Considered one of the worst of the popes , Octavian, son of Alberic II of Spoleto, was the spoiled child of the Dark Ages. He was born some time between 930 and 937 in the neighborhood of Via Lata.
Being an only surviving son, the father, Alberic wanted the best for him. Around 954, Alberic, reigning ruler of Rome, administered an oath to Roman nobles at St. Peter’s providing that the next papal vacancy would be filled by Octavian. He had just entered the Church service, becoming a cardinal-deacon at Santa Maria in Dominica. The next year, Alberic died, leaving his position as prince of Romans to Octavian. Not many months later, Pope Agapetus II died. True to their oath, the Romans elected this young man to the papacy. He was consecrated December 16, 955.
The first few years of his papacy, Octavian, who took the name John, busied himself with Church work and fun. His favorite things were wine, women, song, gambling and torture. He took oaths to the Devil and enjoyed the company of women of loose morals.
His papal legate to Germany, William of Mayence, was asked to inform him of the goings on in both West Francia and Germany. In other words, spy for him. He granted the pallium to Henry the new archbishop of Trier and encouraged him to live a good life. He granted privileges to Subiaco Abbey, provided the monks say one hundred Kyrie Eleisons and Christe Eleisons a day for his welfare and pray three Masses a week for him.
Around 960, John personally let an attack against the Lombard-held duchies of Beneventum and Capua, which had belonged to the papal lands. The dukes of those towns asked for help from Gisulf I of Salerno, who came to their aide. John was a wily man. He negotiated with Gisulf and they came to a conclusion. If Gisulf did not interfere, Salerno would no longer be a papal patrimony, saving Gisulf much money.
Berengar II, king of Italy soon came south to attack the papal territory. John sent for help to Otto of Germany. Otto arrived in Italy and Berengar retreated from the territory. Otto marched into Rome on 31 January 962. He swore an oath that he would do everything to defend the pope. John crowned him emperor and swore, in his turn, to be faithful to Otto and to not provide aid to Berengar or to his son Adalbert. The emperor became the guarantor of independence of the Papal States, confirmed the freedom of papal elections, with the right to agree to the election before the consecration. But he also insisted on the old Constituto Romana, restricting papal temporal power. While there, John convened a synod to grant palliums and establish several German archbishoprics. Just before he left to go chase down Berengar, Otto, who had been raised by St. Matilda, his mother, advised John to give up his licentious lifestyle. John was going to have none of that.
Otto was able to drive Berengar out of the Papal States and eventually capture him. John became frightened of Otto’s power. He decided to find allies by sending legates to the Magyars and the Byzantine emperor. Unfortunately, Otto captured them and heard their story. So, he sent his own men to Rome to find out what was happening. John made up a story about reforming the papal court in response.
The next year, Otto found out that Adalbert was in Rome for discussions. Otto returned to the city and besieged it. John attempted to defend the city, but merely pushed the attacking troops across the river. Realizing he was no match for the emperor’s army, he and Adalbert stole the papal treasures and escaped to Tibur, 30 miles away.
The emperor summoned a council and asked John to return and defend himself. John’s response was a threat of excommunication to anyone who testified against him. Then he went hunting. The council deposed John and elected Leo VIII.
Within months, the Romans revolted, supporting John. Otto put the revolt down harshly, killing many. John returned with his own army and supporters. This was too much for Leo, who fled to Otto. John, declaring himself still pope, organized a synod. The synod proclamation was that the deposing was uncanonical and he went back on the throne.
John died in a lover’s arms, in May of 964. Whether he had a stroke or was beaten by a jealous husband we will never know.