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Exarchs and Patriarchs

Maximos, Metropolitan of Sardes,
The Ecumenical Patriarchate in the Orthodox Church,
Thessaloniki 1975, ed. Patriarchal Institute for Patristic Studies,
p. 59- 63.

It was the rapid increase in the number of bishops during the third century and their concentration around the bishop of the capital and in the synodical system which, as we have just seen, formed the basis of the office of metropolitan. At the same period there began to emerge another, higher dignity, that of exarch. This office reached its full deve­lopment in the fourth century, and thus naturally paved the way for the appearance in the fifth century of a new, distinct administrative grade, that of patriarch (1) .

1 Έξαρχος is a classical word and originally referred to the leader or chief of the chorus of priests, who was known as εζαρχος καί προηγεμών. Subsequently, during the early Byzantine period, it was the title borne by the highest ranking officer in the army, with command of a complete diocese— one of the large regions into which Constantine divided the Empire. The title came into ecclesiastical and canonical use with similar connotations. In the history of its adoption by Christianity, three stages of development can be discerned: The early stage, when the office of exarch had independent significance; the middle period, when the exarch was merely an instrument of patriarchal authority, and the most recent stage, which to a certain extent represents a return to the independence of the early stage. Of these we shall examine here only the first two.

The most significant use of this term is the earliest, which is depen­dent on the organic development of the idea of ecclesiastical admini­strative power. From the earliest years of Christianity, even in the New Testament Epistles, the ecclesiastical administrative divisions can be seen to conform and adapt themselves to the secular. The most extensive ecclesiastical areas took the name of entire countries, such as for example the Churches of Asia (/ Cor. XVI, 19). There were also extensive areas called by the names of provinces, as for instance the Macedonian Church {II Cor. VIII, 1); and smaller ecclesiastical units were called by the names of the metropolises or the important provincial cities which were their centres, such as the Church of Thessalonica ( Thess. I, 1), Ephesus {Rev. II, 1) and others. Each of these churches had its own independent admi­nistration, while the administration of such matters as concerned them all was concentrated in the metropolis of each ecclesiastical area. When St. Paul left the Churches of Asia, he addressed himself to the pastors of Ephesus and entrusted them with looking after the ecclesiastical administration of the entire area, Ephesus being the most important city {Acts XX, 17-35). He did the same with the Churches of Achaia, entrusting them to the Christians of Corinth, the metropolis of the area {II Cor. I, 1). This Apostolic practice appears also in the first canons the Church decreed, which dealt with the prerogatives of bishops and always took into consideration the secular status of the cities where the churches were situated (2) .

Constantine was also responsible for reforming the civil administra­tion, giving it greater harmony and unity. He divided the whole empire into four large prefectures: Oriens, Illyricum, Italia and Gallia. These prefectures were further divided into dioceses, the dioceses into pro­vinces, and the provinces into cities. In charge of each of these areas was a ruler with the corresponding title of praefectus, exarchus, procurator and parochus ; Ecclesiastical administration quickly developed along the hierarchical lines of the new imperial administration. At the Council of Chalcedon, this principle of adaptation to the secular administration came to be seen as binding in law, and this was confirmed by the thir­tieth canon of the Council in Trullo. Little by little, the bishop of the metropolis emerged from the ecclesiastical organization. Originally he did not bear the title of metropolitan, but was called ο πρώτος —in Latin primus, the first —as can be seen from the thirty-fourth Apostolic canon. In the East, this title was developed fairly quickly, but in the West, when referring to the ecclesiastical authority of the metropolitan, they preferred to use the old term primus as it appears in the forty-eighth canon of the Council of Carthage. Parallel with this, the Council of Sardica introduced into ecclesiastical usage as a synonym for metropolitan the new term exarch of the province. So originally exarch signified the primus or me­tropolitan of the area, that is of the province. Yet the exarch soon came to have a more exalted status between metropolitan and patriarch. The first indisputable appearance of εξαρχος as a canonical term is in the Acts of the Council of Antioch in 445, where Domnus, Bishop of Antioch, is referred to by this title. Zonaras, in his interpretation of the seven­teenth canon of Antioch, writes:

Others were also called exarchs—to wit the Bishops of Caesarea in Cappadocia, of Ephesus, Thessalonica and Corinth, and because of this are said to have had the privilege of wearing polystauria in their churches.

Clearly, therefore, in the early Church, exarchs were the bishops of the dioceses and stood higher than the bishops of the provinces or provincial metropolitans, being in some ways independent of and di­stinct from them. Yet while the importance of the provincial metropoli­tans became more closely and rigidly defined after the period of Chalce­don, the exarchs of the dioceses gradually began to lose their preemi­nence, and by the middle of the sixth century Justinian's legislation accords them no independent significance. Consequently, to the contro­versial canonical questions as to which is higher, the metropolitan or the exarch, and whether the exarch is not in fact what is later called patri­arch, the answers are quite clear. There is no doubt that the exarchs, who were bishops of the diocesan capitals, ranked higher than the metro­politans, who were merely bishops of provincial capitals. On the other hand, it is clear that the metropolitans of the most important dioceses mentioned in the canons of the Council of Nicaea were such exarchs, and certainly possessed greater influence and authority, as they were in fact sometimes named in the ecclesiastical sources of the period (an example is Domnus of Antioch). As for the distinction between exarch and patriarch, it must be noted that not all the exarchs were entitled patriarchs, but only the heads of the most important dioceses; bishops of those cities which stood before all others by virtue of their secular status (sometimes also because of their historical associations, as was the case with Jerusalem), and who had also received earlier the title of me­tropolitan. This, however, differed in some respects from the later title of patriarch, its content being less well defined (3).

The second stage in the history of the title of exarch came at Chalcedon when the office of patriarch was introduced in the East. In the acts of this council the term patriarch does not appear, but the office is mentioned under the name of άρχιεπίσκοπος. While the leaders of the most important dioceses were given new powers—or rather what they already possessed was augmented and developed— and gained the title at first of αρχιεπίσκοπος and later of πατριάρχης, the bishops of the other, less important, dioceses—exarchs in the strict sense of the word—were made canonically dependent upon the archbishops, and thus became instruments of patriarchal authority. Standing a rung lower than the patriarch in the ecclesiastical administration, the exarchs naturally became the most important and influential instruments of the patri­arch (4).

Of the Eastern exarchs, the first to achieve supremacy was Alexan­dria, in the third century. He was the first, to be named ά ρχιεπίσκοπος (5) , in the sense of primate and leader of an independent church. He was involved in the ecclesiastical affairs not only of Egypt, but also of Libya. The distinction of the Alexandrian throne is to be attributed to Alexan­dria's being the second city of the Roman Empire, and its bishop con­sequently came immediately after that of Rome. The Church of Alexan­dria strengthened its position and made it secure by its preeminence as a great spiritual centre of the Catholic Church, and by its victory over Arianism at Nicaea.

Second in importance came the Bishop of Antioch, who during Apo­stolic and subapostolic times was regarded as the leading bishop of the Catholic Church. There is evidence that as early as the time of Igna­tius, Antioch not only had oversight of the whole of Syria, but was also involved in the ecclesiastical affairs of Palestine, Cilicia, Mesopo­tamia, Osrhogne and Persia. By the end of the second century, we are told that Palut, Bishop of Edessa, the capital of Osrho6ne, was consecrated by Serapion, Bishop of Antioch (193-209). The Church of Persia was dependent upon the Bishop of Antioch from the third century until the fifth.

To these two exarchs of the East must be added also the following three, who, being of less importance, were subordinated to the Bishop of Constantinople from the end of the fourth until the middle of the fifth century:

•  The Bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia, who, as we learn from the events of the dispute over the baptism of heretics, was involved in the ecclesiastical affairs of Eastern Asia Minor and Pontus from the first half of the third century onwards, and in the fourth century even ex­tended his influence as far as Armenia.

•  Ephesus came next in importance, as head of the bishops of the diocese of Asia by the end of the second century. He was involved in the affairs of the whole of western Asia Minor.

•  After Ephesus came the Metropolitan of Heraclea, the Exarch of Thrace, to whom the Bishop of Byzantium was subordinate. The Church of Constantinople was placed over these three exarchs in the fifth century (6).


(1) G. Konidares, op. cit., p. 375.

(2) cf. Apost. Canons 14 and 15 and N. Milas, op cit., p. 425.

(3) In the West, as early as the Council of Nicaea, the great cities of Rome, Carthage and Thessalonica emerged in a position of predominance over the Churches of central Italy, North Africa and Illyricum respectively, while in the East, Alex­andria, Antioch, Caesarea in Palestine, Caesarea in Cappadocia, Ephesus and Heraclea in Thrace presided over their own areas, which more or less coincided with the secular dioceses. Parallel with the development of the administrative system of the Roman Empire which had a strong influence, the rise of the exarchates was also helped by a second factor: the fact that most of the more important cities had been centers for the propagation of the Christian faith, and some of them were Apostolic sees or had come to have a special relationship with one of the Apostles and for this reason were called Apostolic sees {G. Konidares, op. cit., p. 577).

(4) A. Pokrovskij, ‘έξαρχος' in A. Lapouchin, Pravoslavnaja Bogoslovskaja Entsiklopedija V, 368-373. N. Milas, op. cit., p. 341. Ph. Vaphides, Εκκλ. Ιστ. vol I, p. 292. ‘" Εξαρχος * in Dictionnaire de Droit canonique V, 604. ‘ Έξαρχος ', in MEE XI, 251.

(5) The title of archbishop, as an ancient and modern term, is used with two senses from the fourth and fifth centuries onwards: firstly as a title of the Bishop of Alexandria (from the fourth century), and subsequently of the Bishop of Rome and bishops of other great ruling churches. In the fifth century the other meaning is found, whereby the archbishop is below a metropolitan, but also has the title of “autocephalous.” Jn the West it is also used in a third sense meaning metropolitan, cf. G. Konidares, Περι τον τίτλον του ‘ αρχιεπισκόπου,' ρ. 16. Cf. Ch. P apadopoulos, “ Ο τίτλος τοΰ αρχιεπισκόπου,' in Θεολογία 1935, 389 f. and R. Sohm, Kirchenrecht, p. 408.

(6) G. Konidares, Γε v. Έκκλ. Ίατ. p. 378-379.


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