Did you know that the oldest army in the world was established in 1506 and still operates today? 

It pre-dates the scientific revolution, the works of William Shakespeare, the splendour of Versailles and the first railway (which was built in 1825, over three hundred years later).

For over five hundred years, the Swiss Guard have been guarding the Vatican – and this special militia represents not only the oldest, but also the smallest army in the world.

The guard is composed of Swiss catholic men aged between 19 and 30 who, under the motto Acriter et Fideliter ("Fiercely and Faithfully"), enrol in the guards for a minimum of two years. 

Some of them decide to continue their path in the Vatican after that, dismissing their old uniform and taking holy orders.

Many different things attract these young men to Rome: the tradition woven in the role, which has remained mostly unchanged for five hundred years, a fervent faith, or the desire to know more about Italy or the Vatican. 

Swiss guard profile 

How it all began

The year is 1506, and the Swiss Guard is founded by order of Pope Julius II (born Giuliano Della Rovere) -  the so-called "Fearsome Pope" will lead the Papal States between 1503 and 1513.

During the Italian Wars, a series of conflicts fought in the Italian Peninsula between 1494 and 1559, the Vatican would enroll young, highly-skilled Swiss mercenaries to protect Rome. 

Through the first half of the 16th Century, the Italian Wars would would take place in the different sovereign states that composed Italy at the time. 

The primary belligerents in the conflict were the Valois of France, and the Habsburg household in Spain and Germany.

The tradition to hire the Vatican's army from Switzerland dates back to that conflict and, although the Swiss Guard has been briefly disbanded on and off since then, five hundred years later, the Church still honours its oath to enroll the defenders of the Holy Pope among the Swiss cantons.

After a period of inactivity between 1848 and 1849, in the 19th Century the guard decayed in power and political relevance.

With the Lateran Pacts of 1929, which negotiated the relationship between Vatican City State and Italy (back-then still the Kingdom of Italy, ruled under King Vittorio Emanuele III), the Swiss Guard was assigned mostly ceremonial functions. 

Today the Swiss Guard has different tasks. 

Its main role is to protect the pope and the Vatican City, the smallest state in the world. It also welcomes the thousands of pilgrims who visit the majestic Saint Peter's Basilica daily and, sometimes, the guards are also happy to pose for a picture or answer curiosities.

Although with different and modern connotations, the ancient tradition that started over half a millennia ago continues to this day thanks to the incredible amount of history that lives on with this one-of-a-kind, small army. 

The guard is currently composed of 135 soldiers, counting 23 recruits taking their oath in May 2023.

 Swiss guards guarding a gate

To this day, just like in the very beginning, the Swiss Guard is called to lead an irreproachable Christian, protecting the Pope and his residence.

Because of the role they play in the eco-system of Vatican City, one of the major requisites for the role is being a single male with a strong Catholic faith. 

Other than that, candidates must have Swiss citizenship – to comply with the Vatican's long-standing tradition. They also must respect the traditions and values of their homeland.

According to the official Swiss Guard’s website, the ideal candidates stand at 1.74 m (5 ft 8 in). 

The perfect recruit is in good health, and has completed a military training.

“Being a Swiss guard is a vocation,” said Colonel Christoph Graf, the 35th and current Commander of the Pontifical Swiss Guard, on the occasion of Fabio Mantegna’s 2016 photographic exhibition dedicated to the everyday life of a Swiss Guard. 

Vatican city sky

As always, the Vatican is a flourishing ground for all kinds of legends. 

One of the most common stories about its militia features Michelangelo: according to the legend, the artists designed the uniforms for the guards. 

Sadly, although Michelangelo had many talents, he wasn’t yet a fashion trendsetter.  

Although inspired by the 1500s, the iconic uniforms we see today were only introduced by Commander Jules Repond in 1914. 

Overall, the most common attire for the guards is a blue standard uniform with a Renaissance-inspired cut.

Although there are other several different uniforms, the most popular one is certainly the so-called Gala Uniform with the classic orange, blue and red. Its elegant design once again winks to Renaissance fashion, and the fabric bears the colours of De Medici’s coat of arms.

Despite the centuries of tradition of their militia, the members of the Swiss Guard are modern young men with different hobbies and passions. 

In their free time, they can decide to learn new languages, visits Rome's many attractions or even learn to play an instrument.

The Guards even have their special football team, Guard FC, which plays in the Vatican League. 

Those who have a knack for music can also join the brigade’s band: the official band participates in major public events such as National Day, Christmas, and the Swearing-in ceremony that annually takes place on 6 May.

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