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Machiavelli’s hypotheses vs historical facts

Published on 05 September 2011
Updated on 11 December 2023

Italian diplomat, author, philosopher, and historian, Niccolo Machiavelli (1469–1527) is still the icon of diplomacy—or at least of those who think that he overturned religion as a guide to statesmanship and unleashed a new spirit of ethical rapacity on the world (see Machiavelli’s Virtue by Harvey Mansfield). Religion and moral values were then a restraint. Contrariwise, political vitality was to be measured by the human disposition to acquire ever-greater power. Where security is to be found in the continuous acquisition of this world’s goods, so the philosopher posited, acquisition could only be practised abroad. Hence, the prince’s ongoing task was to wage war and enlarge the state through war or diplomacy, depending on circumstances and fortuna.

Portrait of Niccolò Machiavelli by Santi di Tito.
Portrait of Niccolò Machiavelli by Santi di Tito; Machiavelli’s The Prince (1513) is a seminal work on acquiring and maintaining political power, in which he emphasises the need for a ruler to be pragmatic and flexible in political affairs, and where immoral acts are justified if they can help achieve political glory (Wikimedia). ​

China’s first unified state

Comparing histories of empires sometimes yields interesting nuggets, and I found one as I studied the emergence of the first Chinese empire (see Art, Myth, and Ritual: The Path to Political Authority in Ancient China by Kwang-chih Chang). The period of the Three Dynasties (Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties; roughly 2200–256 BC) was one of endless wars: the Warring States period at its end being the culmination.

Emperor Qin (ruled 221–210 BC), having created a ‘state organized for war’ (see The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han by Mark Edward Lewis) and who first created a unified China, won out against all others in an orgy of blood that might have left 400,000 Zhao soldiers dead. His empire did not last long, for in Qin’s world view war was ‘ultimately fought not for gain but for loss, to expend energies and wealth that would otherwise accumulate in the hands of those who, by virtue of their growing prosperity, would come to serve their own interests rather than those of the state’ (Christianity solved this problem by promising Crusaders a martyrs’ paradise, if only they would fight a faraway enemy.) By 207 BC, the last of the Qin emperors was gone.1

Religion and warfare in China

I will not focus on this last paroxysmal episode of empire formation, but on the long preceding period, and show an interesting relationship between warfare and religion—Machiavelli’s dismissive concern.

As China emerged from the Neolithic Age, it created the ancestor cult, which was the ideological basis for state formation around clans and agnate lineages. A monopoly in communicating with Heaven and divinized ancestors became one of the prerequisites of power. One expression was scapulimancy: reading and interpreting signs in bones that had been heated over fire (some think that Chinese writing emerged from recording such oracular messages from Heaven and heavenly spirits). The other was the production of chiu ting—exquisite bronze objects used for shamanic/religious ceremonies (‘Hereby a harmony was secured between the high and the low, and all enjoyed the blessing of Heaven’(Tso Chuan, as quoted in Art, Myth, and Ritual)). The problem is, there were so many of them: despite the millennia of tomb depredation, the quantity (and quality) of such sacred objects which have been recovered is amazing. It was not simply possession of sacred objects, it was the quantity of such objects that secured political legitimacy for the ruler.

Oracle bone from circa 1200 BC, National Museum of China
Oracle bone from circa 1200 BC, National Museum of China.

The production of such objects required enormous resources: ores had to be dug up, smelted and alloyed, and the objects fabricated in a highly complex and painstaking procedure. Mobilising the required labour force indicated organised control over the masses. It was a proxy for the ruler’s ability to field a sizeable and effective army. That bronze was also used for weapons, and even more for axles of the feared war-chariots, is no coincidence. Production of such items was ‘conspicuous’. It was meant to impress this world, not the heavens. It was doubled by ‘conspicuous destruction’, when chiu ting were buried by the cartful in the tombs of the deceased ruler. Legitimacy was expressed by ownership of the chiu ting,  and power by their number. Religious and political messages (to the states beyond the frontiers) went hand and hand, and could not be divorced.

Rome: Where soldiers built temples

We find similarities in the frenzied building of temples in Rome by Tarquinius Superbus, the last Roman king (see Res publica: Come Bruto Cacciò l’ultimo re di Roma by Andrea Carandini). Tarquin was an empire builder. He fielded armies, and when these rested, he had the jobless soldiers build temples, signifying to all neighbours of Rome his readiness to strike, as well as his ambition for imperial legitimacy. If cattle-rustling was typical of nomads, the Romans (and other acquisitory/tributary states) specialised in ‘harvest-rustling’, stealing the harvest after it had been painstakingly gathered beyond the country’s borders. As with all parasitic behaviour, it was not easy to find the proper balance in extraction—one could kill the goose that laid the golden eggs. Successful imperial elites managed this, but they could be easily replaced by another elite. This is why dynasties, even when the empire itself lived on, quickly vanished. China is a good example.

Religion as a precondition for building an empire

Pre-industrial states were tributary and thus expansive states (see Pre-Industrial Societies: Anatomy of the Pre-Modern World by Patricia Crone). With a stagnant agricultural base, the more land you had, the more surplus you could aggregate. And pre-industrial states relied heavily on religion. Thus, religion was no bar to empire. In fact, it was a precondition for building an empire. Given the difficulty of controlling the empire once conquered, religion provided the necessary legitimating glue. Far from being ‘modern’, the acquisitive state that Machiavelli preached was a throw-back to a bygone era and, to top this, shorn of its ideological glue. It would not work, and it did not work.

Probably unwittingly, Machiavelli was struggling with another, new factor: technological change. Given that bronze (!) guns had become the wherewithal of victory, large states were needed to organise their large-scale production. Louis XIV (1638–1715) levelled the immense forest between Paris and Brussels in order to produce the guns that took him there. He could not hold his empire together, for lack of an ideological kit. In the end, people would not march to the tune of L’état c’est moi. It took the injection of the word ‘nation’ into Article 3 of France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen to provide the glue. But nationalism was self-limiting2 and focused on internal organisation rather than sheer size; Bismarck (1815–1898) called it Blut und Eisen (Blood and Iron). He emphasised practical, often military, means for achieving national unification and power, not limited by ideological or nationalistic boundaries.

Opening Session of the French General Assembly, 5 May 1789 by Auguste Couder (Wikimedia).
Opening Session of the French General Assembly, 5 May 1789 by Auguste Couder (Wikimedia).


1. There is a lesson there for states relying on the army for state formation. The war machine will eventually turn on itself and self-destruct (see The Politics of the Prussian Army 1640-1945 by Gordon A. Craig). The Chinese took the lesson, and fast: universal military service was abolished in 32 AD. The role of the army was always subordinate in Imperial China, as shown iconographically: the Chinese ‘sages’ and ‘divinities’ fold the left (heart) hand over the right (warring) hand.

2. It is noteworthy that all major European empires (Spain, Holland, Great Britain, Russia, and France) were established before the French Revolution (1787–1799). The Age of Empire in the XIX century was a path-dependent outcome. In 1788, Britain declared Australia terra nullius. In 1840 New Zealand was taken over under the Waitangi Treaty with the Maori. Napoleon (1769–1821) failed because he could not reconcile ‘empire’ with the ‘nationhood’ of other European peoples. The German and Italian empires were ‘Jonny-come-lately’ affairs that never did amount to anything serious, and the Congo of Leopold II of Belgium (1835–1909) was a personal folly.

This post was first published on DeepDip.

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