He devoted much of his papacy attempting to halt and reverse the Muslim gains in southern Italy and their march northwards, which was "destroying the economy of papal patrimony." When his efforts to obtain assistance from either the Franks or the Byzantines was unavailing, John was forced to focus on strengthening the defenses of the city of Rome. To this end he reinforced the walls around the Vatican, and had defense works constructed at Saint Paul Outside the Walls.
Pope John supported Methodius in his mission to the Slavs, and defended him against the German episcopy, which felt that Methodius was intruding on their terrain. He authorized the translation of the Bible into Slavonic and extended diplomatic recognition to the Duchy of Croatia.
He was born in Rome and as a young man witnessed the Arab raid against Rome by the Muslim Aghlabids. Among the reforms achieved during his pontificate was a notable administrative reorganisation of the papal Curia.
Pope Adrian II had consecrated Methodius archbishop and supported his mission to the Slavs. In 873, John VIII learned of the imprisonment of Methodiusby his German enemies, who objected to his use of the Slavonic language in the liturgy. John forbade the celebration of Mass in Bavaria until Methodius was released. Following Methodius' release John allowed him to resume his episcopal duties in Illyricum, but forbid him to celebrate mass in the Slavonic language, a prohibition Methodius may have largely ignored.
The imprisonment of Methodius seems to have been caused by Aldwin of Salzburg, who viewed Methodius as encroaching on his jurisdiction in Moravia. Upon the release of Methodius, the Pope extended his jurisdiction not only to Great Moravia and Pannonia, but to Serbia as well, and authorized Methodius to translate the Bible into Slavonic. "He who made three main languages - Hebrew, Greek, and Roman -also made all other languages to sing his praise and glory."
During the solemn divine service in St. Peter's church in Rome in 879, John VIII gave his blessing to duke Branimir of Croatia and the whole Croatian people, about which he informed Branimir in his letters. His country received papal recognition as a state. John made the decision on 21 May and confirmed it in his letter of 7 June 879.
Pope John asked for military aid from Charles the Bald and later Count Boso of Provence, in response to Saracens who were raiding Campania and the Sabine Hills. His efforts failed and he was forced to pay tribute to the Emirate of Sicily. The threatening Muslim military presence (which he believed was God's punishment against "bad Christians"), coupled with alliances they formed with the local Christians, prompted John to promote "a new and uncompromisingly hostile view of the Saracens." This included a ban on forming alliances with the Muslims. However, his efforts proved unsuccessful, partly because Christian leaders viewed his calls for unity as an excuse to assert papal authority in southern Italy.
In 876, John VIII traveled throughout Campania in an effort to form an alliance among the cities of Salerno, Capua, Naples, Gaeta and Amalfi against Muslim raids. By 877, all five cities sent delegates to Traietto to formalize an alliance. The Pope John VIII urged HRE Charles to come to his defence in Italy. Charles again crossed the Alps, but this expedition was received with little enthusiasm by the nobles, and even by his regent in Lombardy, Boso, and they refused to join his army. At the same time Carloman of Bavaria, son of Louis the German, entered northern Italy. Charles, ill and in great distress, started on his way back to Gaul, but died while crossing the pass of Mont Cenis on 6 October 877.
Obtaining relatively little support from outside sources, John fell back on what resources he could command. He reinforced the walls previously restored by Pope Leo IV. As the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls was located outside the Aurelian Walls, and had been damaged in a Saracen raid, the Pope fortified the Basilica, the monastery, and the nearby dwellings of the peasants. He also founded a papal fleet.
In 879 he recognised the reinstatement of Photius as the legitimate patriarch of Constantinople; Photius had been condemned in 869 by Pope Adrian II. This was undertaken mainly to appease the Byzantines, since in them he saw the only hope of removing the Arabs from Italy.
John VIII was assassinated in 882, almost certainly by his own clerics —the first pope in history to suffer such a fate. According to Barbara M. Kreutz, the assassination has been blamed upon such factors as his exhaustion of the papal treasury, his lack of support among the Carolingians, his gestures towards the Byzantines and his failure to stop the Saracen raids. Without the protection of powerful magnates such as the Emperor, the papacy became increasingly subject to the machinations and greedy ambition of the rival clans of the local nobility.
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