The politics of condottieri arms in Renaissance Italy, or why Machiavelli loathed mercenaries


Contracting for military and security services is an extremely old phenomenon, emerging many centuries previous to the latest generation of contemporary Private Military and Security Companies (PMSCs). However, the modern phenomenon has reached unprecedented breadth, given the extent to which contracting for military and security services has grown, covering combat and security training, armed guard, intelligence and combat support logistics.

Since the early 1990s, there have been hundreds of scholarly and journalistic publications on PMSCs. This trend continues as publications about the industry are on the rise -unfortunately with many arguments repeated time and again. This is why the authors in this series have been challenged to take an angle as of yet lacking from debates about private contracting. Framed by a new look at contracting experiences from Machiavelli’s times at the beginning of the series and an examination of current and future regulatory options for private contractors at the end, the series also touches on the US experience of logistics outsourcing, as well as the perspective of individual contractors.

In the first instalment in the series, today’s piece will take us back to an age long past. Pablo de Orellana will take a new look at Machiavelli’s views on mercenaries and will argue that his reservations against contracted forces can best be explained by their impact on Renaissance state-building and governance.

Birthe Anders
Department of War Studies, King’s College London
PMSCs Series Editor


The Private Military Security Contractors Series. Part I:
The politics of condottieri arms in Renaissance Italy, or why Machiavelli loathed mercenaries

by Pablo de Orellana

The last of the Renaissance mercenary ‘arme ausiliarie’: the Pontifical Swiss Guard swearing-in ceremony

In 1512, the Florentine native military contingent so ardently advocated by Machiavelli in his major works, The Art of War, The Prince and Discourses, was disastrously defeated, bringing about the downfall of the Florentine Republic, the return of the Medici to power and Machiavelli’s own dismissal from government, torture, and exile. Yet in The Prince, written the following year, exactly five centuries ago, he continues to make constant reference to mercenary forces being ‘useless and dangerous’. [1] This article outlines the main reasons as to this position, concluding that Machiavelli’s loathing of mercenaries was not animated by the tired, old, moral analogy of mercenarism and unpatriotic prostitution or even by pragmatic tactical reasons, as it appears from The Prince. No debate on Private Military Security Companies (PMSCs) can omit reference to Machiavelli; however he is still often poorly understood beyond the omnipresent quote of ‘useless and dangerous’. Returning to the original Machiavelli texts, I argue that his concerns about mercenaries were due to the challenge of renaissance mercenary practices to the politics of state-building and governance.

The historical background to the practice as it was during the Renaissance is essential in discussing Machiavelli’s position on the employment of mercenaries. The practice of hiring military forces by feudal lords and cities probably originated in the constant feuds of the 11th Century. ‘[T]here were in Italy at that time many soldiers, English, German and Bretons, brought over by those princes […] it was with these that all Italian princes made their wars’. [2] Feudal lords and republics hired men from the masnadas, bands of soldiers demobilised after the crusades and the Sicilian Vespers; the relationship was determined by a condotta, a contract or agreement between the hiring authorities and the condottiere, the leader of the mercenary force. The practice however, brought about the downfall of many clients: due to dependence of entire states upon their services, condottieri were able to dictate terms to clients, betraying them and in some cases even replacing them. The most notable in this regard were Francesco Sforza (1401-1466), who took over Milan from his clients the Visconti, and Andrea Doria, a Genoese admiral who fought for Charles V of the Austrian/Spanish House of Habsburg.

Machiavelli recounts some of these treacherous actions by mercenaries, but most often (as in The Prince) he chooses to engage with the issue on the basis of their tactical disadvantages: their dubious loyalty; the feasibility of training more loyal native militias to their professional level instead, their prohibitive cost, even their occasional willingness to be paid off by mercenaries employed by an enemy city to the detriment of both their employers. What worried Machiavelli most about mercenaries, however, was the political power and short-term coercive leverage they were able to wield against their own clients. Condottieri were problematic by virtue of limited contractual loyalty based on pay, but even more so because of their capacity to radically upset domestic constitutional order. They were able to blackmail clients and move to the pay of a rival like Federico da Montefeltro, or as Francesco Sforza proved, take over their states. The 1494 French invasion of Italy, for instance, was partly made possible by the defection to France of Milan’s condottiere Gian Giacomo Trivulzio. That invasion, however, not only made clear to Machiavelli the unreliability of mercenary forces, but also proved beyond doubt that national armies with a mix of levies and professionals under the leadership of a skilled and inspiring prince were vastly superior to mercenary forces. This was, Machiavelli explains, due to the relationship between them, which was based on vassalage, loyalty, duty and law. [3]

Even more problematic than mercenary loyalty for constitution and governance, however, was the constitutive effect on the institutions of government, especially the military. In Machiavelli’s view, contracting mercenaries had the effect of destabilising and weakening your own forces. The misguided son of King Charles VII of France, made this mistake: ‘having given reputation to the Swiss [mercenaries], he dispirited his own arms [as] they did not think it was possible to win without them’. [4] This was a twofold political problem in terms of strategic defence: the arms of the state had little morale, confidence and experience; in the longer term this could make defence of a principality entirely dependent on outside forces. Furthermore, this institutional vicious circle made training your own native forces more difficult, slower and less expedient in the short term than hiring mercenaries, further undermining or delaying the establishment of a reliable native force.

Having an unstable and untrustworthy defence force has dramatic effects on governance, Machiavelli argues. He sees a crucial relationship between governance and defence as the main engine of state-building and governance: ‘the principal fundamentals that link all states, those new, old or mixed, are good laws and good arms: […] there cannot be good laws without good arms.’ [5] This is due to the risk of remaining undefended, which destabilises the state: ‘among the reasons that bring you harm, being unarmed makes you contemptible’. [6] Clearly, for Machiavelli there cannot be a stable practice of governance without the assurance of a dependable defence force to protect the territory, its people and governors against the ambitions of ‘the barbarians’ or foreign invaders, other lords, other states and transnational factions. The latter were particularly problematic, as they were both external and internal to any single city-state in Renaissance Italy. Guelphs (supporters of Papal supremacy) and Ghibellines (supporters of the supremacy of the Holy Roman Empire) had fought over control of many Northern Italian city-states for the three centuries preceding Machiavelli, routinely taking over power and exiling each other from their native states. Notably, Guelphs and Ghibellines were domestic factions in each city, and were able to appeal to the help of successful members of their faction in other cities. Additionally, as is evident from the Discourses, mercenary forces are to Machiavelli the employees of their client, not the state directly, which has a distinct political effect among subjects: ‘when you disarm [the people] you are starting to offend them: you are showing that you distrust them either for cowardice or little faith, and either of these opinions generates hatred against you’. [7] Thus the immediate political effect is to suggest among citizens a sense of occupation and repression, which has repercussions for how a government or a lord comes to be appreciated by their subjects, and subsequently for their loyalty. This aspect of how mercenary forces come to be perceived  has a reverse corollary: whilst the people come to see their prince as dependant on foreign forces and distrusting his subjects, the former becomes more and more dependent upon the condottiere, the mercenary leader, which has the direct effect of undermining his sovereignty and that of the state. This was not only true of autocratic rulers, it also greatly affected republican regimes such as in Machiavelli’s own Florence during his time as segretario of the Republic.

Machiavelli’s work remains extremely influential and iconic in a number of fields, including the study of PMSCs. This paper has offered an exploration of Machiavelli’s historical and political context before marking a return to his original texts, advancing the argument that Machiavelli’s consideration of mercenaries was not only the view that they were ‘useless and dangerous’, or the ramblings of an amateur tactician complaining about unreliable troops, but rather that the use of mercenary troops posed very serious political challenges. What follows from the argument I have made here, is that Machiavelli saw the extensive use of, and indeed dependence upon mercenaries as a roadblock to state-building and to the consolidation of stable sovereign rule. Good governance was directly challenged by the use of hired forces: they did not provide a stable, loyal or reliable line of defence; they rendered the organisation of a native force more unlikely and challenging and finally, and most problematically, they created political strife by placing all military power in the hands of the prince or an official, rather than making it a collective defence duty that could, additionally, unify the population and inspire loyalty. The prince or official were in turn dependent on the leadership of the mercenaries, the condottiere, which vastly eroded their independence.

Hiring mercenaries, we might conclude, was a dual political bind in the Italian Renaissance. They rendered more difficult the creation of an alternative defence force, making the state dependent upon them. They also undermined governance itself by undermining the domestic political value of defence, stable defence itself, as well as the independence of the ruler, thus making ‘good laws’ or governance more difficult. The use of mercenaries and security contractors was to change in the following centuries, and it is of interest to enquire as to how the political bind posed by the employment of mercenaries, problematised by Machiavelli and explored here, was addressed by successive rulers and governments.

[1] The Prince XII
[2] Istorie Fiorentine, I, XXXIV, all translations my own.
[3] The Prince, XX
[4]  The Prince, 13
[5] The Prince XII
[6]  The Prince, XIV
[7] The Prince, 20

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