Machiavelli’s Belief and Principles of the Civilian Militia

                        (the very incomplete version)


     It is to Machiavelli, imperative that a state maintain two principle features.  That of good laws and good armies.  Good armies are perhaps even more important than good laws, because there cannot be good law if there is no good army to uphold and enforce them.  In much the same way, where there are good armies, good laws will exist.  A principality or a republic must make the discipline of war and that of having good soldiers, one of its top priorities.

       There are two types of armies in this model, hired mercenaries and Citizen militia’s.  Machiavelli believed that a state should always vehemently reject the idea of hired Mercenary soldiers.  In his defense of this statement, Machiavelli points out the disasters that the Italian city-states have faced at the fault of hired Mercenary troops.  In multiple writings on the subject, he explains the principles that make civilian militia a superior force.  So adamantly does Machiavelli stress the foolishness of using Mercenaries, he states that a wise leader would choose rather to lose with his own troops than win with outside forces (The Prince, p52). 

    It was Machiavelli’s scholarly upbringing and what he might have seen as factual proof due to the state of affairs of Florence, may not be so convincing today.  Ironically enough, most historians have concluded that Mercenary soldiers were quite an effective means of



military might.  What were the reasons that made Machiavelli so desperately want a civilian militia instituted in Florence?  So much so that he volunteered himself to help make it happen.

     Many of these biases stem from the state of affairs of Florence during the early 15th century. This was during a time when Machiavelli was secretary and diplomat.  With the kingdoms of Charles (England), Louis (France), and Ferdinand (Spain), all encroaching on the Italian peninsula, defeating city state after city state, the Florentine republic was soon fearing its own demise.  The newly elected pope Julius II was intent on reuniting some of the lost papal states, ready to launch an attack of Florence’s only ally France (and soon enough Florence itself).  The French had pretty much given up on their allies who were unable to provide themselves with a needed victory against Pisa.  Machiavelli blames these military failures of the Italian states solely on the inadequacies of the Mercenary soldiers.  He makes criticism of what he saw as bloodless battles made by soldiers disinterested in little more than the cash they received.  Having no sympathy for Florence, many mutinies occurred on the battlefield, leaving whatever military strategies the Florentines had devised in ruins.  For Machiavelli, it must have seemed that Florence was doomed if under the continued ineffectiveness of Mercenaries.

    With this line of thinking, it is understandable why Machiavelli would have praised Caesar Borgia so highly in The Prince.  Among other things, Cesare Borgia was considered a good ruler by him for distrusting the usage of Mercenary troops over his own.  He quickly eliminated them and replaced them with his own troops.  This was to



Machiavelli a necessary act that all new rulers should follow through with.   A good leader must not rely on fortune and foreign arms for he will become dependent on them.  To raise ones own troops is to make one self-master of the army (Prince, p.53).  Ironically enough it was Cesare Borgia’s reliance on fortune, which lead to his downfall.

     It was the disaster of 1505 where Machiavelli decides to take the matter into his own hands and devise a strategy to recruit civilian troops for a new militia.  The great council accepts the plan and this recruitment takes in December of that year.  To negate any allegiances to any particular city and procure an army more loyal to the whole entity of Tuscany, Machiavelli focuses recruitment largely from the countryside.  The end result was the recruitment of 400 soldiers, which were given  and paraded in the town square.  The spectacle was watched with delight by other supporters of the self-made militia.  Such as Luca Landucci, which called it “the finest thing that had ever been arranged in Florence (Skinner, p.32).”  The great council was convinced and a new government committee The Nine of the Militia was created with Machiavelli being its secretary.  

     Machiavelli never loses his ardor for the militia.  Even long after its terrible failure in 1512, and the fall of the Florentine republic to the Medici’s, it is still written of as the only possible discourse.  We find this in works such as The Prince and The Art of War (1521).  At the end of The Prince is a warning to the Medici’s that Florence must above all else establish its own armies.  The whole of book one in the Art of War, tries to prove the imperviousness of the citizen militia to those that would believe otherwise.  Though



not invincible, they were considered to him, the most powerful form of army that could be contrived by a nation.


Machiavelli’s Humanist Theories which support the Civilian Militia


     Machiavelli’s classical upbringing is also a very important factor that heightens his distrust in Mercenaries.  Here we see the principals of the literary humanist tradition that stems back to the times of Livy, Polybius, and Aristotle.  The civilian militia was one of the most important ideals in the humanist tradition.  It was maintained that true citizenship involved the right to bear arms and if necessary, die for one's state. 

     In the title of The Art of War, one should look at the term “art” with a double meaning.  In one sense it describes the “art” or creative skill of the warrior and others there of.  It can also be looked on as the “profession” or “business” of war, which makes sense if we understand the timeline and the Florentine language.  Machiavelli would have been describing the “profession” as one of many professions in Florence, which were divided and organized into a number of arti or guilds.   In this way, Machiavelli is trying to pass off war as being like any other business, and can be useful and manageable to the Florentine republic.    In being a business it must in no way become a separately organized entity under its own control.  A soldier who dedicates their whole life to war and nothing else, contributes little benefit to the state for they are incapable to take part in any other forms of social activities within it.  Such a person would be less than a citizen



and a drain on their peers.  It would the same way if a government directed all of its energies to the economy and neglected its other public or political duties.  To pursue the limited good and ignore the public good is detrimental to the state.  Those who do this may place the limited good over the good for all.  For a state to prosper, its citizens must place the common good over any other priorities.  This idea stems directly from Aristotle’s theories of citizenship, which is one of Machiavelli’s primary adopted ideologies when dealing with the citizen militia and what a good citizen should be.

     Full time military soldiers will more than likely not follow the common good, and often place their own personal good over that of the state they fight for, leading often to coercion and destruction.  It is what Greville would call a “paradox” that for Machiavelli, only part time soldiers should be allowed to possess a full time commitment to war and its purposes (The Machiavellian Moment, p. 200).  A citizen soldier has a home, possessions, including more than likely a family in the state that they are fighting for.  Because the citizen has a place in the social and political structure of the state they will fight with full knowledge of what they are fighting for.  They will also place value on the state that is their home.  Also they will fight passionately, wishing to return to their home and the things that they value.  A mercenary has no home except the military war camp and since war is a way of life, there is no drive or desire to see a quick end. 

     In the same way but reversed, a citizen who takes part in the military may also become a better citizen.  This is mentioned, in lesser detail, in the Preface of the Art of War.  The truest citizen is the one who is ready to fight and die for their country.  For of whom



should the commonwealth require greater faith than of him who must promise to die for her (p. 48).”  It is to Machiavelli the finest form of patriotism.  

     The value of a patriot warrior is that it is they who contain military virtu.  They realize that the state is the common good. In not just sacrificing their lives to it but their death’s, they understand the concept of sacrificing particular goods and themselves to achieve a more universal goal.  Also in the demand of rights and of goods, the patriot warrior will be satisfied when their demands are met.  He will not demand more or take it for the act will be harmful to the state.  This noble display of virtu makes the soldier as virtuous as any citizen and perhaps more so.  The patriot warrior learns what it means to be a true citizen and displays civic virtue.   

     Using Roman virtue as a model, Machiavelli describes it as being built on military discipline and civic religion.  This civic religion was pagan in nature.  Paganism serves a function identical to that of a republic, which is a desire to control and predict fortune.  The republic was best at doing this on its own. Whether or not the fortune turned out to be true, it was the ability to rally the people and display military virtue.  The pagan rituals of this nature were often done before an impending battle, instilling pride and confidence in the people and making them fight for the common good.  Common good was a part of the moral center to pagan worship and is also the core of what civic virtue is about.  It was the Romans civic religion that made their civilians good soldiers.  It was their military discipline and civic religion made them remember the public good during combat.  Thus be able to control their fortunes to whatever aims they wished.   In much



the same way we can picture Machiavelli believing that the Florentinians could have utilized this model as well, being able to shape their own fortunes. 

     Machiavelli saw Christianity as an enemy to civic virtue and political good.  This was because is destroys patriotism, by making Christians value their soul more than the common good and the state.  He distrusted Christianity, favoring the pagan religion as a much better tool to service civic virtue.  It is most likely that Machiavelli saw the Christian revolution as contributing to the downfall of the Roman civic duty.

     The other was the result of tyranny such as a Caesar, or a Pompeii, where “the sword has been used as an instrument of political power (Greyville, p. 201).”  This can happen when mercenaries revolt or when a citizen becomes corrupt and usurps power for himself. 


What Happens When the People Loose their Civic Virtue and How Does it Begin?


   Corruption and loss of liberty occur in states that do not use the civilian populace and allow outside sources to do what they should have expected from themselves.  The citizens are corrupted because the allowed “inferiors” (Greyville, p.204) to do the things that were supposed to be done for the public good.  The angst of Machiavelli is quite apparent when it comes to this subject and those “unthinking citizens” are to blame for this fundamental error (look to the Discourses for information on corruption). 

     Corruption is also a natural process and appears after long term degradation of the moral order of the state.  Once the moral decay begins it is almost impossible to stop. 



The reason for this is that the laws of a state (its moral laws and principles) work only as well as its compatibility with the general consensus of the people.  At the time of their institution they are supposed to work for the benefit of the citizens that made them.  After a time, if that peoples moral order has decayed, the old laws no longer apply, since the climate of the people has changed as well.  To enforce those obsolete laws now would have the opposite effect and would make the people even more unhappy with the state. This is called the Polybian cycle.

     For example the failure of the late Roman empire could not have been stopped by any attempts by the empire to reinstall the old Roman virtues.  In an empire increasingly filled with other cultures (many were of Germanic descent) and with the days of the Roman republic long gone, their model of the virtuous Roman was no longer applicable for its present status. 

     This is because once the corruption is visible, it has existed for far too long to be reversed.  Any leader attempting to do so (either through might, or through extraordinary pervasivness in the way of a prophet), would find themselves far too soiled by the terrible means that they would have to go through to re-establish the old order.  Getting rid of the corruption would be much like cutting out the infected people from society like a disease and exterminating them.  Once it has taken hold, it must run its course, the restoration occurring after the old state has fallen and the “barbarians” return from the far reaches to begin anew.  The only way for an existing state to prevent corruption according to Machiavelli was through 10 year intervals (more or less) of the state re-enforcing its code



of values on the people.  The methods may be harsh and rigorous at times, but it is the only way to prevent corruption of the civic virtue from ever beginning.    

     The cause of corruption according to Machiavelli is “inequality in the city” (Discourse, end of the 1st Chapter).  This inequality comes from those who live in luxury, the gentiluomini who ends up controlling the state unfairly.  They cause the corruption and the thus loss of faith civilian populace in the nation.  Because these people are so destructive to the idea of a working state that professes the public good, Machiavelli makes the claim that civic virtue can exist only in a republic.  Such an upper-class is incompatible to the idea of the republic.  Thus, the civilian militia is utilized best in a republican state over a monarchy.  This is why the one who may choose to stabilize the state through vicious means can only end up with a tyranny such as a Caesar or a Pompeii.










1. James B. Atkinson, David Sices, Machiavelli and His Friends (Northern Illinois: Northern Illinois University Press, 1996)


2. Peter Bondanella, Mark Musa, The Portable Machiavelli (United States: Viking Penguin inc., 1979)


3. Mark Hulliung, Citizen Machiavelli (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983)


4. Anthony Parel, The Political Calculus: Essays on Machiavelli’s Philosophy (Toronto-Buffalo: Toronto University Press, 1972)


5. John Greville A. Pocock, The Machiavelli Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition  (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975)


6. Quentin Skinner, Machiavelli (New York-Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981)