3. Unity and Faction in the Republican Tradition

3.1 Machiavelli, Discourses

About this Text

In Thoughts on Government, from which we previously had an excerpt, John Adams firmly asserts that the only good government is republican government.  In 1776, that was in some ways still a controversial position; by 1787–when the U.S. Constitution was written–it was taken for granted by most Americans.  The word “republic” comes form the Latin res publica, meaning “the public thing” (thought some scholars trace the roots of republicanism to Greece and Aristotle).  Theorists in the republican tradition of political thought thus argued that politics was about creating, nurturing and protecting that which held the citizens together as a public or community.  We generally think of republicans, that is, as concerned first and foremost with the common good.  In that context, classical republicans most often described division or “faction” in the body politic as a threat to civic harmony and so to the common good.  By contrast, in the excerpts below, Machiavelli argues that factional division is in fact necessary to republican liberty–or at least that it was in Rome.


excerpts from Discourses on Livy (source)


I do not want to miss discoursing on these tumults that occurred in Rome from the death of the Tarquins to the creation of the Tribunes; and afterwards I will discourse on some things contrary to the opinions of many who “Rome was a tumultuous Republic”say that Rome was a tumultuous Republic and full of so much confusion, that if good fortune and military virtu had not supplied her defects, she would have been inferior to every other Republic.

I cannot deny that fortune and the military were the causes of the Roman Empire; but it indeed seems to me that this would not happen except when military discipline is good, it happens that where order is good, (and) only rarely there may not be good fortune accompanying. But let us come to the other particulars of that City. I say that those who condemn the tumults between the nobles and the plebs, appear to me to blame those things that were the chief causes for keeping Rome free, and that they paid more attention to the noises and shouts that arose in those tumults than to the good effects they brought forth, and that they did not consider that in every Republic there are two different viewpoints, that of the People and that of the Nobles; and that all the laws that are made in favor of liberty result from their disunion, as may easily be seen to have happened in Rome, for from Tarquin to the Gracchi which was more than three hundred years, the tumults of Rome rarely brought forth exiles, and more rarely blood. Nor is it possible therefore to judge these tumults harmful, nor divisive to a Republic, which in so great a time sent into exile no more than eight or ten of its citizens because of its differences, and put to death only a few, and condemned in money (fined) not very many: nor can a Republic in any way with reason be called disordered where there are so many examples of virtu, for good examples result from good education, good education from good laws, and good laws from those tumults which many inconsiderately condemn; for he who examines well the result of these, will not find that they have brought forth any exile or violence prejudicial to the common good, but laws and institutions in benefit of public liberty. And if anyone should say the means were extraordinary and almost savage, he will see the People together shouting against the Senate, The Senate against the People, running tumultuously throughout the streets, locking their stores, all the Plebs departing from Rome, all of which (things) alarm only those who read of them; I say, that every City ought to have their own means with which its People can give vent to their ambitions, “every City ought to have their own means with which its People can give vent to their ambitions”and especially those Cities which in important matters, want to avail themselves of the People; among which the City of Rome had this method, that when those people wanted to obtain a law, either they did some of the things mentioned before or they would not enroll their names to go to war, so that to placate them it was necessary (for the Senate) in some part to satisfy them: and the desires of a free people rarely are pernicious to liberty, because they arise either from being oppressed or from the suspicion of going to be oppressed. And it these opinions should be false, there is the remedy of haranguing (public assembly), where some upright man springs up who through oratory shows them that they deceive themselves; and the people (as Tullius Cicero says) although they are ignorant, are capable of (appreciating) the truth, and easily give in when the truth is given to them by a trustworthy man.

Stop & Think

Consider how Machiavelli understands the relationship between the people and the nobles in Rome in the context of what Plato and Aristotle have to say about divisions within the city.   Why does Machiavelli think it is both necessary and desirable to have divisions and ‘tumult?’  How would Plato and Aristotle respond?

One ought therefore to be more sparing in blaming the Roman government, and to consider that so many good effects which came from that Republic, were not caused except for the best of reasons: And if the tumults were the cause of creation of Tribunes, they merit the highest praise, for in addition to giving the people a part in administration, they were established for guarding Roman liberty, as will be shown in the next chapter.



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