Machiavelli’s Perspectives on the Relationship between a Prince and his Army

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Civil-military relations in The Prince are marked by collaboration between the prince [or statesman] and his army; the prince must make sure to retain the respect and admiration of his soldiers, who he shall command to defend the principality and lay siege to the towns of adversaries. However, this is not a partnership of equals. The military is a tool that may be utilized for the acquisition of political power by princes who hope to upend a state’s existing political structure or by princes who hope to consolidate their power; soldiers may be jettisoned by princes who deem that the tactical value they provide is no longer commensurate with their political aims. This notion is evident in Machiavelli’s discussion of soldiers and their utility to an enterprising prince. He posits that a prince may defend his state with his own army, the support of a mercenary army, an auxiliary army, or some combination of these; mercenary and auxiliary armies are pesky and are unlikely to be loyal to the prince’s regime forasmuch as they lack the unity of spirit and the discipline necessary to act in a manner that is faithful to the prince’s aims.

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Mercenaries and auxiliaries are disloyal, Machiavelli writes, because their services have been retained through the payment of a stipend and they have no real motivation to sacrifice themselves in service of the prince’s agenda. This notion illuminates Machiavelli’s realist views on the treatment of soldiers and the chief objective of the army; the army exists to do the bidding of the statesman, and casualties are justified inasmuch as they advance his aims. A prince must remain cognizant of the designs of mercenary and auxiliary troops and leverage them prudently. When the emperor of Constantinople leveraged auxiliary support to antagonize the Greeks, the result was the eventual relinquishment of his control over those soldiers forasmuch as they were in thrall to another leader and thus had no incentive to obey the emperor. Thus, a prince must consider not only what an army might accomplish, but whether or not that army might one day challenge the prince’s authority. For Machiavelli, the means by which an army’s support was acquired carries dire implications for its ability to imperil the prince’s political position. He writes that laziness is a vice in dealing with mercenaries because they are not united when their support is bought and a failure to dispose of them swiftly will be ruinous for the prince, and virtue is an impediment in dealing with auxiliary arms because an unsuspecting prince’s faith in such an army will later be exploited.

Inasmuch as virtue and laziness are to be considered ineffectual in a prince’s efforts to administer foreign armies, the prince must value another skill in his dealings with these groups. He must recognize the utility of politically expedient decision-making and be willing to employ cruelty to achieve his ends. When the unison and faith of the populace, military or otherwise, are in question, a prince should not care about the infamy of cruelty, writes Machiavelli.

Expedience lies at the heart of Machiavelli’s realism and he alludes to it in his assessment of Cesare Borgia’s treatment of auxiliary armies. He writes that Cesare entered Romagna with auxiliary arms and leveraged their capabilities to conquer Imola and Forl? he later acquired the support of mercenaries, the Orsini and Vitelli, and upon discovery of their seditiousness, assassinated them. In Machiavelli’s view, whilst Cesare’s expedient leadership and willingness to readily eliminate threats to his authority enabled him to consolidate power in Italy, he was never more respected than when the populace observed that he was the commander of his own army. In such a fashion, an army comprised of a statesman’s own men enacts a dual-function in bolstering the statesman’s mandate and wherewithal to rule. For one, an army owned and commanded solely by the prince ensures that the prince’s directives shall be executed faithfully and judiciously; moreover, citizens, as the aforementioned evidence has shown, could be more likely to accept a new prince’s role as the administrator of the state and a fiduciary of their interests if they saw that he commanded his own army. Hiero of Syracuse, in Machiavelli’s view, represents another exemplar of expedient leadership. He writes that when he was made the leader of the army by the Syracusans, he suspected that the military would fail to serve his aims due to a lack of fealty to his agenda and elected to eliminate them and procure an army of his own. The employment of cruelty, as the foregoing cases have indicated, was necessary for the preservation of authority over subjects whose fealty would bolster the stability of the prince’s reign.

The equation of expedient decision-making to virtue is central to the articulation of Machiavelli’s realism. Machiavelli, in describing the reign of Hannibal and his treatment of soldiers, comments on the leader’s expedient employment of cruelty as crucial to his success as a commander; he first posits that no prince can unite and command his forces if he preoccupies himself with an aversion to cruelty. The lack of opposition to Hannibal’s reign by his large and diverse army may be attributed to his cruelty, which always made him venerable and terrible in the sight of his soldiers. In this way, it is posited that Hannibal’s cruelty was justified insofar as it enabled him to retain control of his armies and conquer foreign lands without encountering subterfuge.

Machiavelli’s perspectives on the relationship between a prince and his army illuminate his criticism of the idealist position. The evidence has shown that for Machiavelli’s prince, soldiers exist merely as an appendage of the state, to satisfy the prince’s political objectives. While having one’s own army is preferable to using mercenary and auxiliary armies, the latter armies can still be used to consolidate political power and then eliminated when it is determined that they may no longer be relied upon. Thus, it may be argued that Machiavelli’s prince should not preoccupy himself with enabling soldiers to strive for goodness. They are tools to be exploited in the pursuit of power and it is important for the prince to engage in posturing to curry their favor when necessary; Severus, for instance, was able to rule without significant challenges because he was viewed as admirable in the eyes of his soldiers and satisfied them. Hiero of Syracuse, contrarily, resorted to violence to gain control of his armies and instill reverence for his rule in the eyes of his servicemen. Machiavelli’s realist view does not see men as capable or deserving of empowerment and trust; he writes that men are ungrateful, fickle, pretenders and dissemblers, and eager for gain.

For this reason, a prince must not hesitate to be cruel and ought to be willing to manipulate his men to deter internal strife. Machiavelli’s realism is rooted in a utilitarian calculus that rewards expediency above naivete; he writes that a prince will win praise by working to achieve his ends because men value appearances and artifice. It may be argued that Machiavelli’s beliefs align closely with Mearsheimer’s contemporary realism. Mearsheimer holds that states make decisions with security and survival as their highest goals; uncertain of the intentions their rivals and fearful of being subjugated by aggressors, states endeavor to develop offensive military capabilities and alliances with willing collaborators to ensure their safety. Machiavelli’s prince behaves in a similar manner by utilizing the military as the vessel for his expansionist, security-focused aims. His relationship with soldiers is one marked by exploitation and manipulation because he is the sole decision-maker.

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Machiavelli's Perspectives on the Relationship Between a Prince and his Army. (2019, Oct 30). Retrieved August 16, 2022 , from
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