Religion Wiki

Map of Justinian's Pentarchy, with almost all of modern Greece under Rome.
An eighth-century emperor moved the border of the Constantinopolitan patriarchate westward and northward.[1]

In the History of Christianity, the Pentarchy is "the proposed government of universal Christendom by five patriarchal sees under the auspices of a single universal empire. Formulated in the legislation of the emperor Justinian I (527–565), especially in his Novella 131, the theory received formal ecclesiastical sanction at the Council in Trullo (692), which ranked the five sees as Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem."[2]

The present article considers the five sees viewed as jointly governing the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. For information on each of these five sees individually, see Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem respectively.

Justinian and the Council in Trullo excluded from their pentarchical arrangement Churches outside the Empire, such as the then flourishing Assyrian Church of the East, which they saw as heretical. Of the five sees within the Empire to which Justinian gave the exclusive title of patriarchate they recognized only the Chalcedonian incumbents, regarding as illegitimate the non-Chalcedonian claimants to the sees of Alexandria and Antioch, whom they did not recognize as heading any see whatever.

Development towards a pentarchy

In the Apostolic Age the Christian Church was not yet organized as a pentarchy (a group of five sees) a tetrarchy (four sees) or any similar limited number of sees, but instead as an indefinite number of local Churches that in the initial years looked to that at Jerusalem as its main centre and point of reference, see also Jerusalem in Christianity. But by the fourth century it had developed a system whereby the bishop of the capital of each civil province normally held certain rights over the bishops of the other cities of the province.[3]

The First Council of Nicaea (325), in whose fourth canon the title "metropolitan" appears for the first time, sanctioned this arrangement.[3] It also recognized the existing rights held by the bishops of Rome and Alexandria even outside their own provinces (Libya and Pentapolis were under Alexandria), and may have attributed similar authority to the bishop of Antioch; it also mentions unnamed "other provinces" as distinct.[4] It attributed special honour, but not metropolitan authority, to the bishop of Jerusalem.[5] This Council's recognition of the special powers of Rome, Alexandria and Antioch served as the basis of the theory of the three Petrine sees (Rome and Antioch were said to be founded by Saint Peter and Alexandria by his disciple Mark the Evangelist) that was later upheld, especially in Rome and Alexandria, in opposition to the theory of the five Pentarchy sees.[6]

In the interpretation of John H. Erickson, the Council saw the special powers of Rome and Alexandria, whose bishops were in effect metropolitans over several provinces, as exceptions to the general rule of organization by provinces, each with its own metropolitan.[7] After the mention of the special traditions of Rome, Alexandria, Antioch and other provinces, canon 6 goes on immediately to speak of the metropolitan form of organization, which was also the topic of the two preceding canons.

The First Council of Constantinople (359) decreed: "The Bishop of Constantinople, however, shall have the prerogative of honour after the Bishop of Rome; because Constantinople is New Rome."[8] This "prerogative of honour" did not entail jurisdiction outside his own "diocese". The Emperor Theodosius I, who called the Council, divided the eastern Roman Empire into five "dioceses": Egypt (under Alexandria), the East (under Antioch), Asia (under Ephesus), Pontus (under Caesarea Cappadociae), and Thrace (originally under Heraclea, later under Constantinople);[9] and the Council also decreed: "The bishops are not to go beyond their dioceses to churches lying outside of their bounds, nor bring confusion on the churches; but let the Bishop of Alexandria, according to the canons, alone administer the affairs of Egypt; and let the bishops of the East manage the East alone, the privileges of the Church in Antioch, which are mentioned in the canons of Nice, being preserved; and let the bishops of the Asian Diocese administer the Asian affairs only; and the Pontic bishops only Pontic matters; and the Thracian bishops only Thracian affairs."[10] Jerusalem was not put at the head of any of the five dioceses.

The transfer of the capital of the empire from Rome to Constaninople in 330 enabled the latter to free itself from its ecclesiastical dependency on Heraclea and in little more than half a century to obtain this recognition of next-after-Rome ranking from the first Council held within its walls. Alexandria's objections to Constantinople's promotion, which led to a constant struggle between the two sees in the first half of the fifth century,[11]were supported, at least until the Fourth Council of Constantinople of 869-870, by Rome, which proposed the theory that the most important sees were the three Petrine ones, with Rome in first place.[9] However, after the Council of Chalcedon (451) Alexandria was weakened by a division in which the great majority followed the form of Christianity that its opponents called Monophysitism.[9] The Western bishops took no part in the First Council of Constantinople, and it was only in the mid-sixth century that the Latin Church recognized it as ecumenical.[9]

The Council of Ephesus (431) defended the independence of the Church in Cyprus against the supra-metropolitan interference by Antioch,[12] but in the same period Jerusalem succeeded in gaining supra-metropolitan power over the three provinces of Palestine.[13]

The Council of Chalcedon (451), which marked a serious defeat of Alexandria, gave recognition, in its 28th canon, to Constantinople's extension of its power over Pontus and Asia in addition to Thrace.[14] The Council justified this decision on the grounds that "the Fathers rightly granted privileges to the throne of old Rome, because it was the royal city", and that the First Council of Constantinople, "actuated by the same consideration, gave equal privileges to the most holy throne of New Rome, justly judging that the city which is honoured with the Sovereignty and the Senate, and enjoys equal privileges with the old imperial Rome, should in ecclesiastical matters also be magnified as she is, and rank next after her".[15]

Pope Leo I, whose delegates were absent when this resolution was passed and who protested against it, recognized the council as ecumenical and confirmed its doctrinal decrees, but rejected canon 28 on the ground that it contravened the sixth canon of Nicaea and infringed the rights of Alexandria and Antioch.[16][9] However, by that time Constantinople, the permanent residence of the emperor, had in reality enormous influence, and had it not been for the opposition of Rome, its bishop could easily have been given first place among all the bishops.[9]

Canon 9 of the Council declared: "If a bishop or clergyman should have a difference with the metropolitan of the province, let him have recourse to the Exarch of the Diocese, or to the throne of the Imperial City of Constantinople, and there let it be tried." This has been interpreted as conferring on the see of Constantinople a greater privilege than what any council ever gave Rome (Johnson) or as of much lesser significance than that (Hefele).[17]

Thus in little more than a hundred years the structural arrangement by provinces envisaged by the First Council of Nicaea was, according to John H. Erickson, transformed into a system of five large divisions headed by the bishops of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. He does not use for these divisions the term "patriarchate" because the term "patriarch" as a uniform term for the heads of the divisions came into use only in the time of Emperor Justinian I in the following century, and because there is little suggestion that the divisions were regarded as quasi-sovereign entities, as patriarchates are in Eastern Orthodox ecclesiology.[18] Because of the decision of the Council of Ephesus, Cyprus maintained its independence from the Antioch division, and the arrangement did not apply outside the empire, where separate "catholicates" developed in Mesopotamia and Armenia.[9]

Formulation of the Pentarchy theory

The basic principles of the Pentarchy theory, which, according to the Byzantinist historian Milton V. Anastos,[19] "reached its highest development in the period from the eleventh century to the middle of the fifteenth", go back to the sixth-century Justinian I, who often stressed the importance of all five of the patriarchates mentioned, especially in the formulation of dogma.[6]

Justinian was the first to use (in 531) the title of "patriarch" to designate exclusively the bishops of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem, setting the bishops of these five sees on a level superior to that of metropolitans.[9][20]

Justinian's scheme for a renovatio imperii (renewal of the empire) included, as well as ecclesiastical matters, a rewriting of Roman law in the Corpus Juris Civilis and an only partially successful reconquest of the West, including the city of Rome.[21][9]

When in 680 Constantine IV called the Third Council of Constantinople, he summoned the metropolitans and other bishops of the jurisdiction of Constantinople; but since there were representatives of all five bishops to whom Justinian had given the title of Patriarch, the Council declared itself ecumenical.[22] This has been interpreted as signifying that a council is ecumenical if attended by representatives of all five patriarchs.[9]

The first Council classified (in the East, but not in the West, which did not participate in it) as ecumenical that mentioned together all five sees of the pentarchy in the order indicated by Justinian I is the Council in Trullo of 692, which was called by Justinian II: "Renewing the enactments by the 150 Fathers assembled at the God-protected and imperial city, and those of the 630 who met at Chalcedon; we decree that the see of Constantinople shall have equal privileges with the see of Old Rome, and shall be highly regarded in ecclesiastical matters as that is, and shall be second after it. After Constantinople shall be ranked the See of Alexandria, then that of Antioch, and afterwards the See of Jerusalem."[23]

The seventh and eighth centuries saw an increasing attribution of significance to the pentarchy as the five pillars of the Church upholding its infallibility: it was held to be impossible that all five should at the same time be in error.[9] They were compared to the five senses of the human body, all equal and entirely independent of each other, and none with ascendancy over the others.[6]

The Byzantine view of the pentarchy had a strongly anti-Roman orientation, being put forward against the Roman claim to the final word on all Church matters and to the right to judge even the patriarchs.[6] This was not a new claim: in about 446 Pope Leo I had expressly claimed authority over the whole Church: "The care of the universal Church should converge towards Peter's one seat, and nothing anywhere should be separated from its Head."[24][9] In a synod held in Rome in 864, Pope Nicholas I declared that no ecumenical council could be called without authorization by Rome; and, until Pope Hadrian II (867-872), none of the Popes recognized the legitimacy of all four eastern patriarchs, but only those of Alexandria and Antioch.[9]

The principal adviser of the two last-named Popes, Anastasius Bibliothecarius, accepted the Byzantine comparison of the pentarchy with the five senses of the human body, but added the qualification that the patriarchate of Rome, which he likened to the sense of sight, ruled the other four.[6]

After the East-West Schism

By 661, Muslim Arabs had taken over the territories assigned to the patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem, which thereafter were never more than partially and temporarily recovered. In 732, Leo III the Isaurian, in revenge for the opposition of Pope Gregory III to the emperor's iconoclast policies, transferred Sicily, Calabria and Illyria from the patriarchate of Rome (whose jurisdiction until then extended as far east as Thessalonica) to that of Constantinople.[25] The Constantinople patriarchate, after expanding eastward at the time of the Council of Chalcedon to take in Pontus and Asia, which still remained under the emperor's control, thus expanded equally to the west, and was practically coextensive with the empire.

Nearly all the Byzantine writers who treated the subject of the pentarchy assumed that Constantinople, as the seat of the ruler of the empire and therefore of the world, was the highest among the patriarchates and, like the emperor, had the right to govern them.[6] This feeling was further intensified after the East-West Schism in 1054,[9] which reduced the pentarchy to a tetrarchy, but it existed long before that. The idea that with the transfer of the imperial capital from Rome to Constantinople primacy in the Church was also transferred is found in undeveloped form as early as John Philoponus (c.490-c.570); it was enunciated in its most advanced form by Photios I of Constantinople (c.810-c.893), and was embraced by his successors, including Callistus Ι (1350-53, 1355-63), Philotheus (1353-54, 1364-76), and Nilus (1379-88).[6]

Thus, for the Byzantines of the first half of the second millennium, the government of the Christian Church was a primacy belonging to the patriarchate of Constantinople, which however was choosing not to insist on it with regard to the west. This was illustrated by Nilus Doxapatris, who in 1142-43 insisted strongly on the primacy of the Church of Constantinople, which he regarded as inherited from Rome because of the transfer of the capital and because Rome had fallen into the hands of the barbarians, but who expressly restricted Byzantine authority to the other three eastern patriarchates. Patriarch Callistus, mentioned above, did the same about two hundred years later. "In other words, Rome was definitely excluded from the Constantinopolitan sphere of influence and put on a par with Constantinople, as can be inferred from Nilus's statement that the bishops of Constantinople and Rome, and only these two, were called oecumenical patriarchs."[6]

Rise of patriarchs outside the pentarchy

In 1589, when at the request of Tsar Feodor I (1581-98) the metropolitan see of Moscow was accepted as a patriarchate by Patriarch Jeremias II of Constantinople, the Eastern Orthodox Church seemed to have returned to being a pentarchy. Moscow hoped to fill the role of primary patriarch, replacing Rome, but when in 1593 the patriarchs of Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem confirmed the appointment of Patriarch Job of Moscow, he was placed fifth in the hierarchy of patriarchs.[26] When Patriarch Adrian died in 1700, Peter the Great prevented the election of a successor.[27] Moscow remained without a patriarch until 1917, though continuing to be an autocephalous Church.

Even before the institution of the Moscow Patriarchate, new centres, claiming to be patriarchates, but not recognized by Constantinople, appeared within Slav territory in Preslav (now Veliki Preslav, 932), Týrnovo (1234), and Peć (1346).[28]

Today the Eastern Orthodox Church could perhaps be called an ennearchy, since it includes the following nine patriarchates (as well as other autocephalous and autonomous local Churches not headed by a patriarch): Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople; Patriarchate of Alexandria; Patriarchate of Antioch; Patriarchate of Jerusalem; Patriarchate of Moscow; Patriarchate of Serbia; Patriarchate of Romania; Patriarchate of Bulgaria; Patriarchate of Georgia.

The Russian Church lists the patriarchates of the Eastern Orthodox Church in a slightly different order, putting that of Georgia immediately after that of Moscow.

The Roman Catholic Church does not accept, either in theory or in practice, the theory of the government of the Christian Church as a pentarchy. Neither does Protestantism. Oriental Orthodoxy still holds to the theory of the three Petrine sees. For the Assyrian Church of the East, the internal organization of what is for it the western Church (the Church in what was once the Roman Empire) is a matter of indifference.


  1. The Ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate
  2. Encyclopaedia Britannica: Pentarchy
  3. 3.0 3.1 Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford University Press 2005 ISBN 978-0-19-280290-3), s.v. metropolitan
  4. "The ancient customs of Egypt, Libya and Pentapolis shall be maintained, according to which the bishop of Alexandria has authority over all these places since a similar custom exists with reference to the bishop of Rome. Similarly in Antioch and the other provinces the prerogatives of the churches are to be preserved" (Canon 6)
  5. "Since there prevails a custom and ancient tradition to the effect that the bishop of Aelia is to be honoured, let him be granted everything consequent upon this honour, saving the dignity proper to the metropolitan" (Canon 7)
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 6.6 6.7 Milton V. Anastos, Aspects of the Mind of Byzantium (Political Theory, Theology, and Ecclesiastical Relations with the See of Rome), Ashgate Publications, Variorum Collected Studies Series, 2001. ISBN 0 86078 840 7)
  7. The Challenge of Our Past: Studies in Orthodox Canon Law and Church History (St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1991 ISBN 0881410861, 9780881410860), p. 94
  8. Canon 3
  9. 9.00 9.01 9.02 9.03 9.04 9.05 9.06 9.07 9.08 9.09 9.10 9.11 9.12 9.13 L'idea di pentarchia nella cristianità
  10. Canon 2
  11. Klaus Schatz: Primat und Reichskirchliche Strukturen im 5. - 9. Jahrhundert
  12. Canon 8
  13. The Challenge of Our Past: Studies in Orthodox Canon Law and Church History, by John H. Erickson (St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1991 ISBN 0881410861, 9780881410860), p. 96
  14. The Challenge of Our Past: Studies in Orthodox Canon Law and Church History, by John H. Erickson (St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1991 ISBN 0881410861, 9780881410860), p. 97
  15. Canon 28
  16. Encyclopaedia Britannica 1911: Council of Chalcedon
  17. Canon 9 and Notes
  18. The Challenge of Our Past: Studies in Orthodox Canon Law and Church History, pp. 96-97
  19. An account of his distinguished academic career is found in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 143, No 3, September 1999.
  20. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, s.v. patriarch (ecclesiastical), also calls it "a title dating from the 6th century, for the bishops of the five great sees of Christendom". And Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia of World Religions says: "Five patriarchates, collectively called the pentarchy, were the first to be recognized by the legislation of the emperor Justinian (reigned 527-565)".
  21. Justinian I, Last Roman Emperor
  22. The Sixth Ecumenical Council: Historical Introduction
  23. Canon 36
  24. Letter XIV
  25. Encyclopaedia Britannica: Leo III
  26. Encyclopaedia Britannica: Saint Job
  27. Catholic Encyclopedia: Patriarch and Patriarchate
  28. Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia of World Religions: An A-Z Guide to the World's Religions, by Wendy Doniger, M. Webster (Merriam-Webster, 1999 ISBN 0877790442, 9780877790440): Patriarch

See also

External links