The Art of War (Dell'arte della guerra), is one of the lesser-read works of Florentine statesman and political philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli.
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.
The Art of War
is divided into a preface (proemio
) and seven books (chapters), which take the form of a series of dialogues
that take place in the green and shady retreat of a garden between Cosimo Rucellai, a friend of Machiavelli's who had died young, and "Lord Fabrizio Colonna" (a transparent disguise for Machiavelli himself), with other patrizi
and captains of the recent Florentine republic. The work is dedicated to Lorenzo di Filippo Strozzi
, patrizio fiorentino
Fabrizio is enamored with the Roman Legions of the early to mid Republic and strongly advocates adapting them to the contemporary situation of Renaissance Florence.
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.
Machiavelli's Art of War
echoes many themes, issues, ideas and proposals from his earlier, more widely read works, The Prince
and The Discourses
. While his theories are based on a thorough study and analysis of classical and contemporary military practices, some of his proposals proved impractical for the time. For example, from a position of hindsight he seems to underrate the effectiveness of both firearms and cavalry.
However at the time he was writing firearms
, both technologically and tactically, were in their infancy and the rushing of enemy missile armed troops, of artillery even, between salvos, by a charge
and sword and shield men
would have been a viable tactic. In addition Machiavelli was not writing in a vacuum; the Art of War
was written as a practical proposition to the rulers of Florence
as an alternative to the unreliable condottieri mercenaries
that all the Italian city states were reliant upon. A standing army of the prosperous and pampered citizens that would have formed the cavalry would have been little better. Machiavelli therefore "talks up" the advantages of a militia of those arms that Florence could realistically muster and equip from her own resources.
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?]
- The Art of War, Niccolo Machiavelli. Da Capo press edition, 2001, with introduction by Neal Wood.