Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Choosing a Pope in the Viking Age

As ABC News reported, "The Italian media is portraying the Vatican political culture as being equally depraved, drenched in ambition, wine and pheromones [as Italian president Sylvio Berlusconi's reelection campaign]. … The Rome papers are full of reports that sound like the plot of Dan Brown novel, starting with a shadowy Vatican dossier supposedly detailing a gay sex and blackmail scandal involving the curia."

All I can say is that it was worse a thousand years ago. Much worse. I wrote The Abacus and the Cross because I wanted to know what popes were like in the Viking Age, especially around the year 1000. What I learned surprised me. In addition to all the positive things I chronicle in the book, I found enough depravity, ambition, and pheromones circling around the representative of Saint Peter to support the Italian media's current view. I also found astonishing brutality, and violence equal to anything the Vikings are said to have done.

Tenth-century popes were not the powerful religious leaders of today. They were political pawns, not elected (there was no college of cardinals in those days) so much as backed by the biggest army. For much of the century the papacy was influenced by the mercurial Roman noblewoman Marozia. She was mistress of Pope Sergius III (904-11), murderer of John X (914-28), and mother of John XI (931-35).

Her grandson, John XII (955-63), was both pope and Prince of Rome until he double-crossed Otto I, whom he had just crowned Emperor. At a synod in Rome, John XII was accused of sacrilege, simony, perjury, murder, adultery, and incest, and deposed. He excommunicated the members of the synod, and when he caught three of them, he flogged one, cut off another’s right hand and the third’s nose and ears. Otto I's army marched on Rome, but before they arrived John was “stricken by paralysis in the act of adultery” and died.

Otto’s candidate to be the next pope, Leo, wasn’t even a priest. The Romans chose Benedict, a deacon, who was well qualified. He was “attacked by Leo, aided by the emperor,” a contemporary wrote. “Besieged, made prisoner, and deposed, he was sent in exile to Germany,” and Otto appointed John XIII, a bishop and, incidentally, Marozia’s nephew. He was captured by a rival faction, but escaped. The emperor hanged the conspirators, and John XIII went on to have a successful papacy and a natural death.

His successor, chosen by Emperor Otto II, was strangled by supporters of his rival, Boniface VII. When Otto invaded the city, Boniface fled (first robbing the Vatican treasury), and Otto oversaw the appointment of John XIV. He lasted only until Emperor Otto II died in 983. Then Boniface returned from exile and and threw John XIV into the Castel Sant’Angelo where, according to one report, he starved to death. When Boniface VII himself died a year later, his body was dragged through the streets of Rome by a mob.

The nobles of Rome replaced him with a Roman nobleman. This John XV reigned 11 years by carefully balancing the desires of Crescentius of the Marble Horse, Prince of Rome, with those of the empresses Theophanu and Adelaide, then regents for the child-emperor Otto III.

John XV died suddenly (though naturally) while the teenaged Otto III was on his way to Rome to be crowned Emperor. Otto quickly nominated his cousin to become Gregory V in 996. Four months after Otto III took his army back to Germany, Gregory was chased out of Rome by a mob.

The antipope who replaced him was John Philagathos, abbot of Nonantola, archbishop of Piacenza, and chancellor of Italy.

Philagathos’s fate was the one that made me wonder why the Vikings got the reputation for being bloody barbarians. They were no bloodier or brutal than their peers in Rome or throughout the Holy Roman Empire in those days.

Philagathos had joined the imperial court before Otto’s birth. Some sources say he was Otto’s godfather, others that he tutored the boy in Greek. In 994, Otto sent him to Constantinople to find him a royal Byzantine bride, and so he was not at hand in 996 when John XV died and Otto appointed his cousin as pope.

Returning less than a year later, Philagathos felt unjustly overlooked. His traveling companion, Leo of Synada, whom the Byzantine emperor had sent to continue the marriage negotiations, agreed. Meeting in Rome with Crescentius of the Marble Horse, the two ambassadors urged him to appoint a new pope. So he did. Gregory was chased out of town in September 996. Philagathos was acclaimed John XVI by the citizens and senate of Rome  and anointed in February 997. He would last until Otto III arrived.

The emperor's army, led by Gregory V’s father, cowed Rome into surrender after one skirmish. Philagathos fled. Crescentius walled himself up in the Castel Sant’Angelo and held out for two months, until Otto’s siege engines broke through. Crescentius was beheaded and hanged by the feet from the castle walls alongside twelve of his companions.

Philagathos was captured by Berthold, count of Breisgau. “Fearing that if they sent him to the emperor, he might depart unpunished,” say the Annals of Quedlinburg, Gregory V’s German partisans took matters into their own hands. 

Leo of Synada gleefully tells the story: “Now you are going to laugh, a big, broad laugh, my dear heart and soul,” he begins. Philagathos, whom Leo clearly never liked, has fallen:

And why shouldn’t I tell you, brother, openly how he fell? Well, first, the Church of the West dealt him anathema; then his eyes were gouged out; third, his nose, and fourth, his lip, and fifth, that tongue of his which prattled so many and such unspeakable words, one by one, were all cut from his face. Item six: He rode like a conqueror in procession, grave and solemn on a miserable little donkey, hanging on to its tail.… Finally, for his refreshment, they threw him into prison.

I think of this every time someone says the Vikings were brutal.

Pope Gregory V was reinstated, but died of malaria in 999, at the age of 28. Then Emperor Otto III nominated as pope his own tutor, the leading mathematician and astronomer of his age, Gerbert of Aurillac, subject of my book The Abacus and the Cross.

Join me again next Wednesday at for another adventure in Iceland or the medieval world. And don't forget to enter the raffle for a free, autographed copy of Song of the Vikings. Details are in last week's post or click here.


  1. It is pretty clear that the Vikings did not have a monopoly on violence. Perhaps they were not as hypocritical in their approach as the popes.

  2. The were quite savage, and it is said that they LIVED for BATTLE!