Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
Back in our day, gas only cost a nickel. And MTV played music videos. And there was no such thing as climate change. And it never rained. Okay, we're exaggerating a little, but it's mostly true. Ish.
The thing is, oldsters look back at the past with rose-colored glasses, and Machiavelli is no exception. Just like other humanists of his day (check out "Genre" for more on humanism), Machiavelli was a total geek for the ancient world. If they had conventions, he probably would have gone in full costume as Alexander the Great.
It's easy to see his geekdom, because with nearly every rule that Machiavelli puts out for us, he gives us an ancient example in addition to a modern one to back it up. For example, when he's done laying out his basic guidelines for being an awesome ruler, Machiavelli tells us that the Romans followed his rules to a tee:
The Romans followed these principles whenever they took a new province: they sent colonists; they established friendly relations with weaker neighbours, though without allowing them to increase their power; they undermined stronger neighbours and they prevented powerful rulers outside the region from gaining influence there. Their stronger neighbours and they prevented powerful rulers outside the region from gaining influence there […] The Romans were simply doing what all wise rulers must. (3.8)
Sounds like the Romans were using Machiavelli's playbook. And as we already know, the modern version of this example was Cesare Borgia.
These ancient historical examples are always a little bit too perfect. Machiavelli holds these old dudes up on a pedestal, and he reads way deep into their actions sometimes. Check this out:
When David offered to go and fight the Philistine trouble-maker, Goliath, on Saul's behalf, Saul gave him his own weapons to bolster the boy's courage. But no sooner had David put them on than he refused the gift, saying he wouldn't feel confident with them, he would rather face the enemy with his own sling and knife. In the end, other people's arms are either too loose, too heavy or too tight. (13.5)
Really? Or maybe the armor was just too big and David wasn't trying to make some kind of commentary on relying on other people. But hey, we'll roll with it.
We don't want to rag on Machiavelli for loving the ancient past too much. He does give a modern example for every ancient one. And considering that Italy was being used as a beanbag in Spain and France's game of imperial hackey-sack, we can get how the past looks much nicer than the present.