Born in 1469 of an aristocratic but impoverished Florentine family, Niccolo Machiavelli saw in his youth the brilliance of Florence under the benevolent despotism of the Medici. He seems to have been unaffected by the Neoplatonic revival, for his formation was that of a purely Latin humanist, and the two passions of his life were for politics and history, inextricably mingled. When the Medici were expelled, the change to a republican government fostered such interests, for the intense political discussions which went on in liberated Florence drew constantly on examples from ancient history. Machiavelli gained his early political experience as a secretary to the Florentine republic; on the return of the Medici he was imprisoned and tortured, though soon released. He retired to his small estate where, in great poverty, he mused on what had happened, asking why the Romans had succeeded in building a great republic and empire whereas Florence and all Italy were going down into ruin. The result of these questionings was The Prince and the Discourses on Livy.
Describing in a letter his life at this time, Machiavelli says that he escapes from this hard world when he enters his study; there he puts on better garments to converse with ancient authors, and loses himself in delight. So might Petrarch have described the solace which he found among the classics. But there was a basic difference between Machiavelli’s approach to the ancient examples and that of Petrarch and the humanist historians. In the earlier humanist tradition, as in the Middle Ages, the stories about the great men of antiquity had been used as images of virtues and vices, teaching ethics by their examples. Machiavelli seeks to learn from them political counsels; he writes his commentaries on Livy, comparing ancient with modern events “so that those who read what I have to say may the more easily draw those practical lessons which one should seek to obtain from the study of history.”
MACHIAVELLI BELIEVED that history always repeats itself, and tried to draw up maxims for political conduct in given sets of circumstances from the analysis of similar circumstances in the past. It may be questioned whether he was as much a “realist” as his great contemporary, Guicciardini, who dealt with each situation as a new problem, not soluble by rules, and who criticized Machiavelli’s maxims. There is moreover a strong poetic and imaginative streak in Machiavelli, which is hardly consonant with pure realism. This streak comes out in one of his favorite themes, the virtù of the Roman people. He uses this word in a Latin sense, not translatable as “virtue,” to include confidence or morale, efficiency and strength of character, even the “virtue” of loyalty when used for the Roman attitude to the state or the army. The Romans possessed virtù longer than any other people; hence they lasted longer and triumphed longer over fortune. Thus intangible elements enter into Machiavelli’s view of history, and no very clear answer can be given …