The Life of Cesare Borgia

Author: Rafael Sabatini

Chapter II the Knell of the Tyrants

In the hour of his need Lodovico Sforza found himself without friends or credit, and he had to pay the price of the sly, faithless egotistical policy he had so long pursued with profit.

His far-reaching schemes were flung into confusion because a French king had knocked his brow against a door, and had been succeeded by one who conceived that he had a legal right to the throne of Milan, and the intent and might to enforce it, be the right legal or not. It was in vain now that Lodovico turned to the powers of Italy for assistance, in vain that his cunning set fresh intrigues afoot. His neighbours had found him out long since; he had played fast and loose with them too often, and there was none would trust him now.

Thus he found himself isolated, and in no case to withstand the French avalanche which rolled down upon his duchy. The fall of Milan was a matter of days; of resistance there was practically none. Town after town threw up its gates to the invaders, and Lodovico, seeing himself abandoned on all sides, sought in flight the safety of his own person.

Cesare took no part in the war, which, after all, was no war—no more than an armed progress. He was at Lyons with the King, and he did not move into Italy until Louis went to take possession of his new duchy.

Amid the acclamations of the ever-fickle mob, hailing him as its deliverer, Louis XII rode triumphantly into Milan on October 6, attended by a little host of princes, including the Prince of Savoy, the Dukes of Montferrat and Ferrara, and the Marquis of Mantua. But the place of honour went to Cesare Borgia, who rode at the king’s side, a brilliant and arresting figure. This was the occasion on which Baldassare Castiglione—who was in the Marquis of Mantua’s suite—was moved to such praise of the appearance and gallant bearing of the duke, and of the splendid equipment of his suite, which outshone those of all that little host of attendant princes.

From this time onward Cesare signs himself "Cesare Borgia of France," and quarters on his shield the golden lilies of France with the red bull of the House of Borgia.

The conditions on which Alexander VI joined the league of France and Venice became apparent at about this time. They were to be gathered from the embassy of his nephew, the Cardinal Giovanni Borgia, to Venice in the middle of September. There the latter announced to the Council of Ten that the Pope’s Holiness aimed at the recovery to the Church of those Romagna tyrannies which originally were fiefs of the Holy See and held by her vicars, who, however, had long since repudiated the Pontifical authority, refused the payment of their tributes, and in some instances had even gone so far as to bear arms against the Church.

With one or two exceptions the violent and evil misgovernment of these turbulent princelings was a scandal to all Italy. They ruled by rapine and murder, and rendered Romagna little better than a nest of brigands. Their state of secession from the Holy See arose largely out of the nepotism practised by the last Popes—a nepotism writers are too prone to overlook when charging Alexander with the same abuse. Such Popes as Sixtus IV and Innocent VIII had broken up the States of the Church that they might endow their children and their nephews. The nepotism of such as these never had any result but to impoverish the Holy See; whilst, on the other hand, the nepotism of Alexander—this Pope who is held up to obloquy as the archetype of the nepotist—had a tendency rather to enrich it. It was not to the States of the Church, not by easy ways of plundering the territories of the Holy See, that he turned to found dominions and dynasties for his children. He went beyond and outside of them, employing princely alliances as the means to his ends. Gandia was a duke in Spain; Giuffredo a prince in Naples, and Cesare a duke in France. For none of these could it be said that territories had been filched from Rome, whilst the alliances made for them were such as tended to strengthen the power of the Pope, and, therefore, of the Church.

The reconsolidation of the States of the Church, the recovery of her full temporal power, which his predecessors had so grievously dissipated, had ever been Alexander’s aim; Louis XII afforded him, at last, his opportunity, since with French aid the thing now might be attempted.

His son Cesare was the Hercules to whom was to be given the labour of cleaning out the Augean stable of the Romagna.

That Alexander may have been single-minded in his purpose has never been supposed. It might, indeed, be to suppose too much; and the general assumption that, from the outset, his chief aim was to found a powerful State for his son may be accepted. But let us at least remember that such had been the aims of several Popes before him. Sixtus IV and Innocent VIII had similarly aimed at founding dynasties in Romagna for their families, but, lacking the talents and political acuteness of Alexander and a son of the mettle and capacity of Cesare Borgia, the feeble trail of their ambition is apt to escape attention. It is also to be remembered that, whatever Alexander’s ulterior motive, the immediate results of the campaign with which he inspired his son were to reunite to the Church the States which had fallen away from her, and to re-establish her temporal sway in the full plenitude of its dominion. However much he may have been imbued with the desire to exalt and aggrandize his children politically, he did nothing that did not at the same time make for the greater power and glory of the Church.

His formidable Bull published in October set forth how, after trial, it had been found that the Lords or Vicars of Rimini, Pesaro, Imola, Forli, Camerino and Faenza, with other feudatories of the Holy See (including the duchy of Urbino) had never paid the yearly tribute due to the Church, wherefore he, by virtue of his apostolic authority, deprived them of all their rights, and did declare them so deprived.

It has been said again and again that this Bull amounting to a declaration of war, was no more than a pretext to indulge his rapacity; but surely it bears the impress of a real grievance, and, however blameable the results that followed out of it, for the measure itself there were just and ample grounds.

The effect of that Bull, issued at a moment when Cesare stood at arms with the might of France at his back, ready to enforce it, was naturally to throw into a state of wild dismay these Romagna tyrants whose acquaintance we shall make at closer quarters presently in the course of following Cesare’s campaign. Cesare Borgia may have been something of a wolf; but you are not to suppose that the Romagna was a fold of lambs.

Giovanni Sforza—Cesare’s sometime brother-in­law, and Lord of Pesaro— flies in hot haste to Venice for protection. There are no lengths to which he will not go to thwart the Borgias in their purpose, to save his tyranny from falling into the power of this family which he hates most rabidly, and of which he says that, having robbed him of his honour, it would now deprive him of his possessions. He even offers to make a gift of his dominions to the Republic.

There was much traders’ blood in Venice, and, trader-like, she was avid of possessions. You can surmise how she must have watered at the mouth to see so fine a morsel cast thus into her lap, and yet to know that the consumption of it might beget a woeful indigestion. Venice shook her head regretfully. She could not afford to quarrel with her ally, King Louis, and so she made answer—a thought contemptuously, it seems—that Giovanni should have made his offer while he was free to do so.

The Florentines exerted themselves to save Forli from the fate that threatened it. They urged a league of Bologna, Ferrara, Forli, Piombino, and Siena for their common safety—a proposal which came to nothing, probably because Ferrara and Siena, not being threatened by the Bull, saw no reason why, for the sake of others, they should call down upon themselves the wrath of the Borgias and their mighty allies.

Venice desired to save Faenza, whose tyrant, Manfredi, was also attainted for non-payment of his tributes, and to this end the Republic sent an embassy to Rome with the moneys due. But the Holy Father refused the gold, declaring that it was too late for payment.

Forli’s attempt to avert the danger was of a different sort, and not exerted until this danger—in the shape of Cesare himself—stood in arms beneath her walls. Two men, both named Tommaso—though it does not transpire that they were related—one a chamberlain of the Palace of Forli, the other a musician, were so devoted to the Countess Sforza- Riario, the grim termagant who ruled the fiefs of her murdered husband, Girolamo Riario, as to have undertaken an enterprise from which they cannot have hoped to emerge with their lives. It imported no less than the murder of the Pope. They were arrested on November 21, and in the possession of one of them was found a hollow cane containing a letter "so impregnated with poison that even to unfold it would be dangerous." This letter was destined for the Holy Father.

The story reads like a gross exaggeration emanating from men who, on the subject of poisoning, display the credulity of the fifteenth century, so ignorant in these matters and so prone to the fantastic. And our minds receive a shock upon learning that, when put to the question, these messengers actually made a confession—upon which the story rests— admitting that they had been sent by the countess to slay the Pope, in the hope that thus Forli might be saved to the Riarii. At first we conclude that those wretched men, examined to the accompaniment of torture, confessed whatever was required of them, as so frequently happened in such cases. Such, indeed, is the very explanation advanced by more than one writer, coupled with the suggestion, in some instances, that the whole affair was trumped up by the Pope to serve his own ends.

They will believe the wildest and silliest of poisoning stories (such as those of Djem and Cardinal Giovanni Borgia) which reveal the Borgias as the poisoners; but, let another be accused and the Borgias be the intended victims, and at once they grow rational, and point out to you the wildness of the statement, the impossibility of its being true. Yet it is a singular fact that a thorough investigation of this case of the Countess Sforza-Riario’s poisoned letter reveals it to be neither wild nor impossible but simply diabolical. The explanation of the matter is to be found in Andrea Bernardi’s Chronicles of Forli. He tells us exactly how the thing was contrived, with a precision of detail which we could wish to see emulated by other contemporaries of his who so lightly throw out accusations of poisoning. He informs us that a deadly and infectious disease was rampant in Forli in that year 1499, and that, before dispatching her letter to the Pope, the Countess caused it to be placed upon the body of one who was sick of this infection—thus hoping to convey it to his Holiness.(1)

1 "Dite litre lei le aveva fate tocare et tenere adose ad uno nostro infetado."—Andrea Bernardi (Cronache di Forli).

Alexander held a thanksgiving service for his escape at Santa Maria della Pace, and Cardinal Raffaele Riario fled precipitately from Rome, justly fearful of being involved in the papal anger that must fall upon his house.

By that time, however, Cesare had already taken the field. The support of Louis, conqueror of Milan, had been obtained, and in this Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere had once more been helpful to the Borgias.

His reconciliation with the Pope, long since deserved by the services he had rendered the House of Borgia in forwarding Cesare’s aims, as we have seen, was completed now by an alliance which bound the two families together. His nephew, Francesco della Rovere, had married Alexander’s niece, Angela Borgia.

There is a letter from Giuliano to the Pope, dated October 12, 1499, in which he expresses his deep gratitude in the matter of this marriage, which naturally redounded to the advantage of his house, and pledges himself to exert all the influence which he commands with Louis XII for the purpose of furthering the Duke of Valentinois’ wishes. So well does he keep this promise that we see him utterly abandoning his cousins the Riarii, who were likely to be crushed under the hoofs of the now charging bull, and devoting himself strenuously to equip Cesare for that same charge. So far does he go in this matter that he is one of the sureties —the other being the Cardinal Giovanni Borgia—for the loan of 45,000 ducats raised by Cesare in Milan towards the cost of his campaign.

This is the moment in which to pause and consider this man, who, because he was a bitter enemy of Alexander’s, and who, because earlier he had covered the Pope with obloquy and insult and is to do so again later, is hailed as a fine, upright, lofty, independent, noble soul.

Not so fine, upright, or noble but that he can put aside his rancour when he finds that there is more profit in fawning than in snarling; not so independent but that he can become a sycophant who writes panegyrics of Cesare and letters breathing devotion to the Pope, once he has realized that thus his interests will be better served. This is the man, remember, who dubbed Alexander a Jew and a Moor; this the man who agitated at the Courts of France and Spain for Alexander’s deposition from the Pontificate on the score of the simony of his election; this the man whose vituperations of the Holy Father are so often quoted, since— coming from lips so honest—they must, from the very moment that he utters them, be merited. If only the historian would turn the medal about a little, and allow us a glimpse of the reverse as well as of the obverse, what a world of trouble and misconceptions should we not be spared!

Della Rovere had discovered vain his work of defamation, vain his attempts to induce the Kings of France and Spain to summon a General Council and depose the man whose seat he coveted, so he had sought to make his peace with the Holy See. The death of Charles VIII, and the succession of a king who had need of the Pope’s friendship and who found a friend in Alexander, rendered it all the more necessary that della Rovere should set himself to reconquer, by every means in his power, the favour of Alexander.

And so you see this honourable, upright man sacrificing his very family to gain that personal end. Where now is that stubbornly honest conscience of his which made him denounce Alexander as no Christian and no Pope? Stifled by self-interest. It is as well that this should be understood, for this way lies the understanding of many things.

The funds for the campaign being found, Cesare received from Louis three hundred lances captained by Yves d’Allègre and four thousand foot, composed of Swiss and Gascons, led by the Bailie of Dijon. Further troops were being assembled for him at Cesena—the one fief of Romagna that remained faithful to the Church—by Achille Tiberti and Ercole Bentivogli, and to these were to be added the Pontifical troops that would be sent to him; so that Cesare found himself ultimately at the head of a considerable army, some ten thousand strong, well-equipped and supported by good artillery.

Louis XII left Milan on November 7—one month after his triumphal entrance—and set out to return to France, leaving Trivulzio to represent him as ruler of the Milanese. Two days later Cesare’s army took the road, and he himself went with his horse by way of Piacenza, whilst the foot, under the Bailie of Dijon, having obtained leave of passage through the territories of Ferrara and Cremona, followed the Po down to Argenta.

Thus did Cesare Borgia—personally attended by a caesarian guard, wearing his livery—set out upon the conquest of the Romagna. Perhaps at no period of his career is he more remarkable than at this moment. To all trades men serve apprenticeships, and to none is the apprenticeship more gradual and arduous than to the trade of arms. Yet Cesare Borgia served none. Like Minerva, springing full-grown and armed into existence, so Cesare sprang to generalship in the hour that saw him made a soldier. This was the first army in which he had ever marched, yet he marched at the head of it. In his twenty-four years of life he had never so much as witnessed a battle pitched; yet here was he riding to direct battles and to wrest victories. Boundless audacity and swiftest intelligence welded into an amazing whole!


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Chicago: Rafael Sabatini, "Chapter II the Knell of the Tyrants," The Life of Cesare Borgia, ed. Braybrooke, Richard Griffin, Baron, 1783-1853 and trans. Ingram, J. H. (James Henry) in The Life of Cesare Borgia (New York: Doubleday, Page, 1909), Original Sources, accessed April 24, 2018,

MLA: Sabatini, Rafael. "Chapter II the Knell of the Tyrants." The Life of Cesare Borgia, edited by Braybrooke, Richard Griffin, Baron, 1783-1853, and translated by Ingram, J. H. (James Henry), in The Life of Cesare Borgia, Vol. 36, New York, Doubleday, Page, 1909, Original Sources. 24 Apr. 2018.

Harvard: Sabatini, R, 'Chapter II the Knell of the Tyrants' in The Life of Cesare Borgia, ed. and trans. . cited in 1909, The Life of Cesare Borgia, Doubleday, Page, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 24 April 2018, from