The Annotated Prince - The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli with notes by Gene Gessert

Chapter 12: How Many Kinds of Soldiery There Are, and Concerning Mercenaries

Having discoursed particularly on the characteristics of such principalities as in the beginning I proposed to discuss, and having considered in some degree the causes of their being good or bad, and having shown the methods by which many have sought to acquire them and to hold them, it now remains for me to discuss generally the means of offence and defense which belong to each of them.

We have seen above how necessary it is for a prince to have his foundations well laid, otherwise it follows of necessity he will go to ruin. The chief foundations of all states, new as well as old or composite, are good laws and good arms; and as there cannot be good laws where the state is not well armed, it follows that where they are well armed they have good laws. I shall leave the laws out of the discussion and shall speak of the arms.

I say, therefore, that the arms with which a prince defends his state are either his own, or they are mercenaries, auxiliaries, or mixed. Mercenaries and auxiliaries are useless and dangerous; and if one holds his state based on these arms, he will stand neither firm nor safe; for they are disunited, ambitious, and without discipline, unfaithful, valiant before friends, cowardly before enemies; they have neither the fear of God nor fidelity to men, and destruction is deferred only so long as the attack is; for in peace one is robbed by them, and in war by the enemy. The fact is, they have no other attraction or reason for keeping the field than a trifle of stipend, which is not sufficient to make them willing to die for you. They are ready enough to be your soldiers whilst you do not make war, but if war comes they take themselves off or run from the foe; which I should have little trouble to prove, for the ruin of Italy has been caused by nothing else than by resting all her hopes for many years on mercenaries, and although they formerly made some display and appeared valiant amongst themselves, yet when the foreigners came they showed what they were. Thus it was that Charles, King of France, was allowed to seize Italy with ; and told the truth, but they were not the sins he imagined, but those which I have related. And as they were the sins of princes, it is the princes who have also suffered the penalty.

The phrase "With chalk in hand" refers to the practice of a quartermaster or a conquering army marking with chalk those buildings that he requisitioned for billeting his troops.
“He who told us that our sins were the cause of it” was Girolamo Savonarola, the unarmed prophet. Fra Girolamo formed the idea that God was talking to him. God had said that if the Florentines did not stop their excessive sinning, he would send the French to smite them. In Savonarola’s view the sin was loose living, especially: secular art, gay and lesbian sex, gambling, and immodest dress. In Machiavelli’s view the sin was the use of mercenaries.

I wish to demonstrate further the infelicity of these arms. The mercenary captains are either capable men or they are not; if they are, you cannot trust them, because they always aspire to their own greatness, either by oppressing you, who are their master, or others contrary to your intentions; but if the captain is not skillful, you are ruined in the usual way.

And if it be urged that whoever is armed will act in the same way, whether mercenary or not, I reply that when arms have to be resorted to, either by a prince or a republic, then the prince ought to go in person and perform the duty of a captain; the republic has to send its citizens, and when one is sent who does not turn out satisfactorily, it ought to recall him, and when one is worthy, to hold him by the laws so that he does not leave the command. And experience has shown princes and republics, single-handed, making the greatest progress, and mercenaries doing nothing except damage; and it is more difficult to bring a republic, armed with its own arms, under the sway of one of its citizens than it is to bring one armed with foreign arms. Rome and Sparta stood for many ages armed and free. The Swiss are completely armed and quite free.

Of ancient mercenaries, for example, there are the Carthaginians, who were oppressed by their mercenary soldiers after the first war with the Romans, although the Carthaginians had their own citizens for captains. After the death of Epaminondas, Philip of Macedon was made captain of their soldiers by the Thebans, and after victory he took away their liberty.

Duke Filippo being dead, the Milanese enlisted Francesco Sforza against the Venetians, and he, having overcome the enemy at , allied himself with them to crush the Milanese, his masters. , having been engaged by Queen Johanna of Naples, left her unprotected, so that she was forced to throw herself into the arms of the King of Aragon, in order to save her kingdom.

Francesco Sforza’s father was Muzio Attendolo Sforza (1369 – 1424).  He was often opposed by rival condottiero, Braccio da Montone (1368 – 1424), who had been Francesco’s friend when they served together in Alberico da Barbiano’s "Company of St. George.”  While they often served on opposite sides, their personal relationship seems never to have been less then cordial.  The two rivals gave their names to competing schools of mercenary practice: the Sforzeschi and Bracceschi. See Alvarez p 72, note 12 and p 79, note 20.
The Battle of Caravaggio (1448) was an incident in the wars of the Milanese Succession in which Milan (then the Ambrosian Republic) hired the mercenary captain Francesco Sforza to battle Venice. Sforza quickly turned on Milan and in the following year, made a separate peace with Venice. Then with Venetian aid, he besieged Milan with the aim of making himself Duke. Milan capitulated in the following year. In 1454, he signed the Peace of Lodi with Venice and the international community ratified his possession of the Duchy by the Treaty of Venice and by the forming of the Most Holy League. Johanna II was the last of the Angevin rulers of Naples (the sister of the King).

And if the Venetians and Florentines formerly extended their dominions by these arms, and yet their captains did not make themselves princes, but have defended them, I reply that the Florentines in this case have been favored by chance, for of the able captains, of whom they might have stood in fear, some have not conquered, some have been opposed, and others have turned their ambitions elsewhere. One who did not conquer was , and since he did not conquer his fidelity cannot be proved; but everyone will acknowledge that, had he conquered, the Florentines would have stood at his discretion. Sforza had the Bracceschi always against him, so they watched each other. Francesco turned his ambition to Lombardy; Braccio against the Church and the kingdom of Naples.

Giovanni Acuto was an English mercenary, Sir John Hawkwood. Florence employed him in the war with Gian Galeazzo Visconti of Milan.

But let us come to that which happened a short while ago. The Florentines appointed as their captain , a most prudent man, who from a private position had risen to the greatest renown. If this man had taken Pisa, nobody can deny that it would have been proper for the Florentines to keep in with him, for if he became the soldier of their enemies they had no means of resisting, and if they held to him they must obey him.

Here Machiavelli is referring to the incident where Florence employed Paolo Vitelli as the city’s general in its war to recover Pisa, which Florence had lost during the invasion of Charles VIII. The war progressed so badly that the Florentines suspected Paolo of having colluded with Pisa.  Machiavelli was Secretary of the war council at the time, and may have drafted the order of execution.

The Venetians, if their achievements are considered, will be seen to have acted safely and gloriously so long as they sent to war their own men, when with armed gentlemen and plebeians they did valiantly. This was before they turned to enterprises on land, but when they began to fight on land they forsook this virtue and followed the custom of Italy. And in the beginning of their expansion on land, as a result of not having much territory, and because of their great reputation, they had not much to fear from their captains; but when they expanded, as under Carmignuola, they had a taste of this mistake; for, having found him a most valiant man (they beat the Duke of Milan under his leadership), and, on the other hand, knowing how lukewarm he was in the war, they feared they would no longer conquer under him, and for this reason they were not willing, nor were they able, to let him go; and so, not to lose again that which they had acquired, they were compelled, in order to secure themselves, to murder him. They had afterwards for their captains Bartolomeo da Bergamo, Roberto da San Severino, the count of Pitigliano, and the like, under whom they had to dread loss and not gain, as happened afterwards at Vaila , where in one battle they lost that which in eight hundred years they had acquired with so much trouble. Because from such arms conquests come but slowly, long delayed and inconsiderable, but the losses sudden and portentous.

This was a decisive battle (in April 1509) in the League of Cambri War against Venice.  In this war, Pope Julius II organized a coalition with France, the Holy Roman Empire and Aragon which was to attack Venice, strip it of its territories, and distribute them among the members of the League.

And as with these examples I have reached Italy, which has been ruled for many years by mercenaries, I wish to discuss them more seriously, in order that, having seen their rise and progress, one may be better prepared to counteract them. You must understand that the empire has recently come to be repudiated in Italy, that the Pope has acquired more temporal power, and that Italy has been divided up into more states, for the reason that many of the great cities took up arms against their nobles, who, formerly favored by the emperor, were oppressing them, whilst the Church was favoring them so as to gain authority in temporal power: in many others their citizens became princes. From this it came to pass that Italy fell partly into the hands of the Church and of republics, and, the Church consisting of priests and the republic of citizens unaccustomed to arms, both commenced to enlist foreigners.

The first who gave renown to this soldiery was Alberigo da Conio, the Romagnian. From the school of this man sprang, among others, Braccio and Sforza, who in their time were the arbiters of Italy. After these came all the other captains who till now have directed the arms of Italy; and the end of all their valor has been, that she has been overrun by Charles, robbed by Louis, ravaged by Ferdinand, and insulted by the Swiss. The principle that has guided them has been, first, to lower the credit of infantry so that they might increase their own. They did this because, subsisting on their pay and without territory, they were unable to support many soldiers, and a few infantry did not give them any authority; so they were led to employ cavalry, with a moderate force of which they were maintained and honored; and affairs were brought to such a pass that, in an army of twenty thousand soldiers, there were not to be found two thousand foot soldiers. They had, besides this, used every art to lessen fatigue and danger to themselves and their soldiers, not killing in the fray, but taking prisoners and liberating without ransom. They did not attack towns at night, nor did the garrisons of the towns attack encampments at night; they did not surround the camp either with stockade or ditch, nor did they campaign in the winter. All these things were permitted by their military rules, and devised by them to avoid, as I have said, both fatigue and dangers; thus they have brought Italy to slavery and contempt.

Painting of a condottieri battle by Paolo Uccello

Painting by Paolo Uccello celebrating the Battle of Sant’Egidio at which Braccio da Montone conquered Perugia.  Attribution: Paolo Uccello [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Condottieri: the Italian Institution of Mercenary Free Companies

In this chapter and the next Machiavelli considers armies of four types and how they rank in relative utility.  He considers mercenaries and auxiliaries to be net harmful; so his ranking, from best to worst, would be as follows:

  • Your own, i.e. Native troops.
  • Mixed, i.e. native troops supplemented by mercenaries.
  • Mercenaries, i.e. condottieri (see below).
  • Auxiliaries, i.e. troops supplied by a powerful outsider.

Machiavelli’s low opinion of mercenaries is colored by local circumstances.

  • Niccolò analyzes policy questions with respect to the Roman Republic, which he considers the closest practical example of a model state.  In its long conflict with Carthage, Rome used its own troops or those of its allies, whereas its rival, Carthage relied on mercenaries. Rome was careful to retain control; when it used troops from its Italian allies, they were invariably under Roman leadership. Even then mercenaries could pose a problem to their employers.  After the first Punic war its mercenaries rioted in Carthage and threatened to overturn the state. 
  • When Machiavelli speaks of mercenaries he is referring to a particular species that was native to Italy during the late middle ages and Renaissance.  These were the condottieri (literally contractors).  Unlike modern military contractors, such as Blackwater, these companies did not work for one country only.  Rather, condottieri were princes of small states that maintained an army and hired out to larger states.  They might in a short period of time work for opposing sides in the same conflict. In addition, Renaissance princes tended to rely exclusively on condottieri because they were afraid to arm their own citizens.  
  • When Charles VII invaded Italy to assert his claim to Naples, he used a mixed force of French cavalry and artillery supplemented by Swiss infantry, but as in the Roman model, under French leadership.  Charles forces crushed the Italian mercenaries in every encounter, and took position of Naples so quickly that the Italians were not just defeated but humiliated and embarrassed.

Machiavelli contends the condottieri have two decisive disadvantages:

  • Poor performance, i.e. they are not nearly as effective as they could be given the resources at their disposal.  This, Machiavelli thinks, is because condottieri have their own interests (such as preserving their personnel and equipment), which often conflicts with that of their employer.  The examples of Rome versus Carthage and Charles versus Naples, he took as decisive evidence of the weakness of mercenaries.
  • Threat to their employer, i.e. they may use their military presence to stage a coup and take over their client’s state.  The prototype example is, Francesco’s seizure of Milan.   This Machiavelli believes is a most likely outcome unless the condottiero:
    • Fails to conquer, as in the case of Giovanni Acuto, Sir John Hawkwood.
    • Is opposed by another equally powerful condottiero, as was the case with Muzio Attendolo Sforza (1369 – 1424) and Braccio da Montone (1368 – 1424).
    • Or simply turns his ambitions elsewhere.