The Pope's Soldiers: A Military History of the Modern Vatican

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The Pope's Soldiers: A Military History of the Modern Vatican. By David Alvarez. [Modern War Studies.] (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas. 2011. Pp. xiii, 429. $34.95. ISBN 978-0-700-61770-8.)

Serious readers of church history are well aware of military episodes in its long chronicle, among the most dramatic being the subjection of central Italy by the fire-breathing Pope Julius II and the participation of papal galleys at Lepanto with the blessing of the saintly Pope Pius V Less well known are the years during and after the French Revolution, when the defense of the pope's temporal power required a military option. That story is no less fascinating.

Years ago, this was a book I had dreamed about writing. Fortunately, David Alvarez got there first and did a much better job than I would have done. His research was very extensive, as demonstrated by forty-five pages of helpful notes and bibliography. Although he brings his narrative up to the Swiss Guards of the present day, the heart of his story takes place between 1796 and 1870. During that period, there were six distinct military campaigns, culminating in the definitive loss of the Papal States and Italy's unification. By that point, the Papal States had built, per capita, one of the largest armies in Europe and, judged by its performance, one of the best motivated.

The saga begins when France's Revolutionary Republic invaded Italy, at the expense of what Alvarez calls the "worst army in Europe" (p. 1), a largely ceremonial force hampered by curial penny-pinching and skirmishing among careerists. From that very low point, there were serious attempts to build the pathetic militia into a credible force which might at least deter outside powers from invasion. By the pontificate of Pius G?, even the skeptics saw the need to field a reliable military. …