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Chapter 8 develops Machiavelli's views that one may rise to power either by wicked or by devious means. To underscore his theme, Machiavelli describes in detail the careers of two infamous rulers-one from antiquity, the other a contemporary of Machiavelli-who used wickedness, revenge, and brutality to enhance their power. Agathocles of Sicily was poor; but he was ambitious as well as courageous and earned success as the leader of the local militia. He seized power in Syracuse in 316 B.C. by cunning and deception. Hiding his loyal soldiers in the town council, Agathocles summoned all the senators, nobles, and rich citizens of Syracuse to a supposedly crucial meeting. On a secret signal, his soldiers sprang from their hiding place and slaughtered the stunned guests. Then, Agathocles proclaimed himself king of Syracuse as he assumed absolute power.

In the years of his reign, 316 to 289 B.C., Agathocles defended Syracuse against attack by the Carthaginians, then left a portion of his forces to sustain the battle, and crossed the sea with another force to attack Africa. Although Machiavelli praises Agathocles for his courage and valor, he doesn't consider him a great prince because all Agathocles gained was power, not the popular respect and admiration that should accompany a true prince's reign. He did achieve leadership through his high rank in the army, but he massacred his fellow citizens, betrayed his friends, and was devoid of good faith, mercy, and religion. His outrageous cruelty and inhumanity, together with his infinite crimes, keeps him from being classed with the celebrated rulers of history.

The second example is Machiavelli's contemporary, Oliverotto da Fermo, who became ruler of Fermo in 1501. Oliverotto was abandoned as a child and raised by his uncle in a small province just outside Fermo. At an early age he was apprenticed to the brutal mercenary militia captain Paolo Vitelli. When Paolo died some years later, Oliverotto was promoted to the rank of captain in the militia because of his intelligence, physical strength, and fearlessness. Thinking it servile to take orders from others, Oliverotto planned to seize the city of Fermo and proclaim himself ruler. So, in the spring of 1501, he wrote his uncle that he was returning home for a visit, bringing with him a hundred of his loyal soldiers and horsemen. The homecoming of such a distinguished figure was celebrated with a magnificent feast, to which all local politicians and nobles were invited.

At the height of the festivities, Oliverotto suggested that his uncle, Giovanni Fogliani, and the other guests retire to a parlor to discuss the greatness of Pope Alexander VI and his son Cesare Borgia. As the unsuspecting group entered the dimly lit parlor, Oliverotto's men butchered them. Having appointed his soldiers, horsemen, and friends to all the government positions left vacant by the murders, Oliverotto became the most feared prince in the region. He ruled Fermo, however, for only one year before he himself was murdered, for conspiring to overthrow Cesare Borgia.

How is it that men like Agathocles and Oliverotto can live securely for any length of time in the countries whose freedom and liberty they have usurped? How can they defend themselves successfully against external enemies, without any attempts on the part of their enslaved citizens to conspire against them?

The answer, according to Machiavelli, depends on the nature of the cruelties they have inflicted on their subjects. Some cruelties may have been committed in one lump sum from the ruler's necessity for self-protection-and may even have resulted in the public good. But other cruelties, at first rare, may have increased with time rather than ceasing altogether. Those rulers who adopted the first practice may-as the example of Agathocles suggests-with the help of God and man render some service to the state. But those who adopt the later course-as the example of Oliverotto suggests-can't possibly maintain themselves in their state for a long period of time.

The lesson to be learned here is that when taking possession of a state the new ruler must execute his harsh measures at a single blow, so he doesn't have to repeat them every day. By not repeating them, a prince assures himself of the support of the inhabitants and then wins them over by bestowing benefits. In phrasing this argument, Machiavelli advances his third golden rule for maintaining power:

Cruelties should be committed all at once, as in that way each separate one is less felt, and gives less offense; benefits, on the other hand, should be conferred one at a time, for in that way they will be more appreciated.

Machiavelli concludes the chapter by saying that, above all, a prince should live on such terms with his subjects that no accident, either for good or for evil, should make him vary his conduct toward them. For when adverse times bring upon him the necessity for action, he will no longer have time to do evil; and the good he may do will not profit him, because it will be regarded as having been forced from him and therefore will bring him no thanks.


Machiavelli's examples of men who come to power, however briefly, are not unusual even today. These men exploit the people, commit a rash of atrocities, and rely on deceit and murder to achieve their fleeting power. You should consider what Machiavelli's purpose might be in writing about such ways of achieving power. As you continue reading, note the specific examples, references, or allusions Machiavelli makes to the role of violence and brutality in the political process. Your thoughts here will put you in a better position to evaluate contemporary politics and to better relate to past or current leaders of countries who echo Machiavelli's analysis of the role cruelty might play in maintaining absolute power.

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