A prince must lay strong foundations, Machiavelli argues in Chapter XII, “On Different Kinds of Troops, Especially Mercenaries.” Such foundations consist primarily of good laws and good arms. Because these are inextricably bound, Machiavelli explains that he will focus on arms rather than laws.
Armies are either composed of mercenaries, composed of auxiliaries, mixed, or the state’s own. The first two types are “useless and dangerous”: mercenaries, in particular, “will protect you from ruin only as long as nobody assaults you; in peace you are at their mercy, and in war at the mercy of your enemies.” The only incentive mercenaries have is money, and the weakness of Italy can be blamed on their kind. Machiavelli proceeds to list examples of secure republics with large armies of their own people (ancient Sparta, ancient Rome, contemporary Switzerland) and contrasts these with the Carthaginians, whose mercenary armies turned on their masters and almost overthrew them.
The next chapter, “On Auxiliary Troops, Mixed Troops, and Your Own Troops,” defines auxiliaries as foreign armies who help a prince upon request. They are also useless, but even more dangerous than mercenaries. “You get your ruin ready-made,” Machiavelli writes. While mercenaries are undisciplined, disunited, and disloyal, auxiliary troops “come to you as a compact body, all trained to obey somebody else.” Mixed armies are, of course, composed of both auxiliary troops and mercenaries. The ideal is for a prince to use his own troops. Cesare Borgia started out relying on auxiliaries (the French, specifically), and then switched to mercenaries (the Orsini and Vitelli) before resorting to troops of his own. Steadily, his reputation increased.
In Chapter XIV, “Military Duties of the Prince,” Machiavelli concludes that a prince must constantly study the art of war. He should think even more about war during times of peace than during times of conflict. He should read history and “reflect on the actions of great men.” After all, Alexander the Great imitated Achilles; Caesar imitated Alexander; and Scorpio imitated Cyrus. Reiterating one of the principal themes of The Prince, Machiavelli stresses the importance of learning from the past in order to carve out a better – and more politically successful – future.
In these three chapters, Machiavelli puts forth an explanation for the decline of three great states or territories: the Roman Empire, France, and Italy. Machiavelli, holding forth the hope for a unified Italy, refers to it as a single entity - albeit divided. More importantly, he wields history as a weapon, spinning powerful rhetoric out of the flaws and foibles of men from the past.
The fall of the Roman Empire began with the hiring of Goths as soldiers. Charles VII of France, after having freed his kingdom from the English, immediately saw how necessary it was for France to have her own armies. He subsequently passed laws to train cavalry and infantry. Unfortunately, his son Louis XI gave up on this initiative and began to hire Swiss troops. Hence France’s current weakness: “the kingdom of France would be invincible if the laws of Charles had been kept in force or strengthened.”
Relying on the Swiss, Machiavelli argues, was shortsighted expediency. As a judge of human behavior, Machiavelli has little tolerance for lack of foresight. Purely short-term policies are often acts of cowardice, ways of avoiding the festering problems that come back with a vengeance years later. A good prince must look ahead and recognize evils the minute they are born. History is the best demonstration of this point; Machiavelli follows his France and Rome narratives with an admonition for princes to read about the past, to study war as if it were an art, and to continually exercise their minds and strive to emulate the great ancients. “Above all,” Machiavelli writes, a prince “should do as great men have done before him, and take as a model for his conduct some great historical figure who achieved the highest praise and glory by constantly holding before himself the deeds and achievements of a predecessor.”
And what of Italy? Machiavelli’s analysis of the country/territory’s ills comes earlier, in Chapter XII, “On Different Kinds of Troops, Especially Mercenaries.” When the Roman Empire began to fade and the Pope started to gain power, Italy split into several states, which soon saw a flurry of uprisings. Cities took up arms against nobles who had reigned over them with the help of the Empire; the Pope, meanwhile, favored these developments, as they helped increase his own power. Private citizens became princes, and Italy, out of this chaos, morphed into a jumble of republics surrounding and scattered among the Church’s holdings. Neither the Church nor the private citizens knew much about war, so foreigners were hired to constitute their armies. The reliance on mercenaries began here, and has persisted since.
As a result, Machiavelli argues, Italy is in “a state of slavery and contempt.” The Prince places much emphasis on sovereignty, on standing on one’s own feet. It is fitting that the newer title of the book be a singular noun, reflecting a solitary character who, on his own, makes something of himself. In its own strange way, The Prince is a celebration of individuality; the better state is the one that uses its own troops, and that resists too much outside influence; the better prince is the one who rises by his own force, rather than by the help of friends or by good luck. No wonder this manual of monarchy has found such a wide audience in the democracies of the 20th and 21st centuries.