What kinds of historical examples does Machiavelli use to demonstrate his ideas in The Prince? How does his choice of examples reflect cultural ideas of the Renaissance?

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Machiavelli places his most famous work, The Prince, well in the tradition of other humanist works which were very popular during the Renaissance. Humanism draws heavily on using examples of actual people to showcase the potential and worth of individuals. In order to show what the quintessential ruler is...

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Machiavelli places his most famous work, The Prince, well in the tradition of other humanist works which were very popular during the Renaissance. Humanism draws heavily on using examples of actual people to showcase the potential and worth of individuals. In order to show what the quintessential ruler is capable of, Machiavelli had to show his readers what others had done before as both positive and negative examples. This separates his work from the previous medieval period's writings, which focused almost exclusively on biblical and saintly characters as models for how humans should behave.

Some examples that Machiavelli includes to illustrate his political theory harken back to the Classical period of Greece and Rome. Since the Renaissance was a resurgence of Classical thought, this was a natural direction for him to take. In Chapter XIX, Machiavelli describes the reigns of many Roman emperors. Emperor Marcus Aurelius, Pertinax, and Alexander are shown as examples of rulers who lived modest and philosophical lives. These were benevolent rulers who were loved by their people. However, this did not mean that they were immune from treachery. Machiavelli tells of how Pertinax was overthrown by his soldiers because he did not dote on them the way his predecessor, Commodus, did. Machiavelli describes this as a case in point that "hatred is acquired as much by good works as by bad ones."

He also provides examples of cruel Roman Emperors such as Commodus, Severus, Antoninus Caracalla, and Maximinus. These were cruel and unprincipled rulers. Machiavelli uses them as examples of what happens to rulers who favor their soldiers over their common citizens.

When reading The Prince, you will find that is full of historical examples of rulers. By doing so, Machiavelli is showing his readers that his work is more than just a treatise on an idea—rather, he relates a thoughtful historiography that examines real-life examples through the lens of Renaissance thought.

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Among the many strengths of The Prince as a political treatise is the fact that Machiavelli uses examples that would have been familiar to his readers. These included classical examples (i.e. Greek and Roman) and examples from the relatively recent past, particularly in Italy. To illustrate the different ways that powerful rulers have held sway over client states, for example, Machiavelli turns to the examples of Sparta and Rome: 

The Spartans held Athens and Thebes, establishing there an oligarchy, nevertheless they lost them. The Romans, in order to hold Capua, Carthage, and Numantia, dismantled them, and did not lose them.

Machiavelli was first and foremost a humanist, meaning he, like most of his Renaissance-era readers, looked to antiquity for lessons that could be applied to the present. So most of his readers would have recognized the references to Rome and Sparta, as well as to Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and many others (including Moses, another familiar figure). But Machiavelli also used examples from his own time to support his argument. King Ferdinand of Spain, Cesare Borgia and his father Pope Alexander VI, and the Milanese prince Francesco Sforza are just a few of the figures that were either contemporaries or near-contemporaries of Machiavelli. These references, either to the ancient world or his own time, give Machiavelli's work an air of authority that has made it very influential. 

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In The Prince, Machiavelli draws from a variety of examples to demonstrate his points.  He cites historical texts and authors, but he also discusses the feats of historical figures to illustrate his points.  Machiavelli incorporates not only examples from antiquity but also examples roughly contemporary with his own time.  Despite the variety of sources Machiavelli uses, he does have his favorites.  He draws upon the example of Francesco Sforza and his career as the Duke of Milan on a number of occasions.  Sforza is presented as someone who has the respect of the population in Milan, but he is also someone the people will not cross.  Machiavelli also references Lorenzo de Medici, his patron on more than one occasion.  As a seemingly negative example, Mnchiavelli presents an example from antiquity.  In Greece, Antiochus, seeking to establish himself as the leader of a city, summoned the representatives of that city to a meeting.  Once they arrived, Antiochus had them locked in a chamber and killed.  As a result, Antiochus dispenses with the opposition and establishes his authority all in one act.

Machiavelli's reliance on these kinds of examples clearly sets him in the Renaissance tradition.  Renaissance writers drew a great deal from the examples of antiquity.  As the Renaissance was envisioned as the true successor of the Roman past, writers sought to establish and maintain the connection between the two periods.  Renaissance artists incorporated a great deal from the mythology of Rome into their paintings and sculpture - so much so that it challenged Christian images for the preferred subject matter among artists.  In addition, Renaissance writers adopted the literary styles of antiquity - the dialogue, for example.  As an extension of ancient Rome, it is fitting that Renaissance writers such as Machiavelli actually draw on examples from the Roman past.

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