Over a thousand years before Jude Law played a scandalous pope in TV’s The Young Pope, history’s actual youngest Pope ever, John XII (937 – 964), presided over an even more scandalous real life papacy. History’s real Young Pope was elevated to the Holy See in 955 at age 17 or 18, and in what should have come as no surprise to anyone, it turned out that making a callow teenager pope was not a good idea. John XII’s years as Holy Father were as farcical and venal as one could expect from a person thrust into a position of power and influence for which he was clearly unprepared and unqualified.
The Rome and Italy of John XII Were Rife With Violence and Anarchy
The tenth century Rome of Pope John XII was somewhat of a semi-deserted Mad Max ghost town. The city held an estimated population of about 20,000 to 30,000 – a huge decline from its early Roman Empire peak of about a million to a million and a half inhabitants. It was still encircled by the remnants of the Aurelian Walls, that had been built in the 270s AD to a secure a city housing dozens times more people than it did in John XII’s days. Within that vastness, the relatively few tenth century Romans were like a few scattered peas rattling inside a huge pot.
Most inhabitants were concentrated along the Tiber, because the aqueducts that had supplied the city in its heyday had been cut, so the only sources of water were wells or the river. All other parts of the city, especially Rome’s iconic seven hills, were green areas occupied by farmers. The famous Forum Romanum, where the giants of Roman history had once rubbed shoulders, was now called Campo Vaccino (“Cow’s Field”). The Capitoline Hill, which had once housed the grand temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, was now Monte Caprino (“Goats Mount”).
The grand monuments of yesteryear had already been cannibalized for marble, columns, and bricks, while most of the city’s statues had been burned to transform their marble into lime. The destruction of Classical Rome was done not by marauding barbarians, but by the Romans themselves. Most inhabitants lived in ramshackle houses or huts, while the richer sorts lived in older Roman buildings, fortified and repurposed into strongholds.
The city and the surrounding region were the heart of the Papal States – a swath of territory in central Italy ruled directly by the popes. Interestingly, the Papal States came into being as a result of a huge swindle. Back in the eighth century, some monks forged a document recording a generous gift from emperor Constantine I, transferring authority over Rome and the entire Western Roman Empire to Pope Sylvester I. Such shenanigans were par for the course during a period of astonishing papal corruption and degeneracy, that came to be known as the “nadir of the papacy”.
Against that backdrop, the office of pope was nothing like what it would become in later years, or what it is today. Nowadays, the papacy is a prestigious institute, and popes are highly respected figures. In the days of John XII, however, popes were more like Rodney Dangerfield, and got no respect. And frankly, few of them did much that warranted respect in those days. Italy and Rome back then were in the throes of anarchy, rent by fiercely competing aristocratic families, warring with each other for dominance. The papacy was one of the most sought after prizes, and the rivals fought bitterly to seize the Holy See and make use of its spiritual, economic, and military resources in their quarrels. For them, the office of pope was just another piece and prize in their Medieval Italian version of Game of Thrones.