Life must have seemed good for Niccolò Machiavelli in late 1513. The former Florentine diplomat, who had built his reputation as a shrewd political analyst in his missions to popes and kings, was now at leisure on his farm near Florence. From there, Machiavelli wrote a letter to a friend on December 10 that year, describing his daily routine: He spent his mornings wandering his woods, his afternoons gambling in a local tavern. His evenings he spent in his study, where he composed “a little work”: De principatibus (On Principalities), on which he said, “I go as deeply as I can into considerations on this subject, debating what principalities are, how they are gained, how they are kept, why they are lost.”
Best known today as The Prince, this “little work” has had a mighty impact on history. With its most famous maxim—“It is better to be feared than loved”—the book explains not what rulers ought to do, but what they need to do to retain power. Considered an evil tract by many, modern philosophers now regard The Prince as the first modern work of political science.
Life, however, had not always been so restful or pleasant for Machiavelli as described in his letter. Only a few months before, he had found himself in mortal danger, on the sharp end of the power he so brilliantly analyzed. In 1512, the year before he wrote The Prince, the Florence administration he had served as a diplomat was overthrown by the Medici family, who had ruled Florence for much of the 15th century until their temporary overthrow in 1494. Machiavelli’s diplomatic career had evolved in the 18-year absence of the Medici. With their return to power, he lost his political position—and nearly his life. (The Medici family backed some of the Renaissance's most beautiful paintings.)