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The Roman Republic was a short-lived state declared on 9 February 1849, when the government of the Papal States was temporarily replaced by a republican government due to Pope Pius IX's flight to Gaeta. The republic was led by Carlo Armellini, Giuseppe Mazzini, and Aurelio Saffi. Together they formed a triumvirate, a reflection of a form of government seen in the ancient Roman Republic.

One of the major innovations the Republic hoped to achieve was enshrined in its constitution: all religions could be practiced freely and the pope was guaranteed the right to govern the Catholic Church. These religious freedoms were quite different from the situation under the preceding government, which allowed only Catholicism and Judaism to be practiced by its citizens. The Constitution of the Roman Republic was the first in the world to abolish capital punishment in its constitutional law.[1]


On 15 November 1848, Pellegrino Rossi, the Minister of Justice of the Papal government, was assassinated. The following day, the liberals of Rome filled the streets, where various groups demanded a democratic government, social reforms and a declaration of war against the Austrian Empire to liberate long-held territories that were culturally and ethnically Italian. On the night of 24 November, Pope Pius IX left Rome disguised as an ordinary priest, and went out of the state to Gaeta, a fortress in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Before leaving he had allowed the formation of a government led by Archbishop Carlo Emanuele Muzzarelli, to whom he wrote a note before leaving:

The government issued some liberal reforms which Pius IX rejected and when securely established in Gaeta he designed a new government. A delegation was created by the High Council established by the Pope and the mayor of Rome, and sent to reassure the Pope and ask him to come back as soon as possible. This delegation was composed of the mayor himself, Prince Tommaso Corsini, three priests – Rezzi, Mertel and Arrighi – Marchese Paolucci de Calboli, doctor Fusconi and lawyer Rossi. However, they were stopped at the state boundary at Terracina. The Pope, informed of this, refused to speak to them. In Rome a Costituente Romana was formed, 29 November.

Without a local government in Rome, for the first time in history, popular assemblies gathered. Margaret Fuller described the procession under a new flag, a tricolore sent from Venice, that set the flag in the hands of the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius at the Campidoglio,[2] and the angry popular reaction to papal warnings of excommunication for political actions of November received from Gaeta and posted on the 3rd.[3] The Costituenti decided to schedule direct and universal elections (electors were all the citizens of the State, male and over 21 years old) on the following 21 January 1849. Since the pope had forbidden Catholics to vote at those elections (he considered the convocation of the election "a monstrous act of felony made without a mask by the sponsors of the anarchic demagogy", an "abnormal and sacrilegious attempt... deserving the punishments written both in the divine and the human laws"), the resulting constitutional assembly (informally known as "The Assembly of the Damned")[4] had a republican inclination. In each and every part of the Papal States more than 50% of the potential voters went to the polls.

The voters were not asked to express themselves on the parties but to vote for individuals. The lawyer Francesco Sturbinetti, who had led the Council of the Deputies, received the most votes, followed by Carlo Armellini, the physician Pietro Sterbini, monsignor Muzzarelli, in whose hands Pius had left the city and Carlo Luciano Bonaparte, prince of Canino. The aristocracy was represented with a prince, six marquises, fifteen counts and three other nobles. The new assembly was dominated by the bourgeoisie, the affluent, professionals and employees. It included twenty-seven owners, a banker, fifty-three jurists and lawyers, six graduates, twelve professors, two writers, twenty-one doctors, one pharmacist, six engineers, five employees, two merchants, nineteen military officers, one prior and one monsignore.[5]

On February 2, 1849, at a political rally held in the Teatro Apollo, a young Roman ex-priest, the Abbé Arduini, made a speech in which he declared that the temporal power of the popes was a "historical lie, a political imposture, and a religious immorality."[6]

The Constitutional Assembly convened on 8 February and proclaimed the Roman Republic after midnight on 9 February. According to Jasper Ridley: "When the name of Carlo Luciano Bonaparte, who was a member for Viterbo, was called, he replied to the roll-call by calling out Long live the Republic!" (Viva la Repubblica!).[6] That a Roman Republic was a foretaste of wider expectations was expressed in the acclamation of Giuseppe Mazzini as a Roman citizen.

When news reached the city of the decisive defeat of Piedmontese forces at the Battle of Novara (22 March), the Assembly proclaimed the Triumvirate, of Carlo Armellini (Roman), Giuseppe Mazzini (Roman) and Aurelio Saffi (from Teramo, Papal States), and a government, led by Muzzarelli and composed also by Aurelio Saffi (from Forlì, Papal States). Among the first acts of the Republic was the proclamation of the right of the Pope to continue his role as head of the Roman Church. The Triumvirate passed popular legislation to eliminate burdensome taxes and to give work to the unemployed.

Giuseppe Garibaldi formed the "Italian Legion", with many recruits coming from Piedmont and the Austrian territories of Lombardy and Venetia, and took up a station at the border town of Rieti on the border with the Kingdom of Two Sicilies. There the legion rose to about 1,000 and gained discipline and organization.

The Pope asked for military help from Catholic countries. Saliceti and Montecchi left the Triumvirate; their places were filled on 29 March by Saffi and Giuseppe Mazzini, the Genoese founder of the journal La Giovine Italia, who had been the guiding spirit of the Republic from the start. Mazzini won friends among the poor by confiscating some of the Church's large landholdings and distributing them to peasants. He inaugurated prison and insane asylum reforms, freedom of the press, and secular education, but shied away from the "Right to Work," having seen this measure fail in France.

However, the government's policies (lower taxes, increased spending) meant the government had trouble with its finances and had to resort to inflating the currency in order to pay its debts. Runaway inflation might have doomed the Republic entirely on its own, but it also faced military threats.

Piedmont was at risk of attack by Austrian forces, and the Republic's movement of troops in the area was a threat to Austria (which was certainly capable of attacking Rome itself). The commander-in-chief of Austrian forces in Milan, count Joseph Radetzky, had remarked during the "Five Glorious Days" of Milan, "Three days of blood will give us thirty years of peace".[7]

But the Roman Republic would fall to another, unexpected enemy. In France, newly elected President Louis Napoleon, who would soon declare himself emperor Napoleon III, was torn. He himself had participated in an insurrection in the Papal States against the Pope in 1831, but at this point, he was under intense pressure from ultramontane French Catholics, who had voted overwhelmingly for him. Though he hesitated to betray Italian liberals, he ultimately decided to send French troops to restore the Pope.

On 25 April, some eight to ten thousand French troops under General Charles Oudinot landed at Civitavecchia on the coast northwest of Rome, while Spain sent 4 000 men under Fernando Fernández de Córdova to Gaeta, where the Pope remained in his refuge. The French sent a staff officer the next day to meet with Giuseppe Mazzini with a stiff assertion that the pope would be restored to power. The revolutionary Roman Assembly, amid thunderous shouts of "Guerra!, Guerra!", authorised Mazzini to resist the French by force of arms.

The French expected little resistance from the usurpers. But republican resolve was stiffened by the charismatic Giuseppe Garibaldi's long-delayed triumphal entry into Rome at last, on 27 April, and by the arrival on 29 April of the Lombard Bersaglieri, who had recently driven the Austrians from the streets of Milan with new tactics of house-to-house fighting. Hasty defenses were erected on the Janiculum wall, and the villas on the city's outskirts were garrisoned. On 30 April, Oudinot's out-of-date maps led him to march to a gate that had been walled up some time before. The first cannon-shot was mistaken for the noon-day gun, and the astonished French were beaten back by the fiercely anti-clerical Romans of Trastevere, Garibaldi's legionaries and citizen-soldiers, who sent them back to the sea. But despite Garibaldi's urging, Mazzini was loath to follow up their advantage, as he had not expected an attack by the French and hoped that the Roman Republic could befriend the French Republic. The French prisoners were treated as ospiti della guerra and sent back with republican tracts citing the Article V of the most recent French constitution: "France respects foreign nationalities. Her might will never be employed against the liberty of any people".

As a result, Oudinot was able to regroup and await reinforcements; time proved to be on his side, and Mazzini's attempt at diplomacy proved fatal to the Roman Republic. A letter from Louis Napoleon encouraged Oudinot and assured him of French reinforcements. The French government sent Ferdinand de Lesseps to negotiate a more formal ceasefire. Neapolitan troops sympathetic to the Papacy entered Roman Republic territory, and de Lesseps suggested that Oudinot's forces in their current position might protect the city from the converging approach of an Austrian army with the Neapolitan force: the Roman Triumvirate agreed. Many Italians from outside the Papal States went to Rome to fight for the Republic: among them was Goffredo Mameli, who had tried to form a common state joining Roman Republic and Tuscany, and who died of a wound suffered in the defense of Rome.

The siege began in earnest on 1 June, and despite the resistance of the Republican army, led by Garibaldi, the French prevailed on 29 June. On 30 June the Roman Assembly met and debated three options: to surrender; to continue fighting in the streets of Rome; to retreat from Rome and continue the resistance from the Apennine mountains. Garibaldi made a speech in which he favoured the third option and then said: Dovunque saremo, colà sarà Roma.[8] ("Wherever we may be, there will be Rome!").

A truce was negotiated on 1 July and on 2 July Garibaldi, followed by some 4 000 troops, withdrew from Rome for refuge in the neutral Republic of San Marino. The French Army entered Rome on 3 July and reestablished the Holy See's temporal power. In August Louis Napoleon issued a sort of manifesto in which he asked of Pius IX a general amnesty, a secularized administration, the establishment of the Code Napoléon, and in general a Liberal Government. Pius, from Gaeta, promised reforms that he declared motu proprio, that is, of his own volition, not in answer to the French.

The Pope did not return to Rome itself until April 1850, since the French were considered liberals all the same, and the Pope would not return until assured of no French meddling in his affairs. French soldiers propped up the Papal administration in Rome until they were withdrawn at the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, leading to the subsequent capture of Rome and annexation by the Kingdom of Italy.

According to Raffaele De Cesare:

In popular culture

In 1949 an Italian film, Cavalcade of Heroes, was made to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the Republic, although it was not released until the following year. It was directed by Mario Costa and starred Carla Del Poggio and Cesare Danova.

Arthur Hugh Clough's long poem Amours de Voyage takes place during the siege of Rome, with one character describing the fighting in letters to his friend.

The movie In the Name of the Sovereign People, 1990, directed by Luigi Magni, winner of the David di Donatello, is dedicated to the Roman Republic and his protagonists.

The 2012 TV fiction Anita Garibaldi, directed by Claudio Bonivento.

Follow My Black Plume is a juvenile historical novel by Geoffrey Trease set during the Republic, based on Trevalyn's account.

See also

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