The Papacy: Nicholas I and the Pornocracy (855-964)

Casting aside the myth of “Pope Joan,” following the death of Leo III there were decades of tumult and turnover in the papacy –Stephen IV, Paschal I, Eugene II, Valentine, Gregory IV, Sergius II, Leo IV, Benedict III. As the centralized authority of the papacy grew, so too did the lust for its power. It was one of the most shameful epochs in papal history. We might say it began one Greek-speaking elite Bishop named Anastasius who made several attempts to overthrow the papacy and claim power for himself. At one point, he led a three day revolt at the Lateran and kidnapped Pope Benedict III in an effort to forcibly install his own nephew as pope. It was a chaotic and confusing time for the papacy faced with mediocre rulers and a declining state of affairs until the arrival of Nicholas I. In the words of John Julius Norwich: “Nicholas I was an aristocrat and autocrat. For him, the pope was God’s representative here on Earth –and there the matter ended. Emperors might enjoy the privilege of protecting and defending the Church; they had no right to interfere in its affairs. The pope’s authority was absolute; synods were summoned merely to carry out his orders; bishops, archbishops, and even patriarchs were bound to him in loyalty and obedience” (72).

Nicholas’s power threatened his enemies. A true Machiavellian, Nicholas became the symbol of power and strength, refusing to turn the other cheek to his enemies, pushing for greater imperial missionary activities abroad, and believing himself to be the true ruler over the east. For these reasons he was an extraordinary success. Meanwhile in Constantinople, a rather feeble-minded eunuch named Ignatius had come to power. John Julius Norwich describes Ignatius as “a blinkered bigot loathed by his flock, which was determined to get rid of him” (72). And none was a stronger enemy of Ignatius than a contemporary Byzantine intellectual named Photius who soon supplanted Ignatius as Patriarch of Constantinople. In the wake of an apparently declining Orthodox church in the east, Pope Nicholas managed to secure inroads to the Balkans, particularly in Bulgaria which had grown greatly displeased with the bumbling heresies of Constantinople as well as its wanton military incursions into Bulgarian lands.

While the rise of Nicholas I was a watershed moment for the papacy, he was unfortunately the last pontiff of any professed ability or integrity to occupy St. Peter’s chair for at least the next century and a half. Once again the papacy descended into darkness. Nicholas was succeeded by Hadrian (or Adrian II) who managed to squander and undo much of his predecessor’s accomplishments in five short years. Bulgaria fell back into the hands of the Byzantines, Charlemagne’s empire collapsed and with it went the papal military defenses. Now, popes were beholden to the whims of a clutch of sinister Roman aristocrats like the Crescentii and Tusculani families. Hadrian’s successor John VIII (872-882) was equally a failure. Today he has the unfortunate distinction of being the first pope to be assassinated –at first he was poisoned and then his skull was bashed in by priests from his personal entourage. There are numerous accounts of high ranking assassinations and even a widow being publicly flogged to death in the streets during this period. By the time Pope Formosus (891-896) had died, a reactionary group sought vengeance on what they labeled growing heresies and corruption. For this they blamed Formosus. His corpse was exhumed seven months later and placed on trial in an attempt to try the late pope for crimes relating to perjury and coveting the papacy. This morbid affair came to be known as the infamous “Cadaver Synod.” Needless to say Formosus was found guilty on all counts. His three fingers which had been typically used for distributing blessings were severed and the rest of his body was cast into the Tiber where it washed ashore several days later and rumors spread that is possessed divine powers.

Shortly thereafter, the Basilica of St. John Lateran was destroyed in an earthquake. Naturally, public opinion interpreted this as a divine sign and fingers were pointed squarely at the reigning Pope Stephen who had initiated the trial of Formosus. Stephen was subsequently deposed and thrown in prison where he was likely strangled to death in 897. The next pope, Theodore II, ordered a reinstatement of Formosus who was reburied in St. Peter’s, however by now all hell had been unleashed on Rome. As time passed, the city faced the turnover of no less than six popes in as many years and the tumult only continued. Pope Leo V rose from his position as village parish priest to pope in 903 only to be overthrown in a palace revolution after a mere month of rule by a cleric named Christopher who then became an anti-pope of sorts, however he was also quickly overthrown by a Roman aristocrat consecrated as Sergius III who ordered both Leo and Christopher to be “mercifully” strangled to death in prison. A naked power grab was all-too inevitable.

The Pornocracy

Around this time a beautiful yet sinister figure emerged. Marozia was the daughter of Roman Consul Theophylact I. She was the mistress of her father’s cousin, Pope Sergius III, with whom she had a child (the future Pope John XI). She later married the Alberic Duke of Spoleto with whom she had a second child, Alberic II, before cycling through several more prominent husbands. Marozia wielded tremendous authority over the five popes that reigned during this period, from Sergius III to John X –the latter of whom Marozia overthrew and promptly had imprisoned where he was smothered to death. In many ways, the papacy of this era was ruled via surrogacy by Marozia. Her genealogy has the rare distinction of including a bastard son, two grandsons, two great-grandsons, and one great-great-grandson who all occupied the seat of St. Peter. In addition, Marozia’s younger sister Theodora gave birth to the future Pope John XIII. Both sisters have been immortalized by Edward Gibbon as essentially elite prostitutes in search of power and personal gratification. Hence the term Saeculum obscurum or “Pornocracy” was born –a reference to the “rule of harlots.” It is often remembered as surely one of the worst points in papal history.

Eventually, Marozia and her offspring were overthrown by a mob whipped up by none other than her bastard son Alberic II who then enslaved his half-brother (formerly Pope John XI) and imprisoned his mother where her life apparently met its demise. Alberic now became the undisputed ruler of Rome. He effectively appointed the next five popes including Stephen VIII who mysteriously fell out of favor with his master and was subsequently found brutally mutilated. The last of the five popes appointed by Alberic was Octavian (later known as Pope John XII), Alberic’s own bastard son who was appointed on his deathbed. Octavian/John XII was a chaotic, debauched pope who sat by, indulging his hedonistic whims, while Rome generally slid into anarchy. Eventually he was forced to seek the military support of the Germans under King Otto –a formidable emperor who sought to regain the lost empire of Charlemagne. In a remarkable turn of events, one of the most contemptible pontiffs (John XII) crowned Otto as Holy Roman Emperor thus reviving the title of Charlemagne and securing imperial rule for the next nine and a half centuries. Fairly quickly thereafter, however, Otto made efforts to overthrow John XII. As the sitting pope scorned Otto with virtual distaste and indifference, Otto soon roused his army and marched on Rome, while John XII fled with the papal treasure to Trivoli along with Adalbert King of Italy. While efforts were made to convince John to appear before a trial, he refused and fled under the auspices of “hunting” deep in the remote wilderness, thus a council led by Otto was organized and a new pope was selected: Leo VIII. However the people of Rome refused to accept Leo. He was not appointed by the bishops, as was customary, and even though John was widely regarded as an immoral monster, at least he was appointed through the proper channels, or so they reasoned. No patriotic Roman was going to accept a German barbarian’s will, and so when Otto’s military requirements were called elsewhere, Leo VIII was quickly ousted and John XII returned as pope in 964.

It was a truly horrendous time. John’s vengeance was brutal and swift –many people were killed or tortured, tongues were ripped out, hands, fingers, and noses were hacked off, eyeballs plucked out, and mass executions were rampant. All the old decrees were declared null. Leo was excommunicated and he fled in terror to Otto’s side. However, by the time Otto considered returning to Rome, news had already reached him that John XII had died of a stroke, apparently while pleasuring himself to yet another mistress. Rumors abounded as to his true cause of death. There is an old legend that John XII actually died by means of defenestration when a Roman citizen caught the Vicar of Christ in bed with his own wife. At the time of his death, John was merely twenty-seven years old. Thus ended the chaotic, hedonistic rule of the “pornocracy.”


For this reading I used John Julius Norwich’s 2011 single volume history of the papacy Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy and Diarmaid MacCulloch’s 2009 work of popular history, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years.

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