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Literature / The Art of War (Machiavelli)

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The Art of War (Italian: Dell'arte della guerra, literally On the art of war) is a war treatise by the Italian Renaissance political philosopher and historian, Niccolò Machiavelli.

Machiavelli’s Art of War takes the form of Socratic dialogue between lord Fabrizio Colonna and young Florentine nobles. Fabrizio was a real person, but the depiction of him in this book has been interpreted as a stand-in for Machiavelli himself. The dialogue explains and predicts changes in European warfare and military affairs as a consequence of larger social, economic and technological developments, advocating some particular solutions and stances, both stricly military and dealing with government more generally.

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It's the only book written by Machiavelli to be published during his lifetime.

Not to be confused with Sun Tzu's The Art of War, despite the inevitable similiarities between two erudite Big Books of War that left their own, distinctive marks in history.


Machiavelli's The Art of War provides examples of:

  • Affluent Ascetic: The army should be run without any comforts beyond bare minimum. And that's regardless of a particular soldier's social status and rank. If the officers aren't living modestly, their personal needs will not only put strain on the logistics, but also affect morale, since the common soldiers will envy and despise them.
  • Anti-Cavalry: The only reason you should bother with pikemen is that they're great for stopping cavalry charges and killing any horsemen stupid enough to attack them. Just keep in mind that it's their only function.
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  • Armor Is Useless: Subverted. While it's noted that armour is heavy and wearing it can be tiresome, it's also instantly pointed out that your troops should be trained with sets of armour twice the weight of these they'll be using in battle, so they will find these light. Armour is also the only thing between enemies' weapons and bodies of your soldiers, so all the regular troops should be wearing it. Even the skirmishers should at least have some protective gear over their chests. Since the use, accuracy and penetration of firearms when the book was written was very limited, armour remained reliable protection against all kinds of attacks.
  • Army of Thieves and Whores: Whenever a commander is stuck with one, he should use the Roman way of disciplining the army, which is decimation: force every ten soldiers to pick straws. The loser gets clubbed to death by the other nine. Machiavelli notes that Crassus killed this way about third of his men, before they finally turned into an Elite Army.
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  • Asskicking Equals Authority: One of the novel - at least for Renaissance - things proposed in this book are field promotions and a merit-based chain of command, with promotions to NCOs based on combat performance. his in turn was supposed to intice the soldiers to be both darring and pragmatic.
  • Attack Its Weak Point: Because there is always one or two. Or ten. The role of a general is to find out and ruthlessly exploit them all.
  • Attack Pattern Alpha: A couple of the basic troop formations are heavily discussed and described in detail, with diagrams. Soldiers must be so well-trained with using and maintaining them that a single whistle should be enough of a signal for the entire army to regroup.
  • Author Avatar: Lord Fabrizio Colonna is often considered as one for Machiavelli. For Machiavelli's credit, Colonna was a real general who used tactics similar to these described.
  • Big Book of War: Duh. However, it's mostly focused on training and internal organisation of the army and specific strategies, rather than being a typical tactical manual.
  • Boring, but Practical: Some seemingly extremely trivial things can turn into decisive factors:
    • The ability to swim makes fording rivers easier and much less risky,
    • standarising your weapons and other equipment as much as possible, so replacing something destroyed or lost is not a big deal and logistics are much easier,
    • cavalry charges may be glamorous and artillery can turn even the mightiest fortress into rubble, but it's always the boring infantry that is required for most tasks and securing the goals.
  • City and Country Mouse: Both tropes come into play in the discussion about which makes better conscripts. The grunts should come from the countryside, since those people are already accustomed into hardships and want no luxuries. A sizable portion of your troops should comprise of small-town craftsmen with useful skills, which cuts the costs and manpower needed for the maintenance of your army. Cavalry needs people who can afford a horse, and these generally come from towns and cities.
  • Combat Pragmatist: Considering when the book was written, a lot of (to us) redundant and obvious elements are mentioned, like use of tactics other than blind charges or the idea of fighting not for glory and splendor, but rather to achieve tactical and strategical goals with minimal loses on own side and preferably utter destruction of enemy forces. A lot of underhand and "unhonourable" tactics and methods of achieving victory are also mentioned as the realities of war and "playing fair" is ridiculed to no end, since that means a lot more dead people by the end of the day. Each and every weakness the enemy has should be viciously exploited.
  • Conscription: The only way you can raise a proper, functional army that is loyal to the state, not the highest bidder. Since Machiavelli wrote the book in clear support of republican state, the conscripts should be also volunteers. Compulsory conscription is treated as the last resort and should be avoided at all costs.
  • Defensive Feint Trap: Invoked on a couple of different occasions and discussed in-depth:
    • When enemy army folds and the rout starts, pursuit should be conducted only when your own units can maintain cohension and formation, after the surrounding areas have already been already scouted by light cavalry. Otherwise you might be running into a trap.
    • Or, when you're attempting it yourself, the more of a Glory Hound the enemy commander is, the more likely he gets to pursue a routing or withdrawing unit, allowing you to set up a trap or get him within range of your entrenched artillery.
  • Desperation Attack: Whenever possible, convince your men they are in desperate position, with no options but fighting with all their strength or dying. And never, ever place your enemy in such a situation, because it will only needlessly cost you your own men. Instead, leave some path for escape, so enemy troops will prefer to rout than face you.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: There is only one penalty - death. Any misbehaving soldiers should be killed by public beheading in front of the assembled troops. If the entire army is unruly, decimate it. While flogging is discussed, it's reserved for the worst offenders and for a reason - barely anyone survived flogging. For most it was a painful and agonizing death, especially when compared with swift beheading.
  • Early Installment Weirdness:
    • The book describes Italian forts and castles as the worst in the world. In less than fifty years, Italian engineers became the world's most sought-after experts in fortifications and star-forts that dominated Europe up to World War I originated from Italy.
    • The unit names are the same as in modern military, but the sizes differ. Same goes with the rank system, which uses names we know, but for different roles.
  • Easy Logistics: Subverted. A sizable chunk of the book is devoted to explaining how logistics are important, what are main problems with keeping your army running and how to alleviate these problems, because solving them completely is impossible - getting supplies from point A to point B is always a hassle. Even with lenghty calculations and soldiers who carry part of their supplies themselves, the size of a wagon train ends up almost as big as the army it's following, while providing only a bare minimum of supplies and goods.
  • A Father to His Men: Used on two different levels
    • A general should act like this, because there's nothing like strict, but fair and caring commander to keep the morale high and the troops disciplined and loyal.
    • It's assumed that each NCO who gained his position through promotion from a common soldier will act protectively toward his comrades, viewing them as brothers-in-arms.
  • Flaw Exploitation: Shoot the Messenger is discussed in detail. Killing enemy battle couriers can potentially break chain of command and flow of orders, which should be exploited if enemy happens to use couriers. On the other hand, sound cues and banner signals remove the need for messengers, preventing such break of communication.
  • Foreign Culture Fetish: As in his other books, Machiavelli never pretends not to admire the Roman Republic and Greek polis. Not that he's wrong with his thesis. He also adores organisation and self-discipline of German landsknechts and while critical, he still consider Swiss pikemen in higher regard than his own national formations.
  • Framing Device: The book is written as a dialogue between lord Fabrizio Colonna and four young mennote , held in one of the city's gardens. All of them really lived - Colonna was a famous condottiero, while the others were sons of notable Florentine patricians. Each chapter, after a brief dialogue, descends into Colonna's monologues, the other men provide topics and ask him to clarify points.
  • Frontline General: Discussed and eventually discredited as wasteful, if not outright stupid. Good general should stay in the back and keep issuing orders, while maintaining a clear view over the whole battlefield and having scouts on dispatch to know in advance about enemy reinforcements and potential traps. Being in the thick of it makes issuing orders hard and getting the grand picture of situation simply impossible, while needlessly endangering the commander.
    • However, the general should still follow his army and be present during battles, rather than simply sending troops with basic orders while staying at home himself, an all-too-common practice during early phase of Italian Wars.
  • Gender Is No Object: But only for a general, because it's a job requiring a sharp mind, not a specific set of reproductive organs. Soldiers, though, should be all of one gender (and given the realities of the period, that means male), for disciplinary reasons.
  • Geo Effects:
    • Almost a whole chapter is dedicated into describing how terrain and obstacles, both natural and man-made, can affect fighting and how to use them for one's own advantage or the enemy's disadvantage.
    • When describing how to build a good camp, terrain also plays an important role.
    • Colonna himself claims that he won a battle because his arquebusers were able to hide behind a mound of sand.
  • Glory Hound: The book was written in times when old concepts of chivalry were still considered valid by many generals. The worst commander you can get is the one who follows them, as he will fight for his own glory, often doing utterly ridiculous things to made the battle spectacular (cavalry charges on fortified gun positions included) instead of winning at lowest possible costs.
  • Guns Are Worthless: Given the time period the book was written, notably subverted. While all limitations of guns are listed, arquebusers are still considered as essential part of every unit. The book itself is often listed as first tactical manual covering pike and shot formation as not only worthwhile, but standard.
  • Heroes Prefer Swords: Thanks to low fire-rate and a small number of firearms used in armies of early Renaissance, troops armed with swords and shields were an important force. Thus swordsmen made 3/4 of the whole army - pikemen and arquebusers only provide support for them by denying cavalry charges and decimating enemy from distance. In close quarters pike is impossible to use, so pikemen are defenseless against enemy in melee, while firearms are completely useless before reloading. Plus, Machiavelli was copying Roman composition of troops he found perfect.
  • Hired Guns: In case you didn't read any of his other works - Machiavelli hated mercenaries with passion. Even if he acknowledges the strong sides of foreign mercs like German landsknecht or Swiss pikemen, he still points out their only incentive to fight is monetary gain, which often makes them unwilling to face the enemy. The greedy mercenaries are also just as likely to sack the land of whoever hired them in the first place. At the end of the day, mercenaries are expensive, unreliable, unruly and often very poorly trained.
  • Hope Spot: Machiavelli advises to never create them for your own troops, so the soldiers will be forced into a desperate fight and with their lives on stake they will perform much better than if they had other options. He also provides an example of what happens when there's some hope left. A perfect, fully-manned and well supplied fortress was taken by inferior force, because the defendants always had another tower, keep or some other place to run away, giving up more and more of the fortress until they were forced to surrender.
  • Idiot Ball: Feudal levies tend to be commanded by people who are more concerned about how they look and what people will say about their bravery during the battle, so they tend to be unrepentant Glory Hounds, personally leading their soldiers to the front lines, while wearing the most conspicious and visible armour and clothes. Kill them. And preferably make a show out of it, so the rest of the army folds and routs.
  • Improvised Training: Most of the proposed training methods consists of Wax On, Wax Off exercises, providing conscripts predominately with the sense of unit cohension and fraternity, rather than anything else. Oh, and lifting heavy things. Lots of lifting.
  • It Will Never Catch On: Averted. While firearms aren't treated as a decisive weapon, Machiavelli is fully aware of what they can do and what their limitations are (at the time), admitting there is a space for improvements and implementation.
  • Loads and Loads of Characters: One of the "students" in dialogue asks why so many officers and NCOs are needed, if contemporary armies use one leader for thousand or more soldiers. Colonna answers that it's exactly why those armies are so poorly commanded and face so many communication problems. Having many officers guarantees that troops are always ordered, the formations are kept and discipline is easy to maintain. It also prevents the chain of command from breaking, even if most of the officers corp gets wiped out.
  • Look What I Can Do Now!: The training proposed consists mainly of giving soldiers extra-heavy equipment, so even the weakest wimp will get used to it. The final result is an army of people so used to the weight of their training gear, that the regular stuff will appear to be feather-weight. It is also invoked when Colonna mentions how with each visitation the troops should improve, which looks good for the higher-ups.
  • Mundane Utility:
    • At least some of the pikes can be used instead of tent poles during camping, to save the hassle with carrying around lenghty poles. Since the army camp should be entrenched and fortified, there is no urgent need for Anti-Cavalry while staying in it.
    • Standarised design of carts and wagons makes it easier to load them. Doubly so if each 10 soldiers get a cart of their own to lug around and do their own logistics.
  • Never Split The Party: Dividing your troops into smaller units will only weaken your overall projection of force and make your troops easier targets for the enemy. The smallest unit with full fighting capabilities is made by 450 men who cover each other.
  • Nostalgia Ain't Like It Used to Be: A considerable amount of space is used for a love letter to the late Roman Republic and its internal organisation of both army and civil affairs, where everyone was a virtuous and brave Cincinnatus. Machiavelli pays no attention to the ugly underbelly of extreme brutality of Roman warfare, slavery and how part of the reforms which finally brought the Republic down were passed in that very period. Although he might (or might not) have lacked a portion of the sources we have today, so we can give him a little slack, even if he was a well-established fanboy of the Roman Republic.
  • Not Completely Useless: Large part of the chapter about troops compostion is an analysis of the role, battle performance and general usefulness of pikemen. The final conclusion names them a fantastic Anti-Cavalry supporting troops... and nothing else. Compare the then popular Italian custom of deploying Swiss pikemen mercenaries, who didn't do all that well against other types of infantry.
  • Only in It for the Money: The main issue with mercenaries is that all they care about is getting paid. Which means they can refuse to fight, are prone to betrayal, have no personal stake in the war and worst of all, they cost a lot.
  • Patriotic Fervor: One of the key arguments behind using willing conscripts to fight for their republic is that having something more than a paycheck to fight for does wonders for the morale.
  • Poor Communication Kills: Quite literally. Every squad of one hundred man in the army should have its own banner and a calling signal, with a dedicated soldier to operate the squad's music instrument. Same goes for any larger formation. All the soldiers must be trained to understand different sound signals. The importance of communication with flags and music is constantly stressed, since it's much more reliable in the heat of battle than shouting orders or using couriers.
  • Power of Trust:
    • Training all the soldiers together installs mutual trust between them and their commanders, reassuring everyone within the unit they can count on each other. Troops are less likely to rout if everybody knows his neighbour will fight rather than run away.
    • Further exploited with merit-based promotion. Since the NCO was just a common trooper before his promotion, he personally knows the soldiers under his command and they have faith in their friend who managed to climb up the ranks.
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: All the tactics and tricks in the book are based on either historical or contemporary examples. Lord Colonna, a famous condottiero, is the main speaker in dialogues to lend even more authority to the arguments made.
  • Sword Beats Artillery: While fully acknowledging firearms as an integral part of "modern" warfare, the book provides countless examples of situation where guns are or can be rendered useless, while people armed with short swords are always at their full combat capacity and can make short work of anything that isn't cavalry charge.
  • The Strategist: Each commander should strive to be this and The Chessmaster.
  • Serious Business: Maintaining formation on the battlefield and building a fortified, well-organised camp at every stop. Both of these prevent the enemy cavalry from stomping your troops and allow to concentrate a lot of power in a single point.
  • Storming the Castle: Inverted. Since use of artillery was becoming widespread, while small arms had insufficient fire rate to stop attackers, the chapter on forts describes how to build one to make it hard for enemy to traverse between ruined walls and how arrange everything so the debris can be used for advantage of defenders. Storming castles is generally discouraged - better to level them to the ground with artillery.
  • The Spartan Way: Every time an army is deployed, the holidays are over and the training goes Up to Eleven. You can imagine the active service. Amusingly, Machiavelli calls it "the Roman way".
  • Tactical Rock–Paper–Scissors: More in the vein of combined arms than standard version of this trope. Every army should have different units that can support each other.
    • Regular battalion should be composed in 6 parts of swordsmen, 2 parts of pikemen, 1 part of arquebusers and 1 part of light infantry. Swordsmen can easily overwhelm both pikemen and ranged troops, but are vulnerable to cavalry charges. Pikemen can stop those charges without much fuss, but are worthless agains melee troops. Arquebusers can harrass enemy from afar, disrupt the lines and further help stopping cavalry, but are dead meat in melee. Light infantry is all-around skirmishing unit, used for flanking, but are very vulnerable to any type of concentrated retaliation.
    • Light infantry (skirmishers) should carry polearms and ranged weapons, so they can quickly form a square formation in case of cavalry charge and harrass infantry with crossbow bolts and bullets.
    • Cavalry is great for wiping out infantry and flanking, but should rather rout than attack pikemen formations.
  • Take That, Us: The books is one big self-deprecation of Italian troops, warfare, commanding style and fortifications. It should be noted that the lesson in fortification engineering, at least, was well learned - for the next two centuries Italians became the world's experts.
  •  A Taste of the Lash: The choice of punishments for your troopers is either this or public beheading, flogging being reserved for the worst crimes.
  • Trading Bars for Stripes: Put them through sufficiently gruelling training, criminals who are promised freedom for their service are one of the best sources of conscripts. Why the training? To break their spirit and make sure they stay loyal. Best deployed as disposable light infantry.
  • Training from Hell: Inverted. The training revolves mostly around maintaining formation and understanding orders, but soldiers are trained with weapons and equipment twice the normal weight.
  • Weapon for Intimidation: Firearms, when outside of the battlefield. A perfect weapon when you need to pacify the local population, but don't really want or need to kill anyone.
    Common people will fear a single rider with an arquebuse more than twenty men with other weapons.
  • We Have Reserves: Invoked, discussed and zig-zagged. The worst a commander can do is to assume that he has reserves during the battle. It's better for a general to think that there are no reserves and there will be no second chance to fight another battle - his troops should be treated as all he has left. On the other hand, during conscription and for disciplinary reasons death penalty is considered the best way to keep everyone in line.
  • Who's Laughing Now?: Machiavelli was mocked for this book, since a couple of years prior he tried to rise an army based on these very principles. It was wiped out by condottieri forces, resulting in the fall of Florentine Republic. A couple of decades later, everyone in Europe was introducing ideas from his Art of War (most notably armies of Maurice of Nassau and Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden), while mercenaries were slowly fading into obscurity. Not to mention the impact of pike and shot tactics, wide conscription and line formation for European battlefields up to Seven Years' War.
  • Won the War, Lost the Peace: Despite being predominately an army training manual, the book acknowledges that having the superior army and winning battles isn't even half of the success - the really important part are peace talks when you exploit your victories.
  • Zerg Rush: Easy to misinterprate as the best tactic suggested by Machiavelli. What he actually said is that human wave tactics are great... when you have at least four times as many soldiers as your enemy does and can attack him from all sides, so he never gets any opportunity to create a single, strong front. And remember to leave some "escape" path, further encouraging enemy rout.
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