In 1796, Napoleon invaded Italy and defeated the papal army. The French troops took Pope VI prisoner and he died in captivity seven months later.

The risks to a politician in antagonizing such a powerful entity as the Vatican are enormous while the tangible benefits are little. Unlike other colonized countries, the Vatican does not have much natural resources or workers to exploit. However, being a major religion in Europe, the support it holds in the European population is mighty. Even today when the political power of Christian leaders has waned compared to hundreds of years ago, very few(or zero) Western leaders dare to offend the Church. It does not look like a smart move by Napoleon to antagonize the all-powerful Catholic Church unless there are huge advantages to be gained.

What advantages did Napoleon gain by attacking and antagonizing the Catholic Church?

This question assumes that Napoleon was a shrewd politician who made calculated moves and not a hot-tempered person who makes decisions on his whims (I don't like you, so I attack).

  • 3
    He gained Italy, for starters. Nov 2, 2013 at 4:33
  • 1
    It wasn't only the Vatican, but the Papal States - and that was the complete center of Italy.
    – knut
    Nov 2, 2013 at 19:59
  • @Lennart Regebro: Napoleon could have acquired Italy but left the Pope alone to avoid offending the millions of deeply religious Catholics in the world. Imprisoning the pope was a deep affront to Catholics. Conquer the land but leave the religion alone may be a wiser political move.
    – curious
    Nov 3, 2013 at 1:01
  • 1
    @knut: Strictly speaking, it wasn't the Vatican at all. The Vatican didn't exist then, and was created in 1929. Nov 3, 2013 at 12:34
  • 4
    This question ignores the fundamental anticlericalism of the French Revolution.
    – MCW
    Nov 3, 2013 at 19:13

1 Answer 1


France was in 1792 attacked by a coalition of states, that included several Italian states. Although the Papal States and Republic of Venice was not amongst them, Naples and Sicily was.

This put the Papal States as well as Venice in the middle of the war between Austria and France, since Venice was located between France and Austria and the Papal States blocked the way to southern Italy, and they therefore got dragged into the conflict, a conflict they didn't have the armies and resources to handle (which is probably why they were neutral in the first place).

The peace with Austria resulted in the end of the Republic of Venice, and the Papal States had to concede a significant chunk of land, as Napoleon created a French client state called the Cisalpine Republic, to a large extent as a "buffer" against Austria.

I think your mistake is in believing this antagonized the Catholic Church and religious people. The Papal States are not the catholic church, they are rather the personal property of the Pope himself. I think it was generally recognized that an attack on the popes earthly holdings was not a religious issue.

Two years later the French army marched into Rome, declaring a Roman Republic and demanding that Pius VI renunciate his temporal powers. This he refused, so he was arrested, which reasonably can not have been popular. However, it was turned into a propaganda victory, as the pope died in France, and Bonaparte could throw a lavish burial party to show his religious credentials.

In 1801 Napoleon also signed the Concordat of 1801, which restored the Catholic Church as a state church of France.

So he didn't anger the Church, he in fact pampered to it.

He later came into conflict with Pius VII as well, but that's not what this question is about.

And note that the Vatican wasn't attacked at all, for the simple reason that Vatican City didn't exist then, as it was created in 1929.

  • Wasn't the French Ambassador to the Papal States murdered by rioters in 1797, precipitating the conflict? That is pretty close to a Declaration of War in my book. Dec 31, 2017 at 1:07
  • No, the conflict started years before that. France used that event as an excuse to invade Rome and arrest the Pope, but was not the beginning of the conflict it was the end, really. Jan 12, 2018 at 7:13

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