Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Discourses on Livy: III.4-5

“Tarquin and Lucretia,” by Jan Sanders van Hemessen, Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille


Just as in a new republic supporters of the old monarchy must be disposed of, so in a new monarchy the enemies of the state should be put to death if the kingdom is ever to be truly secure. These “enemies of the state” include both those who had a chance at power and failed to achieve it (the Roman monarchy was elected, so losing candidates would fall into this category) and those who have been injured by the current monarch. We should never expect the former to be truly satisfied with the result of the legal process. Nor should we expect the latter to be forgiving or merciful, whatever kindnesses the monarch does in an attempt to atone for the injury. If that’s not enough, a monarch also has to remember that the “appetite for reigning is so great that it enters the breasts of not only those who expect the kingdom but also those who do not expect it” (III.4.1).

In these things, we see the reasons for the rise—and fall—of two of the last three kings of Rome:

Tarquin Priscus and Servius Tullius lost the kingdom through not knowing how to secure themselves against those from whom they had usurped it, Tarquin the Proud lost it through not observing the orders of the ancient kings… (III.4.1)

If anyone should have been secure on the throne, it should have been Tarquin the Proud. He had eliminated all of the competition and had no reason to fear usurpation by those he had wronged, since they too were dead. Had he exercised even a modicum of restraint, Machiavelli thinks his throne would have been secure. And yet, Tarquin the Proud was driven from his throne and exiled—both actions taken with such finality that there would not be another monarch in Rome for four centuries, and never again would any Roman ruler take the title of “King.” So how did this happen?

Livy tells us in the first book of his history that Tarquin the Proud had a son named Sextus who raped Lucretia, the virtuous married daughter of a prominent Roman official. Lucretia reported the crime to her husband and father and then immediately stabber herself through the heart. Livy records:

Whilst they were absorbed in grief, Brutus drew the knife from Lucretia’s wound, and holding it, dripping with blood, in front of him, said, “By this blood – most pure before the outrage wrought by the king’s son—I swear, and you, O gods, I call to witness that I will drive hence Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, together with his cursed wife and his whole brood, with fire and sword and every means in my power, and I will not suffer them or any one else to reign in Rome. (Livy I.59)

This is the Brutus whom everyone had believed to be insane, and this is the story that has been repeated numerous times through the centuries, including by Machiavelli himself.

Machiavelli, however, here provides a different narrative. He believes that the rape of Lucretia is really incidental to the fall of Tarquin the Proud. In fact, the rule of Tarquin was doomed from the moment he began to govern as an autocratic tyrant above the law rather than according to the customs of the state that had been established to protect the freedom of the citizen body:

Thus he was expelled not because his son Sextus had raped Lucretia but because he had broken the laws of the kingdom and governed it tyrannically, as he had taken away all authority from the Senate and adapted it for himself. (III.5.1)

Tarquin had moved the affairs of state from the Senate chambers to his own palace, and so alienated the nobility. But he had also forced the common people to undertake public works projects to the point where the tax and labor burden had functionally reduced them to slavery. Where the Roman people had been used to at least some degree of independence and freedom, now they were all subject to a tyrant and without recourse to the law. There is a lesson here for all monarchs, according to Machiavelli:

Thus princes may know that they begin to lose their state at the hour they begin to break the laws and those modes and those customs that are ancient, under which men have lived a long time. And if when deprived of the state they ever become so prudent that they recognize with how much ease principalities may be held by those who take counsel wisely, they would grieve much more for their loss and condemn themselves to a greater penalty than they would have been condemned to by others. For it is much easier to be loved by the good than by the wicked, and to obey the laws than to wish to command them. (III.5.1)

Citizens governed within the law do not rebel, and it’s far easier for a monarch to obey the law than to break it if he exercises even a modicum of wisdom. And yet, clearly monarchs do break the law, which means we ought to think well about the actual overthrow of states. To that end Machiavelli enters into a long discussion of conspiracies that we will take up over the next couple of weeks.


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

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

  1. wlindsaywheeler

    As an aside, Tarquin was Etruscan and Etruscans were not Indo-Europeans. I don’t think we should dismiss the racial angle here nor obscure it. Etruscans were probably unsuited for a moderated government or to lead one.

    Rome was not a unified racial unit but a conglomeration of three major tribes, Latins, Sabines and Etruscans. Mixed government is a product of Indo-Europeans who had a measure of self-restraint.

    • Coyle Neal

      Fair enough. I don’t know anthropology well enough to be able to speak much to the ethnic makeup of Italy in early Roman times (or Medieval times, or now, for that matter) or how it affected their politics…

  2. gabe


    Just started S.E. Finer’s book “The History of Government from the Earliest Times…” – and I mean JUST started it.

    However, it is interesting to see how in sync Nicci is with some of the concepts that Finer advances; more specifically, the need for the Prince to adhere to both law and ancient custom (belief systems / religion) (I am simplifying here BTW) AND that the social / political structure must reflect the *city’s* belief system. Additionally, that Prince who violates the status / position of those within that structure does so at some considerable peril.

    Old Nicci is typically on to something. Wish I had started this when we were covering Nicci’s analysis of the military. It is somewhat consonant with Finer’s approach (at least as shown in the intro).

    • Coyle Neal

      I hadn’t heard of that one, but a quick Amazon search suggests you’ve embarked on an ambitious reading campaign…
      NM would be proud, so long as you put what you learn to good (well, “good”) use. 🙂


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