Reform reached Rome last of all. The populace of the city had always been unmanageable, even when the Imperial eagle had wielded legions in its claws; now the pontiffs, armed only with a weak militia, the majesty of their office, and the terror of their creed, found themselves the prisoners of a jealous aristocracy, and of a citizenry whose piety suffered from nearness to Peter’s throne. The Romans were too proud to be impressed by kings, and too familiar to be awed by popes; they saw in the Vicars of Christ men subject like themselves to sickness, error, sin, and defeat; and they came to view the papacy not as a fortress of order and a tower of salvation, but as a collection agency whereby the pence of Europe might provide the dole of Rome. By the tradition of the Church no pope could be elected without the consent of the Roman clergy, nobles, and populace. The rulers of Spoleto, Benevento, Naples, and Tuscany, and the aristocracy of Rome divided into factions as of old; and whichever faction prevailed in the city intrigued to choose and sway the pope. Between them they dragged the papacy, in the tenth century, to the lowest level in its history.
In 878 Duke Lambert of Spoleto entered Rome with his army, seized Pope John VIII, and tried to starve him into favoring Carloman for the Imperial throne. In 897 Pope Stephen VI had the corpse of Pope Formosus (891-6) exhumed, dressed it in purple robes, and tried before an ecclesiastic council on the charge of violating certain Church laws; the corpse was condemned, stripped, mutilated, and plunged into the Tiber.46 In the same year a political revolution in Rome overthrew Stephen, who was strangled in jail.47For several years thereafter the papal chair was filled by bribery, murder, or the favor of women of high rank and low morality. For half a century the family of Theophylact, a chief official of the papal palace, made and unmade popes at will. His daughter Marozia secured the election of her lover as Pope Sergius III (904-11);48 his wife Theodora procured the election of Pope John X (914-28). John has been accused of being Theodora’s paramour, but on inadequate evidence;49 certainly he was an excellent secular leader, for it was he who organized the coalition that in 916 repulsed the Saracens from Rome. Marozia, after having enjoyed a succession of lovers, married Guido, Duke of Tuscany; they conspired to unseat John; they had his brother Peter killed before his face; the Pope was thrown into prison, and died there a few months later from causes unknown. In 931 Marozia raised to the papacy John XI (931-5), commonly reputed to be her bastard son by Sergius III.50 In 932 her son Alberic imprisoned John in the Castle of Sant’ Angelo, but allowed him to exercise from jail the spiritual functions of the papacy. For twenty-two years Alberic ruled Rome as the dictatorial head of a “Roman Republic.” At his death he bequeathed his power to his son Octavian, and made the clergy and people promise to choose Octavian pope when Agapetus II should die. It was done as he ordered; in 955 Marozia’s grandson became John XII, and distinguished his pontificate by orgies of debauchery in the Lateran palace.51
Otto I of Germany, crowned Emperor by John XII in 962, learned the degradation of the papacy at first hand. In 963, with the support of the Transalpine clergy, Otto returned to Rome, and summoned John to trial before an ecclesiastical council. Cardinals charged that John had taken bribes for consecrating bishops, had made a boy of ten a bishop, had committed adultery with his father’s concubine and incest with his father’s widow and her niece, and had made the papal palace a very brothel. John refused to attend the council or to answer the charges; instead he went out hunting. The council deposed him and unanimously chose Otto’s candidate, a layman, as Pope Leo VIII (963-5). After Otto had returned to Germany John seized and mutilated the leaders of the Imperial party in Rome, and had himself restored by an obedient council to the papacy (964),52 When John died (964) the Romans elected Benedict V, ignoring Leo. Otto came down from Germany, deposed Benedict, and restored Leo, who thereupon officially recognized the right of Otto and his Imperial successors to veto the election of any future pope.* On Leo’s death Otto secured the election of John XIII (965-72). Benedict VI (973-4) was imprisoned and strangled by a Roman noble, Bonifazio Francone, who made himself pope for a month, then fled to Constantinople with as much papal treasury as he could carry. Nine years later he returned, killed Pope John XIV (983-4), again appropriated the papal office, and died peaceably in bed (985). The Roman Republic again raised its head, assumed authority, and chose Crescentius as consul. Otto III descended upon Rome with an irresistible army, and a commission from the German prelates to end the chaos by making his chaplain Pope Gregory V (996-9). The young Emperor put down the Republic, pardoned Crescentius, and went back to Germany. Crescentius at once re-established the Republic, and deposed Gregory (997). Gregory excommunicated him, but Crescentius laughed, and arranged the election of John XVI as pope. Otto returned, deposed John, gouged out his eyes, cut off his tongue and nose, and paraded him through the streets of Rome on an ass, with his face to the tail. Crescentius and twelve Republican leaders were beheaded, and their bodies were hung from the battlements of Sant’ Angelo (998).53 Gregory resumed the papacy, and died, probably of poison, in 999. Otto replaced him with one of the most brilliant of all the popes.
Gerbert was born of lowly parentage near Aurillac in Auvergne (c. 940), and at an early age entered a monastery there. At the abbot’s suggestion, he went to Spain to study mathematics; and in 970 Count Borel of Barcelona took him to Rome. Pope John XIII was impressed by the monk’s learning, and recommended him to Otto I. For a year Gerbert taught in Italy, and at that time or later had Otto II among his pupils. Then he went to Reims to study logic in the cathedral school; and presently we find him head of the school (972-82). He taught an unusual variety of subjects, including the classic poets; he wrote an excellent Latin, and letters sometimes rivaling those of Sidonius. Wherever he went he collected books, and spent his funds recklessly to have copies made of manuscripts in other libraries; perhaps we owe to him the preservation of Cicero’s orations.54 He led the Christian world in mathematics, introduced an early form of the “Arabic” numerals, wrote on the abacus and the astrolabe, and composed a treatise on geometry; he invented a mechanical clock, and an organ operated by steam.55 So many were his scientific accomplishments that after his death he was reputed to have possessed magical powers.56
When Adalbero died (988), Gerbert sought to succeed him as archbishop of Reims; but Hugh Capet appointed instead Arnulf, a bastard son of the dying Carolingian house. Arnulf plotted against Hugh, an ecclesiastical council deposed him despite papal protests, and chose Gerbert archbishop (991). Four years later a papal legate persuaded a synod at Moisson to unseat Gerbert. The humiliated scholar went to the court of Otto III in Germany, received every honor there, and molded the mind of the young king to the idea of restoring a Roman Empire with its capital at Rome. Otto made him archbishop of Ravenna, and, in 999, pope. Gerbert took the name of Sylvester II, as if to say that he would be a second Sylvester to a second world-unifying Constantine. Had he and Otto lived another decade they might have realized their dream, for Otto was the son of a Byzantine princess, and Gerbert might have become a philosopher-king. But in the fourth year of his papacy Gerbert died, poisoned, said Roman rumor, by the same Stephania who had poisoned Otto.
Their aspirations, and the busy politics of the world around them, show how few were the Christians who took seriously the notion that the world would end in the year 1000. At the beginning of the tenth century a Church council had announced that the final century of history had begun;57 at its close a small minority of men so believed, and prepared themselves for the Last Judgment. The great majority went on their wonted ways, working, playing, sinning, praying, and trying to outlive senility. There is no evidence of any panic of fear in the year 1000, nor even of any rise in gifts to the Church.58
After the death of Gerbert the decay of the papacy was resumed. The counts of Tusculum, in league with the German emperors, bought bishops and sold the papacy with hardly an effort at concealment. Their nominee Benedict VIII (1012-24) was a man of vigor and intelligence; but Benedict IX (1032-45), made pope at the age of twelve, led so shameful and riotous a life59 that the people rose and drove him out of Rome. Through Tusculan aid he was restored; but tiring of the papacy he sold it to Gregory VI (1045-6) for one (or two) thousand pounds of gold.60 Gregory astonished Rome by being almost a model pope; apparently he had bought the papacy in a sincere desire to reform it and liberate it from its overlords. The Tusculan house could not favor such a reform; it made Benedict IX pope again, while a third faction set up Sylvester III. The Italian clergy appealed to the Emperor Henry III to end this disgrace; he came to Sutri, near Rome, and convened an ecclesiastical council; it imprisoned Sylvester, accepted Benedict’s resignation, and deposed Gregory for admittedly buying the papacy. Henry persuaded the council that only a foreign pope, protected by the emperor, could terminate the debasement of the Church. The Bishop of Bamberg was elected as Clement II (1046-7); he died a year later; and Damasus II (1047-8) also succumbed to the malaria that now regularly came out of the undrained Campagna. At last in Leo IX (1049-54) the papacy found a man who could face its problems with courage, learning, integrity, and a piety long rare in Rome.