August, 2021

The golden age of mercenaries

  • Peter Leeson

    Senior Fellow, F. A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics
  • Ennio E. Piano

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Between the mid-thirteenth and mid-fifteenth centuries, Italian city-states abandoned citizen militaries for militaries composed of mercenaries: foreign soldiers for hire. So dramatic was the switch that this epoch has been called “the golden age of mercenaries,” and so treacherous did the mercenaries prove that Niccolò Machiavelli would later denounce them as “useless and dangerous.” Italian rulers knew of mercenaries’ infamous reputation when they hired them. To explain the puzzling fact that rulers hired mercenaries anyway, we develop a theory of military composition in which political circumstance constrains ruler choice. Comparative analysis of Venice and Florence provides evidence for our explanation.