Strategic competition on the Italian peninsula provoked military innovation by Italian cities that were rich but weak. In the armies of the great powers, France, Aragon, and England, the number of soldiers raised by feudal levy was compounded with that raised by hiring mercenaries. Since the fourteenth century [C.E.], however, the Italian cities had relied entirely on privately organized professional armed forces. Single groups—the campagna di ventura—were recruited, supplied, and paid by their commanders, the condottieri, who sold their services to the highest bidder. The necessity for, and later the ambition of, the condottieri was a crucial element in the creation of the first modern states. For it was these mercenaries whose expensive services animated the need for the princely state, and whose ambitions then exploited the legitimating resources of that state, once the transfer of legal personality from the person of the prince to the princely state had occurred.
The condottiere was a contract employee. The word derives from the Italian for “contract,” condotta. The necessity to employ mercenaries became general on the peninsula once a few cities hired such forces because the shifting alliance structure of the region meant that no city could rely on the mercenaries of another. Once the superiority of the professionalized forces of the condottieri became clear, this innovation swept through all the cities of the peninsula as one after another mimicked the innovation lest it be engulfed by it. This necessity forced princes and oligarchs and ruling councils to rely more heavily on a bureaucratic apparatus, first to fund the condotte and later to provide for the acquisition of artillery. The condottieri themselves soon saw the advantage in turning their force on the authorities by whom they had been hired and supplanting them.
To rule the city he had seized, however, the usurping condottiere needed legitimacy. The condottieri took their contracts from a prince or oligarchy and hence from them alone derived the condottiere’s legal status. The princely state, however, once severed from the prince who brought it into being could provide a legal status for the condottiere apart from that of an employee of the prince or ruling council whom he had deposed. Thus this irony gave birth to the modern state and its unique problem, its problematic relation to the elusive status of legitimacy: only a State, however rudimentary, could provide the prince with the infrastructure necessary to maintain expensive mercenaries, but once this infrastructure was erected, it could also provide others with the means of exercising the power they had seized, and legitimate their doing so.
May 2, 2008