Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 June 2012
The framework: militia, mercenaries, and the standing army
The greatest problem facing the early-modern state was not fighting wars but maintaining and managing its armed forces. Especially in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, governments had to be wary of becoming hostages of the soldiers they had hired. As already noted in Chapters 3 and 4, the Florentine politician Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527) viewed mercenaries as a grave threat to the stable governance of a polity. In his Arte della guerra (1521), he argued that troops who depended for their livelihood on pay presented their employer with only three options: ‘either [he] must keep them continually engaged in war, or must constantly keep them paid in peacetime, or must run the risk of their stripping him of his kingdom.’ Although his concerns were overstated, in the context of the Italian city-states they were understandable; there was a real risk of the condottieri turning against their political masters and seizing power for themselves. However, mercenaries were of course not a recent phenomenon. Nor were infantry victories over noble heavy-cavalry-based armies, when the former were on the defensive; but in the fifteenth century, Swiss infantry successfully attacked mounted opponents in the open field. The Swiss did not need ditches, woods, brooks, or hedges to face a charge; armed with pikes and halberds they formed a living forest that could resist an attack from all sides.