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Five hundred years ago, Niccolo Machiavelli, a former senior official in renaissance Florence, who had been sacked when the Medici returned to power, was drafting a study on the realities of politics. When his ground-breaking work was later published after his death, it was given the title, 'The Prince'. The book's frank account of princely power soon made its author's name synonymous with cunning and evil: Shakespeare's "murderous Machiavel" is the best known of many pejorative literary references.
But in this programme Jonathan Freedland re-assesses Machiavelli and finds that his malign reputation has overshadowed his much greater achievement as a champion of republican government. When Machiavelli commented in 'The Prince' that he would 'leave out all discussion of republics, inasmuch as in another place I have written of them at length', he was referring to 'The Discourses', his major study of ancient Rome. In 'The Discourses', written between 1513 and 1519, Machiavelli re-asserts the republican ideals of ancient Rome and transmits them to the modern world.
Machiavelli's impact has been felt far beyond renaissance Florence. After the execution of the English king, Charles I, in 1649, radical thinkers such as James Harrington and Algernon Sidney adapted Machiavelli's republicanism. In the 1720s, 'Cato's Letters' reflected Machiavelli's republican thinking in their attacks on corruption and patronage, and made an impact in Britain's American colonies. Later, Machiavelli's revival of republicanism influenced Americans in their fight for independence and inspired the 'founding fathers' when they framed the United States constitution.
Producer, Rob Shepherd.