The Life And Death Of Cesare Borgia, The Ruthless Conqueror Of Renaissance Europe

Published October 5, 2023
Updated February 26, 2024

Born around 1475 as Pope Alexander VI's illegitimate son, Cesare Borgia was a notorious noble, cardinal, and soldier who died brutally in 1507.

Cesare Borgia

Accademia CarraraDue to his papal roots, Cesare Borgia made an unforgettable mark on history. But nepotism could only carry him so far.

The Borgias were notoriously ruthless and power-hungry, willing to kill anyone who got in their way. At least, that’s how their enemies described the powerful family of Renaissance Europe.

While Pope Alexander VI led the family, his illegitimate son Cesare Borgia was his right-hand man. They plotted to conquer Italy and create a dynasty.

Thanks to his father, Cesare Borgia was able to become a bishop, cardinal, and military leader. As the head of the papal army, he used his father’s power to start building a fearsome kingdom. But even though Borgia had a remarkable rise, he had an equally stunning fall. And in the tumultuous world of Renaissance politics — where other powerful families could be just as brutal — Borgia eventually lost everything, including his life.

This is the story of Cesare Borgia, the noble who inspired Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince — and, possibly, modern depictions of Jesus Christ.

How Pope Alexander VI Paved The Way For Cesare Borgia’s Rise To Power

Young Cesare Borgia

Staatliche Kunstsammlungen DresdenEven as a child, Cesare Borgia was being groomed for greatness. His father made him a bishop at 15 and a cardinal at 18.

Born Rodrigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI had big dreams for his children. After becoming pope in 1492 — thanks to successfully bribing cardinals for their votes — he swiftly got to work on transforming his family into a mighty ruling house that would eventually rival Europe’s greatest powers.

Of course, the pope was not supposed to have children — or numerous mistresses. But that didn’t stop Alexander VI, who had at least nine children, many of whom were more than willing to help their father with his plan.

One of his sons, Cesare Borgia, was arguably even more ambitious and power-hungry than his father. Born around 1475 or 1476 near Rome, the future conqueror was groomed for greatness from an early age, named a bishop at just 15. By 18, he had already been named a cardinal.

The Borgias

Ipswich Museum and Art GalleryA portrait that depicts Cesare Borgia, his sister Lucrezia Borgia, their father Pope Alexander VI, and a young man who is apparently fearful that the Borgias have poisoned his wine.

As the papacy funneled unimaginable wealth and power to the Borgia family, Cesare Borgia prepared to carry out a critical part of his father’s plan. But this only happened after Cesare allegedly murdered his brother Giovanni, who had been named the head of the Vatican army.

Though it was never proven who killed Giovanni Borgia, his demise in 1497 was a gruesome one. Not only had he been stabbed at least nine times, but his throat had been slit, and his dead body had been tossed unceremoniously in the Tiber river, according to Journeys in Artistry.

Rumors initially swirled that Cesare had killed Giovanni over a woman, as they reportedly shared the same mistress. Later, darker rumors claimed that Cesare actually took out his brother to escape life in the church and seize control of the papal army. If that was indeed Cesare’s goal, he succeeded.

Cesare Borgia’s Fearsome Army

Duke Of Valentinois

Museo di Palazzo VeneziaA formidable military leader, Cesare Borgia was granted the title Duke of Valentinois by the French king Louis XII.

As the head of the Vatican army, Cesare Borgia marched across central and northern Italy. Officially, he was bringing the papal territories under his father’s control. Unofficially, Borgia created his own dukedom.

The newly styled Duke of Valentinois — a name he was given thanks to the French king Louis XII — seized new lands by using military prowess and assassinations, backed by the pope’s authority.

Cesare Borgia had a strategy: He sent his most loyal and fearless henchmen to clear the path for his rule. Any resisting nobles and quarrelsome bishops lost their lands and often their lives in the process.

Then, Cesare Borgia propped up a puppet ruler to mistreat the people. When the cruel ruler alienated his subjects, Borgia swept in to vanquish him.

The conqueror apparently saw himself as a new Julius Caesar of sorts, leveraging military might into a kingdom. Tellingly, he even adopted the motto, “Aut Caesar, aut nihil,” or “Either Caesar or nothing.”

Though his seizing of land earned Cesare Borgia many enemies, it also earned him some admirers, including famed Renaissance philosopher and writer Niccolò Machiavelli. “I wouldn’t know what better advice to give a ruler new to power than to follow his example,” Machiavelli once wrote of Borgia.

Love, Fear, And The “Perfect Prince”

Sketch Of Cesare Borgia

Wikimedia CommonsNiccolò Machiavelli said Cesare Borgia was the ideal prince, because he was willing to act ruthlessly to achieve peace.

Is it better to be loved or feared? Niccolò Machiavelli took up the question in his political treatise The Prince. And to answer it, he turned to Cesare Borgia.

“Cesare Borgia was considered cruel; nonetheless, that cruelty united Romagna and brought it peace and stability,” Machiavelli wrote, according to the Los Angeles Times. “On careful reflection, he was more merciful than the Florentines, who, in order to avoid being seen as cruel, allowed Pistoia to be destroyed.”

Cruelty with a purpose, Machiavelli argued, was far better than mercy with none. “Too much mercy,” the Renaissance writer declared, “allows disorders to go on, from which spring killings or depredations.”

After living through the rise and fall of the Medici, along with the rise of the Borgias, Machiavelli had a cynical and pessimistic view of politics. A “good” ruler knew when to abandon his principles, he decided.

“Any man who tries to be good all the time is bound to come to ruin among the great number who are not good,” Machiavelli proclaimed. “Hence a prince who wants to keep his authority must learn how not to be good, and use that knowledge, or refrain from using it, as necessity requires.”

Depiction Of Jesus Christ

Wikimedia CommonsNot only was Cesare Borgia the inspiration for Machiavelli’s The Prince, some believe he’s also the inspiration behind modern depictions of Jesus Christ (similar to this illustration of the Christian Messiah).

It’s safe to say Cesare Borgia wasn’t worried about appearing to be “good.” When he wasn’t leading soldiers or instilling fear in his people, the conqueror led a largely hedonistic lifestyle. He fathered at least 11 illegitimate children. And Cesare Borgia also reportedly held a notorious “Banquet of Chestnuts,” during which “fifty honest prostitutes” danced naked in the Vatican and then picked up chestnuts that had been thrown all over the floor.

“The Pope, Don Cesare, and Donna Lucrezia were all present to watch,” reported the Papal Master of Ceremonies. “Finally, prizes were offered — silken doublets, pairs of shoes, hats, and other garments — for those men who could perform the act most frequently with the prostitutes.”

But perhaps the most scandalous allegation about Cesare Borgia was that he had an incestuous relationship with his sister Lucrezia.

Whether the unproven accusation was true or not, it’s clear that Cesare Borgia led a self-indulgent lifestyle and exhibited brutality as a soldier and conqueror. That’s why it’s so shocking that he’s rumored to have inspired the modern likeness of Jesus Christ in the Western world — the pale skin, the facial hair, the lengthy brown hair, and the intense eyes.

This rumor was purportedly started by a French novelist in the 19th century, and it persists to this day, even though, much like the infamous rumor about Lucrezia and Cesare Borgia, it’s never been officially proven.

The Downfall Of Cesare Borgia

Borgias At The Vatican

Revoltella MuseumThe Vatican gave the Borgias power. But when Pope Alexander VI died, the family struggled to keep their influence.

Cesare Borgia was planning another military campaign when he and his father fell ill in 1503. The family, allegedly infamous for poisoning rivals, reportedly worried that an enemy had turned their weapon against them.

Instead, it was malaria that killed the pope and the disease nearly left Cesare Borgia dead, too, according to History Today. Doctors plunged Borgia’s body into a tub of ice water, hoping to cure him. He ultimately survived the illness, but without his father, he and the other Borgias began to crumble.

Rather than rising to the papacy himself, Borgia instead found himself fleeing from the new pope, Julius II, who came from a rival family.

Enemies swarmed to seize what Cesare Borgia had taken. He soon found himself under arrest, his lands snatched right out of his hands. The prisoner was then shipped to Spain, where he escaped captivity and then promised to aid King John of Navarre, as he was facing rebellion at the time.

But then, on March 12, 1507, rebel knights located and surrounded Cesare Borgia. The knights then killed him, stabbing him 25 times and leaving him naked with just a red tile to cover his genitals. The once-powerful ruler was only about 31 years old, and he had died just as brutally as he lived.

The King of Navarre decided to bury Cesare Borgia’s body in a marble tomb in northern Spain. The inscription on the fallen noble’s tomb read, “Here in a scant piece of earth lies he whom all the world feared.”

Was Cesare Borgia the ideal Renaissance ruler? Machiavelli wanted a unified Italy. Cruelty and even brutality could be excused in the name of that goal.

But Borgia failed in one critical respect — by tying his power so closely to his father’s, that the death of Pope Alexander VI left him vulnerable. A true Machiavellian prince would have surely planned for his luck to change.

After reading about Cesare Borgia, learn about Caterina Sforza, the woman who captivated and terrified Niccolò Machiavelli. Then, read about 13 infamous pastors who were caught doing unholy things.

Genevieve Carlton
Genevieve Carlton earned a Ph.D in history from Northwestern University with a focus on early modern Europe and the history of science and medicine before becoming a history professor at the University of Louisville. In addition to scholarly publications with top presses, she has written for Atlas Obscura and Ranker.
Jaclyn Anglis
Jaclyn is the senior managing editor at All That's Interesting. She holds a Master's degree in journalism from the City University of New York and a Bachelor's degree in English writing and history (double major) from DePauw University. She is interested in American history, true crime, modern history, pop culture, and science.
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Carlton, Genevieve. "The Life And Death Of Cesare Borgia, The Ruthless Conqueror Of Renaissance Europe.", October 5, 2023, Accessed May 25, 2024.