Chapter 8

Those Who Have Obtained A Principality By Wickedness

by Niccolo Machiavelli Icon

A prince can also rise from a private situation through:

  1. Wickedness, either ancient or modern
  2. The favor of his fellow-citizens, becoming a prince from a private citizen


Agathocles, the Sicilian, became King of Syracuse from a low and humble position. He was the son of a pot maker, through all the changes in his fortunes always led a wicked life.

But he also was very skilled in mind and body. He devoted himself to the military profession and rose through its ranks to become leader of the army in Syracuse.

He then resolved to make himself prince and to seize by violence, that which had already been willingly given to him. He came to an understanding for this purpose with Hamilcar, the Carthaginian, who with his army, was fighting in Sicily.

One morning, he assembled the people and the senate of Syracuse. His soldiers then killed all the senators and the richest of the people. He seized and held the princedom of Syracuse without any civil rebellion.

He was twice defeated by the Carthaginians and was ultimately besieged. He successfully defended his city and was able to take some of his men to attack the Carthaginians in Africa.

In a short time, the Carthaginians’ were forced to stop their siege and were reduced to extreme necessity. They were forced to make peace with Agathocles, leaving Sicily to him.

Agathocles attained success step by step in the military profession.

This advancement was gained with a thousand troubles and dangers, and was afterwards boldly held by him in spite of many dangers. Yet it cannot be called “ability” to kill fellow citizens, to deceive friends, to be without faith, without mercy, without religion; such methods may gain empire, but not glory.

Still, if the courage of Agathocles in entering into and removing himself from dangers is considered together with his greatness of mind in overcoming hardships, it seems that he should be admired as much as the most notable captain. Nevertheless, his terrible cruelty and infinite wickedness do not permit him to be ranked among the most excellent men. What he achieved however cannot be attributed to fortune.

Oliverotto da Fermo

In our times, during the rule of Alexander 6th, we have Oliverotto da Fermo.

He was brought up by his uncle, Giovanni Fogliani since his parents died many years before. In his youth, he was sent to fight under Pagolo Vitelli, so that he might attain some high position in the military profession.

After Pagolo died, he fought under his brother Vitellozzo. In a very short time, being clever and capable, he became the leading man in his profession.

But he did not like serving under others. So he resolved to seize Fermo with the aid of some of its citizens and the Vitelleschi. Its citizens believed that their slavery was more important than liberty.

So he wrote to his uncle, Giovanni Fogliani, that, having been away from home for many years, he wished to visit him and his city. He also wanted to look at what his parents had left him. He said that although he had not laboured to acquire anything except honour, he wanted the citizens of Fermo to see he had not spent his time in vain.

Thus, he would be accompanied by one hundred of his soldiers, his friends and servants. He begged Giovanni to arrange for him to be received honourably by the Fermians, in recognition of not only his own achievements but also those of Giovanni himself, who had brought him up.

Giovanni, therefore, did his best for his nephew. Oliverotto was honourably received by the Fermians, and he stayed in his uncle’s own house. After several days, and having arranged what was necessary for his wicked designs, Oliverotto gave a formal dinner to which he invited Giovanni Fogliani and the leaders of Fermo.

When the food and all the other usual entertainment were finished, Oliverotto began to speak of serious matters, speaking of the greatness of Pope Alexander and his son Cesare. Giovanni and others replied to this speech, but Oliverotto rose at once, saying that such matters should be discussed in a more private place. He went into another room, and Giovanni and the rest of the citizens went in after him.

No sooner were they seated than soldiers came out from secret places and killed Giovanni and the rest. After these murders, Oliverotto rode up and down the town on horseback and besieged the governing council.

The people were afraid and were forced to obey him. They made a government with Oliverotto as the prince.

He killed all those who were able to injure him, and strengthened himself with new civil and military laws, in such a way that, in the year during which he held the principality, not only was he secure in the city of Fermo, but he had become more powerful than all his neighbours.

His destruction would have been as difficult as that of Agathocles if he had not allowed himself to be tricked by Cesare Borgia. One year after he had committed the murder of his uncle, he was killed.

How could Agathocles, and his like, after infinite wickedness and cruelties live securely for so long in his country? How could he defend himself from external enemies, and never have a rebellion by his own citizens?

Many others, by means of cruelty, have never been able even in peaceful times to hold the state, still less in the doubtful times of war. I believe that this follows from severe measures being badly or properly used.

Cruelty is properly used if it:

  • is applied at one blow
  • is necessary to one’s security
  • does not persist afterwards unless they can be turned to the advantage of the subjects.

The severe measures might be few in the beginning. But they might increase with time. This means that it is badly used.

Those who are initially cruel can, by the aid of God or man, soften their rule later as what Agathocles did. It is impossible for those who continue to be cruel to maintain their control.

Hence, in seizing a state, the attacker should:

  • examine closely all those injuries which are necessary
  • do them all at one stroke so as not to have to repeat them daily.

Thus by not continually upsetting the people, he will be able to make them feel more secure, and win them over by benefits.

He who does otherwise, either from reluctance or evil advice, is always forced to keep the knife in his hand.

He cannot rely on his subjects, and they cannot attach themselves to him, because of the continued and repeated wrongs.

Injuries should be done all at one time, so that, being tasted less, they offend less.

Benefits should be given little by little, so that their flavour may last longer.

Above all, a prince should live amongst his people in such a way that no unexpected circumstances, whether of good or evil shall make him change.

If the necessity for this comes in troubled times, you are too late for severe measures. Mild ones will not help you, because they will be considered as forced from you, and no one will feel grateful to you for them.


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