After the death of John X, Marozia seized control of Rome and the papacy. She installed three puppet popes, including her son, John XI. Fed up with her antics, her other son, Alberic II, imprisoned her, and he took control of the city. On his deathbed in 954, he gathered the clergy and the nobility, convincing them to support his illegitimate son, Octavianus, as the next pope. The following year, Octavianus was elected Pope John XII.
In his first years as pope, the people of Rome accused John XII of incest, murder, and rape. John used the papal treasury as his personal spending account to finance his many vices. He indulged in the city’s prostitutes, housing many of them in the Lateran Palace for his own pleasure. When he wasn’t in his brothel, John seduced Roman widows and kidnapped female pilgrims on their way to St. Peter’s Basilica. As stories of his inclinations spread throughout Europe, the number of women traveling on pilgrimage significantly decreased.
The pope was a man ruled by his passions. Lavishing wealth and power on one of his mistresses, he made her governor of Rome. No woman was safe from John’s lust. When he seduced his father’s long-time mistress, she became pregnant, and she bled to death during childbirth. After almost a decade of his sexual antics, Pope John XII died in the bed of his latest mistress. Although the Church records state that he died of a stroke, other sources claim that the woman’s husband broke into the room and caught the lovers together. The cuckolded husband beat John to death in a jealous rage.
3. Alexander VI’s Love For Orgies and His Illegitimate Children Defined His Papacy
Born Rodrigo Borgia, the late-fifteenth century Pope Alexander VI enjoyed a long career as Vice-Chancellor of the Church before he bullied and bribed the curia into electing him in 1492. He was notoriously corrupt, selling indulgences and offices to enhance his own wealth. Highly regarded for his good looks and charm, Rodrigo fascinated both men and women. With his wealth and power came the attention of women; Rodrigo was no stranger to sexual liaisons, fathering several children before he became pope.
In 1460, Borgia attended an orgy, for which Pope Pius II wrote a stern letter, admonishing his behavior, even though the pope was no angel himself. Rodrigos’ favorite mistress, Vannozza dei Catanei, a member of a minor noble family in Rome, gave birth to four of his eight (perhaps more) children – Cesare, Juan, Lucrezia, and Gioffre. Although Vannozza remained his mistress for over twenty years, he cast her aside in favor of the beautiful Giulia Farnese, the teenaged daughter-in-law of his cousin. Despite his numerous affairs, Alexander’s children by Vannozza would play front and center throughout his papacy.
Arranging diplomatic marriages for his children to enhance his political power, Alexander’s notoriety grew as one of the most morally corrupt popes in the history of the papacy. His children’s reputations didn’t fare much better: his son Cesare, a Cardinal himself, fathered eleven illegitimate children, and Lucrezia had multiple affairs during her third marriage to Alfonso d’Este. In 1501, the Vatican’s Master of Ceremonies, Johannes Burchard, recorded an example of Alexander’s sexual appetites. At a sex party known as the “Joust of Whores,” the pope – accompanied by his children Lucrezia and Cesare – watched as fifty prostitutes stripped in front of him. Given his history with women, whether or not he solicited their services afterwards is up for debate.
2. Benedict IX Liked the Occasional Bestiality Session to Spice Up His Sex Life
At only twenty years old, the election of Pope Benedict IX in 1032 elected one of the youngest popes to the throne of St. Peter. Already a wealthy man through the patronage of his two uncles, Pope Benedict VIII and Pope John XIX, Benedict IX’s father bought his papal crown, appointing an immature, licentious youth to the throne of St. Peter. Benedict IX’s sexual antics became the scandal of eleventh century Rome. You can’t be called “a demon from hell in the disguise of a priest” if you don’t engage in a little sinful behavior.
In addition to seducing young boys in the Lateran Palace, his contemporaries accused him of theft, rape, and murder. To spice things up, Benedict enjoyed orgies and bestiality sessions. The Romans tolerated him for twelve years before they exiled him from the city in 1044. Two months into the reign of his successor, Benedict returned to Rome. In the only example of the same man serving as pope more than once throughout history, Benedict excommunicated his replacement and took back the papacy, starting his second pontificate with as much sexual debauchery as the first.
By May 1045, the city of Rome hated the pope so much that he sold the papal chair to his godfather, who took the name Pope Gregory VI. Benedict retired from religious life, marrying his cousin. Two years later, the restless Benedict launched yet another return to the papacy. The people of Rome had enough of the pope’s antics the third time around, the memories of his first two terms recalling the “Pornocracy” of previous years. The population exiled him from the city permanently. One of Benedict’s successors, Pope Victor III criticized Benedict “as a pope was so vile, so foul, so execrable, that I shudder to think of it.”
1. The Bisexual Boniface VIII Took Male Lovers and Had a Threesome with a Mother and Daughter
Boniface VIII’s papacy was so brutal and scandalous that it was immortalized in classic literature. In 1294, he badgered his predecessor, the morally infallible Celestine V, into resigning; after his election, Boniface threw Celestine into prison, where he died less than a year later. Known for his volatile temper, Boniface bullied Rome and the powers of Europe into acknowledging his authority in both religious and secular matters. If they refused to comply, he burned their cities to the ground.
The pope’s open view of sexuality made him the talk of medieval Europe. The bisexual Boniface liked to seduce young boys, allegedly declaring that sodomy “was no more a sin than rubbing your hands together.” Two of his male lovers publicly quarreled on the streets of Rome, fighting over which one the pope loved more and who received the finer gifts. Most importantly, they argued over which one of them had the right to call himself “the Pope’s whore.”
Pope Boniface VIII did enjoy some dalliances with women, so much so that he had two at one time. He reportedly had regular ménage-a-trois sessions with a mother and a daughter. According to his contemporaries, the pope broke the cardinal sins of incest and adultery and violated his vow of celibacy, all in one turn. After his death in 1303, the result of a kidnapping and beating by his enemies, Boniface’s name endured for his appearance in Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy. As shocking as the pope’s sexual escapades were to medieval society, the author condemned him to the eighth circle of Hell for simony.
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