Pope John XII Biography


Born: 937

Born In: Rome, Italy

Pope John XII served as the bishop of Rome and reigned over the Papal States from December 955 until his death in May 964. He was initially known as Octavian and was the only son of Duke Alberic II of Spoleto, the ruler of Rome. Before Alberic died, he ordered that Octavian should be the next pope. Thus, after Pope Agapetus II’s death, an 18-year-old Octavian became the next pope and took the name “John.” His papal rule came to be known for his erotic escapades and reckless lifestyle. Though he initially took the help of King Otto I of Germany to drive out King Berengar II of Italy from his territories, John later revolted against Otto. John was later deposed for conspiring against Otto. However, before their conflict came to an end, John died. It is believed that he had passed away in the middle of a sexual encounter with one of his mistresses.

Quick Facts

Also Known As: Octavian

Died At Age: 27


father: Alberic II of Spoleto

mother: Alda of Vienne

siblings: Count of Tusculum, Gregory I

Born Country: Italy

Spiritual & Religious Leaders Italian Men

Died on: May 14, 964

place of death: Rome, Italy

Cause of Death: Assassination

City: Rome, Italy

Childhood & Early Life

Pope John XII was born Ottaviano, or Octavianus (Octavian in English), in 937 (?) in Rome, Italy.

John (then Octavian) was the only son of the erstwhile ruler of Rome, Duke Alberic II of Spoleto.

His mother was probably Alda of Vienne, Alberic's stepsister and the daughter of Italy’s King Hugh. According to Benedict of Soracte, Octavian was the son of a mistress.

Octavian was born in the Via Lata, an aristocratic quarter located between the Quirinal Hill and the Campus Martius

Before his death, Alberic ordered that Octavian should be elected as the next pope.

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Early Life as a Pope

Octavian was elected as a pope on December 16, 955, after the death of the previous pope, Agapetus II. He was just 18 back then.

Prior to that, Octavian served as the cardinal deacon of Santa Maria in Domnica. After being made the pope, he changed his name to John and thus became the third pope ever to have changed his birth name, the first being John II and the second John III.

In terms of secular issues, John issued his directives as “Octavian,” while in matters related to the Church, he issued papal bulls as “John.”

In around 960, John attacked the Lombard duchies Beneventum and Capua, possibly to regain a few parts of the Papal States that had been acquired by them. The dukes of Beneventum and Capua did not confront him. They appealed to Gisulf I of Salerno for help.

John was forced to retreat to the north and began negotiating with Gisulf in Terracina. The two parties signed a treaty. Gisulf agreed not to interfere on the condition that John would agree that the papacy had no claim over Salerno.

John could not control the influential Roman nobility. Additionally, King Berengar II of Italy had started attacking his territories. In 960, John sent papal legates to King Otto I of Germany, to save himself from Berengar II.

Otto vowed to help John and decided to march into Italy in 961. Berengar was forced to retreat. Otto finally prepared to enter Rome on January 31, 962.

On February 2, 962, John crowned Otto and his wife, Adelaide, as the Holy Roman Emperor and Empress.

The pope and the Roman royals took an oath to remain faithful to Otto. After 11 days, the pope and Otto signed the Diploma Ottonianum, or the Privilegium Ottonianum (“Ottonian Privilege”), according to which all the Papal States would be under direct control of Otto.

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Otto, however, guaranteed the freedom of papal elections, although he retained the right to agree to such an election.

His Influence as a Pope

Pope John XII soon came to be known for his reckless ways. He was infamous for being “coarse” and “immoral” (according to the written records about his papacy). It is believed John’s wayward ways and means made people call the Lateran Palace (where the pope lived) a brothel.

John devoted very little time to the issues of the church. In 956, John wrote to William of Mayence, who was the papal legate in Germany, asking him to work against people who “devastate the churches of God.”

John wrote to Henry, the archbishop of Trier, too, asking him to lead a good life. In 958, John granted some conditional privileges to Subiaco Abbey.

In 960, John confirmed Saint Dunstan’s appointment as the archbishop of Canterbury. It is said that Saint Dunstan had traveled to Rome solely to receive the pallium directly from John’s hands.

On February 12, 962, John called a synod in Rome, on the orders of Otto. In the synod, John agreed to build the Archbishopric of Magdeburg and the Bishopric of Merseburg. John also confirmed Rather’s appointment as the bishop of Verona.

The synod also decided to excommunicate Bishop Hugh of Vermandois, who had tried to regain his previous position of the archbishop of Reims. John finalized this excommunication at another synod in Pavia that year.

His Conflict with Otto

On February 14, 962, Otto left Rome to capture Berengar II. Before leaving, he told Pope John XII to renounce his reckless lifestyle. John did not pay heed to the advice. He was, however, fearful of the increasing influence of Otto, as he saw Otto drive out Berengar from the Papal States.

John sent his envoys to the Byzantine Empire and the Magyars, asking them to unite against Otto. He also began negotiating with Berengar's son, Adalbert.

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Otto, however, succeeded in capturing John's ambassadors. Otto had incidentally sent a deputation to Rome to find out what John was trying to do behind his back.

Meanwhile, John sent his envoys, which included future Pope Leo VIII, to Otto. They told Otto that John just wished to introduce some reforms in the papal court.

In 963, however, Otto came to know that Adalbert had entered Rome for a round of discussions with John. With Berengar driven out of the country, Otto besieged the city of Rome in the summer of 963.

The city was divided among Otto’s supporters and John’s men. John’s army retained the old Leonine City. Initially, John defended Rome and pushed Otto's men across the Tiber River.

However, he soon realized he would not be able to defend Rome for long. He thus carried all the papal treasury with him and escaped to Tibur with Adalbert.

On November 6, 963, Otto declared a council at St. Peter’s, Rome. The council demanded that John come to them and defend himself against the charges imposed on him. John replied by saying he would excommunicate those who would try to depose him.

On December 4, 963, the council deposed John for conspiring against Otto. The council then placed Pope Leo VIII in John’s place. By then, John had retreated to the mountains of Campania.

Some people had initially joined hands to start a revolt supporting John but were defeated. In February 964, after Otto’s departure, Leo was deposed by John and his synod.

John marched into Rome in February 964. His synod declared his deposition as uncanonical. He injured a few of his enemies and began ruling over Rome again.

He then sent Otgar, Bishop of Speyer, to Otto and hinted at his will to negotiate with him.


Pope John XII died on May 14, 964, before any deal between him and Otto could be finalized. Historian Liudprand of Cremona stated that John had died in the arms of one of his mistresses, in the midst of an adventurous sexual encounter, away from Rome.

Some believe he had either died of apoplexy or was killed by an angry husband of a lover.

John was interred in the Lateran. He was succeeded by Pope Benedict V. However, Leo VIII deposed Benedict soon after.


The revised edition of Bartolomeo Platina's book about the popes states that the legend of Pope Joan could have been inspired by one of the mistresses of Pope John XII.

See the events in life of Pope John XII in Chronological Order

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