Niccolo Machiavelli was born in Florence on May 3, 1469 as the son of a legal official. After receiving
an education that allowed him to cultivate a good grasp of the Latin and Italian classics he entered government service
as a clerk in 1494. This was at a time of a downfall of the power of the Medici family which had ruled in
Florence for some sixty years previously.
When the Florentine Republic was proclaimed in 1498 Machiavelli rose to prominence as secretary of a ten-man
council that was entrusted with conducting the diplomatic negotiations and supervising the military operations of the
state. From 1499-1512 his duties included many
diplomatic missions within the Italian peninsula and to the
French, Papal and Habsburg courts. In the course of his diplomatic missions within Italy he became
acquainted with the political tactics of many Italian rulers. In late 1502 and into
1503 Machiavelli became familiar with the effective statebuilding methods of the ecclesiastic and soldier Cesare
Borgia, who was at that time engaged in enlarging his holdings in central Italy through a mixture of audacity, prudence,
self-reliance, firmness and not infrequent cruelty.
From 1503 to 1506 Machiavelli was charged with a reorganization of the military defense of the
republic of Florence. Although mercenary armies, in the form of condottieri bands, were common during this period,
Machiavelli greatly distrusted their capacity for loyalty and preferred to rely on the conscription of a
soldiery native to the republic. This preference having been largely inspired by the writings of Livy about the
citizen armies of ancient Rome.
In August 1512, in association with developments contingent upon the rivalry between Spain and France in their
competing involvements in the Italian Peninsula, the Medici regained power in Florence and the
republic was dissolved, Machiavelli as a key figure in the former, and presumably anti-Medici, administration was
deprived of office in November. In the spring of 1513 he was placed on the torture rack under suspicion of
involvement in conspiracy. After his release he retired to his
estate at San Casciano near Florence, where he wrote his most important works. Despite his attempts to gain favour
with the Medici rulers, he was never restored to a government position.
He died in Florence on June 21, 1527.
Machiavelli's most famous work,
The Prince, was written in 1513 but only published after his death (1532; trans. 1640) It describes the often
crafty, cunning and unscrupulous methods by which a prince can acquire and
maintain political power. The work immediately provoked controversy and was soon condemned by
Pope Clement VIII.
This study is based on Machiavelli's belief that a ruler is not constrained by traditional ethical norms.
In his view, a prince should be concerned only with power and be bound only by rules that would lead to success in
During Machiavelli's life the Italian peninsula was a scene of intense political conflict involving the dominant city
- states of Florence, Milan, Venice, and Naples, plus the Papacy, France, Spain, and the Holy Roman
Empire. Each city attempted to protect itself by playing the larger powers off against each other.
The result was massive political intrigue, blackmail, and violence. The Prince was written against
this backdrop, and in its conclusion Machiavelli issued an impassioned call for Italian unity, and
an end to foreign intervention.
In 1810, a letter by Machiavelli was discovered in which he reveals
that he wrote The Prince in efforts to endear himself to the ruling Medici family in Florence. To liberate Italia
from the influence of foreign governments, Machiavelli explains that strong indigenous governments are
important, even if they are absolutist.