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The Prince Summary and Analysis

by Niccolo Machiavelli

Section 2: Chapters IV-VII

There are two kinds of kingdoms: those in which the prince is the sole ruler (e.g. Turkey, the kingdom of Darius) and those in which power is split between the prince and the barons (e.g. France). This classification enables Machiavelli to argue, as the title of Chapter IV goes, “Why the Successors of Alexander After His Death Did Not Lose the Kingdom He Had Conquered From Darius.” The first kind of kingdom is difficult to conquer and easy to hold onto; the latter is easy to conquer and difficult to hold onto.

What should a prince do if he has conquered a republic, as opposed to a kingdom? Herein lie a number of difficulties, enumerated in the next chapter, “How Cities or States Should Be Ruled Which Lived By Their Own Laws Before Being Taken.” The subjects of a conquered kingdom are not used to living in freedom or standing up for themselves, and are therefore slower to take up arms than are the citizens of a republic. There are three options for the conquering prince: destroy the republic, live there, or set up a puppet government. At the end of the day, Machiavelli seems to favor the first option. The Spartans established oligarchies in Athens and Thebes and lost both. The Romans destroyed Capua, Carthage, and Numantia and never lost them. “Any man who becomes master of a city accustomed to freedom, and does not destroy it, may expect to be destroyed by it,” Machiavelli writes.

In the following chapter, “About New Princedoms Acquired With One’s Own Arms and Energy,” Machiavelli digresses momentarily in order to explain why he relies so much on examples in his writing. “A prudent man should always follow the footsteps of the great and imitate those who have been supreme,” he writes. The most notable princes who became princes by their own force were, according to Machiavelli, Moses (of the Hebrews), Cyrus (of Persia), Romulus (of Rome), and Theseus (of Athens). These are the giants of the past and the models for present and future princes to follow; men of this sort “may have trouble gaining their power, but they find it easy to hold onto.” Carving out one’s own position of power single-handedly, without outside help, is an arduous task; but once accomplished, the prince who has risen on his own merits and by his own force will find his perch far easier to maintain.

On the other hand, new states acquired either by fortune or outside assistance are easy to conquer; the difficulty lies in holding onto power, as Machiavelli argues in his next chapter, “About New States Acquired With Other People’s Arms and By Good Luck.” Here Machiavelli zeroes in on a single protracted example: the story of Cesare Borgia, otherwise known as Duke Valentino, the son of Pope Alexander VI.

Alexander wanted to give his son a state to rule, but the only ones he could offer were the papal states, and the Duke of Milan and the Venetians would never agree to that hand-off of power. So the Pope used his ties to King Louis of France to secure control of Romagna for his son. Louis offered up some of his own troops to aid in the cause after Alexander helped the French King enter Italy by dissolving his first marriage.

Now that Cesare Borgia had Romagna, what was he to do next? Two problems faced him: he could not trust his army, composed of members of the Orsini clan (a powerful faction that seemed willing to betray him), and he could not trust King Louis. His suspicions that these players might turn against him growing, Cesare decided to no longer rely on their support. He recruited to his cause all noble-ranked Orsinis and Colonna followers in Rome, thereby weakening the Orsini/Colonna factions. The city of Urbino, an Orsini stronghold, rebelled as a result, the Orsini family having realized what Cesare was up to. Cesare promptly squashed the revolt with the aid of the French. The Orsinis tried to reconcile with him, and Cesare used this opportunity to lure their leaders to Sinigaglia and kill them all.

Cesare now possessed Romagna fully, but it was a territory rife with crime and disorder. He appointed Remirro de Orco, a notoriously cruel and ruthless man, as lieutenant general of the region. Quickly and mercilessly, Remirro pacified and unified Romagna. Then, in order to quell the hatred that this aggressiveness might have spawned, Cesare had Remirro tried and executed, making it clear that the cruelty had been the result of the lieutenant general’s character, and not Cesare’s own.

Machiavelli expresses approval for all these drastic measures. However, the tide ultimately turned against Cesare. Alexander died, and Cesare himself fell ill. In the depths of his illness, he made the mistake of allowing Julius to become the next Pope. Machiavelli argues that he should instead have tried to make a Spaniard Pope, or else accepted Rouen’s entreaties to the papacy, the reason being that both Spain and Rouen were “bound to him by nationality and obligation.” Julius, on the other hand, had reason to hate and fear Cesare: he had endured ten years of exile in France, and held a considerable grudge against the Borgia family. Machiavelli offers Cesare Borgia up as an example of what to do right should a prince acquire his power through the help of others, and the ways in which fortune can lay waste to even the best plans.


Out of the trials and tribulations of Cesare Borgia Machiavelli constructs a rise-and-fall saga that is itself a profoundly moving piece of storytelling. Machiavelli, especially in his later works, seemed to prefer to be thought of as an historian, and here he shows off his predilection for spinning the messiness of history into the stuff of great fiction to. That said, Machiavelli does much to undercut and subvert his own tendency to draw larger meanings out of complex events.

For example, Machiavelli posits Borgia as a kind of latter-day mortal equivalent of the legends of history: Moses, Cyrus, Romulus, Theseus. Where those ancient figures exist shrouded in a haze, their exploits mythologized, Borgia is, for Machiavelli, a contemporary figure, and thus cannot hope to live up to these precedents. He is a flawed man, albeit one equipped with intelligence and courage, and yet when Machiavelli concludes by blaming Cesare’s failure on bad luck, one senses a kind of half-heartedness in the decision. Julius’s rise to the papacy sealed Cesare’s doom, and that rise can be attributed, according to Machiavelli, to a lapse of reason on Cesare’s part: “his only error lay in making Julius pope, where he simply made a bad choice; because, as I said, though he couldn’t make his own man pope, he could keep anyone else from the office.”

It is interesting to note the extent to which Machiavelli will decry or apologize for either figures of history or his contemporaries, when it comes to Borgia one senses some level of personal connection to or feeling for the material. “Looking over all the duke’s actions, then,” he writes, “I find nothing with which to reproach him; rather I think I’m right in proposing him, as I have done, as a model for all those who rise to power by means of the fortune and arms of others.” There is a defensiveness in the tone that is worth considering.

History is, indeed, inherently subjective. What gets told, not to mention why, is dependent on so many variables, and in the end it is the temperament of the historian that dictates the form history takes. From his decision to introduce The Prince with a letter to Lorenzo de Medici, itself a heartfelt plea for understanding and favor, to his construction of Borgia as a character and his use of the first person, it is clear that Machiavelli’s writing is not the work of a faceless author who would rather disappear behind the veil of his own ostensibly objective formulations, but is rather a kind of first-person history, a sustained meditation on the foibles of human nature and how those foibles translate into larger (i.e. societal) results. In other words, The Prince is a work of philosophy in the traditional sense: a sustained piece of thought that personalizes the impersonal.

To this effect, certain fibs can be identified in Machiavelli’s history-making. One example that springs to mind is his reference to France as a major problem for the Romans. Not only does Machiavelli seem to equate pre-Capet France with the nation post-Capet, stretching his vision of a prince sharing power with barons, but in some sort of vaguely centralized manner, back in the days of Vercingetorix and the Gallic Wars, he also exaggerates Gaul’s rebelliousness once conquered by the Roman Empire. In fact, Gaul became one of the Empire’s calmer territories. That said, Machiavelli is not prone to historical inaccuracy, and his elision of certain facts in this case can be interpreted as a way of supporting his central argument – that states in which power is split between princes and barons are easy to conquer and difficult to hold onto.

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