Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio

The Discourses on Livy (Italian: Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio, literally "Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livy") is a work of political history and philosophy written in the early 16th century (ca. 1517) by the Italian writer and political theorist Niccolò Machiavelli, best known as the author of The Prince. The Discourses were published posthumously with papal privilege in 1531.

The title identifies the work's subject as the first ten books of Livy's Ab urbe condita, which relate the expansion of Rome through the end of the Third Samnite War in 293 BCE, although Machiavelli discusses what can be learned from many other eras including contemporary politics. Machiavelli saw history in general as a way to learn useful lessons from the past for the present, and also as a type of analysis which could be built upon, as long as each generation did not forget the works of the past.[1]

Machiavelli frequently describes Romans and other ancient peoples as superior models for his contemporaries, but he also describes political greatness as something which comes and goes amongst peoples, in cycles.


Discourses on Livy comprises a dedication letter and three books with 142 numbered chapters. The first two books (but not the third) are introduced by unnumbered prefaces. A good deal has been made of the coincidence that Livy's history also contained 142 books in addition to its introduction and other numerological curiosities that turn up in Machiavelli's writings.[2] Machiavelli says that the first book will discuss things that happened inside of Rome as the result of public counsel (I 1.6), the second, decisions made by the Roman people pertaining to the increase of its empire (II Pr.3), and the third, how the actions of particular men made Rome great (III 1.6).

Dedicatory Letter

Machiavelli dedicates the Discourses to two friends, Zanobi Buondelmonti and Cosimo Rucellai, both of whom appear in Machiavelli's Art of War. Rucellai had died in 1519, but this did not lead Machiavelli to find a new dedicatee, as he had with the Prince. Machiavelli justifies dedicating the Discourses to his two friends because they deserve to be princes, even if they lack principalities, and he criticizes the custom (which he had adopted in the Prince) of dedicating works to men who are princes but do not deserve to be.[2]

Book I

Machiavelli notes that Rome's actions as recounted by Livy proceeded either by "public counsel" or by "private counsel," and that they concerned either things inside the city or things outside the city, yielding four possible combinations. He says that he will restrict himself in Book I to those things that occurred inside the city and by public counsel (I 1.6)

The preface to Book I explains why Machiavelli wrote the Discourse. He notes that he brings new modes and orders, a dangerous task given the envy of men, but one motivated by the desire to work for the common benefit of everyone. He also notes that while his work may not be perfect, it deserves to be heard, because it will aid others after him in fulfilling his vision. He complains that the Italian Renaissance has stimulated a desire to imitate the ancients in art, law, and medicine, but that no one thinks of imitating ancient kingdoms or republics. He traces this to an improper reading of history that suggests that imitation of ancient political virtue is impossible. He declares his intention to overcome this view of the ancient world by examining Livy and modern politics. Book I covers a wide variety of topics regarding statecraft. Machiavelli claims that the various topics are all related to how the Romans conducted their internal affairs (Book II, preface).

Book II

Machiavelli begins the second book with another preface which explains why some people are enamored of the past and unsatisfied with their own times. While there are legitimate instances of love for the past and disdain for the present, Machiavelli also notes that often such claims are mistaken. He further notes that his discourses, insofar as they glorify the past and condemn much of the practices of Italian politics in his day, are not mistaken since "[the virtues of the past and vice of the present is]... so manifest that everyone sees it..." (Book II, preface). Machiavelli concludes his preface by stating that this book will deal with Rome's relationships with other states. As such the book generally deals with what today is called international relations. The most prominently discussed topic in this book is warfare.

Book III


In Book I of the Discourses, Machiavelli expresses an interesting view of Fortune and its role in shaping history. While discussing the religion of the Romans, Machiavelli acknowledges that Numa Pompilius introduced religion as a social tool to keep the people in line and obedient. The way in which Numa used religion to tame a savage people convince Machiavelli that religion was absolutely necessary for maintaining a government. But despite Machiavelli’s belief that religion was a fictional social construct, he still believes in the power and influence of fortune. For Machiavelli fortune plays a large role in affecting history; without fortune the Roman government would have never broken from the cycle of government demonstrated by Polybius. Fortune acted as a similar force to the role of gods, yet it was completely different in the sense that religion was man made and fortune existed naturally and benefited those who demonstrated good virtues.[3]

Reception and reaction

Francesco Guicciardini, Machiavelli's friend, read the book and wrote critical notes (Considerazioni) on many of the chapters. Jean-Jacques Rousseau considered the Discourses (as well as the Florentine Histories) to be more representative of Machiavelli's true philosophy:

Machiavelli was a proper man and a good citizen; but, being attached to the court of the Medici, he could not help veiling his love of liberty in the midst of his country's oppression. The choice of his detestable hero, Cesare Borgia, clearly enough shows his hidden aim; and the contradiction between the teaching of the Prince and that of the Discourses on Livy and the History of Florence shows that this profound political thinker has so far been studied only by superficial or corrupt readers. The Court of Rome sternly prohibited his book. I can well believe it; for it is that Court it most clearly portrays.
—Rousseau, The Social Contract, Book III.


Further reading

  • . Traces the republican ideal of civic virtue from the ancients, through Machiavelli, to the English, Scottish, and American political traditions.
  • . Skinner contextualizes Machiavelli, bringing to light the intellectual discussions that preceded and influenced his work.
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External links

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