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“That wretch, from the beginning of his pontificate to the end of his life, feasted on immorality.”

— St. Peter Damian, Liber Gomorrhianus

Pope Benedict IX

This week’s bastard is another of those wacky medieval popes who so scandalized contemporary and later church writers.  As was the case with one of our previous weekly bastards (Elagabalus), Pope Benedict IX came to his position very young (the sources disagree on this point, but he was definitely no older than twenty) because he was the scion of an extremely well-connected family.

Think about it: who gives the sort of wealth and power that went with being pope to a twenty year-old and doesn’t expect it to go straight to the kid’s head?  Who doesn’t expect someone living the medieval equivalent of a rock-star life to go a bit nuts once thrust into the limelight?

In Benedict’s case that’s precisely what happened.

Pope Benedict VIII and...

Born a younger son of Theophylact, the powerful Count of Tusculum, Benedict was “elected” pope in 1032.  In becoming pope he succeeded not one, but two of his uncles, who between them had spent the previous twenty years keeping the papacy “in the family.”  It is a virtual certainty that Benedict’s father spread a fair amount of money around among the papal electors in order to ensure that it stayed there.

Daddy’s purchase of the papacy had a profound effect on young Benedict.  Cynical and capricious from the moment he took the Shoes of the Fisherman, Benedict’s rule was quickly marked by episodes that illustrated not only his complete disregard for either tradition or propriety, but his taste for wretched excess as well.  In the disapproving words of one chronicler, Benedict was a “demon from Hell in the disguise of a priest.”

He earned this sort of scorn by working his way through as many of the Seven Deadly Sins as he could, as quickly and as often as he could.  This pope was apparently on a first-name basis with most of the whores in central Italy, sold church offices for hefty bribes (a sin known as “simony.”), hosted frequent bisexual orgies, sodomized animals, and even went so far as to curse God and toast the Devil at every meal!  Dante Alighieri, author of The Inferno, proclaimed Benedict’s reign the low ebb of the history of the papacy.

...Pope John XIX, both uncles of Benedict IX

As had Stephen VII before him, Benedict owed his position to the Roman aristocracy, which meant that most of his critics came from among the many German clergymen holding positions in the church.  Most of his opponents considered their reigning head of the church something of a bogeyman; perpetrator of “many vile adulteries and murders.”  Desiderius of Monte Cassino who was a contemporary of Benedict IX and later reigned as Pope Victor III, wrote that Benedict committed “rapes, murders, and other unspeakable acts.”  Benedict’s reign, wrote Desiderius, was “so vile, so foul, so execrable that I shudder to think of it.”

Abbot Desiderius of Monte Cassino

For his part Benedict doesn’t seem to have given a damn what his critics thought.  His power base was among the members of the Roman aristocracy, and as long as they backed him he felt free to do as he pleased.  Turned out he reckoned without the powerful (and fickle) Roman mob, who rioted in 1036 and ran Il Papa right out of the Eternal City.  The uprising was quickly put down and Benedict returned to power there, but his hold on his throne was tenuous at best after that.

By the time Benedict’s opponents within the church had succeeded in driving him from Rome a second time in 1045, Benedict had tired of being pope.  So he consulted his godfather, a well-respected priest named Johannes Gratianus (“John Gratian”) about whether he could legally resign this most holy of offices.  When the “Godfather” assured him that such a thing, although unprecedented, was wholly acceptable according to church doctrine, Benedict offered to sell it to him for a ridiculous sum that would apparently be used to fund the former pope’s “lifestyle change.”

The older man accepted and took the papal name of Gregory VI.  The bribe he gave Benedict so completely bankrupted the papal treasury that for months afterward the church was unable to pay its bills.  To further complicate matters Benedict’s foes among the clergy had refused to recognize Gregory’s right to the succession, electing one of their number pope as Sylvester III.

So technically Benedict left not one, but two popes (well, really a “pope” and a pretender, or “antipope”) behind in Rome when he retired to one of his country estates later that same year.

Benedict didn’t waste any time, immediately proposing to a cousin (a common custom in his day).  When she refused him the ex-pope got it into his head that it wasn’t such a bad thing being pope after all.  Within weeks he’d headed back to Rome trying to get his old job back.

This time his allies among the Roman aristocracy deserted him, and Benedict got booted from the city a third time for his trouble.  So now there were three “popes” running around claiming to be the infallible head of the Holy Catholic Church!

Holy Roman Emperor Henry III

At this point clearer heads prevailed, and a group of bishops sent an appeal directly to Emperor Henry III in Germany, asking him to intervene.  The emperor convened a special church council in 1047, and by 1048 Antipope Sylvester had been convinced to re-take his position as bishop of Sabina, Gregory VI had been convinced to retire, and “Pope” Benedict IX had been officially removed from office.

A year later he was charged with simony (a charge of which he was clearly guilty).  When he refused to appear before the church court that indicted him, Benedict was excommunicated.

How he responded to this latest reversal is unrecorded.  But at some point during the next decade Benedict had a change of heart and as the story goes, presented himself at the abbey of Santa Maria di Grottaferrata, and asked for God’s forgiveness.

He spent the remainder of his days as a monk in that abbey, dying there in 1065.

Repentant bastard.

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(Sorry for the break in posting.  Was very busy the past couple of weeks with the final edits for the book.)

A contemporary bust of Alexander the Great

This week’s bastard comes from the Hellenistic Age, that period in the historical narrative of the ancient Mediterranean that began with the death of Alexander the Great in Babylon (323 BC) and ended with the suicide of the last Hellenistic ruler, Queen Cleopatra VII of Egypt in 30 BC.  During the intervening three hundred years a whole lot of ambitious and unscrupulous people (all of them related by blood in one way or another) did a whole lot of awful things to each other, and all in the name of furthering their own political aims.  This sort of bad behavior became so widespread that the phrase “Hellenistic monarch” tends to be near interchangeable with the word “bastard” for scholars who study the period.

And one of the most notorious of these bastards was a prince who rebelled against his father, married his sister, murdered her children, and stole her kingdom.  And all this after stabbing a 77 year-old ally to death in a fit of rage.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Ptolemy Keraunos (“Thunderbolt.”)

Ptolemy (pronounced “Tah-lemm-mee,” the “P” being silent) was the eldest son of Ptolemy I Soter (“Savior”), a Macedonian general and boyhood friend of Alexander the Great who founded the Ptolemaic dynasty of kings that ruled Egypt after Alexander’s death.  The Thunderbolt was the eldest of Ptolemy I’s legitimate sons to survive childhood; a product of Ptolemy’s marriage to his third wife, Eurydice (“Yur-id-iss-see”), and at least initially was designated as the first Ptolemy’s chosen successor as pharaoh.

The kingdoms of the "successors" shown here around 301 BC

Ptolemy I Soter

The early Hellenistic period was an incredibly chaotic time.  The passing of Alexander the Great left a power vacuum too tempting for the generals he had set in place as local governors in his empire to resist for long.  The seemingly inevitable wars that followed are known collectively as the Wars of the Diadochoi (“Successors”).  In dizzying succession this ruthless pack of scoundrels began to pick each other off, the survivors of each round of violence circling each other looking for an advantage, making alliances and breaking alliances as it suited them.

And their children, often pawns in Hellenistic dynastic marriages, learned from their example.

In the case of Ptolemy the Thunderbolt, he might have learned some of these lessons too well.  But where the father was wily, the son was aggressive.  Where the father plotted, the son preferred action.  Ptolemy Soter had from an early age developed a talent for picking the right side in any dispute.  His son did not possess the patience to weigh options.  Putting it kindly, the Thunderbolt was the prototypical “man of action” born into an age where intrigue ruled.  He was literally a man out of step with his own time.

In his eightieth year, with the question of succession pressing upon him, Ptolemy I gave up on his impulsive, hot-headed offspring.  Instead he chose a more sober half-brother (also confusingly bearing the name of “Ptolemy”) as his co-ruler and eventual successor.

Lysimachus

Furious, Ptolemy Keraunos fled to Thrace (modern-day northeastern Greece, southern Bulgaria, and European Turkey) and the court of another diadochos, Lysimachus (“Lie-simm-muh-kuss”).  Lysimachus was married to Ptolemy’s half-sister Arsinoe (“Ar-sinn-oh-ee”), and his son by a previous marriage was married to another sister, Lysandra.  Ptolemy hoped to have Lysimachus’ backing in a war with his father for the throne of Egypt.  Lysimachus put him off with vague promises, but did allow the younger man to stay at his court (possibly so he could keep an eye on him).

If the Thunderbolt expected things to be different for him in Thrace, he was mistaken.  His sisters were busy plotting against each other: Lysandra intent on seeing her husband Agathocles (“Uh-gath-uh-kleez”) succeed Lysimachus (who by this time was in his late seventies), where Arsinoe sought to secure her husband’s blessing for one of her three sons to succeed him.  In the end they were both foiled.

Arsinoe succeeded in convincing Lysimachus that Agathocles was plotting to overthrow him.  The king responded by having his eldest son and erstwhile heir executed.  Lysandra fled, and Ptolemy Keraunos went with her.

They traveled to Babylon, to the court of Seleucus, by now the only other of Alexander’s generals still left standing aside from Ptolemy in Egypt and Lysimachus in Thrace.  Seeing an opportunity, Seleucus agreed to raise an army on the behalf of the two, and assured them that he would support their bid to take the throne of his old rival Lysimachus.  During that same year Ptolemy I died.  The succession of his easy-going son Ptolemy II to the throne went off without incident.

The site of the battle of Corupedium in modern-day Turkey

Seleucus and Lysimachus faced off at the battle of Corupedium (“Kohr-up-ee-dee-um”) in 281 BC.  Meeting in single combat, the 77 year-old Seleucus defeated and killed the 79 year-old Lysimachus (now that must have been a sight: the Clash of the Geriatrics!).  Ptolemy, who had fought on Seleucus’ side, demanded Lysimachus’ kingdom as Seleucus had agreed.  And just as Lysimachus had, Seleucus stalled, all the while planning his triumphal march into Lysimachus’ capital of Cassandrea.

It was a fatal mistake on his part.

For Seleucus, a battle-hardened veteran of Alexander’s wars of conquest, and now the last of the diadochoi left alive,

Seleucus I (Roman copy of a Macedonian original)

reckoned without the hot-headed son of his old rival Ptolemy I.  Enraged at having again been denied a throne he considered his by right, the younger Ptolemy stabbed Selecus to death in his tent.  The act earned Ptolemy the nick-name “Thunderbolt.”

Ptolemy then slipped out of Seleucus’ camp and over to Lysimachus’ army.  Upon hearing that Ptolemy had killed the hated Seleucus, the soldiers promptly declared him Lysimachus’ successor and the new king of Macedonia (a title up for grabs since its previous owner had died in captivity in 283 and his son was in no position to press his claim).  The only problem was that Arsinoe still held Cassandrea.  So Ptolemy struck a deal with her.

Arsinoe agreed to marry her half-brother, help strengthen his claim to the Macedonian throne and share power as his queen.  In return for this Ptolemy agreed to adopt Arsinoe’s eldest son (also named, not surprisingly, “Ptolemy”) as his heir.  You can guess what happened next.

While Ptolemy was off consolidating his new holdings in southern Greece, Arsinoe began plotting against him.

Once again furious (it seems to have been his natural state), Ptolemy killed Arsinoe’s two younger sons.  The eldest, Ptolemy-son-of-Arsinoe-not-to-be-confused-with-Ptolemy-Keraunos fled the kingdom.  Arsinoe did as well, heading home for Egypt and the court of her full brother, Ptolemy-II-King-of-Egypt-not-to-be-confused-with-any-of-the-other-Ptolemies-listed-herein.

A fifteenth century French depiction of the death of Ptolemy Keraunos while fighting the Getae. Note how the artist has portrayed all the combatants as if they were contemporary French knights, right down to the plate armor.

But Ptolemy Keraunos did not live to enjoy his throne for very long.  In 280 BC a group of barbarian tribes began raiding Thrace.  The Thracians asked for his help against them.  When Ptolemy short-sightedly refused, the Thracians were forced to ally themselves with the invaders; a group of Celtic-speaking savages known as the Getae (“Get-tay”).  The Thunderbolt was captured and killed while fighting them the next year.

As for the sisters of Ptolemy, Lysandra and her children disappear from the historical narrative around the death of Seleucus (did Ptolemy or Arsinoe kill them as well?), and Arsinoe?  She talked her brother Ptolemy II into setting aside his first wife and marrying her.  She served as his co-ruler for the remaining ten years of her life.  Ever afterward Ptolemy II was known as “Philadelphus” (“sibling-lover”).  In the end, who was the bigger bastard?  The relatively straight-forward, hot-headed Thunderbolt, or his constantly scheming half-sister Arsinoe?

A coin from the reign of Ptolemy II Philadelphus portraying the king and his sister/wife/queen, the formidable Arsinoe II

A coin from the reign of Ptolemy II Philadelphus portraying the king side-by-side with his sister/wife/queen the formidable Arsinoe II.


I will not describe the barbaric chants which [Elagabalus], together with his mother and grandmother, chanted to [Elagabal], or the secret sacrifices that he offered to him, slaying boys and using charms, in fact actually shutting up alive in the god’s temple a lion, a monkey and a snake, and throwing in among them human genitals, and practicing other unholy rites.

— Dio Cassius

If you’re going to catalogue historical bastardry throughout the ages, you’d better plan to touch on that colorful period in the historical record known as “Imperial Rome.”  As with the Papacy, the sheer number of men who wore the emperor’s purple robes over the empire’s five-plus centuries lends itself to the likelihood that the throne would occasionally be occupied by someone so “eccentric” that he stood out in a crowded field of “personalities” like Michael Jordan playing basketball with a bunch of kindergarteners.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Varius Avitus Bassianus, a young, Syrian-born aristocrat who ruled the empire under the very Roman-sounding name of “Marcus Aurelius Antoninus” from 218 to 222 A.D., but was better known by the nick-name “Elagabalus.”

Elagabalus was so much more than an emperor.  He was also the hereditary high priest of a Syrian sun god cult that worshipped a craggy, two-ton phallic-shaped meteorite as the actual physical incarnation of his god (“Elagabal,” or “El-Gabal,” from which he derived his nick-name).  He was also a transsexual cross-dresser who wore more make-up than most strippers, and allegedly worked as a hooker out of his rooms in the imperial palace.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg (or, if you prefer, the meteorite).

Elagabalus was a shirt-tail relation of the great (and ruthless) emperor Septimius Severus.  His grandmother was Severus’ sister-in-law.  When Severus’ direct line died out (and the story of how that all played out is grist for a future Weekly Bastard post), Elagabalus’ grandmother (Julia Maesa) and mother (Julia Soaemias) schemed along with a eunuch named Gannys to put the boy forward as a plausible claimant to the imperial throne.

The kid was all of fourteen.  But, a couple of battles, an army proclamation declaring him emperor and an execution of the unpopular if effective Gannys later, and Elagabalus (along with his mother and grandmother) was on his way to Rome.

When he got there he made quite a splash, not least because he brought his god with him.

Literally.

This massive “sky stone” was ensconced in a new temple complex built expressly for it, right next to the old Flavian Amphitheatre (what we know today as the “Colosseum”) on Rome’s Palatine Hill, and named the “Elagaballium.”

During Rome’s annual Midsummer Day festival, the ancient writer Herodian reports:

[Elagabalus] placed the sun god in a chariot adorned with gold and jewels and brought him out from the city to the suburbs.  A six-horse chariot carried the divinity, the horses huge and flawlessly white, with expensive gold fittings and rich ornaments.  No one held the reins, and no one rode with the chariot; the vehicle was escorted as if the god himself were the charioteer.  Elagabalus ran backward in front of the chariot, facing the god and holding the horses’ reins.  He made the whole journey in this reverse fashion, looking up into the face of his god.

As if that weren’t shaking things up enough for his new subjects, Elagabalus promptly swept aside the old Roman pantheon of gods, and “married” his god Elagabal to the Roman goddess Minerva.  As a mortal “echo” of this Heavenly union Elagabalus then did the truly unthinkable: he took one of Rome’s Vestal Virgins as his wife.  Dedicated to the Roman mother goddess Vesta, whose service obliged these priestesses to remain virgins during their twenty years of service.  If one of them didn’t, the punishment was for her to be buried alive.  And Elagabalus took one of them, a woman named Aquilia Severa as his wife not once, but twice!

In the four years he was emperor Elagabalus took at least three different women as his wife.  These marriages were likely arranged by his grandmother and mother (“the Julias”) in order to help preserve the fiction that “Imperator Marcus Aurelius Antoninus” was a solid, dependable Roman citizen and emperor, rather than the capricious Syrian drag-queen high-priest of a bloody-thirsty sun-worshipping cult.  It was hoped that keeping up this appearance would help cement support for his reign.  In fact, these two formidable women proved themselves to be particularly shrewd and capable administrators.  Put simply, things ran so smoothly in Rome and throughout the empire that for a while people didn’t seem to mind how much of a “free spirit” their emperor appeared to be.

And a “free spirit” he definitely was.  Although Romans had tolerated the tendency among some of their previous emperors to take male lovers, homosexuality in ancient Rome was by and large frowned upon.  Elagabalus flouted this attitude by taking as his “husband” a big, burly slave from Caria; a charioteer of some skill named Hierocles.  One of his favorite roles to play was that of the “cheating wife,” allowing himself to be “caught” in bed with another man by Hierocles, who then beat the emperor (who apparently enjoyed “rough trade”), at times so badly that ‘he had black eyes’ for days afterward.

Probably transsexual, Elagabalus seemed obsessed with becoming more like a woman, not with just taking men to bed. The Historia Augusta reports that the emperor “had the whole of his body depilated,” and according to the disapproving contemporary historian and senator Dio Cassius, Elagabalus “had planned, indeed, to cut off his genitals altogether,” but settled for having himself circumcised as “a part of the priestly requirements” of his cult.

By the time Elagabalus turned seventeen his continual nose-thumbing at Rome’s religious, social and sexual norms began to take a toll on his public image.  In 221 two different legions mutinied and just barely missed proclaiming their respective generals “augustus” (“emperor”) in his stead.

This unrest did not escape the attention of Elagabalus’ grandmother, the Augusta Julia Maesa.  Her hold on the levers of power depended on her grandson staying in the good graces of both the people and army, and his increasingly erratic behavior and eroding popularity with his subjects made the dowager empress very nervous.

She opted to advance Bassianus Alexianus, another of her grandsons, as Elagabalus’ co-ruler and “heir” (he was only four years younger than Elagabalus) with the ruling name “Severus Alexander.”  He too had a strong-willed mother named “Julia” (Julia Mamea), who “guided his actions.”

At first Elagabalus and his mother went along with the move.  Within weeks, however, the senior emperor had changed his mind and tried to have his younger cousin killed.  A power struggled ensued.  The modest, retiring Alexander was popular with the people, and especially with the army.

It all finally came to a head in March of 222, when Elagabalus flew into a rage during a meeting with the commanders of his personal bodyguard (the Praetorian Guard, which also acted as the city of Rome’s police force).  Having been reminded again and again of the “virtues” of his younger cousin, Elagabalus once more called for Alexander’s arrest and execution, bitterly denouncing the Praetorians for preferring his cousin to himself.

It was not a smart thing to do this while still standing in the middle of their camp.

The emperor, only just eighteen years old, was chased down by his own bodyguard and killed in one of the camp latrines.  Supposedly his last words were, “Leave my mother alone!”  If those actually were his final wishes, they were ignored.  His mother was killed right alongside him.  Their bodies were beheaded, and dragged through the streets of Rome.  The corpse of Elagabalus wound up in the Tiber River: the sort of burial that contemporary Roman law reserved for criminals.

Later historians (especially Christians) whipped up improbable tales of human sacrifice conducted by this teenaged demagogue, and speculated wildly about the various depravities in which he might have indulged.  This speculation included the unlikely story of how “Heliogabalus” (sic) invited several very important people to a dinner party only to have them smothered to death under the weight of several hundred pounds of flowers.  This painting trades upon that myth.

The truth as we can divine it about Elagabalus is far more interesting.  After all, what gender-confused, hormonally addled teenager wouldn’t go off the rails if handed the literal “keys to the kingdom”?  It sure makes for one fascinating bastard.

So imagine that you’re a member of one of the tribes of Native Americans that lived in the eastern part of North America when European settlers first landed. Further imagine that instead of fighting the encroaching Europeans, you embraced their technological advances, their way of life, their concepts of God, even of having your own alphabet.

What if, in other words, you did what few if any other tribes tried to do: you tried to straddle a middle ground between your own indigenous culture while adopting what you and the other members of your tribe judged to be the best aspects of European culture? Surely the Europeans, especially those so eager to convert the “heathens” native to the continent, would be pleased and accept you and be impressed by your efforts to both become part of the new country they were building and yet still not lose the distinctiveness of your native traditions, right?

Not if you were the Cherokee Indians of North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama.

The Cherokees did it all: they dressed like the whites, they farmed like the whites, lived in frame clapboard houses like the whites, even bought and owned black slaves to help them bring in cash crops like the whites.

And in the end, none of it mattered.

Why?

Because the Cherokees had the bad grace to live on land where gold was discovered in the late 1820s. After that it was only a matter of time before the Cherokees, as had their neighbors the Creeks, Choctaws and Chickasaws before them, were pushed off their land.

But the Cherokees had learned much in their study of the ins and outs of white culture. Like any good American who felt they were being treated unfairly, they got lawyers and filed law suits. When the state of Georgia tried to force a cession treaty on them where they “voluntarily” surrendered their lands in the southern Appalachian Mountains, the Cherokees sued. The case, known as Worcester v. Georgia, contested the sovereignty of an individual state with regard to either policing or parceling out Cherokee land, which by treaty right was considered sovereign territory.

This was tied up in court for years, until the Supreme Court heard the case and in 1832 ruled against the state and established as settled law the matter of whether Indians had legal rights to both occupy and control their own land. Several other court victories reinforcing the legal rights of Indians to their treaty lands followed.

In the end it was all for naught. The United States government is separated into three branches, and while the court system has every obligation to rule on and establish the laws, it is the job of the Legislative branch (Congress) to make appropriate laws in the first place, and of the Executive to enforce said laws. Neither the Congress nor the President (in this case Andrew Jackson, a man who initially made his reputation fighting tribes such as the Creek Confederacy as a general of Tennessee volunteer troops) lifted a finger to halt Cherokee removal.

Jackson is reputed to have said: “Mr. [U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice] Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it.” He said no such thing. Instead he noted that “the decision of the Supreme Court has fell still born, and they find that they cannot coerce Georgia to yield to its mandate.”

The end result was the forced removal of most of the Cherokee Nation from their ancestral lands beginning in 1838 (some residual tribal members still live in the region, including a group living on a special reservation in western North Carolina). The route these two large groups of Cherokees followed westward through Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois and Missouri into what is now Oklahoma became known in the Cherokee language as “nu na hi du na tlo hi lu i,” which translates as “the Trail Where They Cried.”

More than 4,000 of the 13,000 Cherokees who made the journey perished on the trail; some were infected with smallpox picked up from used blankets that were given to them by a Tennessee sanatorium that had recently suffered an outbreak of this disease against which the Indians had no immunity.
And who was the bastard in this story?

No single individual.

An entire nation was culpable.

Read, — how there was a ghastly Trial once Of a dead man by a live man, and both, Popes

— Robert Burns, The Ring and the Book

Our initial foray into historical bastardry concerns the Papacy and a pope “convicted” of terrible crimes nearly a year after his death!

The late 9th and early 10th centuries marked a period of widespread political chaos in Italy dubbed the “Iron Age” of the Papacy.  For example, no less than twenty-five men served as pope between the years 872 and 972.  During this time the Papacy came to be viewed as the ultimate “plum job” by Rome’s wealthy families, many of whom vied with each other to see one of their number don the shoes of the fisherman and in turn dispense ridiculous amounts of patronage amongst his kinsmen.

Feuds developed, blood was spilled.  A pope was poisoned, and the reigns of his successors became successively shorter (many of them also meeting violent ends).  In the midst of all of this chaos, where a pope would change canon law by this or that decree, only to have his reforms overturned by an antagonistic successor, one pope took matters even further.

He ordered a predecessor’s corpse dug up and put on trial.

Enter Pope Stephen VII, who reigned as pontiff from May of 896 to August of 897.

These days people (Catholic or not) tend to view the Pope, the head of the Roman Catholic Church as a benevolent, invariably elderly man dressed in clean white robes, apolitical, a living symbol of the Church’s stances on things such as social justice and mercy.

This was not always the case.

The Papacy has been around for millennia; it is one of the oldest institutions in the Christian Church.  It stands to reason that a position like this one, which has been occupied by any number of different men over the course of its existence, has been occupied by the occasional loose screw.  In the case of the Papacy, one could make the case that the law of averages has been stood on its head, and the office has seen enough loose screws, screaming rivets and outright nuts to fill a toolbox.

One such loose screw was Stephen VII, a churchman so off his rocker that he was given to toasting the health of the Devil and blaspheming against God.  Add in the fact that Stephen was politically beholden to the family that ruled the nearby Duchy of Spoleto, and things start to get interesting.

During the Middle Ages the idea went that if a Pope was Christ’s vicar on Earth, he ought to have actual territory to rule like any secular feudal lord.  This usually included the city of Rome and varying amounts of adjacent territory.

Since the Papacy at the time was scrambling for money and troops of its own, a succession of popes (including Stephen VII and many others) made outside alliances with powerful Italian families bent on adding the prestige of the Papacy to their own names.  The Popes of this period usually accomplished this end by offering to legitimize the rule of the ally in question with a formal papal coronation (literally having the Pope himself place the ruler’s crown on his blessed head) in exchange for military aid and protection.

One pope who had done this was a predecessor of Stephen’s named Formosus, whose reign lasted five years (891-896).  During that time Formosus (whose name in Latin means, “good looking”) had crowned the young Duke of Spoleto Holy Roman Emperor, then turned around and offered the same crown Arnulf, King of Germany.

Arnulf had answered Formosus’ invitation by invading Italy and taking Rome, where Formosus promptly crowned him Holy Roman Emperor as well.  Needless to say, this caused an uproar in Spoleto, especially with Angiltrude, Queen of Italy, Duchess of Spoleto, and erstwhile Holy Roman Empress, mother of the underaged Duke of Spoleto (who, lest we forget, had already been crowned Holy Roman Emperor himself).

Struck by a sudden mysterious paralysis, Arnulf withdrew from Italy, leaving Formosus to pick up the pieces.  Formosus responded by dying shortly afterward, to be initially succeeded by a couple of popes with ridiculously short reigns (one of them only lasted two weeks as pontiff!), and eventually by Stephen VII, the certifiably crazy political pawn of Spoleto’s ruling family.

About six months into his reign, Stephen had Formosus dug up and propped up in a chair in the Vatican, where he was then placed on trial with Pope Stephen himself sitting as judge.  Formosus (or rather his corpse) was accused of (among other things) being ambitious enough to actually want to be pope (the nerve!).  No one is sure of Stephen’s reasons for putting on this, the ultimate show trial, but historians speculate that he was feeling pressure from Angiltrude and her supporters to delegitimize Formosus’ reign (thereby also wiping out Arnulf’s coronation as Holy Roman Emperor) and suffering from some well-documented psychosis.

The trial lasted for weeks, during which time Stephen would frequently interrupt his own papal prosecutor in order to rant at Formosus’ moldering corpse, calling it all manner of names, accusing it of murder, blasphemy and several other crimes with which it was not actually charged.  How the corpse responded is not recorded.

The trial’s outcome was a foregone conclusion.  The corpse was stripped of its expensive papal vestments, the first three fingers of its right hand (the three with which a pope blesses his subjects) were cut off, and the body was briefly reburied, this time in an unmarked grave in a graveyard reserved for foreigners.  Within a couple of days it had been dug up yet again and tossed in to the Tiber River, only to be pulled out by a monk loyal to the dead pope’s memory.

Called the “Synod Horrenda” in Church Latin, this “Cadaver Synod” resulted in riots throughout Rome which eventually cost Stephen first his papal throne and eventually his life.  He was strangled in prison less than six months after “condemning” the dead Formosus (once again, Formosus’ reaction, if any, to this news is not recorded).

A fitting end for one crazy bastard.

Hiya!

Guess it’s time I dipped my toe into the deep end of the author-blogging pool.  My book The Book of Bastards: 101 Worst Scoundrels and Scandals from the World of Politics and Power is due out from Adams Media in August, 2010.  I’ll be posting teaser material (linked at least thematically, if not directly, to the content of the book itself) here during the coming months in the run-up to the book’s launch date.

Coming soon: our first entry in the canon: Pope Stephen VII and the “Cadaver Synod.”