Summary and Analysis
A prince must avoid becoming hated or despised. Taking the property or the women of his subjects will make him hated. Being frivolous, indecisive, and effeminate will make him despised. All a prince's actions should show seriousness, strength, and decisiveness. The best defense against internal threats such as conspiracy is to be neither hated nor despised. If a conspirator thinks that killing the prince will enrage the people, he will think twice.
Wise princes are careful not to antagonize the nobles and to keep the people happy. In France, the parliament restrains the ambition of the nobles and favors the people, without directly involving the king, so that he cannot be accused of favoritism. Princes should let others do the unpleasant tasks, doing for themselves what will make them look good.
Some people may object that the careers of the Roman emperors go against this argument, because many of them were greatly admired, yet were still assassinated. This is because they had to deal with their soldiers, and they could not satisfy both the soldiers, who wanted warlike leaders, and the people, who wanted peace. Marcus, Pertinax, and Alexander were all compassionate and just, but only Marcus escaped assassination, because he was a hereditary ruler and did not owe his power to the army. Commodus, Severus, Antoninus, and Maximinus were all cruel and greedy, and only Severus escaped assassination, because he was so cunning and ruthless, and because he kept up a splendid reputation. But in Machiavelli's time, princes do not have the same need to satisfy their armies, because armies are not used to being together for long periods and controlling whole provinces, the way Roman armies were. Instead, princes should satisfy the people, who are more powerful.
Conspiracy and assassination occupy Machiavelli's attention in this chapter. The best way to avoid these dangers is to avoid being hated or despised by one's subjects. (By despised, Machiavelli means to be held in contempt or to be regarded with no respect.) In the state, there are two main groups the prince must court: the nobles and the people, a theme pulled from Chapter 9. Although a prince must not alienate the nobles, he must win over the people, because they are the majority, and their ill will can cost a prince his place and his life. Hated and despised princes are targets for assassination, because assassins conclude that the people will support killing the ruler.
Plots such as these were a real concern for Renaissance rulers. Machiavelli offers as an example the 1445 assassination of Annibale Bentivoglio, ruler of Bologna, noting that popular support enabled the family to keep their power despite their desperate situation after the assassination. In Machiavelli's own lifetime, in Florence in 1478, the Pazzi conspiracy against the Medici had resulted in the injury of Lorenzo the Magnificent and the death of Lorenzo's brother. In both cases the assassins were from rival powerful families; they were not disgruntled subjects. As if acknowledging this, Machiavelli observes that there is no real defense against a determined assassin, because anyone who is not afraid to die can kill a ruler. Nonetheless, he maintains that popular support is the best prevention.
About balancing the conflicting demands of the people and the nobles, Machiavelli offers the interesting example of France's parliamentary government, which allowed participation by both the aristocracy and the commoners. Rather than presenting it as a democratic innovation, he offers it as a way of increasing the absolute ruler's power, taking pressure off of the prince by putting competing interests into a neutral forum—in effect, giving unpleasant tasks to others so they do not damage the prince's popularity.
In the midst of his argument, Machiavelli embarks on a long digression about the many Roman emperors, good and bad, who were assassinated. He concludes that most of them were undone by their powerful and bloodthirsty armies, a problem that the princes of Machiavelli's time need not worry about. His more interesting observation, which is somewhat lost in his analysis, is that nearly all of the rulers were killed regardless of their qualities and actions. Some did one thing and others did the opposite, but all came to basically the same end. The key to their success or failure is whether they adapted their actions to their times and political circumstances. This theme reappears in Chapter 25, where Machiavelli discusses the effect of fortune on human affairs.
Marcus Marcus Aurelius (161-180), called "the Philosopher;" one of the most respected of the Roman emperors.
Commodus (161-192), oldest son of Marcus Aurelius. Noted as an enthusiast for gladiator and wild animal games in the Coliseum. Assassinated by a group of conspirators.
Pertinax (126-193). After Commodus was assassinated, Pertinax was proclaimed emperor by the praetorian guard, but was assassinated three months later by rebellious soldiers.
Julianus (died 193) After the assassination of Pertinax, Julianus bought the office of emperor from the praetorian guard, but was assassinated by order of the Senate two months later.
Severus Septimius Severus (145-211). Proclaimed emperor by the Senate. Overcame claims to the throne by Pescennius Niger and Clodius Albinus. He died while on a military campaign in England.
Antoninus Caracalla Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (188-217), called Caracalla. Oldest son of Septimius Severus. He was killed by the prefect of the praetorian guard, Macrinus.
Macrinus Marcus Opellius Severus (circa 164-218) spent all of his brief reign on military campaigns in Asia. He was executed by his opponents.
Heliogabalus also called Elagabalus (circa 204-225), Heliogabalus was killed by the praetorian guard.
Alexander Marcus Aurelius Severus Alexander (208-235). Succeeded his cousin Heliogabalus. Killed by rebellious soldiers in Gaul.
Maximinus (died 238) named emperor by the army after Alexander Severus was killed. Subsequently killed by his own troops.