Summary and Analysis Chapter 12



Having discussed the different types of states in Chapters 2 through 11, Machiavelli now turns to how to attack and defend them. Princes must lay good foundations, and those foundations include good laws and good armies. There cannot be good laws without good armies, and where there are good laws, there must be good arms, so Machiavelli declares he will only discuss arms, not laws.

Arms to defend the state are the prince's own, mercenaries, auxiliaries, or a mix of the three. Mercenaries and auxiliaries are dangerous and unreliable. If a mercenary is talented, he will always be trying to increase his power at the prince's expense. If he is incompetent, he will ruin the prince. Only princes and republics that can field their own armies can succeed, for mercenaries do nothing but lose. Those who are well armed can live free.

Machiavelli sites many examples of mercenaries who have turned on their employers. All this began when the Holy Roman Empire lost power in Italy and the popes gained power. Citizens took up arms against the nobles, and the popes encouraged them. Because neither the citizens nor the popes knew how to fight, they hired mercenaries. Soon mercenaries commanded every army in Italy. These mercenaries adopted strategies that kept them from hard work and danger, and this caused the ruin and humiliation of Italy.


This chapter and the two following concern arms and armies. It is tempting to interpret Machiavelli's quotable line that there cannot be good laws without good arms as just a variation on "might makes right," but this was probably not his intent. Because force is an inseparable part of the state, a well-governed state needs a good army. If the reader interprets "good laws" not in the strict legal sense, but as the conditions that make for orderly life in society, Machiavelli's observation loses some of its radical edge. Even in the modern world, the state that does not rely on police or military force to keep order and protect its citizens is rare indeed. Machiavelli further observes that where there are good arms there must be good laws, meaning that a ruler who is capable enough to raise and command a disciplined army must also be capable enough to keep his state well ordered.

Equally important is what Machiavelli chooses not to discuss. Just as in Chapter 1, where he declined to discuss republics, here he declines to discuss laws, confining himself to a prince's command of the military. However, the world he describes is clearly one of cutthroat competition and violence, in which only the well armed can live free. In such a world, the weak will quickly be exploited by the strong unless they can defend themselves.

"Good arms," in Machiavelli's view, can be only the state's own troops; that is, its own citizens, rather than outsiders. Keeping with his view that independence and self-sufficiency are the only security, Machiavelli asserts that dependence on foreign troops is the kiss of death to a prince's power. He had good reasons to think so, having observed the widespread use of foreign mercenaries in Italy and what he felt were its disastrous consequences. He blamed the mercenaries for lacking the spirit of soldiers who were defending their own lands and homes. In his opinion, the mercenaries were lazy, looking only for the easiest way to get their money, regardless of whether this benefited the state that employed them. They were also untrustworthy, because if they worked for a prince's money, they were probably just as willing to work for the prince's opponent.

Notice also Machiavelli's characteristic assessment of human selfishness: If you hire a talented mercenary who is successful, you will never be safe, because he will want to take over your position.

Mercenaries were common in the Renaissance. Ironically, the most famous were the Italian condottieri, sophisticated professional soldiers who spent their lives serving various employers. Criticism of them was commonplace and not necessarily always deserved, because many of them were highly successful and loyal to their employers' interests. Both foreign and Italian mercenaries participated in Italian warfare.


chalk Alexander VI supposedly remarked that Charles VIII of France was able to conquer Italy with a piece of chalk, simply by marking the doors of houses in order to claim them as quarters for his soldiers.

sins Savonarola interpreted the foreign invasions as punishment for Italian sinfulness, but Machiavelli says that the only sin involved was that of relying on mercenaries.

Carthage ancient city-state in northern Africa, founded by Phonecians near the site of modern Tunis and destroyed by Romans, rebuilt by Romans, and destroyed by Arabs.

Epaminondas a famous Theban general. Philip II of Macedon (382-336 B.C.) was not a mercenary but an ally of the Thebans.

Duke Filippo Filippo Maria Visconti (1392-1447), Duke of Milan. Francesco Sforza's rise to power in Milan is described in Chapter 2.

Queen Giovanna Giovanna II of Naples (1371-1435). The incident referred to involved a dispute between Giovanna and Muzio Attendolo Sforza (1369-1424). Sforza supported Louis III of Anjou as Giovanna's successor, while she favored Alfonso V, King of Aragon.

John Hawkwood (circa 1320-1394), also called Giovanni Acuto, an English mercenary who spent his career in Italy. Near the end of his life, he worked for the Florentines.

Paolo Vitelli (circa 1459-1499) mercenary leader employed by the Florentines. The Florentine government became suspicious of his conduct in the war against Pisa and had him executed.

Carmagnola Francesco Bussone (1380-1432), Count of Caramagnola, was a mercenary originally employed by the Milanese and dismissed by them. He was then employed by the Venetians, for whom he defeated the Milanese army. The Venetians were suspicious of his relationship with the Milanese and had him executed.

Vailà the city at which the League of Cambrai, including forces of Julius II and Louis XII, defeated the Venetians in 1509.

Empire the Holy Roman Empire, in west-central Europe, comprising the German-speaking peoples and northern Italy.

Alberigo da Cunio Alberigo da Barbiano (1348-1409), Count of Cunio. He founded the Company of St. George, the first company of Italian mercenaries.