Pope John XII: Exploring His Scandalous Life and Era

The Bad Popes by E.R. Chamberlin
The Bad Popes by E.R. Chamberlin



Pope John XII, originally known as Octavian (around 930/937–14 May 964), led the Papal States and the Church in Rome from December 16, 955, until his passing in 964. He was part of the Tusculum family, a prominent Roman dynasty that had been influential in church matters for more than 50 years. John XII became pope in his late teens or early twenties, a remarkably young age for such a position. Around 960, he found himself in conflict with the Lombards in the south. Governing Rome proved challenging for him, leading him to seek assistance from King Otto I of Germany, whom he eventually crowned as emperor. John XII’s time as pope was marked by controversies, with many stories circulating about his lavish lifestyle and questionable conduct in office. His relationship with Otto deteriorated over time, and though Otto planned to remove him, John XII died before these plans came to fruition. His reign is remembered for its dramatic events and intrigue surrounding it.

Early Life and Family Background

Octavianus, later known as Pope John XII, was born into the aristocracy as the son of Alberic II of Spoleto, a patrician and self-declared prince of Rome. His mother is thought to be Alda of Vienne, the daughter of King Hugh of Italy and stepsister to Alberic. However, there’s some uncertainty here; historical records, including those by Benedict of Soracte, suggest that Octavian might have been the son of a concubine, which would make his birth year ambiguous. He was named Octavianus, a name resonant with imperial connotations, hinting at his family’s lofty aspirations for him.

Path to Papacy

Before Alberic died in 954, he ensured that the Roman nobility would support Octavianus as his successor and future pope. Upon his father’s passing, Octavianus, aged between 17 and 24, smoothly took over as prince of the Romans.

Ascension to the Papacy

The death of Pope Agapetus II in November 955 set the stage for Octavianus’s rise. As the cardinal deacon of Santa Maria in Domnica, he was elected pope on December 16, 955. Adopting the papal name John XII, he became the third pope to change his name upon assuming the papacy. Interestingly, he used his birth name, Octavianus, for secular matters and John XII for ecclesiastical affairs.


Pope John XII depicted in a 16th-century engraving contained in the Pontificum Romanorum effigies by Giovanni Battista de'Cavalieri

Pope John XII depicted in a 16th-century engraving contained in the Pontificum Romanorum effigies by Giovanni Battista de’Cavalieri

Early Military Endeavors

Around 960, Pope John XII personally led a military campaign against the Lombard duchies of Beneventum and Capua. His goal was to recover territories of the Papal States that were lost to them. However, faced with the might of John’s forces from Tusculum and Spoleto, the Lombard dukes sought help from Gisulf I of Salerno. John subsequently retreated north and negotiated a treaty with Gisulf at Terracina, renouncing the papacy’s claim on Salerno.

Challenges in Rome and Italy

Despite his military efforts, John found managing the powerful Roman nobility challenging, a task his father had handled with ease. Concurrently, King Berengar II of Italy began to threaten the pope’s territory. To safeguard against political plots in Rome and Berengar’s aggression, John sought the support of King Otto I of Germany in 960. Otto, already recognized as a patrician, responded to John’s call, entering Italy in 961 and forcing Berengar into retreat.

The Alliance with King Otto

Upon Otto’s arrival in Rome on January 31, 962, he swore an oath to Pope John XII, vowing to defend the pope and the Holy Roman Church. He pledged not to enact any laws within Rome without John’s consent and to return any conquered territory of St. Peter to the papacy.

Crowning of an Emperor

John XII then crowned Otto as emperor, marking the first such coronation in the West since Berengar I’s death nearly four decades earlier. The pope and Roman nobility swore allegiance to Otto over Saint Peter’s relics, agreeing not to support Berengar II or his son Adalbert.

The Diploma Ottonianum

Eleven days after the coronation, John and Otto ratified the Diploma Ottonianum. This agreement made Otto the protector of the Papal States, stretching from Naples to Venice. This was the first effective protection since the Carolingian Empire’s fall. The agreement also confirmed the freedom of papal elections, with the provision that the emperor must approve the election before the papal consecration. Additionally, it upheld certain clauses of the Constitutio Romana, limiting the pope’s temporal power.


Pope John XII’s Involvement in Church Affairs

Despite his reputation for secular indulgences, Pope John XII did engage in some ecclesiastical activities. In early 956, he reached out to William of Mayence, the papal legate in Germany. His letter encouraged William to persist in his efforts, particularly against those threatening the sanctity of the churches. He also requested updates on developments in West Francia and Germany.

Encouraging Episcopal Leadership

John XII corresponded with Henry, the newly appointed archbishop of Trier. In his letter, he granted Henry the pallium, a symbol of episcopal authority, and urged him to lead a virtuous life.

Supporting Religious Institutions

In 958, Pope John XII granted privileges to Subiaco Abbey. He stipulated that priests and monks should daily recite prayers for the welfare of their souls and those of their successors. Additionally, he required the offering of Holy Mass three times a week for the same intention.

Recognition of Church Leaders

John XII’s tenure saw the confirmation of Saint Dunstan as the archbishop of Canterbury in 960. Dunstan traveled to Rome to receive the pallium directly from Pope John XII.

Synod of 962 and Church Decisions

On February 12, 962, at Emperor Otto’s request, John convened a synod in Rome. This synod made significant decisions: it established the Archbishopric of Magdeburg and the Bishopric of Merseburg, conferred the pallium on the archbishops of Salzburg and Trier, and confirmed Rather’s appointment as bishop of Verona. It also marked the excommunication of Bishop Hugh of Vermandois for attempting to reclaim his archbishopric of Reims. This excommunication was reaffirmed at a subsequent synod in Pavia later in the year.

Historical Perspective

According to historian Horace Kinder Mann, Pope John XII seemed to have limited interest in ecclesiastical matters, indicating a prioritization of secular over spiritual responsibilities.


Emperor Otto I

Emperor Otto I

Otto’s Departure and John’s Defiance

After Otto I left Rome on February 14, 962, to confront Berengar II, he advised John XII, known for his indulgent life, to abandon his extravagant and adulterous ways. John XII ignored this counsel. As Otto quickly subdued Berengar in the Papal States, John’s unease grew. Fearing Otto’s increasing power, he sought alliances against Otto, reaching out to the Magyars and the Byzantine Empire and even negotiating with Berengar’s son, Adalbert.

Otto’s Discovery and Siege of Rome

Otto I, learning of John’s secret negotiations, sent a delegation to Rome to investigate. Meanwhile, John sent envoys, including the future Pope Leo VIII, to assure Otto of his intentions to reform. However, in 963, Otto discovered Adalbert’s presence in Rome for talks with John. With Berengar defeated, Otto besieged Rome in the summer of 963. The city was divided: supporters of John held the old Leonine City, while Otto’s allies fortified themselves in Joannispolis. Initially, John, in full armor, repelled Otto’s forces but eventually fled with the papal treasury and Adalbert to Tibur.

Council, Deposition, and Turmoil

Otto convened a council, demanding John defend himself against various charges. John threatened excommunication to anyone trying to depose him. Unfazed, Otto and the council deposed John, who was hunting in Campania, and elected Pope Leo VIII. A revolt in Rome supporting John was quashed, but upon Otto’s departure, John returned, forcing Leo VIII to seek Otto’s protection. Back in power by February 964, John convened a synod, declared his deposition invalid, and regained control after punishing his enemies.

John’s Mysterious Death and Aftermath

Before reaching any agreement with Otto, John XII died on May 14, 964. His death, according to Liudprand of Cremona, occurred during an illicit affair outside Rome, possibly due to a stroke or a vengeful husband. John XII was buried in the Lateran, followed by Pope Benedict V’s brief papacy before Leo VIII reclaimed the papal seat.


John XII’s Dual Role and Controversial Behavior

John XII’s tenure as both the secular prince of Rome and the spiritual leader of the church was marked by a leaning towards his secular duties. His behavior, often described as coarse and immoral, suggested a lifestyle more fitting a secular prince. The Lateran Palace was reputedly akin to a brothel under his rule, and his actions were a source of widespread disgrace. Accusations of moral corruption were often used by his political enemies to tarnish his reputation, muddying the political aspects of his eventual deposition.

Accusations at the Synod of Rome

The Synod of Rome in 963, spearheaded by Liudprand of Cremona, an ally of Holy Roman Emperor Otto I, brought various charges against John XII. These included irregularities in religious practices and ordinations, as well as allegations of bribery, adultery, and other serious misdeeds. His behavior was characterized by blatant disregard for ecclesiastical norms, ranging from public hunting expeditions to violent acts and sacrilegious behavior.

Contemporary Criticism and Condemnation

Other contemporaries also decried John XII’s behavior. Ratherius of Verona questioned the morality of electing someone with such a lifestyle to the Apostolic See. The extreme condemnation that followed John XII’s papacy was largely based on these recorded accusations, with figures like Louis Marie DeCormenin harshly criticizing him. According to DeCormenin, John XII’s actions made him one of the most wicked popes.

Historical Perspectives on John XII

Historians have varied in their assessment of John XII. Ferdinand Gregorovius noted the conflict between John’s princely instincts and spiritual duties, suggesting a lenient view considering his youth and the challenges of his dual role. However, even Horace Mann, known for defending the papacy, conceded that John XII’s actions were far from what was expected of a pope.

Legend of Pope Joan

In a detailed annotation of Bartolomeo Platina’s work on the popes, Onofrio Panvinio proposed that the Pope Joan myth might have originated from tales about John XII. Panvinio pointed out John XII’s promiscuous behavior, highlighting that among his many mistresses, there was one named Joan who wielded significant influence in Rome during his papacy. This connection, according to Panvinio, could have inspired the legendary narrative of ‘Pope Joan’.


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Source: (Time Capsule, 2023)


  • Time Capsule. (2023). The Unbelievable Things Pope John XII Did [YouTube Video]. In YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OldkmvzFTv4

  • Chamberlin, R. (2003). The Bad Popes. Sutton Publishing.

  • DeCormenin, L. M., & Gihon, J. L. (1857). A Complete History of the Popes of Rome, from Saint Peter, the First Bishop to Pius the Ninth.

  • Gregorovius, F. (1895). The History of Rome in the Middle Ages, Vol. III. G. Bell & Sons.

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