In previous posts, we have discussed the pornocracy period in papal history. In our last one, we discussed Marozia, the mistress and mother of popes and power behind the papal throne. In this post, we are discussing her grandson, who has the dubious honor of being a contender for the worst popes in history. I’m sure she is very proud…somewhere.
John XII was born Octavianus in 937. His father was Alberic II, the man who overthrew his mother, Marozia, and took control in Rome. His mother was either Alberic’s wife, Alda of Vienne, or a concubine. No one is really sure. When Octavianus was around 18 years old, he was elected pope, as the Roman nobles promised his dying father they would do. That is the nicest part of this story. Pope John was now a teenage boy with unlimited power in a the Eternal City. This was not going to turn out well.
John proceeded to live a life so debauched it shocked even the jaded Romans. He held massive orgies, sleeping with members of both sexes, in the papal palace as well as on holy sites. Apparently, he took great pleasure in defiling the tombs of St. Peter and St. Paul. The papal palace became something of a brothel as prostitutes and John’s lovers, willing and unwilling, were paraded through. He also stole money from pilgrims to finance his gambling and provide gifts to his many lovers. When copious sex and theft got boring, John fell back on violence. He is also charged with castrating and murdering a cardinal and blinding then murdering his confessor as well as raping both his sisters and his niece. Then to round out the charges, John was accused of toasting the devil invoking pagan gods while gambling and refusing to perform the sign of the cross. The Pope. The Pope of the Catholic Church. This boggles the mind.
When Pope John wasn’t busy committing all of the seven deadly sins, he found time for imperial espionage. Berengar, the King of Italy, was scheming to take a portion of the Papal States. To fight off Berengar, John turned to Otto of Saxony. He promised to crown Otto the Christian Emperor and protector of Rome, reestablishing the Holy Roman Empire. Otto knew a good deal when he saw one and drove Berengar out of the Papal States. However, Otto also took the time before his coronation to suggest to John that perhaps it wasn’t kosher for a Pope to be raping, killing and sleeping with everyone that moved. Maybe cut back on that. John flew into a rage and recanted his promise of crowning Otto, and offered the crown of the Holy Roman Empire to Berengar. The same Berengar he had just spent men, money and promises getting Otto to drive away for him. Otto was not about to be swindled out of his empire and stormed back to Rome from Germany. John stole all the papal treasure and fled Rome.
Fine, Otto decided. We don’t need him to conduct a trial, and convened a synod of the Church and levied the above charges at John. He was convicted and deposed, and Leo VII was installed on the papal throne by Otto,who returned to Germany. Once Otto was gone, John came storming back and had all the bishops who supported the new Pope tortured. One got his tongue torn out along with his nose and fingers cut off. One was scourged, and another had his hand cut off. I am not a Biblical scholar, but I’m pretty sure I missed the part of the Bible that said that was acceptable. Leo fled Rome in terror.
Before Otto could come back from Germany to deal with John, a jealous husband did it for him. John was in bed with another man’s wife, and he came home and found them together. The husband beat the living hell out of the Pope, who died two days later. Other reports say he had a stroke while having sex, but that is not much better. A fitting end to the Christian Caligula.
Sources available on request