Saeculum obscurum

Saeculum obscurum (Latin: the dark age) is a name given to a period in the history of the Papacy during the first half of the 10th century, beginning with the installation of Pope Sergius III in 904 and lasting for sixty years until the death of Pope John XII in 964.



The period was first identified and named by the Italian Cardinal and ecclesiastical historian Caesar Baronius in his Annales Ecclesiastici in the sixteenth century.[1] Baronius' primary source for his history of this period was Liutprand of Cremona. Other scholars have dated the period more broadly or narrowly, and other terms, such as the Pornocracy (German: Pornokratie, from Greek pornokratiā, "prostitute rule") and the Rule of the Harlots (German: Hurenregiment), were coined by Protestant German theologians in the nineteenth century.

Historian Will Durant refers to the period from 867 to 1049 as the "nadir of the papacy".[2] The Foundation for Medieval Genealogy covers the period 872-1048.[3]

10th-century Popes

During this period, the Popes were influenced strongly by a powerful and corrupt aristocratic family, the Theophylacti, and their relatives.[4] The family originated from Theophylactus, who held positions of increased importance in the Roman nobility such as Judex, vestararius, gloriosissimus dux, consul and senator, and magister militum.[5] His wife Theodora and daughters, Theodora and Marozia held a great influence over the papal selection and religious affairs in Rome through conspiracies, affairs and marriages.[6]

Marozia became the concubine of Pope Sergius III when she was 15 and later took other lovers and husbands.[7] She ensured that her son John was seated as Pope John XI according to Antapodosis sive Res per Europam gestae (958–62), by Liutprand of Cremona (c. 920–72). Liutprand affirms that Marozia arranged the murder of her former lover Pope John X (who had originally been nominated for office by Theodora) through her then husband Guy of Tuscany possibly to secure the elevation of her current favourite as Pope Leo VI.[8] There is no record substantiating that Pope John X had definitely died before Leo VI was elected since John X was already imprisoned by Marozia and was out of public view.

Theodora and Marozia undoubtedly held great sway over the Popes during this time.[citation needed] In particular, as political rulers of Rome they had effective control over the election of new Popes. Much that is alleged about the saeculum obscurum comes from the histories of Liutprand, bishop of Cremona. Liutprand took part in the Assembly of Bishops which deposed Pope John XII and was a political enemy of the Roman aristocracy and its control over Papal elections. He is described by the Catholic Encyclopedia as "ever a strong partisan and frequently unfair towards his adversaries."

List of Popes during the saeculum obscurum

Family tree

Theophylact I, Count of Tusculum
Hugh of Italy
(also married Marozia)
Alberic I of Spoleto
d. 925
Pope Sergius III
Alda of Vienne
Alberic II of Spoleto
David or Deodatus
Pope John XI
Gregory I, Count of Tusculum
Pope John XII
Pope Benedict VII
Pope Benedict VIII
Pope 1012–1024
Alberic III, Count of Tusculum
d. 1044
Pope John XIX
Pope 1024–1032
Peter, Duke of the Romans
Pope Benedict IX

The Tusculan Papacy, 1012-59

After several Crescentii family Popes up to 1012, the Theophylacti still occasionally nominated sons as Popes:

Pope Benedict IX went so far as to sell the Papacy to his religious Godfather, who became the unfortunate Pope Gregory VI (1045-46). He then changed his mind, seized the Lateran Palace and became Pope for the third time in 1047-48.

The Tusculan Papacy was finally ended by the election of Pope Nicholas II, who was lucky to be assisted by Hildebrand of Sovana against Antipope Benedict X. Hildebrand was elected Pope Gregory VII in 1073 and introduced the Gregorian Reforms, increasing the power and independence of the papacy.

See also



  1. ^ Dwyer, John C. (1998). Church history: twenty centuries of Catholic Christianity. Mahwah, USA.: Paulist Press.. p. 155. ISBN 0809138301. 
  2. ^ Durant, Will. The Age of Faith. New York: Simon and Schuster. 1972. p. 537
  3. ^ "POPES AND PORNOCRATS: ROME IN THE EARLY MIDDLE AGES"; Foundations (2003) 1 (1): 5-21; on-line text
  4. ^ Brook, Lindsay (2003). "Popes and Pornocrats: Rome in the early middle ages". Foundations 1 (1): 5–21. 
  5. ^ Poole, Reginald L (1917). "Papal chronology in the eleventh century". English Historical Review 1917a41 (32): 204–214. 
  6. ^ Fedele, Pietro (1910 & 1911). "Ricerche per la storia di Rome e del papato al. sec. X". Archivo della Reale Società Romana di Storia Patria, 33: 177–247; & 34: 75–116, 393–423.
  7. ^ Ide, Arthur Frederick (1987). Unzipped: The Popes Bare All : A Frank Study of Sex and Corruption in the Vatican. Austin, USA.: American Atheist Press.. ISBN 0910309434. 
  8. ^ Stark, Rodney (2004). For the glory of God. Princeton, USA.: Princeton University Press. ISBN 9780691119502. 

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