How does it happen, that certain changes from liberty to servitude and from servitude to liberty occur without bloodshed, others are full of blood?… It depends on this: whether the state which is subject to change was born in violence or no; because when it was born in violence, accordingly it was also born in injury of many. In consequence, it is unavoidable that when the state weakens and declines, those who suffered want to vindicate; and this desire of vengeance breeds blood and death of men….
Machiavelli, Discorsi Sopra La Prima Deca di Tito Livio, Book Three
The humanizing effects of democracy and our civilization had an impact on our perception of past history. It seems almost forgotten that use of violence and assassination to achieve political power, remove an adversary, or change a dynasty was a general historical phenomenon for centuries in societies organized into the complex political form of the state. Next to assassination as a means to gain wealth and property, assassination to gain political power seems to be tragically frequent in the past.
Western civilization in a slow, historical process humanized political institutions. Humanization means here above all limitation, reduction, or abolition of the use of violence, cruelty, and killing in the business of internal government. It seems that reduction of political murder and assassination as a means of transferring power or changing dynasties appears in a slow development influenced in medieval times by the Western church and philosophy.
The major concept which reduced political assassination in transmission and succession of royal power at this period was the concept of legitimacy rooted in the duality of church and state. It was the ecclesiastic hierarchy which validated the hereditary legitimacy of the dynasties and maintained control over the orderly transfer of power. Of course, political murder was still abundant in medieval times. The church itself indulged in mass terror toward dissidents. There were ups and downs in this early and long proc-
SOURCE: This article is reprinted by permission of the author. It originally appeared in Sociologia Internationalis, 1972.