Machiavelli wasn’t a traditional philosopher; he was, in fact, a senior diplomat in the service of the Florentine Republic. During his life he produced a series of popular but forgettable poems, plays and essays,(1) but he also produced – while working fulltime – two masterpieces: The Prince and Discourses on Livy.(2) The Prince circulated privately during Machiavelli’s lifetime, but was only published in 1532, five years after his death. Discourses was also published posthumously, in 1531. In other words, Machiavelli died having no idea that he would rank among the immortals.

By the time Machiavelli was born in 1469 the Italian Renaissance was already well advanced. Centered on his home city of Florence, the flowering of art, literature and science would accelerate during his lifetime and well beyond. But something else was also blossoming: the art of war. Indeed, it is barely an exaggeration to say that the Middle Ages ended and the modern era began with the collapse of Constantinople in 1453.

Although Constantinople had been an imperial Roman capital since the fourth century, it stood no chance in the face of Ottoman cannon that were, in some cases, 27 feet long and capable of firing a 600 pound cannonball more than a mile. The uselessness of the city’s walls(3) in the face of this new technology didn’t just mean the end of Constantinople – or even just the end of the Roman Empire – Mehmed II’s cannons instantly obsoleted every medieval castle and every knight in armor.

At roughly the same time, the Hundred Years War (roughly 1337 to 1453) was also propelling military technology and, along the way, creating modern states like France and England: geographically large, heavily populated, centrally governed, capable of supporting vast standing armies.

One of these armies, under the command of Charles VIII of France, invaded Italy in 1494. The French had studied the Ottoman cannons and had noticed – despite their awesome power – several defects. The cannon were made of iron, for example, and were therefore extremely heavy and difficult to maneuver. They took three hours to reload. The huge cannonballs they fired were in chronic short supply. The French therefore redesigned these cannon, manufacturing them out of brass, which was lighter and sturdier, but every bit as powerful.

City-states like Florence, if you think about them, are really just huge castles. They are large compounds surrounded by protective walls and, like actual castles, they, too, had been obsoleted by the advances in military hardware. Charles’ army slashed its way through Italy almost unimpeded, reaching the southern part of the country largely unscathed.

The city-states, especially Florence, had known since Constantinople that their city walls were useless. In addition, they now gazed anxiously at their armies, staffed entirely with mercenaries who had little incentive to stick around when things got hot.(4) With little in the way of defense, and little in the way of offense, Florence and the other city-states turned to the only option they had left – diplomacy.

And diplomacy worked, eventually. By organizing a joint defense against Charles known as the League of Venice, the Italians initially trapped Charles in southern Italy, blocking his return to France and, later, followed his retreat to the north to make sure he didn’t turn back.

It was in this heady environment for diplomacy that Machiavelli entered the picture, being appointed in 1498 as secretary to the Dieci di Liberta e Pace, the Florentine unit that managed diplomatic and military affairs. From this vantage point Machiavelli was able to observe, firsthand, the actions of successful and unsuccessful princes.

Among the more successful of these leaders were the Medici family, whose restoration in 1512 led to Machiavelli’s exile, and the Borgia family, to which Machiavelli served as an advisor. The Medici were notorious for their endless scheming, and the Borgias, father (Pope Alexander VI) and son (Cesare), were among the most brutal and unscrupulous rulers in history.(5)

Yet both families were extraordinarily successful. The House of Medici produced four popes and two queens, was for a time the wealthiest family in Europe, and remained prominent for half a millennium.(6) The Borgias produced two popes and at one point controlled much of central Italy.

Before Machiavelli, speculations about kings and princes had focused on the nature of the ideal ruler – those characteristics being more or less identical to those of the ideal man. But Machiavelli had little patience with this notion. He wished to observe how men seized and held power and how they exercised it, to assess which characteristics tended to lead to success and which to failure. Whether these characteristics were “ideal” or not was beside the point – if an “ideal” ruler couldn’t survive in office for a month, what possible good was he?

Now that we have placed Machiavelli in his historical context, we’ll move in my next post to consider what he might think about our friends over at the Fed.

(1) Actually, one of Machiavelli’s plays, the satirical comedy La Mandragola (The Mandrake) has been staged fairly regularly in recent times. It is mainly noted for its bitter critique of the Medici family.

(2) One thing Machiavelli produced that wasn’t forgettable was a long series of letters that are still revered in Italy for the elegance of their language and their penetrating intelligence. Machiavelli was a prose stylist of the first rank and his correspondence is among the most brilliant produced during the Italian Renaissance.

(3) In 1453 Constantinople consisted of a group of walled villages surrounded by fields, the whole being in turn circled by long walls built in the fifth century.

(4) The spectacle of culturally and financially wealthy societies being overrun by more muscular invaders is a useful object lesson for, say, Europe.

(5) Lucrezia Borgia, sister of Cesare and daughter of a Pope, was married three times and produced numerous children. Portrayed throughout most of history as an inveterate poisoner – she supposedly wore a hollow ring that she could use to poison people’s drinks – she has faired better in recent times, as modern historians have portrayed her more as victim than protagonist.

(6) Francesco di Medici, son of the great Cosimo, produced a daughter, Marie de’ Medici, who became the Queen of France. All subsequent French monarchs (except the Napoleons) are thus directly descended from the House of Medici.

Next up: The Financial Crisis and Institutional Ethics, Part 3

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