Pope John XII Vatican

Octavianus was only 18 years old when he ascended the Papacy of the Roman Catholic Church and became Pope John XII on December 16, 955. He was the only son of Duke Alberic II (932–954) of Spoleto, then ruler of Rome.

Alberic, before his death in 954, made Roman nobles swear at St. Peter’s altar that they would make his son, Octavianus, the pope at the first vacancy. Since the leaders loved the dying father, they kept their word to him and elected Octavianus as the 130th Roman Catholic Pope succeeding Pope Agapetus II after the pope’s death on November 8, 955.

Becoming Pope John XII

Octavianus adopted the apostolic name of John XII. He was the third pontiff to take a regnal name upon elevation to the papal chair; the first being Pope John II (533–535), whose birth name was Mercurius and the second, Pope John III (561–574), whose birth name was Catelinus.

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 XII.

Image of Pope John XII
Pope John XII (937–May 14, 964)/Owlcation.

With his election to the highest office of the Western church, Pope John XII was ruler over spiritual and civil matters in Rome. However, he preferred battles to Bible study, hunting to holiness, and was a notorious adulterer and liar. The prestige of the papacy was at its lowest ebb.

Alliance with Otto I of Germany

With time, the young pope began to worry about his enemies who defeated him in battle and occupied lands that belonged to the popes. To protect himself against them he formed an alliance with Otto I, the King of Germany and crowned him Holy Roman Emperor (a title that had been vacant for 40 years) in exchange for protection. The Papal States hadn’t had such protection in a century, so it represented a diplomatic coup.

In return, Otto promised to recognize only John as the pope. On January 31, 962, the two agreed that from then on popes would pledge themselves to the emperor. Nonetheless, Otto pleaded with John to reform his wicked ways.

No sooner had Otto left Rome on February 14, 962, that John was sorry he had given up some of the pope’s authority to Otto. He didn’t heed Otto’s advice to give up his worldly and sensual lifestyle and began to fear the power that he himself had given the new emperor. He sent envoys to the Byzantine Empire, hoping for an alliance against Otto should that relationship sour. Nevertheless, it soured when John’s ambassadors were captured by Otto, who immediately learned of the deceitful pope’s plans.

Otto, who had only recently sworn to defend and protect Rome, besieged the city. Pope John XII appeared in armour, leading troops to defend the city, and driving Otto’s army back across the Tiber River. But he quickly realized he was outmatched and, with the papal treasury, he fled.

Image of Inauguration of Pope John XII.
Inauguration of Pope John XII, December 16, 955). A 17th-century painting of a 10th-century mosaic (since destroyed) at the Basilica of St. John Lateran, Rome.

Testimony against John XII

Otto then gathered the leaders of the church into a synod (local church council) which met on November 6, 963. The church’s 50 Italian and German bishops summoned John to defend himself against charges of adultery, incest, murder, perjury, sacrilege, and simony (selling church offices). John refused to appear. Instead, he wrote in his poor grammar, saying:

To all the bishops–We hear that you wish to make another pope. If you do I will excommunicate you by Almighty God and you have no power to ordain no one or celebrate mass.”

Adamant, the synod proceeded with its hearings. The emperor himself testified against John. With the emperor’s consent, the synod removed John from office on December 4, 963. In his place, they chose a layman named Leo. But Leo VIII’s election was improper by existing standards. Nonetheless, Leo ruled until the following year.

Death and Legacy

However, John would not be shaken off so easily. While in exile he recruited an army of mercenaries and allies, marching back to Rome. With Otto gone, John recaptured the city, cut off the hands, ears and noses of his several foes, ran off the puppet Pope Leo VIII and reclaimed his title.

A furious Otto decided it was time to deal with John once and for all, and set out for Rome at the head of an army. But he was too late. The pope’s hourglass was about to be out of the sand. But by the time Otto arrived in Rome, Pope John XII was dead.

The 27-year-old pope had suffered a fatal stroke and died on May 14, 964, allegedly, while in bed with another man’s wife doing what he loved.

John XII didn’t concern himself much about living a life of chastity and resisting carnal temptations. He scandalised even the Roman society of his day with his addiction to pleasure and sin. The pope’s opponents even accused him of turning the Vatican into a brothel.

Perhaps owing to his youth, or perhaps because he was granted the office due to political manoeuvrings and not any particular show of holiness, John XII’s reign as pope became infamous for the alleged immorality and worldliness with which he conducted it.

Some of the grievances against John XII, by the Synod of Rome in 963, included ordaining a 10-year-old as a bishop (this was part of a larger claim that he had been selling off titles within the church) and ordaining a deacon in a horse stable. He was accused of “fornicating with” his own niece, and several widows, and “made the sacred palace into a whorehouse.”

John XII was succeeded by Pope Benedict V, but after a month and a day, Leo VIII came back for a second run at the Vatican, ousting Benedict. Leo’s first stint lasted for only two months, while his second papacy lasted until his death on March 1, 965.

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Klein, C. (2017, March 2022). 10 Grisly Papal Deaths. History. Retrieved from https://www.history.com/news/10-grisly-papal-deaths

Parsons, Z. (2008, April 24). The 6 Most Awful Popes. Something Awful. Retrieved from https://www.somethingawful.com/most-awful/popes-cadaver-synod/2/

Setterfield, R. (2017, April 7). Pope ‘Turned Vatican Into Whorehouse’. OnThisDay. Retrieved from https://www.onthisday.com/articles/pope-turned-vatican-into-whorehouse

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