984: Pope John XIV

Add comment August 20th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 984, the deposed Pope John XIV* was killed in prison.

Pietro Canepanova was his name by birth, and Bishop of Pavia was his rank when elected.

The papacy’s political axis in these prostrated times was the influence of the Holy Roman Empire. The Saxon emperor Otto II had given years of exertion to projecting imperial power over Rome and the Holy See, which although much weaker than the empire lay spatially at the fringes of effective imperial influence. The upshot was a fractious curial snakepit directed at any given moment by Otto’s degree of proximity and attention.**

John’s death, whose circumstances aren’t known with certainty,† was a sort of tragic middle act for the empire’s Roman project.

A decade before, the imperial-backed pontiff Benedict VI had been overthrown and murdered by a rival, known to history as Antipope Boniface VII. Boniface was backed by a Roman patrician family known as the Crescentii — rivals to Otto in our story.

The Boniface/Crescentii usurpation required Otto’s Italian hand to seize the city, and Boniface legged it for Constantinople with as much of the Vatican treasury as he could stuff into his chasuble. Behind, in his cloud of dust, the Germans installed a new guy, Benedict VII.

When Benedict died in 983, Otto was personally knocking about Italy,‡ so he popped into Rome to guarantee John XIV’s succession. But the pestilential atmosphere was not merely figurative in these parts, and a malaria outbreak killed Otto within days. His unexpected death left the succession to a three-year-old son, Otto III … which meant a period of ebbing imperial muscle as felt by remote marches like Italy. John XIV had lost his protection.

Still hanging around all this while, Antipope Boniface VII jumped at the opportunity to mount St. Peter’s throne once more and invaded Rome with the support of Byzantium and of the Crescentii, sending Pope John to the dungeons of Sant’Angelo where he was quietly offed.

Boniface’s own reign is largely obscure to posterity but it can’t be considered successful given that at his death in July 985, “the body of Boniface was exposed to the insults of the populace, dragged through the streets of the city, and finally, naked and covered with wounds, flung under the statue of Marcus Aurelius.”

Still, the Crescentii held the whip hand for years … until little Otto III grew up and returned to Rome in the 990s with a vengeance.

* Fun papal trivia: owing to some confusion in Middle Ages scriptoria, it was for a time erroneously believed that our Pope John XIV in fact compassed two different and very short-lived Popes John — “Iohannes XIV and Iohannes XIV bis” (the second). As a result, the regnal numbering for this particular name went all wonky and eventually skipped an increment: a pope took the name John XXI in 1276 mistakenly thinking himself to be the 21st of that name, even though the previous John (more than 200 years before — the span during which the numbering goof entered the parchments) was John XIX. There has never been a Pope John XX.

** Although the players are different, the situation reminds of the circumstances around the Cadaver Synod a century prior — when the imperial instigator in question was Charlemagne’s waning Carolingian dynasty.

† He might have been starved to death, or strangled, or poisoned, or indeed slain via almost any means convenient to the new pope’s goons. The probability that the death was ordered by the new pope qualifies this borderline case for consideration as an “execution.”

‡ He was campaigning against the Byzantines and the Saracens to extend imperial power to southern Italy and Sicily.

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Entry Filed under: Borderline "Executions",Early Middle Ages,Execution,History,Holy Roman Empire,Italy,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Papal States,Politicians,Power,Religious Figures

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998: Crescentius the Younger

Add comment April 29th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 998, Crescentius the Younger was beheaded in Rome.

In the abject Eternal City, sacked and scattered and plucked of its glories, even the title of Roman Emperor now belonged to a line of absentee Germans — “neither holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire,” as Voltaire would later put it. But empire enough to push around the likes of Rome.

Rivalry between imperial and anti-imperial factions will write the city’s history for centuries to come. In the late 10th century, the 28-year-old emperor Otto II died unexpectedly, elevating his three-year-old son Otto III.

Anti-imperial Romans moved to capitalize on the turmoil, and Crescentius the Younger (his dad had the same name) raised himself up as the master of the city.

He was fruit of the the Crescentii family,* who attained their first rank in Roman politics a century before thanks to the propitious concubinage of a woman named Theodora and “her equally infamous daughters Marozia and Theodora, [who] filled the See of Peter with their paramours, their sons, and grandsons, who surpassed each other in vileness and wickedness of every kind.” (Johann Heinrich Kurtz) The fulminations of scribes against these libidinous, Machiavellian women** would eventually suggest to the history discipline one of its all-time best periodizations, the pornocracy. Sticks and stones, love: their lineage cast a long shadow on the Tiber throughout the 10th century.

Our guy Crescentius took the title Patricius Romanorum and bossed the town for a number of years in the late 980s and early 990s. There wasn’t much the Holy Romans and their boy-emperor could do about the scion of pornocrats.

But by 996, Otto III was all grown up to age 16, and marched down the Italic boot to set things straight in the Caput Mundi.

Temporarily cowed, Crescentius had to accept the appointment of Otto’s guy, Pope Gregory V, who then generously begged off an intended sentence of banishment for Crescentius, in the interests of comity.

Crescentius thanked the new pope, once Otto left town, by running Gregory out of Rome and setting up his own antipope and himself once more as big man on Campo Vecchio. Rome could not hope to match blows with the Germans, so the big idea here for Crescentius was to deliver his city to Byzantine protection; to this end, his antipope was Greek. Constantinople, however, was by this time much too weak in Italy for Crescentius to entertain realistic hope of success.

This in turn led Otto to re-invade in 997-998, and re-depose Crescentius, who retreated to the Castel Sant’Angelo. While Crescentius holed up there, his antipope was blinded, mutilated, and degraded out of the clergy, driven backward on an ass (literally ass-backward!) through the streets to the derision of the mob.† Certain of his control, the emperor set about restoring his authority while the friendless Patricius Romanorum and his followers cooled their heels in their dead-end fortress for two months.

Exactly how Crescentius came to die is sunken into the Tiber’s murky waters: was he lured from his redoubt by promise of royal clemency, or did he crawl to Otto to beg it? More probable is that the nigh-impregnable edifice was simply reduced over time until the Germans nigh-impregnated it; one version of the upstart’s end has him summarily executed on the battlements, his body thrown down into the moat below only to be dredged up and hung upside down on Monte Mario.

* Here’s an attempted family tree (pdf). They would evolve into the Crescenzi.

** Gibbon speculated that this period of female domination of the papacy might have lived on in popular memory as the medieval legend of Pope Joan.

† But not executed, more’s the pity for me.

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Entry Filed under: Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Early Middle Ages,Execution,Gibbeted,History,Holy Roman Empire,Italy,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Papal States,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Treason,Wartime Executions

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