Give the Borgias a Break

As we soak up television dramas that revel in the scandalous personal lives of popes and kings, we are in danger of losing sight of these figures’ real historical importance, argues Tim Stanley.

Rodrigo Borgia as Pope Alexander VI

This spring The Borgias, a historical drama directed by Neil Jordan, premieres on US television. Jeremy Irons stars as Rodrigo Borgia, 15th-century pope and lascivious patriarch. The series promises to do for the Italian Renaissance what The Tudors did for the English Reformation: explore a period of political and religious change through the medium of kinky sex and comic book violence. And yet, while the drama is certainly not censorious, it does conform to a new morality in popular history.The Borgias, The Tudors and the HBO series Rome all seem to conclude that the reputation and beliefs of historical figures are invalidated by their personal misbehaviour. But this mix of gossip and prudery does not apply well to previous societies that lived more comfortably with the paradox of public virtue and private vice.

If one is to believe the rumours Rodrigo Borgia (1431-1503) is a good choice for a soap opera about religious hypocrisy. He won election to the papacy by bribing cardinals, one of whom supposedly received four mules’ worth of silver. Crowned Alexander VI in 1492, he enjoyed hunting, dancing and carousing and hosted bacchanals in the Vatican. This supposedly celibate priest sired several children by his mistress. They were hawked around Europe in search of marriages by which Rodrigo could enhance his wealth and power. His daughter, Lucrezia, had been betrothed twice by the age of ten. He made his sociopathic son, Cesare, a bishop at 15. When Rodrigo died his corpse was so bloated with extravagance and disease that the papal master of ceremonies had to jump on it to squeeze it into the coffin.

But Rodrigo’s moral corruption was far from unusual for a medieval pope. Pius II (1405-64) is typically cited as an example of civic Catholicism at its best: he was an imperial poet laureate, condemned slavery and remains the only reigning pope to have written an autobiography. Yet he also composed erotic novels and produced hordes of illegitimate children. Nor was Rodrigo an unusually brutal pontiff. Julius II (1443-1513) was dubbed ‘The Fearsome Pope’ and ‘The Warrior Pope’ for good reason.

More importantly for his contemporaries Rodrigo’s politicking did not undermine his papal authority. Rome was a small but significant power in the 15th century; its cardinals played for high temporal stakes, with wealth and influence over kings going to the winner. If Rodrigo had been a saint he wouldn’t have lasted long. We must not conflate the moral-but-powerless Vatican of today with the crusading state of the medieval epoch.

Nor did Rodrigo’s sexual promiscuity make him any less of a Catholic in the eyes of his peers. Sure, they were scandalised by his immorality. But most saw him as a bad Catholic rather than no Catholic at all. Only a tiny minority thought Rodrigo’s behaviour exposed Catholic dogma as a cynical fraud.

Yet this is precisely the modern ethic that so much of popular history tries to impose upon the past. We seem obsessed with unravelling the private lives of religious men and idealists, exposing them as frail human beings incapable of living up to impossible standards. We define integrity by the conflation of what we say and what we do. If anyone maintains a private self at odds with their public image, we cry hypocrisy. Airport bookstands are littered with volumes that scrutinise popes, tsars and commissars as if they were backbench MPs. That is hardly appropriate given their relative significance and the more complex morality of a pre-democratic age.

This trend is worrying because it seeks to personalise history to the point of sordid anecdote. It sidelines the fact that great men and women have been deemed great by generations of scholars because they advanced or reflected an epic historic theme. Thus, the Henry VIII of The Tudors is not unrealistic (perfect abs aside), but he is unimportant because the show fails to explain the long-term significance of establishing the Church of England. Likewise the bad Catholic Rodrigo Borgia’s relevance lies in his uncertain statecraft, not his wandering hands.

Tim Stanley is Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Royal Holloway, University of London.