Machiavelli's Immortal Look at Livy

By Walters, Colin | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), August 11, 1996 | Go to article overview

Machiavelli's Immortal Look at Livy


Walters, Colin, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Niccolo Machiavelli's chapter on conspiracy, the translators of this new edition of the "Discourses on Livy" promise, "is a definite four-star attraction." Continuing in Guide Michelin-style, Harvey Mansfield and Nathan Tarcov assure their reader that "the amazingly bold criticisms of Christianity in three of the Discourses surely count among the sites in this work not to be missed by the conscientious tourist."

Imagine oneself, then, these gentlemen's tourist, walking in Florence and not too distracted, either by drain smells or the racket of little motorbikes swarming up and down the narrow streets, to daydream. One's first thoughts will be not of Machiavelli, but of the city's artists and builders: Giotto, Donatello and Ghiberti, Michelangelo, Brunelleschi.

But Brunelleschi brings one soon enough to the cathedral, where during Mass on April 26, 1478, the Pazzi family made their famous attempt upon the lives of Giuliano (killed) and Lorenzo (wounded, but escaped into the vestry) de Medici. Here is that four-star attraction (Michelin, by comparison, gives no more than three stars to sites).

In the "Discourses," the description of the incident shows Machiavelli at his best in pivoting on his old Roman forebear, relating how Alexamenus the Aetolian wished to kill Nabis the Spartan, but when the time for the deed came, "Titus Livy says these words: `And he himself gathered his spirit, confused by the thought of so great a thing [and was himself killed].' For it is impossible that anyone not be confused, even though of firm spirit and used to the death of men and to putting steel to work. . . . For of spirit in great things there is no one who may promise himself a sure thing without having had experience."

Just so did Antonio da Volterra, the Pazzi conspirator designated to stab Lorenzo, blow it, blurting out, "Oh, traitor" as he approached, thereby alerting and saving his target. Machiavelli concludes: "For the causes that have been said, one cannot bring the thing to perfection when one conspires against one's head; but one does not easily bring it to perfection when one conspires against two heads."

Machiavelli, as his translators note, took his Livy (59 B.C. to A.D. 17) and ran with it. Of the ancient historian's 142 books, all but about 35 have been lost, though later epitomes and periochae (abstracts) for most of the others have survived. The Loeb Classical Library edition with Latin and English on facing pages makes it easy to enjoy the narrative dash that Livy's Renaissance successor must have loved. But at about $20 apiece, more than one or two of the 14 volumes will be beyond the means of most tourists, conscientious or otherwise.

If one can run to any of the "Ab Urbe Condita" ("History of Rome From Its Foundation"), the first books dealing with Rome's founding, the period of the kings and early republic down to the Gauls' sack of Rome in 390 B.C. would go well with the first (of three) books making up the "Discourses." Here Machiavelli discusses the founding of republics, taking into consideration choices of site, use of native people or colonists, establishment of order and laws and more.

In light of his trenchant attack on Christianity, "the present religion" as Machiavelli disdainfully called it, it is notable of this first book that he ranks Numa, second king of Rome, even higher than his predecessor Romulus, on the ground that founders of religions take precedence over founders of republics. The argument that it is impossible for commanders in the field to get men to go to the limit without recourse to faith (whether the commander himself believes is beside the point) remains true today, testified to by politicians wherever they are heard.

Machiavelli was, at the same time, tearing practical politics free of both Platonist-Aristotelian and Christian obligations to virtue as traditionally defined. …

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