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The Discourses

The Discourses

4.3 3
by Niccolo Machiavelli, Leslie J. Walker (Translator), Bernard Crick (Editor)

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"It is not the well-being of individuals that makes cities great, but the well-being of the community"

Few figures in intellectual history have proved as notorious and ambiguous as Niccolò Machiavelli. But while his treatise The Prince made his name synonymous with autocratic ruthlessness and cynical manipulation, The


"It is not the well-being of individuals that makes cities great, but the well-being of the community"

Few figures in intellectual history have proved as notorious and ambiguous as Niccolò Machiavelli. But while his treatise The Prince made his name synonymous with autocratic ruthlessness and cynical manipulation, The Discourses (c.1517) shows a radically different outlook on the world of politics. In this carefully argued commentary on Livy's history of republican Rome, Machiavelli proposed a system of government that would uphold civic freedom and security by instilling the virtues of active citizenship, and that would also encourage citizens to put the needs of the state above selfish, personal interests. Ambitious in scope, but also clear-eyed and pragmatic, The Discourses creates a modern theory of republic politics.

For more than seventy years, Penguin has been the leading publisher of classic literature in the English-speaking world. With more than 1,700 titles, Penguin Classics represents a global bookshelf of the best works throughout history and across genres and disciplines. Readers trust the series to provide authoritative texts enhanced by introductions and notes by distinguished scholars and contemporary authors, as well as up-to-date translations by award-winning translators.

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Discourses on Livy

By Niccolò Machiavelli, Harvey C. Mansfield, Nathan Tarcov

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1996 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-50036-2


What Have Been Universally the Beginnings of Any City Whatever, and What Was That of Rome

[1] Those who read what the beginning was of the city of Rome and by what legislators and how it was ordered will not marvel that so much virtue was maintained for many centuries in that city, and that afterward the empire that the republic attained arose there. Wishing first to discourse of its birth, I say that all cities are built either by men native to the place where they are built or by foreigners. The first case occurs when it does not appear, to inhabitants dispersed in many small parts, that they live securely, since each part by itself, both because of the site and because of the small number, cannot resist the thrust of whoever assaults it; and when the enemy comes, they do not have time to unite for their defense. Or if they did, they would be required to leave many of their strongholds abandoned; and so they would come at once to be the prey of their enemies. So to flee these dangers, moved either by themselves or by someone among them of greater authority, they are restrained to inhabit together a place elected by them, more advantageous to live in and easier to defend.

[2] Of these, among many others, were Athens and Venice. The first was built for like causes by the dispersed inhabitants under the authority of Theseus. The other consisted of many peoples reduced to certain small islands at the tip of the Adriatic Sea, who began among themselves, without any other particular prince who might order them, to live under the laws that appeared to them most apt to maintain them, so as to flee the wars that arose every day in Italy because of the coming of new barbarians after the decline of the Roman Empire. It turned out happily for them because of the long idleness that the site gave them, since the sea had no exit and the peoples who were afflicting Italy had no ships to be able to plague them: so any small beginning would have enabled them to come to the greatness they have.

[3] The second case is that of a city built by foreign races, whether free men or those depending on others, who are sent out as colonies either by a republic or by a prince so as to relieve their lands of inhabitants or for the defense of a country newly acquired that they wish to maintain securely and without expense. Of such cities the Roman people built very many throughout its empire. Or truly they are built by a prince, not to inhabit but for his glory, like the city of Alexandria by Alexander. Because these cities do not have a free origin, it rarely occurs that they make great strides and can be numbered among the capitals of kingdoms. The building of Florence was like these, because—whether built by soldiers of Sulla or perchance by inhabitants of the mountains of Fiesole, who, trusting in the long peace that was born in the world under Octavian, came down to inhabit the plain by the Arno—it was built under the Roman Empire. Nor, in its beginnings, could it make any gains other than those conceded to it by courtesy of the prince.

[4] The builders of cities are free when peoples, either under a prince or by themselves, are constrained by disease, hunger, or war to abandon the ancestral country and to seek for themselves a new seat. Such peoples either inhabit the cities they find in the countries they acquire, as did Moses, or they build anew in them, as did Aeneas. In this case one can recognize the virtue of the builder and the fortune of what is built, which is more or less marvelous as the one who was the beginning of it was more or less virtuous. His virtue can be recognized in two modes: the first is in the choice of site, the other in the ordering of laws. Because men work either by necessity or by choice, and because there is greater virtue to be seen where choice has less authority, it should be considered whether it is better to choose sterile places for the building of cities so that men, constrained to be industrious and less seized by idleness, live more united, having less cause for discord, because of the poverty of the site, as happened in Ragusa and in many other cities built in similar places. This choice would without doubt be wiser and more useful if men were content to live off their own and did not wish to seek to command others. Therefore, since men cannot secure themselves except with power, it is necessary to avoid this sterility in a country and to settle in the most fertile places, where, since [the city] can expand because of the abundance of the site, it can both defend itself from whoever might assault it and crush anyone who might oppose its greatness. As to the idleness that the site might bring, the laws should be ordered to constrain it by imposing such necessities as the site does not provide. Those should be imitated who have inhabited very agreeable and very fertile countries, apt to produce men who are idle and unfit for any virtuous exercise, and who have had the wisdom to prevent theharms that the agreeableness of the country would have caused through idleness by imposing a necessity to exercise on those who had to be soldiers, so that through such an order they became better soldiers there than in countries that have naturally been harsh and sterile. Among them was the kingdom of the Egyptians, in which the necessity ordered by the laws was able to do so much that most excellent men arose there, notwithstanding that the country is very agreeable. If their names had not been eliminated by antiquity, they would be seen to merit more praise than Alexander the Great and many others whose memory is still fresh. Whoever had considered the kingdom of the sultan, and the order of the Marnelukes and of their military before they were eliminated by Selim the Grand Turk, would have seen many exercises concerning soldiers in it, and would in fact have recognized how much they feared the idleness to which the kindness of the country could lead them if they had not been prevented with very strong laws.

[5] I say, thus, that it is a more prudent choice to settle in a fertile place, if that fertility is restrained within proper limits by laws. When Alexander the Great wished to build a city for his glory, Deinocrates the architect came and showed him that he could build it on top of Mount Athos, which place, besides being strong, could be adapted to give that city a human form, which would be a marvelous and rare thing, worthy of his greatness. When Alexander asked him what the inhabitants would live on, he replied he had not thought of that. At this the former laughed and, setting aside that mountain, built Alexandria, where the inhabitants would have to stay willingly because of the fatness of the country and the advantages of the sea and the Nile. So if whoever examines the building of Rome takes Aeneas for its first progenitor, it will be of those cities built by foreigners, while if he takes Romulus it will be of those built by men native to the place; and in whichever mode, he will see that it had a free beginning, without depending on anyone. He will also see, as will be said below, how many necessities the laws made by Romulus, Numa, and the others imposed, so that the fertility of the site, the advantages of the sea, the frequent victories, and the greatness of its empire could not corrupt it for many centuries, and that they maintained it full of as much virtue as has ever adorned any other city or republic.

[6] Because the things worked by it, which are celebrated by Titus Livy, ensued either through public or through private counsel, and either inside or outside the city, I shall begin to discourse of things occurring inside and by public counsel that I shall judge worthy of greater notice, adding to them everything that might depend on them, to which discourses this first book, or in truth this first part, will be limited.


Of How Many Species Are Republics, and Which Was the Roman Republic

[1] I wish to put aside reasoning on cities that have had their beginning subject to another; and I shall speak of those that had a beginning far from all external servitude and were at once governed by their own will, either as a republic or as a principality. These have had diverse laws and orders, as they have had diverse beginnings. For some were given laws by one alone and at a stroke, either in their beginning or after not much time, like those that were given by Lycurgus to the Spartans; some had them by chance and at many different times, and according to accidents, as had Rome. So that republic can be called happy whose lot is to get one man so prudent that he gives it laws ordered so that it can live securely under them without needing to correct them. One sees that Sparta observed them for more than eight hundred years without corrupting them or without any dangerous tumult. On the contrary, that city has some degree of unhappiness that, by not having fallen upon one prudent orderer, is forced of necessity to reorder itself. Of these still more unhappy is that which is the farthest from order, and that one is farthest from it that by its orders is altogether off the right road that might lead it to the perfect and true end. It is almost impossible for those in this degree to repair themselves by any accident whatever; the others that, if they do not have perfect order, have taken a beginning that is good and capable of becoming better, can by the occurrence of accidents become perfect. But it is indeed true that they will never order themselves without danger, because enough men never agree to a new law that looks to a new order in a city unless they are shown by a necessity that they need to do it. Since this necessity cannot come without danger, it is an easy thing for the republic to be ruined before it can be led to a perfection of order. This is vouched for fully by the republic of Florence, which was reordered by the accident in Arezzo in '02 and disordered by the one in Prato in '12.

[2] Wishing thus to discourse of what were the orders of the city of Rome and what accidents led it to its perfection, I say that some who have written on republics say that in them is one of three states—called by them principality, aristocrats, and popular—and that those who order a city should turn to one of these according as it appears to them more to the purpose. Some others, wiser according to the opinion of many, have the opinion that there are six types of government, of which three are the worst; that three others are good in themselves but so easily corrupted that they too come to be pernicious. Those that are good are the three written above; those that are bad are three others that depend on these three; and each one of them is similar to the one next to it so that they easily leap from one to the other. For the principality easily becomes tyrannical; the aristocrats with ease become a state of the few; the popular is without difficulty converted into the licentious. So if an orderer of a republic orders one of those three states in a city, he orders it there for a short time; for no remedy can be applied there to prevent it from slipping into its contrary because of the likeness that the virtue and the vice have in this case.

[3] These variations of governments arise by chance among men. For since the inhabitants were sparse in the beginning of the world, they lived dispersed for a time like beasts; then, as generations multiplied, they gathered together, and to be able to defend themselves better, they began to look to whoever among them was more robust and of greater heart, and they made him a head, as it were, and obeyed him. From this arose the knowledge of things honest and good, differing from the pernicious and bad. For, seeing that if one individual hurt his benefactor, hatred and compassion among men came from it, and as they blamed the ungrateful and honored those who were grateful, and thought too that those same injuries could be done to them, to escape like evil they were reduced to making laws and ordering punishments for whoever acted against them: hence came the knowledge of justice. That thing made them go after not the most hardy but the one who would be more prudent and more just when they next had to choose a prince. But then as the prince began to be made by succession, and not by choice, at once the heirs began to degenerate from their ancestors; and leaving aside virtuous works, they thought that princes have nothing else to do but surpass others in sumptuousness and lasciviousness and every other kind of license. So as the prince began to be hated and, because of such hatred, began to fear, and as he soon passed from fear to offenses, from it a tyranny quickly arose. From this arose next the beginnings of ruin and of plots and conspiracies against princes, done not by those who were either timid or weak but by those who were in advance of others in generosity, greatness of spirit, riches, and nobility; who were unable to endure the dishonest life of that prince. The multitude, thus following the authority of the powerful, armed itself against the prince and obeyed them as its liberators when he was eliminated. And holding in hatred the name of a sole head, they constituted a government of themselves; and in the beginning, with respect to the past tyranny, they governed themselves according to the laws ordered by them, placing the common utility before their own advantage; and they governed and preserved both private and public things with the highest diligence. This administration came next to their sons, who, not knowing the variation of fortune, never having encountered evil, and unwilling to rest content with civil equality, but turning to avarice, to ambition, to usurpation of women, made a government of aristocrats become a government of few, without respect for any civility. So in a short time the same thing happened to them as to the tyrant; for disgusted by their government, the multitude made for itself a minister of whoever might plan in any mode to offend those governors; and so someone quickly rose up who, with the aid of the multitude, eliminated them. Since the memory of the prince and of the injuries received from him was still fresh, and since they had unmade the state of the few and did not wish to remake that of the prince, they turned to the popular state. They ordered it so that neither the powerful few nor one prince might have any authority in it. Because all states have some reverence in the beginning, this popular state was maintained for a little while, but not much, especially once the generation that had ordered it was eliminated; for it came at once to license, where neither private men nor public were in fear, and each living in his own mode, a thousand injuries were done every day. So, constrained by necessity, or by the suggestion of some good man, or to escape such license, they returned anew to the principality; and from that, degree by degree, they came back toward license, in the modes and for the causes said.

[4] It is while revolving in this cycle that all republics are governed and govern themselves. But rarely do they return to the same governments, for almost no republic can have so long a life as to be able to pass many times through these changes and remain on its feet. But indeed it happens that in its travails, a republic always lacking in counsel and forces becomes subject to a neighboring state that is ordered better than it; assuming that this were not so, however, a republic would be capable of revolving for an infinite time in these governments.


Excerpted from Discourses on Livy by Niccolò Machiavelli, Harvey C. Mansfield, Nathan Tarcov. Copyright © 1996 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) was a Florentine statesman who was later forced out of public life. He then devoted himself to studying and writing political philosophy, history, fiction, and drama.

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The Discourses 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
I strongly advise any reader interested in coming away from this book with a real appreciation for Machiavelli's brilliance to have recently read Titus Livy's 'Ab Urbe Condita' before attempting this book, and then follow-up your reading with the neo-infamous University of Chicago professor Leo Strauss's 'Thoughts on Machiavelli'. Ninety percent of the insight to be gained from this classic lies in contemplating the aporia between stated examples and stated and/or omitted conclusions. And if you ever personally aspire to become a presidential candidate or urban revolutionary, you'd be well advised to contrast and compare the perspective of 'The Discourses' with 'The Prince' as well, for between these two works lies all that can be known about the acquisition and maintenance of power. PS - This book is not recommended for the 'faint of heart' or the post-modern immoralist. Both will miss the point.
Guest More than 1 year ago
No one who wants to have a fair outlook of the whole political reflexions of Machiavelli, might get it without reading 'Discourses..' (Discorsi...). There the reader will find another kind of Machiavelli. Not The Prince's, but another thinker. Deeper and broader, the main topic rather than how to get the power (as along The Prince), is now how to stabilize it. Livy's work is just a motive for Machiavelli's analizes. So, the frequent reference to ancient Greek or Roman history, serves as comparative model regarding the actual Italian and the lager European exuberant political universe. Instead the prince needed to unify Italy and set it free from foreing powers, the central figure is a republic capable to keep liberty alive and a 'virtuosa' social life, in terms of participation in the power exercise. Most of the conclusions keep still today a wise validity. That´s why after 'Discourses...' (albeit it seems The Prince was written in the middle of the former's one composition years) one can talk rightly about a 'republican' Machiavelli. If he was not father, at least he was uncle (a bright one) of the since many years called 'protective republicanism'. In few words: the book put in evidence his very scope and stature. Doubtless, 'Discourses...' show us another kind of Machiavelli. Different than the often known one. But still more, different than the ignored one (although ignorance never has been and impediment for many people to speak improperly about 'Machiavelli', 'machiavellism' and 'machiavellic'.)