The Papal States (Gli Stati della Chiesa or Stati Pontificii, "States of the Church") comprised those territories over which the Pope was the ruler in a civil as well as a spiritual sense. This governing power is commonly called the temporal power of the Pope.

Table of contents
1 Origins
2 Existence
3 Condemned as Despotism
4 Rome: From Papal States to Italian Capital


Originally the term covered only those lands that made up the Patrimonium Sancti Petri (literally: St. Peter's patrimony), the private property of the Church. But from 754 Church control became more explicit, especially over the Duchy of Rome. After gaining territories and taking contested lands, the Church held them to avoid having to rely on external support that could limit the Pope's actions.

The Roman Catholic Church had been allowed to hold and transfer property only since 321. The private property grew greatly through the donations of the pious and the wealthy; the Lateran Palace was the first significant donation, a gift of Emperor Constantine I. Other donations soon followed, mainly in Italy around Syracuse, Palermo, Ravenna, and Genoa and also around Rome, but also on Sicily, in France, Africa, and in the East among other areas. Large gifts became less common after the 600s because economic and political conditions had changed. The Pope had become the largest landowner in Italy, a privilege that brought with it certain political issues and pressures.


The Papacy became a supporter of the Byzantine rulers over the Lombards, but also moved to protect the population of its territories, raising a Roman militia. The popular support for the Papacy in Italy enabled various Popes to defy the will of the emperor in Constantinople, marked in 715 by the election of Pope Gregory II. Nevertheless the Pope and the Exarch still strove to control the rising power of Lombardy in Italy, however the Papacy was taking a ever larger role in defending Rome, usually through diplomacy, threats and bribery. The Papacy's efforts served to focus Lombard aggrandizement on the Exarch and Ravenna.

When the Exarchate finally fell in 751, the Lombard threat to the Pope was neutralized by the support of Pepin the Short, who sent armies into Italy in 754 and 756. Pepin won back the conquered territories but gifted them all to Pope Stephen II rather than between the Pope and the Emperor. In 781 Charlemagne codified the regions over which the Pope would be temporal sovereign, the Duchy of Rome was key but the territory was expanded to include Ravenna, the Pentapolis, parts of the Duchy of Benevento, Tuscany, Corsica, Lombardy etc. and a number of Italian cities. The security of the states was initially guaranteed by the Frankish empire, a condition that was sometimes exploited.

During the Renaissance the papal territory expanded greatly, notably under Pope Innocent III and Pope Julius II. The Pope became one of Italy's most important secular rulers as well as the head of the Church. Much of the territory was only nominally controlled by the Pope, and most of the papal states were ruled by minor princes. Control was always contested, indeed it took until the 16th Century for the Pope to have any genuine control over all his territories, at which point the Pope's temporal power started to decline. Because of the weak control of the area the Papal States became one of the most lawless and poorest parts of Italy.

Condemned as Despotism

Despite endless invasions, intrigues and internal politicking the Papal States survived into the 19th Century (in 1860 the territory covered 41,500 kmē). The rise of Italian nationalism was the key factor. So also widespread allegations of human rights abuses against individual Jews and their community, with the Papal States being compared in public debates by leaders such as future British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone to oriental despotism.

Rome: From Papal States to Italian Capital

The Papal states took a severe blow in the revolutions of 1848-49, in which Pope Pius IX was temporarily overthrown and a Roman Republic declared. The final end did not come until their unilateral annexation (often described in Italian history books as a 'liberation') by Victor Emmanuel in 1870, (see Pope Pius IX). The Papacy did not accept the loss. The Pope, whose previous residence, the Quirinal Palace had become the royal palace of the Kings of Italy, withdrew in protest into the Vatican, where he lived as a self-proclaimed 'prisoner', refusing to leave or to set foot in St. Peter's Square, and ordering Catholics on pain of excommunication not to participate in elections in the new Italian state.

However the new Italian control of Rome did not wither, nor did the Catholic world come to the Pope's aid, as Pius IX expected. By the 1920s, the papacy abandoned its demand for a return of the Papal States and signed the Lateran Treaty (or Concordat with Rome) of 1929, which created the Holy See and Vatican City.

An example of the contested ownership of the Papal states can be seen in the following. Ancona was a Papal state 1137-1149, 1355-1797, 1802-1805, and 1814-1860. Bologna was a Papal state 1274-1401, 1403-1411, 1412-1416, 1420-1428, 1429-1438, 1506-1511, 1512-1796, and 1814-1859. Rimini was a Papal state 754-758, 769-774, 777-1063, 1122-1157, 1209-1275, 1278-1288, under Papal influence from 1290, under direct control 1331-1334, 1509-1522, returned to the Papacy in 1528, under Papal control 1528-1796, 1796-1797, 1814-1815, 1815-1831, 1831-1848, 1849-1860

See also: Donation of Constantine, Italian unification