Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER VI.: of conspiracies. - The Historical, Political, and Diplomatic Writings, vol. 2 (The Prince, Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius, Thoughts of a Statesman)
Return to Title Page for The Historical, Political, and Diplomatic Writings, vol. 2 (The Prince, Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius, Thoughts of a Statesman)
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
CHAPTER VI.: of conspiracies. - Niccolo Machiavelli, The Historical, Political, and Diplomatic Writings, vol. 2 (The Prince, Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius, Thoughts of a Statesman) 
The Historical, Political, and Diplomatic Writings of Niccolo Machiavelli, tr. from the Italian, by Christian E. Detmold (Boston, J. R. Osgood and company, 1882). Vol. 2.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
It seems to me proper now to treat of conspiracies, being a matter of so much danger both to princes and subjects; for history teaches us that many more princes have lost their lives and their states by conspiracies than by open war. But few can venture to make open war upon their sovereign, whilst every one may engage in conspiracies against him. On the other hand, subjects cannot undertake more perilous and foolhardy enterprises than conspiracies, which are in every respect most difficult and dangerous; and thence it is that, though so often attempted, yet they so rarely attain the desired object. And therefore, so that princes may learn to guard against such dangers, and that subjects may less rashly engage in them, and learn rather to live contentedly under such a government as Fate may have assigned to them, I shall treat the subject at length, and endeavor not to omit any point that may be useful to the one or the other. And certainly that is a golden sentence of Cornelius Tacitus, where he says “that men should honor the past and obey the present; and whilst they should desire good princes, they should bear with those they have, such as they are”; — and surely whoever acts otherwise will generally involve himself and his country in ruin.
In entering upon the subject, then, we must consider first against whom conspiracies are formed; and it will be found generally that they are made either against the country or against the prince. It is of these two kinds that I shall speak at present; for conspiracies that have for their object the surrender of any town to an enemy that besieges it, or that have some similar purpose, have already been sufficiently discussed above. In the first instance we will treat of those that are aimed against the sovereign, and examine the causes that provoke them; these are many, though one is more important than all the rest, namely, his being hated by the mass of the people. For when a prince has drawn upon himself universal hatred, it is reasonable to suppose that there are some particular individuals whom he has injured more than others, and who therefore desire to revenge themselves. This desire is increased by seeing the prince held in general aversion. A prince, then, should avoid incurring such universal hatred; and, as I have spoken elsewhere of the way to do this, I will say no more about it here. If the prince will avoid this general hatred, the particular wrongs to individuals will prove less dangerous to him; partly because men rarely attach sufficient importance to any wrong done them to expose themselves to great danger for the sake of avenging it, and partly because, even if they were so disposed and had the power to attempt it, they would be restrained by the general affection for the prince. The different wrongs which a prince can inflict upon a subject consist either in an attempt upon his possessions, his person, or his honor. In matters of personal injury, threats are worse than the execution; in fact, menaces involve the only danger, there being none in the execution, for the dead cannot avenge themselves, and in most cases the survivors allow the thought of revenge to be interred with the dead. But he who is threatened, and sees himself constrained by necessity either to dare and do or to suffer, becomes a most dangerous man to the prince, as we shall show in its proper place. Besides this kind of injury, a man’s property and honor are the points upon which he will be most keenly sensitive. A prince, then, should be most careful to avoid touching these; for he can never despoil a man so completely but what he will cherish a determined desire for revenge. As to attacking men’s honor, that of their wives is what they feel most, and after that their being themselves treated with indignity. It was an outrage of this nature that armed Pausanias against Philip of Macedon, and such indignities have caused many others to rise against their princes. In our day, Julius Belanti would not have conspired against Pandolfo, tyrant of Sienna, had it not been that the latter, having accorded him one of his daughters in marriage, afterwards took her away from him, as we shall relate in its place. The principal cause of the conspiracy of the Pazzi against the Medici was the inheritance of Giovanni Borromeo, of which they had been deprived by an order of the Medici.
There is another and still more powerful motive that makes men conspire against their princes, and that is the desire to liberate their country from the tyranny to which it has been subjected by the prince. It was this that stirred up Brutus and Cassius against Cæsar; it was this that excited others against the Falari, the Dionysii, and other usurpers. And no tyrant can secure himself against such attacks, except by voluntarily giving up his usurpation. But as none of them ever take this course, there are but few that do not come to a bad end; and thence this verse of Juvenal’s: —
The perils incurred by conspirators are great, as I have said above, because they present themselves at every moment. There is danger in plotting and in the execution of the plot, and even after it has been carried into effect. A plot may be formed by a single individual or by many; the one cannot be called a conspiracy, but rather a determined purpose on the part of one man to assassinate the prince. In such case the first of the three dangers to which conspiracies are exposed is avoided; for the individual runs no risk before the execution of his plot, for as no one possesses his secret, there is no danger of his purpose coming to the ears of the prince. Any individual, of whatever condition, may form such a plot, be he great or small, noble or plebeian, familiar or not familiar with the prince; for every one is permitted on occasions to speak to the prince, and has thus the opportunity of satisfying his vengeance. Pausanias, of whom I have spoken elsewhere, killed Philip of Macedon as he was proceeding to the temple, surrounded by a thousand armed men, and having his son and his son-in-law on either side. But Pausanias was a noble, and well known to the prince. A poor and abject Spaniard stabbed King Ferdinand of Spain in the neck; the wound was not mortal, but it showed nevertheless that this man had the audacity as well as the opportunity of striking the prince. A Turkish Dervish drew a scymitar upon Bajazet, the father of the present Grand Turk; he did not wound him, but it shows that this man too had the audacity and the opportunity to have done it, had he so chosen. I believe it is not uncommon to find men who form such projects (the mere purpose involving neither danger nor punishment), but few carry them into effect; and of those who do, very few or none escape being killed in the execution of their designs, and therefore but few are willing to incur such certain death.
But let us leave the plots formed by single individuals, and come to conspiracies formed by a number of persons. These, I say, have generally for their originators the great men of the state, or those on terms of familiar intercourse with the prince. None other, unless they are madmen, can engage in conspiracies; for men of low condition, who are not intimate with the prince, have no chance of success, not having the necessary conveniences for the execution of their plots. In the first place, men of no position have not the means of assuring themselves of the good faith of their accomplices, as no one will engage in their plot without the hope of those advantages that prompt men to expose themselves to great dangers. And thus, so soon as they have drawn two or three others into their scheme, some one of them denounces and ruins them. But supposing even that they have the good fortune not to be betrayed, they are nevertheless exposed to so many difficulties in the execution of the plot, from being debarred free access to the prince, that it seems almost impossible for them to escape ruin in the execution. For if the great men of a state, who are in familiar intercourse with the prince, succumb under the many difficulties of which we have spoken, it is natural that these difficulties should be infinitely increased for the others. And therefore those who know themselves to be weak avoid them, for where men’s lives and fortunes are at stake they are not all insane; and when they have cause for hating a prince, they content themselves with cursing and vilifying him, and wait until some one more powerful and of higher position than themselves shall avenge them. Still, if one of this class of persons should be daring enough to attempt such an undertaking, he would merit praise rather for his intention than for his prudence.
We see, then, that conspiracies have generally been set on foot by the great, or the friends of the prince; and of these, as many have been prompted to it by an excess of benefits as by an excess of wrongs. Such was the cause of the conspiracy of Perennius against Commodus, of Plautianus against Severus, and of Sejanus against Tiberius. All these men had been so loaded with riches, honors, and dignities by their Emperors that nothing seemed wanting to complete their power and to satisfy their ambition but the Empire itself; and to obtain that they set conspiracies on foot against their masters, which all resulted, however, as their ingratitude deserved. More recently, however, we have seen the conspiracy of Jacopo Appiano succeed against Piero Gambacorte, prince of Pisa; this Jacopo owed his support, education, and reputation to Piero, and yet he deprived him of his state. The conspiracy of Coppola against Ferdinand of Aragon, in our own day, was of the same character; Coppola had attained such greatness that he seemed to lack nothing but the throne, and to obtain this he risked his life, and lost it. And certainly if any conspiracy of the great against a prince is likely to succeed, it should be one that is headed by one, so to say, almost himself a king, who can afford the conspirators every opportunity to accomplish his design; but, blinded by the ambition of dominion, they are equally blind in the conduct of the conspiracy, for if their villany were directed by prudence, they could not possibly fail of success. A prince, then, who wishes to guard against conspiracies should fear those on whom he has heaped benefits quite as much, and even more, than those whom he has wronged; for the latter lack the convenient opportunities which the former have in abundance. The intention of both is the same, for the thirst of dominion is as great as that of revenge, and even greater. A prince, therefore, should never bestow so much authority upon his friends but that there should always be a certain distance between them and himself, and that there should always be something left for them to desire; otherwise they will almost invariably become victims of their own imprudence, as happened to those whom we have mentioned above.
But to return to our subject. Having said that conspiracies are generally made by the great, who have free access to the prince, let us see now what their results have been, and what the causes were that influenced their success or their failure. As we have said above, there are in all conspiracies three distinct periods of danger. The first is in the organization of the plot, and as but few have a successful issue, it is impossible that all should pass happily through this first stage, which presents the greatest dangers; and therefore I say that it requires the extremest prudence, or great good fortune, that a conspiracy shall not be discovered in the process of formation. Their discovery is either by denunciation or by surmises. Denunciation is the consequence of treachery or of want of prudence on the part of those to whom you confide your designs; and treachery is so common that you cannot safely impart your project to any but such of your most trusted friends as are willing to risk their lives for your sake, or to such other malcontents as are equally desirous of the prince’s ruin. Of such reliable friends you may find one or two; but as you are necessarily obliged to extend your confidence, it becomes impossible to find many such, for their devotion to you must be greater than their sense of danger and fear of punishment. Moreover, men are very apt to deceive themselves as to the degree of attachment and devotion which others have for them, and there are no means of ascertaining this except by actual experience; but experience in such matters is of the utmost danger. And even if you should have tested the fidelity of your friends on other occasions of danger, yet you cannot conclude from that that they will be equally true to you on an occasion that presents infinitely greater dangers than any other. If you attempt to measure a man’s good faith by the discontent which he manifests towards the prince, you will be easily deceived, for by the very fact of communicating to him your designs, you give him the means of putting an end to his discontent; and to insure his fidelity, his hatred of the prince or your influence over him must be very great. It is thus that so many conspiracies have been revealed and crushed in their incipient stage; so that it may be regarded almost as a miracle when so important a secret is preserved by a number of conspirators for any length of time. Such however was the case in the conspiracy of Piso against Nero, and in our times that of the Pazzi against Lorenzo and Giuliano de’ Medici, of which more than fifty persons were cognizant, and which yet remained undiscovered till the moment of its execution.
Discovery from lack of prudence occurs when any one of the conspirators speaks incautiously, so that a servant or third person overhears it, as happened to the sons of Brutus, who in the arranging of their plot with the messengers of Tarquin were overheard by a slave, who denounced them. Or it may occur from thoughtlessness, when some one communicates the secret to his wife or child, or to some other indiscreet person, as was done by Dinnus, one of the conspirators with Philotas against Alexander, who confided the plot to Nicomachus, a lad of whom he was enamored, who told it to his brother Ciballinus, who at once communicated it to the king. As to discovery by conjecture, we have an instance of it in the Pisonian conspiracy against Nero. The day before he was to have killed Nero, Scevinus, one of the conspirators, made his testament; he ordered his freedman Melichius to sharpen an old, rusty poniard, enfranchised all his slaves and distributed money amongst them, and had bandages made for tying up wounds. Melichius surmised from these various acts what was going on, and denounced it to Nero. Scevinus was arrested, and with him Natales, another conspirator, with whom he had been seen to converse secretly for a length of time. As their depositions respecting that conversation did not agree, they were forced to confess the truth, and thus the conspiracy was discovered to the ruin of all that were implicated. When the number of accomplices in a conspiracy exceeds three or four, it is almost impossible for it not to be discovered, either through treason, imprudence, or carelessness. The moment more than one of the conspirators is arrested, the whole plot is discovered; for it will be impossible for any two to agree perfectly as to all their statements. If only one be arrested, and he be a man of courage and firmness, he may be able to conceal the names of his accomplices; but then the others, to remain safe, must be equally firm, and not lay themselves open to discovery by flight, for if any one of them proves wanting in courage, whether it be the one that is arrested or one of those that are at liberty, the conspiracy is sure to be discovered. Titus Livius cites a very remarkable instance that occurred in connection with the conspiracy against Hieronymus, king of Syracuse. Theodorus, one of the conspirators, having been arrested, concealed with the utmost firmness the names of the other conspirators, and charged the matter upon the friends of the king; and, on the other hand, all the other conspirators had such confidence in the courage of Theodorus, that not one of them left Syracuse, or betrayed the least sign of fear. The conduct of a conspiracy then is exposed to all such dangers before it can be carried into execution; and to avoid these perils the following remedies present themselves. The first and most certain, I should rather say the only one, is not to afford your associates in the plot any time to betray you; and therefore you should confide your project to them at the moment of its execution, and not sooner. Those who act thus are most likely to escape the first of the three dangers, and frequently also the others; and therefore have their enterprises almost always succeeded. And any man of prudence will always be able to govern himself in this wise.
I will cite two examples of this. Nelematus, unable to bear the tyranny of Aristotimus, tyrant of Epirus, assembled in his house a number of friends and relatives, and urged them to liberate their country from the yoke of the tyrant. Some of them asked for time to consider the matter, whereupon Nelematus made his slaves close the door of his house, and then said to those he had called together, “You must either go now and carry this plot into execution, or I shall hand you all over as prisoners to Aristotimus.” Moved by these words, they took the oath demanded of them, and immediately went and carried the plot of Nelematus successfully into execution. A Magian having by craft usurped the throne of Persia, and the fraud having been discovered by Ortanus, one of the grandees of the realm, he conferred with six other princes of the state as to the means of ridding themselves of this usurper. When one of them inquired as to the time when they should act, Darius, one of the six assembled by Ortanus, arose and said, “We must either go now at this very moment and carry it into execution, or I shall go and denounce you all,” whereupon they all arose, and, without affording any one time to repent, they carried their design into execution without difficulty. The Ætolians acted much in the same way in ridding themselves of Nabis, tyrant of Sparta. They sent Alexamenes, one of their citizens, with thirty horse and two hundred infantry, to Nabis, on pretence of rendering him assistance; but they gave secret instructions to Alexamenes to slay Nabis, and enjoined the others, on pain of exile, strictly and most implicitly to obey the orders of Alexamenes, who accordingly went to Sparta, and kept the secret until the moment when he succeeded in killing Nabis. In this manner then did Nelematus, Ortanus, and Alexamenes avoid the dangers that attend the conduct of conspiracies before their execution, and whoever follows their example will be equally fortunate in escaping them. And to prove that it is in the power of every one to act in the same way, I will cite the case of Piso, to which I have already referred above. Piso was a man of the highest consideration and distinction in Rome, and the familiar companion of Nero, who reposed entire confidence in him, and often went to dine with him at his villa. Piso then might have attached to himself a few men of intelligence and courage, well qualified for such an attempt as he contemplated. This would have been an easy thing to do for a man of such high position; and then, when Nero was in his gardens, he might have communicated his project to them and have stirred them by a few words to do what they would not have had time to refuse, and which could not have failed of success.
And thus, if we examine all the other instances, but few will be found where the conspirators might not have acted in the same way; but men not accustomed to the affairs of this world often commit the greatest mistakes, and especially in matters that are so much out of the ordinary course as conspiracies. One should therefore never open himself on the subject of a conspiracy except under the most pressing necessity, and only at the moment of its execution; and then only to one man, whose fidelity he has thoroughly tested for a long time, and who is animated by the same desire as himself. One such is much more easily found than many, and therefore there is much less danger in confiding your secret to him; and then, even if he were to attempt to betray you, there is some chance of your being able to defend yourself, which you cannot when there are many conspirators. I have heard many wise men say that you may talk freely with one man about everything, for unless you have committed yourself in writing the “yes” of one man is worth as much as the “no” of another; and therefore one should guard most carefully against writing, as against a dangerous rock, for nothing will convict you quicker than your own handwriting. Plautianus, wishing to have the Emperor Severus and his son Antoninus killed, committed the matter to the Tribune Saturninus; he however, instead of obeying Plautianus, resolved to betray him, and, fearing that in accusing him he would be less believed than Plautianus, he exacted from him an order in his own handwriting to attest his authority. Plautianus, blinded by his ambition, gave him such a written order, which the Tribune used to accuse and convict him. Plautianus denied his guilt with such audacity, that without this written order and other indications he never would have been convicted. You may escape, then, from the accusation of a single individual, unless you are convicted by some writing or other pledge, which you should be careful never to give. In the Pisonian conspiracy there was a woman named Epicaris, who had formerly been a mistress of Nero’s. She deemed it advisable to have amongst the conspirators the commander of a trireme, who was one of Nero’s body-guards. She communicated the plot to him, but without naming the conspirators. The commander, however, betrayed her confidence, and denounced Epicaris to Nero; but she denied it with such audacity as to confuse Nero, who did not condemn her.
There are two risks, then, in communicating a plot to any one individual: the first, lest he should denounce you voluntarily; the second, lest he should denounce you, being himself arrested on suspicion, or from some indications, and being convicted and forced to it by the torture. But there are means of escaping both these dangers: the first, by denial and by alleging personal hatred to have prompted the accusation; and the other, by denying the charge, and alleging that your accuser was constrained by the force of torture to tell lies. But the most prudent course is not to communicate the plot to any one, and to act in accordance with the above-cited examples; and if you cannot avoid drawing some one into your confidence, then to let it be not more than one, for in that case the danger is much less than if you confide in many.
Another necessity may force you to do unto the prince that which you see the prince about to do to you; the danger of which may be so pressing as not to afford you the time to provide for your own safety. Such a necessity ordinarily insures success, as the following two instances will suffice to prove. The Emperor Commodus had amongst his nearest friends and intimates Letus and Electus, two captains of the Prætorian soldiers; he also had Marcia as his favorite concubine. As these three had on several occasions reproved him for the excesses with which he had stained his own dignity and that of the Empire, he resolved to have them killed, and wrote a list of the names of Marcia, Letus, and Electus, and of some other persons, whom he wanted killed the following night. Having placed this list under his pillow, he went to the bath; a favorite child of his, who was playing in the chamber and on the bed, found this list, and on going out with it in his hand was met by Marcia, who took the list from the child. Having read it, she immediately sent for Letus and Electus, and when these three had thus become aware of the danger that threatened them, they resolved to forestall the Emperor, and without losing any time they killed Commodus the following night. The Emperor Antoninus Caracalla was with his armies in Mesopotamia, and had for his prefect Macrinus, a man more fit for civil than military matters. As is always the case with bad rulers, they are in constant fear lest others are conspiring to inflict upon them the punishment which they are conscious of deserving; thus Antoninus wrote to his friend Maternianus in Rome to consult the astrologers as to whether any one was aspiring to the Empire, and to advise him of it. Maternianus wrote back that Macrinus was thus aspiring; and this letter fell into the hands of Macrinus before it reached the Emperor. He at once directed his trusted friend, the Centurion Martialis, whose brother had been slain by Caracalla a few days before, to assassinate him, which he succeeded in doing. From this we see that the necessity which admits of no delay produces the same effect as the means employed by Nelematus in Epirus, of which I have spoken above. It also proves the truth of what I said in the beginning of this discourse, that to threaten is more dangerous for princes, and more frequently causes conspiracies, than the actual injury itself; and therefore princes should guard against indulging in menaces. For you must bind men to you by benefits, or you must make sure of them in some other way, but never reduce them to the alternative of having either to destroy you or perish themselves.
As to the dangers that occur in the execution of a conspiracy, these result either from an unexpected change in the order of proceeding, or from the lack of courage in those who are charged with the execution of the plot, or from some error on their part, owing to want of foresight in leaving some of those alive whom it was intended to have killed. There is nothing that disturbs or impedes the actions of men more than when suddenly, and without time to reflect, the order of things agreed upon has to be entirely changed. And if such a change causes embarrassment in ordinary affairs, it does so to an infinitely greater degree in war or in conspiracies; for in such matters nothing is more essential than that men should firmly set their minds on performing the part that has been assigned to them. And if men have their minds fixed for some days upon a certain order and arrangement, and this be suddenly changed, it is impossible that this should not disturb them so as to defeat the whole plot. So that it is much better to carry out any such project according to the original plan, even if it should present some inconveniences, rather than to change the order agreed upon and incur a thousand embarrassments. And this will occur, if there be not time to reorganize the project entirely; for when there is time for that, men can suit themselves to the new order of things.
The conspiracy of the Pazzi against Lorenzo and Giuliano de’ Medici is well known. These were to dine on the appointed day with the Cardinal of San Giorgio, and it was agreed amongst the conspirators to kill the Medici at this dinner. They had distributed amongst themselves the several roles, as to who was to kill them, who was to seize the palace, and who was to scour the city to rouse the people to liberty. It happened that whilst the Medici, the Pazzi, and the Cardinal were at some great solemnity in the cathedral church of Florence, it became known that Giuliano would not dine with the Cardinal on that day. Hereupon the conspirators hastily met, and resolved to do in the church what they had intended to do in the house of the Cardinal. This disarranged all their plans, for Giambattisto Montesecco refused to consent to the murder in the church, which obliged them to make an entire change and distribute the roles to different persons, who, not having time fully to prepare themselves, committed such mistakes as to cause themselves to be crushed in the execution.
Want of firmness in the execution arises either from respect, or from the innate cowardice of him who is to commit the act. Such is the majesty and reverence that ordinarily surrounds the person of a prince, that it may easily mitigate the fury of a murderer, or fill him with fear. Marius having been taken prisoner by the Minturnians, they sent a slave to kill him, who was so overcome by the presence of this great man, and by the memory of his glory, that his courage and strength failed him at the thought of killing Marius. Now if a man in chains, in prison, and overwhelmed by misfortune can still exert such an influence, how much more is to be feared from a prince who is free, and clothed in all the pomp and ornaments of royalty, and surrounded by his court? And whilst all this pomp is calculated to inspire fear, an affable and courteous reception may equally disarm you.
Some of the subjects of Sitalces, king of Thrace, conspired against him. The day for the execution of their plot being fixed, they went to the place agreed upon where the king was, but not one of them made a movement to strike him; so that they returned without having made the attempt, and without knowing what had prevented them, and reproached each other. They committed the same fault several times, so that the conspiracy was discovered, and they suffered punishment for the crime which they might have committed, but did not.
Two brothers of Alfonso, Duke of Ferrara, plotted against his life, and employed for the execution of their plot one Giannes, the Duke’s almoner and musician, who several times at their request brought the Duke to them; so that they might on each occasion have killed him, but neither of them had the courage to do it. The conspiracy was discovered, and they bore the penalty of their wickedness and their imprudence. Their neglect to profit by the opportunities afforded them for the execution of their design could have arisen only from two causes; either the presence of the prince imposed upon them and filled them with fear, or they were disarmed by some act of kindness on his part. Failure in the execution of such designs results from lack of prudence or courage; men are seized by one or the other of these feelings, which confuse their brains and make them say and do things that they ought not.
And nothing can better prove the fact that men’s minds are thus seized and confounded than the fact stated by Titus Livius of Alexamenes the Ætolian, who wanted to kill Nabis of Sparta, of whom I have already spoken. When the time for the execution of his design had come, and he was about to make known to his soldiers what they would have to do, as Titus Livius says, “He collected his own spirits, which were confused by the greatness of the undertaking.” For it is impossible that one should not be confused at such a moment, even though possessed of firmness and courage, and accustomed to the use of the sword and to seeing men killed. Therefore only men experienced in such affairs should be chosen as the instruments of execution, and none other should be trusted, though they be reputed to be most courageous; for you cannot be sure of any man’s courage in great affairs, unless it has been tested by actual experience. For the confusion of the mind at the important moment may cause the sword to drop from a man’s hand, or may make him say things that will be equally ruinous.
Lucilla, the sister of the Emperor Commodus, ordered Quintianus to kill him. He lay in wait for Commodus at the entrance of the amphitheatre; and on stepping up to him with drawn dagger, he cried, “The Senate sends you this!” which caused Quintianus to be arrested before he had time to strike Commodus. Messer Antonio da Volterra, having been appointed to kill Lorenzo de’ Medici, as we have related above, called out, on approaching him, “Ah, traitor!” This mere word saved Lorenzo and defeated the attempt.
Conspiracies against single individuals are generally apt to fail, for the reasons I have adduced; but when undertaken against two or more persons, they fail much easier. Such conspiracies present so many difficulties that it is almost impossible they should succeed. In fact, to strike two blows of this kind at the same instant and in different places is impracticable, and to attempt to do so at different moments of time would certainly result in the one’s preventing the other. So that, if it is imprudent, rash, and doubtful to conspire against a single prince, it amounts to folly to do so against two at the same time. And were it not for the respect which I have for the historian, I should not be able to believe possible what Herodianus relates of Plautianus, when he charged the centurion Saturninus by himself to kill Severus and Caracalla, who lived separately in different places; for it is so far from being reasonable, that nothing less than the authority of Herodianus could make me believe it. Some young men of Athens conspired against Diocles and Hippias, tyrants of Athens; they succeeded in killing Diocles, but missed Hippias, who avenged him. Chion and Leonidas, of Heraclea, disciples of Plato, conspired against the tyrants Clearchus and Satirus; they slew Clearchus, but Satirus, who remained, avenged him. The Pazzi, whom I have mentioned several times, succeeded only in killing Giuliano. Thus conspiracies against several persons at the same time should be avoided; they do no good to the conspirators, nor to the country, nor to any one, but rather cause the tyrants that survive to become more cruel and insupportable than before, as was the case with those of Florence, Athens, and Heraclea, already mentioned above. It is true that the conspiracy of Pelopidas to deliver his country, Thebes, from her tyrants, succeeded most happily, despite of all those obstacles; and he conspired not only against two, but against ten tyrants, and, so far from having ready access to them, he had been declared a rebel and had been banished. With all this, he was enabled to come to Thebes to slay the tyrants and free his country. But he succeeded thus mainly through the assistance of a certain Charon, privy counsellor of the tyrants, who facilitated his access to them and the consequent execution of his plot. Let no one, however, be seduced by this example; for it was an almost impossible enterprise, and its success was a marvel, and was so regarded by the historians, who speak of it as a most extraordinary and unprecedented event. The execution of such a plot may be interrupted by the least false alarm, or by some unforeseen accident at the moment of its execution.
The morning of the day when Brutus and his fellow-conspirators intended to kill Cæsar, it happened that the latter had a long conversation with Cn. Popilius Lena, one of the conspirators. This was observed by the other conspirators, who at once imagined that Popilius had denounced the conspiracy to Cæsar, and were tempted to assassinate Cæsar on the spot, and not to wait until he should reach the Senate; and they would have done so, had they not observed that after the conversation Cæsar made no extraordinary movement, which reassured them. These false apprehensions are not to be disregarded and should be carefully considered, the more so as it is very easy to be surprised by them; for a man who has a guilty conscience readily thinks that everybody is speaking of him. You may overhear a word spoken to some one else that will greatly disturb you, because you think it has reference to you, and may cause you either to discover the conspiracy by flight, or embarrass its execution by hastening it before the appointed time. And this will happen the more easily the more accomplices there are in the conspiracy.
As to the unforeseen accidents, of course no idea can be given of them; they can only be illustrated by examples that should serve as a caution. Julio Belanti of Sienna (of whom I have already made mention) hated Pandolfo for having taken his daughter away from him after having first given her to him as his wife. He resolved to kill him, and thus chose his time. Pandolfo went almost daily to visit a sick relative, and in going there he passed before Julio’s house, who, having observed it, arranged to have the conspirators there to assassinate Pandolfo when he passed. He concealed them, well armed, behind the house door, whilst one of them was stationed at the window to watch for the coming of Pandolfo, and to give a signal when he should be near the door. Pandolfo came, and the signal was given by the conspirator at the window; but at that moment a friend met and stopped Pandolfo, whilst some who were with him moved on, and, upon hearing the noise of arms within the door of Julio, they discovered the ambush, so that Pandolfo was enabled to save himself, and Julio, with his accomplices, was obliged to fly from Sienna. This accidental meeting with a friend prevented the execution of the plot, and thwarted the designs of Julio. Such accidents, being rare, cannot be foreseen nor prevented; though one should endeavor to foresee all that can happen, so as to guard against it.
It only remains for us now to speak of the dangers that follow the execution of a plot; of which there is really but one, namely, when some one is left who will avenge the prince that is killed. He may have brothers or sons, or other relatives, who inherit the principality, and who have been spared by your negligence or for some of the reasons we have mentioned above, and who will avenge the prince. This happened to Giovan Andrea da Lampognano, who, together with other conspirators, had killed the Duke of Milan, who left a son and two brothers, who in time avenged the murdered Duke. But truly in such cases the conspirators are not to be blamed, because there is no help for it. There is no excuse for them, however, when from want of foresight or negligence they permit any one to escape. Some conspirators of Furli killed the Count Girolamo, their lord, and took his wife and children, who were of tender age, prisoners. Believing, however, that they could not be secure if they did not obtain possession of the castle, which the castellan refused to surrender, the Lady Catharine, as the Countess was called, promised to the conspirators to procure its surrender if they would allow her to enter it, leaving them her children as hostages. Upon this pledge the conspirators consented to let her enter the castle; but no sooner was she within than she reproached them for the murder of the Count, and threatened them with every kind of vengeance. And to prove to them that she cared not for her children, she pointed to her sexual parts, calling out to them that she had wherewith to have more children. Thus the conspirators discovered their error too late, and suffered the penalty of their imprudence in perpetual exile. But of all the perils that follow the execution of a conspiracy, none is more certain and none more to be feared than the attachment of the people to the prince that has been killed. There is no remedy against this, for the conspirators can never secure themselves against a whole people. As an instance of this, I will cite the case of Julius Cæsar, who, being beloved by the people, was avenged by them; for having driven the conspirators from Rome, they were the cause of their being all killed at various times and places.
Conspiracies against the state are less dangerous for those engaged in them than plots against the life of the sovereign. In their conduct there is not so much danger, in their execution there is the same, and after execution there is none. In the conduct of the plot the danger is very slight, for a citizen may aspire to supreme power without manifesting his intentions to any one; and if nothing interferes with his plans, he may carry them through successfully, or if they are thwarted by some law, he may await a more favorable moment, and attempt it by another way. This is understood to apply to a republic that is already partially corrupted; for in one not yet tainted by corruption such thoughts could never enter the mind of any citizen. Citizens of a republic, then, may by a variety of ways and means aspire to sovereign authority without incurring great risks. If republics are slower than princes, they are also less suspicious, and therefore less cautious; and if they show more respect to their great citizens, these in turn are thereby made more daring and audacious in conspiring against them.
Everybody has read the account written by Sallust of the conspiracy of Catiline, and knows that, after it was discovered, Catiline not only stayed in Rome, but actually went to the Senate, and said insulting things to the Senate and the Consul; so great was the respect in which Rome held the citizens. And even after his departure from Rome, and when he was already with the army, Lentulus and the others would not have been seized if letters in their own handwriting had not been found, which manifestly convicted them. Hanno, one of the most powerful citizens of Carthage, aspired to the tyranny of the state, and arranged to poison the whole Senate on the occasion of his daughter’s marriage, and then to make himself sovereign. When this plot was discovered, the Senate did nothing more than to pass a decree limiting the expense of feasts and weddings; such was the respect which the Carthaginians had for so great a citizen as Hanno.
It is true that in the execution of a conspiracy against one’s country there are greater difficulties and dangers to surmount. For it is very rare that the forces of a conspirator suffice against so many; and it is not every one that controls an army, like Cæsar, or Agathocles, or Cleomenes, and the like, who by a single blow made themselves masters of their country. For such men the execution is sure and easy, but others who have not the support of such forces must employ deceit and cunning, or foreign aid.
As to the employment of deceit and cunning, I give the following instances. Pisistratus, after the victory which he had gained over the people of Megara, was greatly beloved by the people of Athens. One morning he went forth from his house wounded, and charged the nobility with having attacked him from jealousy, and demanded permission to keep a guard of armed followers for his protection, which was accorded him. This first step enabled him easily to attain such power that he soon after made himself tyrant of Athens. Pandolfo Petrucci returned with other exiles to Sienna, where he was appointed to the command of the guard of the government palace, a subordinate employ which others had refused. Nevertheless, this command gave him in time such influence and authority that in a little while he became prince of the state. Many others have employed similar means, and have in a short time, and without danger, acquired sovereign power. Those who have conspired against their country with their own forces, or by the aid of foreign troops, have had various success, according to their fortune. Catiline, whose conspiracy we have already spoken of, succumbed. Hanno, whom we have also mentioned, having failed in his attempt with poison, armed his partisans to the number of many thousands, and perished with them. Some of the first citizens of Thebes, wishing to obtain absolute control of the state, called to their aid a Spartan army, and seized the government. Thus, if we examine all the conspiracies attempted by men against their country, we find none, or but very few, that have failed in their conduct; but in their execution they have either met with success or failure. Once, however, carried into effect, they involve no other dangers but such as are inherent to absolute power; for he who has become a tyrant is exposed only to the natural and ordinary dangers which tyranny carries with it, and against which there are no other remedies than those indicated above.
Those are the considerations that have presented themselves to me in treating the subject of conspiracies; and if I have noted only those where the sword is the instrument employed, and not poison, it is because the course of both is absolutely the same. It is true that the latter are in proportion more dangerous, as their success is more uncertain, for it is not every one that has the means of employing poison; it must, therefore, be intrusted to such as have, and that very necessity causes the dangers. Furthermore, many reasons may prevent a poison from proving mortal, as in the case of Commodus. Those who had conspired against him, seeing that he would not take the poisoned draught they had offered to him, and yet being resolved upon his death, were obliged to strangle him.
There is, then, no greater misfortune for a prince than that a conspiracy should be formed against him; for it either causes his death, or it dishonors him. If the conspiracy succeeds, he dies; if it be discovered, and he punishes the conspirators with death, it will always be believed that it was an invention of the prince to satisfy his cruelty and avarice with the blood and possessions of those whom he had put to death. I will, therefore, not omit offering an advice to princes or republics against whom conspiracies may have been formed. If they discover that a conspiracy exists against them, they must, before punishing its authors, endeavor carefully to know its nature and extent, — to weigh and measure well the means of the conspirators, and their own strength. And if they find it powerful and alarming, they must not expose it until they have provided themselves with sufficient force to crush it, as otherwise they will only hasten their own destruction. They should therefore try to simulate ignorance of it, for if the conspirators should find themselves discovered, they will be forced by necessity to act without consideration. As an instance of this, we have the case of the Romans, who had left two legions at Capua to protect its inhabitants against the Samnites. The commanders of these legions (as we have related elsewhere) conspired to make themselves masters of the city. When this became known at Rome, the new Consul Rutilius was directed to see to its being prevented; and by way of lulling the conspirators into security, he published that the Senate had resolved to continue the legions in garrison at Capua. The captains and soldiers, believing this, and thinking, therefore, that they had ample time for the execution of their design, made no attempt to hasten it, and thus waited until they perceived that the Consul was separating them from each other. This excited their suspicions, and caused them to expose their intentions, and to proceed to the execution of their plot. There could not be a more forcible example than this for both parties; for it shows how dilatory men are when they think that they have time enough, and, on the other hand, how prompt they are in action when impelled by necessity. A prince or a republic who, for their own advantage, wish to defer the disclosure of a conspiracy, cannot use a more effectual means for that purpose than artfully to hold out to the conspirators the prospect of an early and favorable opportunity for action; so that, whilst waiting for that, or persuaded that they have ample time, the prince or republic will themselves gain time to overwhelm the conspirators. Those who act differently will accelerate their own ruin, as was the case with the Duke of Athens and Guglielmo de’ Pazzi. The Duke, having become tyrant of Florence, and being apprised that there was a conspiracy on foot against him, had one of the conspirators seized without further inquiry into the matter. This caused the others at once to take to arms, and to wrest the government from him. Guglielmo de’Pazzi was commissary in the Val de Chiano in the year 1501. Having heard that a conspiracy had been organized in Arezzo in favor of the Vitelli, for the purpose of taking that place from the Florentines, he immediately went there, and without considering the strength of the conspirators or measuring his own, and wholly without any preparation, he had one of the conspirators seized by the advice of his son, the Bishop of Arezzo. Hereupon the others immediately took to arms, declared the independence of Arezzo, and made Guglielmo prisoner.
But when conspiracies are feeble, they can and ought to be crushed as promptly as possible; in such case, however, the two instances we shall quote, and which are almost the direct opposites of each other, should not in any way be imitated. The one is that of the above-named Duke of Athens, who, to prove his confidence in the attachment of the Florentines to him, had the man who denounced the conspiracy to him put to death. The other is that of Dion of Syracuse, who by way of testing the fidelity of some one whom he suspected ordered Callippus, in whom he had entire confidence, to pretend to be conspiring against him. Both, however, ended badly; the first discouraged the accusers, and encouraged those who were disposed to conspire; and the other paved the way for his own destruction, and was, as it were, the chief of the conspiracy against himself, as was proved by experience, for Callippus, being able to conspire with impunity against Dion, plotted so well that he deprived him of his state and his life.
[* ]“Few kings descend to the dark abode of Ceres without wounds or slaughter, and tyrants never die a natural death.”