April 18, 2017

Odysseus and Aeneas: Precedents to Machiavelli’s Prince?

The renaissance work The Prince has been a source of fascination and controversy for centuries. Taking the form of a letter from Niccolo Machiavelli to his prince, it sculpts the ideal prince, through a description of how he must acquire a state, and crucially, how to retain it. The Prince has seemingly transformed the way that we view the values of our leaders, but were there precedents to the Machiavellian prince in classical epic? It is clear from references throughout his work that Machiavelli had read and was greatly influenced by Virgil’s Aeneid, and whilst he could not read Greek, he may well have read the Odyssey in translation. (Hulliung, 1983: 216; Rebhorn, 1988: 184) Thus, there are a wealth of references to the classical world in The Prince. I will focus on just one characteristic of the ideal prince, through Machiavelli’s analogy of the fox and the lion, and how Aeneas and Odysseus link to these character traits.

‘[The prince] must learn from the fox and the lion; because the lion is defenceless against traps and a fox is defenceless against wolves. Therefore one must be a fox in order to recognise traps, and a lion to frighten off wolves.’ (Machiavelli, The Prince: XVIII)

19th century statue of Niccolò Machiavelli at the Uffizi Gallery.

It would not be contentious to say that both Aeneas and Odysseus are able to act like the lion and frighten off their respective wolves at times. At the end of the Aeneid, Aeneas has to battle Turnus before he can establish his state in peace. ‘In burning rage, he buries his sword full into Turnus’ breast’ (Virgil, Aeneid: 12.950-951). For Odysseus, his wolves come in the form of the Suitors, whom he kills in a lengthy battle near the end of the epic (Homer, Odyssey: 22:1-329). Therefore, both Odysseus and Aeneas share the ability to act like a lion, just like Machiavelli’s ideal prince. In their determination to establish or retain their lands, they are willing to act violently when necessary, and in both of their cases, it proves to be an effective strategy. In this aspect, they were indeed precedents to the prince. The prince must combine Aeneas’ battle to acquire the state, and Odysseus’ fight to retain it in order to be successful.

However, it is in their willingness to act like a fox that differences emerge. Odysseus, conversely, is ‘known to all men for [his] stratagems.’ (Homer, Odyssey: 9.19-20). Odysseus’ shrewd use of trickery is vital to his characterisation. Odysseus’ stratagems even earn him the respect of Athena. ‘Cunning must he be, and stealthy, who would go beyond all kinds of guile, even if it were a god who met you… you are by far the best of all men in counsel and in speech’ (Homer, Odyssey: 13.291-298; Rebhorn, 1988: 185). The fact that Odysseus’ willingness to deceive is even respected by a goddess so connected with strategy shows how advantageous his use of trickery has been. Both Machiavelli’s prince and Odysseus are portrayed to have no qualms about using trickery to achieve their goals.

In contrast to Odysseus, Aeneas rejects the need to act like a fox. He avoids the use of trickery and deception throughout the epic. He has thus been described as surpassing Odysseus in virtue. (Rebhorn, 2010: 84). For example, when Aeneas is forced to admit to Dido that he is leaving Carthage, he speaks with clarity rather than inventing a cunning excuse. ‘I did not hope – think not that – to veil my flight in stealth. I never held out a bridegroom’s torch or entered such a compact.’ (Virgil, Aeneid: 4.337-339) Even though he waits until the last possible moment to admit the truth, there is some consolation in that he doesn’t resort to lying to her. Virgil portrays honesty as the best way to deal with a situation, even though it proved ultimately ineffective in this scene. Aeneas’ characterisation of upholding honesty and rejecting deception make him incompatible with the cunning and deceptive prince. Therefore, we can see that Odysseus is a far better example as a precedent for the prince’s deceptive tendencies compared to Aeneas.

We can see that there were certainly some clear similarities between Machiavelli’s ideal prince and the characters of epic. The recognition of the fact that it is sometimes necessary to act like a lion has precedent in both the Odyssey and Aeneid. And though Aeneas is too sensitive to dishonesty to learn from the fox, Odysseus is an effective forerunner for the prince in this respect. Thus, I would argue that there were indeed characters with the traits of the prince in antiquity long before Machiavelli put pen to paper.

However, despite their clear similarities, the heroes of epic and Machiavelli’s prince have had very different treatments in the eyes of history and culture. For example, in the classic British political television series, House of Cards, there is a key scene in which the wife of the decidedly Machiavellian main character is presented with a copy of The Prince, and it is described as ‘one of his particular favourites.’ Would this scene have had the same gravitas had she been given a copy of the story of another character equally prone to trickery and violence, The Odyssey?


Primary sources

Homer, The Odyssey, trans. A.T. Murray, revised by G. E. Dimock (Cambridge, M.A.: Harvard

University Press 1919)

Machiavelli, The Prince, trans. G. Bull (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1961)

Virgil, The Aeneid, trans. H. Rushton Fairclough, revised by G.P Goold (Cambridge, M.A.:

Harvard University Press 2001)

Secondary reading

Hulliung, M. (1983) Citizen Machiavelli (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press)

Rebhorn, W.A. (1988) Foxes and Lions: Machiavelli’s Confidence Men (Ithaca / London:

Cornell University Press)

Rebhorn, W.A. (2010) ‘Machiavelli’s Prince in the Epic Tradition’, in The Cambridge

Companion to Machiavelli, ed. J.M. Najemy (Cambridge: Cambridge

University Press)

Matthew Smith is a second-year student of Classical Civilisation. Aside from his longstanding love of the Odyssey and Aeneid, he is also interested in Roman architecture and culture, and is gradually exploring the remains of Roman Britain. Email: m.smith.17@warwick.ac.uk

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