Saeculum obscurum, literally meaning dark age, is a name given to a period in the history of the Papacy during the first half of the 10th century, beginning with the installation of Pope Sergius III in 904 and lasting for sixty years until the death of Pope John XII in 964.
The period was first identified and named by the Italian Cardinal and ecclesiastical historian Caesar Baronius in his Annales Ecclesiastici in the sixteenth century.
Medieval print of Marioza and her mother Theodora sharing a bath
Other scholars have dated the period more broadly or narrowly, and with other terms, such as the Pornocracy or more commonly Rule of the Harlots, which was coined by Protestant German theologians in the nineteenth century.
During this period, the Popes were strongly influenced by a powerful and corrupt aristocratic family; the Theophylacti and their relatives. The family originated from a man called Theophylactus, who had risen to hold many positions of some importance among the Roman nobility. His wife Theodora and daughter Marozia held a great influence over the papal selection and religious affairs in Rome through conspiracies, affairs and marriages. The power of the Theophylacti was generated through sex.
Marozia took rich lovers and powerful husbands and became the concubine of Pope Sergius III – the first pope to be depicted wearing the papal tiara – when aged 15. About six years later in the year 910, Marioza and Sergius III were blessed with a son whom they called John. Marioza would ensure that he would eventually be seated as pope.
To ensure her son’s place in the papal succession Marozia had to arrange the murder of her former lover Pope John X, the hero of Garigliano, where he had taken the field personally to lead the victorious Christian troops in battle against the Saracens in 915. He was imprisoned on the orders of Marioza and most probably murdered in 928. Ironically, it is rumoured that John X was also the lover of Marioza’s mother Theodora.
Leo VI and Stephen VII succeeded John X as in-between popes before Marioza’s precious son John was old enough to ascend St. Peter’s throne. According to the chroniclers; they were hand-picked by Marioza. Eventually, her son was created Pope John XI in 931, he was only twenty at the time.
Six more popes would descend from Marioza and her offspring.