Pope John XII

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Pope John XII can also refer to Pope John XII of Alexandria.
John XII
Papacy began 16 December 955
Papacy ended 14 May 964
Predecessor Agapetus II
Successor Benedict V
Personal details
Birth name Octavianus
Born c. 930/937
Rome, Papal States
Died 14 May 964
Rome, Papal States
Other popes named John

Pope John XII (Latin : Ioannes XII; c. 930/937 14 May 964) was head of the Catholic Church from 16 December 955 to his death in 964. He was related to the Counts of Tusculum and a member of the powerful Roman family of Theophylact which had dominated papal politics for over half a century. His pontificate became infamous for the alleged depravity and worldliness with which he conducted it.

Catholic Church Christian church led by the Bishop of Rome

The Catholic Church, also known as the Roman Catholic Church, is the largest Christian church, with approximately 1.3 billion baptised Catholics worldwide as of 2017. As the world's "oldest continuously functioning international institution", it has played a prominent role in the history and development of Western civilisation. The church is headed by the Bishop of Rome, known as the pope. Its central administration, the Holy See, is in the Vatican City, an enclave within the city of Rome in Italy.

Counts of Tusculum countship

The counts of Tusculum were the most powerful secular noblemen in Latium, near Rome, in the present-day Italy between the 10th and 12th centuries. Several popes and an antipope during the 11th century came from their ranks. They created and perfected the political formula of noble-papacy, wherein the Pope was arranged to be elected only from the ranks of the Roman nobles. The Pornocracy, the period of influence by powerful female members of the family, also influenced papal history.

Theophylact I was a medieval Count of Tusculum who was the effective ruler of Rome from around 905 through to his death in 924. His descendants would control the Papacy for the next 100 years.


Birth and election as pope

John XII was born Octavianus, the son of Alberic II of Spoleto, Patrician and self-styled prince of Rome. His mother is believed to have been Alda of Vienne, Alberic’s stepsister and the daughter of Hugh of Italy. However, there is some doubt about this. Benedict of Soracte recorded that Octavianus was the son of a concubine (Genuit (Alberic) ex his principem ex concubinam filium, imposuit eis nomen Octabianus), but his Latin is unclear. If he was the son of Alda, he would have been 18 when he became pope, but if the son of a concubine he could have been up to 7 years older. [1] Born in the region of the Via Lata, the aristocratic quarter that was situated between the Quirinal Hill and the Campus Martius, he was given the name of Octavianus, a clear indicator of how the family saw themselves and the future destiny of the son of Alberic. [2]

Alberic II (912–954) was ruler of Rome from 932 to 954, after deposing his mother Marozia and his stepfather, King Hugh of Italy.

Hugh of Arles was King of Italy from 924 until his death in 947. He was a Bosonid. During his reign, he empowered his relatives at the expense of the aristocracy and tried to establish a relationship with the Byzantine-Roman Empire. He had success in defending the realm from external enemies, but his domestic habits and policies, which showed some evidence of culture in an otherwise barbaric century, created many internal foes and he was removed from power before his death.

Benedict of Soracte was a tenth-century Italian chronicler, a monk at the monastery on Mount Soracte. The Catholic Encyclopedia article on Ecclesiastical Annals dates his chronicle to 968, but notes that it "unfortunately, is filled with legends".

Sometime before his death in 954, Alberic administered an oath to the Roman nobles in St. Peter's providing that the next vacancy for the papal chair would be filled by his son Octavianus, who by this stage had entered the Church. [3] With his father’s death, and without any opposition, he succeeded his father as Princeps of the Romans, somewhere between the ages of 17 and 24. [4]

Princeps is a Latin word meaning "first in time or order; the first, foremost, chief, the most eminent, distinguished, or noble; the first man, first person". As a title, "princeps" originated in the Roman Republic wherein the leading member of the Senate was designated princeps senatus. It is primarily associated with the Roman emperors as an unofficial title first adopted by Augustus in 23 BC. Its use in this context continued until the reign of Diocletian at the end of the third century. He preferred the title of dominus, meaning "lord" or "master". As a result, the Roman Empire from Augustus to Diocletian is termed the "principate" (principatus) and from Diocletian onwards as the "dominate" (dominatus). Other historians define the reign of Augustus to Severus Alexander as the Principate, and the period afterwards as the "Autocracy".

With the death of Pope Agapetus II in November 955, Octavianus, who was the Cardinal deacon of the deaconry of Santa Maria in Domnica, was elected his successor on 16 December 955. [5] His adoption of the apostolic name of John XII was the third example of a pontiff taking a regnal name upon elevation to the papal chair, the first being John II (533–535) and the second John III (561–574). Right from the start, in relation to secular issues, the new pope issued his directives under the name of Octavianus, while in all matters relating to the Church, he issued papal bulls and other material under his pontifical name of John. [6] [7]

Pope Agapetus II pope

Pope Agapetus II was Pope from 10 May 946 to his death in 955. A nominee of the Princeps of Rome, Alberic II, his pontificate occurred during the period known as the Saeculum obscurum.

Santa Maria in Domnica church building in Rome, Italy

The Minor Basilica of St. Mary in Domnica alla Navicella, or simply Santa Maria in Domnica or Santa Maria alla Navicella, is a Roman Catholic basilica in Rome, Italy, dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary and active in local charity according to its long tradition. The current Cardinal Deacon of the Titulus S. Mariae in Domnica is William Joseph Levada.

A regnal name, or reign name, is the name used by monarchs and popes during their reigns and, subsequently, historically. Since ancient times, some monarchs have chosen to use a different name from their original name when they accede to the monarchy.

Early reign

In around 960, John personally led an attack against the Lombard duchies of Beneventum and Capua, presumably to reclaim parts of the papal states which had been lost to them. Confronted by the sight of John marching at the head of an army of men from Tusculum and Spoleto, the dukes of Beneventum and Capua appealed for help from Gisulf I of Salerno, who came to their aid. [8] John retreated north and entered into negotiations with Gisulf at Terracina. A treaty was secured between the two parties, and the price for Gisulf’s non-interference was John agreeing that the papacy would no longer claim Salerno as a Papal patrimony. [9]

Lombards Historical ethnical group

The Lombards or Longobards were a Germanic people who ruled most of the Italian Peninsula from 568 to 774.

Duchy of Benevento duchy

The Duchy of Benevento was the southernmost Lombard duchy in the Italian peninsula, centered on Benevento, a city in Southern Italy. Being cut off from the rest of the Lombard possessions by the papal Duchy of Rome, Benevento was practically independent from the start. Only during the reigns of Grimoald, King of the Lombards and the kings from Liutprand on was the duchy closely tied to the kingdom. After the fall of the kingdom, however, alone of Lombard territories it remained as a rump state, and maintained its de facto independence for nearly three hundred years, though it was divided after 849.

The Principality of Capua was a Lombard state centred on Capua in Southern Italy, usually de facto independent, but under the varying suzerainty of Western and Eastern Roman Empires. It was originally a gastaldate, then a county, within the principality of Salerno.

John soon found that he was unable to control the powerful Roman nobility as his father had so effortlessly done. [10] At around the same time, Berengar II, King of Italy, began to attack the territory of the pope. In order to protect himself against political intrigues in Rome and the power of Berengar II, in 960 John sent papal legates to the King of Germany Otto I, who had previously been granted the rank of Patrician, asking for his aid. [11] Agreeing to John’s invitation, Otto entered Italy in 961. Berengar quickly retreated to his strongholds, and Otto proceeded to enter Rome on 31 January 962. There he met with John and proceeded to swear under oath that he would do everything to defend the pope:

Berengar II of Italy Italian monarch

Berengar II was the King of Italy from 950 until his deposition in 961. He was a scion of the Anscarid and Unruoching dynasties, and was named after his maternal grandfather, Berengar I. He succeeded his father as Margrave of Ivrea around 923, and after 940 led the aristocratic opposition to Kings Hugh and Lothair II. In 950 he succeeded the latter and had his son, Adalbert crowned as his co-ruler. In 952 he recognised the suzerainty of Otto I of Germany, but he later joined a revolt against him. In 960 he invaded the Papal States, and the next year his kingdom was conquered by Otto. Berengar remained at large until his surrender in 964. He died imprisoned in Germany two years later.

King of Italy ruler who ruled part or all of the Italian Peninsula after the fall of the Western Roman Empire

King of Italy was the title given to the ruler of the Kingdom of Italy after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. The first to take the title was Odoacer, a "barbarian" military leader, in the late 5th century, followed by the Ostrogothic kings up to the mid-6th century. With the Frankish conquest of Italy in the 8th century, the Carolingians assumed the title, which was maintained by subsequent Holy Roman Emperors throughout the Middle Ages. The last Emperor to claim the title was Charles V in the 16th century. During this period, the holders of the title were crowned with the Iron Crown of Lombardy.

Rome Capital city and comune in Italy

Rome is the capital city and a special comune of Italy. Rome also serves as the capital of the Lazio region. With 2,872,800 residents in 1,285 km2 (496.1 sq mi), it is also the country's most populated comune. It is the fourth most populous city in the European Union by population within city limits. It is the centre of the Metropolitan City of Rome, which has a population of 4,355,725 residents, thus making it the most populous metropolitan city in Italy. Rome is located in the central-western portion of the Italian Peninsula, within Lazio (Latium), along the shores of the Tiber. The Vatican City is an independent country inside the city boundaries of Rome, the only existing example of a country within a city: for this reason Rome has been often defined as capital of two states.

"To thee, the Lord Pope John, I, King Otto, promise and swear, by the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, by the wood of the life-giving cross, and by these relics of the saints, that, if by the will of God I come to Rome, I will exalt to the best of my ability the Holy Roman Church and you its ruler; and never with my will or at my instigation shall you lose life or limb or the honour which you possess. And without your consent never, within the city of Rome, will I hold a placitum (plea) or make any regulation which affects you or the Romans. Whatever territory of St. Peter comes within my grasp, I will give up to you. And to whomsoever I shall entrust the kingdom of Italy, I will make him swear to help you as far as he can to defend the lands of St. Peter." [12] [13]

John then proceeded to crown Otto as Roman Emperor, the first in the west since the death of Berengar I of Italy almost 40 years before. The pope and the Roman nobility swore an oath over the buried remains of Saint Peter to be faithful to Otto, and not to provide aid to Berengar II or his son Adalbert. [14] Eleven days later, the pope and emperor ratified the Diploma Ottonianum , under which the emperor became the guarantor of the independence of the Papal States, which ran from Naples and Capua in the south to La Spezia and Venice in the north. This was the first effective guarantee of such protection since the collapse of the Carolingian Empire nearly 100 years before. He also confirmed the freedom of papal elections, but retained the imperial right to agree to the election before the papal consecration, whilst at the same time retaining the clauses of the Constitutio Romana which restricted temporal papal power. [15] [16]

Church affairs

Although Pope John XII was condemned for his worldly ways, he still managed to devote some time towards church affairs. In early 956 he wrote to William of Mayence, the papal legate in Germany, urging him to continue in his work there, especially against those who would “devastate the churches of God”. He asked William to inform him of the goings on both in West Francia and Germany. John also wrote to Henry, the new Archbishop of Trier, granting him the pallium and encouraging him to lead a good life. [7] In 958, he granted privileges to Subiaco Abbey, on condition that:

"every day by priests and monks should be recited, for the good of our soul and the souls of our successors, a hundred Kyrie-eleisons and a hundred Christe-eleisons, and that thrice each week the priests should offer the Holy Mass to Almighty God for the absolution of our soul and those of our successors." [17]

In 960 John confirmed the appointment of Saint Dunstan as Archbishop of Canterbury, who travelled to Rome to receive the pallium directly from John XII’s hands. [18]

On February 12 962, John convened a synod in Rome at the behest of the emperor Otto. In it, John agreed to establish the Archbishopric of Magdeburg and the Bishopric of Merseburg, bestowed the pallium on the Archbishop of Salzburg and Archbishop of Trier, and confirmed the appointment of Rother as Bishop of Verona. It also passed a resolution excommunicating Hugh of Vermandois, who had attempted to reclaim his former position as Archbishop of Reims. [19] This excommunication was reconfirmed by John at another synod held at Pavia later that same year. [20]

Nevertheless, it is clear, in the words of Horace K. Mann, that "ecclesiastical affairs did not seem to have had much attraction for John XII." [21]

Conflict with Otto and death

Otto left Rome on 14 February 962 in order to bring Berengar II to heel. Before leaving he suggested that John, "who passed his whole life in vanity and adultery", give up his worldly and sensual lifestyle. John ignored this advice and watched with increasing anxiety as Otto quickly drove Berengar out of the Papal States. Growing ever more fearful of the emperor's power, he sent envoys to the Magyars and the Byzantine Empire to form a league against Otto. He also entered into negotiations with Adalbert. [21]

His ambassadors were captured by Otto I, who sent a deputation to Rome to discover what was happening behind his back. [22] John in the meantime sent his own envoys to Otto, including the future Pope Leo VIII, who tried to reassure the emperor that John was seeking to reform the papal court. [23] However, in 963, Otto next learned that Adalbert had been allowed to enter Rome for discussions with John. With Berengar effectively defeated and imprisoned, Otto returned to Rome, besieging it in the summer of 963. He found a city divided; supporters of the emperor who had reported Adalbert’s arrival in Rome had dug themselves in at Joannispolis, a fortified section of Rome centred on the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls. John and his supporters meanwhile retained the old Leonine City. At first John prepared to defend the city; appearing in armour, he managed to drive Otto’s forces across the Tiber River. [24] However, he quickly decided that he could not continue to defend the city, and so taking the papal treasury with him, he and Adalbert fled to Tibur. [25] [26]

Otto I subsequently summoned a council which demanded that John present himself and defend himself against a number of charges. John responded by threatening to excommunicate anyone who attempted to depose him. [27] Undeterred, the emperor and the council uncanonically deposed John XII, who by this time had gone hunting in the mountains of Campania, [28] and elected Pope Leo VIII in his stead. [29]

An attempt at a revolt in support of John was mounted by the inhabitants of Rome even before Otto I left the city, but was put down with a large loss of life. However, upon the emperor’s departure, John XII returned at the head of a large company of friends and retainers, causing Leo VIII to flee to the emperor for safety. [30] Entering Rome in February 964, John proceeded to summon a synod which pronounced his deposition as uncanonical. After mutilating some of his enemies, he again was the effective ruler of Rome. [31] [32] Sending Otgar, Bishop of Speyer to the emperor, he attempted to come to some accommodation with Otto, but before anything could come of it, John XII died on 14 May 964. According to Liudprand of Cremona, John died whilst enjoying an adulterous sexual encounter outside Rome, either as the result of apoplexy, or at the hands of an outraged husband. [33]

John was buried in the Lateran. Pope Benedict V soon succeeded him, but he was successfully deposed by Leo VIII.

Character and reputation

John’s dual role as the secular prince of Rome and the spiritual head of the church saw his behaviour lean towards the former rather than the latter. [34] He was depicted as a coarse, immoral man in the writings which remain about his papacy, whose life was such that the Lateran Palace was spoken of as a brothel, and the moral corruption in Rome became the subject of general disgrace. His lifestyle suited the secular prince he was, and his political enemies would use these accusations to blacken his reputation not only to justify, but to obscure the political dimensions of his deposition.

It is for this purpose that Liudprand of Cremona, a partisan of the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I, gives an account of the charges levelled against him at the Synod of Rome in 963:

Then, rising up, the cardinal priest Peter testified that he himself had seen John XII celebrate Mass without taking communion. John, bishop of Narni, and John, a cardinal deacon, professed that they themselves saw that a deacon had been ordained in a horse stable, but were unsure of the time. Benedict, cardinal deacon, with other co-deacons and priests, said they knew that he had been paid for ordaining bishops, specifically that he had ordained a ten-year-old bishop in the city of Todi ... They testified about his adultery, which they did not see with their own eyes, but nonetheless knew with certainty: he had fornicated with the widow of Rainier, with Stephana his father's concubine, with the widow Anna, and with his own niece, and he made the sacred palace into a whorehouse. They said that he had gone hunting publicly; that he had blinded his confessor Benedict, and thereafter Benedict had died; that he had killed John, cardinal subdeacon, after castrating him; and that he had set fires, girded on a sword, and put on a helmet and cuirass. All, clerics as well as laymen, declared that he had toasted to the devil with wine. They said when playing at dice, he invoked Jupiter, Venus and other demons. They even said he did not celebrate Matins at the canonical hours nor did he make the sign of the cross.

However, other contemporaries also accused John of immoral behaviour. For example, Ratherius of Verona wrote:

What improvement could be looked for if one who was leading an immoral life, who was bellicose and perjured, and who was devoted to hunting, hawking, gaming, and wine, were to be elected to the Apostolic See? [35]

In the end though, much of the subsequent extreme condemnation of John XII is derived from the accusations recorded by Liudprand of Cremona. So according to fiercely anti-Catholic Louis Marie DeCormenin:

John XII was worthy of being the rival of Elagabalus ... a robber, a murderer, and incestuous person, unworthy to represent Christ upon the pontifical throne ... This abominable priest soiled the chair of St. Peter for nine entire years and deserved to be called the most wicked of popes. [36]

The historian Ferdinand Gregorovius was somewhat more sympathetic:

John's princely instincts were stronger than his taste for spiritual duties, and the two natures—that of Octavian and that of John the Twelfth—stood in unequal conflict. Called as he was in the immaturity of youth to a position which gave him claims on the reverence of the world, his judgment deserted him, and he plunged into the most unbridled sensuality. The Lateran palace was turned into an abode of riot and debauchery. The gilded youths of the city were his daily companions ... The son of the glorious Alberic thus fell a sacrifice to his own unbridled passion, and to the anomalous position which he held as Prince and Pope at the same time. His youth, the greatness of his father, the tragic discords of his position, claim for him a lenient judgment. [37] [38]

Even a papal apologist like Horace Mann was forced to acknowledge:

There cannot be a doubt that John XII was anything but what a Pope, the chief pastor of Christendom, should have been. [39]

Onofrio Panvinio, in the revised edition of Bartolomeo Platina's book about the popes, added an elaborate note indicating that the legend of Pope Joan may be based on a mistress of John XII: "Panvinius, in a note to Platina's account of pope Joan, suggests that the licentiousness of John XII, who, among his numerous mistresses, had one called Joan, who exercised the chief influence at Rome during his pontificate, may have given rise to the story of 'pope Joan'." [40]

See also

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  1. Mann 1910, pp. 243–244.
  2. Gregorovius 1895, pp. 328–329.
  3. Kirsch, Johann Peter. "Pope John XII." The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. 8. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 4 Jan. 2016
  4. Mann 1910, p. 230.
  5. Mann 1910, pp. 244–245.
  6. Norwich 2011, p. 76.
  7. 1 2 Mann 1910, p. 245.
  8. Gregorovius 1895, p. 330.
  9. Mann 1910, pp. 246–247.
  10. Gregorovius 1895, p. 331.
  11. Mann 1910, p. 247.
  12. Mann 1910, p. 248.
  13. Gregorovius 1895, pp. 332–333.
  14. Mann 1910, p. 250.
  15. Mann 1910, p. 252.
  16. Gregorovius 1895, p. 338.
  17. Mann 1910, p. 246.
  18. Mann 1910, pp. 265–266.
  19. Mann 1910, pp. 253–254.
  20. Mann 1910, p. 235.
  21. 1 2 Mann 1910, p. 254.
  22. Gregorovius 1895, p. 340.
  23. Mann 1910, pp. 255–256.
  24. Gregorovius 1895, pp. 341–342.
  25. Norwich 2011, p. 79.
  26. Mann 1910, p. 256.
  27. Gregorovius 1895, p. 347.
  28. Norwich 2011, p. 80.
  29. Luttwak 2009, p. 150.
  30. Gregorovius 1895, pp. 349–350.
  31. Norwich 2011, pp. 80–81.
  32. Mann 1910, pp. 262–264.
  33. Mann 1910, p. 264.
  34. Gregorovius 1895, p. 329.
  35. Mann 1910, p. 242.
  36. DeCormenin & Gihon 1857, pp. 296–298.
  37. Gregorovius, Ferdinand (1895). History of the City of Rome in the Middle Ages, Volume 3. G. Bell & sons. pp. 330, 351,352. Retrieved 8 September 2018.
  38. Gregorovius 1895, pp. 329–330; 351–352.
  39. Mann 1910, pp. 241–242.
  40. Freeman, Thomas S., The Myth of the Female Pope in Early Modern England in Religious Politics in Post-Reformation England: Essays in Honour of Nicholas Tyacke, Boydell & Brewer (2006), p. 69.


Catholic Church titles
Preceded by
Agapetus II
Succeeded by
Benedict V