Sprawling over just 100 acres, Vatican City is the smallest country in the world. This region was a part of Rome for the longest time (200 years to be precise) but it gained independence in 1929 and since then been governed as an absolute monarchy with the pope being the head. Covering approximately one-eighth the size of the NY Central Park - you can explore this country within just a few hours. The best part? You don’t even need a visa!
During the Roman Republic, the name “Vatican” referred to the Ager Vaticanus, a small hill and a plain on the west bank of river Tiber. This neighborhood was largely uninhabited thanks to its close proximity to the Etruscan city of Veii as well as the floods of the Tiber that would flow into the city. After the 1st century AD, the name Vaticanus, referring to the area including the Vatican hill, today's St. Peter's Square, and possibly today's Via della Conciliazione began being used.
Between 14 BC and 33 AD, Agrippina the Elder had the marshy area drained and gardens were laid. Her son, Emperor Caligula built a circus for charioteers in this garden. The Obelisk that stands in St. Peter’s Square was taken by Caligula from Egypt to decorate the circus. The work was completed by Nero and this came to be known as the Circus of Nero. The area became a site of martyrdom for many Christians, including St. Peter, as per ancient traditions.
The Constantinian basilica was built in 326 over what was believed to be the tomb of Saint Peter. A palace was constructed in the 5th century during the papacy of Pope Symmachus. Between 318 and 322 C.E. the construction of the first church - St. Old Peter's Basilica - began.
Over time, the Popes began governing neighboring regions and, until the mid-19th century ruled a large portion of the Italian peninsula that came to be referred to as the Papal States. During this time the Popes lived at the Lateran Palace and, later, the Quirinal Palace. Between 1309- 1377 the papal residence was at Avignon in France.
In 1870, the different states within the Italian peninsula were unified under King Victor Emmanuel II. This also marked a period of uncertainty over the Pope's holdings. This period of uncertainty between 1861 and 1929 the status of the Pope was referred to as the "Roman Question".
While Italy did not interfere with the Holy See within the Vatican, they confiscated church property in many other places, including the Quirinal Palace, formerly the pope's official residence. The popes began residing within the Vatican walls. Certain papal prerogatives were recognized by the Law of Guarantees, including the right to send and receive ambassadors. But the Popes did not recognize the Italian king's right to rule in Rome, and they refused to leave the Vatican compound until the dispute was resolved in 1929. Pope Pius IX (1846–1878), the last ruler of the Papal States, was referred to as a "prisoner in the Vatican". Forced to give up secular power, the popes focused on spiritual issues.
The negotiations for the settlement of the Roman Question began in 1926 between the government of Italy and the Holy See. This culminated in the Lateran Pacts. The agreement was signed by Prime Minister Benito Mussolini on behalf of King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy and by Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Gasparri for Pope Pius XI on 11 February 1929. It was ratified on 7 June 1929.
The Lateran Treaty settled the ambiguity that had been brought about by the period of the Roman Question. The treaty established Vatican City as an independent country, thereby granting 44 hectares (109 acres) of land that would now be fully independent and governed by the pope. The Italian government also agreed to give the Roman Catholic Church financial compensation for the loss of the Papal State.
During World War II, the Vatican City, then under the leadership of Pope Pius XII, stayed neutral. While the German troops occupied the city of Rome, the Vatican City wasn’t occupied. Both Allied and Axis aircraft crews were generally commanded to respect Vatican city’s neutrality even when bombing Rome. In fact, they were so particular about maintaining its status of neutrality that the pontiff protested even a few pamphlets from the many the British air-dropped over Rome landed within the city-state. The position of the Vatican also colored the choices of the Allied forces. After the US entered into the war, the US opposed bombing Rome and even exempted Catholic pilots and crew from air raids on Rome and other Church holdings, unless voluntarily agreed upon.
During the war, Pius XII did not create cardinals and in 1946, he created 32 cardinals to fill the many prominent openings that had been left vacant. The Pontifical Military Corps, except for the Swiss Guard, was disbanded in 1970. The Gendarmerie Corps became civilian police and security forces. In 1984, a new concordat between the Holy See and Italy modified certain provisions of the earlier treaty, including the position of Catholic Christianity as the Italian state religion. In 1995, a new guest house, Domus Sanctae Marthae, was to be built adjacent to St Peter's Basilica. The plan was criticized by Italian environmental groups and even strained relations between the Vatican and the Italian government.