Drawing of the Pontifical Army Tabella

Popes have always had their own private armies, as did the Emperor Constantine: after the Edict of Milan promulgation in 313 A.D., he gave to Pope Miltiades (311-314) and then to his successor Pope Sylvester (314-355) a group of armed soldiers for the defense of and honorable service to His Holiness. 

The first group of twenty-five armed soldiers from the Middle Ages increased in members over decades, becoming a legitimate army to be conveniently used by the Pope. Pope Julius II (1503-1513) did not hesitate to employ his army to fight his enemies. Pope Pius V (1566-1572) succeeded in Lepanto thanks in part to this armed force in 1571. In the 1700’s, based on the reforms passed by Cardinal Alberoni, commanders were chosen from the members of noble papal families rather than by a military merit. After its defeat in the War of Spanish Succession, the Pontifical Army, which was generally ignored by the Pontifical Government, dwindled to a thousand soldiers who spent most of their time defending garrisons. With these changes made to the Pontifical Army in the eighteenth century, it is understandable how Napoleon’s “Army of Italy” was able to conquer the Vatican. 

Napoleon’s French supremacy spread through Italy, unfettered by the Pontifical Army’s presence. Soon the towns of Loreto and Ancona capitulated. On June 23, 1796 Pope Pius VI (1775-1799) signed a mortifying armistice in Bologna. On that day, the Pope not only ceded the regions of Bologna, Ancona, Ferrara, Forlì, and Ravenna, but also paid twenty-one million ecus and ceded hundreds of artworks and valuable manuscripts from the Vatican Museum and Library to Napoleon.

This general framework of Pope Pius VI’s troops, recently rediscovered in the storage of the Historical Collections Department, is a rarity of historical documentation in that it provides information as to how the Pontifical Army was composed at the time of Pope Pius VI-its original structure, its various military units before being defeated by the French army, its role in Papal State territory and the number of soldiers and officials it contained.