Many people know that the Pope exists, that he is the head of the Catholic Church, and that he is headquartered in Rome. What many do not realize is that the pope is also a sovereign and head of a country. Vatican City, or the Holy See, is the smallest country in the world, only over 100 acres and surrounded by Rome.
It was not always that way. The pope was not only the head of the Catholic Church but also the temporal ruler of lots of land in the central part of present-day Italy, as well as territory in other European regions like Avignon in present-day France. The pope’s territories - called the Papal States - might have started when Pope St. Gregory the Great (590-604) had to care for the city of Rome; the emperor in far-off Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul, Turkey) was unable or unwilling to take care of the people of Rome’s security and its other needs. Pope St. Gregory took over that position, and so the papal monarchy began. The pope’s position as temporal leader and spiritual leader was not always a good thing for the Catholic Church. Some were more concerned about temporal matters than about spiritual matters to the Church’s detriment; Pope Alexander VI is an example of this.
During the reign of Pope Blessed Pius IX (1846-1878), the longest reigning pope after St. Peter, the Italians began to work and fight for unity of the Italian peninsula. This unification process also involved not only the Papal States; other countries like France and Austria were concerned, since they had their own interests in the peninsula. The leaders of Italian unification included King Victor Emmanuel II of Sardinia and Giuseppe Garibaldi, as well as others like the king’s prime minister, Camillo Cavour. Garibaldi was a lose cannon whom Cavour and the king would loose to work havoc on Italian duchies and the Kingdom of Naples and the Papal States. He also served as a fall-guy when things went wrong.
During the 1860s, the Italian peninsula was pretty much united under King Victor Emmanuel’s rule - the only hold-outs were the Papal States. Pope Pius IX was not willing to give up his territory voluntarily. Unfortunately for the pope and his people, his army was far smaller than that of the Italians. Unwilling to draft men into his army, the pope’s military was made up of volunteers, not only including Italians, but also those of other countries. The Pope's Legion is about some of those non-Italians serving in the Papal army. Garbed in funny-looking uniforms modeled after Arab tribesmen in North Africa, this army was called the Zouaves. Its members dressed in baggy trousers, short vests and fez-like hats, and these uniforms were usually quite colorful. Interestingly, there were Zouave units that served in the American Civil War.
Author Charles Coulombe gives the history of the Pontifical Zouaves, who served the Pope. Many of these Zouaves were from France, but some were from Ireland, England, Germany, Austria, Poland, Spain, Canada, and other countries. Recruiters went to various countries to find willing Catholic men of good repute and loyal to the Church. Recruiters were discouraged to recruit in the United States by bishops and other Catholic leaders, and American Catholics were still considered to be more loyal to the pope than to the U.S. Also, Pope Pius IX was the only world leader to recognize the Confederacy during the Civil War. The French were the most numerous in the Zouaves, holding many (but not all) of the command positions.
Many of the Zouaves served out of loyalty to the Church and a willingness to give their lives to protect the pope. They also maintained ideas of chivalry and interested in adventure they couldn’t find at home. The pope was not always able to pay his soldiers on time, pressed by all kinds of needs that demanded money from the papal treasuries. The Zouaves fought alongside the other Papal units like the Swiss Guard and the Noble Guard. The Zouaves usually led the papal armies into battle and were, most of the time, the last to retreat or surrender. The Zouaves were involved in the defense of Rome once the Italian armies moved to complete the unification of Italy. The Pope did not want a bloodbath, but neither did he want to give up without a fight. He had his armies put up a defense against overwhelming numbers, but eventually he commanded his armies surrender Rome to the Italians. The Pope then moved to the Vatican and considered himself a prisoner there. Pontiffs after him considered themselves prisoners in the Vatican until the Lateran Treaty of 1929 was signed between Italy and the Holy See.
The story of the Papal Zouaves and their sacrifice for the Church had almost been lost, making Coulombe’s flowing historical narrative an important save. The narrative flows very well and historically. He tells intriguing stories of what happened to some of the individual Zouaves after the fall of the Papal States, as well as the larger story of the unification of Italy and the last days of the Papal States. The centerfold features pictures of some of the papal Zouaves and paintings of them and their battles. The dust jacket boasts a picture of the papal coat of arms; in its center is a picture of some of the Zouaves. The first two appendices are dedicated to songs of the Zouaves and Zouave sites around the world. The third appendix is the homily that was given at the 2007 annual Mass in Rome in honor of the Zouaves who served and died for the pope. Endnotes, a bibliography and an index are included, although this book is not an overly academic, dry history textbook. Those interested in Catholic Church history, Italian history, Zouaves, military history, and the popes will enjoy this book that helps save the memory of the Zouaves who gave their lives for the protection of the pope.
Charles A. Coulombe is a historian and author of Rum (2005), Haunted Castles of the World (2005), Haunted Places in America (2004), Vicars of Christ: A History of the Popes (2003), The Muse in the Bottle (2002) and other books and articles. He is a commentator for ABC News and a former contributing editor of the National Catholic Register.