The greatest sinners of Rome: Top 5 wicked popes

Yevhen Monastyrsky

Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. For two millennia, the palaces of the Vatican have witnessed such sins of the holy fathers that their flock couldn't even imagine.

Stephen VI (VII): 896—897

Originally from the noble Frankish Guidonid family, Stephen actively defended its interests.

The pope was related to the Holy Roman Emperors Guido and Lambert, whom Stephen’s predecessors had fierce conflicts with. One of them, Pope Formosus, paid for it after his death.

Formosus, who died in 896, was succeeded by Boniface VI, who also died two weeks later.  Shephan VI (VII) ascended to the Holy See. He ordered Formosus to be exhumed, dressed in papal vestments, and tried. The semi-decomposed corpse was accused of violating church rules and oaths, as well as of crowning an alleged bastard from the Carolingian dynasty as Holy Roman Emperor.

Formosa’s election as pope and all his decisions and acts were declared invalid. Stephen pronounced a curse over his body and cut off three of his fingers, which the pope used to make the sign of the cross. Formosa’s naked body was dragged through the streets and buried in a mass grave.

Pope Formosus and Stephen VI, by Jean-Paul Laurens, 1870. Source: Fine Arts Museum / Wikipedia

Sergius ІІІ: 904—911

The first pope from the period of  Pornocracy, when the Holy See was ruled by the wife and daughter of the Roman consul Theophylact of the counts of Tusculum.

Immediately after the appointment ceremony he ordered to strangle his deposed predecessors, Christopher and Leo V. Sergius also spent his spare time with Theophylact’s 15-year-old daughter Marozia. Her mother Theodora was the official keeper of the papal treasures.

‘The influence of two sister prostitutes, Marozia and Theodora, was founded on their wealth and beauty, their political and amorous intrigues; the most strenuous of their lovers were rewarded with the Roman mitre… The bastard son, the grandson, and the great-grandson of Marozia, a rare genealogy, were seated in the chair of St. Peter,’  wrote the 18th-century English historian Edward Gibbon in his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Marozia gave birth to a boy from the pope, who would ascend the See as John XI in 20 years after Sergius’ death, the only illegitimate son of a pope in history to become pope himself.

Pope Sergius III. Illustration: Artaud de Montor / The Lives and Times of the Popes by Chevalier Artaud de Montor, New York: The Catholic Publication Society of America, 1911

John ХІІ: 955—963

The last pope from the period of Pornocracy was the son of the Roman patrician Alberic and grandson of Marozia, the mistress of Sergius III. He ascended the Holy See at the age of 18, so John’s reign can hardly be called mature. And yet, just in eight years he managed to earn the title of the most immoral pope in the history of the Catholic Church.

It was said that the young pope turned the Lateran Basilica into a brothel and raped pilgrims in St. Peter’s Basilica. John prayed to pagan gods while playing dice and made toasts to Satan at drunken parties. Many Romans considered him to be the devil incarnate.

According to various sources, he died either from a stroke during sex or after being beaten to death by offended husband of one of his mistresses.

Pope John XII's death, by Franco Cesati, in 'The misteries of Vaticano or the Rome of Popes', vol.1, 1861

Benedict IX: 1032–1044, 1045, 1047–1048

Son of Count of Tusculum, nephew of Popes Benedict VIII and John XIX, Benedict ascended the Holy See three times and sold it once.

He was also one of the youngest popes in history. According to various sources, at the time of his first election he was 12, 18, 20 or 25 years old.

Unlike many of his predecessors, Benedict paid attention to church affairs, holding several councils to combat heresy and resolve conflicts between bishops.

In 1044, he left Rome when the Crescentii family defeated Tusculums in an armed struggle for power over Rome. Giovanni dei Crescenzi became Pope Sylvester III for two months. Soon the political situation changed, and Benedict returned onto the See. A month later, he sold the title to his godfather, presbyter Giovanni Graziano. It is believed that the reason was Benedict’s desire to marry his cousin.

Two years later, after the sudden death of Clement II, Benedict tried to reassert his rights to the papacy, but faced resistance from influential cardinals and the Holy Roman Emperor. The only three-time pope in history was excommunicated for simony. He was also accused of rape, homosexuality, and participation in orgies.

Benedictus PP. IX
Pope Benedict IX. Illustration: Artaud de Montor / The Lives and Times of the Popes by Chevalier Artaud de Montor, New York: The Catholic Publication Society of America, 1911

Alexander VI: 1492—1503

Rodrigo de Borja, a Spaniard, paved his way to the Italian-occupied Holy See with intrigue and bribery. During his enthronement in 1492, the banker Cosimo de’ Medici said: ‘Now we are all under the rule of the wolf, perhaps the most predatory of all the representatives of this species that have ever lived on earth. And if we fail to escape, it will inevitably devour us all.’

After becoming Pope Alexander, Rodrigo proved to be a skillful diplomat and administrator. At the same time, he was the father of at least seven illegitimate children, whom he supported with money from church donations.

He may have had an inappropriate relationship with his daughter Lucrezia. Her husband was the first to spread this rumor at the divorce trial. The ambassador to the Duchy of Ferrara wrote to his master: ‘When asked whether the Pope’s statement about his [Lucrezia’s husband’s] inability to fulfil his marital duties is true, and whether his marriage to Lucrezia was essentially a sham, he categorically denied it. On the contrary, he had frequent intercourse with his wife. However, the Pope took Lucretia away from him to be with her himself. In conclusion, he said everything he thought about his holiness.’

Papa Alexandr
Portrait of Pope Alexander VI, by Cristofano dell'Altissimo. Source: Uffizi Gallery / Wikipedia

Squandering has often put Alexander in awkward position. When the treasury of the Holy See was running low, the pontiff resorted to unconventional business solutions, bringing imaginary charges against wealthy locals or poisoning cardinals to return their property to the church.

What happened next

The viciousness of the popes and the clergy in general was one of the reasons for the Reformation, the emergence and spread of Protestantism. In the 16th century, the Holy See had to change in order to survive. In 1555, Cardinal Carafa, the head of the Holy Inquisition, was elected pope under the name of Paul IV. He began to fight fiercely for the moral reputation of the church. From that time on, popes have tried to live the life they preach.