Niccolò Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy, written between 1513 and 1519, are not as famous as The Prince, but possibly his best work. Its Italian title, Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio, literally means “Discourses on the first decade/ten books of Titus Livius”, i.e. the first ten books of Livy’s history work Ab Urbe Condita Libri.
Does this mean that one should read at least these first ten books of Livy’s history of Rome? Or, if it is not absolutely necessary, what would be the specific benefits of doing this? After glancing over the introduction to an English translation of the Discourses I was none the wiser.
Now that I’ve finished reading an annotated translation of the Discourses on Livy (translated by Julia Conaway Bondanella and Peter Bondanella. Oxford University Press, 2008), I can answer my own question.
Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita is Machiavelli’s main source of citations and references, so there is a benefit in reading that book. However, Ab Urbe Condita is a long work and it is by no means Machiavelli’s only source: the author also cites many other Roman and Greek authors and makes many references to the more recent history of Italy (mainly 1440 – 1510). So in order to be fully prepared for reading the Discorsi, one would also need to be familiar with the following works:
- The Annals and the Histories by Tacitus;
- The Histories by Polybius;
- the Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans by Plutarch (also known as Parallel Lives or simply Plutarch’s Lives);
- several of Xenophon’s works, especially the Cyropaedia (also cited in The Prince) and Hiero (which is otherwise considered a minor work);
- the Bibliotheca historica by Diodorus Siculus;
- a book about the history of Florence, e.g. Machiavelli’s own Florentine Histories (written after the Discorsi);
- a book about the history of Italy, e.g. Francesco Guicciardini’s History of Italy.
This is a lot to read, and Machiavelli often doesn’t mention what the source of a specific statement of event is. This means that an annotated edition is very valuable for anyone who is not an expert in Ancient historiography and Italian history.
It is also worthwhile, though not necessary, to read a modern history of the Roman republic, in order to contrast a modern account of Roman history with the version that Machiavelli was familiar with. Machiavelli and the authors he cited did not have access to the archaelogical data and critically edited historical sources that present-day historians have, and this led to an overreliance on oral and written traditions. If Machiavelli had had access to a modern account of the history of Roman republic, it is unlikely that he would have glorified many of the historical figures he mentions in the Discorsi.
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