Saeculum obscurum

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1742 print of the corpse of John XII, one of the most infamous popes, being carried by a crowd.

Saeculum obscurum (Ecclesiastical Latin[ˈsɛː.ku.lum ɔpˈskuː.rum], "the dark age/century"), also known as the Pornocracy or the Rule of the Harlots, was a period in the history of the Papacy during the first two-thirds of the 10th century, following the chaos after the death of Formosus in 896 which saw seven or eight papal elections in as many years. It began with the installation of Pope Sergius III in 904 and lasted for sixty years until the death of Pope John XII in 964. During this period, the popes were influenced strongly by a powerful and allegedly corrupt aristocratic family, the Theophylacti, and their relatives and allies. The era is seen as one of the lowest points of the history of the Papal office.


Europe in 912 AD, around the start of the Pornocracy (click to enlarge).

The saeculum obscurum was first named and identified as a period of papal immorality by the Italian cardinal and historian Caesar Baronius in his Annales Ecclesiastici in the sixteenth century.[1] Baronius's primary source for his history of this period was a contemporaneous writer, Bishop Liutprand of Cremona. Baronius himself was writing during the Counter-Reformation, a period of heightened sensitivity to clerical corruption. His characterisation of the early 10th-century papacy was perpetuated by Protestant authors. The terms "pornocracy" (German: Pornokratie, from Greek pornokratiā, "rule of prostitutes"), hetaerocracy ("government of mistresses") and the Rule of the Harlots (German: Hurenregiment) were coined by Protestant German theologians in the nineteenth century.[2]

Historian Will Durant refers to the period from 867 to 1049 as the "nadir of the papacy".[3]

10th-century popes[edit]

The Theophylacti family sprung from Theophylactus. They held positions of increased importance in the Roman nobility, such as iudex ("judge"), vestararius, gloriosissimus dux ("most-glorious duke"), consul, senator, and magister militum.[4] Theophylact's wife Theodora and daughter Marozia held a great influence over the papal selection and religious affairs in Rome through conspiracies, affairs, and marriages.[5]

Marozia became the concubine of 45-year-old Pope Sergius III when she was 15 and later took other lovers and husbands.[6] She ensured that her son John (who was rumoured to have been fathered by Sergius III) was seated as Pope John XI according to Antapodosis sive Res per Europam gestae (958–962), by Liutprand of Cremona (c. 920–972). Liutprand affirms that Marozia arranged the murder of her former lover Pope John X (who had originally been nominated for office by Theodora) through her then husband Guy of Tuscany possibly to secure the elevation of her current favourite as Pope Leo VI.[7] There is no record substantiating that Pope John X had definitely died before Leo VI was elected since John X was already imprisoned by Marozia and was out of public view.

Theodora and Marozia held great sway over the popes during this time. In particular, as political rulers of Rome they had effective control over the election of new popes. Much that is alleged about the saeculum obscurum comes from the histories of Liutprand, Bishop of Cremona. Liutprand took part in the Assembly of Bishops which deposed Pope John XII and was a political enemy of the Roman aristocracy and its control over papal elections. Lindsay Brook writes:

We must be especially circumspect about the writing of Liutprand of Cremona, perhaps the most polemical of the tenth century chroniclers, who had his own agenda to promote the revived western Roman Empire. ... It would be misleading to portray all, or even most, of the popes of the era as worldly and corrupt. Surviving documents (and there are obvious lacunae) make it clear that many were competent administrators, and skilful diplomats in difficult and dangerous times. Some were even reformers, keen to root out discreditable practices such as simony. Others ordered the rebuilding and restoration of Rome's churches and palaces ... Rather, it is the manner of the election of many of them and their symbiotic relationship with the Roman aristocracy that has earned their regime the designation pornocracy.[8]

List of popes during the saeculum obscurum[edit]

List of popes, including the names of popes of the saeculum obscurum buried in St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican City. Marble slab at the entrance to Sacristia.

Family tree[edit]

Theophylact I, Count of Tusculum
Hugh of Italy
(also married Marozia)
Alberic I of Spoleto
d. 925
(Alleged) Pope Sergius III
Pope from 904–911
(Consul, later bishop)
Alda of VienneAlberic II of Spoleto
David or DeodatusPope John XI
From 931–935
Pope John XIII
From 965-972
Crescentius the Elder
MariaGregory I, Count of TusculumPope John XII
From 955–964
Pope Benedict VII
From 974-983
Pope Benedict VIII
From 1012–1024
Alberic III, Count of Tusculum
d. 1044
Pope John XIX
From 1024–1032
Peter, Duke of the RomansGaiusOctavianusPope Benedict IX
From 1032–1048
Gregory II, Count of Tusculum

The Tusculan Papacy, 1012–1059[edit]

After several Crescentii family popes up to 1012, the Theophylacti still occasionally nominated sons as popes:

Pope Benedict IX went so far as to sell the Papacy to his religious godfather, Pope Gregory VI (1045–46). He then changed his mind, seized the Lateran Palace, and became Pope for the third time in 1047–48.

The Tusculan Papacy was finally ended by the election of Pope Nicholas II – five years after the Great Schism of 1054 – who was assisted by Hildebrand of Sovana against Antipope Benedict X. Hildebrand was elected Pope Gregory VII in 1073 and introduced the Gregorian Reforms, increasing the power and independence of the papacy that would lead to help ignite the First Crusade in about 20 years.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Dwyer, John C. (1998). Church history: twenty centuries of Catholic Christianity. Mahwah, USA.: Paulist Press. p. 155. ISBN 0-8091-3830-1.
  2. ^ Paolo Squatriti, "Pornocracy", in Christopher Kleinhenz (ed.), Medieval Italy: An Encyclopedia, Vol. 2 (New York and London: Routledge, 2004), pp. 926–27. ISBN 978-1-1380-6331-0.
  3. ^ Durant, Will. The Age of Faith. New York: Simon and Schuster. 1972. p. 537
  4. ^ Poole, Reginald L (1917). "Papal chronology in the eleventh century". English Historical Review. 1917a41 (32): 204–214. doi:10.1093/ehr/XXXII.CXXVI.204.
  5. ^ Fedele, Pietro (1910 & 1911). "Ricerche per la storia di Rome e del papato al. sec. X". Archivo della Reale Società Romana di Storia Patria, 33: 177–247; & 34: 75–116, 393–423.
  6. ^ Ide, Arthur Frederick (1987). Unzipped: The Popes Bare All: A Frank Study of Sex and Corruption in the Vatican. Austin, Texas: American Atheist Press. ISBN 0-910309-43-4.
  7. ^ Stark, Rodney (2004). For the glory of God. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0-691-11950-2.
  8. ^ Brook, Lindsay (2003). "Popes and Pornocrats: Rome in the early middle ages". Foundations. 1 (1): 5–21.