September 11 – Italian army invades the Papal State without a declaration of war

September 9, 2013

The King of Italy sends an ultimatum to Blessed Pope Pius IX


As the French military situation deteriorated [in the Franco-Prussian War], the government in Florence grew bolder. Near the end of August [1870], the Italian cabinet issued a circular letter to all the governments of Europe, in which it declared that the time had come to end the Roman Question. On the one hand, the document declared that it was time to fulfill the “legitimate aspirations” of the Italian people; on the other, that “the independence, the freedom, and the spiritual authority of the Pope,” had to be safeguarded. The greatest threat to Italy, in the cabinet’s opinion, was neither its own perfidy nor the revolutionaries’ violence, but—the Pontifical Zouaves!

Two Papal Zouave brothers

Two Papal Zouave brothers

As one Zouave wrote of this remarkable message some years later, “the wolf told the story of the crimes of the lamb!” The circular ended with a list of guarantees to the Pope: in essence that he would retain control of the Eternal city and be independent in his dealings, and that neither he nor the current Papal State would be held to the restrictions on religious institutions and property in the Law of 1866…. Pope Pius’s and his secretary of state Antonelli’s response to this document, as expected, was scathing, but it was apparent that invasion was not far off.

Pope Pius IX

On September 6, Pius IX held a council of cardinals to discuss strategies. Three possible avenues were looked at. The Pope might accept the Italian guarantees, try to carry on the government of the Church as he could, and trust to the government’s honesty; he might leave Rome for Malta, Trieste, or Innsbruck, and carry on in exile; or, he might stay, make an armed protest, withdraw to the Vatican, refuse to recognize the new situation, and hope for better times. The last course was decided upon. Pius would refuse to surrender the city, would make only so much of an armed demonstration as was necessary to show the world that the Italians were guilty of aggression, and would stay in the city so long as he physically could.

Victor EmanuelI II

Victor Emmanuel, by this stage bothered by his conscience, wrote a long letter to Pius asking him to accept the occupation peacefully. The king mentioned his conscience repeatedly in the note, but the letter was read by a Pontiff who had spent most of his reign suffering from the king’s policies. Pius sent a curt refusal in reply.


Without a declaration of war, on September 11 the Italian army invaded the Papal State.

Pope Pius IX blesses his troops for the last time before the Capture of Rome, April 25, 1870.

Pope Pius IX blesses his troops for the last time before the Capture of Rome, April 25, 1870.

Charles A. Coulombe, The Pope’s Legion: The Multinational Fighting Force that Defended the Vatican (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008), pp. 151-152.


Also of interest:

Two Feminine Ideals

Athanase de Charette and the Battle of Mentana

An officer of the Pontifical Zouaves defends Congo Catholics and defeats the Arab slave traders

Queen Maria Theresa of Naples dies in the rescue of cholera-stricken Albano

General Juchault de Lamoricière: “Christianity is…the animating principle of civilization”

The Virgin Mary appears to General Gaston de Sonis after his army’s losses at Patay promising that France will survive


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