Modern-day celebrity stories are often sensationalized by filmmakers. But scandalous historical figures often have their cracks smoothed over by Hollywood. For instance, the convenient skipping-over of the execution of loyal Thomas Cromwell in The Private Life of King Henry VIII, or the relatively mild portrayal of over-the-top insane Roman Emperor Commodus in Gladiator.
HBO’s The Young Pope is no exception. The small-screen character Pius XIII, an amalgamation of scheming Pope John XII and other corrupt Popes, can be sympathetic to the audience at times and even earns a grudging respect from some of the older clergy. But the real-life “Young Pope” was a high-school aged Prince of Rome with a penchant for sexual affairs, political under-handedness and rule-breaking…even dying in bed with a married woman.
Pope John XII was “possibly the worst Pope who ever lived,” offers Ken Pennington, a professor at Catholic University of America, in a recent interview with TIME magazine.
His rule began in the 10th Century – with a broken law. When Pope-to-be’s father Duke Alberic II asked the clergy to install his bastard son in their highest seat, the sitting Pope was alive and kicking. But the church granted the Duke’s out-of-order request.
In 962 AD, the young Pope John XII crowned King Otto I the Holy Emperor of Rome, in exchange for a military alliance with Germany. But months later, the Pope stabbed Otto in the back by aligning with a rival ruler. The King would later try to unseat his disloyal new acquaintance, nearly succeeding.
As bothersome as his war-time scandals, the green-horned but lustful Pope John XII nearly turned the Pope’s palace into a cat house. “He was a randy Pope,” says Pennington in the TIME report. “He had many women in the Lateran.”
But just like a Trump or a Clinton, Pope John XII was hated by enemies but defended by many, with some historians still claiming that the boy wasn’t all that bad. ““His genuine interest in church reform has often been overlooked,” claims Kevin Madigan, a Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Harvard.
Fans and critics cannot figure out if The Young Pope is meant to be a comedy, a drama, or an experimental riff on Catholic history. But the show captures the volatile nature of Rome as very different men replace one another in its most powerful seat. As doomed Archbishop Gilday put it in The Godfather Part III, “You would do well to remember…that this Pope has very different ideas than the last one.”