Here a scandal, there a scandal, and pretty soon you’re talking real depravity. As the Church shudders almost daily from new stories of corruption, the faithful wonder if this is the worst ecclesiastical era ever. If not, when were things worse? Was it during the Renaissance, that apogee of luxurious vice? Yet sin-sodden prelates funded great art and Alexander VI contributed his genes—albeit illicitly—to St. Francis Borgia. Or was it during the Babylonian captivity of the papacy at Avignon (1309-1377) when simony and favoritism were so rife, people joked that even a donkey could get a benefice? But the weak popes of Avignon were not a lustful lot and one of them (Urban V) was actually beatified.
The seeds of the Pornocracy
Those times were indeed infamous. But for me, nothing matches the sheer lurid thuggery of a more obscure time: the Pornocracy. Strictly speaking, the term Pornocracy (from Greek meaning “rule of harlots) refers to the years 904-932 when sluttish ladies of the Theophylact family held absolute dominion in Rome. But to savor the full depravity of the era, I will begin earlier to show how the seeds of evil fruit were sown.
Those seeds seemed innocent at first. Beginning in 750, Pope St. Zacharias allowed the Carolingian dynasty to oust the “do-nothing” Merovingians as Kings of the Franks. He and his successors formed a mutually beneficial partnership with the new regime. They got the lands that became the Papal States (754) and the right to choose rulers. The Frankish kings got imperial rank when Charlemagne was crowned Emperor of the Romans (800) and assumed the right to certify Papal elections. Each partner fancied itself dominant. The promising arrangement soon turned into one of those Altar and Throne rivalries that would bedevil the Church for more than a thousand years.
Able and energetic popes, however, still had room to act. As supreme authority in the West, St. Nicholas I the Great (858-867) forced a Carolingian prince to leave his mistress and take back his lawful wife. (Previous popes had never fussed about Merovingian polygamy or Charlemagne’s concubines.) But Nicholas’ zeal for excommunication also provoked the Photian Schism with Byzantium (865). The aggrieved Patriarch Photius lobbed the same penalty back at the pope (867). The breach wasn’t papered over until 879.
There was nowhere to go but down. The reign of the next pope, Hadrian II (867-872), began with the Duke of Spoleto sacking Rome. Hadrian’s daughter was raped and murdered along with her mother by the papal librarian’s brother. Hadrian’s successor John VIII (872-882) was imprisoned briefly by the same hostile Duke. Later, John was poisoned and clubbed to death by his own staff. Violence would become endemic in the papal realm.
Charlemagne’s direct male line ended with the death of his feeble great grandson Charles the Fat (888). Meanwhile, Europe was battered by new waves of barbarians—Norsemen, Saracens, Magyars, and Slavs. As these hammer blows smashed at Charlemagne’s decaying empire, petty rulers fought over the moldy crumbs of power. Historian James Bryce remarks, “The crown had become a bauble with which unscrupulous popes dazzled the vanity of princes whom they summoned to their aid.”
The Corpse Synod and further troubles
Rivalry among would-be emperors and their ties with political factions in Rome led to the most bizarre episode in the entire history of the papacy—the Corpse Synod. Its victim was Pope Formosus (891-96), an austere man of personal rectitude, who had been bishop of Porto in Italy before his election to the papacy. Although Formosus had been forced to crown Lambert of Spoleto co-emperor in 892, he switched his support to Arnulf of Germany and crowned him after Lambert proved to be a tyrant as overlord of Rome. Arnulf fled, Formosus died, and Lambert ruled once more.
Although formerly a partisan of Arnulf, Pope Stephen VI/ VII (896-897) made peace with his new master. Then he wreaked ghastly revenge on his hated predecessor. Stephen had the rotting cadaver of Formosus exhumed, clothed in pontifical vestments, and put on trial with himself as judge. While a deacon answered for the dead man, Formosus was convicted of perjury, ambition, and breaking canon law by transferring from the See of Porto to the See of Rome. The guilty pope’s body was stripped, mutilated, and thrown in the Tiber. All his official acts, including ordinations, were ruled null and void. During the trial, an earthquake toppled the cathedral of St. John Lateran—an ill omen to the people of Rome. Formosus’ remains were retrieved and secretly reburied.
Within months, a popular uprising cast Stephen into prison where he was strangled. Lambert died in a hunting accident the next year (898). Clashes between pro and anti-Formosus parties kept Rome in turmoil for seven years while five popes and one antipope reigned. Finally, Sergius III (904-911) an implacable enemy of Formosus, seized the papacy at sword’s point and had his last two predecessors strangled “out of pity.” He also reinstated the condemnation of Formosus that previous popes had lifted.
One decision further embittered relations between the Eastern and Western halves of the Church. Sergius overrode Greek canon law by permitting the Byzantine Emperor Leo VI the Wise to contract an illegal fourth marriage with his mistress, Zoe of the Coal Black Eyes. The patriarch who objected was deposed and exiled.
The Rome that Sergius ruled retained only the shredded husk of its ancient glory. Its entire economy depended on the Church. At least pilgrims, traveling clerics, and the relic trade brought in enough income to fund a few church repairs. Finances fluctuated because each time a pope died, a mob looted the papal palace. But in that darkest of centuries, Rome and the papal territories still made a prize worth coveting. Grasping hands were already well placed to seize it.
The House of Theophylact
Those hands belonged to the House of Theophylact, a ruthless family of Roman nobles who would make and unmake popes for more than a hundred years. Theophylact’s name first appears on a list of judges in 902. He acquired the exclusive titles Consul and Senator of the Romans and was also Keeper of the Papal Robes, General, Master of Soldiers, and governor of Ravenna. Even an enemy called him “The Lord of the One City.”
Theophylact and his ambitious wife, Theodora, became Pope Sergius’ closest allies and coziest friends, especially after their fifteen-year-old daughter Marozia bore Sergius a son, the future Pope John XI. After Sergius died of natural causes, Theophylact put two innocuous puppets on St. Peter’s Chair. Then Theodora took her turn as pope-maker by having her reputed lover installed as John X (914-928).
John brought new energy and ability to his office. Fighting alongside Theophylact and Marozia’s husband Alberic of Spoleto, John led a coalition that destroyed a long entrenched Muslim stronghold at Garigliano (915). He settled disputes in Frankish dioceses, restored unity with the Byzantines, and finished restoring St. John Lateran. But trying to assert more independence after Theophylact died (ca. 920), drew the wrath of the now widowed Marozia. Alberic had died violently, either lynched by the Roman mob or cornered and slain in one of his fortresses (925). Marozia had John’s influential brother killed in front of him at the Lateran (927). The following year, she and her new husband Guido of Tuscany had John deposed and murdered in prison, perhaps by suffocation.
Marozia, senatrix et patricia, reigned supreme in Rome. She installed feeble pontiffs Leo VI and Stephen VII as placeholders until her bastard son John XI could be elected as an even more pliant tool (931-935). Perhaps at his mother’s urging, John outraged the Byzantines by letting the Emperor Romanus I the Lion-Slayer install his thirteen-year-old son as Patriarch of Constantinople (932). With Guido conveniently dead, Marozia had John celebrate her third marriage to Hugh of Provence, king of Italy and Guido’s half-brother. (Neatly avoiding charges of incest, Hugh pretended that Guido was an adopted rather than biological son of their mother.) Hugh expected to be crowned emperor soon after.
But during the wedding festivities Hugh insulted Marozia’s son from her first marriage, Alberic II, by demanding that he serve them at table. When the lad refused, Hugh slapped his face. So Alberic incited the Roman mob to storm the Castle Sant’Angelo, home to the newlyweds. Hugh barely escaped with his life; Marozia was never seen again. Alberic treated John as a virtual slave, confining him to sacramental functions only.
Calling himself Prince and Senator of All the Romans, Alberic ruled Rome as a benevolent tyrant (932-954) who restored much needed order to the city. After repelling three invasions by Hugh of Provence, Alberic married Hugh’s daughter Alda to seal the peace. He appointed four worthy, reform-minded men to the papacy. One of these, Stephen VIII (942-946), foolishly turned against Alberic. For his treachery, he was deposed and fatally mutilated. As he neared death, Alberic forced the current pope, nobles, and clergy of Rome to swear that they would make his bastard son Octavian the next pope.
John XII, Leo VIII, and Benedict V
This highly uncanonical plan made an eighteen-year-old boy both pope and prince in 955 under the name John XII. Contemporary sources say that he turned the papal palace into “an abode of riot and debauchery.” Threatened by military reverses and a grumbling city, John invited Germany’s King Otto I the Great to come down and protect him. Otto obliged. In return, John anointed Otto and his queen Adelaide Emperor and Empress of the Holy Roman Empire in 962. Imperial grants expanded papal territories to cover almost two-thirds of Italy.
But no sooner had Otto left Rome than John began intriguing with his former enemies against Otto. The irate emperor returned to put John on trial before an assembly of clergy, nobility, and even a representative of the common people. The charges against John included: saying Mass invalidly, neglecting the Divine Office, ordaining a deacon in a stable, simony, adultery, incest, hunting, blinding and mutilating priests, wearing armor, invoking pagan gods, and turning “the holy place into a brothel and a resort for harlots.” After two refusals to appear, John was deposed and replaced with a reputable layman, Leo VIII (963-965), who had to be rushed through holy orders in a single day.
John had been deposed, but he continued to scheme. After Otto departed, he exploited Leo’s unpopularity to get himself reinstated and Leo’s election annulled. But John enjoyed his restoration for only a few months. He died in the bed of a married woman, either of apoplexy or a blow from her cuckolded husband (964).
Refusing to take Leo back, the people of Rome elected Benedict V (964). Otto had the troops to enforce his will. Leo returned, had Benedict stripped of his papal vestments, and with his own hands broke Benedict’s pastoral staff over his head. Benedict died in humble exile (966). But Leo’s death (965) unleashed new rounds of scandal, corruption and violence that would roil the papacy for the next eighty years until German Emperor Henry III imposed a quartet of reforming German popes beginning with Clement II (1046-1049). It will come as no surprise that the two noble factions behind Rome’s long-running misery, the Crescentii and the Tusculans, were descended from Theophylact via his daughters Theodosia II and Marozia.
Caveats and Conclusion
So, what did it all mean, besides generating titillating tales of lurid vice? The impact of this era has long been debated by historians. Some like Edward Gibbon relish the scandals to mock the Church. Others, like French Catholic scholar Henri Daniel-Rops would rather not deal with it. Walter Ullmann, a magisterial authority on the history of papal power, concluded that the Pornocracy had little appreciable effect on its institutional development.
Before offering my own thoughts, here are a few caveats. First, the lascivious ladies of clan Theophylact were not actually porneia (prostitutes) and they were hardly the only ambitious and immoral women of their time. Had the Theophylacts not seized power, others would have done so. The dynasty’s unique contribution to the iniquities of their time was their demoniacal energy. They were able, brilliant, unscrupulous, and ruthlessly devoted to the interests of their house. They did not cause the decline of the papacy; they merely exploited what was already happening.
Secondly, popes in the “Age of Lead and Iron” were not necessarily worse than many other bishops and clerics of the West in the Dark Ages but Rome generated more records. The laity was as just corrupt as the clergy. Each status enabled the other’s vices. Although the Theophylacts specialized in adultery, sexual sins of the day came in all flavors, as St. Peter Damien catalogues in his Book of Gomorrah (1051).
Thirdly, given the slowness of communications, the rest of Christendom had great difficulty learning what was happening in Rome or judging the accuracy of what they heard. Bishops routinely defied popes or simply ignored their existence–unless privileges were being granted. Regardless conditions in Rome, despite scandals in it own ranks, the papal chancery whirred along drafting documents. Papal bureaucrats functioned better than popes.
In conclusion, how did this dismal period make a difference? Before, during, and after the Pornocracy, Constantinople drifted into cynical indifference toward Rome. Awareness of scandals merely reinforced and justified the East’s low opinion of the barbarous West. This rift widened into complete rupture in the Great Schism of 1054. Note that this occurred under St. Leo IX, third of the reforming German popes imposed by Emperor Henry III. The last twigs of the Theophylact lineage had been snapped off eight years earlier.
Long-term papal challenges didn’t begin or end with the Theophylacts. When Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne Emperor of the Romans (800), he unwittingly heightened tensions between Church and State. Did the pope choose emperor or the emperor the pope? Who could depose whom? How much power did the papacy have—or should have? What role did the people and clergy of Rome have in papal elections?
Different answers were tested during the following centuries. Anarchy, lay control, and imperial intervention taught the papacy that undisputed temporal power was the only guarantee of its independence. All other centers of power had to be curbed. Thus, conflicts were kindled that would flare and smolder until the loss of the Papal States in 1870. Providentially, the papacy won by losing. Christ’s Kingdom was not of this world; neither should his Vicar’s be.
My purpose in writing this essay was to argue that a Church that survived the Age of Lead and Iron can survive whatever horrors our present era inflicts. There’s delicious irony in the favor that Marozia’s worthless son John XI and other Pornocrats showed to the Burgundian abbey of Cluny, wellspring of Church reform for the next two centuries. God does write straight with very, very, crooked lines.
(Editor’s note: This essay was posted originally on August 2, 2021.)
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