Machiavelli's Three Romes: Religion, Human Liberty, and Politics Reformed

By Gouwens, Kenneth | The Catholic Historical Review, January 1999 | Go to article overview

Machiavelli's Three Romes: Religion, Human Liberty, and Politics Reformed


Gouwens, Kenneth, The Catholic Historical Review


Machtavelli's Three Romes:Religion, Human Liberty, and Politics Reformed. By Vickie B. Sullivan. (DeKalb, Illinois: Northern Illinois University Press. 1996. Pp. xi, 235. $30.00.)

Sullivan advocates a novel interpretation of how Christian and classical elements in Machiavelli's thought relate to each other. Drawing primarily upon the Florentine Histories, The Prince, and the Discourses, she argues that Machiavelli described three distinct "Romes": (1) the Christian one, dominated by the papacy; (2) the pagan (specifically, the ancient Roman Republic); and (3) an idealized Rome" of Machiavelli's invention that could transcend the political defects of the other two.

Part One details Machiavelli's view of the deleterious effects of the papacy and the Church upon contemporary politics. To a fairly conventional interpretation Sullivan adds two novel elements: (a) that "the tyrant from whose grip Machiavelli would see humanity extricated is the Christian god" (p. 4), and Co) that neither Christianity nor pagan religion is ultimately a useful instrument of politics. Part Two furthers the argument, showing the inadequacy of republican Rome in preventing ambitious men from seizing power. Sullivan's Machiavelli holds that Christianity replicated pagan Rome's tensions between the demands of religion and those of politics so that, like ancient tyrants, the popes promised unseen lands (in their case, lands beyond human experience) as a means of shoring up demagogic power. In Part Three, Sullivan claims that Machiavelli envisioned the establishment of a new Rome, an "irreligious republic" that "utilizes elements of both paganism and Christianity in order to subvert both" (p. 24). This third "Rome," while earthly, can transcend present political crises and potentially last forever-a position that Sullivan views as a direct challenge to the Christian conception of eternity

While surely original, Sullivan's thesis fails to convince, primarily because she does not adequately establish the idiosyncratic interplay of Christian and pagan elements that is central to her argument. …

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