Sunday, February 25, 2018

"A Well Regulated Militia" - part 2

The Classical Republican Militia: Machiavelli in Florence

Classical Republicanism

In the Italian Renaissance, ancient philosophy was rediscovered, and modern ideas of government were invented. Classical republicanism was an attempt to resurrect the Classic Republic of Rome. The Florentines living on the Italian peninsula had no doubt that Rome was great; they lived among the vast ruins of the Roman Empire that was.

The Renaissance Italian philosophers and artists considered themselves the heirs of Rome. While true on one level – they had inherited the land, the ruins, the treasures of the ancient world – on another level it was quite false. The culture of Renaissance Italy was not an extension of ancient Rome, but something new, vital, and different. The people of the Renaissance invented new ideas based on their interpretations of the ancients’ actions. Some of these they called republicanism from the Latin res publica – literally the “public thing,” more usually translated as “commonwealth.”

In classical Rome the ideal republic was a representative democracy within and a conquering power without. Their model of the military was universal conscription of young male citizens to pursue endless wars of conquest. The Romans military was called by the classical Latin word militia. As Rome’s grip weakened in Western Europe, and feudalism rose, the word militia came to have a second meaning: that of a feudal levy, though the earlier meaning also persisted.[4]

The renaissance republican ideals included liberty, citizenship, the common good, equality before the law, justice for all, civic participation, patriotism, peace within the republic, and public office holding limited by time. These are all familiar ideals and widely accepted by the people of the modern United States. Also familiar, if less widely accepted in current times, was their ideal of universal military service and continuous conquest or “expansion.”

The Failure of the Florentine Militia

The Roman Republic, and later the early Empire, continuously expanded through conquest and was therefore continuously at war. To support this vast project every young Roman male citizen was required to serve in the military. Rome’s entire economy, political system, and culture was built around asymmetric warfare. Rome’s tactics were far superior to the tribal peoples it battled. While the Romans had many strategic failures, ultimately they conquered each piece of new territory.

Sixteenth century Florence modeled itself on a flawed historical understanding of the Roman republic and attempted impossible conquests[5]. The Florentines did not understand that Rome was a new thing in history; it was conquering tribal states with new tactics and incorporating them into its republic. Florence was a small republic surrounded by larger polities and alliances of polities, all using the roads built by Rome. The Florentine militia, organized by Machiavelli, was overwhelmed during the War of the League of Cambrai by a much larger and better supplied Papal army at Prato in 1512, in a battle that barely rates a footnote in most English-language histories. The Florentine Republic was overwhelmed with in that battle.

Notes on Part 2

[4] “Militia, N.” OED Online. Oxford University Press. Accessed October 3, 2017.

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