Discourses on Livy Book I, Niccolò Machiavelli
Discourses on Livy Book I
Niccolò Machiavelli
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The Discourses on Livy is a work of political history and philosophy written in the early 16th century (c. 1517) by the Italian writer and political theorist Niccolò Machiavelli, best known as the author of The Prince. The Discourses were published posthumously with papal privilege in 1531. This book is a translated version by Christian E. Detmold, published in 1882. In the preface to Book I, Machiavelli explains why he wrote the Discourse, noting that he brings new modes and orders—a dangerous task given the envy of men, but one motivated by the desire to work for the common benefit of humanity. He complains that the Italian Renaissance has stimulated a desire to imitate the ancients in art, law, and medicine, but that no one thinks of imitating ancient kingdoms or republics. He traces this to an improper reading of history that suggests that imitation of ancient political virtue is impossible. He declares his intention to overcome this view of the ancient world by examining Livy and modern politics.

Discourses on Livy

by
Niccolò Machiavelli

First Book


Chapter I:
What Have Generally Been the Beginnings of Some Cities, and What Was That of Rome

Those who read what the beginning of the City of Rome was, and of her Law-givers and how it was organized, do not wonder that so much virtu had been maintained for so many centuries in that City, and that afterward there should have been born that Empire to which that Republic was joined. And wanting first to discuss its birth, I say that all Cities are built either by men born in the place where they build it or by foreigners. The first case occurs when it appears to the inhabitants that they do not live securely when dispersed into many and small parties, each unable by himself both because of the location and the small number to resist attacks of those who should assault them, and they are not in time ((the enemy coming)) in waiting for their defense: or if they should be, they must abandon many of their refuges, and thus they would quickly become the prey of their enemies: so much that in order to avoid these dangers, moved either by themselves or by some one among them of greater authority, they restrict themselves to live together in a place selected by them, more convenient to live in and more easy to defend. Of these, among others, have been Athens and Venice: the first under the authority of Theseus was built by the dispersed inhabitants for like reasons: the other built by many people (who) had come to certain small islands situated at the head of the Adriatic Sea, in order to escape those wars which every day were arising in Italy because of the coming of new barbarians after the decline of that Roman Empire, began among themselves, without any particular Prince who should organize them, to live under those laws which appeared to them best suited in maintaining it (their new state). In this they succeeded happily because of the long peace which the site gave to them (for) that sea not having issue, where those people who were afflicting Italy, not having ships with which they could invest them; so that from a small beginning they were enabled to come to that greatness which they now have.

The second case, when a city is built by foreign forces, is caused by free men and by men who depend on others, such as the Colonies sent either by a Republic or by a Prince to relieve their towns of (excessive) inhabitants or for the defense of that country which they have newly acquired (and) want to maintain securely and without expense; (thy Roman people built many cities, throughout all their Empire) or they are built by a Prince, not to live there but for his own glory, as was the City of Alexandria built by Alexander. And because these cities at their origin do not have their freedom, it rarely happens that they make great progress and are able to be numbered among the chief Kingdoms. Such was the building of Florence, for (it was built either by the soldiers of Sulla, or perhaps by the inhabitants of the Mountains of Fiesole, who trusting in that long peace which prevailed in the world under Octavian were led to live in the plain along the Arno) it was built under the Roman Empire, and could not in its beginning have any other growth that those which were conceded to her through the courtesy of the Prince.

The builders of Cities are free when any people either under a Prince or by themselves are constrained either by pestilence or by famine or by war to abandon their native country, and seek new homes: These either inhabit the cities that they find in the countries they acquire, as Moses did, or they build new ones, as Eneas did. This is a case where the virtu and fortune of the builder of the edifice is recognized, which is of greater or less wonder according as that man who was the beginner was of greater or less virtu. The virtu of whom is recognized in two ways: the first is in the selection of the site, the other in the establishment of the laws. And because men work either from necessity or from choice: and because it is seen here that virtu is greater where choice has less authority (results from necessity), it is (something) to be considered whether it would be better for the building of a city to select sterile places, so that men constrained to be industrious and less occupied with idleness, should live more united, where, because of the poverty of the site, they should have less cause for discord, as happened at Ragusa and in many other cities built in similar places; which selection would without doubt be more wise and more useful if men would be content to live of their own (possessions), and not want to seek to command that of others.

However, as men are not able to make themselves secure except through power, it is necessary to avoid this sterility of country and locate it in very fertile places, where because of the fertility of the site, it can grow, can defend itself from whoever should assault it, and suppress whoever should oppose its aggrandizement. And as to that idleness which the site should encourage, it ought to be arranged that in that necessity the laws should constrain them (to work) where the site does not constrain them (does not do so), and to imitate those who have been wise and have lived in most amenable and most fertile countries, which are apt to making men idle and unable to exercise any virtu: that to obviate those which the amenity of the country may cause through idleness, they imposed the necessity of exercise on those who were to be soldiers: of a kind that, because of such orders, they became better soldiers than (men) in those countries where nature has been harsh and sterile: among which was the Kingdom of Egypt, which notwithstanding that the country was most amenable, that necessity ordained by the laws was so great, that most excellent men resulted therefrom: and if their names had not been extinguished by antiquity, it would be seen that they would have merited more praise than Alexander the Great, and many others of whom memory is still fresh. And whoever had considered the Kingdom of Soldan and the order of the Mamelukes, and of their military (organization) before it was destroyed by Selim the Grand Turk, would have seen there how much the soldiers exercised, and in fact would have known how much they feared that idleness to which the benignity of the country could lead them if they had not obviated it by the strongest laws. I say therefore that the selection of a fertile location in establishing (a city) is more prudent when (the results) of that fertility can be restricted within given limits by laws.

Alexander the Great, wishing to build a city for his glory, Dinocrates, the Architect came to him and showed him how he could do so upon the mountain Athos, which place in addition to being strong, could be arranged in a way that the City would be given human form, which would be a marvelous and rare thing and worthy of his greatness: and Alexander asking him on what the inhabitants would live, he replied that he had not thought of it: at which he laughed, and leaving that mountain as it was, he built Alexandria, where the inhabitants would stay willingly because of the richness of the country and the convenience to the sea and of the Nile.

Whoever should examine, therefore, the building of Rome if he should take Eneas for its first ancestor, will know that that City was built by foreigners: (but) if Romulus, it would have been built by men native to the place, and in any case it would be seen to have been free from the beginning without depending on anyone: it will also be seen (as it will be said below) to what necessity the laws made by Romulus, Numa, and the others had constrained them; so much so that the fertility of the site, the convenience of the sea, the frequent victories, the greatness of the Empire, could not corrupt her for many centuries, and they maintained her full of so much virtu than any other republic has ever been adorned. And because the things achieved by them and that are made notable by Titus Livius, have taken place either through public Councils or private (individuals) either inside or outside the City, I shall begin to discourse upon those things which occured inside; and as for the public Council, which is worthy of greater annotation, I shall judge, adding all that is dependent on them; with which discourses this fast book, or rather this fast part will be ended.


Chapter II:
Of the Kinds of Republics There Are, and of Which Was the Roman Republic

I want to place aside the discussion of those cities that had their beginning subject to others, and I will talk of those which have had their beginning far removed from any external servitude, but which (were) initially governed themselves through their own will, either as Republics or as Principalities; which have had (as diverse origins) diverse laws and institutions. For to some, at the beginning or very soon after, their laws were given to them by one (man) and all at one time, as those which were given to the Spartans by Lycurgus: Some have received them by chance, and at several times, according to events, as Rome did. So that a Republic can be called fortunate which by chance has a man so prudent, who gives her laws so ordered that without having need of correcting them, she can live securely under them. And it is seen that Sparta observed hers (laws) for more than eight hundred years without changing them and without any dangerous disturbance: and on the contrary that City has some degree of unhappiness which (not having fallen to a prudent lawmaker) is compelled to reorganize her laws by herself. And she also is more unhappy which has diverged more from her institutions; and that (Republic) is even further from them whose laws lead her away from perfect and true ends entirely outside of the right path; for to those who are in that condition it is almost impossible that by some incident they be set aright. Those others which do not have a perfect constitution, but had made a good beginning, are capable of becoming better, and can become perfect through the occurrence of events. It is very true, however, that they have never been reformed without danger, for the greater number of men never agree to a new law which contemplates a new order for the City, unless the necessity that needs be accomplished is shown to them: and as this necessity cannot arise without some peril, it is an easy thing for the Republic to be ruined before it can be brought to a more perfect constitution. The Republic of Florence gives a proof of this, which because of the incident of Arezzo in (the year) one thousand five hundred and two (1502) was reorganized, (and) it was disorganized by that of Prato in (the year) one thousand five hundred and twelve (1512).

Wanting therefore to discourse on what were the institutions of the City of Rome and what events brought her to her perfection, I say, that some who have written of Republics say there are (one of) three States (governments) in them called by them Principality (Monarchy), of the Best (Aristocracy), and Popular (Democracy), and that those men who institute (laws) in a City ought to turn to one of these, according as it seems fit to them. Some others (and wiser according to the opinion of many) believe there are six kinds of Governments, of which those are very bad, and those are good in themselves, but may be so easily corrupted that they also become pernicious. Those that are good are three mentioned above: those that are bad, are three others which derive from those (first three), and each is so similar to them that they easily jump from one to the other, for the Principality easily becomes a tyranny, autocracy easily become State of the Few (oligarchies), and the Popular (Democracy) without difficulty is converted into a licentious one (anarchy). So much so that an organizer of a Republic institutes one of those three States (governments) in a City, he institutes it for only a short time, because there is no remedy which can prevent them from degenerating into their opposite kind, because of the resemblance that virtu and vice have in this instance.

These variations in government among men are born by chance, for at the beginning of the world the inhabitants were few, (and) lived for a time dispersed and like beasts: later as the generations multiplied they gathered together, and in order to be able better to defend themselves they began to seek among themselves the one who was most robust and of greater courage, and made him their head and obeyed him. From this there arose the knowledge of honest and good things; differentiating them from the pernicious and evil; for seeing one man harm his benefactor there arose hate and compassion between men, censuring the ingrates and honoring those who were grateful, and believing also that these same injuries could be done to them, to avoid like evils they were led to make laws, and institute punishments for those who should contravene them; whence came the cognition of justice. Which thing later caused them to select a Prince, not seeking the most stalwart but he who was more prudent and more just. But afterwards when they began to make the Prince by succession and not by election, the heirs quickly degenerated from their fathers, and leaving off from works of virtu they believed that Princes should have nothing else to do than surpass others in sumptuousness and lasciviousness and in every other kind of delight. So that the Prince began to be hated, and because of this hate he began to fear, and passing therefore from fear to injury, a tyranny quickly arose. From this there arose the beginnings of the ruin and conspiracies; and these conspiracies against the Prince were not made by weak and timid men, but by those who because of their generosity, greatness of spirit, riches, and nobility above the others, could not endure the dishonest life of that prince.

The multitude therefore following the authority of these powerful ones armed itself against the Prince, and having destroyed him, they obeyed them as their liberators. And these holding the name of chief in hatred, constituted a government by themselves, and in the beginning (having in mind the past tyranny) governed themselves according to the laws instituted by them, preferring every common usefulness to their conveniences, and governed and preserved private and public affairs with the greatest diligence. This administration later was handed down to their children, who not knowing the changeability of fortune (for) never having experienced bad (fortune), and not wanting to remain content with civil equality, they turned to avarice, ambition, violation of women, caused that aristocratic government (of the Best) to become an oligarchic government (of the Few) regardless of all civil rights: so that in a short time the same thing happened to them as it did to the Tyrant, for the multitude disgusted with their government, placed itself under the orders of whoever would in any way plan to attack those Governors, and thus there arose some one who, with the aid of the multitude, destroyed them. And the memory of the Prince and the injuries received from him being yet fresh (and) having destroyed the oligarchic state (of the Few), and not wanting to restore that of the Prince, the (people) turned to the Popular state (Democracy) and they organized that in such a way, that neither the powerful Few nor a Prince should have any authority. And because all States in the beginning receive some reverence, this Popular State maintained itself for a short time, but not for long, especially when that generation that had organized it was extinguished, for they quickly came to that license where neither private men or public men were feared: this was such that every one living in his own way, a thousand injuries were inflicted every day: so that constrained by necessity either through the suggestion of some good man, or to escape from such license, they once again turn to a Principality; and from this step by step they return to that license both in the manner and for the causes mentioned (previously).

And this is the circle in which all the Republics are governed and will eventually be governed; but rarely do they return to the same (original) governments: for almost no Republic can have so long a life as to be able often to pass through these changes and remain on its feet. But it may well happen that in the troubles besetting a Republic always lacking counsel and strength, it will become subject to a neighboring state which may be better organized than itself: but assuming this does not happen, a Republic would be apt to revolve indefinitely among these governments. I say therefore that all the (previously) mentioned forms are inferior because of the brevity of the existence of those three that are good, and of the malignity of those three that are bad. So that those who make laws prudently having recognized the defects of each, (and) avoiding every one of these forms by itself alone, they selected one (form) that should partake of all, they judging it to be more firm and stable, because when there is in the same City (government) a Principality, an Aristocracy, and a Popular Government (Democracy), one watches the other.

Among those who have merited more praise for having similar constitutions is Lycurgus, who so established his laws in Sparta, that in giving parts to the King, the Aristocracy, and the People, made a state that endured more than eight hundred years, with great praise to himself and tranquillity to that City. The contrary happened to Solon who established the laws in Athens, (and) who by establishing only the Popular (Democratic) state, he gave it such a brief existence that before he died he saw arise the tyranny of Pisistratus: and although after forty years his (the tyrants) heirs were driven out and liberty returned to Athens, for the Popular state was restored according to the ordinances of Solon, it did not last more than a hundred years, yet in order that it be maintained many conventions were made by which the insolence of the nobles and the general licentiousness were suppressed, which had not been considered by Solon: none the less because he did not mix it (Popular state) with the power of the Principate and with that of the Aristocracy, Athens lived a very short time as compared to Sparta.

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