Anne de Courcy

The perils of being pope

The power of the medieval papacy resembled that of the Holy Roman Emperor – and like the first Roman emperors, popes attracted envy, scandal and violent retribution

Pope John X, smothered to death on the orders of Marozia, a Roman noblewoman and the alleged mistress of Pope Sergius III. [Alamy]

Rome in the 1st century AD pulsated with religion. The knowledge that they lived in a sacred city, protected by the gods, permeated the daily lives of its citizens. They would see oxen being led down cobbled streets to be sacrificed on marble altars or offerings of incense and wine being made when the gods or the emperor demanded. There were constant religious festivals. At the Lupercalia, childless women were beaten with goatskin thongs that promised fertility; at the Saturnalia, Romans shed their togas, drank heavily and gambled. Even non-citizens and slaves were obliged to take part in these religious ceremonies.

In the darkened rooms of brick-and-stone tenements in the poorer quarters, others practised alien faiths, brought by the many traders from the far corners of Rome’s enormous empire. The Persian god Mithras had gained a firm footing; Serapis and Isis, whose acolytes completed their rituals by leaping into the Tiber, had arrived from Egypt.  Then, in the middle of the century, bearing the Christian message, came the apostle Peter – the first of 266 popes stretching in an almost unbroken line to the present day.

Jessica Wärnberg’s book tells not only the story of these popes but that of Rome, its people and the events that affected them. Packed densely with fact, and not aided by the somewhat random chronology, it is often indigestible, although as a history of the Catholic church it is well worthwhile. Just about everything is here, from the conversion of the Emperor Constantine in 312 to the declaration of the pope’s infallibility when speaking ex cathedra in 1870.

Benedict VI was strangled by one of his own priests in a cell in Castel Sant’Angelo

By the late 4th century, the papacy was well established. In a city where pleasure was paramount – there were 177 days given over to various games every year – Christianity was not only legal but fashionable.

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