Did the Borgias kill Prince Djem?
Prince Djem, portrayed in the Borgia Showtime miniseries, was the brother of the Sultan of Turkey. He was a real historical figure, thought to be the turbaned figure to the left of Lucrezia Borgia in this painting, found in the Borgia Apartments in the Vatican. But he was a middle aged man with grown children, who died later than shown in the Showtime series, and probably wasn't poisoned. However, he was widely rumored to have been poisoned by the Borgias–even though this was virtually impossible.
Showtime has seized on the rumor, put it in a different time frame, added a character to the plot who wasn't there (Juan Borgia), and turned rumor into fact. Great story, but very bad history.
Here's the real story: The Sultan of Turkey was paying Pope Alexander VI 40,000 ducats a year–an enormous sum–to keep Prince Djem a pampered prisoner, because Djem was a threat to the Sultan's throne. At some point, the Sultan offered the pope 300,000 ducats to do away with Djem entirely. The Turkish envoy who carried this message was somehow compromised, and the bribe became public knowledge. Renaissance Italians loved to gossip, so the entire aristocracy–all of whom hated this powerful and capable pope–knew about it. For this reason, when Djem died, the Italian aristocracy and eventually the public believed the pope had somehow poisoned him.
But there are problems with this inference, both factual and logical. Facts: Prince Djem was a hostage of the King of France, an enemy of the pope, when he died, many miles from Rome. And, despite the fact that the Vatican kept good financial records even in those days, there is no trace of those 300,000 ducats the pope supposedly received. Ivan Cloulas, a scholar of the Borgias who does not sugarcoat what they did, believes the symptoms Djem displayed are consistent with pneumonia. All I have read about is abdominal pains–why not a ruptured appendix? The fact is, being a hostage was not a healthy occupation, and people died young in those days. It is a stretch to assume the pope managed to poison someone despite a long separation in space and time from Rome.
But wait: Cesare Borgia had been a hostage with Djem, but escaped earlier. (A later episode of the miniseries portrays his escape.) Conceivably Cesare somehow administered a long-acting poison before escaping. But this conclusion requires difficult assumptions– among them, that Cesare was able to conceal poison, and actually had access to Djem when they were both prisoners of the King of France.
Setting aside the logistic difficulties, the pope's motive is very questionable. Even assuming he was evil enough to kill someone in cold blood, purely for money (which I doubt), he had a guaranteed annuity of 40,000 ducats a year if he simply kept Djem safe. Why would he give it up for 300,000 ducats, when he had no way of forcing the Sultan of Turkey to pay up, once Djem was dead? Christians then didn't trust Turks, putting it mildly. Pope Alexander, a wily and intelligent man, surely realized that if the Sultan disavowed his 300,000 ducat offer as a forgery or simply refused to pay, there was no way to force the issue. On the other hand, if the Sultan defaulted on his 40,000 ducat stipend for keeping Djem safe and far away, all the pope had to do was threaten to send Djem back to Turkey to get his payment.
Pope Alexander may have been evil, but no one has ever accused him of stupidity. It is very unlikely he ordered the murder of Prince Djem, and even less likely that he could have poisoned a prisoner of the King of France.