“Théodora (1887), by Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant

When Women Ruled the Papacy: Marozia and the Pornocracy
by Robbie Mitchell  / April 28, 2023

“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.

“Two women with a Pope in this 15th-century manuscript
British Library MS Arundel 117 fol. 138v”

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.

“The corpse of John XII, one of the most hated Popes in history” (Bollandus Bouttats)

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.”

Chamberlin. E.1969. The Bad Popes. Dorset Press.
Collins. R. 2009. Keepers of the Keys of Heaven:  A History of the Papacy. Perseus.
Horsley. A. 1989. Pontiffs, Palaces, and Pornocracy — A Godless Age. Brigham Young University. [Available here:]

“Jean-Paul Laurens, Pope Stephen VI and Formosus. The “Synod of the Corpse”, 1870″

The Woman who Ruled the Papacy / 09/23

“The years 896 to 964 are known as the Saeculum obscurum (‘The Dark Age”) for the Papacy. It was a time of chaos and corruption, with 20 Popes on the throne, and most of them having their reigns and lives radically shortened by murder. The Papacy had lost much of its prestige and protection with the splintering of the Carolingian Empire in the ninth century. Rome was largely left to rule itself. Moreover, Romans were largely left to choose who would be the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church. Soon enough, local elites began to fight each other for power and to make sure their man would be the next Pope. The Saeculum obscurum began not so much with the troubled reign of Pope Formosus (891-896), but with his death and subsequent trial – yes, his corpse was put on trial by Pope Stephen VI (896-897) in what is infamously called the Cadaver Synod. Stephen himself was strangled to death a few months later, one of many Popes to be violently killed.

It was during this time that a woman named Marozia entered the scene. Born between 890 and 892, she was the daughter of the Roman consul Theophylact, Count of Tusculum, and of Theodora, a senatrix and serenissima vestaratrix of Rome. This couple had risen to dominate Roman politics and made their share of enemies. One of them was Liudprand of Cremona, a diplomat and historian. He called Theodora a “shameless harlot… whose very mention is most foul, was holding the monarchy of the city of Rome, and not in an unmanly way.” When Sergius III became Pope in 904 Theophylact and Theodora ensured that their teenage daughter was introduced to the Pontiff – soon Sergius and Marozia were lovers, until she became pregnant and bore him a son named John. For the Pope to have any children was a serious embarrassment, but it also gave the House of Theophylact political leverage. Afterwards, Marozia was then married off to Alberic I, Duke of Spoleto.

The House of Theophylact continued to dominate Roman politics and the Papacy into the 920s, and when Marozia’s parents and husband died, leaving her to assume leadership. In his book The Birth of the West, Paul Collins explained: “An extraordinary woman, her importance lies not in her paramours, but in the fact that she continued the tradition of the Theophylact clan in maintaining stability in Rome and the Patrimonium… She understood that the sexual was political and was able to use this to her advantage in a patriarchal world. Obviously beautiful and alluring to men, she was also intelligent, strong-willed, and independent like her mother.When Pope John X (914-928) decided that he could challenge Marozia, she responded by marrying another of his rivals, Guy, Margrave of Tuscany and then returning to Rome where they seized Castel Sant’Angelo, the city’s main fortress.

When the opportunity arose, Guy sent his men to the Papal residence, where they killed the Pope’s brother, and dragged the Pontiff back to Castel Sant’Angelo, where he was imprisoned. A few months later he was dead – Liudprand writes “they placed a cushion over his mouth by which they most wickedly suffocated him. At this point, Marozia knew who she wanted on the Papal Throne – her son John – but since he was still a teenager, therefore a little too young. So she had Leo VI and Stephen VII keep the chair warm until she had both of them killed, and in 931 her son, now in his early twenties, became Pope John XI. Marozia was now at the height of her power – as one monk complained, “Rome has been subjected to the power of a woman, as we read in the Prophet, ‘The women dominate Jerusalem’.”

Marozia planned to rise even further, and in early 932 she proposed a marriage with a longtime adversary, Hugo of Arles, King of Italy. If they got married they would get a very special wedding gift from the Pope – he would bestow upon them the titles of Emperor and Empress. One historian remarks: “Marozia of all people could have transformed that hollow title into a meaningful one.” Hugo arrived in Rome, and the couple were married inside Castel Sant’Angelo by her Papal son. However, there was one detail overlooked by Marozia – she had another son Alberic, the son of her first husband Alberic I of Spoleto. He was born soon after John but we don’t know anything of his life previous to this. However, it seems likely that he did not favour the marriage and probably feared that he would soon become a victim of the political machinations of his mother and her new husband.

“Marozia, drawn by Franco Mistrali in 1861”

Liudprand explains what happened next: “Alberic, at his mother’s request, was pouring water so that King Hugo, his stepfather, that is, could wash his hands, he was hit in the face by him as a reprimand because he would not pour the water moderately and carefully. Therefore this man, so that he might avenge the offense against himself, gathered together the Romans and addressed them with a speech like this: “The dignity of the Roman city is led to such depths of stupidity that it now obeys the command of a prostitute. For what is more lurid and what is more debased than the city of Rome should perish by the impurity of one woman, and the one-time slaves of the Romans, the Burgundians, I mean, should rule the Romans? If he hits my face, that is, the face of his stepson, and, what is more, when he is a recently arrived guest, what do you think he will do to you as soon as he has settled in?”

“Engraving depicting the wedding of Marozia and Hugh of Italy
from Francesco Bertolini, Historia de Roma”

The Roman population rose up in rebellion and laid siege to Castel Sant’Angelo. King Hugo escaped by climbing down its walls with a rope, but Marozia and John XI were captured. Alberic became the ruler of Rome and would continue to imprison his mother and stepbrother for the rest of their lives. He would maintain control of the city for more than twenty years, and on his deathbed he ensured that his son Octavian would become the next Pope (he would become Pope John XII, serving from 955 to 964). This time has been called by historians the Pornocracy, and also the Rule of the Harlots. The story of Marozia would fade away – perhaps it became the inspiration for the myth of Pope Joan – but from what we know about her she deserves to be seen as one of the most fascinating women of the Middle Ages. She was the lover of one Pope, mother to another, and grandmother to a third. During her lifetime she not only ruled over Rome, but over Papacy as well.”

Further Readings:
Chamberlin, E.R., The Bad Popes (Dial Press, 1969)
Collins, Paul, The Birth of the West: Rome, Germany, France, and the Creation of Europe in the Tenth Century (PublicAffairs, 2013)
Fanning, Steven, and Bachrach, Bernard S. (trans.), The Annals of Flodoard of Reims, 919-966 (Broadview Press, 2004)
Logan, F. Donald, A History of the Church in the Middle Ages (Routledge, 2002)
Reardon, Wendy J., The Deaths of the Popes (McFarland and Company, 2004)
Squatriti, Paolo (trans.), The Complete Works of Liudprand of Cremona (Catholic University Press of America, 2007)