With only 911 residents, in a mere 0.44 square kilometers, the Vatican City is the smallest sovereign nation in the world. By most standards, it wouldn't even count as a city. It doesn't even have any bodies of water! How the heck does this so called city get away with calling itself a country?
Well, the fact that it contains The Holy See, ruling body of the Roman Catholic Church, might have something to do with it. Its head of state, His Holiness the Pope, is responsible for the salvation of over 1 billion Catholics worldwide.
Located upon the Vatican hill, one of the famous seven hills of Rome, the Vatican City (the city itself at least) is located entirely within the city of Rome, Italy. The Vatican City is centered around Saint Peter's Basilica, the massive cathedral built in 1506, on the site of the previous Basilica, built on the site of the grave of Saint Peter the Apostle, first Bishop of Rome. In front of the Basilica stands the Vatican Obelisk, and just to the north of the Basilica stands the Sistine Chapel, the ceiling of which is one of the most impressive pieces of art yet created by man.
The Vatican City (the nation) also has some other smaller territories outside of Rome, including Castelgandolfo (The Pope's summer home), and the monastery on Mount Cassino.
The Vatican City also has museums displaying some of the works of art that it has collected over the decades. Oops, did I say decades? I meant millennia. And of course, the Vatican Palace, the residence of His Holy Father, and the headquarters of The Holy See.
The expenses of the Vatican City, $208 million USD annually according to the CIA, is paid by a combination of revenue from various gift shops, fees charged to tourists, and of donations supplied from Catholics throughout the world, known as Peter's Pence.
The Vatican City is the only country in the world which doesn't have any native citizens. For example, the current head of state, Karol Wojtyla, aka John Paul II, is a citizen of both Poland and of the Vatican City.
Update: John Paul II passed away on April 2, 2005. They haven't at the time of this update elected a new Pope. Update again: Now they have. It's his holiness, Pope Benedict XVI. You're all smart people, I'm sure you can figure out where to find out more info about him.
I would imagine it's also the only country whose official language is still Latin. The only passports that they issue are diplomatic passports. And diplomats they do have. The Vatican City maintains diplomatic relations with 174 countries throughout the world, as well as being a permanent observer to the United Nations. They are only an observer by choice, not wanting to meddle too much in politics. Any embassies to the Vatican City are hosted in Rome, due to the lack of space within the actual country. This includes Italy's own embassy.
The government of the Vatican City is the Holy See, and the head of state for the Vatican City is the Pope. He is elected for life, by the College of Cardinals, after the death of the previous Pope. Naturally, he's too busy being holy to run a country, no matter how small. So, he governs through the Pontifical Commission for the State of Vatican City, a body of The Holy See. This commission is appointed by the Pope, and is currently headed up by the Secretary of State, Cardinal Angelo Sodano. They administer the various functions of the state, including the newspaper, the radio station, the armed forces, the library, and the post office. Oh, and the gift shop, and the museums. Very important.
Oh, and I was just reminded about the mint. They've also got their own currency. I doubt that much of said currency ever actually gets spent, instead being taken home as souvenirs.
The Roman Catholic Church was not allowed to hold any property until 321. That changed with the first of the Christian Roman Emperors, Constantine I. In addition to allowing them to hold property, he gave them a palace, the Lateran Palace, next to which was built the Saint John Lateran Cathedral. This palace was the residence of the Pope from this time, until the time of the Avignon papacy, starting in 1309. Saint John Lateran is still the official Cathedral of the Bishop of Rome, aka the Pope, despite the fact that he resides at the Vatican now.
As well as the gift of the Lateran Palace, Constantine I also built the first incarnation of Saint Peter's Basilica. It was built at the Circus of Nero, which was where Christians were fed to lions, and such. They were also buried there. It is there that Saint Peter the Apostle was buried after he was martyred in 64 A.D.
As more and more people converted to Christianity, more people felt the need to get on the big guy's good side. One of the more popular ways of doing so was to give money and property to the Church. By the 7th century, the Roman Catholic Church had become the largest landowner in Italy. Now, with great power comes great responsibility, so the Church started raising militias to defend the people living and working in their territory. Being the Church, they were quite popular with the people, and this popular support soon turned into political power.
Especially after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. In 536, the city was captured by the Eastern Roman Empire, however they allowed the senate to administer the city. In 546, Rome was captured and sacked by the Ostrogoths, to be recaptured by the Eastern Roman Empire quickly, but not before the place was ransacked. They captured the city again in 549, and it was recovered only 3 years later.
After all this back and forth, the power of the senate was greatly reduced, leaving the Church to pick up the slack. While not officially in charge of Rome, the Pope was the man who actually wielded power. Over the years, many of the properties owned by the civil bureaucracy were absorbed by the Church.
Fast forward a couple decades, and Italy is invaded by the Lombards, who themselves are being invaded by the Franks. It's a bit of a mess, and the Emperor back in Constantinople has too much on his hands to help out Rome. So, the newly elected Pope Gregory I decides to negotiate a peace treaty with the Lombards, changing his own secular role from that of administration of Rome on behalf of the Eastern Roman Empire, to that of separate sovereign ruler, if only temporarily.
This started a centuries long tug of war between Constantinople and Rome, that culminated in 727 when Emperor Leo III issued a decree banning all religious icons. Now, if you've ever been in a Catholic church, you'll notice that they've got a fair number of statues of Jesus and Mary and various saints. So, needless to say, this order wasn't taken very kindly, and Pope Gregory II refused to enact it. Leo tried to force them to do so, but failed to capture Rome. So, instead he seized the Church's holdings in other areas of the Empire, and kicked Rome out of it.
The problem being that Rome now needed someone to keep the Lombards off their back. Pope Stephen III was able to convince the Frankish King Pepin III to get rid of them for him. And the Franks did. That was nice of them. That was in 756, after which there were still some power struggles between the nobility, the Pope, and the Holy Roman Emperor. Eventually, in 1434, the Pope won out, absorbing all of the government of Rome into the Church bureaucracy. During this period, known as the Papal States, the Pope controlled various other parts of Italy as well as Rome, generally including most of central Italy. At various times, the Papal Sates have been lost, and then later restored, such as when the Pope was forced to move to France, during the Avignon papacy. Other instances include times of insurrection, and times when France invaded, under Napoleon.
After returning from Avignon, Pope Martin V found the Pope's traditional residence at Saint John Lateran in ruins after a fire. So, they built a new palace at the Vatican hill, north of Saint Peter's Basilica. This new palace has remained the residence of the Pope ever since. Soon afterwards, Saint Peter's Basilica, which at 1182 years old, was also in some disrepair, and much too small for what was needed, was torn down, and construction on the current incarnation of the Basilica was started in 1506. It is then that the tradition of hiring Swiss Mercenaries to guard the Vatican, and the Pope himself started. To this day, the Papal Swiss Guard is responsible for guarding the entrances to the Vatican City, and for the personal safety of the Pope. This tradition became an obligation after the Battle of Marignan in 1515. Again, more about them in the proper place.
Sometimes, the guard wasn't enough. For example, during the sack of Rome in 1527, Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire gave permission for his troops to attack papal troops who were attacking one of his Italian allies. They assaulted Rome, and in the fight their general was killed. Leaderless, they took Rome, and spent a week raping and pillaging. Needless to say, the Pope tried to flee, escourted by his guard. Pope Clement VII was, however captured.
The reason that Charles did this, was to force the Pope to not allow the English King, Henry VIII to divorce Catherine of Aragon. Catherine was Charles' aunt you see. The whole capturing him thing made Clement rather pliable to Charles, who was however, rather embarassed about the whole sacking of Rome thing.
This disagreement, along with a growing anti-clergy sentiment amongst certain factions in England, eventually led to the establishment of the Church of England.
In 1848, there was a revolution, and Pope Pius IX was overthrown. A Roman Republic was started up, which wasn't to last. France and Austria came to the aid of Pius, and restored the Papal States. This wasn't to last however, as a decade later, France and Austria went to war. Austria was defeated, and rebellions broke out throughout the Papal States, leaving the Pope in control of only the area immediately around Rome.
Even this did not last. A man by the name of Victor Emmanuel, the King of Sardinia, had this crazy notion about a unified Italian state. So, he went about and did it, leaving Rome till the last. He annexed the city in 1870, and made it the capital. This pissed off Pius IX something fierce, who declared himself a prisoner in the Vatican, refusing to step foot outside of it, and threatening anyone who participated in the upcoming Italian elections with excommunication.
However, the Italian government was not about to relent, and the Italian people didn't really take the Pope's threat of excommunication seriously. And no one outside the country was rushing to restore the Roman Catholic Church to secular power. They weren't going to get Rome back, so they settled for a small piece of Rome. In 1929, Pope Pius XI signed the Lateran Treaty with the Italian Government, creating the Vatican City as a separate sovereign state. As well as the territory in its borders, the treaty also granted extraterritorial rights to several key Holy See properties, including some of the Basilicas around Rome, and the Pope's summer home, Castel Gandolfo.
Since then, the Vatican City has not been immune to controversy. The relationship between the Italian government and the Vatican City mostly broke down during the years leading up to World War II. The Vatican criticized Germany's Nazi government for their restriction of religious freedom. During the war itself, they tried their best to remain neutral, and to preserve as best they could the religious, artistic, and architectural marvels under their care.
There are those, however, who claim that the Vatican City knew about the holocaust long before it became apparent to the rest of the world, and remained silent about it. These allegations have never been fully resolved.
They have also had a seat as a non voting member of the United Nations. As mentioned above, this is by choice. They fulfill the requirements to become a full member of the UN, but feel their best role is that of a permanent observer. As well, they recently became a member of the World Trade Organization.
They are also one of the few countries in the world who recognizes the Republic of China, in exile on Taiwan, instead of the People's Republic of China. One of the main reason for this would be the PRC's crackdown on underground Catholic groups who recognize the authority of The Holy See, instead of the "official" Chinese Catholic Association, which does not.
Anyways, the Vatican City has been the stage for a great amount of important events throughout history, and is the repository for some of the most spectacular pieces of artwork and architechure in the world. It's also one of the few places you can get an official Popener. I wish I had one of those. So if you're ever in Rome and don't visit the Vatican City, even if you're a lapsed Catholic like me, or not Catholic at all, there's still something very wrong with your brain.
Pearson Education. "Vatican City (Holy See)" Infoplease. <www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0108136.html> (January 4, 2005).
Wikipedia. "Vatican City," Wikipedia, the free encylopedia. <en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vatican_City> (January 4, 2005).
Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations. "Short History," Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations. <www.holyseemission.org/short_history.html> (January 4, 2005).
Wikipedia. "Papal States," Wikipedia, the free encylopedia. <en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Papal_States> (January 4, 2005).
Viale Regina Margherita. "Vatican Palaces," Romeguide. <www.romeguide.it/FILES/palaces.htm> (January 4, 2005).
K. Knight. "Saint John Lateran," Catholic Encylopedia. 2004. <www.newadvent.org/cathen/09014b.htm> (January 4, 2005).
The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Papacy and the Vatican Palace," Timeline of Art History. 2000-2004. <www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/pope/hd_pope.htm> (January 4, 2005).