Synod of Rome (963)

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The Synod of Rome (963) was a possibly uncanonical synod held in St. Peter’s Basilica from 6 November until 4 December 963, under the authority of the Holy Roman Emperor, Otto I to depose Pope John XII. The events of the synod were recorded by Liutprand of Cremona.


In the middle of 963, the Pope, John XII had been in communication with the Holy Roman Emperor, Otto I regarding the emperor’s concerns over John’s pontificate, and the pope’s meddling in the conflict between Otto and Berengar II, King of Italy. When Otto learned that John had allowed Berengar’s son Adalbert into Rome, he marched on the city. After defending Rome and driving Otto back to the Tiber River, John fled the city and took refuge in Tibur. Otto then entered Rome on 2 November 963.[1] After forcing the clergy and nobles to swear that they would not ordain or even elect a pope without his or his son’s consent, on 6 November 963 Otto convened a synod in St. Peter’s for the purpose of deposing John XII.[2]

Acts of the synod[edit]

After convening the synod, Otto appointed John, Bishop of Narni and John, the Cardinal-Deacon to act as the pope’s accusers, while Liutprand of Cremona, the emperor’s secretary, responded to the Romans on behalf of the emperor. Firstly, John XII was called forth to present himself before the council. As he was not present, the emperor Otto declared: “It appears to us just that the accusations should be set forth one by one; then what we should do can be decided on by common advice.”[3] At this point John of Narni declared that he had seen him ordain a deacon in a stable, and out of the appointed times. Another cardinal-priest bore witness that he had seen him celebrate Mass without communicating. Others accused him of murder and perjury, of sacrilege, of incest with members of his own family, including his sisters. They accused him of simony, of consecrating a ten-year-old child as Bishop of Todi, of converting the Lateran Palace into a brothel, of hunting, of mutilating men, of arson and of wearing armour. Finally, they declared that he drank a toast to the Devil, and while playing at dice invoked the name of Jupiter, Venus and other pagan gods.[4]

The synod then drafted a letter to John XII, detailing the charges against him, and asking him to come to Rome to answer the accusations. The letter promised that nothing would be done that was contrary to canon law. John responded by threatening to excommunicate anyone involved in raising a new pope while he still lived. The synod met again on 22 November and drafted a new letter to the pope, declaring that if he did not present himself to the synod, he himself would be excommunicated.[5] But the bearers of this letter could not locate John XII.

According to canon law, an accused bishop must be summoned three times; the Emperor satisfied himself with two citations. Therefore, on 4 December, the synod met for the final time. Without hearing a defence from John XII, the emperor declared that the pope was a criminal and a traitor. He then turned to the synod and declared, “Now let the holy synod pronounce what it decides upon this.” The synod responded by declaring “We therefore beg your imperial greatness to drive away from the Holy Roman Church this monster, unredeemed from his vices by any virtue, and to put another in his place, who may merit by the example of a good conversation to preside over us.” Otto then suggested that Leo the Protonotary be appointed the successor to John XII, to which the synod agreed.[6] The synod was then closed by the emperor.

Canonical status of the synod[edit]

Part church council, part Imperial Diet, and part court of justice, the 963 Synod of Rome was in effect a show trial for the purposes of imposing Otto’s imperial will upon the Roman nobility, and installing a candidate more in sympathy with his political needs. Consequently, the validity of the acts of the synod remains under a cloud. The fact that a layman and not a bishop convened the synod, that the pope was not accorded a defence, that both the subsequent deposition of John and the election of a layman were illegal, and that the acts of the synod were condemned at a new synod held the following year, have all lent credence to the view that many, if not all, of the acts of the synod were invalid.[7]

Composition of the synod[edit]

Present along with the Holy Roman Emperor were the following prelates:[8]


Germany and West Francia[edit]


There were 13 cardinal priests who attended the synod, one of whom was the future Pope Benedict V. An unknown number had fled with Pope John XII. Their Titular churches were:

Other participants[edit]

Present were all of the officers of the papal court, as well as deacons, Regionarii, notaries and the Primicerius of the Schola cantorum. Also present were a gathering of Roman nobles, who were aligned to the imperial party. These included:

  • Stephen, son of John the Superista
  • Demetrius, son of Meliosus
  • Crescentius of the Marble Horse
  • Giovanni de Mizina
  • Stephano de Imiza
  • Theodorus de Rufina
  • Giovanni de Primicerio
  • Leo de Cazunuli
  • Pietro de Cannapara
  • Benedict and his son Bulgamin

The Roman plebeians were represented by the heads of the Roman militia, led by Peter Imperiola. The emperor himself was also accompanied by a number of dukes and counts of Germany and Italy.[9]


  • Gregorovius, Ferdinand, The History of Rome in the Middle Ages, Vol. III (1895)
  • Mann, Horace K., The Lives of the Popes in the Early Middle Ages, Vol. IV: The Popes in the Days of Feudal Anarchy, 891–999 (1910)


  1. ^ Gregorovius, pp. 340–342
  2. ^ Mann, p. 257
  3. ^ Mann, p. 258
  4. ^ Gregorovius, pp. 346–347; Mann, p. 258
  5. ^ Mann, pp. 259–260
  6. ^ Mann, p. 260; Gregorovius, pp. 347–348
  7. ^ Gregorovius, pp. 346–347; Mann, p. 261
  8. ^ Gregorovius, pp. 343–344
  9. ^ Gregorovius, pp. 344–345