Study Guide

Cesare Borgia in The Prince

By Niccolò Machiavelli

Cesare Borgia

There's no contest about who is the most important person in The Prince. It is, without a doubt, the second half of Niccolò Machiavelli's bromance: Cesare Borgia. This guy's name comes up on almost every page in the book.

Okay, maybe that's a bit of an exaggeration, but it's clear that Machiavelli likes this guy—a lot. So we'll talk about him, but first we have to talk about his dad.

Popes Gone Wild!

Before you look at his title of "pope" and think that he must have been a kind and gentle old man, let us tell you something. Alexander VI was not your average pope. Before him, popes in general were more like you're probably used to thinking of them. Sure, they were a bit more money-grubbing and had more bling than popes these days (although popes these days are still pretty blinged out), but they were still super-old religious guys.

Then Alexander comes on the scene and all of a sudden we have Mighty Morphin' Power Ranger Popes. We mean, this guy was so bad that his name was once synonymous with acting like every night is a night in Las Vegas. Machiavelli writes that "Pope Alexander VI never did anything but con people. That was all he ever thought about" (18.4). Yes, this is a pope.

Kicking Butt and Taking Names

Not only was Alexander a famous liar, but he also was a violent dude. According to Machiavelli, he, "more than any other pope in history showed what could be done with finance and force of arms" (11.4), and it was because of his greediness that popes after him inherited a pretty nice chunk of land.

How did he do it? Well, for one, he made smart use of Cesare Borgia. Of course, Alexander wasn't planning on increasing the church's territory. He was just planning on getting more money and land for his family. Oops.

Like Father Like Son

Before we go on to Cesare, we just want to note that Alexander serves as a model for Machiavelli of how ruthlessness and immorality can sometimes work to the advantage of a ruler. He did things that popes are not supposed to do, and what did he get for it? He made the papacy more powerful than it had ever been before. In your face, haters.

Go-Go Cesare Borgia

The real title of The Prince should have been WWCBD: What Would Cesare Borgia Do? Machiavelli is obsessed with this guy. He's like a dream come true, following all of the rules that Machiavelli sets down in his gift to Lorenzo de' Medici. Machiavelli even says, "There was one man who showed glimpses of greatness, the kind of thing that made you think he was sent by God for the country's redemption" (26.2). Those are some serious words of praise.

What a Lucky Guy… Or Not

With all that praise, it's obvious that he's perfect. Well, except that he dies and the church takes all of his land… but Machiavelli brushes that pesky little detail aside pretty quickly. It was just, "an extraordinary run of bad luck" (7.3). Whatever you say, Niccolò.

The whole issue of luck is pretty weird with this guy. He gets his land at first because his dad gave it to him, which is lucky. But then Machiavelli keeps talking about how good rulers don't need luck and, in fact, can control it. So how does his top example of a good ruler come to power by good luck and leave it by bad luck? If Borgia is the ultimate holder of virtù and virtù lets you control fortune, what happened? Did his virtù run out of batteries?

It's a little confusing, and it's also why some people think The Prince is a joke. How can Machiavelli be serious if his favorite example contradicts everything he's saying? For more ideas, check out what we have to say about "Fortune" and "Strength and Skill" in the Themes section.

A Role Model for All Ages

So who is this guy? It all starts with his father. Cesare Borgia is the illegitimate child of Pope Alexander VI. Before he became pope, Alexander VI was a cardinal. (In the Catholic Church, cardinals rank below popes but above bishops. Now you'll be a great dinner party guest.)

As Cardinal Roderigo, Alexander VI made Borgia into the Bishop of Pamplona, a region in Italy. No big deal, right? Borgia was only fifteen at the time, about the time when kids these days are getting their driver's licenses. (We'd rather have the license, to be honest) Three years later, Roderigo became Pope Alexander VI and eighteen-year-old Borgia got promoted to Cardinal of Valencia.

This hotshot career came to a screeching halt five years later, when Borgia decided to stop walking in daddy's footsteps and became the first person ever to renounce being a cardinal. That same day, he became Duke of Valentinois. We guess French King Louis XII gave him that title because, by marrying Charlotte d'Albret, he became part of the family. The rest is, as they say, history. Bloody, bloody history.

Machiavelli uses Borgia over and over again as an example of what a ruler should do, so it's important to figure out how he fits into Machiavelli's whole categorization of states.

First, Borgia came to power through luck.

This is normally not a good sign, because rulers who come to power by luck don't tend to last too long. But Borgia worked his butt off to keep himself in power. It's probably because he started off with this disadvantage and still achieved so much that Machiavelli says, "I wouldn't know what better advice to give a ruler new to power than to follow his example" (7.3).

So what did he do? Let's list it:

  • He killed his opponents, the Orsini and Colonna families, and converted all of their supporters to his side.
  • He got rid of mercenaries and auxiliaries and established his own army
  • He secured his new state, Romagna, by first crushing it with cruelty and then allowing it to run itself. While being cruel, he used a scapegoat so that no one hated him, and then killed the scapegoat so that he (Borgia) would be feared.
  • He made a four step plan for how to keep power once his dad died, which included the following: (1) Kill all local rulers. Check. (2) Win support of all Roman nobles. Check. (3) Gain as much control as possible over the people who elect the new pope. Check. (4) Get so much land that no one can touch him. Um, not so much check.

The last one is what got him. Well, that, and that he was deathly ill at the same time that his dad was dying. Still, pretty good for only five years, right?

Let's check Borgia's actions against Machiavelli's rules:

  • Kill the strong people who can compete with you.
  • Make friends with the weak people around you.
  • Never use mercenaries or auxiliary forces.
  • Use huge amounts of violence and cruelty on a new state at first, but then be nicer.
  • Don't let people hate you.
  • Make people fear you.

Check, check, and check (and check, and check, and check). Borgia did everything by the book before Machiavelli had even written it. So we're not surprised by Machiavelli's crush:

Borgia was so ruthless and so talented, he knew so well that you have to win over people or destroy them and he had built up such solid foundations for his power in such a short time that if he hadn't had these two armies threatening him, or if he hadn't been so ill, he would have overcome every obstacle. (7.13)

Hey, if you built a skyscraper in ten days, we'd excuse it being a little rickety.

Simply the Best, Better Than All the Rest

What does it mean that Borgia is Machiavelli's ideal ruler? It shows us that Machiavelli prizes the ability to be self-sufficient and to be ruthless when necessary. Borgia was not a squeamish dude, he wasn't indecisive, and he didn't rely on luck after his dad helped him out. If you look closely, you'll see that all the other men (Machiavelli only talks about male rulers) that Machiavelli holds up as examples to emulate look eerily similar to Borgia.