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While they posed as pillars of piety, many medieval popes were depraved criminals.
Sergius III (reigned 904-911) allegedly had two papal rivals strangled in prison. John XII (955-964) openly had mistresses, gave them church treasure, castrated one opponent, blinded another, and donned armor to lead the papal army. Benedict V (May 964-June 964) reportedly dishonored a girl and looted Vatican treasure. Boniface VII (974-985) apparently murdered a rival pope, was driven from Rome — stealing Vatican treasure as he left — then returned to murder a second rival and regain the papacy. Later, he was branded an antipope.
Benedict IX (1032-1048) sold the papacy to a successor for 1,500 pounds of gold and later used troops to seize power again. Boniface VIII (1294-1303) sent troops to kill 6,000 residents of Palestrina and raze the city. He decreed that salvation requires “that every human creature be subject to the Roman pontiff.” Urban VI (1378-1389) tortured and murdered cardinals who opposed him. Clement VII (1378-1394) was a rival pope at Avignon, France. A year before his papacy, he ordered troops to massacre 4,000 residents of Cesena.
A previous John XXIII (not the 1950s reformer) was removed by a council in 1414, and Edward Gibbon sardonically records in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: “The most serious charges were suppressed: the Vicar of Christ was accused only of piracy, murder, rape, sodomy and incest.”
But perhaps the best remembered of the lot would be Rodrigo Borgia, who became Alexander VI. Nephew of a pope, Rodrigo rose rapidly in lucrative church offices, while keeping mistresses and fathering illegitimate children. After the loathsome Innocent VIII died in 1492, Rodrigo bribed several cardinals (allegedly giving one four muleloads of silver), and the College of Cardinals put him on the papal throne as Alexander VI.
Soon, he made his teenage son Cesare an archbishop, then a cardinal. Cesare preferred militarism instead. Once he ordered bound prisoners — men, women and children — penned in St. Peter Square while he rode among them, slaughtering with sword and arrows for sport. Pope Alexander and Cesare’s sister Lucrezia watched from a Vatican balcony.
The Borgias were suspected of various murders. They employed cantarella, a variation of arsenic, which was dubbed “the liquor of succession.” Lucrezia was put into an arranged marriage at 13, and later became known as a legendary poisoner. Meanwhile, Alexander hosted renowned orgies.
The story of this infamous family premiered on Showtime TV network some years ago and is currently available to binge on Netflix. Gifted actor Jeremy Irons plays the scheming, lecherous, cruel pope, reigning over plots and counterplots in weekly episodes. He hides naked young mistresses from his aging longtime lovers, while Cesare and another son compete for power. Rivals are poisoned.
The expensive series was filmed at elaborate lots outside Budapest, with a huge cast and realistic sets. It effectively recreates medieval Vatican life, tawdry street scenes, Roman spectacles, and battles by the papal army. Oddly, the producers chose to fictionalize a few scenes, and inserted a couple of fictitious characters — although it’s difficult to see why any added drama was needed.
This vivid series spotlights the terrible evils that occurred in the “Holy” See. Watch it to get a glimpse at the medieval papacy.
This column has been adapted and updated from a piece in the fall 2013 issue of the Secular Humanist Bulletin.