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What Machiavelli knew about pandemics

During his turbulent career, the philosopher and diplomat was fascinated by plagues and their lethal effects – and his ideas about how politicians should address them are as relevant as ever.

In May 1479, as Florence was gripped by plague, the ten-year-old Niccolò Machiavelli was bundled into a cart and hurried out of the city as fast as his horse could take him. Since the first case had been reported in Lombardy, almost two years before, the pestilence had ­devastated much of northern Italy.

In Milan, 20,000 people had died in the first few months alone; and now that it had reached Tuscany, the Florentines were ­terrified they would suffer a similar fate. Machiavelli’s ­father, Bernardo, took no chances. While he holed himself up at home with his wife, he packed his three youngest children, ­Niccolò included, off to their uncle’s farm in the countryside – and prayed that they would be safe.

It would be a terrifying few weeks. As the epidemic spread, Machiavelli’s family were severely hit. At least three of his relatives died, and for a brief period it seemed as if ­Bernardo Machiavelli, too, had been infected. But it was just a taste of what was to come.  Having been endemic to Renaissance Italy since the Black Death of 1348, the ­bubonic plague (Yersinia pestis) would haunt ­Machiavelli for the rest of his days. During his long and turbulent career as a ­diplomat, philosopher and government adviser, he would witness at least five more major epidemics in Florence alone and more than once he even feared for his life.

Yet the plague also fascinated him. Returning to it time and again in his works, he – like so many of his contemporaries – tried to reckon with the devastation it wrought, and to find some way of minimising the damage to society. His observations were, in many respects, typical of their time: founded on Galenic science, reliant on supposition and superstition, and occasionally given to wild generalisation. But, when viewed in context, his analysis of the plague’s effects nevertheless strikes a chord with our experience of Covid-19 today – and his ideas about how politicians should address pandemics seem as relevant as ever.

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For Machiavelli – as for many of us – part of what made the disease so terrifying was not knowing. Almost everything about the plague was shrouded in mystery – even its origins. Though modern historians believe that it was probably brought to Italy on a boat from Kaffa (today’s Feodosia, in Crimea), no one at the time was sure where it came from. Some thought that God was punishing mankind for its sins. Others favoured a more astrological explanation. In Consilio contro la pestilentia (1481), the philosopher Marsilio Ficino associated epidemics with “malignant constellations… conjunctions of Mars with Saturn [and] eclipses”.

Machiavelli had his own ideas. Though he could not be sure the plague was not a heavenly visitation, he was inclined to believe that it was nature’s way of ­reducing the ­population. In the Discourses on Livy, his work on the history of republican Rome, Machiavelli explained this in almost Malthusian terms: just as when nature contrives to expel any build-up of “superfluous” material in the human body, when there are too many people, “the world is purged” by pestilence – or some other ­devastating means.

Although today Y. pestis bacilli are known to be transmitted by rat fleas, Renaissance observers believed that infection was transmitted by a “poisonous vapour” (vapore velenoso). According to Ficino, this lingered longest in “heavy, warm, damp, and fetid air”, but was also common around putrefaction – and was exceptionally ­virulent. Propagated by adverse weather conditions or sudden gusts of wind, it spread “from place to place… more rapidly than burning sulphur”.

But Machiavelli and his contemporaries were puzzled why, if this was true, the disease seemed to affect some people more than others. Ficino thought it might have something to do with “sympathy”. If the body was in sympathy with the poisonous vapour – that is, if it was inclined towards heat and dampness – the infection would take hold; if not, it would disappear. ­Others, however, were not so sure.

Diagnosis of plague was no less problematic. Medical writers rarely agreed on the symptoms. There were, admittedly, some which all acknowledged. As the chronicler Marchionne di Coppo Stefani remarked, serious cases usually had buboes “either between the thigh and the body, in the groin, or under the armpit… and… blood mixed with saliva”. But these could still be deceptive.


Panic on the streets: Market Square in Naples during the plague of 1656, by Carlo Coppola. Credit: Deagostini/Getty Images

In Machiavelli’s play Clizia, the farm manager Eustachio complains of a “swelling in the groin”. Thinking it might be a symptom of the plague, he shuts himself away at home, but soon realises that it is something else altogether. Other symptoms, on which there was less agreement – such as a high temperature, headaches, respiratory ­problems, and cloudy urine – were even more ambiguous. When Machiavelli’s ­father, Bernardo, fell ill in 1479, he was convinced he had plague simply because he had a high fever, and passed countless phials of his urine through a window for inspection by his doctors without ever receiving a ­definitive diagnosis.

Such uncertainty made treatment difficult – if not impossible. Obliged to fall back on classical pharmacopoeias, medieval herbals, or folk traditions, doctors prescribed suspected sufferers a dizzying range of medicines. Most were ineffective; some were positively harmful. On occasions, these could also be supplemented with surgical interventions. Bernardo’s experiences were typical. He was given bitter-tasting rue wort, honey-based electuaries, and sticky syrups; he had his abscesses sliced open; he was bled; and he was caked in foul-smelling poultices – all to no effect.

Preventative treatments were no better. While many doctors took elaborate precautions to protect themselves against the “vapour”, Ficino recommended abstaining from sex and steering clear of certain foods, including milk, sweet fruits, mushrooms, and “humid” vegetables.

In the absence of treatment, the effects of plague were invariably devastating. Although Machiavelli was exaggerating when he claimed that the Black Death killed 96,000 Florentines, the death toll was certainly very high. In 1400, around 12,000 people – out of a population of around 60,000 – died. In 1430 and 1478-79, the death counts were even higher. And in 1523, Machiavelli reported seeing gravediggers rejoicing that the plague had brought them so much work.

As fear took hold, society came apart at the seams. In the Decameron, Giovanni Boccaccio recalled that, during the Black Death, the well-to-do generally fled the city for the countryside. The poor, however, “were constrained… to remain in their houses”. Some tried to minimise the risk by living in isolation and adopting “a sober and abstemious mode of living”. Others “maintained that an infallible way of warding off” the plague was to drink heavily, enjoy life to the full, go round singing and merrymaking, gratify all of one’s cravings whenever the opportunity offered, and shrug the whole thing off as one enormous joke.

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By Machiavelli’s day, little had changed. Whether they chose to flee – as he had done as a child in 1479 – or remained at home, people were rather less given to pleasure. Some were also more sceptical of the risk. In 1503, Machiavelli’s brother, Totto, tried to calm his fears by claiming that sailors, who came into contact with the plague more than most, were only rarely infected. But most people were more cautious. Although they still had a habit of wandering the streets, they were careful to avoid contact with others as much as possible. This was sometimes taken to extraordinary extremes. In 1523, Machiavelli noted that:

Men go about alone, and instead of friends, one meets people infected with the deadly plague. Even if one parent meets the other, or a brother meets his brother, or a wife her husband, each keeps a safe distance from their relations; and what is worse? Fathers and mothers spurn their own children, abandoning them.

Economic activity in Florence also ground to a halt. As Machiavelli observed, “the shops are shut, [and] businesses are closed”. Artisans found themselves out of work, and out of pocket. Credit dried up. Bankers refused to risk lending money to those who had no income, and who might, in any case, die before the loan could be repaid. At the same time, prices shot up. Even the most basic necessities – bread, oil, vegetables – suddenly became punitively expensive.

Inevitably, the poor were hardest hit. At a meeting of a special advisory committee (a practica) during the 1417 outbreak, a lawyer called Lorenzo Ridolfi noted that “the poor are in a very bad condition, since they earn nothing, and in future they will earn even less”. A little over a century later, Machiavelli recalled hearing their “fearful shrieks” as he walked through the streets.

During each outbreak, Florence’s government tried to handle the situation as best it could. Plague hospitals were set up; quarantines were imposed on those suspected of being infected; the city gates were closed; and efforts were made to alleviate the suffering of those hit by the economic downturn. In 1383, officials were authorised to “lend” the poor up to three bushels of corn from the commune’s reserves, and to take whatever steps were necessary to assure the grain supply – including breaking into the houses of those who had fled to seize any supplies they might have hoarded.

In 1417, there were calls for even more dramatic steps. At another practica convened to deal with the crisis, Rinaldo Gianfigliazzi – one of Florence’s most influential statesmen – demanded that, since the poor were “dying of hunger”, they should be “subsidised with public funds”. Perhaps suspecting that such a dole might be beyond the Republic’s means, Bartolomeo Valori, another member of the ruling elite, went even further. He argued that, since the poor could not “help themselves”, the rich should ease their burden – perhaps through forced loans or some form of expropriation.

The problem was that these measures seldom worked. Since people often resisted confinement, the infection spread and hospitals were frequently overwhelmed. At the same time, the dole, when offered, was unsustainable; quarantine aroused resentment, and food shortages led to anger.

This presented a serious danger. If unchecked, popular frustration could easily boil over into public disorder. Even in “minor” outbreaks, crime always increased. As Machiavelli put it: “Now one hears of this theft, now of that murder: the piazzas and markets, where the citizens often used to gather, are now… vile dens of thieves.” Marginal groups – such as prostitutes, pedlars, and foreigners – were especially vulnerable. It would not take much for crime to give way to civil unrest; riots were never far away.

For Machiavelli, this was arguably the most troubling feature of the plague. In The Prince and Discourses, he stressed that the success of any state depended on a delicate balance between social classes. There would, of course, always be some rivalry; but provided this was suitably contained, the tension between rich and poor could actually help to safeguard liberty and even lead to “greatness”. If factions formed, or civil unrest erupted, the consequences would be disastrous. Depending on who emerged victorious, liberty would give way to either anarchic licence or tyranny.

Not unsurprisingly, Machiavelli often described such a breakdown of political order using the metaphor of disease. Just as an illness could weaken, or even kill, a human being, he argued, violent class struggles ate away at the body politic. Demagogues were a “plague” on the state; servitude was a “sickness”; and disorder was a “disease”. This was more than just a literary device. Though he rarely addressed the subject  directly, Machiavelli also seems to have been aware that it was in times of plague that liberty was most in danger.

It was clear that, if Florentine liberty was to be preserved, a more effective way of containing infection, minimising economic suffering, and maintaining public order was needed. Machiavelli never addressed this problem directly; but the advice he gave in The Prince can be read as a guide to how governments should act during an epidemic. As he explained, the key in a crisis was for a prince, or a republican government, to realise how dangerous their better instincts were. Laudable though honesty, generosity and compassion might be – especially when people were suffering – it was obvious that those virtues risked causing panic, bankrupting the exchequer and encouraging dissent, while doing nothing to stem the infection. As such, Machiavelli suggested that princes and republics should try not to be so virtuous.

The first step was to be economical with the truth. In the past, the Signoria, the Florentine Republic’s most senior executive body, had actually come close to realising this. In 1383, Uberto Ridolfi stressed that the shortage of grain “should be kept secret” at all costs. But by the early 16th century, the need to keep a tight hold on information had become acute. The second step was to keep expenditure to a minimum – and thereby reduce public resentment. This meant that, even if some public aid was necessary, care should be taken to ensure that it did not burden people with excessive taxes in future. The final step was to use soldiers to instil a sense of fear. Given that people were not frightened enough of the plague to stay at home, and too selfish for appeals to the common good to have any effect, the government’s only chance of combating the infection was to punish infractions so severely that they would be too terrified to set foot out of doors – let alone riot.

They were harsh lessons, but later Florentine governments took heed. When plague struck again in 1630, a survey of the city’s needs was conducted to assess exactly how much food would be needed and to minimise health hazards. Then, before the infection accelerated, a total lockdown was enforced, harsh penalties were imposed on those who broke the confinement, and information was carefully controlled.  Basic needs were met with modest food deliveries, while other requirements – such as burials – were dealt with by charitable institutions. It was a painful experience, to be sure; but it kept fatalities to a minimum – and, crucially, kept the body politic in robust good health.

Today, we live in a very different world, and Covid-19 bears little resemblance to the plague. But, given that we face very similar socio-economic challenges, Machiavelli’s ideas nevertheless remain as pertinent as ever. Though they may seem cynical, even callous, they are still a useful lens through which to view our own reactions – and a powerful inspiration to seek out new solutions while there is still time. 

Alexander Lee is a historian at the University of Warwick, and the author of “Machiavelli: His Life and Times” (Picador)

This article appears in the 05 June 2020 issue of the New Statesman, We can't breathe