Pope John XII: Who’s Afraid of The Big Bad Pope?

Today I am dedicating this blog update to a very despicable, dishonourable and disturbing man. This is a very curious thing to do as I just noticed, and maybe some of you have noticed as well, that I usually write about people’s history, mankind good causes and hope. However, this with perhaps the addition of my update for the month of violence is rather a dark, grim one.  Today I am talking about a man who many would probably not know and many others most likely would not like to know, just like myself. Today, I am presenting you the story of a rather young man called Octavian, that lived during the Middle Ages, in the first part of the 10th century in one of the most important places in the world at the time: Rome, and more precisely the Papal States. I am talking indeed about the man better known as Pope John XII, who was pontiff of the Catholic Church from the 16th of December, 955 to the 14th of May, 964. It is a funny story this one of John.

One could say he had a nice easy-going life right from the beginning. He was the son, possibly illegitimate, of Alberic II, Prince of Rome. The ruler apparently liked his child enough to pretty much proclaim him as both pontiff and ruler of Rome despite Octavian being barely 18 years old, as it seemed to be his wish right before he died[1].  I guess one could say that for being such a young pope he did not do too bad…Unless we take in account the fact that apparently the young man has very lusty, lascivious habits that managed to create and spread rumours (or most likely facts rather than rumours) about his governance over the Lateran palace and how it was becoming pretty much a brothel[2]. It is true that the situation involving the papacy had started a long marathon of degeneration since the unfortunate murder of Pope John VII in 882. Figures like Pope Stephen VI did not do much to clean the papal reputation, but only made it worst with his macabre displays of authority[3]. This has not been said to excuse young Octavian, but rather to make clear things were getting ugly…and he only made them uglier. So it happens that the young man was not so good in assuring his secular authority. In fact he was in a very bad position, constantly threatened by Berengar II of Ivrea, the man who had been ruling the majority of Italy since 950, a man of power and therefore ambitious[4].  Being Octavian an inexperienced, weak ruler he tried to seek help and thought to have found an ally in Otto I, who was looking ferociously for a way to increase his renown and authority. As many may probably know already Otto I was after the imperial crown, he wanted the power his ancestors had time ago back. And if you would be the Pope, knowing the man and knowing what he wanted, would you not offer this as a sign of alliance? Would you not give the imperial crown to Otto so he could help you against Berengar? Of course, but would you do it even if it was an action against your recently deceased father’s will? Well, he did.


The alliance worked perfectly fine for both factions and soon Otto was crushing down some annoying Lombards and later on marching to Rome, imposing his authority and pleasing the Pope all at once! Good for him, you would think, and good for the Pope as well, right? Well, I am afraid to say that not so very much. Unfortunately for John XII (or at least it seems that he saw this as a very unfortunate thing to happen) Otto re-established a set of donations and privileges that his ancestors Pepin and Charlemagne has long ago granted the papacy, which are known to us as the Ottonianum. This was indeed a contract between the holy roman emperor and the papacy that granted back lands to the pontiff and provided him with imperial defence[5], which does not seem like a bad deal at all. Nonetheless, in addition, the pope also had new obligations towards the emperor due to this issue: he had to swear loyalty to the imperial crown, and be subjected to imperial approval when papal elections took place[6]. A little price for a huge favour it seems to me, but it seems that John XII thought that was far too much, and therefore unacceptable. Considering this facts, I guess the next stage in this story seems to a certain degree obvious. As J.N.D Kelly states in his text about our protagonist:

            “Pope and emperor had been mutually mistrustful, and when Otto left Rome to fight Berengar, John, who had looked for a protector not a master, immediately began intriguing against him with Berengar’s son Adalbert, and also with the Magyars”[7].


But it did not work too well for him. Otto was not a man oblivious to reality and eventually he found out. With the whole power of the imperial army and an angry, betrayed man on its command the Pope felt the necessity to flee to Tivoli…with the papal treasure, of course, just for safe keeping. It does not seem surprising then than at this point the many member of the ecclesiastical order charged against him because of his appalling misbehaviour…And of course, Otto joined in accusing the Pope of perfidy and treachery[8]. Octavian was deposed shortly after -Dec., 963- but he could not just take the fact that it was the end of his rule. Reason why, he managed to come back for a moment, by provoking a revolt in Rome against the empire and their puppet Pope, fact that backed him up and granted him the papal authority once more[9]. Otto, possibly quite desperate at this point, marched again into Rome to finish off the business he probably should have done earlier, for once. Nonetheless, the cowardly vicious Pope had already gone…Again…This time he found refuge somewhere else (you know if you repeat locations far too often the end up catching you…). For this particular occasion his holiday paradise was the area of Campagna…Funnily enough, the man died there. Apparently he found refuge with a married woman, and some sources seem to think this lusty act caused him a stroke that killed him shortly after (although other sources seem to think that the husband of the woman found him and so beat him to death).


What a charming, lovely and loyal man. Just for the record he was not even 30 when he died. So here we have a man who first of all betrayed his religious convictions and the ideals that he was meant to be defending. Second of all, a child that had been granted everything and betrayed his father’s last wish. Also, the same man who betrayed his one ally despite all the benefits this union was granting him. And finally he was coward, greedy man who fled his city and his people, with the treasure because he was scared of the consequences of his actions, which finally led him to his death. So just to clarify, we are talking about betrayal to the Catholic Church, to the city of Rome and its inhabitants, to the Holy Roman Emperor and to his own father…There are not enough words to describe these certainly despicable actions of treachery…

What made him a traitor or how did he become one? It seems likely to me in the case of other figures we have exposed here this month that sometimes a traitor is made by history itself, or by points of view. Sometimes the term traitor do not totally fulfil the definition of the persona described…But in this case I think that betrayal ran on his veins, it was something natural to him, perhaps due to his cowardly nature and inexperience, perhaps due to his ‘prince’ background…Perhaps just because he could, though it is true that some people are just born to be nasty and mean and exploit their natural resources for such purpose. These are the kind of traitors that history should be searching for, the professional ‘back-stabbers’ rather than perhaps the people than trying to do their job fell into treason, or that seem to have fallen in treachery because of ideals for a better world.


Excuse my ramble about ‘despicability’ and nastiness about this man and others. But I hope you now have a wider idea of what makes a traitor, or at least a historical one.



Arnold, B., Medieval Germany 500-1300: A Political Interpretation (London, 1997)

Fleckenstein, J., Early Medieval Germany (Amsterdam, New York and Oxford, 1978)

Heer, F., The Holy Roman Empire (London, 1968)

Kelly, J.N.D., The Oxford Dictionary of Popes (Oxford, 1996)

Parsons, Z., ‘The 6 Most Awful Popes’, Something Awful,(Apr., 2008)


[1] J.N.D.Kelly, The Oxford Dictionary of Popes (Oxford, 1996),p. 126

[2] Ibid., p. 126

[3] F.Heer, The Holy Roman Empire (London, 1968), p. 37

[4] B.Arnold, Medieval Germany 500-1300: A Political Interpretation (London, 1997), p. 84

[5] J.N.D.Kelly, The Oxford Dictionary of Popes (Oxford, 1996),p. 127

[6] J.Fleckenstein, Early Medieval Germany (Amsterdam, New York and Oxford, 1978), p. 149

[7] J.N.D.Kelly, The Oxford Dictionary of Popes (Oxford, 1996),p. 127

[8] Ibid., p. 127

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