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De Re Militari | Book Reviews

Niccolo Machiavelli

Art of War

translated, edited and with a commentary by Christopher Lynch

Chicago:  The University of Chicago Press, 2003. xlv+262pp. Cloth $25.00 ISBN: 978-0-226-50040-9 (ISBN-10: 0-226-50040-3); Paper $16.00 ISBN: 978-0-226-50046-1 (ISBN-10: 0-226-50046-2).

 Although less-well known than either The Prince or The Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius, The Art of War ranks among the major prose writings of Florentine author and politician, Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527).  It enjoys the further distinction of being the only such work printed during his lifetime, having first come out in Florence in 1521 under the title, Libro della arte della guerra di Niccolo Machiavegli cittadino et segretario fiorentino.  By contrast, Machiavelli's far better-known work, The Prince, circulated in manuscript for nearly two decades before its publication in 1532, eleven years after The Art of War and five years after its author's death.

The Art of  War consists of seven books of varying length (they range from fourteen to thirty-two pages in the present edition.)  Except in the preface and at the very opening of Book I, in both of which Machiavelli speaks with his own voice, the text takes the form of a dialogue between Fabrizio Colonna, one of Italy's most experienced military leaders or condottieri, and several young Florentine gentlemen, chief among them, Cosimo Rucellai, one of two men to whom Machiavelli dedicated The Discourses.

In form, The Art of War somewhat ressembles the book which for many (including this reviewer) epitomizes the Renaissance—Baldesar Castiglione's Book of the Courtier.  According to Castiglione, the conversations recorded in his work actually took place in the city of Urbino in the year 1508.  In a similar manner, Machiavelli states that his dialogue occurred during Colonna's visit to Florence in 1517, in the Rucellai family gardens (the Orti Oricellari), site of many another intellectual gathering. Unlike Castiglione's more famous work, The Art of War is actually more of a lecture than a true dialogue: all seven books have Colonna responding at length to either questions or objections raised by the others present. None of their contributions exceed a few lines in length while Colonna's answers often go on uninterrupted for pages.  (For example, when speaking of encampment in Book VI, one of the condottieri's statements runs for eight pages and Book VII ends with an unbroken monologue running to twenty pages.) 

Regardless of just how true to the actual conversation each of the written dialogues may be (Machiavelli's was almost certainly less so than Castiglione's), both exemplify what was undoubtedly a favorite passtime of Renaissance literati.  In the conversation depicted in The Art of War, it is Colonna who at least in large part speaks for Machiavelli, though some modern scholars argue that one should not take everything he says as truly representative of the author's thought.  What is more, the extent to which the condottieri's near monologue echoes his own position on warfare is unknown.

The Art of War reflects Machiavelli's lifelong preoccupation with the effect of conflict on human society.  This work more than any other contains his most developed ideas about military organization and the proper relationship between the army, the state, and the individual.  For war, first and foremost, should be a function of the state, rather than of individuals.  In a well-ordered society, individuals will act in a military capacity only when the state calls on them to do so; at other times, they will be good citizens, living off their civilian callings.

In the preface, Machiavelli addresses the work to Lorenzo di Filippo Strozzi, head of a Florentine patrician family with ties to both the ruling Medici and the Rucellai.  He then sets forth both his reason for writing The Art of War and its central theme:   that although in his own day “ there are no things less in agreement with one another or so dissimilar as the civilian and military lives,” in a less corrupted antiquity “ nothing would  be found more united, more in conformity, and of necessity, as much inclined toward one another as these.” (pp. 3-4) In such well-ordered societies, whose principal exemplar throughout the book is (as usual) the Roman Republic, the military is integrated into the state in a manner that will promote rather than disrupt the common good.  To achieve such an end will require moderns to imitate the ancients, something which (at least according to The Art of War) they are capable of doing.

And judging by what I have seen and read that it is not impossible to bring [the military] back to ancient modes and give it some form of past virtue, I decided so as not to pass these my idle times without doing anything, to write what I understand about the art of war for the satisfaction of those who are lovers of ancient actions. 

In his reference to “ my idle times,” Machiavelli is alluding to what was him for him a highly sensitive issue, one that pervades his writings and surviving correspondence. Following the fall of the Florentine Republic in the years 1512-1513, he found himself dismissed from the government job he had held for most of his adult life.   During his remaining fourteen years, in hopes of getting back into government, he would attempt unsuccessfully to ingratiate himself with the restored Medici rulers of Florence, who for their part could never bring themselves to trust him.

Book I briefly lays out the occasion for the dialogue—an entertainment held for Colonna in the Rucellai gardens—then pounds home at greater length many of the same themes that Machiavelli had already brought out in The Prince, .  Some of these served as mantras not only for Niccolo Machiavelli, but to some extent for Renaissance thinkers in general: that contemporaries should imitate the ancients, especially Romans of the Republican period, in significant as well as minor matters; that ancient virtue (the virtu of which Machiavelli often speaks) could in part be recovered by those living in his own time; that in a well-ordered state, whether monarchy or republic, the best army is the one composed of its own citizens who will revert to peaceful pursuits in peacetime; that the finest military organizations will be based on a militia of native infantry, levied from among citizens trained in peacetime, imbued with patriotism, and combining eager new recruits with experienced older veterans.

Also contained within Book I is the author's brief allusion to (and apology for) the Florentine militia, a force he had helped organize and train, but which failed miserably on its first major outing when facing  Spanish regulars at the Tuscan border town of Prato, a failure that led to the collapse of the Florentine Republic and Machiavelli's loss of employment.

Book II explains why infantry is superior to cavalry and should therefore be the military arm at the center of  any army.  An effective infantry force will be a mixed one, consisting primarily of pikemen such as the Swiss and Germans deployed in Machiavelli's own day and of armored shield bearers similar to Roman legionaries.  These are to be accompanied by light infantry skirmishers, armed with such missile weapons as bows, crossbows, slings, and arquebuses and cavalry who, given their weaponry (crossbows and arquebuses) were apparently expected to fight as dragoons.  Also laid out in excruciating (and nearly incomprehensible) detail is the proper manner of ordering such a force, both on the march and when it comes to its deployment in the field.

Book III lays out a set-piece battle, explaining how Machiavelli's ideal army would conduct it, then concludes by outlining how that force would be trained in peacetime in order to be able to accomplish such a disciplined performance in time of war.  Two items are of particular note:  Machiavelli's low opinion of the importance of artillery in determining a battle's outcome and his emphasis on the necessity to maintain organization and to communicate on the battlefield through the use of flags and musical instruments.

Book IV stresses the flexibility in formation and tactics that any commander must exhibit in order to accommodate such variables as the relative size of the two forces, their composition, and the terrain on which they must fight.  No single formation or set of tactics will fit all situations.  Almost all historical examples of military flexibility are taken from ancient warfare and the vast majority of these come from the Roman Republic.  In this and subsequent books, Machiavelli suggests tricks and strategems that will improve chances of victory.  Victory, not chivalric rectitude, is the purpose of war!

Book V discusses the order of march through hostile country, with an eye to avoiding an ambush.  According to Machiavelli, “ when one marches through enemy country, one bears more and greater dangers than in doing battle.”  The book ends with a short section dealing with the crossing of rivers.

Book VI lays out the proper encampment for the army, based roughly on the castra utilized by Roman legions.  Since a camp could be sufficiently fortified by the efforts of its denizens, it was not as important to establish it in a naturally strong place as it was to choose a place that was healthy and where the food and water supply could not be compromised.  The book also stresses the need to both reward and punish soldiers in a very public manner, praising the harsh system used in Roman armies.

Book VII deals with the fortifying and besieging of cities.  The book ends with a brief restating of key pieces of advice to  those who would be successful in war followed  by Colonna's explanation as to why he had never actually put into effect all that he was recommending.  To do so would require the actions of a powerful prince, not a hired soldier.  In this way, Machiavelli returns to his initial point:  the making of war is a matter, not of the individual, but of the state.

Taking advantage of a recent critical edition (2001) that worked from Machiavelli's first published text  of 1521, editor-translator Christopher Lynch has provided English readers with as literal a translation as possible, hoping that by so doing, those same readers will be able to experience the complexity of Machiavellian thought better than they could with a more literary and personalized rendering.  In his own words,

My goal in this book is [to] provide English-speaking readers with the closest possible approximation to Machiavelli's own presentation of his work.  I have therefore translated the Italian as literally and consistently as is compatible with readable English, keeping at a minimum influences arising from my own judgments, opinions, and other limitations....I have struggled against the inevitable influences as best I could, on the principle that I should—as much as possible—remove myself from between Machiavelli and his reader. (p. xxxix)

A major means of accomplishing this is to use only a single English word to translate each major Italian term, even if the Italian may in fact have a variety of English meanings.  By doing this, Lynch hopes to take out the intellectual “ middleman”—to wit, the translator—thereby allowing each reader to ponder just what the author might have meant in each instance where he used the word.

Lynch adduces as an example of his methodology the handling of the critical Machiavellian term ordine, a word he has consistently translated as “ order.”  He points out that at different times in Machiavelli's text, ordine actually suggested various different meanings, including regulation, arrangement, organization, categorization, classification, deployment, disposition, formation, grouping, layout, sequence, command or association. By using the single English word to translate this multifaceted Italian term, he hopes to imitate Machiavelli who wanted the reader to consider which of the meanings best fit each particular usage.  According to Lynch, “ which of these many meanings conveys ordine in each case is rarely clear”; consequently, imposing his own choice would only farther separate the English reader from the author. 

To aid the reader in this process of unravelling meaning, Lynch has appended a 31-page glossary of important English terms, showing the Italian word each one has been used to translate and indicating every page of the text on which that word appears.  To help find the word within the page as well as to indicate how he has divided Machiavelli's “ beguiling” longer sentences, Lynch has inserted bracketed numbers in the English text, indicating the beginnings of Italian sentences as they appear in the new critical edition from which he worked.

There is, of course, a trade-off in all this:  by adhering as literally as possible to Machiavelli's complex sixteenth century Italian, the resulting English text becomes rather less readable.  In at least one instance, the decision to stay as close as possible to the original strikes this reviewer as excessive; to wit, the retention of Machiavelli's unit of measurement, the braccio (plural, braccia).  In a “Note on the Translation” (xxxix-xlii) as well as in a footnote where the word first appears in the text, Lynch explains that one braccio equals 22.84 inches in the English system.  Thereafter, rather than translating Machiavelli's measurements into feet or meters or perhaps both, he leaves all of them expressed in this arcane unit, adding one further, seemingly unnecessary complication to confront readers who are already trying valiantly to puzzle out the Florentine's explanations concerning battlefield formation, marching order, and the physical layout of an encampment.

Lynch includes in his edition two items of his owns composition:  a 22-page introduction and a 48-page “Interpretive Essay.”  Both have their strengths and weaknesses.  According to Lynch,

The introduction orients readers to the general character of the Art of War and provides basic information about that work's historical context, sources, influence, contemporary relevance, and treatment in the scholarly literature. (p. xi)

At best, the introduction only partially lives up to these claims.  First and foremost, it does not really introduce Niccolo Machiavelli!  It does not contain a synopsis of the Florentine's life or the times in which he lived; and in this respect, it is unlike any other introduction to a Machiavellian work with which this reviewer is familiar.  What is more, Lynch fails to consider “ his competition”; in other words, he does not adequately summarize the history of the translating process by  which The Art of War has over the centuries been made available to English readers.

Here, a useful comparison may be made to the introduction written by Professor Neal Wood for another English translation of  the same work published in 1965 as part of The Library of Liberal Arts.[1]   In that earlier introduction and a short “ Note on the Text” that follows, Wood provides a capsule biography of the author, notes the major ancient sources from which he drew material, shows how this work interfaces with the other major prose writings, The Prince and The Discourses, and  supplies detailed information concerning earlier English translations.  In all of these respects, it is superior to the present introduction. 

On the other hand, what Lynch does very well is to provide a thought-provoking treatment of the often dramatically-opposed ways in which Machiavelli's views have been interpretted and presented by modern scholars, ranging from Hans Baron to Leo Strauss.  He is far more successful when sketching in this bibliographical battleground than in presenting basic historical information one expects from an introduction.

The Interpretive Essay contains Lynch's own views concerning both The Art of War and Machiavelli's overall influence on military thought.   In the opinion of this reviewer, the essay is a good deal more successful than the introduction.  It addresses matters of interest to both historians and political scientists, with different parts addressed primarily to one or another of these audiences.  The fact that this material follows the text rather than preceding it almost certainly represents a final attempt by the translator not to impose his conclusions on the reader before he or she will have had ample opportunity to confront the text.

In conclusion, Christopher Lynch has produced what is almost certainly the most painstakingly accurate (if not the most readable) translation of one of  the major works written a half millennium ago by that one-time Florentine civil servant who, ironically, earned his immortal fame not for the work he preferred to do, but for what he accomplished in his “ idle times.” 


1. Niccolo Machiavelli, The Art of War, (New York:  Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1965). [back]

L. J. Andrew Villalon

University of Texas–Austin <>

Page Added: September 2007