Lombards and Byzantines – the Early Middle Ages
After the fall of Rome in 476 Heruli leader Odoacer was appointed dux Italiae (Duke of Italy) by the reigning Eastern Roman Emperor Zeno. In 493, Ostrogoth king Theodoric the Great defeated Odoacer, and set up a new dynasty of kings of Italy. Ostrogoth rule ended when Italy was reconquered by the Roman Empire in 552.
In 568, the Lombards (Langobards – long beards) entered the peninsula and established their authority over much of what is now northern Italy. For the following two centuries, Lombards and Byzantines fought for dominance in the peninsula.
The economy of Italy (within the Roman Empire) started to decline after Constantine moved the capital to Constantinople and took with him many of the existing administrative and legal infrastructure and thousands of the Empire’s leading people. Trade also moved further east. After the final fall of Rome, only parts in southern Italy remained part of the Byzantium Empire. This led to a sharp north-south dived, an impoverished north (Lombardy) and a prosperous south (in particular Sicily and Naples).
Many of the old Roman civitates who survived the collapse of the empire and the barbarian invasions, continued to play a key role during the Middle Ages. Their leading families provided bishops as well as many of the administrative officials linked to the new rulers such as the Ostrogoths, Langobards, Franks and Germans and of course to the many ecclesiastic rulers including the popes.
In the 8th century Byzantium influence started to wane and this was used by the Lombards to extend their powers.In 752 and again in 774 popes asked for Frankish assistance as the Lombards had become a real danger to the Papal State. They were finally and comprehensibly defeated by Charlemagne. The Lombard king was deposed and Charles took up the Iron Crown of Lombardy and the title rex Langobardorum (“King of the Lombards”). Within the Frankish Empire, Italy was from now ruled by a rex Italiae.
After the collapse of the Carolingian Empire at the Treaty of Verdun in 843, Italy – with the exception of the Papal State – was part of the Middle Kingdom under Charlemagne’s grandson Lothar I. After his death at the Treaty of Prüm in 855 the geographically vulnerable Empire was divided over his three sons:
- Louis II received the imperial title (850) and ruled over Italy
- Lothar II the lands of Frisia to the Jura Mountains including the imperial city of Aachen became the core of Lotharingia under Lothar II.
- Charles received Burgundy and Provence.
Berber Muslim Spain was part of the Umayyad caliphs of Damascus and was named Al Andalus. But the Muslims here also had their own feuds and in 750 they were replaced by Abbasids of Baghdad. During another Muslim revolts a group of 15.000 Berber Muslims (Moors) had to flee Spain and went to Egypt where they were bribed to move on. They took Crete and this was felt as a threat by the Byzantine governor of Sicily. who in 823, sought the help of the Muslim ruler in Tunis, they were only happy to oblige but of course didn’t leave Sicily and also established a foothold in the boot of Italy. From here ravaging bands of Moors moved north, penetrating the mouth of the Rhone River and in 846 even sacked Rome. The whole affair had deeply shocked Pope Leo IV and he ordered a wall to be built around a small part of Rome, including the Vatican and St Peter’s Basilica, this became what we now know as Vatican City. In 850 the newly crowned Emperor Louis was able to expel the Muslims from the heel of Italy.
The links between Italy and Burgundy and Provence will also appear in the feudal developments that followed later.
After the death of Louis II in 875 there were four other Carolingian rulers who in one way or another exercised some sort of control over Italy. But this period ended with the death of Charles the Fat in 887.
The Frankish Unruochings and Widonen
During the Frankish occupation of Italy several nobles had moved from Francia to Italy and now without central control the started to create their own little empires (the petty kings as they are known).
These new rulers were also supported by their own militiaes (capitanei, seniores, valvassores). Many of the large property owners around the civitates also had their own manor-like properties within the neighbouring towns and also happily played their role in these new power struggles.
There were two leading Frankish families after the collapse of the Carolingian Empire. They were both related to the Carolingians in the female line. They represented different factions in Italian politics: the Widonen (Spoleto) – pro French (West Francia) and the Unruochings (Friuli) – pro German (East Francia). Both families also rivalled for the Italian crown.
But also the kings of parts that together with Italy had belonged to Lotharingia – Burgundy and Province (Lower Burgundy), or in the latter case to be more precise his most important vassal the Count of Arles- held at occasions the crown of Italy.
The Roman Tusculani and Crescentii senatorial clans
Rome was a separate situation all together. Here it was the influential old Roman senatorial families who were in charge; namely the Tusculani (Counts of Tusculum) and the Crescentii, their main rivals. There were a range of fractions who often aligned themselves with Frankish rulers. However the Franks were never able to fully control Rome or for that matter the other parts of what is now Italy.
While the Vikings ravaged through northern Europe the Magyars raided the eastern part including Italy. This resulted in the Roman Senators and/or the various Italian counts seeking the assistance from the Franks.
The Papal See
The importance of the papacy started as soon the Church became the official state religion whereby religious and secular powers started to morph into one. This led to ongoing feudal violence and disorder, not only in the Papal State but also in other parts of Italy. In these feuds the Papacy was often a pawn between warring senatorial factions. There was also an ongoing battle between the senatorial families and the emperor.
Interesting correspondence between the last Byzantium-Sicilian Pope Zachary and Saint Boniface survives and shows how great the influence was of this pope in France and Germany. He encouraged the deposition of the last Merovingian king of the Franks, Childeric III, and it was with his sanction that Boniface crowned PippinIII ( the Short) as King of the Franks at Soissons in 752.
Tellingly for the troubles between Zachary and the Byzantine Emperor had chosen as his successor the Roman born priest, Stephen. However, he died before he could be installed and is known as Pope-elect Stephen. He was succeeded by Pope Stephen II.
At this time Rome was under siege by the Lombards and the Pope was unable to secure the assistance of the Byzantine Emperor to come to his aid. With Zachary’s recently established contacts with the Franks, Stephen decided to personally travel to the Frankish court in Paris to seek the assistance of Pippin the Short. Pippin did come to his rescue and this marks the break between the Byzantium and Frankish Papacies. Under the Byzantium Papacy, with exception of two popes, all others (33) were from Greek, Sicilian or Syrian descent.
Frankish assistance was again needed and in 774 Pope Adrian I asked for the help of Charlemagne as the Lombards had again become a danger to the Papal State. This time they were finally defeated, their king was deposed and Charles took up the Iron Crown of Lombardy and the title rex Langobardorum (“King of the Lombards”). Within the Frankish Empire, Italy was from now ruled by a rex Italiae.
Kings of Francia and the Holy Roman Empire
The Pope had a further very important function and that was the crowning of the kings and emperors – which is a holy sacrament – which gave enormous credibility to their powers. This was a event eagerly sought after by the Frankish kings following Charlemagne. After the death of Louis II, Charld the Bald claimed the title, which was disputed by Louis the German. his son Carloman of Bavaria actually went to war with Charles the Bald over the title. After Charles’s death Carloman claimed the title in 877, on his death Charles the Fat took the Iron Crown.
The next period known as the pornocracy – saw the reputation of the popes and the papacy reaching an all time low and that was another reason for the West but more importantly the East Francia kings to travel to Italy and trying to restore the holiest of catholic institutions and in the meantime claim the Crown.
None of the foreign powers that have been battling for Italy for over nearly 1500 years – not even the Holy Roman Emperors – had ever any functional central control over Italian territory, the feudal situation in Italy lasted throughout the Middle Ages and even beyond that period and also gave rise to the powerful city states in northern Italy.
Battles for the Italian Crown 887 – 950
This was a very disruptive period of the Kingdom of Italy. This table will assist in reading the story of that period as presented under the table.
Claiming the Italian throne
|After 887, Italy fell into instability, with many rulers claiming the kingship simultaneously:
In 896, Arnulf and Ratold lost control of Italy, which was divided between Berengar and Lambert:
In 951 Otto I of Germany invaded Italy and was crowned with the Iron Crown of Lombardy. In 952, Berengar and Adalbert became in vassals but remained Kings until being deposed by Otto.
After the death of Charles the Fat in 887, Berengar I the margrave of Fruile was crowned King of Italy. The next battle for the Crown of the Lombards had already started before this time when his rival Guy III of Duke of Spoleto in 883, revolted against his overlord Charles the Fat.
Guy tried to persuade Arnulf of Carintha and King of East Francia the illegitimacy son of Carloman of Bavaria to invade Italy. However, Berengar started negotiations with Arnulf that led him to keep Italy, as Arnulf’s vassal. In 889, after their truce having expired, Guy defeated Berengar and made himself sole king in Italy. Pope Formosus, supported by the Spoleto party, crowned him Roman Emperor in 891.
However, in 893, not trusting the newly crowned co-emperors Guy and his son Lambert, the pope requested Arnulf to come and liberate Italy, and to be crowned Emperor in Rome.
Arnulf initially sent his illegitimate son Zwentibald with a Bavarian army to join the Unruochings. They defeated Guy, but the not to trustworthy Zwentibald (see also Lotharingia) was bought off by him and he went back home to Lotharingia. Arnulf then personally led an army across the Alps early in 894. Together with Berengar he forced the surrender of Milan and then drove Guy out of Pavia. Arnulf was now crowned with the famous Crown.
After Guy’s death in 895, his son Lambert and his mother Ageltrude travelled to Rome to receive papal confirmation of Lambert’s imperial succession, Formosus, still supporting Arnulf, was imprisoned in Castel Sant’Angelo and was forced to crown him.
In 895 Arnulf undertook his second campaign into Italy, gathering support from local counts on his way. He entered Rome early the following year and freed the pope who subsequently anointed and crowned him.
There was a falling out between Berengar and Arnulf, however, Arnulf turned against the Spoleto Party and exiled two leading senators, Constantine and Stephen, who had helped Ageltrude seize the city. After this Arnulf returned home to Bavaria, this allowed – in 905 – Berengar to take control again. After he died in 924, the the title of Roman Emperor lay vacant for nearly 40 years.
Later that same year, Formosus died. While still official King of Italy Arnulf, now back in Bavaria, could not prevent the accession of the Spoleto party’s sponsored Pope Stephen VI, who was of course a supporter of the claims of Lambert and restored him as King of Italy.
In revenge, Lambert and Ageltrude organised the so called ‘Cadaver Synod’ in 897 whereby the remains of Formosus were exhumed and put on trial. The verdict of Pope Stephen VI was that the deceased had been unworthy of the pontificate. All his measures and acts were annulled – including the crowning of Arnulf. The papal vestments were torn from his body, the three fingers from his right hand that he had used in consecrations were cut off and the corpse was thrown into the Tiber.
The next Pope Sergius had the much-abused corpse of Formosus exhumed once more, tried, found guilty again, and beheaded, thus in effect conducting a second Cadaver Synod
In 898 Berengar made a pact with Lambert, Guy’s son and successor. They agreed to divide the kingdom, Berengar receiving the eastern half and Lambert the rest. Lambert pledged to marry Gisela, Berengar’s daughter.
The peace did not long last. Berengar advanced on Pavia, but was defeated by Lambert and taken prisoner. Nonetheless, Lambert died within days. A few days later Berengar secured Pavia again and become sole ruler.
In 899 the Magyars raided the eastern part including Italy. Berengar was unable to prevent the invasion. This resulted in the Roman Senators and/or the various Italian counts seeking the assistance from the West Francia King Louis III. He was invited into Italy by various lords- including Theophylact – to end what they called the incompetent rule of Berengar I.
He defeated Berengar and in Pavia and this time it was Louis III who was crowned with the Iron Crown of Lombardy. From here he travelled onwards to Rome, where, in 901, he was crowned Emperor by Pope Benedict IV. However like Arnulf he was unable to impose any meaningful control over northern Italy saw the Italian nobles quickly abandon his cause and once again align themselves with Berengar. In 902 he defeated Louis’s armies and forced him to flee back to the Provence.
In 905, Louis, after again listening to the Italian nobles who were tired of Berengar’s rule, this time led by his son in law Adalbert I of Ivrea, launched another attempt to invade Italy. However, this ended in disaster, Louis was blinded, and Berengar became Emperor. Louis the Blind continued to rule Provence for many more years, though his cousin Hugh, Count of Arles. By 911, he had put most of the royal powers in the hands of Hugh. Hugh was made Margrave of Provence and Marquis of Vienne. As regent, Hugh married Louis’s sister Willa, widow of Rudolph I of Burgundy.
Around the year 922, a sizable faction of Italian nobles revolted against Emperor Berengar I and they elected Rudolph II of Burgundy as the next king of Italy. This started a civil war, which resulted in Berengar’s assassination in 924. However, Berengar’s supporters – for unclear reasons – elected the following year Hugh as king. He annexed Italy to the Provence and ruled both together. Initially he was successful as he was able to defeat the Magyars, something Berengar had never been able to do. In 931 Hugh was crowned Emperor and his son Lothair was crowned as the next king of Italy.
In 931 Hugh married the infamous Marozia (see below) but as mentioned below her son intervened and imprisoned his mother and Hugh fled back to the Provence.
Hugh’s power in Italy was damaged but not destroyed. There was a rebellion against him in 941. After this he expelled Berengar of Ivrea, known as Berengar II he was a son of Margrave Adalbert I of Ivrea and his wife Gisela of Friuli, the daughter of the Unruoching king Berengar I of Italy.
In 945, Berengar II returned and defeated Hugh. At a diet Berengar held at Milan, Hugh was deposed, though he managed to come to terms by which he nominally kept the crown and the title rex (king) but returned to Provence, leaving his son Adalbert as nominal king, but with all real power in Berengar’s hands. Hugh retired to Provence, but continued to carry the royal title until 947.
His son Lothair married Adelheid (Aetletheitam, Adelaide), the 15 year-old spirited and intelligent daughter of Rudolph II Burgundy King of of Italy and Bertha of Swabia (of Allemanic origin).
However, his power in Italy was nominal, Berengar kept all real power in his hands. Lothair died at Turin, perhaps poisoned by Berengar.
Ottonian control over Italy
On the death of Lothair, Italy had fallen again into political chaos and the Italian throne was inherited by his wife Adelheid.
In 950 Berengar II declared himself King of Italy, abducted Adelheid, and tried to legitimize his reign by forcing Adelheid to marry his son Adalbert. However, Adelheid escaped and requested German intervention.
In 951 Emperor Otto I invaded Italy, received the homage of the Italian nobility, assumed the title ‘King of the Lombard’ and in 952 forced Berengar and Adalbert to pay homage, allowing them to rule Italy as his vassals. Having been widowed since 946, he married Adelheid himself.
In the early 960s, Italy was again in political turmoil, and when Berengar occupied the northern Papal States, Pope John XII asked Otto for assistance. Otto returned to Italy in 962, Berengar was disposed and the pope crowned Otto Emperor.
Ten days later, the pope and Emperor ratified the Diploma Ottonianum, under which the Emperor became the guarantor of the independence of the Papal States. This was the first effective guarantee of such protection since the Carolingian Empire.
After Otto left Rome and reconquered the Papal States from Berengar, however, Pope John became fearful of the Emperor’s power and sent envoys to the Magyars and the Byzantine Empire to form a league against Otto. In November 963, Otto returned to Rome and convened a synod of bishops that deposed John and crowned Leo VIII, at that time a layman, as pope.
When the Emperor left Rome, however, civil war broke out in the city between supporters of the Emperor and of John. John returned to power amidst great bloodshed and excommunicated those who had deposed him, forcing Otto to return to Rome a third time in July 964 to depose Pope Benedict V (John having died two months earlier). On this occasion, Otto extracted from the citizens of Rome a promise not to elect a pope without imperial approval.
This Kingdom of Italy was now fully integrated into the Holy Roman Empire. All subsequent emperors used the title and most were crowned at some time in the ancient Lombard capital of Pavia before their imperial coronation in Rome. However the various emperors ruled only parts of Italy and many independent states existed on the peninsula over the subsequent centuries, some of which were kingdoms, such as the Kingdom of Sicily, the Kingdom of Naples and the many city states in the north. It was during this time that also Italian cities such as Genoa, Pisa and Venice (still part of the Byzantine Empire) started to emerge as early trading centers with military powers. In 1061 a Genoese- Pisan fleet defeated the Arab (Saracen) fleet near Sardinia; they conquered both Sardinia and Corsica. In 1092 the Normans arrived in the Mediterranean. They ousted the Arabs and the Byzantines and proclaimed the Pope as their overlord. This of course meant trouble for the Emperors. The Popes used this situation to increase their secular powers.
The 10th century Papal Pornocracy
The term dark ages (saeculum obscurum) as it is used in the Catholic Church refers to a period during the 10th century, with a few tentacles into the 11th century where popes were sexual active and where several of the unscrupulous women involved had a very powerful influence on the appointments of popes (hence the name pornocracy).
The prelude to the 10th century pornocracy started in 891 with factional senatorial infighting during the election of Pope Formosus. The senatorial Tusculani family led by Theophylact (c.864-c.925) Count of Tusculum (the Sabine Hills situated just outside Rome) supported his cousin Sergius. This faction was traditionally pro-Byzantine and anti-German and mostly aligned with Frankish Unruochings.
The Spoleto faction supported Formosus as its candidate and they won this election. They also had the support of the Crescentii, the main rivals of the Tusculani. The following year, Formosus was forced to crown Guy III of Spoleto Emperor.
In order to limit the threat to his papacy, Formosus needed Sergius out of Rome, so he ordained him bishop of Caere (Cerveteri – 50 km to the north west of the city).
Pope Formosus (891-896)
Formosus also had an interesting history behind him. He had been proposed as pope as early as 872. That was the year that saw the last competent pope elected, John VII (872-882). He crowned Louis II, king of France as well as two Holy Roman Emperors: Charles II and Charles III.
Three popes later (Marinus I 882 -884, Hadrian II 884-885 and Stephen V 885-886). Formosus was finally elected Pope. In the intervening years he had been excommunicated for misuses of his office and conspiracies against the papal see. This order was withdrawn in 878.
There was however no love lost between Formosus and the Spoletos. The Pope mistrusted Guy and his son Lambert and asked the East Francia King Arnulf to come and take the Emperor’s crown. Consequently Formosus was imprisoned by the Spoletos in 895. This prompted Arnulf to undertake his second campaign into Italy, gathering support from local counts on his way. He entered Rome early the following year and freed the pope the following year, who subsequently anointed and crowned him.
Eight popes between 896 and 904
Formosus died that same year and with Emperor Arnulf gone back to Bavaria, the factional wars continued and the Spoleto clan was able to regain their power. Sergius was unable to gather sufficient support to win the next elections. As a result of these infightings we saw popes lasting only months or even days:
- Boniface VI elected in April 896 as a result of riots soon after the death of Pope Formosus, he lasted for 15 days
- Stephen VI ( 896 to August 897) sponsored by the Spoleto party and it was rumoured that they had murdered Boniface to make room for Stephen. To revenge Formosus, he also presided over the Cadaver Synod – see below.
- Romanus for three month between Augustus and November 897,
- Theodore II reigned for 20 days in December 897.
- John IX (898–900). He excommunicated Sergius, who was subsequently forcibly exiled by Lambert, duke of Spoleto.
- Benedict IV followed from 900-903
- Leo V only lasted for some thirty days in 903 as he was dethroned by an antipope
- Christopher (antipope from 903–904, murdered Leo presumably by strangulation
Pope Sergius III (904 – 911)
The Theophylact faction of Romans revolted against Christopher and was finally able to grab the power and ejected him in 904. He was now finally able to invite his cousin Sergius to come out of retirement and he was elected pope in that same year. Christopher was in turn executed by Pope Sergius.
This was all made possible because Theophylact had further risen in status and in power. He had served Louis III, King of West Francia who also was briefly crowned Holy Roman Emperor (901-903). The senator also held the position of vestarius, the official at the top of papal patronage in control of the disbursements.
Sergius III owed his rise to the power of this patron. Theophylact promoted himself to the position of sacri palatini vestararius and magister militum of the pope, effectively seizing financial and military control of the city.
Senatrix Theodora (c.870 – c.930)
It was in this period that the feuds were manly led by the senatrixes (female senators) Theodora and her daughters Theodora and Marozia (later titled the two sister prostitutes). These women were certainly powerful, however, if they were really ‘whores’ as they were described later on in history is somewhat disputable as there is also a good chance that the Church, looking back on this period, exercised a level of misogyny, demonising these women as the cause of these dark ages, nevertheless the ladies in charge were most certainly promiscuous, unscrupulous and at least partly because of that, very powerful.
Under Pope John XII and Benedict IX there is evidence of prostitutes being active at the Papacy. However, these women did not wield any significant political power.
Theodora was the wife of Theophylact and it was apparently her beauty, talents, and intrigues that made her a powerful senatrix (serenissima vestaratrix) and the ‘mistress of Rome’. She was rumoured to be the mistress of Pope Sergius III and also of the later Popes, John X and Anastasius III. From 915 onwards, when her husband was also elected by the city’s nobility to head Rome as consul, they together controlled the Roman Senate and the Papacy.
Papal offices of vestararius and vestararissa
The vestararius was the manager of the medieval Roman Curia office of the vestiarium (cf. the Byzantine imperial wardrobe and treasury, the vestiarion), responsible for the management of papal finances as well as the papal wardrobe.
Along with the highest financial officers arcarius and the sacellarius, the vestararius was one of the three most important staff officials of the Lateran Palace (the palatini). By the ninth century the vestararius was a member of the papal household second only to the seven judges.
The vestararius was responsible for guarding the wealth, possibly depositing in the wardrobe along with the papal vestiments. The office was also responsible for the written financial archives and accounts, and may have received and distributed some sums independently of the other offices.
Theophylact I, who for all intents and purposes ran the temporal affairs of the papacy during the saeculum obscurum, was a holder of the office of vestararius. His wife, Theodora, held the extraordinary position of vestararissa.
Theophylact and Theodora had two daughters Marozia and Theodora.
Five popes arranged by Theodora and Marozia (911 – 931)
After the death of Sergius III in 911 Theodora arranged for several papal elections, the first two Anastatius III (911-913) to be followed by Pope Landa (who died after 6 months).
Theodora – in direct opposition to a decree of the Council – now arranged for the election of the deacon at Bologna (first promoted by her to archbishop of Ravenna) as Pope John X (914–928). He was imprisoned and most probably killed by Guy of Tuscany, Marozia’s husband.
By this time Marozia had already taken over the position of her mother and appointed the next two popes.
Pope Leo VI reigned a little over seven months in 928.
Stephen VII (928 or 929–931) was as a stop-gap measure until her own son John was ready to assume the throne of Peter. Like his predecessor he was elected while Pope John X was still alive and in prison.
Senatrix Marozia (890-936)
Marozia became the most notorious women of the pornocracy. Her bastard son, grandson, great grandson, and two great great grandsons all made it to pope: John XII, Benedict VIII, John XIX, Benedict IX and antipope Benedict X of the House of Tusculani.
Marozia started her career early, she had an affair with Pope Sergius when she was only 15 years old and their illegitimate son – as we will see later – became pope John XI ( 931-936). Not only has Sergius III the dubious honour of possibly being the only pope known to have ordered the murder of another pope, he also is the only pope to have fathered an illegitimate son who later became pope.
Marozia later married three times:
- In 909 Alberic I of Spoleto (+924) they had a son Alberic II (c.911)
- Guido (Guy) of Tuscany (+929)
- In 929 Hugh of Provence, the half-brother of Guy and since 924 disputed king of Italy. He was also Count of Vienne.
It was during the papacy of her son Pope John X that she reached the zenith of her powers. He gave her the titles of “Senatrix” and “Patricia.” It was reported that she was the central figure of the corrupt society of these days which completely dominated both the city and the papacy.
However, Marozia became angry when John X allied himself with King Hugh, and in 928 she imprisoned John. Marozia and her sister Theodora now arranged for the election of Leo VI, but he died after 7 months.
Interestingly the following year she did marry King Hugh.
Pope John XI (931 – 935)
As mentioned Marozia arranged for the stop-gap election of Pope Stephen VII, before she could elevate her own son – at the age of 20 – to become John XI.
Her other son, Alberic II assumed the title of “prince and senator of the Romans” and ruled Rome. However, he became angered when his mother married King Hugh, and during the wedding celebrations in 931 he imprisoned her until her death in 936. Hugh fled back to the Provence.
Pope John XI reportedly became subject to the control of Alberic II. The only control left to John was the exercise of his purely spiritual duties. All other jurisdiction was exercised through Alberic II. This was not only the case in secular, but also in ecclesiastical affairs.
Interestingly – on a more positive note – it was also John XI who granted many privileges to the Congregation of Cluny, which was later on a powerful agent of Church reform.
Pope John XII (955 – 964)
From here onwards Alberic II , appointing four popes between the years 935 to 954, the last one being his own, 18 year old son Octavianus who became John XII (the Boy Pope), his mother was Alberic’s stepsister Alda of Vienne – the daughter of one of Hugh’s other wives. It was during his reign that the pope’s residence – the Palace of Lateran – became known as the brothel of Rome.
The Patrologica Latina (collection of works of the Church Fathers) lists some of this pope’s activities:
- Fornicated with the widow of Rainier, with Stephana his father’s concubine, with the widow Anna, and with his own niece,
- He made the Lateran palace into a whorehouse.
- Went hunting publicly;
- Blinded his confessor Benedict, and thereafter Benedict had died;
- He had killed John, cardinal subdeacon, after castrating him;
- He had set fires, girded on a sword, and put on a helmet and cuirass.
- Celebrating Mass without taking communion.
- Ordaining a deacon in a horse stable
- Being paid for ordaining bishops
- Ordained a ten-year-old bishop in the city of Todi
- Clerics as well as laymen declared that he had toasted to the devil with wine.
- When playing at dice, he invoked Jupiter, Venus and other demons.
- He did not celebrate Matins and the canonical hours nor did he make the sign of the cross.
In order to protect himself against the intrigues in Rome and the power of Berengar II of Italy John made a deal with East Francia King Otto I. He pledged allegiance to Otto and crowned him emperor in 962. They ratified the aforementioned Diploma Ottonianum. After Otto left Rome and reconquered the Papal States from Berengar, John became fearful of the emperor’s power and sent envoys to the Magyars and the Byzantine Empire to form a league against Otto. His intrigues were discovered by Otto I, who, after defeating and imprisoning Berengar II, returned to Rome. Otto I subsequently summoned a council which deposed John XII, who was in hiding in the mountains of Campania, and elected Pope Leo VIII (963–965) in his stead.
Upon Otto’s departure, John XII returned causing Leo VIII to flee. The Emperor, determined to make an effort in support of Leo VIII, returned but before he reached the city John XII had died.
Tusculani Pope Benedict V (964) soon succeeded him but was successfully deposed by Otto’s supported Leo VIII.
However, with the Emperor back in Germany, this time it was the turn of the Crescentii clan to dictate the papal candidature and in 965 one of their family members became Pope John XIII he remained in office until his death in 972.
Another protégée of Emperor Otto I, the Tusculani Pope Benedict VI reigned from 973 to June 974. He was the son of the notorious Theodora (daughter of Theophylact and Theodora). On the death of the emperor, the people of Rome confined him in the Castel Sant’Angelo. Two months later he was strangled by order of Crescentius I, to prevent his release ordered by the imperial envoy of Otto II.
Against the will of the emperor, he was succeeded by Boniface VII. With imperial power now well established in Rome he was forced to flee to Constantinople and Benedict VII (974-83) a nephew of the Tusculani Alberic II and grandson of Marozia, was chosen in his place. After the death of Otto II however, Boniface VII was restored in power in 984. Pope John XIV (983-84), who had been appointed by the Emperor Otto II, was imprisoned in the Castle of Sant’Angelo, where he perished about four months later, and Boniface VII ruled again until his death in July, 985.
Pope John XV (985 to 996)
He was succeeded by Pope John XV. At the time he became pope, the Crescentii had risen in power and Crescentius II had become the Patrician of Rome. He significantly hampered the pope’s influence, but the presence of the Empress Theophanu, regent for her – near Nijmegen born son – Holy Roman Emperor Otto III (983–1002), in Rome from 989 to 991 restrained Crescentius’s ambition.
John also took a firm stand against the investitures of (arch)bishops by secular rulers in France. This event has been seen as the preamble of what would become the Investiture Controversy.
In 996, Otto III undertook a journey to Italy to obtain imperial coronation from the Pope, but John XV died before he arrived. The Emperor elevated his cousin Bruno of Carinthia (grandson of Otto I) to the papacy as the first German Pope Gregory V (996–999); one of his first tasks was to crown Otto III.
In the meantime however, Crescentius and other the nobles of Rome had chosen an antipope known as John XVI (997–998. The revolt was decisively suppressed by the Emperor. John XVI fled, and Crescentius II shut himself up in the Castel Sant’Angelo. The Emperor’s troops pursued the antipope, captured him, cut off his nose and ears, cut out his tongue, blinded him, and publicly degraded him before Otto III and Gregory V. He was sent to the monastery of Fulda, in Germany, where he lived until 1013. The Castel Sant’Angelo was besieged, and when it was taken, Crescentius II was hanged upon its walls (998).
Gregory died (of natural causes) in 999.
Pope Sylvester II (999 – 1003)
He was followed by the first French Pope Sylvester II who was born as Gerbert of Aurillac. He was bright shining light in these dark ages, a great intellectual, a prolific scholar and a great teacher. He endorsed and promoted study of Arab/Greco-Roman arithmetic, mathematics, and astronomy, reintroducing to Europe the abacus and armillary sphere, which had been lost to Europe since the end of the Greco-Roman era. He put in a lot of efforts to root out simony and other corruption within the Church.
In 1001, the Roman populace revolted against the Emperor, forcing Otto III and Sylvester II to flee to Ravenna. Otto III led two unsuccessful expeditions to regain control of the city, and died on a third expedition in 1002. Sylvester II returned to Rome soon after the Emperor’s death, although the rebellious nobility remained in power, and he died a little later.
Next generation of Crescentii and Tusculani popes
Using the revolt the Crescentii seized the opportunity to put their own candidate, Pope John XVII forwards, however he died half a year later. His successor Pope John XVIII (1004–09), was also selected by John Crescentius.
The period was also disturbed by the other ongoing feudal conflicts between the German Emperor and the north Italian nobility. This time Arduin of Ivrea (a descendent of Berengar) , had appointed himself King of Italy, against the will of Emperor Henry II (1002–24).
In 1009 John abdicated and retired to a monastery, where he died shortly afterwards. His successor was Pope Sergius IV (1009–12). This name might suggest that he was supported by the competing Roman clan of the Tusculani there indeed is some indications that he resisted the power of Crescentius, however there is no clear evidence of this. On the other hand there are also indications that he was murdered in 1012 by those opposing the Crescentii, shortly after the death of John Crescentius.
This could make sense as the next Pope Benedict VIII (1012–24) most definitely came from the Tusculani He was born named Theophylactus and was the son of Gregory, Count of Tusculum (son of Alberic II), and Maria, and brother of future Pope John XIX), another descended from Theophylact, Count of Tusculum. He was installed without the assent of the cardinals
A struggle flared between the Crescentii and the Tusculani. The Crescentii appointed an antipope, Gregory VI (1012), however, with the assistance of their powerful protector the Holy Roman Emperor Henry II, the Crescentii were forced out of Rome, retreating to their fortified strongholds outside Rome. Benedict was restored to power by Henry II, who was crowned Emperor in 1014.
In the 1020s, the abbot Hugh of Farfa was able to play one branch of Crescentii against another, a clear symptom of the clan’s loss of unity and political prestige. As landowners, they settled into more local forms of vassalage, as the Crescenzi.
After his death in 1024 he was followed by his brother Pope John XIX. He played a role in the process leading to the Schism of 1054 by rejecting – only after general indignation – a proposal by Patriarch Eustathius of Constantinople to recognise that Patriarchate’s sphere of interest in the east (he had first opened himself up to bribes from the patriarchs).
Pope Benedict IX; the last of the pornocracy
After John XIX’s death, the papacy still stayed in the family when his young nephew (either 12 or 18 or 20 years old Theophylactus, son of Alberic III, the son of Gregory of Tusculum) became Pope Benedict IX. His father obtained the Papal chair for him, granting it to his son.
He continued the family’s pornocracy tradition. St. Peter Damian described him as “feasting on immorality” and “a demon from hell in the disguise of a priest“. He was the first pope said to have been primarily homosexual he was said to have held orgies in the Lateran palace. He was also accused by Bishop Benno of Piacenza of “many vile adulteries and murders” Pope Victor III referred to “his rapes, murders and other unspeakable acts. His life as a pope so vile, so foul, so execrable, that I shudder to think of it.”
He had three terms in the papacy:
- the first lasting from his election to his expulsion in favour of the Crescentii Pope Sylvester III (October 1032 – September 1044) when he pursued marriage.
- the second from his return to his selling the papacy to Gregory VI (April – May 1045)
- the third from his return after the death of Clement II to the advent of Damasus II. (November 1047 – July 1048)
In 1046 German King Henry III (1039–56) intervened, and Benedict IX and Sylvester III were deposed while Gregory VI was successfully encouraged to resign. The German Bishop Suidger was crowned Pope Clement II.
Benedict IX did not accept his deposition. When Clement II died in October 1047, Benedict seized the Lateran Palace, but was driven away by German troops in July 1048. To fill the power vacuum, bishop Poppo of Brixen was elected as Pope Damasus II and universally recognized as such. Benedict IX refused to appear on charges of simony in 1049 and was excommunicated.
Damasus died a months after his installation.
Pope Leo IX (1049 – 1054)
After 1049, the Tusculan Papacy and the ‘saeculum obscurum’ came to an end with the appointment of Pope Leo IX. While both the Emperor and the Roman delegates agreed with his appointment. He stipulated as a condition of his acceptance that he should first proceed to Rome and be freely elected by the voice of clergy and people of Rome.
In 1058 there was a last try of the Tusculani to appoint their own pope, antipope Benedict X, however, they failed and retreated to their own strongholds.
In fact, this last attempt as well as the Tusculan papacy in general was largely responsible for the reaction known as the Gregorian reform. Subsequent events (from 1062 onwards) confirmed a shift in regional politics as the counts came to side with the Holy Roman Emperors against the Papacy of the reformers. In 1059 the papal-decree (Election reform) of Pope Nicholas II established new rules for the Papal election, therefore putting an end to the noble-papacy formula.
After the papal election reforms – at least for a while – the popes were finally able to establish themselves in their own authority without (too much) interferences form the secular powers. However, more shameful behaviour followed during the Renaissance, with plenty of sex and other scandals being part of the papacy.