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

By Palmer, Douglas B. | The Historian, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

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


Palmer, Douglas B., The Historian


The Pope's Soldiers: A Military History of the Modern Vatican. By David Alvarez. (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2011. Pp. xiii, 429. $34.95.)

Of the world's ceremonial guards, the Swiss Guard of the Vatican may be the most amiable. Unlike, for example, the Queen's Guard found at Buckingham Palace, the Swiss Guard can often be found chatting with tourists or posing for photographs, resplendent in multicolored uniforms designed by Michelangelo and armed with little more than a halberd and Swiss panache. Considering that the Swiss Guard comprises the bulk of the security for a sovereign state--the Vatican--the guards seem anachronistic, albeit delightfully so. This view of the Swiss Guard is precisely what David Alvarez tries to challenge in The Pope's Soldiers: A Military History of the Modern Vatican. In addition to the ceremonial functions of not only the Swiss Guard but also the Papal Gendarmeria, the Palatine Guard, and the Noble Guard, Alvarez reminds the reader that as recently as World War II, Vatican military units actually came under hostile fire. In many ways, however, Alvarez's book is much like the subject: it is colorful and at times fascinating but also strangely out of place in contemporary historiography.

Alvarez's intentions are stated clearly in the book's preface. The book is presented "in the hope of illuminating a shadowy and little-visited corner of the vast edifice of papal history" (xi). In this regard, Alvarez does not disappoint. Benefitting from access to the archives, documents, and official histories of the Swiss, Noble, and Palatine Guards, Alvarez can justly claim to be the first scholar writing in English to attempt to assemble a comprehensive military history of the Vatican armed forces. Alvarez's research reveals a clear pattern regarding papal military forces: attempts to reform, professionalize, or modernize are ignored--even thwarted--by papal administration until some crisis necessitates change. …

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