A member of the impoverished branch of a distinguished family, he entered (1498) the political service of the Florentine republic and rose rapidly in importance. As defense secretary he substituted (1506) a citizens' militia for the mercenary system then prevailing in Italy. This reform sprang from his conviction, set forth in his major works, that the employment of mercenaries had largely contributed to the political weakness of Italy. Machiavelli became acquainted with power politics through his important diplomatic missions. He met Cesare Borgia twice and was sent by way of Florence to Louis XII of France (1504, 1510), to Pope Julius II (1506), and to Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I (1507).
The Medicis' return (1512) to Florence caused his dismissal; in 1513 he was briefly imprisoned and was tortured for his alleged complicity in a plot against the Medici. Machiavelli retired to his country estate, where he wrote his chief works. He humiliated himself before the Medici in a vain attempt to recover office. When, in 1527, the republic was briefly reestablished, Machiavelli was distrusted by many of the republicans, and he died thoroughly disappointed and embittered.
Machiavelli's best-known work, Il principe [the prince] (1532), describes the means by which a prince may gain and maintain his power. His "ideal" prince (seemingly modeled on Cesare Borgia) is a supremely adaptable, amoral, and calculating tyrant who would be able to establish a unified Italian state. The last chapter of the work pleads for the eventual liberation of Italy from foreign rule. Interpretations of The Prince vary: it has been viewed as sincere advice, as a plea for political office, as a detached analysis of Italian politics, as evidence of early Italian nationalism, and as political satire on Medici rule. However, the adjective Machiavellian has come to be a synonym for amoral cunning and for justification by power.
Less widely read but more indicative of Machiavelli's politics is his scholarly Discorsi sulla prima deca di Tito Livio [discourses on the first 10 books of Livy] (1531). In it Machiavelli expounds a general theory of politics and government that stresses the importance of an uncorrupted political culture and a vigorous political morality. Vaster in conception than The Prince, the Discourses shows clearly Machiavelli's republican ideals and principles, which are also reflected in his Istorie Fiorentine [history of Florence] (1532), a historical and literary masterpiece, entirely modern in concept.
Other works include Dell'arte della guerra [on the art of war] (1521), which viewed military problems in relation to politics, and numerous reports and brief works. He also wrote many poems and plays, notably the lively, satiric, and ribald comedy Mandragola [the mandrake], an extremely popular work first performed in 1520. His correspondence has been preserved and is of great interest. The chief works of Machiavelli are available in several popular English editions.
See P. Constantine, ed., The Essential Writings of Machiavelli (2007); P. Villari, Life and Time of Niccolò Machiavelli (2 vol., tr. 1878); H. Butterfield, The Statecraft of Machiavelli (1956); R. Ridolfi, The Life of Niccoló Machiavelli (1954, tr. 1963); S. Anglo, Machiavelli (1970); E. Garver, Machiavelli and the History of Prudence (1987); P. S. Donaldson, Machiavelli and the Mystery of State (1989); M. Vitoli, Niccolò's Smile: A Biography of Machiavelli (2000); R. King, Machiavelli: Philosopher of Power (2007).
The format of 'The Art of War' was in socratic dialogue. The purpose, declared by Fabrizio (Machiavelli's persona) at the outset, "To honor and reward virtù, not to have contempt for poverty, to esteem the modes and orders of military discipline, to constrain citizens to love one another, to live without factions, to esteem less the private than the public good." To these ends, Machiavelli notes in his preface, the military is like the roof of a palazzo protecting the contents.
Written between 1519 and 1520 and published the following year, it was the only historical or political work printed during Machiavelli's lifetime, though he was appointed official historian of Florence in 1520 and entrusted with minor civil duties.
Fabrizio dominates the discussions with his knowledge, wisdom and insights. The other characters, for the most part, simply yield to his superior knowledge and merely bring up topics, ask him questions or for clarification. These dialogues, then, often become monologues with Fabrizio detailing how an army should be raised, trained, organized, deployed and employed.
However, his basic notion of emulating Roman practices was slowly and pragmatically adapted by many later rulers and commanders, most notably Maurice of Nassau and Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden. They would lay the foundations for the system of linear tactics which would dominate the warfare of Europe and the world until after the Napoleonic Wars.
While Machiavelli's influence as a military theorist is often given a backseat to his writings as a political philosopher, he considered Dell'arte della guerra to be his most important work, since it was concerned solely with war, which to him was the most important aspect of statecraft (The roof on the palazzo of state, after all).
Voltaire said: "Machiavelli taught Europe the art of war; it had long been practiced, without being known." [quote?]