This article was originally published on Ancient World Magazine. It is archived on this website with the kind permission of the author.
Without downplaying the scholarly activities of the Middle Ages, the “rediscovery” of the Classical world is a key aspect of the European Renaissance. One of the best-known authors from the Italian Renaissance, Niccolò Machiavelli, was certainly a fan of the Classics.
References to ancient figures and ways of thinking are to be found throughout Machiavelli’s writings, thanks not just to the age in which he lived, but also due to his father’s inclinations. In this article I take a look at his usage of one passage from Livy, and discuss the problem posed by historical exempla.
We know more about Machiavelli’s early life than earlier generations of historians thanks to the rediscovery of the Libro di Ricordi of his father, Niccolò di Bernardo Machiavelli (Bernardo), and its publication in 1954 by Cesare Olschki. (In Firenze, by F. Le Monnier; more recent editions have been published.) Among the things we learn is that Bernardo had a borrowed copy of Justin’s epitome of Pompeius Trogus, which was only returned in his son’s twelfth year, when he was already composing in Latin, meaning that our Machiavelli could have read it. Ridolfi notes, in his biography of Machiavelli, that Justin was back then “the first history book that children read” (R. Ridolfi, The Life of Niccolò Machiavelli, translated by C. Grayson ( 1963), p. 4).
Amongst the other classical authors that we know he read were Aristotle, Caesar, Cicero, Ovid, Plato, Plautus, Plutarch, Polybius, Sallust, Seneca, Tacitus, Terence, Thucydides, and Virgil (as listed in J.B. Atkinson, “Niccolò Machiavllie: a portrait,’ in J.M. Najemy (ed), The Cambridge Companion to Machiavelli (2010), pp. 14-30, at pp. 15-16). The Hellenes, however, he almost certainly read in Latin translation as it appears he never learned Greek.
Portentously, we learn from Bernardo’s diary that he was given a copy of Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita from the Florentine printer, Niccolò della Magna, in exchange for compiling an index of place-names for the work. Perhaps fated to do so, Machiavelli would be the one to collect this once it had been bound, as his father was in the countryside (Ridolfi, pp. 3-4). Livy would prove to be one of his greatest inspirations, resulting in a number of citations throughout Machiavelli’s writings, as well as an entire work, Discourses on Livy.
Niccolò and Titus
Machiavelli seems to have taken to one line of Livy in particular. The line in question can be found in book 35, chapter 49, which discusses the events of 192 BC. At this particular point in the narrative, Titus Quinctius Flamininus is delivering a speech urging the Achaeans not to join in an alliance with the Aetolians and Antiochus III, ruler of the Seleucid Empire, and enter into war with the Romans.
Closing his speech, Flamininus said (Livy 35.49.13; transl. Yardley):
For the course which they [the Sleucids and Aetolians] maintain is the best, namely non-intervention in the war – nothing, in fact, is so contrary to your best interests. Earning no gratitude and no consideration, you will become the prize of the victor.
In essence what he is saying is that the Seleucids and their Aetolian allies only want the Achaeans to stay neutral so that the latter can be easily captured. Flamininus is warning them that if they chose to follow this course of action, they will become another piece in the Seleucid Empire and will be shown no special consideration for staying out of the fighting.
We find these lines cited in Machiavelli’s The Prince, chapter 21 (p. 72 in Bull’s Penguin Classics translation). This chapter is a lesson in “how a prince must act to win honour.” One way to do this was for a prince to reveal “himself without any reservation in favour of one side against another,” in other words: always choose a side in an armed conflict. He justifies this by arguing that regardless of whether or not you are threatened by two warring neighbours, in the end it will be beneficial to support one side and “wage a vigorous war.”
Machiavelli goes on to give three examples of this type of situation, but only one in which the outcome was positive: the passage in Livy 35. Using this as an exemplum, he tells his reader that “it is always the case that the one who is not your friend will request your neutrality, and that the one who is your friend will request your armed support” (p. 73 in Bull’s translation). This, however, elides the Roman motives as epitomized by Flamininus’ speech, which was to ensure they had to fight as few enemies as possible in the war against Antiochus.
It is of course an idealized version of later events that led Machiavelli to the conclusion that this was the proper course of action. The Achaeans would, to various degrees, end up under Roman rule in the coming century, and eventually fight an unsuccessful rebellion against the Republic in 146 BC. This revolt led to the destruction of Corinth at the hands of Lucius Mummius. But Machiavelli’s use of this as an exemplum is interested only in the short-term.
He does give the example of the Achaeans and Flamininus as one half of a dichotomy, the other being an example of when the practice of allying with the perceived “truthful” party can be the wrong choice. For the latter, he points to the alliance between Venice and France during the latter’s war against the Duke of Milan, which would eventually bring ruin to the Venetians. The difference seen by Machiavelli between the two examples is that in the former, the Romans were not the aggressors (Antiochus was), while in the latter, the French under Louis XII were the aggressors. Ultimately, though, the results of each decision were very similar.
About eighteen years before the publication of The Prince, however, Machiavelli had cited Flamininus’ speech in a letter to Francesco Vettori, the Florentine ambassador to the Holy See, and a correspondent with whom Machiavelli discussed pieces of The Prince before its publication. (All citations to the correspondence between Machiavelli and Vettori are to J.B. Atkinson and D. Sices (eds), Machiavelli and His Friends: Their Personal Correspondence (1996).) It is cited in response to an earlier exchange between the two, which began with Vettori asking Machiavelli for his advice as to which side of a coming conflict the Papacy should join (Letter 239, dated 3 December 1514, pp. 293-294).
The war on the horizon was shaping up to be between France, England, and Venice on one side, and the Swiss, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire on the other. In a lengthy reply, dated 10 December 1514, Machiavelli recommends that the Papacy align itself with the French, as they are the ones whom he thinks will emerge victorious from the conflict (Letter 241, pp. 295-302).
He then wrote a second letter on the same subject, not in response to Vettori, but rather in response to hearing rumours that favoured papal neutrality. He wrote that (Letter 243, dated 20 December 1514, p. 303.):
as for neutrality, a strategy it seems to me I am aware of many people approving, I cannot look favorably upon it because I can recall neither in what I have seen nor in what I have read that it has ever been a good thing; in fact, it has always been an extremely destructive policy because it is certain to lose. And even though you understand the reasons for this better than I do, still I would like to remind you of them.
In the second, very long paragraph of this letter, Machiavelli elaborates on this, saying that staying neutral will bring contempt and hatred upon a prince, as at least one of the belligerents will believe that “you [the prince] are obliged to follow his fortune” for one reason or another. He goes on to say that the other belligerent will then think of you as “timid and uncertain” and that you would be an “ineffective ally and an enemy not to be feared,” thus they are now a threat to your state, even though you remained neutral.
Machiavelli tells his friend that “Livy expresses this opinion briefly when putting these words in the mouth of Titus Flaminius [sic] (…): ‘Nothing is farther from your interests; you will become the spoil of the victor without thanks, without dignity’” (Letter 243, p. 304).
But is this, as he claims, Livy’s opinion being expressed? It is possible. We know that speeches in ancient historical texts were regularly fabricated by the writer or their source, so he could have written these words. Ultimately, though, we do not know if the concept behind this speech should be attributed to Livy or to Flamininus, or perhaps even to the earlier source followed by Livy for this section of his work.
We’ve seen in this discussion how Machiavelli, one of the greatest lovers of Livy, could pluck out a reference to use as an exemplum. He chose to use, twice, part of a speech delivered by Titus Flamininus to the Achaeans as an example of why maintaining neutrality when two neighbours are going to war is a poor decision.
Ultimately it did not work out for the Achaeans, who ended up at war with Rome not that long after they took their side against Antiochus III. Machiavelli no doubt deliberately left out the result of the Achaeans’ decision in order not to weaken the point he was trying to make. However, this in itself is an exemplum of why historical exempla are problematic.
When someone picks out very specific points from broader histories they run the risk of drawing problematic conclusions from them. This is no less true of ancient or modern commentators who engage in similar activities. We see this in our modern discourse with the selective use of things such as Leonidas’ supposed “molon labe” quip at the Battle of Thermopylae by far-right groups, especially in the United States. But context matters.
Nevertheless, Machiavelli’s use of Livy in this example (among others) shows how important “the Classics” were on his political and military philosophies. While it is not wise to pull small chunks from ancient texts to prove a point, it is nevertheless still fruitful to read authors such as Livy, Aristotle, and Plato to understand their ideas, and those of others who they may have preserved in their writings.