The Papal States were a series of territories in the Italian Peninsula under the direct sovereign rule of the Pope, from the 8th century until 1870. At their zenith, the Papal States covered most of Central Italy and some parts of France. These holdings were considered to be a manifestation of the temporal power of the pope, as opposed to his ecclesiastical primacy.

Historically the Papal States maintained military forces composed of volunteers and mercenaries. However, the rise of nationalism around the world began to erode the church's authority over its holdings. The papal states came to an end with the unification of Italy, which at the time was led by a staunch, anti-catholic. Today its authority extends only to the Vatican City in Rome. For this world I want the papal states to survive up to modern times, and have incorporated some changes throughout history to make the states more secure.

The Pope has generally had a contentious hold over these territories. The church's army was generally made up of volunteers and mercenaries, giving him a fairly weak grasp on power there. Papal states were often contested between the church and various emperors, and it was until the 16th century that the Pope had secured authority. The various regional components retained their identity under papal rule. The pope was represented in each province by a governor. Other titles like Papal Vicar, Vicar General, and several noble titles like "count" or even "prince" were used. However, throughout the Papal States' history many warlords and even bandit chieftains ruled cities and small duchies with no title bestowed by the Pope.

In this setting, I want the church to keep a significant standing army in all of its territories to secure them from invasion or internal rebellion. I also want local rulers to be church officials elected by the Pope directly, or some governing body of the church. This would give it more control over its holdings. In this sense, the states would become something resembling a theocracy, with the Pope at the head and various leaders connected to the church ruling in his stead. What would be the best way for him to go about this?


3 Answers 3


There was nothing pre-ordained or inevitable about the assemblage of the modern Italian state.

Today we speak of Italian unification, or, as Italians prefer to call it, the Resurgence (Risorgimento). But if we look at that particular series of fortunate events with dispassionate eyes, what we see is the conquest of the peninsula by the Kingdom of Sardinia. (As history is often inclined to irony, half of the territories the kings of Sardinia held at the beginning of the adventure are now in France.)

Italy in 1859 Italy in 1860 Italy in 1861

Expansion of the Kingdom of Sardinia into the Italian peninsula, from 1859 to 1861. Kingdom of Sardinia in orange. Papal States in red. Yellow-green is the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Maps by Maps & Lucy, available on Wikimedia under the CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported license.

Once the conquest of the peninsula was (almost) complete, the Kingdom of Sardinia changed its name into the Kingdom of Italy, the conquest was reclassified as unification, and the peoples of Italy, who spoke different and dissimilar languages were told that they were all Italians and all their languages were mere dialects of Italian. If they pretended to be unable to understand the supposedly common language all they had to do was go to school and learn it.

The history of how the Kingdom of Sicily came to annex one by one all the polities in Italy is both complex and complicated, but, if we apply a suitable dose of reductionism, we can (unjustly, but close enough for alternate history work) say that it was brought about by two men: the consummate politician Camillo Cavour, prime minister of the Kingdom of Sardinia, and the ultimate daredevil Giuseppe Garibaldi, aided and abetted by emperor Napoleon III of France, who successfully obtained Savoy and Nice for his services.

While I cannot see how the end result of Cavour's machinations could be a two-state solution, with the Papal States remaining independent in an otherwise unified Italy, I can easily see a three state solution, with Italy divided between a Kingdom of Northern Italy, the Papal States, and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in the south.

Once Cavour managed to broker the trade where France would help the Kingdom of Sardinia in the war against Austria (which held Lombardy and Venetia) in exchange for Nice and Savoy, there was nothing anybody could do to prevent the annexation of all the small polities north of the Papal States. But at this point, the expansion of the northerners could have been stopped.

The Papal States were rich. The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies was populous, and had a larger army than the northern invaders. Should Pope Pius IX receive a modicum of political foresight, he should have forged a real and functional alliance with the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies; should king Ferdinand II have been endowed with just a little bit of political acumen, used his available time to root out the corrupt and incompetent officers from his army, avoided being perceived as a tyrant, and managed to live longer than his 49 years, such an alliance would have stopped the northern progression in its tracks. All they had to do was kick the can down the road for ten more years; if the Papal States / Kingdom of the Two Sicilies had succeed in keeping the northerners in check for just ten years (to the Franco-Prussian war of 1870) they would have had a sporting chance of making it into the 20th century.

(Note that the Papal States and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies did have an alliance. It was so disfunctional that their combined armies managed to lose Sicily to Garibaldi's one thousand volunteers.)

As it actually was, Pope Pius IX and King Ferdinand II were abysmal statesmen; the death of king Ferdinand II in 1859 did not help. In 1861 Garibaldi invaded the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies with a ridiculously small force of one thousand men. The one thousand Red Shirts defeated at Catalafimi in Sicily an army which outnumbered them 2 to 1, and then proceeded to take Palermo against a garrison 16,000 strong, allowing Garibaldi to raise an army in Sicily; the rest is patriotic history.

  • $\begingroup$ Your last paragraph is the great story of alternate history, replace the incompetent with the competent and the outcome would be very different. But then the popes are the origin of the term "nepotism", so it's hardly likely that it could happen. $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Dec 29, 2018 at 9:14

Have the Pope cause Italian reunification on his terms.

Decades or even centuries before the 1870 events, have the full authority of the Church support an Italian unification as a confederation of strong provinces/states, with the Papal State being a special case. This might involve rallying the Italians against the French in the Revolutionary Wars, or translating their participation in the Congress of Vienna into fighting for Italian interest.

The problem with this is that it involves the Papal State in secular affairs, but that seems inevitable if it wants to survive. There would also be the question of a domestic democracy movement, but several autocracies survived that long. There might be a safety valve if Papal citizens can easily migrate to non-Papal parts of Italy if they dislike church rule, or vice versa if they are pious or dislike their secular government.

  • $\begingroup$ The original militarization of the church under Pope Gregory came about because "If the secular authorities couldn't look after the security of the people, then it was the church's duty to intervene". There is historical precedent for the Church involving itself constructively in the matters of the secular world. $\endgroup$
    – pojo-guy
    Dec 29, 2018 at 3:30

Napoleon III would have to be crushed much earlier or the austrians had to be much stronger. That means that if the franco-prussian war had started much earlier and the prussians still managed to win or if the austrians defeated the prussians in the 7 weeks war and were much more efficient in supressing the revolts in 1848 or if the british and the french somehow botched their diplomacy and went to war, maybe because of the partition of the Ottoman Empire, there would be no french support to Sardinia-Piemont. Without that support they wouldn't be able to conquer Lombardia or the Two Sicilies and the italian region would be divided in Sardinia-Piemont, Tuscany, Papal States and Two Sicilies. Of course, none of these small countries would be able to industrialize and would be forever small, weak countries pushed around by bigger neighbours, like greece or the balcanic countries.

Also, you have to think on how would the Papal States survive the Great War. That some kind of large scale conflict would happen in Europe when you mix militaristic, agressive diplomacy, with industrial scale warfare, something like the Seven Years War but with steam turbines, long-range artillery and repeating guns. In this kind of conflict, that in our timeline erupted in 1914, small countries are unable to do anything, are unable to resist. Italy would become a battlefield between France and Austria if they were in oposite sides and the most probable result would be the small states of Italy, including the Papal States, ending up as occupied territory. The state that, due to luck, ended up as an Ally of the victors in the Great War would take all, like Serbia took the austrian fragments in the Balkans and formed Yugoslavia. So, your Papal States will have to take sides and it's side must win, and, in victory, the pope will have to show restraint to refuse the spoils. And pray, when the next great war comes because the instability the first one caused brought all kinds of strange, weird revolutionary ideas. (For example, a defeated France could become communist and in the next great war it will be the red french army that will march in Vienna).

TLDR - You need a weak France and strong Austria to have a Papal States all the way to the Great War. Beyond the Great War, it becomes harder and harder for small, weak states, to survive in that neighborhood.


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