Looking for a brief history of Vatican City?
For a place so ancient, so complex, so influential, this may seem impossible. Let’s dig in as we touch on the most interesting and pertinent chapters in this brief history of Vatican City:
On this page you’ll find a brief history of:
Where did the word “Vatican” come from?
From the founding of Rome (753 BCE) through to the end of the Roman Republic (27 BCE), the hill on the west bank of the Tiber River was referred to as Ager Vaticanus.
The Ager Vaticanus hill acted as a boundary between Rome and the city of Veii, home of the Roman’s rivals, the Etruscans.
Ager is Latin for “land”. The etymology of the word “Vaticanus” is less clear. There are several theories, including that the word has Latin or Etruscan roots, but we do not know the exact origin.
Ager Vaticanus was also referred to as the Antipolis (Greek for "anti-city"), since THE city was Rome on Capitoline Hill.
During the Roman empire, the Romans referred to this hilly area as Vaticanum.
The Vaticanum had villas and gardens of the rich and powerful. The emperor Caligula (third emperor of Rome, 37 – 41 CE) built a large circus there.
In 64 CE there was a huge fire in Rome that lasted nearly 10 days and destroyed more than 2/3 of Rome.
According to the historian Tacitus, who was a child when the fire occurred, Nero started the fire himself, presumably so he could rebuild Rome in his image and construct his massive Golden House (Domus Aurea.)
He then decided to persecute Christians as scapegoats. One of the people he is said to have had murdered is Saint Peter.
If you are interested in visiting the Golden House of Nero with a guided tour, you can check the offers here.
Christian tradition holds that St. Peter was crucified in Nero’s Circus, which was more or less where the Vatican is today.
The obelisk you see in the square today had been brought to Rome from Egypt by Caligula.
It stood not far from where it stands today, and would have been “witness” to the martyrdom of Saint Peter. (The obelisk was moved about 300 meters/800 feet, in the 16th century. To find out how and why, visit my page here.)
Saint Peter asked to be crucified upside down, because, he said, he was not worthy of the same martyrdom as his lord.
You can see depictions of this in art. One of the most famous is that of Caravaggio, inside the Cerasi chapel of the basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo.
From the founding of Rome through most of the Roman Empire, it was illegal to bury anyone inside the city. (This is why you find the catacombs outside what was once the city of Rome. You can easily visit the catacombs.)
The Vaticanum was technically outside the city of Rome, so people were buried there in what became known as the Vatican Necropolis (city of the dead). One of those buried here is said to be Saint Peter.
Despite the efforts of Nero and other Roman emperors, Christianity was taking hold. Many Christians wanted to be buried near Saint Peter.
In the early middle ages, many popes were in fact buried under St. Peter’s Basilica. Some popes were buried elsewhere, such as in the catacombs, and in the basilica of Saint John in Lateran.
But many were buried near the tomb of Saint Peter.
Unfortunately, many tombs of popes from this era were destroyed over the years, either through accidental fire or sacking by marauding hordes.
Many were also moved around, and sometimes lost.
Over 100 of the earliest papal tombs in St. Peter’s Basilica were destroyed simply because the basilica was taken down to make room for the new one in the Renaissance. Some of those tombs survived and are in the Vatican Grottoes. And later popes have been buried in the grottoes as well.
You can easily visit the grottoes underneath St. Peter’s dome. It’s part of your visit to Saint Peter’s Basilica itself which is free.
Want to skip the line? You can if you book ahead.
Emperor Constantine (306 – 337 CE) was the first Roman emperor to sanction Christianity as one of the official religions of the empire, and (supposedly) the first to convert to Christianity.
He declared a church should be built on top of the resting place of the Apostle Peter. There were two problems with this:
First, the necropolis was meant to be protected and exempt from any destruction/construction projects.
Second, the site of Peter’s burial was on a sloping hill, which would need to be levelled in order to create the base for a church.
In any case, Constantine was emperor and he pretty much got to decide. Construction of Constantine’s new basilica began in about 319 – 322 CE, and took about 30 years to complete.
At this time, Christianity was growing in popularity, and the church, sitting on top of the Apostle Peter’s grave, became a popular pilgrimage site.
This in turn caused the area to turn into a bustling residential and commercial area.
The focus of the entire church at the time was a small shrine shaped like a fireplace. This shrine supposedly held the bones of St. Peter. The small monument was topped by a baldachin (canopy) with 4 twisted columns from the 2nd century. Twelve more of these columns surrounded the tomb.
The twisted columns represented the temple of Solomon, as it, too, supposedly had these types of columns. It’s possible (but highly unlikely) they even came from the temple of Solomon itself.
Centuries later, despite much of Constantine’s basilica being razed to create a new basilica, Gian Lorenzo Bernini made use of 4 of these columns to decorate the inside.
In the early Middle Ages, the church was used as a gathering place for the faithful, but also as a place for many rituals that were pagan in origin.
The church was open 24 hours a day and acted more as a focal point for the community than what we think of as a church today.
Once Constantine built his basilica, and pilgrims began coming to Rome, people started donating goods and lands to the Church, making it one of the largest landholders in Europe. This gave the Church and the papacy more and more legitimacy.
Another thing that helped seal the power of the Church was the famed “Donation of Constantine”, in which the Emperor Constantine gave Pope Sylvester sovereignty over both the Eastern and Western empires where religion was concerned.
In 1440, this document was proved to be a forgery as the Latin used was not that of the 4th century but rather of the 8th century.
But by then, the power of the Church in Europe was too strong for it to matter.
In the 8th century, donations from the Carolingian rulers, first Pepin the Short, then his son, Charlemagne, helped further solidify papal power. The Papal States was born, and lasted until the unification of Italy in 1870.
One thing the basilica was used for was formal coronations.
On the evening of December 25, 800 CE, Charlemagne was crowned emperor of the Holy Roman Empire by Pope Leo III. This took place on a large porphyry circular stone, which you can see right at the entrance of Saint Peter’s Basilica when you visit today.
Since the founding of Rome, the city was often under attack. The Middle Ages were no exception.
In 846, Saracen pirates sacked the basilica.
They were trying for the city of Rome, but Rome was impenetrable due to its defensive walls (the Aurelian walls.)
On the other hand, St. Peter’s Basilica (along with that of Saint Paul’s) were without any protection whatsoever, so it was easier to pillage those structures.
The pirates destroyed Saint Peter’s tomb and other important parts of the building, and stole many of the most valuable items inside.
Soon thereafter, Pope Leo IV had defensive walls built around Saint Peter’s Basilica. They created a 2-mile boundary for what would become known as the Leonine city.
The 39-foot high walls were called the Leonine Walls.
You can still see remnants of them in Rome. Part of this wall is inside the Vatican Gardens, and part of the wall runs along the Borgo between the basilica and Castel Sant’Angelo.
Eventually gates were opened in these walls, allowing access to the Leonine (Vatican) city.
The walls were continually expanded and modified through to the reign of Pope Urban VIII in the 1640s.
Today you can see many remnants of these walls from different centuries. You might see the papal coat of arms indicating which pope was in charge of a particular modification.
But the walls are there today as a part of history, and not at all to keep people out.
Today there are 6 entrances to Vatican City. Three of them are open to the public.
The main entrance to Vatican City is Saint Peter’s Square.
In fact, the only thing separating you from Vatican City is a thin white line in the pavement that you can see as you step into the square.
No passport required.
In 1309, the Papal court moved to Avignon, France. It remained there until 1377, when it moved back to Rome.
The Avignon Papacy arose due to a conflict over who had more power, the pope or the king of France.
During a conclave to elect the next pope in Rome, French king Philip IV went behind everyone’s backs and elected a French pope, Clement V, in 1305. Pope Clement V, who was French, decided to keep the papal court in Avignon, and it stayed there for nearly 70 years.
Seven French popes reigned in Avignon but in 1376, Pope Gregory XI moved the court back to Rome.
In any case, during the Avignon Papacy, the nearly 70 years of abandonment had taken a toll on Rome.
The city was in ruin. St. Peter’s Basilica and the surrounding buildings had fallen into disrepair.
In the mid 1400s, Pope Nicholas V decided to live permanently inside Vatican City. He had the old Apostolic Palace destroyed and a new one built (the one you see today.)
His book collection began the Vatican Library.
Nicholas V also wanted to expand and improve St. Peter’s Basilica, but he never quite got around to it.
In the 1470s, Pope Sixtus IV (della Rovere) began work on a chapel that would be named for him, the Sistine Chapel. Read more about the Sistine Chapel here.
At the end of the 1400s, Pope Julius II (the nephew of Pope Sixtus IV) also began thinking of plans to preserve the 1200-year old basilica.
But it was becoming evident that the basilica was beyond repair.
It was even leaning to one side. To top it all off, Julius had commissioned Michelangelo to design a grand tomb for himself. This tomb would be so enormous and heavy, it would not have fit inside the existing basilica.
Julius began to consult his favorite architect, Donato Bramante, for ideas to create a new basilica.
This was shocking at the time, since the basilica in place was connected to Saint Peter and his martyrdom. But as it was next to impossible to repair the basilica, the decision was to keep the tomb of the apostle while creating a new, sound, and more beautiful structure around it.
Pope Julius died in 1513, as did Bramante. Subsequent popes consulted many Renaissance architects to come up with a design for the new basilica. These included Antonio San Gallo and Raphael.
Eventually the entire task was entrusted to a 70-something Michelangelo in the mid 1500s.
While he was no fan of Bramante or Raphael, Michelangelo did adhere to their original idea of a Greek-cross design for the new building (a Greek cross has 4 equal arms, while a Latin cross has two long arms and two shorter arms.)
Later architects Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Carlo Maderno added a long nave, returning the church’s shape to a Latin cross. This had the effect of making Michelangelo’s dome hard to see from Saint Peter’s Square.
Read more history of:
Giacomo della Porta completed St. Peter’s celebrated dome in 1590, and work on the grand structure finally finished in 1626.
Pope Julius was also responsible for establishing two other very important aspects of today’s Vatican – The Vatican Museums and the Swiss Guard.
Pope Julius II began collecting antiquities that were being unearthed at the time. The first of these was the Laocoön which you can see today in the Octagonal Courtyard of the Vatican Museums.
Pope Julius II’s collection was not available for the masses.
The museums only became a visitable entity in 1773 under Pope Clement XIV. Several popes expanded and added to the museums over the centuries, with different types of art and sculpture in different wings.
This is why they are called the Vatican Museums and not the Vatican museum.
Pope Julius II was the last pope to fight in battle. In fact, he chose his Papal name not as an homage to the first Pope Julius but to Julius Caesar. His nickname was “the warrior pope.”
In the 1500’s when Julius was pope, there was a lot of turmoil between the Papal States and other parts of Europe.
The pope knew that the French king had 100 Swiss troops.
The Swiss were known for their fierce fighting and for their loyalty. Julius recruited 200 Swiss men to form a corps to guard him. These men entered Rome on January 22 1506, considered the date of the founding of what is today known as the Pontifical Swiss Guard.
There have been other armed forces protecting the Vatican over the centuries, such as the Noble Guard, the Palatine Guard, and the Papal Gendarmerie Corps. Today only the Swiss Guard remains as an armed force.
While they may seem purely ceremonial, the Swiss Guard are in fact highly trained and are there to protect the pope. They guard his home and his person including when he travels.
The Gendarme Corps is a civil organization and is responsible for all police activity.
When you visit St. Peter’s Basilica, you will see the Swiss Guard who are usually standing still at a gate. You will also see the gendarmes who patrol the basilica and the grounds.
When you visit the Vatican Museums, you will see Vatican guards, another civil corps.
Their duty is to protect the museums and to maintain order and ensure people follow the rules, including, most famously, no photos in the Sistine Chapel.
On May 6, 1527, troops loyal to Charles V, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, mutinied over unpaid wages.
These mostly German soldiers, along with Spanish and Italian mercenaries, didn’t just sack Rome but nearly razed it to the ground. The attack was savage and vicious, far more than a simple taking-over of the city.
Of the 189 Swiss Guard, 147 of them died in front of Saint Peter’s Basilica protecting Pope Clement VII (Medici).
The pope managed to escape with the other 42 Swiss Guards by using the passageway on top of the Leonine Walls that led to the fortress of Castel Sant’Angelo.
The Imperial troops consisted of around 20,000 men and they easily overtook the meager Roman militia and Swiss Guard. The Roman Walls proved little help in resisting their advance into the city.
Pope Clement VII eventually paid a ransom of 400,000 ducati to save his life and leave Castel Sant’Angelo. He also gave up Papal territories to the Holy Roman Empire. The Republic of Venice also took advantage of the situation and seized other territories.
The Sack of Rome in 1527 was an event that dramatically altered the course of history.
King Charles V and Pope Clement VII were not enemies before or after the attack, but their relationship was changed permanently.
Clement VII was humiliated and weakened by his experience. In order to avoid any further conflict, even of a diplomatic sort, the pope did everything Charles V wanted.
One of the major decisions the pope took was to refuse to grant England’s King Henry VIII an annulment of his marriage to Charles V’saunt, Catherine of Aragon. This in turn caused King Henry to break with Rome, leading to the English Reformation.
This was pretty much the end of the Roman Renaissance, even though Michelangelo would go on to paint his Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel.
But even he was affected by the calamity of the Sack of Rome and it darkened his mood further, something you can see reflected in the painting style in the Last Judgement compared to the work he did when he painted the ceiling as a young man.
While the Renaissance was a time of enlightenment, art, learning, and growth, the period after the Sack of Rome was much more somber, due to the Church’s need to fiercely promote the Counter-Reformation in response to the rise of Protestant reformations in England and Germany.
This led to the annexing of Rome’s Jews to the Ghetto (1555), the Spanish Inquisition, and other draconian measures across the territory the Church still controlled.
1527 was a very dark time for Rome and the Vatican.
The population dropped to fewer than 10,000 people. Some 6-12,000 people perished in the attack but many more died later from disease due to dead bodies left to rot in the streets. More still left the city due to lack of food and funds. It was pretty bleak.
Obviously, Rome and the Vatican eventually recovered, but there was a long period of hardship for those who remained.
To mark this somber anniversary and to commemorate their fallen brethren, every year on May 6 the newest Swiss Guard recruits are inducted in a ceremony inside the Vatican (not open to the public.)
In the 1400s, Pope Nicholas V had decided to rebuild the Apostolic Palace and he had the one built by Pope Symmachus torn down.
Pope Nicholas did not get far but he did succeed in having a private chapel built.
This chapel was frescoed by the premier artist of the day, Fra Angelico.
You can visit this chapel on a special tour of the Vatican Museums secret rooms. Most of the Apostolic Palace you see today was built under Pope Sixtus V in the late 1580s, and subsequent popes.
The Apostolic Palace is a large complex where the pope lives (usually.)
It consists of the Papal Apartments, the Vatican Museums including the Sistine Chapel and the Raphael rooms, the Vatican library, administrative offices, chapels, and more.
There are over 1000 rooms in the Apostolic Palace.
Most Sundays, you can watch the pope give the Angelus from a window of the Apostolic Palace.
The Papal States were a series of territories in what is today Italy, that were under the direct jurisdiction of the pope.
The Papal States endured from the 8th century until 1870, when a unified Italy claimed all land outside Vatican Walls.
At their peak, the Papal States had over 3 million citizens and included the regions we know today as Lazio (where Rome is), parts of Umbria, le Marche, and Emilia Romagna.
The Papal States definitely did NOT include Florence.
This is the topic of another chapter in history. For more on this, visit my page about Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel.
In 1850, King Victor Emmanuel II began to consolidate all of Italy under one government. He would become the first king of a unified Italy.
The largest state, and the last holdout to joining a unified Italy, was the Papal States.
The king began annexing pieces of the Papal States, bit by bit, until all that was left was Rome.
The domain of the Holy See had shrunk from an area of around 18,000 square miles to the area inside the Vatican Walls.
On September 20, 1870, the king’s army forcibly occupied Rome. (We have a street in Rome to mark this date, via XX Settembre.)
The pope at the time was Pius IX (1846 – 1878). The king offered various concessions to the pope if he would acknowledge the new Italian state and agree to the annexation of the Papal States (which had already occurred anyway.)
The pope refused, as the compromise did not allow for absolute power of the Holy See over not only the Church but also the physical territory it still owned, i.e. the Vatican.
Pope Pius IX and the next 4 popes secluded themselves in the Vatican for 59 years, proclaiming themselves “prisoners of the Vatican.”
They refused to legitimize the Italian government or its rights to the Papal States (even if the Vatican had lost control of those territories already.) This became known as “The Roman Question.”
In 1927, the King’s prime minister Benito Mussolini entered into new negotiations with Pope Pius XI (1922 – 1939).
By this time, it had become apparent that most Italians wanted peace between the two. Also, most Italians were Roman Catholic, so it made sense to find a way for the two entities to rule in harmony.
On February 11,1929, Italy and the Vatican signed the Lateran pact.
The Holy See acknowledged the legitimacy of the Italian government and its right to the Papal States.
Vatican City was created as part of the Lateran pact. Italy agreed to recognize the Vatican City as a sovereign nation, independent of Italy, with the pope as its head of state.
Italy financially compensated the new city-state with money and property in other parts of Rome, and also provided them with a train station, telephone and telegraph office, radio station, and post office.
Italy adopted many rules of the Church as Italian law. These included marriage laws and religious teaching in public schools.
At the time, many thought that the Vatican had just legitimized a fascist government. (Some people today continue to agree with this assessment.)
The Italian government in turn had hoped that the accord would diminish the role of the pope as temporal ruler. Clearly this did not turn out to be the case, as the pope today is considered a world leader with considerable influence and clout.
In 1984, the state of Italy abandoned some of the Vatican’s laws and eliminated Catholicism as the official religion of Italy, and made Catholic schooling for children optional.