Summary and Analysis Chapter 8



Continuing his theme from Chapter 7, Machiavelli discusses two other ways to becoming a prince: by criminal means or when private citizens choose a ruler from their fellow citizens. Machiavelli declines to discuss the first method at length, because it speaks for itself. Agathocles was wicked, but through his great energy became a military commander in Syracuse. In order to become ruler, he called the Senate and the leading citizens together for a meeting, and then massacred them. His ability made him a prince, but such conduct cannot be called virtuous. One can get power this way, but not glory. For example, Oliverotto of Fermo became a military commander and plotted with a few leading citizens to take over the city. His uncle arranged a lavish banquet to welcome him. On a prearranged signal, Oliverotto and his soldiers killed all the guests, including his uncle, and then terrorized the city into obedience. He was only removed from power when Cesare Borgia had him murdered at Senigallia.

Cruel acts, though evil, may be justified when they are done all at once to establish a prince's power (but not repeated) and turned to the benefit of his subjects. Cruel acts are done badly when they increase over time. A conqueror should decide how many injuries he must inflict up front and do them all at once to keep his subjects from constantly resenting them. But benefits should be handed out gradually, so that people savor them. Above all, a prince should live with his subjects in such a way that no good or bad situation can force him to change his conduct.


Many readers have found evidence in this chapter and the previous one for Machiavelli's approval of vicious behavior. Clearly, Machiavelli admires the energy and ability (virtù) of men like Agathocles, but he is careful to qualify his approval. He says that it cannot be called "virtue" (and here he uses the same word, virtù) for a prince to be devoid of conscience. Criminal acts may give a prince power, but they cannot place him among the truly great rulers of history, whose acts are to be admired and imitated. However, it is difficult to reconcile Machiavelli's criticism of Agathocles and Oliverotto with his glowing admiration of Cesare Borgia, particularly when all three employed the same tactic of inviting their opponents to a supposedly friendly setting and then murdering them. Oliverotto, in fact, foolishly fell for this ploy after using it himself, having been betrayed by a better betrayer, namely Borgia.

At this point in the argument, Machiavelli the moralist steps away, and Machiavelli the coolly rational observer of politics returns. How is it, he asks, that criminals like this stay securely in power when many leaders who have done much less evil cannot keep their positions? He replies that even evil acts may be put to good use if they are handled properly. Evils done in the beginning, to secure the new state and to establish orderly government and not made into a habit may be excusable, even in Agathocles' case—a striking observation, because Machiavelli had previously called him devoid of truth, pity, or religion. This may explain why he can approve of Borgia but nominally condemn Agathocles and Oliverotto: He views Borgia as a bringer of order and unity to a divided and suffering Italy. As long as evils are turned as quickly as possible to benefits for one's subjects, they can be forgiven, because, as Machiavelli has already observed, it is impossible for conquerors to avoid injuring some of their subjects at first. There are other practical reasons to avoid terrorizing one's subjects, for if a prince abuses them constantly, he will never be able to rely on their support, a point to which Machiavelli returns in the next chapter.

While Machiavelli does not exactly advocate criminal acts, neither does he oppose them, as long as they achieve the desired goal. If one chooses not to call this stance immoral, it is at least amoral; that is, not concerned with the moral value of an action. The philosophy of "the end justifies the means" has often been associated with Machiavelli and is easily subject to abuses in the name of progress.


Agathocles (circa 361-289 B.C.), King of Syracuse. Exiled from Syracuse because of his power and popularity, he was able to return through the intervention of Hamilcar, leader of the Syracusan's allies, the Carthaginians. A military coup followed in which Agathocles killed or banished the oligarchy that had ruled the city. Machiavelli summarizes Agathocles' long campaigns against the Carthaginians.

Oliverotto da Fermo (circa 1475-1503). Machiavelli accurately describes how he seized power. Soon after, he joined a conspiracy of Cesare Borgia's captains to try to limit Borgia's growing power. This group included Vitellozzo Vitelli, the brother of Oliverotto's mentor, Paolo Vitelli. Pretending to be reconciled with them, Borgia lured the conspirators to a meeting at Senigallia, where he had them killed.