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

Terms with Special Meaning in the The Prince


By a republic Niccolò does not mean simply a representative form of government.  In the context of his time, the term had a special meaning. The received wisdom was that there were three basic forms of government: monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, but in their pure formn, one of these three were thought to be stable.

“For a Monarchy readily becomes a Tyranny, an Aristocracy an Oligarchy, while a Democracy tends to degenerate into Anarchy” - Discourses, Book I, Chapter II

A republic was supposed to be a hybrid form of government that combined all three elements and provided an institution to represent the forces of the executive, the elite, and the people.  The people, as Niccolò would have understood it, includes not all adults, but citizens, free men who were qualified (usually because they owned property) to participate in government.


Niccolò uses the term that is usually translated as virtue in both its classical (Roman) sense (meaning valorous or effective as a man) and its newer (Christian) sense (meaning moral). In its classical sense, the term is related the Latin term for man, vir (as in virile, or manly. The wise men of classical times thought of procreation as process in which an active, male element, fashioned a child inside a passive, female element. The male element impressed a form on the passive matter of the female element in the way that a sculptor actively impresses a form on the passive material, e.g., clay.

Virtue in this sense is that active principle that makes the product an excellent example of its type or form. We know that the biological assumptions behind the classical sense of the term “virtue” are mistaken. Nevertheless, Niccolò did think that the classical sense of the term was important. In particular, he thought that the role of the prince was similar to the role of a sculptor. He thought that is was the job of the prince to impose a form (or organization) on the state and that the prince should be judged, in the way that we would judge a sculptor, by how effective he was in producing a good product. That is, a prince should be judged by the ends as well as the means.

When he uses the term virtue (la virtù) in its classical sense, our translator W. K. Marriott, will sometimes translate la virtù as ability. Machiavelli contrasts virtue in the sense of ability with fortune (la fortuna). For example, in Chapter 1, Machiavelli says:

Such [new] dominions thus acquired are either accustomed to live under a prince, or to live in freedom; and are acquired either by the arms of the prince himself, or of others, or else by fortune or by ability [la virtù].
For matters of translation, I am relying on the Leo Paul S. de Alvarez.

With the rise of Christian theology, the term virtue took on its present moralistic meaning. That is, the ends are irrelevant so long is the means do not violate church-sanctioned rules. An act can be virtuous, in the rule-following sense, even if its issue is monstrous and makes everyone miserable. For example, according to the Catholic Church of our day, scientific research is virtuous (moral) if does not destroy any human embryos, regardless of the good that may follow from the research or the misery that may follow from our lack of medical cures that might have resulted from the research.

Niccolò puts some shock value into his writing by using the term “virtue” in both its classical and in its Christian, moralistic sense. This allows Niccolò to keep the contradictions between the classical sense of virtue (as effectiveness) and the modern sense (as following the rules) constantly in view. Following the rules may make you ineffective and to be effective, you may have to break the rules.


In Machiavelli’s Italy mercenary soldiers were of a very particular sort, known as condottieri.  These contractors (a condotta is a contract), were unusual in two respects.

First, unlike current military contractors, condottieri were not typically residents of their employer’s state or even residents of an allied state.  They could and did work both for a state and for its enemies. Second, whereas a modern military uses contractors to supplement its forces (and usually not in combat roles), Italian Renaissance states relied totally on condottieri for its entire army. 

Using condottieri was thought advantageous on either economic or political grounds.  In theory, these troops were more cost effective than a professional army because they had to be paid only during conflict.  However, in practice, these contractors often demanded retainers to prevent them from contracting themselves to an enemy.  Condottieri were also thought to be politically more prudent than a standing army in states that were so oppressive that they could not risk arming their own citizens.