Pageant of the Popes, by John Farrow, , at sacred-texts.com
The war that was now the usual aftermath to a monarch's death was the unstable scene for the accession of Benedict IV. It was the last year of the ninth century and two princes, Berengar and Louis of Provence, were contending for Lambert's place. The Imperial crown was now merely a reminder of the glories of the past but nevertheless it was a token desired by the feudal war lords and whichever of them had an army strong enough to force the gates of Rome promptly demanded the bauble from the hands of the Pope. Thus the golden circlet had become a trophy of temporary martial skill and fortune rather than a consecrated symbol of a vast and solemn responsibility. Louis was crowned by Benedict but that the honor carried no great significance is illustrated when the new Emperor was soon captured by his rival who burnt out his eyes and banished him from Italy. In 903 Benedict died and was succeeded by Leo V whose story fits admirably into the tumultuous pattern of the period
for he was seized by a worldly cleric named Christopher who, supported by armed followers, now claimed the high station. These pretensions were short lived for in his turn Christopher was ejected from the papal throne by a usurper and marched to a prison. Sergius III, a member of the original anti-Formosan party, then was called Pope and his first act is said to have been to order the execution of Leo V and Christopher!
But although he carried the titular glory of the august office Sergius was never to be the real ruler of Rome. That power was vested in Theodora, a woman with no morals but many ambitions. She was the wife of Theophylact who from the spoils of public office had accumulated the greatest wealth possessed by any individual in the Papal States. The fruits of an evil union were two daughters, Theodora the Younger and Marozia who, according to some writers of the period, strengthened the bonds between her mother and the Pope by acting as his mistress.
This regime brought not only sorrow to sincere priests but also confusion for, continuing with the rancor of the old quarrel, Sergius emphatically upheld the annulments of the Formosan consecrations and took the further steps of declaring invalid the ordinations of John IX and Benedict IV. A Council was convened and there were the usual anathemas, degradations, and re-ordinations. The Apostolic Succession was truly in jeopardy and Canon Law in danger of contradiction. There is little brightness to record in the dismal and disgraceful reign of this servile Pope; but fittingly established at this time was the famous monastery of Cluny which eventually was to cradle papal reforms. Another of the few acts which can be said to be allied with decency was the handsome restoration of the Lateran Basilica. Sergius died in 911 and his sponsor,
the house of Theophylact, installed two popes in rapid succession, Anastasius III and Lando. Neither of the two left any deep mark in history. And that the papal election and office was completely controlled by the notorious family was shown by the installation of the next pontiff, John X, who according to some writers was the paramour of Theodora. Whether this was true or not he undoubtedly owed his elevation to her determined support. He was a man who might well have attracted the unhealthy attentions of such an unscrupulous female for he had a will to match her own high spirit and he was endowed with a sense of bravado that in a time when the sword was the principal instrument of society had won for him considerable reputation as a warrior. This prowess was not belied when in the third year of his pontificate he congregated the armies of neighboring princes and repelled a Saracen invasion. Nor was he content merely to direct the plans of battle; this martial ecclesiastic marched with his troops and sword in hand led the final victorious charge, putting the Mohammedans completely to rout. Such a man could not remain a mere puppet on the papal throne and the stirrings of his initiative were made known by legates, carrying the pontifical authority, journeying to and treating with distant princes. In 915 he bestowed the Imperial crown on Berengar and when that ruler, conforming to the unfailing habit of the time, was murdered nine years later the Pope proposed that the purple should go to Hugh of Burgundy.
By this time Theodora and her complacent husband had gone to their splendid tombs but their malignant influence remained in the person of their equally predatory and immoral daughter, Marozia. The attempted independence of the Pope was an affront to this audacious creature who was now in the full bloom of womanhood.
[paragraph continues] Thirty-four years old and a widow she was rich and popular, and the leader of the most powerful and organized party in Rome. At her command there was rebellion in the Lateran and Petrus, prefect of Rome and brother of John, was slaughtered in front of the Pope who was then dragged away and soon after, in the chill darkness of an obscure dungeon, had life obliterated by the slow horrors of suffocation.
The papal throne was now the uncontested property of Marozia and in the three years following the murder of John X two men of her choice, Leo VI and Stephen VII, make their dim entrances and exits upon the unpleasant scene. Then once again a selection was necessary and this time the calculating gaze of the odious widow fell upon her own son. The machinery of a controlled election moved agreeably and in 931 John XI was consecrated to the See of Rome. To augment her power his mother then married Hugh of Pavia, King of Italy for the past five years. With splendor the ceremony was performed by her son in Rome but it was the act which was her downfall for the lavish nuptials were dourly watched by another son, Alberic, who considered the power and riches of his infamous grandparents far too great an inheritance to be jeopardized by the acquisition of an ambitious stepfather. The youth, for he was still that, displaying the dark genius of his blood, organized a skillful piece of treachery, imprisoned his mother and forced Hugh to flee from Rome.
With arrogance, courage, and ability, he assumed absolute rule of the Papal States and there was no protest from his elder brother, the Pope, who soon after, in the year 936, was saved further humiliation by death. By violence Alberic had gained his position and it was by force he was to maintain it for the next twenty years. In all justice to his memory it can be written that his reign did bring
order to the temporal power and some benefits to the religious life of Rome. After his brother's death four popes were installed under his patronage; Leo VII, Stephen IX, Marinus II and Agapitus II. They seemed to have been suitably decent and pious men, perhaps not over-endowed with that sometimes troublesome talent, initiative, but attending to their duties and never conflicting with the policies of their sponsor who, with the benignity of a successful despot, treated them with good will.
Vices attract the pens of narrators more readily than do deeds of virtue and it is certainly true that the audiences of historical authors turn with greater interest to the crimes of villains than to the acts of saints. Much has been written of the evil churchmen of this age and too little attention has been given to the less colorful exploits of their purer contemporaries. "The preservation of ancient learning," says the historian Hallam in his celebrated work on the Middle Ages, "must be ascribed to the establishment of Christianity. Religion alone made a bridge, as it were, across the chaos, and has linked the two periods of ancient and modern civilization . . . The sole hope for literature depended upon the Latin language, which these circumstances in the prevailing religious system conspired to maintain: The Papal supremacy, the monastic institution, and the use of a Latin liturgy."
Despite the great scandals of simony which undeniably caused every principle of Christian morality to be violated by tonsured scoundrels, there was a great army of the faithful whose institutions were "centers of light, restoring, maintaining, and raising the standard of cultivation, preserving some sort of elementary education, spreading useful arts, multiplying and storing books, and keeping before the eyes of the world the spectacle and example of asocial backbone." These are the words of H. G. Wells,
an author who certainly cannot be accused of any prejudice in favour of ecclesiastics. He continues, describing the activities of the Benedictine monks, ". . . a system of patches and fibres of enlightenment in what might otherwise have been a wholly chaotic world. Closely associated with the Benedictine monasteries were the schools that grew presently into medieval universities. The schools of the Roman world had been altogether swept away in the general social breakdown. There was a time when very few priests in Britain or Gaul could read the Gospel or their service books. Only gradually was teaching restored to the world. But when it was restored, it came back not as the duty work of a learned slave, but as the religious service of a special class of devoted men . . . We must remember that through all those ages, leaving profound consequences, but leaving no conspicuous records upon the historian's page, countless men and women were touched by that Spirit of Jesus which still lived and lives at the core of Christianity." A man of this type who did leave his imprint in history and who lived in Alberic's reign was St. Odo of Cluny who had considerable influence on the dictator's actions. Unfortunately the great abbot died in 942 and therefore was not present to prevent the circumstances that were to give the Lateran the atmosphere of a brothel.
Like many other great rulers the weakness of Alberic was manifested in the ambitions he held for his son, Octavian. Not content that his heir should inherit his own vast riches and power he desired the youth should also be Pope! Perhaps he reasoned that the House of Theophylact, with one of its own offspring occupying the supreme office, might escape a just retribution for having plundered the patrimonies of St. Peter. In 954, on his deathbed, he made his friends and henchmen swear they would vote
for Octavian at the next papal election. This event came with the decease of Agapitus and on the 16th December, 955, Octavian, changing his name to John XII, was declared to be the successor of St. Peter. The new Pope was only sixteen years of age but the sole evidence he was to give of youth was a sturdy capacity for all forms of dissipation and wickedness. A wild profligacy now became the tempo of the papal court and sacrilege was the rule. The fervent prayers and agonized moans of horrified monks were drowned by the mad noises of obscene orgies as the duties of the altar were supplanted by the pleasures of the flesh. A stable was the background for an ordination. Bishoprics were sold to whoever would purchase them. And the Pope was heard to drink a gay toast to the devil. Not one virtue did the young villain have to substantiate his priesthood and neither was he possessed, although he thought otherwise, of any talents that might have qualified him as a statesman or warrior. The Papal States, so long kept inviolate by the genius of his father, were now invaded by Berengar, King of Italy, and his son, Adalbert. To repel them John was forced to appeal to another of his father's enemies, the German king, Otto.
His pleas were heeded. Otto, who was both gallant and great, marched to Rome where he was received with sighs of relief and shouts of gratitude. The Pope crowned him Emperor, and the splendid memories of Charlemagne and Gregory were invoked as the northern prince swore that he would maintain the integrity of the papal independence while the pontiff for his part solemnly vowed on the body of St. Peter that he would have no further connection with Berengar or Adalbert. Otto left to give battle to these princes and while he was besieging the father at Monte Leone John, now thinking his benefactor to be of too stern a calibre, with a rare and foolish treachery
commenced negotiations with the son. The surprised Adalbert came to Rome but so too did Otto who, justly enraged at the base deception being played upon him, wheeled his columns and deployed to the city. John and Adalbert fled and the Germans were now masters of the capital of Christendom. Everywhere the northern eyes turned they were affronted with scandalous evidences of the Pope's crimes. A council was convened and after deliberation fifty bishops, both German and Italian, called upon the Pope to come and defend himself against accusations of sacrilege, simony, perjury, murder, adultery and incest. To this summons the irresponsible youth, now safely ensconced at Tivoli, replied in an ungrammatical Latin message, "We hear that you mean to elect a new Pope. If you do, in the name of Almighty God I excommunicate you, and forbid you to ordain or say Mass."
It was a vexatious question that troubled the Imperial ecclesiastics for they had no procedure to guide or authority to support them. Unfortunately, their decision was uncanonical and created fresh complications. They passed a sentence of deposition against John and elected the Chief Secretary of the Papal States, a layman named Leo, to be his successor. These measures were greeted with hostility by the majority of the Roman citizens who, suspicious of German domination and jealous of traditional rights, were of the opinion that no power on earth could depose a Pope and then place a layman on his throne. Angry mutterings along the streets swelled into roars of protest and defiance as crowds eddied and a rebellion flared. It was suppressed by the irritated Otto at the cost of considerable bloodshed; but later, when the siege of Berengar called for his presence and troops, the angry Romans rose again and this time they were successful. The anti-Pope was driven from the Lateran and the disreputable John
was welcomed back as a hero. That he had learned no lessons from his experiences was rapidly manifested by his conduct. With barbaric cruelty revenge was wreaked upon those of his antagonists who were unlucky enough not to have escaped. One prelate had his right arm struck off, another was publicly scourged, and a third high official lost his ears and nose. Once again debauchery stained the Lateran but only for three months was the pollution to endure. John XII breathed his last in the month of May, 964, and even the circumstances of the death of this inglorious and despicable man were not free from a disgraceful shadow for it was the popular belief that he died at the hands of a wronged husband. The only happy fact to emerge from his dreadful reign, and it is remarkable, is that amongst the innumerable villainies perpetrated by the consecrated miscreant there was never any pronouncement against any of the dogmas or moral teachings of the Church.
Without any mention of Otto's protégé, the Anti-Pope Leo VIII, who was still alive, the next election brought forth the person of Benedict V, a deacon with a reputation for piety and learning. Little opportunity was his to exercise ability for the determined Emperor marched back to Rome and blockaded the walls until the starved inhabitants made a dishonorable surrender. The defenseless Benedict was handed to the Germans who, in a gesture magnanimous in an age of murder, sent him beyond the Alps to Hamburg where he remained in the kindly custody of the local Archbishop until his death a year later. By this time his rival, Leo, had also descended to the grave and Otto, in an effort to make peace with those Romans who were bitterly antagonistic, encouraged the election of John XIII, a scion of the House of Theophylact and a cousin of John XII. But even though he had been drawn from
their own ranks, the fact that he was the Emperor's choice was sufficient to make the new Pope unpopular in Rome. A pontiff could not be tolerated who wrote of "the magnanimous exploits of the Emperor Otto" and the moment his patron withdrew he was assaulted and imprisoned, first in the Castle of Sant Angelo and then behind battlements at Campagna. But John was of a breed that met desperation with resource and he managed to effect an escape and flee to a refuge at Capua. Otto heard the news and once again his troops descended on Rome. The Christmas of 966 saw both Pope and Emperor back in the city and effecting awful revenge. The twelve Tribunes were hanged, the corpse of the Prefectus Urbis was dragged from the tomb and quartered, and another high official was dangled by his hair from a tall statue, then flogged to unconsciousness. It was the discipline of the age, unquestioned by witnesses, and expected by the vanquished.
John's gratitude to Otto was never to falter. In 967 he crowned his son, also named Otto, and a few years later married him to the Byzantine princess Theophano. The support of the Emperor enabled him to devote time to ecclesiastical affairs and his seal rapidly became familiar to distant bishops as he convened synods, settled disputes, and granted privileges to churches and convents throughout Europe. But he was not fated to rule long and in the September of 972 his obituary was read to the congregations of Rome. The deacon, Benedict VI was, with the consent of Otto, consecrated in the January of the next year. Unfortunately for him, however, Otto died soon after, and immediately there was an uprising in Rome headed by the late Pope's brother, Crescentius. Benedict was imprisoned and when word arrived that the new Emperor, Otto II, was sending envoys to the city the unfortunate Pope, as too eloquent an evidence, was strangled
in his cell. Crescentius then had his accomplice, the deacon Franco, placed on the pontifical throne with the title of Boniface VII. Within thirty days the representatives of the Emperor arrived in Rome, vowing justice but Boniface eluded them, fleeing to Constantinople and taking the contents of the Vatican treasury with him. Benedict VII, formerly bishop of Sutri, was now elevated to the hazardous honours. The party sympathetic to Crescentius, that is to say a small clique of selfish nobles, would have deposed him if they dared but the thought of Imperial troops was a sufficient foundation for his throne. One year less than a decade he presided and it proved an era of reform. Simony was checked and monasticism was given the impetus of his encouragement. In 983 he died and his successor was his chancellor, John XIV, an astute and kindly prelate.
With the aid of this Pope the Emperor hoped further to pacify and unite Europe but death intervened to disrupt the dream and the end of the year saw the new Pope singing the Imperial requiem instead of sharing a worthy ambition. The heart of the pontiff must indeed have been heavy with both sadness and apprehension on that day as he chanted the final words of farewell and peace over the corpse of his patron. The death of the papal protector meant the end of protection. The heir to the purple was only three years old and when the princeling was conveyed back to Germany John did not have to wait long. Crescentius had sent word to the anti-Pope, Boniface VII, who, accompanied by an army which he had procured from the Byzantines by promises of concessions, now invaded Rome. What was expected by John then happened. He was thrown into a dungeon where four months later he perished, it is alleged, of hunger and ill treatment.
At last Crescentius and Boniface could boast that their
conspiracies were successful. But as heavy-handed masters of Rome their ill-gotten triumph was not long endured: for death struck often now and within the twelvemonth both had been stricken from the earthly scene. At the funeral of the hated Boniface the fury of the mob seethed beyond control and his corpse was stripped and subjected to unmentionable insults before being flung, naked and abused, beneath the statue of Marcus Aurelius then standing in the Lateran piazza.
Bearing the same name as his father the son of Crescentius now attempted to play the same dangerous role in the Roman drama. He intimidated the nobles of the city into a semblance of unity and it was this influence which swayed the next election to John XV who was consecrated to the Holy See in the September of 985. He ruled for eleven years and despite the irksome pretensions of his sponsors his pontificate was one of worthy accomplishment. He was the first Pope to preside at a formal canonization for up to this time the solemn process had been accomplished by bishops or synods. The Saint so announced, in a Bull dated 5 Feb. 993, was Bishop Ulrich of Augsburg. Many monasteries and convents were the recipients of this Pope's consideration and kindness and his influence brought peace between King Aethelred of England and Duke Richard of Normandy. When the founder of a new French dynasty, Hugh Capet, almost led his people into schism because of his despotic action in supplanting the Archbishop of Rheims, it was the well advised legates of John who finally healed the breach. Peace between all was his laudable aim and with this resolution in mind he achieved the difficult position of keeping friendly relations with the German Court without giving offense to Crescentius. The time was now approaching when young Otto III must come to Rome and receive
the symbol of his inherited rank for like his father and grandfather the boy Emperor dreamed of a restored Empire and high expectations were held for him. In 996 while Crescentius watched with sullen but impotent jealousy he began the journey south to receive his crown. His way was made slow by the repeated homages of vassal princes and prelates and before he reached his destination John XV was in his tomb.
With the ordered tramp of German soldiers ringing along their roads the Roman faction dared not obtrude their own choice at the next election but with ostentation they deceitfully petitioned Otto to exercise his birthright and present a candidate. This he did in the person of his cousin and great friend Bruno who after the formalities of installation assumed the dignity as Gregory V. He was the first Pope of German birth and his first act as pontiff was to place the crown on his kinsman's head. The past activities of Crescentius were too pronounced to be overlooked and he was put on trial and found guilty of many misdeeds but the new Pope, in the charity of his own good fortune, begged that the Roman should be pardoned and released. It was done and Gregory was soon to rue it. With his cousin apparently safely installed the young Emperor now set out for Germany where the Slavonians were giving trouble at his boundaries. No sooner was he a safe distance from Rome than agitators in the employ of the ignoble Crescentius disturbed the streets with cries of "Freedom." Mobs congregated, were excited to indignation over supposed injustices, and Gregory was forced to flee. He found refuge at Pavia and from there delivered a sentence of excommunication against his ungrateful enemy who retorted by proclaiming a new Pope with the style of John XVI. Such a situation could not endure and in the Spring of 998 Otto having defeated the Slavs brought
his cousin to Rome again. This time there could be no mercy and the vengeance was terrible. To the hoarse commands of Teuton captains heavy swords rose and fell and the heads of Crescentius and twelve of his friends rolled in the dust. Their mutilated bodies were then hung by their feet from gibbets on Monte Mario. The unfortunate anti-Pope received a different punishment; his nose and ears were slit, his eyes and tongue gouged out, and then, so tortured, his bleeding body was dragged through the streets for the amusement of the mob. When, with incredible adherence to life, he survived this treatment he was chained to the floor of a cell at Fulda.