Niccolo Machiavelli

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Machiavelli, Niccolò

Machiavelli, Niccolò (nēk-kōlôˈ mäkyävĕlˈlē), 1469–1527, Italian author and statesman, one of the outstanding figures of the Renaissance, b. Florence.


A member of the impoverished branch of a distinguished family, he entered (1498) the political service of the Florentine republic and rose rapidly in importance. As defense secretary he substituted (1506) a citizens' militia for the mercenary system then prevailing in Italy. This reform sprang from his conviction, set forth in his major works, that the employment of mercenaries had largely contributed to the political weakness of Italy. Machiavelli became acquainted with power politics through his important diplomatic missions. He met Cesare Borgia twice and was sent by way of Florence to Louis XII of France (1504, 1510), to Pope Julius II (1506), and to Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I (1507).

The Medicis' return (1512) to Florence caused his dismissal; in 1513 he was briefly imprisoned and was tortured for his alleged complicity in a plot against the Medici. Machiavelli retired to his country estate, where he wrote his chief works. He humiliated himself before the Medici in a vain attempt to recover office. When, in 1527, the republic was briefly reestablished, Machiavelli was distrusted by many of the republicans, and he died thoroughly disappointed and embittered.

Principal Writings

Machiavelli's best-known work, Il principe [the prince] (1532), describes the means by which a prince may gain and maintain his power. His “ideal” prince (seemingly modeled on Cesare Borgia) is a supremely adaptable, amoral, and calculating tyrant who would be able to establish a unified Italian state. The last chapter of the work pleads for the eventual liberation of Italy from foreign rule. Interpretations of The Prince vary: it has been viewed as sincere advice, as a plea for political office, as a detached analysis of Italian politics, as evidence of early Italian nationalism, and as political satire on Medici rule. However, the adjective Machiavellian has come to be a synonym for amoral cunning and for justification by power.

Less widely read but more indicative of Machiavelli's politics is his scholarly Discorsi sulla prima deca di Tito Livio [discourses on the first 10 books of Livy] (1531). In it Machiavelli expounds a general theory of politics and government that stresses the importance of an uncorrupted political culture and a vigorous political morality. Vaster in conception than The Prince, the Discourses shows clearly Machiavelli's republican ideals and principles, which are also reflected in his Istorie Fiorentine [history of Florence] (1532), a historical and literary masterpiece, entirely modern in concept.

Other works include Dell'arte della guerra [on the art of war] (1521), which viewed military problems in relation to politics, and numerous reports and brief works. He also wrote many poems and plays, notably the lively, satiric, and ribald comedy Mandragola [the mandrake], an extremely popular work first performed in 1520. His correspondence has been preserved and is of great interest. The chief works of Machiavelli are available in several popular English editions.


See P. Constantine, ed., The Essential Writings of Machiavelli (2007); biographies by P. Villari (2 vol., tr. 1878), R. Ridolfi (1954, tr. 1963), and M. Vitoli (2000); H. Butterfield, The Statecraft of Machiavelli (1956); S. Anglo, Machiavelli (1970); E. Garver, Machiavelli and the History of Prudence (1987); P. S. Donaldson, Machiavelli and the Mystery of State (1989); R. King, Machiavelli: Philosopher of Power (2007); C. Vivanti, Niccolò Michiavelli: An Intellectual Biography (2013); P. Bobbitt, The Garments of Court and Palace: Machiavelli and the World That He Made (2013); A. Ryan, On Machiavelli: The Search for Glory (2013); M. Viroli, Redeeming “The Prince” (2013); E. Benner, Be like the Fox: Machiavelli's Lifelong Quest for Freedom (2017).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Machiavelli, Niccolò


Born May 3, 1469, in Florence; died there June 22, 1527. Italian political thinker, writer, historian, and military theoretician.

Machiavelli came from an impoverished noble family. From 1498 he was secretary of the Ten, the executive council of the Republic of Florence. He was sent on a number of important diplomatic missions. In 1512, after the restoration of the tyranny of the Medici, Machiavelli was removed from office and exiled to his estate near Florence.

Machiavelli’s most important works are the Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livy (1531; Russian translation, 1869), The Prince (1532; Russian translation, 1869; also published in Russian under the title Kniaz’ in Machiavelli, Soch., vol. 1, 1934), and the History of Florence (1532; Russian translation, 1973). An impassioned patriot who believed that Italy’s misfortunes were chiefly the result of its political disunity, he created a theoretical state capable, in his opinion, of overcoming disunity. His secular, rather than theological, approach to the problem of the state was an important contribution to the history of the political ideas of the Renaissance. Basing his work on historical data, on the analysis of human psychology, and on a consideration of the real facts of a real situation, Machiavelli tried to discover the laws of social development. Marx classified Machiavelli as one of the political thinkers who “began to view the state through human eyes and deduce its natural laws from reason and experience and not from theology” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 1,p. 111).

Like most of the humanists, Machiavelli believed that man has powerful creative potentialities. According to him, a strong personality is capable of counteracting “fortune” or coincidence (which plays an important role in history) with energy and shrewdness. (A number of features that are typical of the Renaissance point of view are evident in the idea of a struggle between personal “valor,” or virtu, and “fortune.”) Machiavelli believed that rulers are assured of success if they thoroughly consider all circumstances and are flexible enough to alter a policy to conform with a particular situation.

Although he considered a republic the best form of state, Machiavelli was convinced that the realities of the situation in Italy (continuous hostility among the Italian states, which were subject to attacks by foreign powers) required absolutism. Only under a strong sovereign would it be possible to create an independent Italian state, free of foreign oppression. Machiavelli believed that any means of strengthening the state were acceptable, including violence, murder, deception, and treachery. This is the origin of the term “Machiavellianism,” which signifies a policy that disregards the laws of morality. He sharply condemned the policy pursued by the feudal nobility and, especially, by the papacy, because it produced constant discord and prevented the formation of a united Italian state. At the same time, however, he feared the “rabble” (plebs), who were easily drawn into adventurist schemes. He favored the middle and upper strata of the commercial and artisan population of the Italian towns (the “people,” or popolo).

As a historian Machiavelli made an important contribution to the development of historiography. He sought to discover historical laws and the underlying causes of events. Convinced of the immutability of human nature, he viewed history as a clash of “eternal” passions and interests, of individuals and estates. He considered the political struggle, which was often portrayed in his works as a social class struggle, the most important motive force in history.

Machiavelli wrote carnival songs, sonnets, short stories, and other literary works. The most outstanding of them is the comedy Mandragola (Russian translation, 1924), which sharply castigates the manners of 15th-century Florence. In particular, the comedy attacks the hypocrisy and corruption of the church. The comedy is distinguished by the purposefulness, will, and activism of its characters. Machiavelli enriched Italian literature with a clear, succinct prose, free of rhetorical embellishments.

According to Engels, Machiavelli was “the first notable military author of modern times” (in K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed. vol. 20, p. 346). In the treatise The Art of War (1521; Russian translation, 1936) he sharply criticized the system of mercenary armies, which were composed, in his opinion, of the dregs of society and which engaged in robbery. He recommended that mercenaries be replaced by standing armies similar to militias, formed on the basis of universal and compulsory military service and completely subordinate to the sovereign. In his opinion, the infantry was the “vital foundation of every army,” and the cavalry should be small but well trained and well equipped. Emphasizing the importance of swords in combat, he underrated firearms, for in his time they had not yet been perfected.

Machiavelli demanded of an army advanced tactical training, coordination, discipline, and the capacity to make rapid maneuvers. He emphasized the importance of the reserves. His views on strategy were inconsistent: at times he considered a decisive battle the chief means for achieving victory; at other times, he stressed starving out the enemy. He borrowed many tenets from Vegetius, often mechanically applying the experience of the army of ancient Rome to a completely different era. Between 1506 and 1510, Machiavelli formed in Florence an unmounted and mounted 20,000-man militia, whose members wore the same uniform and received systematic combat training. In 1512 this militia was routed by the professional Spanish Army.

In 1559 the Catholic Church put Machiavelli’s works on the Index of Forbidden Books.


Opere. Milan-Naples, 1954.
In Russian translation:
Soch., vol. 1. Moscow-Leningrad, 1934.


Villari, P. N. Makiavelli i ego vremia, vol. 1. Moscow, 1914. (Translated from Italian.)
Gramschi, A. Izbr. proizv., vol. 3. Moscow, 1959. Pages 111-29, 159-61. (Translated from Italian.)
Vainshtein, O. L. Zapadno-evropeiskaia srednevekovaia istoriografiia. Moscow-Leningrad, 1964. Pages 276-86.
De Sanctis, F. Istoriia ital’ianskoi literatury, vol. 2. Moscow, 1964. Pages 70-146. (Translated from Italian.)
Strokov, A. A. Istoriia voennogo iskusstva, vol. 1. Moscow, 1955. Pages 337-40.
Rutenburg, V. I. “Zhizn’ i tvorchestvo N. Mak’iavelli.” In Mak’iavelli, N., Istoriia Florentsii. Leningrad, 1973. (Translated from Italian.) Pulver, J. Machiavelli. … London, 1937.
Ridolfi, R. Vita di N. Machiavelli, 2nd ed. Rome, 1954.
Malarczyk, J. U zródet wloskiego realizmu politycznego. Machiavelli i Guicciardini. Lublin, 1963.
Chabod, F. Scritti su Machiavelli. Turin, 1964.
Sasso, G. Studi su Machiavelli. [Naples, 1967.]
Whitfield, J. Discourses on Machiavelli. Cambridge (England), 1969.
Balaci, A. Niccolo Machiavelli. [Bucharest, 1969.]
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.