The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 8

Author: Niccolò Machiavelli  | Date: A.D. 1502

Rise and Fall of the Borgias

A.D. 1502


The commencement of the sixteenth century found Italy suffering from the foreign interference of France and Spain. The chief Italian states at this period were the kingdom of Naples, the Papal States, the duchy of Milan, and the republics of Venice, Florence, and Genoa. Ferdinand V of Aragon and Louis XII of France, who had hereditary claims through his grandmother Valentina Visconti, had concluded a secret and perfidious treaty for the partition of the kingdom of Naples, the effects of which Frederick II, the King, vainly sought to avert. They conquered Naples in 1501, but disagreed over the division of the spoil, and, the French army being defeated by the Spanish on the Garigliano in 1503, Spanish influence soon after became dominant in Italy.

In the march of the French army on Naples in 1501, the French commander had for lieutenant Caesar Borgia, son of Pope Alexander VI, whose career furnishes a vivid illustration of the internal conditions of Italy at this period. Borgia, who had resigned from the cardinalate conferred on him by his father, had been created Duke of Valentinois by the King of France, had married the daughter of the King of Navarre, and was invested with the duchy of Romagna by his father in 1501.

By force and treachery he reduced the cities of Romagna, which were ruled by feudatories of the papal see, and, with the assistance of his relations, endeavored to found an independent hereditary power in Central Italy.

The contemporaneous account of these events, by the celebrated Niccolo Machiavelli, possesses a fascinating interest, which is greatly enhanced by the fact that Machiavelli himself was a participant in the events of which he writes.

A Florentine by birth, Machiavelli was sent by his fellow-citizens, in 1502, on a mission to Borgia, who had just returned from a visit to the King of France in Lombardy. During Borgia’s absence, friends and former colleagues, alarmed at his ambition and cruelty, had entered into a league with his enemies, and invited the Florentines to join them. The Florentines refused, but sent Machiavelli to make professions of friendship and offers of assistance to the Duke, and at the same time to watch his movements, to discover his real intentions, and endeavor to obtain something in return for their friendship. Borgia, who had the reputation of being the closest man of his age, had to deal with a negotiator who, though young, was a match for him, and the account of the mission is very curious; there was deep dissimulation on both sides.

Machiavelli returned to Florence in January, 1503, after three eventful months passed in the court and camp of Borgia.

The treatise The Prince has been described as "a display of cool, judicious, scientific atrocity on the part of Caesar Borgia (Duke Valentino), which seemed rather to belong to a fiend than to the most depraved of men. Principles which the most hardened ruffian would scarcely hint to his most trusted accomplice, or avow without the disguise of some palliating sophism even to his own mind, are professed without the slightest circumlocution, and assumed as the fundamental axioms of all political science."

On being reproved for the maxims contained in the work, Machiavelli replied, "If I taught princes how to tyrannize, I also taught the people how to destroy them"; and in these words posterity has vindicated the reputation of the talented Italian statesman and author.

Those who from a private station have ascended to the dignity of princes, by the favor of fortune alone, meet with few difficulties in their progress, but encounter many in maintaining themselves on the throne. Obstructed by no impediments during their journey, they soar to a great height, but all the difficulties arise after they are quietly seated. These princes are chiefly such as acquire their dominions by money or by favor. Such were the men whom Darius placed in Greece, in the cities of Ionia and of the Hellespont, whom, for their own security and glory, he raised to the rank of sovereigns.

Such were the emperors who from a private station arrived at the empire by corrupting the soldiery. They sustained their elevation only by the pleasure and fortune of those who advanced them, two foundations equally uncertain and insecure. They had neither the experience nor the power necessary to maintain their position. For, unless men possess superior genius or courage, how can they know in what manner to govern others who have themselves always been accustomed to a private station? Deficient in knowledge, they will be equally destitute of power for want of troops on whose attachment and fidelity they can depend. Besides, those states which have suddenly risen, like other things in nature of premature and rapid growth, do not take sufficient root in the minds of men, but they must fall with the first stroke of adversity; unless the princes themselves so unexpectedly exalted—possess such superior talents that they can discover at once the means of preserving their good-fortune, and afterward maintain it by having recourse to the same measures which others had adopted before them.

To adduce instances of supreme power attained by good-fortune and superior talent, I may refer to two examples which have happened in our own time, viz., Francis Sforza and Caesar Borgia. The former, by lawful means and by his great abilities, raised himself from a private station to the dukedom of Milan, and maintained with but little difficulty what had cost him so much trouble to acquire. Caesar Borgia, Duke of Valentinois—commonly called the duke of Valentino—on the other hand, attained a sovereignty by the good-fortune of his father, which he lost soon after his father’s decease; though he exerted his utmost endeavors, and employed every means that skill or prudence could suggest, to retain those states which he had acquired by the arms and good-fortune of another. For, though a good foundation may not have been laid before a man arrives at dominion, it may possibly be accomplished afterward by a ruler of superior mind; yet this can only be effected with much difficulty to the architect and danger to the edifice. If therefore we examine the whole conduct of Borgia, we shall see how firm a foundation he had laid for future greatness. This examination will not be superfluous—for I know no better lesson for the instruction of a prince than is afforded by the actions and example of the Duke—for, if the measures he adopted did not succeed, it was not his fault, but rather owing to the extreme perversity of fortune. Pope Alexander VI, wishing to give his son a sovereignty in Italy, had not only present but future difficulties to contend with. In the first place, he saw no means of making him sovereign of any state independent of the Church; and, if he should endeavor to dismember the ecclesiastical state, he knew that the Duke of Milan and the Venetians would never consent to it, because Faenza and Rimini were already under the protection of the latter; and the armies of Italy, from whom he might expect material service, were in the hands of those who had the most reason to apprehend the aggrandizement of the papal power, such as the Orsini, the Colonni, and their partisans.

It was consequently necessary to dissolve these connections and to throw the Italian states into confusion in order to secure the sovereignty of a part. This was easy to accomplish. The Venetians, influenced by motives of their own, had determined to invite the French into Italy. The Pope made no opposition to their design; he even favored it by consenting to annul the first marriage of Louis XII, who therefore marched into Italy with the aid of the Venetians and the consent of Alexander. He was no sooner at Milan than the Pope availed himself of his assistance to overrun Romagna, which he acquired by the reputation of his alliance with the King of France.

The Duke, having thus acquired Romagna, and weakened the Colonni, wished at the same time to preserve and increase his own principality; but there were two obstacles in his way. The first arose from his own people, upon whom he could not depend, the other from the designs of the French. He feared that the Orsini, of whose aid he had availed himself, might fail at the critical moment, and not only prevent his further acquisitions, but even deprive him of those he had made. And he had reason to apprehend the same conduct on the part of France, and was convinced of the trifling reliance he could place on the Orsini; for after the reduction of Faenza, when he made an attack upon Bologna, they manifested an evident want of activity. As to the King, his intentions were easily discerned; for when he had conquered the duchy of Urbino, and was about to make an irruption into Tuscany, the King obliged him to desist from the enterprise. The Duke determined, therefore, neither to depend on fortune nor on the arms of another prince. He began by weakening the party of the Orsini and the Colonni at Rome, by corrupting ail the persons of distinction who adhered to them, either by bribes, appointments, or commands suited to their respective qualities, so that in a few months a complete revolution was effected in their attachment, and they all came over to the Duke.

Having thus humbled the Colonni, he only waited an opportunity for destroying the Orsini. It was not long before one offered, of which he did not fail to avail himself. The Orsini, perceiving too late that the power of the Duke and the Church must be established upon their ruin, called a council of their friends at Magione, in Perugia, to concert measures of prevention. The consequence of their deliberations was the revolt of Urbino, the disturbances of Romagna, and the infinite dangers which threatened the Duke on every side, and which he finally surmounted by the aid of the French. His affairs once reestablished, he grew weary of relying on France and other foreign allies, and he resolved for the future to rely alone on artifice and dissimulation—a course in which he so well succeeded that the Orsini were reconciled to him through the intervention of Signor Paolo, whom he had gained over to his interests by all manner of rich presents and friendly offices. And this man, being deceived himself, so far prevailed on the credulity of the rest that they attended the Duke at an interview at Sinigaglia, where they were all put to death. Having thus exterminated the chiefs, and converted their partisans into his friends, the Duke laid the solid foundations of his power. He made himself master of all Romagna and the duchy of Urbino, and gained the affection of the inhabitants—particularly the former—by giving them a prospect of the advantages they might hope to enjoy from his government. As this latter circumstance is remarkable and worthy of imitation, I cannot suffer it to pass unnoticed.

After the Duke had possessed himself of Romagna, he found it had been governed by a number of petty princes, more addicted to the spoliation than the government of their subjects, and whose political weakness rather served to create popular disturbances than to secure the blessings of peace. The country was infested with robbers, torn by factions, and a prey to all the horrors of civil commotions. He found that, to establish tranquillity, order, and obedience, a vigorous government was necessary. With this view, he appointed Ramiro d’Orco governor, a cruel but active man, to whom he gave the greatest latitude of power. He very soon appeased the disturbances, united all parties, and acquired the renown of restoring the whole country to peace.

The Duke soon deemed it no longer necessary to continue so rigorous and odious a system. He therefore erected in the midst of the province a court of civil judicature, with a worthy and upright magistrate to preside over it, where every city had its respective advocate. He was aware that the severities of Ramiro had excited some hatred against him, and resolved to clear himself from all reproach in the minds of the people, and to gain their affection by showing them that the cruelties which had been committed did not originate with him, but solely in the ferocious disposition of his minister. Taking advantage of the discontent, he caused Ramiro to be massacred one morning in the market-place, and his body exposed upon a gibbet, with a cutlass near it stained with blood. The horror of this spectacle satisfied the resentment of the people and petrified them at once with terror and astonishment.

The Duke had now delivered himself in a great measure from present enemies, and taken effectual means to secure himself by employing against them arms of his own, putting it out of the power of his neighbors to annoy him. To secure and increase his acquisitions, he had nothing to fear from anyone but the French. He well knew that the King of France, who had at last perceived his error, would oppose his further aggrandizement. He resolved, in the first place, to form new connections and alliances, and adopted a system of prevarication with France, as plainly appeared when their army was employed in Naples against the Spaniards who had laid siege to Gaeta. His design was to fortify himself against them, and he would certainly have succeeded if Alexander VI had lived a little longer. Such were the methods he took to guard against present dangers.

Against those which were more remote—as he had reason to fear that the new pope would be inimical to him and seek to deprive him of what had been bestowed on him by his predecessor—he designed to have made four different provisions: In the first place, by utterly destroying the families of all those nobles whom he had deprived of their states, so that the future pope might not reestablish them; secondly, by attaching to his interests all the gentry of Rome, in order, by their means, to control the power of the Pope; thirdly, by securing a majority in the college of cardinals; fourthly and lastly, by acquiring so much power, during the lifetime of his father, that he might be enabled of himself to resist the first attack of the enemy. Three of these designs he had effected before the death of Alexander, and had made every necessary arrangement for availing himself of the fourth. He had put to death almost all the nobles whom he had despoiled, and had gained over all the Roman gentry; his party was the strongest in the college of cardinals; and, for a further augmentation of his power, he designed to have made himself master of Tuscany. He was already master of Perugia and Piombino, and had taken Pisa under his protection, of which he soon afterward took actual possession. His cautious policy with regard to the French was no longer necessary, as they had been driven from the kingdom of Naples by the Spaniards, and both of these people were under the necessity of courting his friendship. Lucca and Sienna presently submitted to him, either from fear or hatred of the Florentines. The latter were then unable to defend themselves; and, if this had been the case at the time of Alexander’s death, the Duke’s power and reputation would have been so great that he might have sustained his dignity without any dependence on fortune or the support of others.

Alexander VI died five years after he had first unsheathed his sword. He left his son nothing firmly established but the single state of Romagna. All his other conquests were absolutely visionary, as he was not only enclosed between two hostile and powerful armies, but was himself attacked by a mortal disease. The Duke, however, possessed so much ability and courage, was so well acquainted with the arts either of gaining or ruining others as it suited his purpose, and so strong were the foundations he had laid in that short space of time, that if he had either been in health or not distressed by those two hostile armies, he would have surmounted every difficulty.

As a proof of the soundness of the foundation he had laid, Romagna continued faithful to him and was firm to his interest for above a month afterward. Although the Baglioni, the Vitelli, and the Ursini all came to Rome at that time, yet—half dead as he was—they feared to attempt anything against him. If he could not elect a pope of his own choice, he was at least able to prevent the election of one unfriendly to his interests. If he had been in health when Alexander died, he would have succeeded in all his designs; for he said, the very day that Julius II was elected, that he had foreseen every obstacle which could arise on the death of his father, and had prepared adequate remedies, but that he could not foresee that at the time of his father’s death his own life would be in such imminent hazard.1

Upon a thorough review of the Duke’s conduct and actions, I cannot reproach him with having omitted any precaution; and I feel that he merits being proposed as a model to all who by fortune or foreign arms succeed in acquiring sovereignty. For as he had a great spirit and vast designs, he could not have acted otherwise in his circumstances; and if he miscarried in them, it was solely owing to the sudden death of his father, and the illness with which he was himself attacked. Whoever, therefore, would secure himself in a new principality against the attempts of enemies, and finds it necessary to gain friends; to surmount obstacles by force of cunning; to make himself beloved and feared by the people, respected and obeyed by the soldiery; to destroy all those who can or may oppose his designs; to promulgate new laws in substitution of old ones; to be severe, indulgent, magnanimous, and liberal; to disband an army on which he cannot rely, and raise another in its stead; to preserve the friendship of kings and princes, so that they may be ever prompt to oblige and fearful to offend—such a one, I say, cannot have a better or more recent model for his imitation than is afforded by the conduct of Borgia.

One thing blamable in his actions occurred on the election of Julius II to the pontificate. He could not nominate the prelate whom he wished, but he had it in his power to exclude anyone whom he disliked. He ought therefore never to have consented to the election of one of those cardinals whom he had formerly injured, and who might have reason to fear him after his election; for mankind injure others from motives either of hatred or fear. Among others whom he had injured were St. Peter ad Vincula Colonna, St. George, and Ascanius. All the other candidates for the pontificate had cause to fear him except the Cardinal of Rouen and the Spanish cardinals—the latter were united to him by family connections—and the Cardinal d’Amboise, who was too powerfully supported by France to have reason to fear him.

The Duke ought by all means to have procured the election of a Spaniard, or, in case of failure, should have consented to the proposal of the Archbishop of Rouen, but on no account to the nomination of St. Peter ad Vincula. It is an error to think that new obligations will extinguish the memory of former injuries in the minds of great men. The Duke therefore in this election committed a fault which proved the occasion of his utter ruin.2

1On August is, 1503, he and his father drank, by mistake, a poison which they had presumably prepared for one of their guests. The father died, and Borgia’s life was for a time in extreme danger.

2Within thirteen months he lost all his sovereignties, and was imprisoned, but escaped to Spain, where he was killed in the attack on Viana in 1507.


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Chicago: Niccolò Machiavelli, "Rise and Fall of the Borgias," The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 8 in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. Rossiter Johnson (Harrogate, TN: The National Alunmi, 1926), Original Sources, accessed July 1, 2022,

MLA: Machiavelli, Niccolò. "Rise and Fall of the Borgias." The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 8, in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, edited by Rossiter Johnson, Harrogate, TN, The National Alunmi, 1926, Original Sources. 1 Jul. 2022.

Harvard: Machiavelli, N, 'Rise and Fall of the Borgias' in The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 8. cited in 1926, The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. , The National Alunmi, Harrogate, TN. Original Sources, retrieved 1 July 2022, from