It’s hard to do justice to the story of the walking disaster that was Pope John XII. When even the historian most sympathetic to his life states, “There cannot be a doubt that John XII was anything but what a Pope, the chief pastor of Christendom, should have been,” you know he must have messed up somewhere along the way. An adulterer, backstabber, and all-around terrible human being, John XII’s story is like a trainwreck you can’t take your eyes off of.
Known as “Octavian” at birth, John was born to a man named Alberic II of Spoleto, self-proclaimed Prince of Rome, and a woman named…well, actually, we’re not entirely sure who his mother was. Why is that, you ask? Well, uh, it’s kind of complicated. Future biographers aren’t exactly kind to John, so the story of his birth has been twisted to make him seem extra evil (although the truth isn’t exactly too far off).
The story goes that John’s mom may have been one of two people. She may have been an unnamed concubine of his dad’s, which is already pretty darn scandalous. Others, however, say his mom was Alda of Vienne, a woman Alberic married for the sake of a political alliance. What’s so bad about that? Well, in a creepy twist, Alda of Vienne was Alberic’s stepsister. Either way, John’s life had some shady beginnings, and things only get worse from here.
John’s family had high hopes for the boy, and it showed in the name they chose for him. They called him “Octavian,” not just because it was the personal name of the first Roman emperor Augustus Caesar, but because it was the name of an ancient Etruscan prince as well. John’s family clearly expected him to leave behind a great and lasting dynasty. John eventually fulfilled this destiny, but probably not in a way that made them proud.
John likely didn’t grow up being trained as a future priest. His dad more likely trained him in the art of combat, in the manner befitting Roman aristocratic nobles such as himself. However, this meant that book-learning wasn’t exactly on the top of John’s list of priorities. He was essentially raised to be an ancient Roman equivalent of a fratboy, so it’s not surprising that his future as the Pope was rife with problems.
It wasn’t long before John had his date with destiny. He was likely 16 years old when fever claimed the life of his father in the autumn of 954. Shortly before this, John’s father asked the nobles of Rome to swear an oath to him, promising the papal throne to John upon its vacancy. The nobles, who loved John’s father, took the oath, sealing young John’s fate. The decision to give John the papacy quickly took a turn for the disastrous.
Even for his time, John was incredibly young when he became the Pope—unbelievably, he may have been as young as 17 years old! To make things even trickier, he also inherited his father’s position as a Prince of Rome, which put a lot of prestige, power, and wealth into the hands of the teenager. It’s absolutely no wonder, then, that it all quickly went to his head. This put him on a course for utter catastrophe.
What kinds of catastrophes happened during John’s tenure as the Pope? Well, the list of things he’s been accused of doing (true or not) is long, but highlights include: ordaining a 10-year-old as a bishop, blinding his confessor (and killing him for good measure), and castrating a subdeacon (who he also killed). Think this is bad? Oh man, this is just the very tip of the iceberg, because things get even more unbelievable.
This wouldn’t be the story of a scandalous Pope if it didn’t include accusations of his appetite in the bedroom, and believe me, the accusations get pretty crazy. He apparently fornicated with any female who breathed in his general direction, including (but not limited to): several widows, his father’s mistress, and even, disturbingly, his own niece.
While we can’t be sure if all these accusations are true, the things we know he’s actually done are even crazier—but to be fair to John, he did at least try to not suck at his job (kind of).
John tried to keep his life as a prince and his life as the Pope separate, in an effort to seem fair. Whenever he dealt with secular issues, he used the name “Octavian,” while any matters of the Church went under his pontifical name, “John.” It soon became clear to all involved, however, that John was a terrible prince and a terrible pope. He had a nasty habit of only looking out for one thing: himself, and it led him to his first major failure.
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At around 960, John XII, a little too eager to show off his greatness, led an expedition against the Germanic duchies of Beneventum and Capua. He intended to take back land belonging to the Papal States, but the campaign was, as one biographer bluntly put it, “hastily planned” and “badly organized.” Somehow, John still managed to march his men all the way to Beneventum and Capua, where things swiftly descended into chaos.
When the dukes of Beneventum and Capua spotted young Pope John XII leading his men towards them, they asked for the aid of Gisulf I of Salerno, who came sweeping in to help them. John stood no chance against their combined forces, and his men fled North with their tails between their legs. For John, this must’ve been completely and utterly humiliating. Little did he know, even more humiliation awaited him just around the corner.
After being reduced to running away, John had no choice but to agree to enter negotiations with Gisulf. Luckily for John, Gisulf’s terms ended up being relatively fair. In return for Gisulf keeping away from John and his future expeditions, John had to give up on his little conquest of Beneventum, Capua, and Salerno. John agreed to the terms and returned to Rome, where he continued his streak of failure.
Back at home, John’s inexperience in spiritual and political matters severely handicapped him. While he was purportedly a smooth talker when it came to saving his own skin, his ability to play people against each other was sorely lacking. Oh, don’t worry, John definitely tried to do so, and while he couldn’t really influence the Roman nobles, he had just enough influence elsewhere to plunge Rome into complete turmoil.
Under John XII’s father, the varying vicious factions within Rome had kept a low profile, but under John, they positively thrived. To make things even worse, John actively encouraged them to rampage through the Papal States. Why did he do this? Some speculate it was incompetence. Others believe that John did it just because he could. Either way, Rome’s people did not see peace under Pope John XII’s rule, but John himself certainly reaped many rewards at their expense.
With money coming in from the Church, and the power of his position as an aristocrat at his fingertips, Rome became John XII’s own personal playground. He kept his own guards handsomely paid, which kept John safe from attempts at his life. In the meantime, John bedded women left and right, giving his favorites money, and worst of all, land. He happily carried out his shenanigans for a time, but outside of Rome, a dark threat to his rule loomed.
Rome had always been a magnet for invasions, and the fact that it was in utter disarray made it an even juicer target. Shortly after John’s failed conquest of Beneventum and Capua, King Berengar II of Italy made his own attempts to take over Rome. As Berengar’s men drew closer and closer, John grew increasingly desperate for help. Eventually, John cooked up a scheme that, like most of his plans, didn’t exactly succeed.
In 960, John sent for the aid of King Otto I of Germany. Otto was basically everything that John was not. While Otto had single-handedly united an entire kingdom, John deliberately divided his own people. While Otto shone as a beacon of virtue, John purportedly took offerings left behind by pilgrims in his cathedrals.
Despite the unflattering comparisons, John knew full well that he needed Otto and his men, so when Otto agreed to meet with him, John welcomed him into Rome with open arms. However, the aid came at a cost.
Shortly before Otto even entered Rome, Berengar met him in the field of battle in 961. The two clashed, and much to John’s delight, Otto won. Otto continued on to Rome, where Pope John XII awaited, in 962. John welcomed Otto with much enthusiasm, so much so that he promised to crown Otto emperor in return for his protection. For John, it should’ve been a brilliant political move, but unfortunately, he made a fatal miscalculation.
Otto may have saved them, but the citizens of Rome hated the idea of an outsider being welcomed into their home, and when you considered their history of being invaded over and over again, you couldn’t exactly blame them. This meant that John’s promise to make Otto an emperor probably made John even more unpopular with his people. Otto’s feeling towards John didn’t exactly make things easier either.
Otto didn’t trust John at all. During the coronation, he fully expected John to make an attempt on his life, but he needn’t have worried. John proceeded to make a bunch of extravagant promises to Otto: He promised to never touch Otto’s lands, never allow him to fall to injury, and to never provide aid to Berengar or his son, Adalbert. With all that out of the way, John crowned Otto the Holy Roman Emperor.
While this likely infuriated his fellow Romans, John truly believed he just made the deal of the century—for a very simple reason.
You see, John didn’t at all believe that crowning Otto gave him any actual power. The title of “Holy Roman Emperor,” as far as John saw it, was an empty one. As the Pope, John held all the power, and Otto was merely another bodyguard. It didn’t help that John, like his fellow Romans, looked down his nose at Otto’s people, and considered them “barbarians.” John ended up paying a heavy price for underestimating them.
John spent the next while strengthening his new alliance with Otto, but apparently, the way he went about it completely bewildered and confused Otto. On one hand, John almost seemed to know what he was doing. He created and ratified the landmark Diploma Ottonianum, which put the responsibility of guaranteeing the independence of the Papal States on the Holy Roman Emperor. On the other hand…
John surrounded himself with yes-men and incompetent advisors, leading him to make decisions so baffling that Otto seriously suspected it to be all an act, even when he realized that no, John just really didn’t know what he was doing. As someone much older and experienced than John, Otto tried to become something of a father figure to the younger man, and for a while, John almost turned things around.
On February 12, 962, John convened a synod in Rome at Otto’s urging. During the synod, John did several things that Popes are generally expected to do. He established the Archbishopric of Magdeburg and the Bishopric of Merseburg, and even excommunicated an archbishop who attempted to reclaim his title of Archbishop of Reims. In other words, John actually, for a time, acted like the leader of the Church.
Unfortunately, Otto left two days later, and John very quickly reverted back to his old ways—but this time, he made a decision that led to his doom.
On February 14, 962, Otto left Rome to deal with Berengar, who apparently didn’t learn his lesson and wanted to take another stab at expanding his kingdom. As soon as Otto left, John XII tried to go back to his old partying and womanizing ways, but he just couldn’t relax. John, perhaps after spending so much time with Otto, finally understood just how powerful Otto really was.
When Otto first successfully pushed Berengar out of the Papal States, John made the mind-numbingly terrible decision to betray him.
John’s betrayal was two-fold. First, he sent envoys over to the Magyars (an ethnic group native to present-day Hungary) and to the Byzantine Empire. He hoped to combine his forces with them in order to form a league against Otto. It was already bad enough that John wanted to raise men against his former ally, but it was the second part of his plan to betray Otto that really showed how little John cared about loyalty.
Pope John XII's next move was shocking, even for him. He entered negotiations with Berengar’s son, Adalbert. Yeah, the thing that John promised Otto he would never do? He was totally going to do it. Not only did John completely backstab Otto by speaking with Adalbert, but he also promised Adalbert the title of Holy Roman Emperor, the title he literally just gave to Otto.
Adalbert rightly hesitated, and while negotiations between him and John stalled, the hapless Pope had no idea that his entire plot was unraveling.
Otto soon captured John’s envoys, who spilled the beans about the Pope's plans to turn against the newly-crowned emperor. Otto, unsurprisingly, was completely taken aback by John’s sudden about-face. In a shocking twist, he decided to give John the benefit of the doubt. On top of this, and very luckily for John, Otto was a tad too busy fighting Berengar to turn his men around immediately for Rome.
Instead, Otto sent envoys over to John to set the record straight, and he didn’t like what he discovered at all.
By the time Otto’s envoys arrived in Rome, John had already managed to let things get worse than ever before. Not only did John XII let the Papal States fall into anarchy, but the number of pilgrims visiting Rome completely dried up. At the time, the money spent by visiting pilgrims was a huge source of revenue for Rome. John’s failure to elevate the sanctity of the Church was, to put it mildly, a huge issue.
The people were ready to revolt, and John XII, as far as the envoys could tell, didn’t even seem to care.
While his people were on the verge of rioting, John gambled, went hunting, and generally partied it up. If John were merely a prince, most people probably wouldn’t have batted an eye at him. But he wasn't a prince. Being the Pope meant that John didn’t have the luxury of acting like a Medieval Roman fratboy. John’s people, now thoroughly tired of his lack of leadership, began to whisper among themselves. Maybe they should let Otto back into Rome, if only to overthrow John.
Otto’s envoys, after gathering all the intel they needed, went back to Otto, and things continued to go downhill.
John’s luck continued to save him from immediate danger. Although he'd thoroughly disappointed Otto, the German emperor didn’t make a move against him—at least, not right away. Instead, he stated, “[John] is only a boy and will soon alter if good men set him an example.” He sent John some “words of admonition,” hoping that John might turn himself around.
And did John do that? Nope! Somehow, he managed to mess up his one chance at redemption.
Otto’s words didn’t cause Pope John XII to have a moment of self-reflection. Instead, Otto’s perceived inaction signaled to John XII that Emperor didn’t have the guts or ability to rise up against him. Now, as gleeful as this probably made him, Pope John XII wasn’t a total fool. He realized that he should probably send some envoys over to Otto, if only to head him off until he finalized his alliance with Adalbert. John then proceeded to tell Otto some truly bald-faced lies.
The first thing John told Otto was how sorry he was for the entire misunderstanding (even though he definitely wasn’t, and it definitely wasn't a misunderstanding). Next, he said that he totally changed for the better and was completely reformed thanks to Otto (even though, again, he totally wasn’t), and that he planned on turning the whole situation in Rome around (sure you did, John).
Though John's lies were obvious, Otto may have been able to accept this apology—but John quickly followed up on his apologies with another baffling maneuver.
After apologizing for his behavior, John proceeded to attack Otto’s character. He accused Otto of failing to fulfill his promise to act in the interest of the Papal States, and of harboring two officials accused of treachery. Otto denied John’s accusations, and in a last-ditch effort to prevent conflict, sent one last envoy to Rome.
The news that came back was not good, and it forced Otto to finally turn his sword on John.
By 963, John managed to convince Adalbert to enter Rome for the title of the Holy Roman Empire, and Otto could not ignore this. After achieving a decisive victory over Berengar, Otto turned his men around and marched them straight for John. Well it’s a good thing that John managed to cement that alliance with Adalbert in time, right? Actually, things for John didn’t exactly end up going smoothly.
Rome was generally a divisive place under Pope John XII, but by this point, the division became a lot more literal. Some of the Romans supported Otto, and very much wanted the Emperor to enter the city—these people dug themselves in at Joannispolis, a fortified section of Rome. Meanwhile, John and his supporters took up position in the old Leonine City, another walled section of Rome.
This fracture between his people split John’s defenses, and when Otto’s men arrived to besiege the city, John didn’t last long.
John XII attempted to put up a defense, appearing in armor to lead his men in a counterattack. John, along with Adalbert, attempted to push Otto’s advance forces across the Tiber River, but were unable to do so before Otto himself approached. When John caught wind of Otto’s impending arrival, he quickly folded like a wet napkin.
He quickly made his escape, but not before committing one last act of blasphemy.
As John and Adalbert ran, they made a quick pit-stop at St. Peter’s Basilica and plundered it of the papal treasury and any other treasures they could carry. After grabbing everything they could, the two high-tailed it out of Rome and fled to Tivoli, just in time. Otto arrived in Rome shortly after, and summoned a synod three days later. John was about to be put on trial, and he wasn’t going to like the results.
Several archbishops, bishops, cardinals, and even a single common man testified against John (who, of course, didn’t bother to show up to the trial). They accused John of, well, basically being a terrible Pope. One even testified to John raising a toast to the Devil himself! After confirming their statements on oath, Otto summoned John to Rome, giving him one last chance to clear his name. John took this about as well as you’d expect—as in, he didn’t take it well at all.
John sent back the following brief, poorly-written, reply: “To all the Bishops—We hear that you wish to make another Pope. If you do I excommunicate you by almighty God and you have no power to ordain no one or celebrate Mass.” Otto’s camp shot back a legendarily snarky reply, calling his grammar “more fitting for a stupid boy than a bishop—we always thought that two negatives make an affirmative.” They then deposed him.
With that, John’s downfall began—and his allies started leaving one by one.
Adalbert, sensing the turning of the tides, abandoned John XII to his fate. John, in a mind-numbingly tone-deaf move, basically shrugged his shoulders and went about life as if he didn’t have a very angry emperor breathing down his neck. John was the Pope, after all, and a Roman at that, one of the mightiest people who ever lived. Surely the barbarian Otto was no match for him? And unbelievably, John, to an extent, turned out to be right.
Back at Rome, Otto appointed a new pope, named Leo VIII, to take over for Pope John XII. However, as John believed, the people of Rome rose up against the new pope. The Romans did not like the idea of an outsider appointing their officials, and while John may be a terrible pope, at least he was a terrible Roman pope. Despite everything John did, a revolt in support of John erupted in Rome, setting the stage perfectly for his return.
After putting down the rebellions (at a huge, bloody cost), Otto soon left Rome once again, leaving Leo behind with a couple of bodyguards. As soon as Otto left, Pope John XII returned, with a huge company of friends and supporters trailing behind him. Seeing this, Leo high-tailed it out of Rome, basically laying out the welcome mat for John.
John re-entered Rome in February of 964, and he was ready to make some heads roll.
John summoned a synod of his own. He had every intention of laying down the law and making sure that everyone knew who was in charge, but it turned out to be an embarrassing display of his waning power. For the synod deposing John, summoned by Otto, over 100 different members of the Church showed up. John’s synod, in contrast, barely managed to get 30 members. After a rare moment of self-reflection, John, amazingly, decided to let it go. Sort of.
Okay, so he did mutilate some of the people who testified against him, but let’s face it, that’s pretty much small potatoes for a guy as messed up as Pope John XII. This time, he managed to confine his anger to a small group of people, instead of lashing out at everyone like he wanted to. With Otto gone and Leo excommunicated, John let everything in Rome go back to the chaos he preferred and carried on like this for the next three months. Then, his life came to a sudden and spectacular end.
May 14, 964, marked the last day of John’s life on the earthly plane. How he passed is a bit of a mystery, but according to at least one account, John's life did not end at the hands of an assassin or through political intrigue. No, apparently John’s life ended mid-coitus, either because he suffered a stroke during all the, err, “excitement,” or because an angry husband bludgeoned him in a fit of rage. Either way, the way he left was certainly on-brand for John.
Much of what we know about John’s life came from a bishop named Liudprand of Cremona, which kind of throws a wrench into parsing out the truths about John’s time as the Pope. You see, Liudprand had some prior beef with John’s grandmother, Marozia, and as a result, really didn’t like anyone in her family, including Pope John XII.
Having said that, even accounts that are charitable to John declared him as merely an okay prince who really never should have been Pope at all.
Before his untimely end, Pope John XII actually made an attempt to reconcile with Otto. Unfortunately, his sudden passing made reconciliation impossible, and this rift continued to plague Otto for the rest of his life. Otto, and later, his son, attempted to bring Rome to heel numerous times throughout their lives, only for the city to rebel against the foreign emperor again and again. Even in death, Pope John XII still managed to be a thorn in Otto’s side.
At least one historian claims that Pope John XII inspired the legend of Pope Joan. Joan, according to legend, was a woman who became the Pope for a couple of years throughout the Middle Ages. She apparently got her name from one of John’s mistresses, named Joan, who reportedly influenced John throughout his tenure as the Pope. Why such a legendary figure was named after the mistress of the most infamous pope in history remains a mystery.
It’s funny to think that Pope John XII’s actions, at least when it came to the bedroom, weren't technically against the rules, but it’s true. Until the Second Lateran Council of 1139, popes didn’t have to remain celibate, meaning John technically could sleep around if he chose to. However, his excessiveness when it came to women, not to mention the neglect of his duties, made it easy for his political enemies to use his appetites in the bedroom to completely demonize him. So, uh, this is technically a win for John. Yay?
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