The Woman who Ruled the Papacy

The Papacy is a very male-dominated institution. However, for several years it was a woman who held true power over the Popes in Rome.

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 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.

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

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.”

Marozia, drawn by Franco Mistrali in 1861. Wikimedia Commons

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.

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?”

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)