A Real Life ‘Young Pope’
It was perhaps apt that John XII became history’s most scandalous pope, considering that scandal had attended him while he was still in the womb. Born Octavianus in 937, he was the product of an incestuous relationship between Rome’s most powerful figure, Alberic II, Duke of Spoleto, a self-styled “Prince of Rome”, and his stepsister. In 954, not long before his death, Alberic made Rome aristocrats swear an oath to appoint his son pope the next time the position became vacant. The promise was kept, and when Pope Agapetus II died in 955, Octavianus was duly elected to succeed him. He chose John XII as his regnal name.
The teenaged pope was wholly uninterested in his spiritual duties and papal obligations. By then, the only person who might have checked him, his father, Duke Alberic, had died. So this real life Young Pope suddenly found himself in a position of great power, and with access to great wealth and vast resources, without any adult guidance or supervision. He reacted like many teenagers would in similar circumstances, by diving headfirst into a life of depravity and the pursuit of pleasure. He was particularly devoted to hunting, gambling, wine, and women. He also had a habit, highly peculiar for a pope, of toasting the devil and invoking pagan gods while playing dice games.
As one historian put it, John XII’s pontificate: “became infamous for the alleged depravity and worldliness with which he conducted it”. Among other things, he started selling church offices and titles to help meet the mounting costs of his lavish spending, and on at least one occasion, he ordained a 10 year old as a bishop. He also refused to make the sign of the cross – seemingly a basic part of his job description. He had so little respect for the dignity of church offices, that he once ordained a deacon in a stable.
This Holy Father was also a violent psychopath, who reportedly castrated a deacon before killing him, and when his own confessor angered him, he blinded him before killing him. As to licentiousness, contemporaries described him as having turned the papal palace into a brothel. It was not just the calumny of political opponents, but a charge for which there is historical support. There is a near unanimous consensus by historians of the period that John XII was a dissolute pope who had many women in his palace, which became notorious for its orgies and drunken parties.
John XII got a particular kick out of defiling holy sites by having sex in them. He had sex with both women and men in his papal palace, and if visitors refused his advances, he just went ahead and raped them anyhow. His lust was seemingly insatiable, and he reportedly had sex with one of his deceased father’s mistresses, with his own niece, and with his two younger sisters as well.