That prudent Princes and Republics should be content to have obtained a Victory; for, commonly, when they are not, theft-Victory turns to Defeat.
The use of dishonouring language towards an enemy is mostly caused by an insolent humour, bred by victory or the false hope of it, whereby men are oftentimes led not only to speak, but also to act amiss. For such false hopes, when they gain an entry into men's minds, cause them to overrun their goal, and to miss opportunities for securing a certain good, on the chance of obtaining some thing better, but uncertain. And this, being a matter that deserves attention, because in deceiving themselves men often injure their country, I desire to illustrate it by particular instances, ancient and recent, since mere argument might not place it in so clear a light.
After routing the Romans at CannŠ, Hannibal sent messengers to Carthage to announce his victory, and to ask support. A debate arising in the Carthaginian senate as to what was to be done, Hanno, an aged and wise citizen, advised that they should prudently take advantage of their victory to make peace with the Romans, while as conquerors they might have it on favourable terms, and not wait to make it after a defeat; since it should be their object to show the Romans that they were strong enough to fight them, but not to peril the victory they had won in the hope of winning a greater. This advice was not followed by the Carthaginian senate, but its wisdom was well seen later, when the opportunity to act upon it was gone.
When the whole East had been overrun by Alexander of Macedon, the citizens of Tyre (then at the height of its renown, and very strong from being built, like Venice, in the sea), recognizing his greatness, sent ambassadors to him to say that they desired to be his good servants, and to yield him all obedience, yet could not consent to receive either him or his soldiers within their walls. Whereupon, Alexander, displeased that a single city should venture to close its gates against him to whom all the rest of the world had thrown theirs open, repulsed the Tyrians, and rejecting their overtures set to work to besiege their town. But as it stood on the water, and was well stored with victual and all other munitions needed for its defence, after four months had gone, Alexander, perceiving that he was wasting more time in an inglorious attempt to reduce this one city than had sufficed for most of his other conquests, resolved to offer terms to the Tyrians, and to make them those concessions which they themselves had asked. But they, puffed up by their success, not merely refused the terms offered, but put to death the envoy sent to propose them. Enraged by this, Alexander renewed the siege, and with such vigour, that he took and destroyed the city, and either slew or made slaves of its inhabitants.
In the year 1512, a Spanish army entered the Florentine territory, with the object of restoring the Medici to Florence, and of levying a subsidy from the town; having been summoned thither by certain of the citizens, who had promised them that so soon as they appeared within the Florentine confines they would arm in their behalf. But when the Spaniards had come into the plain of the Arno, and none declared in their favour, being in sore need of supplies, they offered to make terms. This offer the people of Florence in their pride rejected, and so gave occasion for the sack of Prato and the overthrow of the Florentine Republic.
A prince, therefore, who is attacked by an enemy much more powerful than himself, can make no greater mistake than to refuse to treat, especially when overtures are made to him; for however poor the terms offered may be, they are sure to contain some conditions advantageous for him who accepts them, and which he may construe as a partial success. For which reason it ought to have been enough for the citizens of Tyre that Alexander was brought to accept terms which he had at first rejected; and they should have esteemed it a sufficient triumph that, by their resistance in arms, they had forced so great a warrior to bow to their will. And, in like manner, it should have been a sufficient victory for the Florentines that the Spaniards had in part yielded to their wishes, and abated something of their own demands, the purport of which was to change the government of Florence, to sever her from her allegiance to France, and, further, to obtain money from her. For if of these three objects the Spaniards had succeeded in securing the last two, while the Florentines maintained the integrity of their government, a fair share of honour and contentment would have fallen to each. And while preserving their political existence, the Florentines should have made small account of the other two conditions; nor ought they, even with the possibility and almost certainty of greater advantages before them, to have left matters in any degree to the arbitration of Fortune, by pushing things to extremes, and incurring risks which no prudent man should incur, unless compelled by necessity.
Hannibal, when recalled by the Carthaginians from Italy, where for sixteen years he had covered himself with glory, to the defence of his native country, found on his arrival that Hasdrubal and Syphax had been defeated, the kingdom of Numidia lost, and Carthage confined within the limits of her walls, and left without other resource save in him and his army. Perceiving, therefore, that this was the last stake his country had to play, and not choosing to hazard it until he had tried every other expedient, he felt no shame to sue for peace, judging that in peace rather than in war lay the best hope of safety for his country. But, when peace was refused him, no fear of defeat deterred him from battle, being resolved either to conquer, if conquer he might, or if he must fall, to fall gloriously. Now, if a commander so valiant as Hannibal, at the head of an unconquered army, was willing to sue for peace rather than appeal to battle when he saw that by defeat his country must be enslaved, what course ought to be followed by another commander, less valiant and with less experience than he? But men labour under this infirmity, that they know not where to set bounds to their hopes, and building on these without otherwise measuring their strength, rush headlong on destruction.
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