s extended discussion of Roman siege warfare, his overall point is still a useful one to discuss: the Romans did everything possible to minimize the influence of fortune in combat. Their different methods of storming cities were all intended to remove luck from the equation and bring the whole battle down to whoever could outthink, outmaneuver, and outfight the other side—all of which the Romans could generally do. (Machiavelli is certainly correct about that.)

When they weren’t storming cities, the Romans were compelling them to surrender.

As to acquiring towns by surrender, they give themselves either willingly or forcibly. The will arises either from some extrinsic necessity that constrains them to take refuge with you… or from desire to be well governed, when they are attracted by the good government that princes holds over those who willingly consign themselves into his lap… (II.32.2)

Forced surrender, by contrast, can come from a long siege or from an ongoing and relentless series of raids and abuse by the aggressor. This latter is the method the Romans tended to prefer, according to Machiavelli, since it involved more direct combat and less sitting around, spending money, and praying that fortune doesn’t turn against you.

As a sidenote, Machiavelli is only partially correct here. It is true that siege warfare was a relatively late development in the Western world compared to other types of combat, but it is also true that the Romans were excellent besiegers and did so fairly often over the course of their history. See Adrian Goldsworthy’s work on the Roman military for full details.

In closing out Book II of the Discourses, Machiavelli discusses the independence that Roman commanders had in determining tactics in the field:

Among the other things that deserve consideration is seeing with what authority they sent their consuls, dictators, and other captains of armies outside. Their authority is seen to have been very great and the Senate not to have reserved any authority to itself other than that of starting new wars and of ratifying peace, and it consigned all other things to the judgment and power of the consul. (II.33.1)

The senate certainly did engage in armchair generalship, but it was largely after the fact rather than by interfering in the midst of a war.

In part, we can attribute this wisdom on the part of Rome to little more than the slow pace of communications prior to the invention of the telegraph. And yet, Machiavelli suggests that this practice also had as its basis good policy. The senate, after all, was in no position to make judgments concerning terrain, enemy movements, etc.,

since it was not on the spot and did not know infinite particulars that are necessary to know for whoever wishes to give counsel well, it would have made infinite errors in giving counsel. Because of this they wished that the consul should act by himself and that the glory should be all his—the love of which, they judged, would be a check and a rule to make him work well. (II.33.1)

This by contrast with Machiavelli’s day, when Florence and Venice each argue with their military commanders about even such small details as the placement of artillery. (We might use the example of Lyndon Johnson personally selecting bombing targets in Vietnam.) I don’t know that this is a common practice in contemporary America, but then again I rarely see the inner goings-on of Congress or the executive branch. It may be that one of the chief difficulties our military has to face is that of politicians acting as armchair figures, however little that difficulty comes to the attention of the citizen body as a whole.

And with this we are at the end of the second book of Machiavelli’s Discourses!


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

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