Machiavelli wrote his most acclaimed work, The Prince, in 1513 in Florence and describes in detail the ideal qualities a successful prince should exhibit in order to attain or maintain a principality. While some historians argue the work strays from Machiavelli’s well established republican principles and question his purpose in writing it, The Prince remains an important account of why certain leaders displaying qualifying characteristics could hold on to their power and why those leaders who failed to meet these Machiavellian standards faltered in their attempts. The Song of Roland, written by an unknown poet between the years of 1130 and 1170 AD, tells the tale of the final stages of Charlemagne’s conquests in Spain in the late 770s AD. In the poet’s depiction of this famous leader, Charlemagne bares a striking resemblance to those successful princes illustrated in Machiavelli’s The Prince, and one could argue that this author’s rendition of Charlemagne would satisfy Machiavelli’s standards in achieving and maintaining power over such a vast empire. Regardless of the true nature of this historical figure, the Charlemagne of the Song of Roland exhibits many aspects of the Machiavellian Prince, as seen in his ability to maintain a good reputation by being loved by his subjects, by using his shrewdness to his advantage, by appearing to have a superior intelligence and a divine connection with God and Fortune, and by leading a strong, successful, and loyal army. Charlemagne’s positive reputation first presents itself in the author’s physical description of the character, as it evokes those Machiavellian princely qualities of power, strength, and wisdom. In the poem, Charlemagne’s hair is grey and his “beard is white,” signifying an advanced age and the subsequent perception of Charlemagne as an experienced warrior and leader (The Song of Roland, p.32).
Even Marsile, the King of Sargossa and enemy of Charlemagne, conveys the leader of the Franks’ almost superhuman or godly status in his belief that Charlemagne could be “over two hundred years old” (The Song of Roland, p.45). While an obviously unattainable human feat, as in reality Charlemagne was at most in his late thirties during these Spanish conquests, the author’s description proves that his subjects and enemies alike perceived him as a wise, elderly, and powerful commander. As Machiavelli attests, a prince should have, or at least “appear to have,” the qualities which evoke love and respect from his subjects (Machiavelli, p.135). Judging from Charlemagne’s continued participation in leading and fighting many battles throughout his life, the fact that he survived long enough for his hair to turn grey and for his beard to grow long and white exhibits an air of strength and power, again adding to his reputation as a fearless and successful warrior. Aside from simply illustrating his physical descriptions, The Song of Roland more importantly portrays Charlemagne’s actions as just and shrewd in his dealings with his friends and subjects, further capturing their love and respect without endangering the principality. As Machiavelli claims, a prince must always appear to have those qualities deemed good, such as seeming “merciful, faithful, humane, forthright, [and] religious;” yet a prince should know when he ought to stray from these more noble characteristics in order to maintain the security of his power and province (Machiavelli, p.135).
The author of The Song of Roland depicts Charlemagne as just and humane in his interactions with subjects and other citizens. He respectfully and graciously listens to his councilmen’s advice and opinions in many deliberations throughout the poem, yet his view is always final and absolute. As Machiavelli argues, “too much distrust” in the words of other men “[renders] him intolerable,” but “too much trust” renders him “imprudent” (Machiavelli, p.131). By holding council and at the same time asserting his authority, the author exhibits both Charlemagne’s appeal as a compassionate leader yet also his caution at seeking the advice of others. As Machiavelli argues, a prince “must strive only to avoid hatred,” and the poem depicts Charlemagne as very shrewd in his ability to balance his overarching power with the views of others in order to avoid such hatred (Machiavelli, p.133).Ganelon’s trial for treachery presents an example of Charlemagne’s continued ingenuity and deviation from his noble qualities, as the situation forces him to bring forth cruelty and lack of mercy in order to secure the principality. In this trial, Charlemagne exhibits two very important Machiavellian concepts a prince should always remember: when injuries or cruelty must occur to preserve power, a prince should carry them out swiftly and “all at the same time,” and if a prince sees fit to “take someone’s life, he should do so when there is proper justification and manifest cause” (Machiavelli, p.106, 132).
While he allows for a proper “trial” to unfold and hears the pleas of Ganelon’s supporters and family “to absolve Count Ganelon” whom they deem “a very noble man,” Charlemagne nonetheless condemns Ganelon to “die in terrible agony,” and “not a single one” of his supporters “shall live” (The Song of Roland, p.150, 155). Because of his treachery, Ganelon becomes an enemy to the principality, a danger to the subjects within this principality, and a disobedient servant of the leader, and he therefore provides Charlemagne with the proper justification and manifest cause necessary to meet Machiavelli’s standards. Charlemagne elicits cruelty in the brutal sentence of Ganelon and his supporters, yet he conducts the violence immediately following the trial and all at the same time, allowing any who might find offence in his actions to view the punishment as more an act of justice rather than of torture. As Machiavelli argues,a prince “should maintain himself in such a way that no man could imagine that he can deceive or cheat him,” proving the necessity for Charlemagne to take action and use cruelty in order to inspire fear in his subjects to prevent any further conspiracies or deceptions (Machiavelli, p.136). Charlemagne portrays his shrewdness as a leader in his execution of Ganelon, as he accomplishes what is necessary in order to preserve the security of his principality. The ingenuity, necessary for a Machiavellian Prince, which Charlemagne exhibits in the Ganelon trial, also manifests itself in other aspects of the poem, as the author portrays him as having a skill for adaptation and a keen eye for an advantageous situation.
According to Machiavelli, “the man who adapts his course of action to the nature of the times will succeed,” and Charlemagne, after the ambush of his rearguard, finds himself able to adapt to the current situation and move forward in his plan to attack Sargossa (Machiavelli, p.160). Charlemagne’s shows cleverness in his ability to adapt but also in his knowledge that the city of Sargossa holds significant resources which could greatly benefit Charlemagne’s empire: gold and land. His army is strong and confident, and it would prove to be a poor decision to not attack when his army was ready. The Song of Roland illustrates Charlemagne’s skill and intelligence, those qualities that Machiavelli requires in a successful prince, as great factors to his leadership, but shrewdness and ability alone are not the only means to maintain a principality, and as Machiavelli claims, a prince can secure a principality through “either ingenuity or Fortune” (Machiavelli, p. 93). Considering its poet wrote The Song of Roland during the first Crusade, the poem understandably merges the idea of a personified pagan Fortune with religion and God, and the author expresses the Godliness of Charlemagne’s nature in multiple divine interactions pulling him further into the realm of the “religious” Machiavellian Prince (Machiavelli, p.135). In two instances an angel directly aids Charlemagne in his endeavors, the first being when it “[postpones] nightfall and [maintains] daylight” so that his army might ride without pause to Sargossa in order to avenge the deaths of his rearguard (The Song of Roland, p.106).
The second appearance of an angel occurs in Charlemagne’s battle with Baligant, when “God did not want [Charlemagne] to be slain or vanquished” and “Saint Gabriel” brings him back to life after a seemingly fatal blow to the head (The Song of Roland, p.144). Charlemagne possesses a sort of divine connection in the poem with God and Fortune, where God finds his life and intentions important enough to perform miracles or save him from the verge of death. Machiavelli finds this relation very beneficial in a prince, as he believes that Fortune or God are the “[arbiters] of one half of [people’s] actions” (Machiavelli, p.159). Not only does the poet portray Charlemagne as encountering a relationship with divinities, but the leader of the Franks also appears Godly and divines him on several occasions. Following the Machiavellian “virtue of generosity”, the Charlemagne of The Song of Roland only ever appears to give away those riches belonging to others, allowing for stability in his principality and contentment and loyalty in his troops (Machiavelli, p.128). The Prince argues in order to avoid hatred and despise, a leader cannot be overly generous with his own or his principality’s wealth, since he must be able to “defend himself” and “undertake enterprises without overburdening his people” with taxes (Machiavelli, p.128).
The Song of Roland never depicts any such unnecessary generosity in Charlemagne, but instead it portrays him as promising to his army the lands and wealth of Spain, taken from the many French conquests in the region. In preserving his own property and giving away that of his enemies, Charlemagne again ensures a loyal following while maintain an economically stable regime. Throughout the entire poem, The Song of Roland’s Charlemagne follows Machiavelli’s guidelines for a successful prince in each of his actions. Whether he truly expresses these princely qualities or shrewdly appears to possess them, he continuingly finds success in his governance and endeavors. Many Machiavellian princes obtain and sustain their power through deceit, fear, and an often fabricated or embellished image of perfection, and the purpose of Machiavelli’s work may have been to question the very legitimacy of such a ruler. As Historians have often argued, The Prince varied greatly from Machiavelli’s recognized republican values; therefore Machiavelli may have created his most famous piece as a mockery of the leaders of the society in which he lived. Even The Song of Roland, written many hundred years before Machiavelli’s birth, supports this argument of The Prince’s satiric nature, as the poet creates a Charlemagne in order to rally support for the efforts, however offensive, of the First Crusade. If such a leader, created for the purpose of propaganda to validate the violence and arguable futility of the Crusades, perfectly exemplifies the Machiavellian princely qualities, then Machiavelli may have indeed written a satiric peace on the absurdity of the rules of humanity.
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