The Prince 
By Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Title Derivation
Key Dates
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...2010 ©
Type of Work

.......The Prince is a treatise (a long prose work that systematically discusses an idea) on what a ruler needs to do to maintain political power while withstanding attacks by foreign powers. Machiavelli wrote the work in his native language, Italian.

Title Derivation

.......The Prince (Italian: Il Principe) is a title that Niccolò Machiavelli derived from the Latin word, princeps, meaning the first, chief citizen, and leader. Many Roman emperors, including Augustus Caesar, used princeps as one of their titles. Prince, as Machiavelli uses the word, can refer not only to a prince but also to a king, an emperor, a duke, or any other sovereign.

Key Dates

Machiavelli began The Prince in 1513 and completed it in 1514. It was published posthumously, in 1532, and translated into English in 1640.


.......Niccolò Machiavelli, the son of an impoverished doctor of laws, was born in the Italian city of Florence (Italian: Firenze) in 1469. Florence was a city-state which the wealthy Medici family had gained control of in 1434 and ruled continuously until the 1490s. In 1492, the greatest of all the Medici rulers–Lorenzo de' Medici, known as Lorenzo the Magnificent–died and was succeeded by his son, Piero. 
.......After the French invaded Italy in 1494, Florence, Piero angered the populace by attempting to appease the French with concessions. Consequently, he and his family were driven out of Florence.Between 1494 and 1498, the Italian Dominican priest Girolamo Savonarola ruled the city with a democratic government. The many successes he achieved aroused jealousy, and in 1498 he was executed. In that year, Florence was declared a republic. Machiavelli, who had served previously in a minor government role, was appointed to an important position in the republic: secretary of the council that oversaw diplomacy and military affairs. As part of his duties, he went on missions to France and Germany and to governments within Italy. In time, he became well schooled in government affairs.
.......While carrying out missions, Machiavelli witnessed firsthand the ruthless tactics that Italian politician Cesare Borgia (1475 or 1476-1507) used to seize and maintain control of cities. Machiavelli later based many of the governing methods recommended in The Prince on those used by Borgia. 
After the Medici family returned and seized power in Florence in 1512, Machiavelli lost his job and was later accused of conspiring against the city. Consequently, he was imprisoned, tortured, and then banished for a year. He then wrote The Prince

Purpose of The Prince

.......Machiavelli's purpose in writing The Prince was twofold: (1) to show a ruler or would-be ruler how best to maintain a safe and prosperous state amid the political turmoil of early 16th Century Italy and (2) to redeem himself in the eyes of the ruler of Florence, Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici (son of Piero de' Medici and grandson of Lorenzo the Magnificent).

The Prince as an Innovative Work

.......What set The Prince apart from other treatises on politics–and shocked the reading public–was this: It argued that a sovereign from time to time must resort to unethical and immoral policies and practices in order maintain control and maximize the safety and welfare of his domain. In other words, a ruler should lie, cheat, break promises, and so on to strengthen or maintain his control while promoting the welfare of the people. The end justifies the means. 
.......Machiavelli formuated his political theory after years of observing corrupt politics close up. True, it would have been better for human beings to follow established moral and ethical precepts, Machiavelli knew. But politics was a tainted profession. Saints passed their lives praying in monasteries or working in leper colonies. City hall was the domain of the devil. To survive in city hall, one had to adopt the tactics of the devil. Machiavelli was a realist. He was telling his readers, "This is the way it is in the real world. If you want to succeed in the real world, use real-world strategies."

Terminology Describing Machiavelli's Philosophy

.......Among the terms that help sum up the political philosophy described in The Prince are expedience, pragmatism, and realpolitik (pronounced ray AL pol e teek), all of which refer to a policy a government official uses to obtain maximum benefits for his country regardless of whether the policy is moral or ethical. Realpolitik is a modern term used most often to refer to the approach used to make foreign, rather than domestic, policy. 

Weakness in the Work

.......To document and justify his guidelines in The Prince, Machiavelli noted that they were based on strategies that rulers of the past used to achieve success. However, he conveniently ignored instances in which past rulers failed to achieve their goals using these same strategies. In other words, The Prince lacked scientific objectivity. It manipulated history to serve its purpose; it was not a sound research document.
Summary of The Prince

.......The Prince is a guidebook explaining what a sovereign must do to maintain and strengthen control over a domain. 
.......Machiavelli calls such a sovereign a prince. But that term may include any other non-elected ruler. Thus, the sovereign may be not only a prince, who rules over a principality, but also a king (kingdom), emperor (empire), duke (dukedom or duchy), and so on.
.......Machiavelli says his guidebook applies only to sovereigns, not to rulers elected or appointed by citizens or their representatives, as in a democracy or a republic. (Modern political scientists observe that elected rulers such as presidents, senators, members of parliaments, mayors, and aldermen often exhibit the political behavior of a prince, as defined by Machiavelli, or use “Machiavellian” tactics to maintain or augment their political power.)
.......Sovereigns either inherit or acquire their domains, Machiavelli writes. An inherited domain is easier to manage than an acquired domain, Machiavelli argues, inasmuch as the inherited domain has continuity of rulership. Laws, customs, traditions, and an established language are already in place, as are friends and supporters of the new ruler's family. On the other hand, a domain acquired through force of arms or other means is generally more difficult to manage, since it may have different customs, traditions, and legal codes, as well as a different language. Morever, the inhabitants of the new domain may be suspicious of, or hostile toward, the new ruler. Thus, the ruler of an acquired domain may need to establish a residence in the domain in order to observe and communicate with the native population. Machiavelli offers these additional recommendations for rulers of all types of domains:

  1. Imitate the style and techniques of rulers of the past who successfully ruled their territories.
  2. Limit the freedom of the citizens and, thus, minimize the risk of uprisings. 
  3. Maintain a strong military force to keep the peace and to provide a buffer against foreigners who might invade or stir up mischief among the native population. This military force should consist of citizens of the domain, not foreign mercenaries. The latter are often untrustworthy. As the supreme military leader, the ruler should have a knowledge of arms and military tactics and even lead his troops when necessary.
  4. Use violence, trickery, and insincerity when necessary to overcome adversaries and win benefits for the domain. Political and military enemies regularly use these tactics, and the wise ruler must be ready fight fire with fire. However, a ruler should avoid unnecessary use of these tactics.
  5. Increase state wealth by plundering enemy money and treasure when the opportunity presents itself. Such a policy will reduce the tax burden on the citizens of the domain. However, the ruler should raise taxes if that measure becomes necessary to maintain or replenish state coffers.
  6. Show a modicum of generosity toward the people but do not pamper them. Showing too much liberality can spoil the citizens; showing too little or none at all can turn them against the ruler. When it is necessary to reprimand an important citizen, the ruler should consider having a stand-in do it for him. If the citizen reacts unfavorably to the reprimand, claiming it is unjust, he is more likely to blame the stand-in for the injustice than the ruler.
  7. Strike a balance between mild and severe punishment of lawbreakers. Showing too much mercy can make a ruler appear weak, and citizens may try to take advantage of him. Showing no mercy can make him appear cruel and insufferable, and the people will hate him. In general, it is better for a ruler to foster policies that make people fear him rather than love him, but he should avoid doing anything that would cause the people to hate him. 
  8. Appoint court officials known to be trustworthy and devoted to the ruler’s interests. But do not appoint officials who are afraid to tell the truth, believing they will offend the ruler. A ruler must demand and get the truth from everyone serving under him.
.......In Chapter 17, Machiavelli focuses on the question of whether it is wiser to be loved than feared. Here is his answer, in part:
[It] is far safer to be feared than loved. For of men it may generally be affirmed, that they are thankless, fickle, false studious to avoid danger, greedy of gain, devoted to you while you are able to confer benefits upon them, and ready, as I said before, while danger is distant, to shed their blood, and sacrifice their property, their lives, and their children for you; but in the hour of need they turn against you. The Prince, therefore, who without otherwise securing himself builds wholly on their professions is undone. For the friendships which we buy with a price, and do not gain by greatness and nobility of character, though they be fairly earned are not made good, but fail us when we have occasion to use them. 
.......Moreover, men are less careful how they offend him who makes himself loved than him who makes himself feared. For love is held by the tie of obligation, which, because men are a sorry breed, is broken on every whisper of private interest; but fear is bound by the apprehension of punishment which never relaxes its grasp. 
.......Nevertheless a Prince should inspire fear in such a fashion that if he do not win love he may escape hate. For a man may very well be feared and yet not hated, and this will be the case so long as he does not meddle with the property or with the women of his citizens and subjects. And if constrained to put any to death, he should do so only when there is manifest cause or reasonable justification. But, above all, he must abstain from the property of others. For men will sooner forget the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony. Moreover, pretexts for confiscation are never to seek, and he who has once begun to live by rapine always finds reasons for taking what is not his; whereas reasons for shedding blood are fewer, and sooner exhausted. (N.H. Thomson
.......Machiavelli ends The Prince with an appeal to the Medici family to free Italy from foreign domination. 
    This opportunity, therefore, ought not to be allowed to pass for letting Italy at last see her liberator appear. Nor can one express the love with which he would be received in all those provinces which have suffered so much from these foreign scourings, with what thirst for revenge, with what stubborn faith, with what devotion, with what tears. What door would be closed to him? Who would refuse obedience to him? What envy would hinder him? What Italian would refuse him homage? To all of us this barbarous dominion stinks. Let, therefore, your illustrious house take up this charge with that courage and hope with which all just enterprises are undertaken, so that under its standard our native country may be ennobled, and under its auspices may be verified that saying of Petrarch: 
      Virtu contro al Furore 
      Prendera l'arme, e fia il combatter corto: 
      Che l'antico valore 
      Negli italici cuor non e ancor morto. 

      Virtue against fury shall advance the fight, 
      And it i' th' combat soon shall put to flight; 
      For the old Roman, valour is not dead, 
      Nor in th' Italians' breasts extinguished. (Marriott)

    This above appeal and poem are quoted from a translation of The Prince by W.K. Marriott. (See below for additional source information) Page 103

Misconceptions About Machiavelli and The Prince

.......Over the years, many erroneous ideas about Machiavelli and The Prince have taken wing and flown away as facts. Here are some of the "myths" about Machiavelli and The Prince, followed by facts:

    Myth: Machiavelli believed authoritarian rule was better than democratic or republican rule.
    Fact: Machiavelli supported representative government. However, in the times in which he lived, he believed a prince–a savior–might be necessary to combat rampant political corruption in Italy while forestalling foreign invasion. Also, as a practical man himself, Machiavelli believed The Prince, his blueprint for sovereign rule, would earn him favor with the Medici ruler at the time of the book's publication.

    Myth: Machiavelli dedicated The Prince to Lorenzo de’ Medici, known as Lorenzo the Magnificent.
    Fact: Machiavelli dedicated The Prince to Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici, grandson of Lorenzo the Magnificent. Machiavelli hoped to gain favor with Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici, but the latter did not provide his opinion of the book, whether pro or con. It is not certain whether he even read the book.

    Myth: Machiavelli promoted the principles set forth in The Prince–including violence and duplicity–as the ideal guidelines for ruling a domain.
    Fact: Machiavelli presented the principles in The Prince as guidelines that a ruler in the real world, not the ideal world, should use to hold power and safeguard public welfare. To be moral and ethical is wonderful; unfortunately, most politicians are neither moral nor ethical, according to Machiavelli.

    Myth: Machiavelli wrote The Prince primarily for people of all times, everywhere.
    Fact: Machiavelli wrote The Prince primarily for people in his own time to remedy serious political problems–and to gain favor for himself with the ruling Medici family..

    Myth: Machiavelli cannot be criticized for recommending immoral or unethical behavior; he was merely reporting the truth. No writer can be chastised for presenting reality as it is.
    Fact: Machiavelli was not merely reporting on immoral or unethical behavior; he was recommending it and therefore is open to criticism on moral and ethical grounds. Morever, his version of the truth was marred by faulty research methods. 

    Myth: Machiavelli was an atheist who despised religion.
    Fact: Machiavelli was a Catholic who died believing in God.

Quotations From The Prince
Translated by W. K. Marriott

Treatment of the People

It makes him [a ruler] hated above all things, as I have said, to be rapacious, and to be a violator of the property and women of his subjects, from both of which he must abstain. And when neither their property nor honour is touched, the majority of men live content, and he has only to contend with the ambition of a few, whom he can curb with ease in many ways.

It makes him contemptible to be considered fickle, frivolous, effeminate, mean-spirited, irresolute, from all of which a prince should guard himself as from a rock; and he should endeavour to show in his actions greatness, courage, gravity, and fortitude; and in his private dealings with his subjects let him show that his judgments are irrevocable, and maintain himself in such reputation that no one can hope either to deceive him or to get round him.

Knowledge of Warfare

A prince ought to have no other aim or thought, nor select anything else for his study, than war and its rules and discipline; for this is the sole art that belongs to him who rules, and it is of such force that it not only upholds those who are born princes, but it often enables men to rise from a private station to that rank. And, on the contrary, it is seen that when princes have thought more of ease than of arms they have lost their states. And the first cause of your losing it is to neglect this art; and what enables you to acquire a state is to be master of the art.

Construction of Castles

The prince, who has more to fear from the people than from foreigners ought to build fortresses, but he who has more to fear from foreigners than from the people ought to leave them alone. The castle of Milan, built by Francesco Sforza, has made, and will make, more trouble for the house of Sforza than any other disorder in the state. For this reason the best possible fortress is- not to be hated by the people, because, although you may hold the fortresses, yet they will not save you if the people hate you, for there will never be wanting foreigners to assist a people who have taken arms against you.

Works Cited

N.H. Thomson, translator. The Prince, by Niccolò Machiavelli. Vol. XXXVI, Part 1. The Harvard Classics. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909–14; Bartleby.com. 2001. 8 July 2010. .......<www.bartleby.com/36/1/>. 

W.K. Marriott, translator. The Prince, by Niccolò Machiavelli. Columbia University, Institute for Learning Technologies. New York: Macmillan, 1944. 8 July 2010