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?
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.
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.