When you come to Rome and visit Vatican City, you are technically leaving Italy and entering a new country. Don’t worry, there’s no need to bring your passport to get into the Vatican. However, knowing that this is technically a border can lead a lot of people to wonder: why is Vatican City a country?
The Vatican became a country in 1929. This makes the Vatican officially the smallest country in the world by both size and population. Vatican City has a population of just under 1,000 people and a size of 108 acres, with the Pope at its head of government.
The Vatican is also the country with the smallest army in the world. 110 Swiss Guards go through a rigorous training and selection process to become Vatican citizens and to carry on the important tradition of protecting the Vatican.
While it might immediately feel like you are entering a new country when you step out of Italy and into Vatican City, rest assured that the Vatican acts independently in a way that much larger countries do too. Vatican City mint its own money, has its own flag, operates its own post office, prints its own stamps and it even has its own national anthem. There is also a running joke that it is the only country in the world with a zero birth rate but this is not exactly true as some of the Swiss Guards are allowed to marry and have families. The Vatican is, however, the only country that closes down at night.
Road to Independence
So why did the Vatican become a country 90 years ago? Up until 1871, Italy was divided into many separate states. One of these states was the Papal lands which covered around one-third of Italy and was ruled by the Pope. When Italy became one unified country, the Pope lost a great deal of territory and power. The first capital of Italy was chosen as Turin, but the capital was quickly moved to Rome. With a new government just down the street, the Popes felt their loss of power immensely and began to feel imprisoned inside the Vatican.
To settle what was called the “Roman question,” on the 11th of February, 1929 the Lateran Treaty (named after the palace where the ceremony for the treaty took place) was signed between Pope Pius XI and the dictator Benito Mussolini. This would keep the Pope from interfering in any political decisions that would be made in the unified country of Italy and give the Vatican the sovereignty it sought as an independent country. This is why the Vatican is a country today.
Much of Vatican City is hidden by walls and impossible to enter as a non-citizen or invited guest. However, when you step on to St. Peter’s Square, you will be in the smallest country in the world. To really get inside the Vatican borders, visit the Vatican Museums. You won’t have to deal with immigration officers, but you will have to go through security.