The Prince, Chapter 8

In this chapter, Machiavelli addresses again, leaders who rise from a common background, though not necessarily through fortune or genius. It deals with rulers who come to power through the favor of fellow citizens, and particularly through “wicked or nefarious ways”. He offers two examples, one of which is “ancient” and one that is “modern” (contemporary to his period).

His first example is Agathocles the Sicilian, King of Syracuse who was not only a commoner, but the son of a potter. He led his life infamously, but with such ability of mind and body, and devoted to the military profession, he rose through the ranks to be Praetor of Syracuse. Once established in this position, he resolved to seize by violence and without obligation to anyone else, control as prince.


He made an arrangement with Amilcar, the Carthaginian who at the time was fighting in Sicily with his own army. Agathocles called together an assemblage of the people and the senate of Syracuse, as if he had to discuss things relating to the Republic. Then at a signal given to the soldiers, killed all of the senators and the richest of the people. Once they were dead, he seized and held the principality without any civil disturbance.

Later he was twice routed by the Carthaginians, and even besieged, but so good was his control of his princedom, he was able to leave half of his men to defend Syracuse while he took the rest and attacked Africa. This caused the Carthaginians to settle terms with him, and remove themselves from Sicily as well as Syracuse, returning back to Africa.

Machiavelli’s next paragraph states that even though Agathocles had a great mind and ability, rising as he did with a militaristic precision, and overcoming hardships, his esteem is no more than that of a most notable captain. He is not celebrated among the greatest of leaders because of his barbarous cruelty, inhumanity and infinite “wickedness”. Agathocles proves one can rise through fear but not be loved for it.


The second example, is Oliverotto da Fermo, a man who was orphaned and raised by an uncle. His uncle sent him to Pagolo Vitelli,to have his nephew trained to the military profession, so that he might rise to a higher station in life. After Pagolo died, he served his brother Vitellozzo, where he became the top ranked soldier. But this was not enough for Oliverotto, who plotted to take over the city of Fermo.

Oliverotto wrote to the uncle who had raised him and sought to position him well in life, and asked to return to the city of his birth. He asked to be permitted to show his fellow citizens that his time away had been spent honorably, and he asked to be permitted a retinue of 100 horsemen, his friends and retainers. He wished to be welcomed home with honor, and that this would also be reflected upon the uncle that had raised him.

And so his uncle, Giovanni Fogliani, saw to it this was done, housing Oliverotto in his own home, where he passed some days and made further arrangements for his true plan. Then Oliverotto gave a banquet, in which he invited his uncle and all of the leaders of Fermo. After the dinner and other entertainment were finished, Oliverotto began with “certain discourses”, speaking of the greatness of Pope Alexander and his son Casare Borgia, then decided the conversation was better suited to privacy.


He retired to a private chamber, inviting the rest to follow, which they did, and once seated, Giovanni and the rest were promptly slaughtered by Oliverotto’s soldiers. Afterwards, Oliverotto rode up and down the town and besieged the chief magistrate in the palace, causing the townsfolk to fear him. He forced them to form a new government with him as their prince.

He then proceeded to kill anyone who opposed him and strengthened himself with new civil and military ordinances, establishing and tightening his control in Fermo and surrounding principalities. Later he was overreached in power by Casare Borgia, and was among the Orsini and Vitelli at Sinigalia, where he and his mentor Vitellozzo were both strangled, one year after having committed parricide in Fermo.


Machiavelli comments on why leaders who gain power through infinite treacheries and excessive cruelties sometimes manage to survive external threats, without being conspired against by their own citizens. It is much more usual that such leaders, being so excessively cruel, fail to hold their principalities in peacetime or in war, having instigated their own citizenry against them. He says such a leader must first examine closely what cruelties are absolutely necessary, then do it all quickly, and only once.

The idea is to avoid angering the citizens any more than one absolutely has to, to be able to reassure them and win them over through benefits. Continuing a policy of cruelty, usually done by a leader out of fear or “evil advice”, causes such a leader to be compelled to keeping “the knife in hand”, causes him to never be able to rely upon his own citizenry, nor for them to attach their loyalty to him, because of the continued and repeated violence.

Lastly, Machiavelli suggests such a ruler should live among his subjects so as to be aware of all situational forces and not be taken by surprise. A ruler who is forced to make concessions by the people will not be able to gain any obligation from the people for those concessions. At this point it is better to avoid trouble rather than address it through harsh measures because it will be too late for the harsh measures if the ruler wishes to obtain or maintain the goodwill of the the local population.


Modern context? In Machiavelli’s day, this would have been understood as to why absolute monarchies fail. A usurper would seize control, and rather than trying to win over the citizenry, would treat them as though they were the enemy and further restrict or brutalize them. This would often lead to conspiracies to assassinate such leaders from within, or it would work like an open invitation for an external power to come in and take over.

Today we might know this as a fascist dictatorship when the former government is usurped through deceit, treachery, and brutal repressiveness. One example would be Germany, which was a Democracy when Hitler was elected Chancellor. He got elected through hate-mongering and scapegoating minorities, used thugs to bully voters at the polls, and to perpetuate acts of terrorism against the state, which he then used to frighten and coerce the rest of the citizenry into accepting his policies.

Once he became Chancellor, he seized control of the media and used propaganda (“fake news”) to control the population and gain support for invasions of other countries. He created his own para-military force. He shut down Parliament. He stifled dissent by executing dissenters and minorities, particularly the scapegoated Jews. He eventually was defeated by a combined effort of several other nations, and rather than surrender, committed suicide.


A slight variation on this would be present-day Syria; the conflict started with a drought that caused crop failure. When the people began protesting and criticizing the Syrian government, the government chose to crack down. They jailed political dissidents and activists, and the people rebelled. A civil war ensued and in the effort to retain government control, the Syrian government accepted the assistance of Russia. Russia’s military has been active in the region ever since.

Machiavelli’s warning is clear. Don’t abuse or plunder your own constituency. They will turn on you, or at the very least, do nothing to protect you. Policies of suspicion and abuse of your own people opens you up to internal and external threats. The policies of the last 18 years the majority of policy makers have done absolutely nothing towards protecting the citizens of this country. In fact, they’ve done the complete opposite, making us more vulnerable than we have ever been before.


The same principles apply in business; do not abuse or pillage your customers, your employees, your stockholders, or your partner organizations. Treat them fairly and with consideration and they will be highly productive. Abuse them and they will leave, become stressed to the point of sickness, lose morale and productivity will take a nosedive. Capitol will be lost in employee turnover costs and recruitment marketing with no end in sight because the problem lies with poor treatment of followers by leaders.