December 22, A.D. 401 – Pope Innocent I’s Papacy Begins

Some interesting moments are historically associated with the date of December 22. One of these was the papacy of Innocent I., which began on December 22, 401. It was an age of great upheavals. Innocent’s predecessor was pope Anastasius I, whose reign had lasted only two years, from November 27, 399 to December 19, 401.


Pope Innocent I., whose papacy began on December 22, almost 1600 years ago


Incidentally, Anstasius was Innocent’s father – at the time, clerical celibacy was not yet a strictly enforced Catholic church policy.

What did a pope do in the early 5th century? Innocent’s main job was to become the church’s chief disciplinarian and arbitrator of disputes. Innocent is inter alia known for having intervened on behalf of the deposed bishop of Constantinople, St. John Chrysostom, who was persecuted by the empress Eudoxia and the Alexandrian patriarch Theophilus for his outspoken views regarding corruption in high places. Innocent was not successful in gaining the reinstatement of St. John, but as long as he lived, he refused to recognize the bishops that were raised to the See of Constantinople in his stead.

He continued his father’s mission, who had declared the Alexandrian theologian Origen’s writings as not conforming to church doctrine and enticed his Catholic followers to fight the Donatist sect in North Africa, a struggle already begun by pope Miltiades in 313 and not yet decided by the time Innocent’s reign began.

The Donatist schism was a result of the persecution of Christians under Roman emperor Diocletian. By all accounts, Diocletian was quite a tyrant. An inflationist who introduced price controls to mask his inflationary policies – in the process nearly ruining the Roman Empire’s economy – while persecuting Christians in his spare time.

The question over which the Donatists – named after Donatus, a bishop of Carthage – had split with the Roman church concerned the treatment of clergy who had renounced the faith during the persecution and handed over sacred texts for burning to the emperor’s henchmen. These were called ‘traditors’ and the Donatists held that traditors should not be forgiven or allowed to dispense sacraments.

Emperors from Constantine to Valentinius to Honorius spent the 4th century persecuting the Donatists. St. Augustine of Hippo declared them heretics, but later opined that their persecution under emperor Honorius was too harsh.

Innocent not only had to deal with Donatism, but also Pelagianism, named after the ascetic monk Pelagius, who likewise veered from received apostolic doctrine. His major disagreement with the church was over the status of original sin and the proper way to salvation. Pelagius was mainly concerned with the moral laxity he found to be extant in Rome, which he blamed in due course on the doctrine of divine grace and the Augustine view of the concept of free will.

Pelagius thus clashed over these questions with the aforementioned St. Augustine of Hippo, and eventually ended up declared a heretic by the synodic Council of Carthage in 418. Before he was declared a heretic, he was however well liked, and even Augustine referred to him as a ‘saintly man’ earlier in his career.

Innocent followed the recommendation of Augustine and his pupil Orosius in 415 and condemned Pelagianism. Nonetheless, because Pelagius’ character was clearly above reproach and supporters and opponents of his doctrines were unable to find common ground, his status remained undecided until the reign of Innocent’s successor Zosimus, who became pope in 417. Even Zosimus at first waffled – a letter sent to him by Pelagius at first convinced him that Pelagius did not veer from received doctrine and he declared him innocent.

St. Augustine was shocked by this development and subsequently called the Council of Carthage in 418 to once and for all have Pelagius and his pupil Celestius declared heretics (the great synod of Carthage under bishop Aurelius in 418 was officially discussing Celestius’ writings, which were based on the writings and teachings of Pelagius). Furthermore the synod was to affirm his own doctrines of faith, which it did. The concept of original sin, which Pelagius had condemned as amounting to Manichaeism, was thus cemented once and for all in 418.


Alaric Sacks Rome

Pope Innocent’s reign coincided with what is today generally known as ‘interesting times’.

An especially intense moment during pope Innocent’s reign came in 410, when the Visigoths under Alaric I. sacked Rome. That was the first time Rome was invaded by Gothic forces, much to the consternation of everyone present at the time.

A few decades earlier, the Goths had fled westward from the Huns, and in the summer of 376 , emperor Valens found himself confronted by tens of thousands of Gothic refugees encamped at the empire’s border requesting asylum. The Goths were allowed to settle within the empire’s boundaries in 382 and found employment as mercenaries for the emperor. Roman emperors at the time feared coups by their own military leadership and felt it was safer to entrust military matters to mercenaries from the Germanic tribes. Then quite young Alaric (he was born around the time the Visigoths had first arrived, probably in 375) served as the leader of the Gothic contingent under Valens’ successor, emperor Theodosius I, and helped him defeat the usurper Eugenius. The battle of Frigidus, at which Alaric’s troops achieved the decisive victory ensuring Theodosius’ reign, came at a high price for the Visigoths, who subsequently felt they had not received the recognition and compensation they deserved. Incidentally the other half of Theodosius’ army at Frigidus was commanded by Flavius Stilicho, who had quickly risen through the ranks and with whom Alaric would later clash.

Specifically, Alaric expected to be promoted from a mere commander to a general of the Imperial army. When this promotion failed to come forth, his tribesmen elected him King of the Visigoths and he proceeded to attack the empire – beginning with the Eastern part of it. He invaded and plundered Greece, selling many citizens of famous Greek cities like Sparta and Corinth into slavery.

At the time of these incursions, the two sons of Theodosius had begun their reign, Arcadius in Constantinople and Honorius in Rome. Alas, Honorius was still a minor and Flavius Stilicho, who would later be appointed Consul and was by then a top level military commander, effectively reigned in his stead. Arcadius meanwhile was not particularly interested in statecraft, and left the Praetorian prefect Rufinus in the position of Constantinople’s CEO. At one point Stilicho actually had the chance to defeat Alaric decisively in Illyricum, but was ordered by Arcadius to desist and leave the region, as the Eastern empire’s army was busy fighting off the Huns in Asia Minor and Arcadius preferred to negotiate with Alaric. Arcadius’ right-hand man Rufinus was to negotiate in person, which proved ruinous to his reputation, as he was suspected to be in league with the Gothic conqueror. Rufinus was shortly thereafter killed by his own soldiers in slightly mysterious circumstances. Two years later, in 397, Stilicho defeated Alaric in Macedonia, but Alaric managed to escape.

Alaric then proceeded to invade Italy and subsequently laid siege to Rome thrice. Stilicho managed to fend off Alaric’s army (which traveled with women , children and household effects in tow) on occasion of the first invasion, defeating it twice, in 402 and 403. In an ironic twist of fate, Stilicho and Alaric became allies again in 407. Stilicho planned to use Alaric’s troops to enforce Honorius’ claim over the eastern half of Illyricum against his brother Arcadius. Arcadius however died in 408, and it was decided not to proceed with the planned annexation by force.

Alaric in turn demanded payment for having mobilized his army. He wanted Stilicho to pay him 4,000 pounds of gold and Stilicho pressured the Roman senate to give its consent. Stilicho at the time had to contend with barbarians crossing the Rhine, who were visiting death and destruction on cities in the North and planned to use the Goths as mercenaries to counter this invasion. However, a coup d’etat led to Stilicho’s downfall. The army mutinied in 408, after rumors were spread that Stilicho had in fact ordered Rufinus’ murder. Also, a Roman general in Britannia, Constantine III, unilaterally declared himself emperor of Western Rome and ensconced himself in the province of Gaul. Stilicho was unable to deal with the new usurper, which may have played a role in his fall from grace. Honorius himself may in fact have been behind the capture and decapitation of Stilicho, in order to rid himself of political competition. However, this left him without a strong general to control the mercenaries. One of the consequences of Stilicho’s downfall was that women and children of many of the so-called foederati (i.e., the barbarian mercenaries in the employ of Rome) were killed all over Italy, enraging Alaric further and providing him with some 30,000 additional and equally enraged men. Alaric then marched on Rome, and Honorius found himself unable to fend him off this time. Alaric laid siege to Rome three times in a row, always trying to negotiate a peaceful solution. His main demand was for a territory within the empire where he and his flock could settle and he reportedly also demanded to be given the title of commander-in-chief of the Imperial army (he had evidently not yet given up on the promotion idea). Honorius in turn tried to wait him out. After two years of back and forth, Alaric finally had enough and proceeded to sack Rome.

Interestingly, the Visigoths were apparently strangely gentle during this caper. Ecclesiastical writers of the time noted that they spared churches and Christian artifacts – indeed, many of the Visigoths themselves had long converted to Christianity – and generally did not behave too badly, all things considered. The mausoleum of Augustus was burned, possibly on account of him having been a pagan emperor.

Innocent I is said to have issued a temporary injunction during the occupation, allowing pagan rituals to be performed in Rome – alas, there was apparently not much interest in the resurrection of pagan rituals. The historian Zosimus (himself a pagan and not to be confused with Innocent’s successor, pope Zosimus) noted that this lack of interest was likely due to Rome having been largely Christianized by the time Alaric arrived.

After the sack, Alaric marched to Calabria and tried to reach Africa (North Africa was a major source of grain for Rome at the time, and he presumably wanted to get control over it for this reason), however, many of his ships sank in a storm and he soon thereafter died at the tender age of about 40. In yet another ironic twist, Alaric’s successor, his brother-in-law Ataulf, married the sister of emperor Honorius three years later.

Pope Innocent I survived Alaric by seven years – he died in March of 417.


The ascetic monk and theologian Pelagius has been declared a heretic at the Council of Carthage in 418, at the behest of St. Augustine of Hippo


St. Augustine of Hippo – he cemented the doctrine of original sin and fought against early schisms in the Catholic church


Alaric I., King of the Visigoths – the first ‘barbarian’ to sack Rome in 800 years in a.d. 410.


Flavius Honorius Augustus – the out-of-luck Western Roman emperor when Alaric came knocking



Flavius Stilicho, Son of a Vandal father and Roman mother, the commander of the Western Roman army and guardian of the emperor Honorius, appointed Consul in the year 400 and killed by his political enemies in 408. He was a comrade-in-arms of then warlord Alaric in the battle of Frigidus, leading one half of emperor Theodosius’ army there.



The blog will go into a brief hiatus over the holidays (if we find the time, we will post something, but don’t count on it).

We wish all our readers Happy Holidays and a Prosperous and Healthy New Year!




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