But petty theft was very small beer compared to the corruption, licentiousness and venality of this period, which was known as the 'papal pornocracy' or the 'Rule of the Harlots' by those who, with good reason, believed that the papacy was now in the hands of whores. Like the puppets whose strings were so diligently pulled by Agiltrude, the pornocracy popes were eager partners in the

(A portrait of Marozia, the 'shameless strumpet' who schemed her way to power in Rome in the 10th century CE and matched her lover, Pope Sergius III, for licentiousness and vice)


Most of the visitors to Marozia's establishment on the Isola Tiberina in Rome were young aristocrats and various churchmen, including bishops whose way of life was as far as could possibly be from the ascetic Christian ideal. Apart from sex, and lots of it, these men were more interested in chasing boar or in falconry - the standard entertainment of the upper

(John XI, seen here with his mother Marozia on the Isola Tiberina, was only 21 years of age when she engineered his election as pope in 931 CE)

classes in medieval times - and while they attended Mass and other church services, they usually did so with their spurs on, and daggers in their belts. Their horses were at the ready outside, waiting for Mass to end so that their riders could leap into the saddle and dash off for an afternoon's hunting.

These men enjoyed a lavish lifestyle to match. Their houses were the last word in luxury, featuring the finest decor and most expensive hangings in lush velvets. This was the kind of decadent living — and decadent company - Marozia most enjoyed.

decadence and immorality that characterized this shameless - and shameful - era.

The tenth-century Lombard historian, Bishop Liutprand of Cremona, was virulently anti-Roman and anti-papal. However, rather more than a grain of truth was in the mix when he wrote in his Antapodosis, a history of the papacy from 886-950 CE:

They hunted on horses with gold trappings, had rich banquets with dancing girls when the hunt was over, and retired with (their) whores to beds with silk sheets and gold embroidered covers. All the Roman bishops were married and their wives made silk dresses out of the sacred vestments.

Bishop Liutprand branded Theodora and Marozia as 'two voluptuous imperial women (who) ruled the papacy of the tenth century'. Theodora, he maintained, was 'a shameless strumpet...at one time...sole monarch

Marozia kept an establishment

on the IsolaTiberina,

an island in the middle of the

River Tiber where modesty and

morality were unknown.

of Rome and - shame though it is to write it - exercised power like a man.'Theodora's second daughter, another Theodora, did not escape censure for she and her sister, Liutprand continued, could surpass (their mother) in the exercises that Venus loves'. This was hard on the younger Theodora who, it appears, led a blameless life devoted to good works, but Liutprand's assessment of Marozia was much nearer the mark. For one thing, Marozia kept an establishment on the Isola Tiberina, an island in the middle of the River Tiber where modesty and morality were unknown.

Turning to Theodora, Liutprand described in detail how she seduced a handsome young priest and obtained for him the bishopric of Bologna and the archbishopric of Ravenna. It seems, though, that Theodora later regretted her generosity. She soon missed her youthful lover and in order to have him near her so that she could be his 'nightly companion',


Theodora was already a practised pope-maker by the time she engineered John X onto the Throne of St Peter in 914 CE. One of her preferences was for mild-mannered popes she could push around, such as Benedict IV, who reigned uncomplainingly from 900-903 CE. On the other hand, Theodora also had a taste for thoroughgoing cads and debauchees. One of them was Lando I, who was pope for only seven months between 913-914 CE. Little is known about Lando but what was known was pretty dreadful. Lando, it appears, was ruined early on in life by spending too much time in the company of 'lewd women' and, according to a medieval chronicler, was 'at last consumed': this, of course, was chronicler's code for the fate of a sinner felled by punishment from on high.

(Pope John X was the lover of Marozia's mother, Theodora. She made him pope in 914 CE, but he was hardly grateful: instead, he deserted her and went off with a younger woman)

she summoned him to Rome. In 914 CE, she made him pope as John X. He was probably the father of Theodora's younger daughter.


Pope John, it appears, fitted well into the pornocratic ethos he found in Rome. He was a skilful military commander who fought and won battles against the Muslim Saracens. But he blotted his copybook, and did it with indelible ink, through his nepotism, the enrichment of his family and his almost complete lack of principle. Far from being grateful to Theodora for his elevation to the most exalted of Church offices, John deserted her once he had set eyes on the delectable young daughter of Hugh of Provence, the future king of Italy.

But Theodora's daughter Marozia was not best pleased at the election - or rather the engineering - of John X onto the Throne of St Peter and she resolved to thwart both him and her mother with a candidate

Like Agiltrude, Marozia was motivated by the same blind hatred, the same remorseless urge for  retribution and the same drive to prevail at all or any cost.

of her own: another John, her illegitimate son by Pope Sergius III, who was born in around 910 CE. When John X became pope, Marozia's son was only about four years old, a trifle young for the pontificate, even in early medieval times when teenage popes were not unknown.

Marozia, however, had the time to brew her plans while she waited. She had watched the Duchess Agiltrude in action at the Cadaver Synod and afterwards took her as her role model. Like Agiltrude, Marozia was motivated by the same blind hatred, the same remorseless urge for retribution and the same drive to prevail at all or any cost. And like so many people bent on revenge, Marozia had a long memory that kept past wrongs vividly alive.

In Marozia's eyes, revenge was due at the outset for the death of her first husband. Count Alberic of Lombardy, whom she had married in 909 CE. Alberic was a born troublemaker, reared in a family skilled in the dark arts of intrigue, murder, adultery, simony and almost every other profanity known to decadence. The

The Muslim Saracens, the deadly enemies of Christian Europe, are shown here landing in Sicily, which they conquered in 827 CE. Pope John X led a Christian army to repel the invaders.

Counts of Lombardy were, in addition, adept at making popes, having put seven members of their family on the Throne of St Peter after seizing control of papal elections.

Marozia, no mean exponent of these abuses herself, quickly recognized her husband's potential and the ambition his upbringing had bred in him. She set about encouraging him to challenge Pope John X and march on Rome with a view to seizing the pontiff, and his job with him. For once, though, Marozia made a serious misjudgement. John X was no pushover like so many puppet popes in the 'Rule of the Harlots' but a tried-and-tested military leader with a notable victory to his credit.

In 915 CE, John had taken to the field in person at the head of the army of the Christian League and smashed the Muslim Saracen forces in a battle close to the River Garigliano, some 200 kilometres north of Rome. Nine years later, Marozia succeeded in persuading Alberic to seize Rome and, probably, unseat Pope John X. But when Alberic marched on the Holy City, his defeat at the battle of Orte in Lazio, central Italy, was just as resounding. Alberic was killed and his body mutilated. For good, ghoulish measure the victorious pope forced Marozia to view what was left of her husband, a horrible experience she never forgot or forgave.

At the same time, she felt obliged to put her revenge on hold, for her mother Theodora was still alive. Perhaps out of a latent respect for Theodora or maybe fearing a backlash from her supporters, Marozia seems to have made no move against John, for the moment at least. Meanwhile, in 924 CE, Pope John stoked Marozia's desire for revenge even further. He allied himself with the former Hugh of Provence, the new King of Italy, so endangering Marozia's power in Rome.

Two years later, in 926 CE, Marozia married a second and highly influential husband, Guido, Count and Duke of Lucca and Margrave, or military governor, of Tuscany. This marriage greatly strengthened Marozia's position, as did the death in 928 CE of Theodora. There were, of course, rumours that Marozia had poisoned her and she was certainly ruthless enough to do away with her own mother. Nevertheless, Theodora's death facilitated Marozia's revenge, for, without his former patroness, Pope John X became more vulnerable. Together, Marozia and her husband Guido saw to it that he soon became even more so.

For good ghoulish measure

the victorious pope forced

Marozia to view what

was left of her husband

a horrible experience she never

forgot or forgave.


The couple arranged the murder of John Petrus, Prefect of Rome, who was Pope John's brother. Petrus had received favours and lucrative offices from John that furious Roman nobles believed were not his due but were owed to

Pope Leo VI was one of the many short-lived popes of the age of pornocracy. He was elected around June 928 CE and reigned for only seven months. Little is known about him, either good or bad, apart from the fact that he is thought to be one of several pontiffs buried in St Peter's Basilica.

them. However, there was more to the killing of Petrus than pure revenge. He got in the way of Marozia's plans by proving a stalwart support for his brother, and a valuable aide in navigating safely the currents of intrigue, violence and betrayal that marked the troubled waters of the tenth-century papacy. But with John Petrus out of the way, the safeguards he provided vanished with him and it was then a simple matter of arresting John and throwing him into prison in the Castel Sant'Angelo. He soon died, either smothered in bed according to Liutprand or a victim of anxiety - for which read stress - in a version of John's death by the French chronicler Flodoard.

On the face of it, Marozia now reigned supreme among the power brokers and pope-makers of Rome, but this impression was deceptive because everything Marozia had worked and schemed for was about to disintegrate. She set up two more puppet popes. The first was Leo VI, who came and went in a single year, 928 CE and, it was rumoured, was poisoned by Marozia after a reign of only seven months. His successor was Stephen VIII, who fared a little better, reigning from 928 CE to the early months of 931 CE. This may have appeared to conform to the typical sequence of events, with short-lived popes succeeding each other and then dying or disappearing. However, behind this familiar routine, Marozia was biding her time until her illegitimate son John reached an age when she could make him pope in his turn. John was 21 years of age, just about old enough to assume the papal crown, when his mother at last achieved her ambition and created him Pope John XI in 931 CE.

Marozia ... set up two more puppet

popes... However, behind this familiar routine, 

Marozia was biding

her time until her illegitimate son

John reached an age when she could

make him pope in his turn.

Marozia's second husband had died in 929 CE. Three years later, John XI facilitated Marozia's third marriage to her old foe, King Hugh of Italy, who, as the late Guido's half-brother was also heir brother-in-law. This relationship contained one of two impediments to the marriage for, under Church law, marriage between in-laws was illegal and tantamount to incest. Another obstacle was the fact that Hugh already had a wife, but that was easily dealt with as Pope John arranged a quickie divorce. The pope also presided at the wedding, lending it an air of legitimacy that, strictly speaking, it did not possess.

John had steered his mother through otherwise impenetrable difficulties, but any satisfaction this gave Marozia was very short-lived. Since her triumph over the late John X, she had reckoned without her second,

This relationship contained one of two impediments to the marriage

for, under Church law,

marriage between in-laws was illegal

and tantamount to incest.

legitimate son whose father had been Marozia's first husband Alberic, Count of Tuscany. The young Alberic II, intensely jealous of his elder half-brother and the favour their mother had shown him, soon demonstrated how true he was to the legacy of wickedness his ancestry had given him. Alberic was no friend of his mother's third husband either, and lost no time displaying his dislike. The marriage ceremony was scarcely over and the guests were seated for the wedding breakfast when Alberic grossly insulted King Hugh. Hugh responded in kind, and the exchange of abuses moved on to violence when the King slapped Alberic for being clumsy.

Alberic was incandescent at this public humiliation and swore revenge. What Alberic did next may also have been motivated by rumours that King Hugh intended to have him blinded - a common means in early medieval times for incapacitating rivals while leaving them alive to suffer.


Hugh and Marozia had been married only a few months when Alberic roused an armed mob, worked them up into a vengeful fury and advanced on the Castel Sant'Angelo, where the couple were staying. They were rudely awakened by the commotion outside and Hugh, fearing he would be lynched, leapt out of bed and made his escape. Wearing only his nightshirt, he hid himself in a basket and was carried to safety by servants. He shinned down the city walls by means of a rope and fled, leaving Marozia to face her vengeful son alone. Alberic's vengeance was truly terrible. He imprisoned his mother in the deepest underground level of the Castel Sant'Angelo, and it is doubtful she ever saw daylight again. She was then 42 years old, still beautiful and fascinating, but now she was set to moulder away for the next 54 years into extreme old age.

Alberic ... imprisoned his mother in

the deepest underground level of

the Castel Sant'Angelo. She was

then 42 years old.

Meanwhile, Alberic threw his bastard half-brother, Pope John XI, in jail while he consolidated his power. Once safely installed as ruler of Rome, Alberic released John from prison, but had no intention of setting him free. Instead, he placed his half-brother under house arrest in the church of St John Lateran. Almost all of John's powers as pope were removed from him, leaving him only the right to deliver the sacraments. This, however, was no new experience for Pope John. All that happened was that he passed from the control of Marozia to the control of Alberic, who exercised both secular and ecclesiastical power in Rome.

John lasted four years under the tutelage of his younger brother before dying in 935 CE, leaving Alberic to emulate their mother and grandmother as creator of popes. Over the next 22 years, before his death at the age 43 in 954 CE, Alberic appointed four popes. And on his deathbed nominated his own illegitimate son, Octavian, aged 16, as their successor. Octavian duly became pope in 955 CE, taking the name of John XII, and was a complete and utter catastrophe.

The Castel Sant'Angelo, which stands on the right bank of the River Tiber, was one of the papal residences. The statue of an angel at the top gave the castle its name. It was originally built as a mausoleum by the Roman Emperor Hadrian between 135 and 139 CE.

The elaborate interior of the Church of St John Lateran, the Cathedral of the Diocese of Rome and the principal basilica of the Vatican. The ceremonial chair of the popes can be seen at the centre.

Pope John XII was so thoroughly dissolute it was rumoured that prayers were offered up in monasteries begging God to grant him a speedy death. There seemed to be no sin that John XII did not - or would not - commit. He ran a brothel at the church of St John Lateran where he put one of his own lovers, Marcia, in charge. He slept with his father's mistress and his own mother. He took golden chalices from St Peter's church to reward his lovers after nights of passion. He blinded one cardinal and castrated another, causing his death. Pilgrims who came to Rome risked losing the offering they made to the Church when the Pope purloined them to use in gambling sessions. At these sessions, John XII used to call on pagan gods and goddesses to grant him luck with throws of the dice. Women were warned to keep away from St John Lateran or anywhere else the pope might be, for he was always on the prowl looking for new conquests. Before long, the people of Rome were

Pope John XII. a thoroughly dissolute pontiff who ran a brothel at the Church of St John Lateran, is shown crowning the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I in 962 CE.

so enraged at John's behaviour he began to fear for his life. His response was to rifle St Peter's church for valuables and flee to Tivoli, some 27 kilometres (16 miles) from Rome.

Pope John, still in exile at Tivoli

replied that if the synod deposed him

... he would excommunicate

everyone involved making it

impossible for them to celebrate

Mass or conduct ordinations.

John XII was doing so much damage to the papacy, which was still reeling from the crimes and sins of his predecessors, that a special synod was called to deal with him. All the Italian bishops and 16 cardinals and other clergy (some from Germany), convened to decide what to do with the ghastly young man who was their pontiff. They called witnesses and heard evidence under oath and finally decided on a list that added even more misdeeds to John's already appalling record. Some of these were outlined in a letter written to John by the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I of Saxony.

Everyone, clergy as well as laity accuse you, Holiness, of homicide, perjury, sacrilege, incest with your relatives, including two of your sisters and with having, like a pagan, invoked Jupiter, Venus and other demons.

Pope John, still in exile at Tivoli replied to Otto in terms so malevolent that fear permeated Rome. If the synod deposed him, John threatened, he would excommunicate everyone involved, making it impossible for them to celebrate Mass or conduct ordinations. In Christian terms, this was the worst possible penalty a pope could impose, for excommunication meant being thrown out of the Church, losing its protection and even endangering the immortal soul.


In spite of the threatened excommunication, the Emperor Otto deposed John and a new pope, Leo VIII, was put in his place. John, of course, would have

A  portrait of Leo VIII, who was backed by the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I but had to fight off a ferocious rival, John XII, before being acknowledged as the true pope. Leo's reign lasted only eight months in 964 and 965 CE.

none of this. When he eventually returned to Rome in 963 CE, his vengeance was infinitely worse than he had threatened. He threw out Pope Leo, but instead of excommunication, he executed or maimed everyone who sat in judgement on him at the synod. John had the skin flayed off one bishop, cut off the nose and two fingers of a cardinal and gouged out his tongue, and decapitated 63 members of the clergy and nobility in Rome.

Then, on the night of 14 May 964 CE, it seemed that all those prayers begging God to intervene and save Rome from its demon-pope had at last reached their divine destination. As a bishop named John

... (Pope John) was surprised in

the act of sin by the matron's

angry husband who in just wrath,

smashed his skull...

Crescentius of Proteus later described it, 'While having illicit and filthy relations with a Roman matron, (Pope John) was surprised in the act of sin by the matron's angry husband who, in just wrath, smashed his skull with a hammer and thus 'liberated his evil soul into the grasp of Satan.'


But the Church was not yet finished with the family of 'harlots' who had spawned nine of the most sinful popes ever to defile the name of the papacy. In 986 CE, 22 years after the dramatic death of John XII, Bishop Crescentius came to the Castel Sant'Angelo to see John's mother, Marozia, who was now 96 years old. Marozia's once ravishing beauty had crumbled into a bag of bones, her shrivelled flesh clothed in rags. The recently elected pope, John XV, had decided to take mercy on her, though his mercy took a form that only the medieval mind would have recognized.

Crescentius laid several charges against Marozia, including her conspiracy against the rights of the

Marozia was now 96 years old.

An executioner slipped into

her cell and smothered her

with a pillow...

papacy, her illicit involvement with Pope Sergius III, her immoral life and her 'plot' to take over the world. Marozia was also compared to Jezebel, the arch-villainess of the Bible who also 'dared to take a third husband'.

The belief that human wickedness could be caused by demonic possession was common in the early Middle Ages, so just in case Marozia's demons were still present, she was exorcised. Now absolved from her sins and made fit to face her Maker, she died quickly after that. An executioner slipped into her cell and smothered her with a pillow 'for the well-being' it was said, of 'Holy Mother Church and the peace of the Roman people'.

However, the end of the pornocracy and the Rule of the Harlots was not the end of papal debauchery or the fluential families who fed off of it. The papacy had a very long way to go before it finally shed its notorious image as a tool of powerbrokers and parvenus who fronted vested interests whether royal, noble, political or commercial. In fact, it took another thousand years, until the nineteenth century, for the papacy to become the spiritual influence it was always meant to be and the Vicars of Christ no longer ranked high on the list of history's greatest villains.

Pope John XII, once described as 'a true debauchee and incestuous satanist' is shown in a very un-papal pose, dancing with a scantily-clad woman, perhaps intended to portray his mother Marozia.


One of the first acts of Pope Boniface VIII, the former Benedetto Caetani, was to imprison his predecessor, the gentle and unworldly Celestine V, in the Castle of Fumone in Ferentino, Italy where he died aged 81 in 1296. Boniface soon proved to be an autocrat who decreed in 1302 that 'it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman pontiff'.

This approach made Boniface many enemies among the powerful and ambitious kings of Europe, including Philip IV of France who was enraged when the pope claimed in 1302 that all monarchs were subordinate to the Catholic Church. Philip's response was to charge the pope with heresy and demand his resignation. The French king followed this up by invading the pope's palace at his birthplace in Agnani, and imprisoning him.

Boniface spent three days in prison while his captors debated whether or not to drag him in chains to nearby Lyons where he would be put on trial. The charges against Boniface would be the worst that could be devised in a deeply superstitious age. He was accused of wizardry, dealings with the Devil, possessing an idol containing a diabolical spirit and talking to it, revoking his belief in Jesus Christ, declaring the sins of the flesh were not sins and committing other 'crimes', any of which could have seen him burnt at the stake.


Boniface survived the assault by only a month and during that time, he locked himself inside the Lateran Palace in Rome, refusing to let anyone in and planning his revenge. He died there on 11 October 1303, perhaps of natural causes, but possibly by poisoning or strangulation. The vengeful King Philip ordered that Boniface be posthumously put on trial, condemning him as a heretic and therefore not a legal pope. But Boniface's successor Clement V, perhaps having read what had happened to the venerable Formosus four centuries earlier, managed to avert this added shame by spinning out the trial for such a long time that a verdict was never reached.

There is a statue of Pope Boniface VIII, who got into fearful trouble by trying to impose his autocratic will on the independent-minded kings of 14th-century Europe.