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Pope John XXIII, who reigned from 1958 to 1963, “was certainly a good and holy man,” writes Michael Farquhar in his just-released volume, A Treasury of Royal Scandals: The Shocking True Stories of History’s Wickedest, Weirdest, Most Wanton Kings, Queens, Tsars, Popes, and Emperors. “But twenty-two Johns preceded him. And most of them weren’t so hot.”
Consider John XIII (965-972), “who had the nasty habit of ordering the eyes of his enemies plucked out.” Or the original John XXIII, who was “deposed in 1415 for piracy, murder, rape, sodomy, and incest.” Or, “perhaps the worst of all,” John XII, who was Pope from 955 to 964. “A teenager with unlimited power, he turned his residence at the Lateran Palace into a brothel.”
Learning about the nasty popes was a revelation, Farquhar says: “Sixteen years of Catholic education did not prepare me for this.”
Farquhar, a Washington native, attended Gonzaga High School and Catholic University. He has been with the Washington Post since 1990, starting as a gofer and then moving up to writing for Style and, later, for the now-defunct Horizon section, which offered educational articles for children and adults. (He’s now on book leave.) Though he majored in English at Catholic, Farquhar, 36, has always had a strong interest in history, and he made it his specialty at the Post. Indeed, the idea for his book came from a story he wrote early in his tenure at Style. The 1991 piece, “Lifestyles of the Rich and Unbelievably Naughty: When It Comes to Misbehaving, the Windsors Can’t Hold a Scandal to Their Forebears,” compared the travails of the members of the present-day British monarchy with the problems of their ancestors.
To be sure, popes aren’t the only over-the-top rulers to populate Farquhar’s book. The nasty little secrets of the Tudors, the Romanovs, and the Bourbons are all laid bare. So are the sordid tales of the Roman Empire. Tiberiuswho began his rule in A.D. 14 and was emperor when Jesus was crucifiedwas one of the more odious.
According to Farquhar’s account, Tiberius was a pedophile who imported boys and girls from all over the Roman Empire for his private use. Tiberius anointed a group of “minnows,” children who would follow him while swimming so they could swallow “bait” placed near his private parts. Most of Tiberius’ sex slaves were tortured before being murdered in ever-more-ingenious ways.
“I’ve always been fascinated with the ways people behave when they have unlimited power,” Farquhar says. “Fortunately for a good read, rulers tend to behave abominably.” Lust, rather than death, he adds, is “the great leveler. Kings and queens are subject to the same drives as the peons that serve themthey just have the opportunity to revel in their lusts a lot more elaborately.”
Constitutional restrictions on monarchical power, combined with public scrutiny, have made modern Western monarchies relatively benign by comparison, Farquhar says. He adds that he’s not reflexively anti-monarch, only bemused by the weirdness of it all.
“I don’t agree that this book is an attack on royalty,” he says. “I like to think of these stories as being told with affection, rather than vinegar. I see it more as an exuberant survey of bad behavior. As much as the concept of the monarchy is absurd, it has certainly given me hours of joy to read about it.” Louis Jacobson