aka Octavius, OctavianRarely in history has anyone enjoyed the perks of divine anointment with as much vigor as Pope John XII. As Mel Brooks might say, "It's good to be the pope!"
Born Octavian (or Octavius), John XII was pope for his entire adult life, which has to do something strange to a man's outlook. He took the office somewhere between his 16th and 18th birthdays, the result of aggressive politicking by his father, Alberic, the secular ruler of Rome.
On Alberic's death, John XII became both the political leader of Rome and the head of the Catholic Church. Unfortunately, he was better suited to royal privilege than theological infallibility. (John was known to raise a glass in honor of Satan every now and again.)
Upon his ascension around 955 C.E., John XII ushered in an age of profligate debauchery not seen since the Caesars were running the joint. John liked hunting with his male buddies and humping with his female buddies. He also liked humping with his male buddies. Any warm body in Rome was liable to be humped during his tenure. In addition to indulging his own considerable libido, John encouraged everyone else to hump as well.
Rome was a very sticky place in those days. John indulged his lust as he saw fit, including orgies in the halls of St. John Lateran, the most prestigious cathedral in Christendom, and sex on the tombs of the Apostles Peter and Paul. He particularly enjoyed doing widows and virgins. Among his many conquests, John XII had sex with his niece, his sisters and his mother.
For all his libertine excesses, John XII was even more incompetent as a politician than a pope. He gambled away the alms brought to Rome by pilgrims and vigorously squandered the goodwill of his allies until his power base collapsed entirely. He killed off petty political opponents without much of a second thought.
The most notable of his political fiascos involved an alliance with the King of Germany, Otto I. In a naked power grab, John named Otto emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in February of 962, a move that amounted to a declaration of holy war against the King of Italy, who had designs on the Papal States (which then included the city of Rome).
John wanted to pit Otto against Italy, and Otto kept his end of the bargain, launching a new military campaign within days of his coronation as emperor. But John had reconsidered the deal within less than two weeks and started pandering to the Italians instead.
This backfired immediately when John's envoys to Otto's enemies were intercepted by Otto, who was taking his new role as Holy Roman Emperor very seriously -- despite the fact that as a result of John's betrayal, Otto now had no effective claim to the adjectives "Holy" and "Roman."
One year into their ill-fated "alliance," Otto booted John out of the papacy, militarily forcing him to flee Rome, then administering a theological coup de grace with the assistance of a council of bishops.
The bishops, having consulted the Bible and Church law at great length, concluded that incest, stealing, and murder were not appropriate papish behavior. They demanded that John return to Rome and defend himself against these and other charges. John responded by excommunicating all the bishops slandering him. The bishops ignored this and deposed John. Pope Leo VIII was installed in his place, backed by the military force of Otto.
Although the notion of a coup against the pope may be shocking to modern Catholic sensibilities, John's deposition was neither the first nor the last. The problem of papal legitimacy eventually grew so extreme that the Church made a theological determination that popes can't be dethroned. As embarrassing as John XII might have been, he has been retroactively endorsed as the legitimate pope of the day.
As soon as Otto's attention was diverted back to the battlefield, John XII shot his political wad and somehow managed to win enough popular support for a comeback (perhaps on a platform of "more sex for everyone").
Those of John's opponents who were stupid enough to remain in Rome were killed or dismembered. Everyone who was smart enough to flee, including Leo, was excommunicated. When the smoke finally cleared in November of 964, John the Potent was firmly back in control of Rome and the Holy Catholic Church.
Less than three months later, John was conveniently dead under mysterious circumstances. All the historical reports agree that he died whilst screwing another man's wife, but they don't agree on the cause of death.
There is one very obvious cause of death that medical scientists have definitively linked to screwing another man's wife, namely the husband coming home unexpectedly. It's possible that's what happened to John.
An alternative theory holds that John (then in his mid-20s) had a heart attack or a stroke while engaged in this adulterous act. This could be attributed to divine intervention. One contemporary rival of John's claimed the pope died when the devil smacked him upside the head during intercourse, but frankly, it's hard to imagine the devil's motive for wanting John dead.
There is one objection that applies equally to the "jealous husband" and the "angry God" theories: The young pope had already spent nearly a decade fucking everything that moved in Rome without any appreciable consequences. Certainly, it's quite a coincidence that John's death took place just weeks after his countercoup.
The coincidence becomes even more suspicious when you consider the fact that by July 964, Otto had once again installed Leo VIII as pope (deposing John's interim successor). Although the church has now thoughtfully determined that popes can't be deposed, there isn't much anyone can do to extend the reign of a pope who has stopped breathing.
Interestingly, John's direct successor was Benedict V, who was actually deposed after two months in favor of Leo VIII. Church historians have opted to gloss over this fact (and the fact that Leo had been legally excommunicated), allowing that Leo may have been a legitimate pope at some point in the middle of all this ridiculousness.
No one really wants to make much of a stink over it, considering that Leo apparently did not fuck his mother, his sister or even one of his hunting buddies. In the final analysis, a smidgen of illegitimacy doesn't seem like such a big deal.