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Damnatio Memoriae

The Trial of Pope Formosus by Jean Paul Laurens. Musee des arts Nantes.

Pope Formosus, clad in the sacerdotal robes of the pontiff, sat upon the papal throne in dignified silence while his accuser, the new pope, Stephen VI, spat out charges against him. Formosus was accused of ‘usurping the Universal See in such a spirit of ambition’ [1], of breaking canon law by accepting the Bishopric of Rome while still Bishop of Porto, of perjury, and of attempting to exercise the office of bishop as a layman….Formosus’ past had come back to haunt him.

Race to the top

City plan of Rome, showing the Lateran Palace of the pope. Wikimedia via Met Museum Edward Pearce Casey Fund, 1983.

Rome, and by extension, the papacy, was in a period of instability and turmoil during the ninth and tenth centuries. The reason for this was that the throne of St Peter offered not just spiritual power, but temporal power. Part of this power came from the pope’s role in electing the Holy Roman Emperor. Ever since the death of Charlemagne, Rome and its riches were in the sights of the many fiefdoms and factions that had sprung from the collapse of Charlemagne’s empire. This link meant that influential and powerful families all wanted to have their man on the papal throne, and by extension, if you wanted to be pope, it helped to have powerful backers.

Popes, even those backed by powerful families, came and went with surprising rapidity. The road to high office and ultimately the papal throne was strewn with hazards for the ambitious cleric: political violence, treachery and assassinations were not uncommon. A man had to be ruthless to get to the top and success did not guarantee longevity.

Enter Formosus, born in around 816 CE in Rome. Formosus soon became a high-flyer in the church. Made bishop of Porto-Santa Rufina in 864 by Pope Nicholas I, his talents were such that in 866 he was made papal legate and  sent to convert the Bulgarians. In fact, he was so successful in this task that Prince Bogoris of Bulgaria requested Formosus, and only Formosus, be made their Arch-bishop. If this had been Formosus plan, it was thwarted – the request was refused as it contravened canon law, which stated a bishop could not leave his own see to administer another (an accusation that would come back to haunt Formosus). Even at this early stage, Formosus may have already had his eye on the papal throne. And such high ambition creates enemies.

Pope Formosus

Pope Formosus via Wikimedia.

Despite this personal set-back, Formosus was still flying high in papal regard when in 869 and 872 Pope Adrian II entrusted him with missions to France, as did Pope John VIII in 875.

However, Pope John VIII seems to have begun to regard Formosus as a stalking horse, and soon relations between the up-and-coming bishop and the pope began to sour.

The growing distrust between John VIII and Formosus appears have bubbled to the surface over the controversial election of the new Holy Roman Emperor, the descriptively named Charles the Bald, King of the Franks. Not all Romans wanted Charles the Bald, there were many who supported the widowed Empress Engelburga and her brother-in-law, Louis the German. Formosus may have been one of them [2].

John VIII ordered Formosus to invite Charles to be crowned Holy Roman Emperor in Rome. Charles took the throne at Pavia and the Imperial Insignia in Rome on 29 December 875. Perhaps Formosus didn’t carry out his orders with enough enthusiasm, because soon after the Coronation of Charles the Bald, Formosus fled Rome for Tours to escape reprisals. But Tours was not far enough away to escape John’s displeasure.

A Synod was called on 19 April 875, in which Pope John VIII demanded Formosus, and other fugitives, return to Rome. Perhaps sensing a trap, Formosus refused. He was excommunicated and removed from the ranks of clergy. Other accusations were that he had deserted his diocese without papal permission, aspired to be arch-bishop of Bulgaria against canon law, and that he had conspired to destroy the papal see and had despoiled the cloisters of Rome.  Many of these allegations would be dug up again during his later trial.

In July, Formosus excommunication was announced. His glittering career had come to an abrupt halt, even his obvious successes, such as his mission to Bulgaria, had been used as ammunition against him. Pope John VIII, it would seem, had successfully put down his rival.

But that wasn’t the end of Formosus rise to power, it was just a hiatus. In 878 Formosus swore an oath the stay out of Rome and desist from performing priestly office in order to have his excommunication revoked.

The ever-spinning wheel of fortune, turned again, and, in 883, a new pope, Marinus I restored Formosus to his Bishopric of Porto. His fortunes continued to prosper under subsequent popes St Adrian III and Stephen V. Formosus was well and truly back in the race for the throne of St Peter.

Pope at last

In October 891, 27 years after becoming Bishop of Porto, Formosus was unanimously elected as pope. His career would suggest that he was a capable, talented and perhaps charismatic man. His personal success in Bulgaria, the trust placed in him by the several popes he served, and not least the mistrust that led John VIII view him as a rival, would indicate that his ambition was well matched with his ability.

Pope Formosus. Public domain via Wikimedia.

As pope, Formosus did not rest on his laurels, after all, the ninth century was rife with internal power-struggles within Rome and Italy, as well as strained international relations. Formosus was asked to intervene in a dispute in Constantinople, where his opposite number, the Patriarch had been relieved of office by a rival. Formosus also engaged in disputes relating to the French Crown, between the Count of Paris, and another Charles with another less than flattering soubriquet – Charles the Simple.

Closer to home Formosus had problems with the current Holy Roman Emperor Guy III Spoleto, things came to a head in April 892. when Guy is thought to have forced Formosus to crown his son Lambert as co-emperor [3].

Perhaps resenting the Spoleto’s strong-arm tactics, Formosus, not a pope to take things lying down, retaliated by inviting Arnulf of Carinthia to invade Italy and eject the Spoletos. Although Arnulf did invade Italy in 894 the plan fell apart. When Guy III Spoleto died in December, Formosus invited Arnulf to try again, possibly in response to the actions of another Guy, Guy IV Spoleto, who had recently invaded Benvenuto and expelled the Byzantines.

In 896 Arnulf entered Rome and was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Formosus, who may have breathed a sigh of relief to finally be rid of the Spoleto stranglehold on his papacy. Fate had other ideas, however, and Arnulf became ill and returned to his kingdom where he died shortly afterwards. Formosus also exited this world on 4 April 896, probably from a stroke, and was succeeded with the exceedingly short-lived papacy of Boniface the VI who lasted an impressively brief 15 days.

In a world where popes might only last days or weeks, Formosus name and deeds might have been expected to quickly fade from memory and merit only a line or two in the history books. However, it is what happened after his death, that ensured his bizarre place in history.

Synodus Horrenda

The Trial of Pope Formosus by Jean Paul Laurens. Musee des arts Nantes.

The trial of a bad pope might not seem unusual, except that in this case, when Formosus sat silently listening to his accuser screaming out allegations against him, he had been dead for nine months.

Pope Formosus on trial. Detail.

The corpse of pope Formosus on trial. Detail.

Yes, Stephen VI, took the bizarre and macabre steps of having his penultimate predecessor’s rotting corpse exhumed, dressed in papal finery and sat upon a throne in the Basilica of St John Lateran, while he, the new pope, acted as a very rabid counsel for the prosecution. To be fair, Stephen did ensure that the dead pope could answer the charges himself, well, sort of. A deacon was employed to speak as Formosus and offer half-hearted responses when required – I can’t imagine that this was a job he boasted about afterwards.

Pope Stephen VI, on the other hand, appears to have thrown himself in to the role of cross-examining the defendant with rather too much vitriol and zeal for most people’s taste, screaming insults and accusations at his rival’s decayed corpse. Even the most cynical Romans felt a little queasy with Stephen’s blasphemous antics.

Pope Stephen VI accusing Formosus. Detail.

The outcome of this bizarre trial was never in doubt, Pope Formosus was found guilty and Litupriand of Cremona, a tenth century commentator, reports that Stephen VI had the corpse of Formosus stripped of its robes of office. Stephen then cut off the three fingers on Formosus right hand, a symbolic gesture, as the right had was used for offering blessings. Then, all of Formosus acts and ordinations were invalidated (ironically, with implications for Stephen as Formosus had ordained him as a bishop, and creating a headache for the church for years to come).

The corpse was then dragged out of the palace, tossed to the mob, who hauled it through the streets. Initially Formosus body was buried in the strangers cemetery, a burial ground for foreigners, however, this was not degrading enough for Stephen VI, and he had the corpse dug up, yet again, and in a final act of desecration it was weighted down and thrown into the Tiber like so much refuse.

River Tiber looking towards Vatican City. Image by Jean-Pol GRANDMONT – Own work, CC BY 3.0. Via Wikimedia.


Pope Stephen VI

Pope Stephen VI. Public domain via Wikimedia.

The posthumous trial of Pope Formosus is gruesome and bizarre, but what was behind it? It certainly didn’t help Pope Stephen VI cement his power – far from it. His macabre performance did not go down well in Rome, especially when, during the cadaver synod, an earthquake damaged the Lateran palace. Many saw this as an omen. Later, rumours also began circulating that Formosus corpse had washed up from the Tiber and was performing miracles. Soon Rome was in turmoil, there were riots on the streets and Stephen VI was imprisoned and ultimately strangled to death, all this only a few months after he wreaked his terrible revenge on Formosus. Later popes revoked the decrees of the Cadaver Synod and restored Formosus honour and re-validated his ordinations, it would seem Formosus had the last laugh after all.

Sympathetic Magic and Carolingian fallout

So why go to such lengths to destroy the reputation of a dead rival? One interesting interpretation of this papal Grand Guignol, proposed by ER Chamberlain, is that the act of degrading Formosus corpse was a case of sympathetic magic. In stripping and defiling the corpse of the former pope, Stephen VI (and whoever was pulling his strings) intended to symbolically degrade and strip Formosus supporters of their power as well. The whole affair points to a revival of the ancient Roman practice of Damnatio Memoriae repurposed for a Christian audience [4].

There are several theories as to why Stephen VI took part in this gory spectacle. Firstly, he could simply have been insane, after all, it takes a certain kind of person to be able to harangue and despoil a corpse in such an elaborate and public spectacle. It hardly seems to fit with the dignity of office of the pope. Alternatively, he could have been attempting to curry favour with Formosus enemies in order to strengthen his own hold on the papacy.

Charlemagne and Pope Adrian I

The Frankish king Charlemagne and Pope Adrian I.  Charlemagne had close ties with the papacy.  Antoine Verard. Source , Public Domain

For a long-time the most prominent theory was based on factionalism surrounding who should be Holy Roman Emperor. Following the death of Charlemagne, a slew of illegitimate offspring had vied for the role. Formosus had been viewed as pro-Carolingian, however John the VIII had crowned Guy III Spoleto as Holy Roman Emperor, precipitating Formosus flight to Tours. Later, Guy III Spoleto was thought to have forced Formosus, when pope, to crown his son Lambert in 892. Formosus called upon Arnulf of the Franks, a Carolingian, to help him be rid of the Spoleto’s, but this failed when Arnulf died, leaving Carolingian power in Rome in tatters, and allowing for the return of Lambert and his mother, Angiltrude, bent on posthumous revenge [5].

Later interpretations by Joseph Duhr in 1932, and supported by Girolamo Arnaldi, suggest that relations between Lambert and Formosus were far better than the above theory would allow. Citing positively friendly relations between Formosus and Lambert as late as 895, Arnaldi proposes relations only soured when Guy IV, Lambert’s cousin, invaded Benvenuto and kicked out the Byzantines. To counter this aggression, Formosus called again upon Arnulf to invade Rome.

Lambert of Spoleto. Public domain via Wikimedia.

The alternative theory is that when Formosus and Arnulf died, Lambert and his mother returned to Rome, accompanied by Guy IV Spoleto, and it was he, not Lambert that was the prime mover behind the Cadaver Synod [6].

Arnaldi cites further evidence to support this theory, stating that when the latter pope John IX decided to revoke the decrees of the Cadaver Synod, Lambert appeared to actively support the rehabilitation of Formosus memory [7]. Surely it would be a brave or foolish pope that confronted the instigator of the synod and attempted to reverse its decisions?

I can’t help think that there must have been a lot of personal animus involved to exhume a corpse, but that the act of revenge, being so theatrical and symbolic, undoubtedly had a wider public purpose. This purpose appears to have backfired, and rather than cementing the new pope and the Holy Roman Emperor’s power, actually destabilised it (in the following 12 months there were 4 more popes, some of whom only reigned for days or weeks). It may be that Lambert was more implicated in the cadaver synod than he wished to be, even if he was not its instigator. Perhaps, seeing the horror it evoked, and the political turmoil it caused, he was happy enough to put the past behind him and rehabilitate Formosus when John IX offered him the chance.

Sources and notes


Chamberlain E.R., The Bad Popes, 1969, Barnes and Noble [4]

Litupriand of Cremona (quoted from ER Chamberlain) [1]

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cadaver_Synod [5]-[7]

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pope_Formosus [2] [3]