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  • Human Character and the Formation of the State:Reconsidering Machiavelli and Polybius 6
  • Jeffrey Dymond

This article aims to contribute to a growing debate over the sources of a crucial opening chapter in Machiavelli's Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio (1517)—a chapter widely regarded as foundational for the political theory developed in the book. Until recently, commentators have largely agreed that Book 6 of Polybius's Histories is the principal source for the account of the formation of the state found in Discorsi 1.2, offering as evidence Machiavelli's discussion of the mixed constitution and the cycle of constitutions (anacyclosis) that supports it.1 But, over the last decade, [End Page 29] some historians have moved away from this traditional interpretation. Citing a number of perceived substantive differences between the two texts as well as the long-standing uncertainty over how Machiavelli accessed the contents of Book 6, these readers have suggested Lucretius and Dionysius of Halicarnassus as other possible sources.2 At the same time, and contrastingly, recent research into the textual transmission of Book 6 has made others increasingly confident that there is an explicit textual connection between the two books.3 The present article will contribute to this debate by reconstructing the interpretation of Polybius 6 that emerged in early sixteenth-century Florence before re-examining the Discorsi within this context. While not precluding additional sources from the chapter, it will argue, first, that Machiavelli was indeed immersed in an environment in which a common reading of Polybius 6 circulated and that, second, Discorsi 1.2 is indebted to this interpretation, although it is a substantially different interpretation of Polybius than previous commentators have typically assumed.

The traditional understanding of Discorsi 1.2's debt to Polybius 6 claims that anacyclosis and the mixed constitution are the most significant Polybian ideas in the chapter, with a number of reasons offered for why Machiavelli uses them. In two essays that first appeared in 1967, "Machiavelli e la teoria dell'Anacyclosis" and "Machiavelli e Polibio," Gennaro Sasso argues that Machiavelli takes from Polybius a theoretical defense of [End Page 30] the mixed constitution and that this serves as a foundation for the political theory developed throughout the Discorsi. More specifically, Sasso says, Discorsi 1.2 relies on Polybian anacyclosis to demonstrate the pervasiveness of the tensions between two social groups, the popolo and the grandi, and that they can only be stabilized through the imposition of a mixed constitution.4 J. G. A. Pocock's 1975 The Machiavellian Moment offers an alternative interpretation emphasizing the historical claims of Book 6. Pocock argues that Machiavelli is drawn primarily to Polybius's assertion that Rome's mixed constitution developed over time, with each part emerging in response to a different historical contingency. This, according to Pocock, provided Machiavelli with a framework through which a fundamentally historical political theory could operate.5

While the traditional interpretation rightly sees a connection between Polybius 6 and Machiavelli's discussion of anacyclosis and the mixed constitution, it is limited by the assumption that these two phenomena represent the only extractable theoretical content of Book 6, an assumption that owes more to the image of Polybius sketched by F. W. Walbank than to early modern readings. Walbank, whose interpretation was dominant for much of the twentieth century, argues that the theoretical content of Book 6 is both limited and superficial. At its heart is anacyclosis, which he understands to be a historical illustration of Polybius's "fundamental principle," derived from "experience," that all states follow a life cycle of origin, peak, and decline and which the mixed constitution has successfully been able to "brake."6 The particular reasons behind this are, however, beyond Polybius's scope; Polybius, Walbank says, was a "man of action," "not a philosopher."7

Contrastingly, early modern readers treated Polybius as a considerably more sophisticated author.8 For example, and in stark opposition to Walbank, Francesco Patrizi's 1560 Della historia diece dialoghi explicitly categorizes Polybius as a "philosopher" due to the Greek historian's emphasis [End Page 31] on historical causation,9 a sentiment echoed by Jean Bodin in 156610 and François Hotman in...


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