“The papacy is no other than the ghost of the deceased Roman Empire, sitting crowned upon the grave thereof.”
-Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan
In August 897 or so, the deposed Pope Stephen VII (or VI*) was executed (or just murdered) in prison by strangulation.
“The ruins of Rome,” quoth Gibbon,
presented the sad image of depopulation and decay: her slavery was a habit, her liberty an accident; the effect of superstition, and the object of her own amazement and terror. The last vestige of the substance, or even the forms, of the constitution, was obliterated from the practice and memory of the Romans; and they were devoid of knowledge, or virtue, again to build the fabric of a commonwealth. Their scanty remnant, the offspring of slaves and strangers, was despicable in the eyes of the victorious Barbarians. As often as the Franks or Lombards expressed their most bitter contempt of a foe, they called him a Roman;
“and in this name,” says the bishop Liutprand, “we include whatever is base, whatever is cowardly, whatever is perfidious, the extremes of avarice and luxury, and every vice that can prostitute the dignity of human nature.”
While the popes of the 10th century would really set that prostituted standard with the period known as the “pornocracy”, Stephen VI(I) makes everybody’s bad popes lists with one of the papacy’s all-time embarrassing events: the Cadaver Synod.
The pontiff at this point is no global media celebrity but an ensemble character captive to the the disreputable politics of a shrunken, malarial borough. Stephen’s predecessor Formosus had been one of the city’s “Carolingian” faction backing the withering remains of Charlemagne’s once-great line.
At loggerheads with the Italian Spoleto family claiming the Holy Roman Emperor title for the anti-Carolingians, Formosus had invited an illegitimate Frankish scion to roll down the Italian peninsula and take it from them — which is exactly what happened.
Two months after Formosus crowned this Carolingian, Arnulf by name, as “Augustus” in Rome, Formosus died while Arnulf was on his way back to Bavaria … putting the Spoletos back in charge. After a brief interregnum papacy, the Spoleto-backed anti-Carolingian prelate Stephen ascended St. Peter‘s throne.
The factional conflict was approaching civil war. Stephen’s Cadaver Synod (or in the equally evocative Latin, Synod horrenda) was a singular show of power against the Carolingians.
About January of 897, the pope had Formosus’s corpse exhumed and creepily propped up in its vestments on a throne at the Basilica of St. John Lateran. There, before a reluctant clerical conclave, the rotting remains of Formosus** were subjected to a kangaroo prosecution personally conducted by Pope Stephen. As Robert Browning described it in a digressive passage of The Ring and the Book,
And at the word the great door of the church
Flew wide, and in they brought Formosus’ self,
The body of him, dead, even as embalmed
And buried duly in the Vatican
Eight months before, exhumed thus for the nonce.
They set it, that dead body of a Pope,
Clothed in pontific vesture now again,
Upright on Peter’s chair as if alive.
For frightful was the corpse-face to behold,—
How nowise lacked there precedent for this.
After the possibly-nuts Stephen had his fill of ranting at the mortal remains, he declared his foe “convicted” and condemned the body to the dissevering of its three right-hand blessing-fingers — symbolic of the damnatio memoriae the synod would pass upon the ex-pope, revoking the decrees and undoing the ordinations that hand had wrought in life. Formosus in his various parts was tossed into the Tiber.
While this macabre spectacle lives forever in the papal annals, Stephen didn’t live out the year: his enemies overthrew him that summer and had him summarily put to death, declaring the Synod horrenda‘s judgment reversed in the process.
In the event, the matter would be settled the old-fashioned Roman way: in the streets.
But, in a sudden burst of violence, Sergius and most of his followers were chased out of the city … Over the next twelve months, four more popes scrambled onto the bloodstained throne, maintained themselves precariously for a few weeks — or even days — before being hurled themselves into their graves.
* Between VI and VII, it depends on whether you count a short-lived 8th century Stephen in the list of Stephens; the popes at this time weren’t using regnal numbering themselves. Since the Catholic Encyclopedia’s roster of popes goes with VII, we will as well.