Io non posso negare che la fortuna e la milizia non fossero cagioni dell’imperio romano; ma e’ mi pare bene, che costoro non si avegghino, che, dove è buona milizia, conviene che sia buono ordine, e rade volte anco occorre che non vi sia buona fortuna. Ma vegnamo agli altri particulari di quella città. Io dico che coloro che dannono i tumulti intra i Nobili e la Plebe, mi pare che biasimino quelle cose che furono prima causa del tenere libera Roma; e che considerino più a’ romori ed alle grida che di tali tumulti nascevano, che a’ buoni effetti che quelli partorivano; e che e’ non considerino come e’ sono in ogni republica due umori diversi, quello del popolo, e quello de’ grandi; e come tutte le leggi che si fanno in favore della libertà, nascano dalla disunione loro, come facilmente si può vedere essere seguito in Roma; perché da’ Tarquinii ai Gracchi, che furano più di trecento anni, i tumulti di Roma rade volte partorivano esilio e radissime sangue. Né si possano per tanto, giudicare questi tomulti nocivi, né una republica divisa, che in tanto tempo per le sue differenzie non mandò in esilio più che otto o dieci cittadini, e ne ammazzò pochissimi, e non molti ancora ne condannò in danari. Né si può chiamare in alcun modo con ragione una republica inordinata, dove siano tanti esempli di virtù; perché li buoni esempli nascano dalla buona educazione, la buona educazione, dalle buone leggi; e le buone leggi, da quelli tumulti che molti inconsideratamente dannano: perché, chi esaminerà bene il fine d’essi, non troverrà ch’egli abbiano partorito alcuno esilio o violenza in disfavore del commune bene, ma leggi e ordini in beneficio della publica libertà… E i desiderii de’ popoli liberi rade volte sono perniziosi alla libertà, perché e’ nascono, o da essere oppressi, o da suspizione di avere ad essere oppressi. E quando queste opinioni fossero false e’ vi è il rimedio delle concioni, che surga qualche uomo da bene, che, orando, dimostri loro come ei s’ingannano: e li popoli, come dice Tullio, benché siano ignoranti, sono capaci della verità, e facilmente cedano, quando da uomo degno di fede è detto loro il vero.
I maintain that those who blame the quarrels of the Senate and the people of Rome condemn that which was the very origin of liberty, and that they were probably more impressed by the cries and noise which these disturbances occasioned in the public places, than by the good effect which they produced; and that they do not consider that in every republic there are two parties, that of the nobles and that of the people; and all the laws that are favorable to liberty result from the opposition of these parties to each other, as may easily be seen from the events that occurred in Rome. From the time of the Tarquins to that of the Gracchi, that is to say, within the space of over three hundred years, the differences between these parties caused but very few exiles, and cost still less blood; they cannot therefore be regarded as having been very injurious and fatal to a republic, which during the course of so many years saw on this account only eight or ten of its citizens sent into exile, and but a very small number put to death, and even but a few condemned to pecuniary fines. Nor can we regard a republic as disorderly where so many virtues were seen to shine… The demands of a free people are rarely pernicious to their liberty; they are generally inspired by oppressions, experienced or apprehended; and if their fears are ill founded, resort is had to public assemblies where the mere eloquence of a single good and respectable man will make them sensible of their error. “The people,” says Cicero, “although ignorant, yet are capable of appreciating the truth, and yield to it readily when it is presented to them by a man whom they esteem worthy of their confidence.”
—Niccolò Machiavelli, Discorsi sopra la Prima Deca di Tito Livio, lib i, cap iv
Most college students graduate learning of the Machiavelli of The Prince and very few read the Machiavelli of The Discourses. In its pages we meet a man who pines for the republican institutions of Rome’s early era and who makes a convincing case that the tumult of those years shows more strength than weakness. The struggle of parties or factions is both the natural state of affairs in a democracy and a point of pride for it, he argues. The people and the patricians will always struggle for power and press their interests, neither should be timid in this process. The struggle may, he says, be intense and even flecked with violence, but it will ultimately lead to robust solutions that create a state in which both parties have a vested interest. But a key aspect of this process is the principle of opposed and limited powers, namely that each party seeks to impose restraints on the other when it holds the highest offices. Thus the opposition of the parties favors the principle of freedom and government of limited powers. Machiavelli’s distillation of this principle from the first books of Livy’s history of Rome is one of the most important developments of political thought of the Italian Renaissance. It sets the stage for the writings of Montesquieu which were to follow two centuries later, and for the constitutional concepts that will be advanced following the American Revolution.
But has this principle continued to work in America today? President Barack Obama’s appearance before a Republican House retreat in Baltimore, and particularly the question-and-answer session at its end offered America a glimpse at a remarkably frank and serious dialogue that demonstrates, perhaps, just how this process should work. Still, I am troubled that we may now be witnessing the failure of the principle of opposed parties. We live in an era in which both major parties share an intoxication with executive power which has led them to abandon the otherwise natural efforts to restrain it and to insure an alternative power base in the legislature. This explains why a party which, possessed of the executive power, favors the unbounded power of the presidency, when removed from that power turns simply to the politics of obstruction. Their conduct focuses not on wise policy or decision-making for the state, for indeed they are now open and notorious in their obstruction. They have one sole object, which is to recapture the executive power. How can such a pattern lead to the sort of government of limited powers that Machiavelli calls the great legacy of the Roman Republic?
Listen to the concluding duet of Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea (1642). This opera, one of the earliest of the genre, seems perplexing in its cynicism. It revolves around the life of the duplicitous Poppaea Sabina, who aspires to become the consort of Nero. But in this opera, the world is turned upside down: Nero’s first wife is shown as a plotter, the great philosopher Seneca is portrayed as corrupt and frivolous; Nero himself is made to appear the victim of his emotions. Murder and immorality are rewarded, and the virtuous fail. But Monteverdi’s meaning lies elsewhere. The opera’s conclusion is essential for its understanding, since in it Nero’s and Poppaea’s love is revealed for something else: an obsession with power and all its trappings–an obsession which drives them to inhuman acts, the harm of which they fail to comprehend. Monteverdi, we should remember, is an artist in the service of the Venetian Republic, and his opera is a none-too-subtle mocking of the immoral politics of empire and of Rome. For Monteverdi, like Machiavelli, the sturdy state is formed by the opposed interests of the nobili and the people, and the glory and pomp of empire are worthy of little more than ridicule and contempt.
Sandro Botticelli’s Lucretia portrays events described in the first book of Livy’s history of Rome. While several different versions of Lucretia’s story have been handed down, in all of them she is raped by a son of one of the Tarquin kings, whose abuse of her is a manifestation of the Tarquins’ abuse of their political power over the people of Rome. The rape is taken as a token of the debasement of the people at the hands of a tyrant, literally of the tyrants’ control over the bodies of the people, and the toppling of the monarchy and installation of the republic is described as a response to it. Livy quotes Lucretia calling for the monarch’s overthrow: “By this blood – most pure before the outrage wrought by the king’s son – I swear, and you, O gods, I call to witness that I will drive hence Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, together with his cursed wife and his whole brood, with fire and sword and every means in my power, and I will not suffer them or any one else to reign in Rome.” (lib i, cap lix). The republic followed immediately in the wake of this incident.