Lesson #32: Marozia the Pope-Maker (10th Century A.D.)
[From The Bedside Book of Bastards by Dorothy Johnson and R. T. Turner] For centuries,
women have been trying to get equal rights. Every now and then, one succeeds, and
proves that given equality of opportunity, women can be just as bad as anyone. In
the tenth century A. D., the ambitious wife and daughter of an Italian noble named
Theophylact rose about as high as any women have ever gotten. Neither of them actually
became pope or even wanted to, but they made popes, ruled them, and murdered them.
Theophylact and his wife Theodora had daughters named Marozia and Theodora.
Theodora the younger didn't do anything spectacular. The elder Theodora and her daughter
Marozia were pretty successful in using all their God-given advantages, good looks,
no scruples, and great talent for public (and private) affairs. Their era became
known as the pornocracy, government by dissolute women.
Theophylact presided over the papal treasury. He was a sort of prime minister and
commander-in-chief. As his womenfolk's meddling became more and more successful,
he assumed the titles of Duke, Consul, and Senator of Rome. He was snot just A Senator,
but the Senator, dominus urbis, lord of the city. Theodora the elder and her daughter
Marozia, unwilling to be ignored, also assumed the title of Senator.
Those were turbulent times in Italy, which was united only by religion. Scandals
at the ecclesiastical as well as the secular level were the order of the day. There
was usually a power struggle in the church and in the various secular governments,
and in addition the church claimed temporal as well as spiritual sovereignty. A few
years before Theodora and Marozia came to the fore (and certainly while they were
in power) there were wild goings-on. In the years between 896 and 904, known as the
Dark Age of the Papacy, there were ten popes, most of whom gained or lost office
by murder and intrigue. In those days popes were not elected in the solemn ceremony
that now prevails. It was more like a dogfight. [See The Synod Horrenda, Weird History
passim. A section here describing the Cadaver Synod and the imprisonment and strangling
of Stephen VII is snipped. We've already covered that.]
Stephen's immediate successors were Romanus, who reigned for four months, and Theodore
II, who lasted for only twenty days. Then TWO popes were elected, Sergius III and
John IX, but of course this wouldn't do at all. In the ensuing scramble, John won
out—he had more political punch--and excommunicated Sergius, who escaped into Tuscany.
John lasted until 900; Benedict IV followed, holding office until 903. Leo V took
office for one month, until a Cardinal named Christopher led an uprising and had
him thrown in prison. Christopher usurped the papal throne from September 903 until
the following January. He is not, however, named in the church's official list of
popes; he was an interloper, an anti-pope. Now the exiled Sergius, who had been plotting
with the French, came back and threw Christopher into prison. One story has it that
Sergius strangled both Christopher and Leo. Sergius has been described as "malignant,
ferocious, and unclean." The one good thing he is remembered for is that he rebuilt
the Lateran basilica, which collapsed after the Synod Horrenda.
With Sergius III in power, Theophylact's family came into its own. Theodora the elder
was one of Sergius's supporters, and Marozia, an ambitious teenager, was his paramour.
A son was born to Marozia and Sergius. The infant was destined to become Pope John
XI. But Sergius died after a reign of seven years and somebody had to fill the papal
throne while John was growing up.
Anastasius III reigned uneventfully for the next two years. Landus succeeded him
in July 913, and nothing much is known about him except that he took his orders from
Theodora the elder. He appointed as archbishop of Ravenna a lover of Theodora's,
who succeeded him in March 914 as John X.
For a while this John did as he was told by the ladies of the pornocracy. In a political
horse-trade he even appointed a five year-old child as archbishop of Rheims. And
at the behest of these powerful female ward bosses he crowned Berengar, a grandson
of Charlemagne, as Emperor of the West in 915. This was an empty title but much in
But John X showed a fatal tendency to branch out and take action without permission.
He crowned Rudolf of Burgundy as king of Italy in 922, even though the Emperor Berengar
had been king for years and thought he still was. Marozia thought he was, too, and
Berengar was one of her favorites. She began to take a long, hard look at John X
for challenging her authority.
About 924 Marozia's father, mother, and husband—Theophylact, Theodora, and Alberich—disappear
from the pages of history without a trace. Now Marozia was all-powerful, and she
had every intention of maintaining that position. She was rich, beautiful, ambitious,
and about thirty-four years old. Needing a nice place to live, suitable for a lady
of her standing, she seized Hadrian's Tomb and moved in. The roomy mausoleum even
had convenient dungeons, and the late Emperor Hadrian wasn't really using it any
more, because he had been dead for eight hundred years. (The Borgia Pope, Alexander
VI, fortified it in the fifteenth century, and now it is called the Castle de St.
Angelo.) Marozia was Senator; she ruled Rome. And she began to look around for another
husband. We don't know what happened to Alberich, but no doubt his widow did.
In 926 the ungrateful John X crowned Hugo of Provence as the next king of Italy (Berengar
had been assassinated) and Marozia was fretting because her advice hadn't been asked.
But she found a suitable candidate as successor to her missing-presumed-dead husband
Alberich. This was Guido, duke of Tuscany , who had political connections and a potential
future that appealed to her. She let it be known that she wouldn't mind marrying
John X made another awful mistake. He put his foot down. The union of Marozia with
Duke Guido was not his idea of sound politics. He had on his side the argument of
his brother Peter, Count of Orte, but Marozia was more powerful than both of them
combined. At her command the brothers were seized. Peter was killed before the Pope's
very eyes, and John X himself was thrown into prison and then smothered. The triumphant
Marozia married Guido of Tuscany. Her next candidate for the papacy reigned as Leo
VI for a few months. There is no record of what became of him. His successor, also
put forward by Marozia, ruled for two years as Stephen VIII. He was assassinated,
probably by her orders.
The year was now 931, and Marozia's boy John had been growing up. Her younger son
Alberich, by her first marriage, had been growing up too; she should have kept a
closer watch on him, because he turned out to be a menace. Son John became Pope John
XI in March 931. He was under age, but that was a small matter. Marozia intended
to run things anyway.
While he was in office, she became a widow again. The facts are not clear. Anyway,
her second husband disappeared. She had always wanted to be a queen, and the chances
looked good. Hugo of Provence, whom John X had crowned king of Italy in 926, had
just lost his official wife. Marozia offered him her hand and heart. Hugo was willing.
True, he was her brother-in-law by her second husband, so they were related within
the prohibited degrees of kinship for marriage, but Marozia told her son the pope
to relax the rule. He married the happy couple in the bride's home, Hadrian's tomb.
The obvious next step was to revive the vacant title of emperor for Hugo so that
his bride could become an empress. The stage was now set for the entry of the other
son, Alberich, about eighteen. He had political ambitions, and his mother's shenanigans
could wreck them. Furthermore, he didn't like his new stepfather, Hugo, in whose
court he was required to act as a page. Alberich spilled a cup of wine on Hugo, who
rewarded him by boxing his ears. Alberich rushed out in a rage and began yelling
to the people outside the castle. He was a fiery orator and a handsome youth, and
the people of Rome were open to suggestions. Besides, they considered Marozia's latest
marriage incestuous. In no time flat, Alberich had a mob at his command. They assaulted
the castle with enthusiasm and damage in mind.
The terrified King Hugo let himself down from a window with a rope and fled from
Rome. Alberich threw his mother into prison in her own palace, and nothing more was
ever heard of Marozia. One chronicle reported that Alberich was warned by a mad monk
with the gift of prophecy against spilling the blood of his own mother, and so he
diverted a conduit from the river Tiber into her underground cell until it was full
of water to the brim, then sealed it up forever.
Alberich governed Rome for twenty years, keeping a tight rein on his half-brother,
Pope John XI, who died about 935, ostensibly of natural causes, although with this
family one always has to wonder. Alberich was a severe ruler but a good one. This
statement is based on the fact that after he died, conditions in Rome became much
worse. He brought about several needed reforms. He saw to it that the popes who held
office during his regime were responsible for spiritual but not temporal affairs.
And three times, when King Hugo came clamoring at the gates of the city with conquest
in mind, Alberich repulsed him. Alberich married Hugo's daughter, who was his stepsister,
during a lull in the hostilities. Even when he was trying to storm the city, so far
as is known, Hugo politely refrained from inquiring of his enemy and son-in-law as
to the whereabouts of his wife. She was a family skeleton, literally.
Alberich's ambitions stretched longer than his life. When he was near death from
a fever, at about age forty, he assembled the nobles of Rome and made them swear
that they would elect his young son Octavian to succeed him as ruler and, when the
next vacancy occurred in the papacy, to that high office. Thus he overruled his own
decision that spiritual and temporal affairs should be kept separate—but the fact
that Octavian was his own son made a difference. Alberich died in 954. Octavian became
prince, and a year later when Pope Agapitus II died, he was crowned Pope John XII.
He established the custom, which popes still adhere to, of changing his name.
John XII, sixteen years old when he began his reign, was a REAL hell-raiser. Grandma
Marozia would have been proud of him. In 963 he was deposed, and a year later he
was killed by an outraged husband who came home unexpectedly.
Marozia's descendants were remarkably lucky in attaining the papal throne many decades
after she had gone to her eternal reward. Two of her great-grandsons became pope:
Benedict VIII (who wasn't even a priest when elected but became a strong and effective
pontiff), 1012–1024; and his brother John XIX, 1024–1032. The successor of John XIX
was his nephew Theophylact, who became Benedict IX at age twenty. During his lifetime
there were so many fights for supremacy that he resigned once and was deposed twice.
He was pope for three periods: 1032–1044; 1045; and 1047–1048.
Marozia was a tyrant and a murderess. She was mistress of a pope (Sergius III), mother
of a pope (John XI), grandmother of a pope (John XII), great-grandmother of two popes
(John XIX and Benedict VIII), and great-great-grandmother of another (Benedict IX).
Nobody has beaten that record.