Book ReviewsThe Pope’s Legion: the multinational fighting force that defended the Vatican

Book written by:  Charles A. Coulombe

Many people know that the Pope exists and that he is the head of the Catholic Church.  However, many do not realize that he is also a sovereign and head of a country.  His country, Vatican City or the Holy See, is the smallest country in the world with only 100 acres surrounded by Rome.  However, it has not always been this way.  In the past, the Holy Father was not only the head of the Catholic Church, but he also was the temporal ruler of land in the central part of present-day Italy and had territory in other places in Europe such as Avignon in present-day France.  These territories were called the Papal States.  The Papal States may have started when Pope St. Gregory the Great (590-604) had to watch over the city of Rome while the emperor was away an unable to care for Rome’s security and other needs.  Pope St. Gregory stepped in and so the papal monarchy began. 

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 the unity of the Italian peninsula.  This unification process also involved not only the Papal States, but other countries such as France and Austria were concerned since they had vested interests in the peninsula. 

The leaders of Italian unification were King Victor Emmanuel II of Sardinia and Giuseppe Garibaldi.  Garibaldi was a loose cannon that the king would let loose to wreak havoc on Italian duchies and the Kingdom of Naples and the Papal States.  He also served as a fall-guy when things did not go as planned.  During the 1860s the Italian peninsula was pretty much united under King Victor Emmanuel’s rule, except for 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 much smaller than that of the Italians.  Because the Pope was unwilling to draft men into his army, it was made up of volunteers.  These volunteers did not only include Italians, but also those of other countries.  This book is about the non-Italians who served in the Papal army called the Zouaves. 

This book by Charles Coulombe gives the history of the Pontifical Zouaves who served the Pope.  Many of these Zouaves were from France, but some were from other countries such as Ireland, England, Germany, Austria, Poland, Spain, Canada, and others.  Recruiters went to various countries to recruit men – they had to be Catholics of good repute and loyal to the Church.  Recruiters to the United States were discouraged to recruit there by bishops and other Catholic leaders because American Catholics were still considered to be more loyal to the Pope than to the United States.  The French were the most numerous in the Zouaves. They also held many of the command positions. 

Many of the Zouaves served because they were loyal to the Church and were willing to give their lives to protect the Holy Father.  They had ideas of chivalry and adventure.  The Zouaves fought alongside the other Papal units like the Swiss Guard, the Noble Guard and such.  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 he did not want to give up without a fight.  He had his armies put up a defense against overwhelming numbers, but eventually they surrendered Rome to the Italians.  The Pope then moved to the Vatican and considered himself a prisoner there.  The subsequent Popes considered themselves prisoners in the Vatican until the Lateran Treaty of 1929 was signed between Italy and the Holy See.

Charles Coulombe’s presentation of the history of the Papal Zouaves is very important since their story and their sacrifice for the Church had nearly been lost.  The narrative flows very well and the stories of individuals are intriguing.  Coulombe not only explains the story of the Zouaves, but it also describes the story of the unification of Italy and the final days of the Papal States. 

The centerfold includes pictures of some of the Zouaves and paintings of them and their battles. The appendices include songs of the Zouaves, a list of Zouave sites around the world, and a homily given to honor the Zouaves in 2007.  The book is not overly academic and it is not a dry history textbook. 

Those interested in Catholic Church history, Italian history, Zouaves, military history, and the Popes will enjoy this book.  It is highly recommended to them. This book will help preserve 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 of other books and articles.  He is a commentator for ABC News and a former contributing editor of the National Catholic Register.

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