The history of the papacy is one of the most fascinating and complex aspects of Western civilization, and there are few periods in its long and storied past that are as intriguing as the Pornocracy. During this period, the papacy was largely controlled by a series of powerful women, who were known for their political savvy, their ability to manipulate the Church to their advantage, and their scandalous personal lives.
One of the most prominent figures of this era was Marozia of Rome, a noblewoman who became one of the most powerful women in Rome through her relationships with the popes. Some consider Marozia to have been the most powerful woman in the entirety of Rome’s history.
How did the Catholic church come to be controlled by these women? And what was their lasting effect on the papacy?
What Was the Pornocracy?
Few periods in history have such an eye-grabbing name as the Pornocracy, also known as the “Rule of the Harlots” or the slightly less exciting “Dark Age” or Saeulum Obscurum. But what was it? And did it live up to its scandalous-sounding name?
The Pornocracy was a 60-year period of papal history during the 10th century AD, during which a series of mistresses (mostly from the same family) of the reigning popes largely controlled the papacy. It began in 904 AD with the election of Pope Sergius III and ended around 60 years later with the death of Pope John XII. While the papacy has had its fair share of scandals over the centuries, this period is widely regarded as one of the papal office’s lowest points.
The term “Pornocracy” from the original Greek literally means “power to the prostitutes”. The period gained its rather salacious name from the fact it’s believed the powerful women of the aristocratic Theophylacti family used their sexual relationships with the popes to influence their decisions and gain immense power.
- Pope Joan: Did The Church Elect a Female Pope?
- The Avignon Captivity: Why did the Pope move to France?
The women who played a prominent role during the Pornocracy were Theodora and her daughter Marozia, who were the mistresses of several popes, and Theodora’s sister, who was the mistress of another pope. These women were known for their political savvy and their ability to manipulate the papacy to their advantage.
This period of the papacy was known for being particularly corrupt and marked by scandal with many popes engaging in debauchery, simony (the buying and selling of ecclesiastical privileges like pardons and benefices), and other immoral behavior. Much of this behavior was blamed on the Theophylacti family leading those poor innocent popes astray.
Marozia of Rome, Queen of the Pornocracy
While several women played a significant role in the pornocracy, Marozia can be seen as the ringleader. She was born in around 890 AD and was the daughter of consul Theophylact, Count of Tusculum, and his wife, Theodora. Combined they were seen as the real power in Rome.
Theodora had gained power through her numerous affairs with several popes. Marozia learned well from her mother and following in her footsteps, became the mistress of Pope Sergius III, who was the head of the Roman Catholic Church from 904 to 911. She was just 15 years old when the affair began.
She had a son with the pope and through her relationship with him became one of the most powerful women in Rome. Over the years she seduced several more popes and with each one gained even more power. She influenced the papacy and other political affairs throughout Rome and even ensured that her own son became Pope John XI.
During the period of the pornocracy, the popes were usually chosen by a small group of powerful Roman nobles, known as the papal electors. The papal electors were a group of senior clergy and lay officials who were responsible for electing the Pope, and their decisions were often influenced by powerful figures like Marozia.
As aristocrats, Marozia and her family had close ties to these papal electors and were easily able to use their influence to secure the election of popes who were sympathetic to their interests and who were easily controlled. In some cases, Marozia’s own lovers were elected pope, including Pope Sergius III and Pope John X, who was believed to be her illegitimate son.
Marozia’s power and influence were also bolstered by the fact that the papacy was weakened and divided during this period. There were often rival claimants to the papal throne, and the influence of the Holy Roman Emperor over the papacy was also significant.
For example, in 928 AD she and her second husband, Guy of Tuscany, rebelled against Pope John X, attacked Rome, and had the Pope imprisoned (where he died of suspicious circumstances). After seizing power Marozia installed Pope Leo VI and then Pope Stephen VII who were her puppets.
The papacy was often embroiled in political intrigue, and the choice of popes was frequently influenced by powerful secular figures like Marozia. However, it’s important to note that not all of the popes elected during this period were under Marozia’s control, and some were chosen independently by the papal electors.
Marozia and her allies would often seek to get rid of the Popes they could not directly control. This led to her ultimate undoing. After organizing one too many uprisings Marozia was overthrown and captured in 932 AD. She spent the next five years in prison, dying there.
Scandal and Intrigue
The era of the Pornocracy and Marozia of Rome was a tumultuous time in the history of the papacy, marked by corruption, scandal, and political intrigue. It was a period when the Church’s reputation was severely damaged, and its authority was called into question.
However, it’s important to note that this period was also marked by the rise of powerful women who were able to wield significant influence in a society that was dominated by men. Women like Theodora and Marozia were able to challenge the status quo and assert their power, paving the way for future generations of women to do the same.
Today, the legacy of the Pornocracy serves as a reminder of the dangers of unchecked power, corruption, and the importance of maintaining the integrity and independence of institutions like the Church. It also serves as a testament to the power of women to shape history, even in the face of overwhelming obstacles and opposition. Behind every powerful man is an even more powerful woman.
Top Image: During the Pornocracy the Popes were controlled by their mistresses. Of these the most powerful, and perhaps the most powerful woman in Roman history, was Marozia. Source: Kharchenkoirina / Adobe Stock.