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The Prince | Study Guide

Niccolò Machiavelli

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Chapter 12

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Chapter 12 of Niccolò Machiavelli's philosophical text The Prince.

The Prince | Chapter 12 : Military Organization and Mercenary Troops | Summary



The subject of this chapter is the composition and organization of a prince's military forces. Machiavelli begins his analysis by laying out several classifications. There are these different types of a military force: native, mercenary, auxiliary, or composite. Native troops are the prince's own troops, whom he commands and trains. Mercenary troops are independent and professional soldiers whom a prince hires; they are commanded and trained by their own rules. Auxiliary troops are the native troops of another state, commanded and trained by the leader of that state. Composite troops are a combination of these troop categories.

Machiavelli aims primarily to criticize the use of mercenary armies. He states that these armies are disloyal, cowardly, and expensive. As professional soldiers, they fight only for as long as they are paid, rather than out of any sense of obligation. This makes them expensive, as Machiavelli argues that no purely monetary enticement can motivate a man to risk his life. Without feeling a connection to a cause, a soldier will not risk his life.

Machiavelli then proceeds to provide historical examples of countries that were ruined by their dependence on mercenary armies—including Italian cities during his own time. He argues that skilled and capable mercenaries will eventually attack the cities that employ them, or at least force the cities to obey their wishes. This is because the commander of such an army will be ambitious. On the other hand, incapable mercenaries will simply fail to defeat enemies through ineptitude.

Finally, Machiavelli argues that mercenary armies are doomed to fail—and to subvert good military tactics—for economic reasons. Because they lack the resources gained from owning land and having citizens, they cannot assemble a large force. Because of this, they turn to tactics that are suitable for small forces and push those tactics as superior. They tend to avoid direct clashes with the enemy and fail to attain military objectives against larger forces.


Military power is central in Machiavelli's view, so much so that he wrote an entire book discussing military matters, The Art of War. The importance of military power is made clear when Machiavelli states, "The main foundations of every state are good laws and good arms, and where there are good arms, good laws inevitably follow." What he means is that with the force to support them, even the most considered and fair laws can be broken with no penalty and there will be no recourse against unfair laws.

Machiavelli's views on military composition and tactics were in conflict with the majority view in Italy during his time. Mercenary armies were the backbone of the campaigns waged by Italian princes during this era. Machiavelli's advice to his patron is to avoid the mistakes made by other Italian princes and refrain from using mercenary armies. This advice is based not only on strategic considerations, like how relatively few troops a mercenary can field, but also on considerations about human nature. Machiavelli's picture of human behavior as selfish also explains the ineffectiveness of mercenary armies. The only benefit mercenaries seek is payment. Many commentators identify his thoughts as the beginning of modern military science, as he advocated for a standing citizen army and an armed population.

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