A man Machiavelli regarded as immoral...
Agathocles was born in Sicily in 361BC to a potter, and he initially learnt his father's trade. He might have passed into obscurity had he not joined the army of Syracuse, a city in east Sicily, sometime between 343 and 333BC. Around this time an oligarchy had just been established in Syracuse and it decided to defend nearby Crotona from an expansionist Rome. Agathocles served with distinction in the army, but as The Prince hadn't yet been written the oligarchy of Syracuse hadn't learnt the lesson about always honouring those who deserve it, and Agathocles felt abandoned by his state after the war.
Reacting rather harshly, Agathocles proceded to try and overthrow the government of Syracuse twice, and was exiled both times. He had to dress as a beggar to escape assassination, which just pissed him off even more. In 317 he returned with an army of mercenaries and entered Syracuse in triumph, killing four thousand of its citizens and sending into exile six thousand more. He also invited the senate to a meeting on the pretense of discussing a weighty matter, and then had them killed. Henceforth he was tyrant of Syracuse.
From this base Agathocles rampaged around Sicily and Africa, killing thousands and laying waste to large parts of it. At one point he even lost control of Syracuse, but eventually he had himself proclaimed King of Sicily in 306 and began to foray into southern Italy. As king he was relatively benign and furnished Syracuse with new public buildings, and he lived to the grand old age of 72. However, a dispute over his succession led to him reinstating democracy in Syracuse rather than letting the kingdom fall apart due to fighting between his sons. He hence leaves a complicated legacy.
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Machiavelli has this to say on Agathocles, in chapter eight of The Prince:
Agathocles, the Sicilian, became King of Syracuse not only from a private but from a low and abject position. This man, the son of a potter, through all the changes in his fortunes always led an infamous life. Nevertheless, he accompanied his infamies with so much ability of mind and body that, having devoted himself to the military profession, he rose through its ranks to be Praetor of Syracuse. Being established in that position, and having deliberately resolved to make himself prince and to seize by violence, without obligation to others, that which had been conceded to him by assent, he came to an understanding for this purpose with Hamilcar, the Carthaginian, who, with his army, was fighting in Sicily. One morning he assembled the people and senate of Syracuse, as if he had to discuss with them things relating to the Republic, and at a given signal the soldiers killed all the senators and the richest of the people; these dead, he seized and held the princedom of that city without any civil commotion. And although he was twice routed by the Carthaginians, and ultimately besieged, yet not only was he able to defend his city, but leaving part of his men for its defence, with the others he attacked Africa, and in a short time raised the siege of Syracuse. The Carthaginians, reduced to extreme necessity, were compelled to come to terms with Agathocles, and, leaving Sicily to him, had to be content with the possession of Africa.
Therefore, he who considers the actions and the genius of this man will see nothing, or little, which can be attributed to fortune, inasmuch as he attained preeminence, as is shown above, not by the favour of any one, but step by step in the military profession, which steps were gained with a thousand troubles and perils, and were afterwards boldly held by him with many hazards and dangers. Yet it cannot be called talent to slay fellow citizens, to deceive friends, to be without faith, without mercy, without religion; such methods may gain empire, but not glory. Still, if the courage of Agathocles in entering into and extricating himself from dangers be considered, together with his greatness of mind in enduring overcoming hardships, it cannot be seen why he should be esteemed less than the most notable captain. Nevertheless, his barbarous cruelty and inhumanity with infinite wickednesses do not permit him to be celebrated among the most excellent men. What he achieved cannot be attributed either to fortune or to genius.
Some may wonder how it can happen that Agathocles, and his like, after infinite treacheries and cruelties, should live for long secure in his country, and defend himself from external enemies, and never be conspired against by his own citizens; seeing that many others, by means of cruelty, have never been able even in peaceful times to hold the state, still less in the doubtful times of war. I believe that this follows from severities being badly or properly used. Those may be called properly used, if of evil it is lawful to speak well, that are applied at one blow and are necessary to one's security, and that are not persisted in afterwards unless they can be turned to the advantage of the subjects. The badly employed are those which, notwithstanding they may be few in the commencement, multiply with time rather than decrease. Those who practise the first system are able, by aid of God or man, to mitigate in some degree their rule, as Agathocles did. It is impossible for those who follow the other to maintain themselves.
Agathocles is the only person in the whole of The Prince who is censured for doing evil. That a man who at one point condones fratricide and another recommends the killing of all your sons should have found a historical example of someone who deserves to be cursed for their evil perhaps needs a little explaining.
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According to Machiavelli, Agathocles the Sicilian, a man of 'the lowest and most abject origins', rose to be King of Syracuse due to 'evil deeds' of exceptional 'energy of mind and body'. Although Machiavelli has elsewhere told us that Fortune allows us control over but half of our actions, and that any state can collapse in a thousand unforeseen ways, Agathocles is here credited with success by dint entirely of his own ability, as 'luck or favour played little or no part in his success'. Like Pope Julius II and Ferdinand of Aragon (whom Machiavelli admires), Agathocles had been successful due to his outstanding personal virtú (in the sense of efficiency or ability), which had made him master of Sicily and allowed him to conduct successful wars against Carthage.
Despite this commonality between the three men, there were also large differences between them; Machiavelli does not compare them directly, but his accounts of the other two shed further light on the discussion of Agathocles. Pope Julius II is admonished for Machiavelli for his lack of prudence despite great success, and only the 'shortness of his pontificate' allowed him to proceed without 'the taste of failure'. Hence a full understanding of the discussion of Agathocles must include a consideration of Machiavelli's views on fortune. Fortune favours the brave and impetuous (such as the Pope and Agathocles), but times are not always suited to such an attitude and so the bold man will eventually come to grief as he will be unable of changing the fundamentals of his attitude amidst changing circumstances.
The account of Agathocles, who was reportedly planning a new war against Carthage at the time of his death, does not include such a warning, probably because at this point in The Prince Machiavelli's discussion is focused on different matters. However, this later discussion of Julius II makes it clear that no-one is immune to fortune, even if extreme virtú can limit its effects.
A comparison of Agathocles with Ferdinand of Aragon cuts to the heart of The Prince. Unlike Agathocles, Ferdinand is praised as a ruler who is not only successful in his military affairs, but as 'the most glorious king in Christendom'. Agathocles, meanwhile is precluded from being 'being numbered among the finest men' due to his 'appallingly cruel and inhumane conduct'. The focus on Ferdinand’s glory as the thing that makes him praiseworthy appears to mirror the preoccupation of Cicero in On Duties, but we find that Machiavelli’s understanding of glory is radically different. In fact, neither Ferdinand nor Agathocles acted in accordance with Cicero's conception of honour or glory, as both disregarded the 'princely virtues' which Cicero upheld.
While Cicero had specifically warned against lowering oneself to the level of a beast, Machiavelli responds by encouraging a ruler to act as both 'the fox and the lion'. Of the two men Machiavelli admires most in The Prince, Ferdinand and Cesare Borgia, both had broken Cicero’s rule. Cesare had broken faith with his lieutenant, Remirro de Orco and had him killed, whereas Cicero believed it better to die than break faith. It is necessary to consider what differentiates such actions from Agathocles' massacre of the Syracusian Senate, and hence make Agathocles worthy of censure.
In The Discourses, Machiavelli expresses a strong preference for republican government, as 'it is beyond question that it is only in republics that the common good is looked to properly in that all that promotes it is carried out'. Princes are apt to slip into tyranny, and so a mixed constitution whereby the desires of the various social groups can find a balance is to be favoured. The exception is when a new state is being founded, or when an old one needs to be renewed after it has slipped into corruption.
This process of renewal is unavoidable because, borrowing an Aristotelian image, Machiavelli describes how the body politic is bound to decay over time. In such a situation it is apt for one person to seize power so that they can carry out this task more efficiently, so long as this person possesses sufficient virtú. However, as such people cannot be found in every generation it is much better for one such person to establish a constitution which will be long-lasting and does not depend on the virtú of a particular individual, such as Lycurgus gave to Sparta.
The founder of Rome, Romulus, is hence excused for the murder of his brother, because afterwards his single will could shape the Roman constitution into a desirable form, but Agathocles is criticized for dishonourable conduct. An even more pertinent example is that of Brutus, who killed not the Senate as Agathocles did when he assumed rule, but his own sons. However, Brutus' action is taken to have been in accordance with the common good, as his sons sought to oppress the people's liberty. So although Machiavelli has rejected the Ciceronian definition of what constitutes honourable government, he differentiates between actions which are in Ciceronian terms immoral but benefit the common good, and those which are immoral and benefit only an individual tyrant.
Excusable evil deeds
In The Prince, Cesare Borgia is praised for bringing peace and stability to the Romagna by the cruelty of Remirro, and then by having the latter executed so as to make the public well disposed towards him. Here's the story, which Machiavelli sees as a good example:
When the duke occupied the Romagna he found it under the rule of weak masters, who rather plundered their subjects than ruled them, and gave them more cause for disunion than for union, so that the country was full of robbery, quarrels, and every kind of violence; and so, wishing to bring back peace and obedience to authority, he considered it necessary to give it a good governor. Thereupon he promoted Messer Ramiro d'Orco (de Lorqua), a swift and cruel man, to whom he gave the fullest power. This man in a short time restored peace and unity with the greatest success. Afterwards the duke considered that it was not advisable to confer such excessive authority, for he had no doubt but that he would become odious, so he set up a court of judgment in the country, under a most excellent president, wherein all cities had their advocates. And because he knew that the past severity had caused some hatred against himself, so, to clear himself in the minds of the people, and gain them entirely to himself, he desired to show that, if any cruelty had been practised, it had not originated with him, but in the natural sternness of the minister. Under this pretence he took Ramiro, and one morning caused him to be executed and left on the piazza at Cesena with the block and a bloody knife at his side. The barbarity of this spectacle caused the people to be at once satisfied and dismayed.
It all depends on 'whether cruel deeds are committed well or badly', and Machiavelli admits that Agathocles committed his well. By massacring the Senate and wealthy citizens all in one go, Agathocles laid the foundations for his regime and did not have to keep committing cruel acts to keep himself in power. It must hence be questioned to what extent Agathocles differed from Brutus or Romulus in using ruthlessness to establish a new regime, especially as upon his death he restored democracy to Syracuse.
By refusing to establish a hereditary monarchy due to divisions between his sons, Agathocles seemed to have self-consciously avoided the degeneration which Machiavelli says comes about when a virtuous prince is succeeded by his son, of whose virtue there is no guarantee. Furthermore, Machiavelli seems to admit of a rehabilitation of Agathocles' image during his own lifetime, as he in some measure remedied his standing 'with Gods and men' by changing his methods to ones which were 'beneficial' to his subjects after gaining power. Despite acting ruthlessly throughout his lifetime, he managed to win numerous wars with armies of his own men, something Machiavelli denies in both books is possible without a spirit of liberty and equality in the state.
Cicero gave the example of Dionysus in On Duties, who was so hated by his subjects that he had his hair singed with hot coals for fear of the barber's knife. However, the evidence seems to show that Agathocles was not hated by his subjects, which Machiavelli admits by explaining the rehabilitation of his image after his seizure of power – and Machiavelli regards a ruler's image to be very important indeed.
The general will
Machiavelli's censure of Agathocles must then be based on the understanding that he ruled for his own interest, not that of the general will, despite evidence to the contrary. In The Discourses Machiavelli speaks in glowing terms of princes who do rule in accordance with the general will, and states ruled in such a manner can have the same constitutional liberty which exists in a self-governing republic; but Machiavelli cannot have regarded Agathocles to be such a ruler. Perhaps Machiavelli did not regard Syracuse as in need of renewal, for we never find him to advise cruel action purely for the sake of it, but only to achieve the ends of preserving the state and achieving glory – Agathocles would hence have been acting out of desire for self-aggrandizement, not for the good of the city.
A clue is given by Agathocles’ reasons for trying to overthrow the oligarchy of Syracuse, which were rooted in his resentment at not being honoured after helping Crotona fight off the Romans, something quite different to a desire to renew the city for the general good. Although the actions of men like Agathocles must have been supported by significant numbers of men-at-arms, which is something Machiavelli does not always make clear, the ability of force to triumph in politics means such factions can overturn a government merely by dint of this superior force and not a superior ability to organize the affairs of a city.
When we consider that Machiavelli cites a slightly modified version of the Aristotelian cycle of regimes, with a city passing from princedom to tyranny, to aristocracy to oligarchy, and finally to anarchy, it can be realized that any forceful seizure of power is at best a necessary evil, which is to be avoided where possible. Only a well-established constitution and good customs can delay this cycle and reduce the periods of extraordinary circumstances to one where exceptional powers are assumed only for a brief period to renew the constitution.
It is this internal peace, brought about by a balance of power between the various factions within the state, which is ultimately desirable and brings about the well-being of the state. Ferdinand maintained this by keeping his citizens in constant wonder and amazement by his deeds, and Cesare Borgia brought such a situation about in the Romagna by a burst of cruelty followed by prudence. Agathocles' motivations preclude him from taking a place in posterity alongside either man, and stand as a condemnation of a quest for personal aggrandizement in spite of the needs of the city.
Hence Machiavelli’s discussion of Agathocles in The Prince, however problematic, serves the purpose of defining true glory as that which seeks to preserve and enhance the state as its primary end, and virtú in consisting in bringing this about. Although Machiavelli could not know what the ultimate result of contemporary men’s actions such as Julius II, Cesare Borgia and Ferdinand's actions would be, they seemed to him to provide a much better example of men who put the interests of the state first and employed extreme flexibility in their means to this end.