Cruelty and ruthlessness defined his life. Cesare Borgia’s birth and birthplace are uncertain. However, it’s believed that he was born around 1475 in Rome. The second of four illegitimate children, Cesare was the son of Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia and noblewoman Vanozza Catanei. As the second son, Cesare’s career path lay with the church. Because of this, he received a religious education.
Despite living in Italy, the Borgia family maintained strong ties to their Spanish homeland. Due to these ties, Cesare Borgia spent his formative years in Spain. While studying, Cesare honed his intellect and impressed his tutors. By 1489, he returned to Italy to begin studying law. Cesare firstly attended the University of Perugia and then the University of Pisa. Eventually, he earned degrees in both civil and canon law.
In 1492, the Borgia family’s standing improved. On August 11, Rodrigo Borgia emerged from a papal conclave as Pope Alexander VI. With his father’s ascension, Cesare Borgia gained a cardinal’s hat in 1493. Also, the 18-year-old cardinal became one of his father’s advisers. Although he had risen rapidly, Cesare proved to be ill-suited for the priesthood.
Instead of living modestly, Cesare Borgia enjoyed luxury. He had a reputation as a ladies man, a fiery temper, and neglected his cardinal duties. However, Cesare soon had an opportunity to abandon his position. On June 14, 1497, his brother, Giovanni, was murdered. Cesare had allegedly killed him for his dukedom. However, no evidence existed to support this rumor.
In 1498, Cesare Borgia officially resigned his cardinalate. Since Cesare’s resignation jeopardized Alexander VI’s relationship with Spain, the pope had to break the alliance. Instead, Alexander turned to Spain’s enemy, France. At the behest of his father, Cesare married a French noblewoman named Charlotte d’Albret. As a result of the marriage, the Borgias created an alliance with the French king, Louis XII. In return, Louis granted Cesare the title of duke of Valentinois.
Despite the new alliance between Alexander VI and France, Cesare feared that his father would make amends with Spain. Since Cesare’s sister Lucrezia was married to the Spanish king’s cousin, Alfonso, this possibility existed. To prevent this from happening, Cesare sent mercenaries to assassinate him in August 1500. Upon Alfonso’s death, any hope of reconciliation between the papacy and Spain evaporated. After securing his position, Cesare turned his attention towards campaigning.
After resigning his cardinalate, the pope appointed his son as the papal army’s captain-general. Shortly after, Cesare Borgia began a campaign of conquest. Alexander desired to create an Italian kingdom for his son. With the backing of French troops, Cesare started occupying Italian cities while conquering others. From 1500 – 1502, the papal army successfully captured multiple cities. These cities included Imola, Pesaro, and Urbino.
Cesare Borgia proved to be a competent military commander. During his Romagna campaign in 1502, Cesare’s troops swiftly marched to capture Urbino and Camerino. Caught unaware, both cities quickly surrendered. After capturing Romagna, Cesare became its duke. Seeing an opportunity to enrich themselves, some of Cesare’s captains rebelled. Consequently, Cesare lost control of his army.
Despite losing his troops, Cesare Borgia rebuilt his army with his father’s support. The pope readily provided his son with the necessary funds. Seeking revenge, Cesare lured his former captains into a trap. Feigning an attempt at reconciliation, Cesare’s troops captured the conspirators after they arrived. In retaliation, every captain was executed. After securing his holdings, Cesare was now at the height of his power.
In August 1503, Alexander VI and Cesare Borgia suffered from Malaria. On August 18, Alexander succumbed to the disease. Malaria weakened Cesare, but he survived. Since Cesare’s power depended on his father, he was now in a dangerous situation. Unfortunately, his misfortune continued with the election of Pope Julius II. The new pope hated the Borgias and actively sought their downfall.
Once elected as the new pope, Julius II refused to acknowledge Cesare’s titles. Cesare attempted to depart to Naples but ended up imprisoned. As a further humiliation, Julius stripped Cesare of his lands and titles. Next, the pope gave an imprisoned Cesare to the Spanish king, Ferdinand II. However, Cesare managed to escape and fled to his brother-in-law’s court in Navarre in 1507.
In Navarre, King John III offered Cesare Borgia an opportunity to redeem himself. The king needed a seasoned military commander to lead his troops against Spain. Cesare accepted the offer and attacked a rebellious province. During a castle siege, Cesare made a fatal error.
Seeing some enemy knights flee, he gave chase. Due to Cesare’s unpopularity, his soldiers didn’t follow him. Once the fleeing knights realized this, they overwhelmed Cesare and killed him. Not realizing who they had killed, Cesare’s body was stripped of his armor, clothing, and valuables by the knights. The once-powerful general’s naked body now lay abandoned on the side of the road.
Cesare Borgia attempted to establish an Italian kingdom with his father’s help. Using papal resources, Cesare proved to be a competent captain general who led many successful campaigns. However, his mercilessness inspired little loyalty. Since Cesare’s power was tied to the papacy, his father’s death in August 1503 compromised his position. His enemies outnumbered his allies and led to his downfall. Centuries after his death, Cesare is still remembered as a cruel and ruthless individual.
Conliffe, C. (2019, November 26). Cesare Borgia, the Merciless Prince. Retrieved February 25, 2020, from https://www.headstuff.org/culture/history/cesare-borgia-the-merciless-prince/
Hollingsworth, M. (2014). The Borgias: History’s Most Notorious Dynasty. London: Quercus Publishing Plc.
Mallett, M. E. (2020, January 9). Cesare Borgia. Retrieved February 24, 2020, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Cesare-Borgia