What is the role of armies, according to Machiavelli in The Prince?

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At the time when Machiavelli wrote The Prince most Italian states relied on mercenaries for their defense. Machiavelli's own Republic of Florence was one such state, much to Machiavelli's frustration. The political leaders of the city believed that establishing a standing army was a potential threat to liberty and could be used as an instrument of oppression by would-be tyrants. Less nobly, they believed that a standing army would be too expensive to maintain.

Machiavelli thought this a dangerously short-sighted attitude. He argued instead that a standing army was essential to the long-term stability of the state. An over-reliance on mercenaries had severely weakened Florence and other states, making the whole Italian peninsula vulnerable to foreign invasion and interference, especially from the French.

Machiavelli is insistent that a prince, in order to be an effective ruler, must always be able to command his own native troops. Otherwise, his principality would never be secure. As mercenaries and auxiliaries would never owe their loyalty directly to the prince, they would therefore prove unreliable as props to his power.

For Machiavelli, an understanding of the art of war is essential to statecraft. Without it, there is no state to speak of. And if the art of war is to be successfully practiced it must be based on the maintenance of a large, well-armed standing army that owes its loyalty directly to the prince and which can be counted on to defend him from his many enemies, both domestic and foreign.

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Machiavelli opens chapter XIV of The Prince by saying that a prince "should have no care or thought but for war." In assembling an army, a prince must recognize that mercenaries, or troops that work solely for pay, are worthless, as are troops borrowed from other princes. A wise prince cultivates an army of people from among his own citizens whose loyalty is to him and based on civic pride and a sense of fighting for a homeland.

To stay in power, a prince needs to be thinking about war all the time and preparing for it constantly. Not putting war first means a prince will be held in contempt as weak, which is the worst fate that can befall a leader. In being perceived as weak, a prince could lose his kingdom, and in Machiavelli's estimation, that would be a disaster, as the most important goal for a prince is to stay in power.

A prince, therefore, must always be prepared to go to war. Conquest of other territory can bring him glory. He should stay in shape and practice war games so that he can lead an army. He also should spend time studying the strategies of great warriors of the past.

The role of armies is a highly important one, and it is of the utmost importance that a king lavish most of his time and energy on military matters.

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Machiavelli places a great deal of significance on an effective military, claiming in chapter 12 that the "main foundations of all States...are good laws and good arms." Yet he also recognizes that armies can be a disruptive force as well as a crucial bulwark of the power of the state.  For this reason, he advises against the use of mercenaries and especially auxilliaries, who he views as disloyal and self-interested:

Let him, therefore, who would deprive himself of every chance of success, have recourse to auxiliaries...bringing ruin with them ready-made.

The best possible military forces are what he calls "national forces," men who are the actual subjects of the state. They have much more of an interest in fighting, and are more likely to feel an allegiance to the prince. A well-trained, loyal army can be a great source of power for a wise ruler, but a mercenary force, or a disloyal military, can be the source of a state's destruction. Above all, a successful leader must become a good military leader, through both training and study. 

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