Crescentius, the name of several leaders of the Roman aristocracy in the tenth century, during their opposition to the imperial government of the time.
CRESCENTIUS THE ELDER.—With the disappearance of the Carlovingian dynasty the papal government of Rome lost its most powerful protector, and the Romans took matters into their own hands. Out of the local aristocracy there arose a powerful family, which assumed the practical charge of all governmental affairs in Rome, controlled the nominations to the papal throne, and held the power for many years. At the beginning of the tenth century the family was represented by Theophylactus, vestararius or high dignitary of the papal palace and the pontifical government, by his wife Theodora, and their two daughters Marozia and Theodora. Theophylactus had the titles of Consul and Senator of the Romans. Crescentius the Elder was a descendant of this family, being a son of Theodora, the daughter of Theophylactus. According to the records, he took a hand in Roman affairs for the first time in 974. At the death of Pope John XIII (965-72), who was a brother of Crescentius, the Emperor Otto I (936-73) designated as his successor the Cardinal-Deacon Benedict, who took the name Benedict VI (972-74). The Romans bore the constant interference of the emperor in the papal elections with ill-concealed indignation. About a year after the death of Otto I, when his successor Otto II (973-83) was engaged in wars at home, they rebelled against the imperial regime under the leadership of Crescentius. The unfortunate Pope Benedict VI was dethroned, thrown into the Castle of Sant’ Angelo, and strangled there in July, 974. The deacon Franco, a Roman, son of Ferrucius, was chosen to succeed, and took the name of Boniface VII (974). The protests of the imperial envoy Sicco were of no avail against this manifestation of national aspirations on the part of the Romans. Soon, however, the imperial party gained the upper hand; Pope Boniface VII was forced to flee to Constantinople; Benedict VII (974-83) was chosen in his place, and Crescentius disappeared for a time. In all likelihood he took an active part in the restoration of Boniface VII in 984. After the death of the Emperor Otto II (December, 983) the anti-imperial party believed that the time had come for reasserting itself. In April, 984, Boniface VII returned from Constantinople and took possession of Rome. Pope John XIV (983-84), who had been appointed by the Emperor Otto II, was imprisoned in the Castle of Sant’ Angelo, where he perished about four months afterwards, and Boniface VII (984-85) ruled again as pope up to the time of his death in July, 985. His protector Crescentius towards the end of his life, whether before or after the restoration of Boniface VII is uncertain, took the monastic habit in the monastery of St. Alexius on the Aventine, where he died, July 7, 984, and was buried within the cloister. The epitaph on his tomb (Armellini, Le Chiese di Roma, 586) is still visible.
CRESCENTIUS THE YOUNGER.—The aspirations of the Roman aristocracy did not vanish with the death of the elder Crescentius. The latter left a son, also called Ctescentius, who after the death of Boniface VII took the reins of power in his hands. Circumstances seemed to be particularly favorable. The Emperor Otto III (983-1002) was still a child, and the empress mother, Theophano, although an energetic princess, was absent from Rome. Crescentius the Younger took the title of Patricius Romanorum, by which he meant to express that he was ruler in Rome, though not altogether independent of the imperial authority; he considered himself as a lieutenant of the emperor. It is quite likely that the election of Pope John XV (985-96), who succeeded Boniface VII, was accomplished with the participation of Crescentius, although the particulars of that election are unknown. In some of the official documents of the time, issued by the pope, the name of Crescentius and his title of Patricius appear together with the name of John XV; and for a number of years Crescentius exercised his authority apparently without opposition. When the Empress Theophano came to Rome in 989, she conducted herself as empress and sovereign, while leaving Crescentius his subordinate position. Meanwhile the young Emperor Otto III assumed the reins of government, and in 996 made his first journey to Italy, induced by various considerations, especially by the appeals of Pope John XV. However, death overtook the pope at the beginning of April, 996, before Otto reached Rome; it was at Pavia that the emperor was apprised of the fact. As the Romans and their leader, Crescentius, did not care at this time to nominate a successor to the deceased pope, they sent a delegation to the emperor with the request that he provide a suitable candidate for the Roman See_ Otto III was at Ravenna when the delegates from Rome arrived. After a consultation with his counsellors he chose his own cousin, Bruno, a young ecclesiastic, only twenty-three years of age, who seemed to have the necessary qualifications, Early in May he was consecrated at Rome as Gregory V (996-99), being the first pope of German nationality. A few weeks afterwards Otto III himself was crowned in Rome by the new pope (May 21) in the basilica of St. Peter. On the 25th of the same month the pope and the emperor held in St. Peter’s a synod, which was at the same time a high court of justice. The rebellious Romans, including Crescentius, who had embittered the last years of the pontificate of Pope John XV, were summoned to give an account of their doings. The result was that a certain number, among them Crescentius, were sentenced to banishment. Pope Gregory V, who wished to inaugurate his pontificate with acts of mercy, pleaded for the guilty, and the emperor withdrew his sentence of exile. Crescentius was deprived of his title of Patricius, but was permitted to live in retirement at Rome.
The clemency shown to Crescentius by the pope was repaid with deeds of violence. Only a few months after the departure of the emperor for Germany a revolt broke out in Rome under the leadership of Crescentius. The foreign pope and the many foreign officers installed throughout the Papal States were offensive in the sight of the Romans. The rebellion succeeded so well that in September, 996, the pope was forced to flee with only a few attendants. At Pavia he held a synod in February, 997, in which he pronounced sentence of excommunication against Crescentius, the usurper and invader of the Church of Rome. Crescentius, far from being moved by these proceedings against him, completed his work of rebellion by appointing an antipope, Philagathus, Bishop of Piacenza, who had just returned from an embassy to Constantinople on behalf of Emperor Otto III. Born in Calabria, Philagathus was a Greek, and owed his elevation to the episcopacy to the Empress Theophano and her son, but was willing to betray his master. In April, 997, he assumed the title of Pope John XVI (997-98). In February, 998, Otto III returned to Rome with Pope Gregory V and took possession of the city without much difficulty. The antipope sought safety in flight, while Crescentius shut himself up in the Castle of Sant’ Angelo. The unfortunate John XVI was soon captured by the emissaries of the emperor; his nose and ears were cut off, his eyes and tongue were torn out, and in this pitiable condition he was made to ride backwards on an ass. At the inter-cession of St. Nilus, one of his countrymen, his life was spared, and he lived until 1013. Towards the end of April the Castle of Sant’ Angelo was taken; Crescentius was made prisoner and executed and his corpse hung on a gibbet erected on Monte Mario. Afterwards his remains were interred in the church of S. Pancrazio on the Janiculum.
JOHN CRESCENTIUS, son of Crescentius the Younger.—Early in 1001 a revolt broke out in Rome against Otto III, who now permanently resided in the Eternal City. The emperor and Pope Silvester II (999-1003), the first pope of French nationality, were compelled to flee; it is quite likely that John Crescentius was the prime mover of the rebellion. At any rate, after this he assumed supreme authority in Rome, and after the death of the Emperor Otto III (January 24, 1002) took the title of Patricius Romanorum. Pope Silvester II was permitted to return to Rome, but had little to do with the temporal government. The same is true of his three immediate successors: John XVII (1003), John XVIII (1003-09), and Sergius IV (1009-12), all of whom were appointed through the influence of John Crescentius. The patricius himself died in the spring of the year 1012, and with him the Crescentii disappeared from the history of Rome.
FRANCIS J. SCHAEFER