Machiavelli inspires polarizing reactions. I find that often that initially I immediate reject his idea, largely because there is something I don’t quite trust about him. But, just as often, I end up rethinking my initial reaction and revising my thoughts.

One such instance happened for me reading Machiavelli’s assertion that republics must have their foundation with one man, writing in the Discourses (I.9),

But we must assume, as a general rule, that it never or rarely happens that a republic or monarchy is well constituted, or its old institutions entirely reformed, unless it is done by only one individual; it is even necessary that he whose mind has conceived such a constitution should be alone in carrying it into effect. A sagacious legislator of a republic, therefore, whose object is to promote the public good, and not his private interests, and who prefers his country to his own successors, should concentrate all authority in himself; and a wise mind will never censure any one for having employed any extraordinary means for the purpose of establishing a kingdom or constituting a republic. It is well that, when the act accuses him, the result should excuse him; and when the result is good, as in the case of Romulus, it will always absolve him from blame. For he is to apprehended who commits violence for the purpose of destroying, and not he who employs it for beneficial purposes.

Machiavelli often engages in this kind of paradoxical thinking, i.e., “if you want peace the ruler must sometimes be cruel,” and so forth. As his logic applies to republics, he argues that concentration of power in the hands of one initially will allow for the spreading out of power later.

America’s history seems to contradict this–don’t we have founding fathers, and anyone who knows anything about them sees a multitude of disagreements about various important ideas about what they wanted. And yet, America has managed reasonable success as a republic for 250 years. But before rendering a judgment here, I realized that two of history’s most famous republics, Athens, and Rome, had foundations in one man–Theseus and Romulus.

The stories of two men, as told by Plutarch and other sources, agree in certain general particulars, especially in regards to their uncertain parentage. Both functioned as kings in their respective realms, but neither ruled as king’s in the sense that we might assume in our modern context. It seems that both functioned primarily as religious leaders and as military commanders primarily. Later, both Athens and Rome underwent significant political changes contemporaneously in the years 509/508 BC. But Rome and Athens had many differences, reflected in the lives of Theseus and Romulus.

We can chart the differences between Athens and Rome


  • Attached to water–their key lie in their navy
  • As they had roots with water, they were active in trade
  • We see this physical movement linked with significant intellectual exploration–they basically invent modern concepts of science, philosophy, literature, etc.


  • Attached to land–their key lie in their infantry
  • Ringed round with their famous seven hills, Rome remained devoted to land and agriculture. They disdained trade.
  • This rootedness to place has its echoes in Rome’s intellectual conservatism, espoused most fully in writing by Cato the Elder. Rome’s main contribution to future civilizations would be in law, i.e., how people in the same community relate to one another.

When one looks at the lives of their “mythical” founders, we see striking parallels. Theseus hardly could keep his feet still, roaming from one place to another, never truly even settling in Athens. He had a variety of women that he “married”/grew familiar with. We moderns would diagnose him with wanderlust. Athens’ narrative seems to me to always involve something beyond Athens, the next colony, the next discovery, the next idea or theory.

Romulus founded the city of Rome and stayed there. Plutarch has much good to say of him, but with no sugarcoating–many found him a “hard” man. He gained glory through military exploits on land against Rome’s neighbors. Rome always made the narrative about Rome itself.

Though an Athenian by birth, Plato thought little of Athens’ legacy. In The Republic Socrates continually affirms conclusions that limit movement–we shouldn’t move jobs, we shouldn’t trade, we should limit too the “movement” of our souls by restricting the kind of music we listen to. In The Laws Plato writes,

Athenian Stranger. And now, what will this city be? I do not mean to ask what is or will hereafter be the name of the place; that may be determined by the accident of locality or of the original settlement-a river or fountain, or some local deity may give the sanction of a name to the newly-founded city; but I do want to know what the situation is, whether maritime or inland. 

Cleinias. I should imagine, Stranger, that the city of which we are speaking is about eighty stadia distant from the sea. 

Ath: If the city were to be built at the seaside and were going to be well supplied with harbors but ill-supplied with the necessities of life from the soil, then it would have needed mighty saviors and divinely inspired legislators to escape the moral confusion and moral corruption that are the inevitable penalty of such environments.  

For the sea is an insidious neighbor which makes itself agreeable to the daily interaction [between good soil and good harbors], but is salt and bitter inasmuch as it fills the country with tradesmen’s business, and the souls of the country with deceit, and the body politic with distrust–each seeking advantage over his fellow man and neighboring states.  

These social evils are to some extent counteracted if the soil produces something of everything; and, if it is a rough and highland country . . . it will not be able to do so.  If it could not, it would produce a large export surplus and would attract to itself the equivalent import of gold and silver currency–and that is the greatest moral disaster that can overtake a country.

[As for sea power], it would have profited the Athenians to lose seventy times seven children a year to the tyrant Minos [referring here to the ancient legend of the Minotaur] before turning themselves in defense to a sea power instead of heavy infantry, and so lose the  power of standing fast, acquiring instead the habit of perpetually jumping ashore and then running back to their ships at a run hardly after landing.  

This method of warfare erases any sense of shame at being too cowardly to risk one’s life by standing one’s ground and receiving the enemy’s attack.  It suggests facile and “plausible” excuses for taking to one’s heels–never of course in disorder but always “according to plan.”  

There is nothing so demoralizing for infantry as their allied fleet riding at anchor in their rear.  Why, even lions, if they took to tactics of that sort, would run away from deer.

Cle: Yet all the same, sir–well, what about the Battle of Salamis?  That, after all, was a naval battle, in which the Athenians beat the barbarians, and it is our belief that this victory was the salvation of Greece.

Ath: I know that is the general view . . . But in [my] belief, it was the land battles of Marathon and Platea that were the day-spring of the salvation of Greece and its crowning mercy.  . . . My good friend, I am afraid that the course of my speculations is leading me to say something depreciatory of legislators; but if the word be to the purpose, there can be no harm. And yet, why am I disquieted, for I believe that the same principle applies equally to all human things? 

Cle. To what are you referring? 

Ath. I was going to say that man never legislates, but accidents of all sorts, which legislate for us in all sorts of ways. The violence of war and the hard necessity of poverty are constantly overturning governments and changing laws. And the power of disease has often caused innovations in the state, when there have been pestilences, or when there has been a succession of bad seasons continuing during many years. Any one who sees all this, naturally rushes to the conclusion of which I was speaking, that no mortal legislates in anything, but that in human affairs chance is almost everything. And this may be said of the arts of the sailor, and the pilot, and the physician, and the general, and may seem to be well said; and yet there is another thing which may be said with equal truth of all of them. 

Cle. What is it? 

Ath. That God governs all things, and that chance and opportunity co-operate with him in the government of human affairs. There is, however, a third and less extreme view, that art should be there also; for I should say that in a storm there must surely be a great advantage in having the aid of the pilot’s art. You would agree?

Plato willingly gives a nod to the need for the “pilot’s art.” but concedes to it almost as a result of the Fall, so to speak.

Aristotle saw things differently. One of the quietly “subversive” sections in his Politics comes when he favorably compares the constitutions of Sparta and Carthage. I think some exaggerate the attraction some Greek theorists–including Plato–had for Sparta. But certainly with its minimal trade, almost no navy, and fearsome infantry, Sparta resembled the kind of society Plato wanted in certain respects. Carthage had more in common with Athens–an almost exclusively maritime power that relied on mercenaries for infantry. He writes

The constitution of Carthage is general accounted a good constitution, one that is peculiar in many respects, but the chief thing about it is the likeness . . . to the Spartan. . . . Many of the institutions at Carthage are certainly good. It is a proof of a well-ordered constitution that Carthage, with her large populace, should steadily keep to the same political system: she has had no civil dissensions worth mentioning, nor any attempt at tyranny.

[He then goes on at length to discuss the oligarchic and democratic elements in the constitution, and how it sometimes deviates in both directions. The oligarchic leaning comes based on the election of those by wealth–acquired from trade more often than not].

Carthage has a constitution which is in practice oligarchical; but they avoid the dangers of oligarchy by encouraging the diffusion of wealth [made possible by the constant shifting of goods and money through trade].

I think Aristotle saw that being open like Carthage or closed like Sparta was not the problem. The problems for both soceities would come when they could not maintain that equilibrium. If Sparta started to “move,” as they chose after the Peloponnesian War, it exposed contradictions and tensions within their own culture. They never recovered from their defeat at Leuctra, at the hands of Thebes, of all places. Aristotle wrote around 350 B.C., knowing the fate of Sparta. But Carthage’s problems started about 150 years later. Once Carthage lost the ability to trade and roam at leisure after the 1st Punic War, their days were similarly numbered. They had their first insurrection when, partly due to the changing terms of the Roman treaty, and partly due to the destruction of much of their fleet, they could no longer trade. Without the free flow of money, they could not pay their mercenaries, and one thing leads to another.

It seems that Machiavelli might have been onto something after all. The influence of the founders made a definite imprint on both civilizations. And this draws us back to America. We have a few options:

  • George Washington is our actual founder. He was the point of unity during and after the Revolution, without which–we never would have made it as a country.

On the one hand, we can say that

  • His two terms in office set a clear precedent
  • He embodied a spirit of political compromise, such as using Jefferson and Hamilton in prominent ways in his administration, and
  • We have to admit, his owning of slaves, but then also his freeing of his slaves, may have influenced us in both directions.

But I have doubts. Washington’s life and demeanor seem to have no real influence on the culture of the United States.

We can argue, then, that we have no founder. America is a bumpy ride, carried along by change, and so on. We should stop looking for a center and embrace change for its own sake. But this view to me holds no water. America did succeed in various ways, we grew, we built things, and so on. One can’t do all of this on quicksand.

Or we can assert that we are founded on an idea, or a set of principles, and not on a particular person. This explains or messy founding. And–it explains why the ideas, not limited by time and space, could travel so far so fast, just as we ourselves did across the country. It explains why we disagree so much seemingly about the same thing–the incarnation of the ideas might take different form in different places.

Theseus and Romulus overlap, as do Aristotle and Plato. But in the end we must choose a point of emphasis.

Aristotle, for his part, would have approved of our attempt at a mean between ideas, of commerce and agriculture, of conservative and liberal, and so on. But he surely he too would disapprove of how far the idea of democracy has traveled–the franchise for he saw as mob rule.Plato might approve of our founding in the “purity” of an ideal, but I am convinced he as not as gnostic as some make him out. I think that he would see that ideas rooted only in the mind would cause too much “movement” in our culture. In The Republic, Plato only looked at the state as a means of understanding the souls of real men.

The exact nature of the historical reality of Theseus and Romulus even Plutarch wondered at, and so we in America, built more on myth than history, can extrapolate a bit to find our founder. Perhaps we should name Janus, he who looked in opposite directions. This would explain our ability to move, our ability to always find something accommodating and infuriating all at once in America. Yet in the end, Janus still was one person, and perhaps the good ol’ U.S. of A can remain one as well.


*Hannibal without question was a brilliant battlefield commander and leader of men. But . . . military men write all of his biographies and hence see things from his point of view. What is needed (if it exists I haven’t seen it) is a biography of Hannibal written by a career politician. Most criticize Carthage’s Senate for not backing Hannibal and going for Rome’s jugular after Cannae. They lament the Senate’s focus on keeping trade open and the money flowing from Spain. But, armed with Aristotle’s thoughts, perhaps the Senators were onto something, consciously or no. Without access to trade, Carthage could not be Carthage, and so would surely collapse, as happened in the 3rd Punic War.

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