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What is Primus Inter Pares?

John Markley
John Markley

Primus inter pares is a Latin phrase that means "first among equals," with "first" meant in the sense of being highest in importance or honor. It refers to the most senior person among a group of people with the same office, rank, or title, or to the dominant person in a group of people who are nominally equal but regard one of their members as their leader or most important member. Many organizations have a person or position with this status, either officially or unofficially.

Many government officials are considered primus inter pares today, and others still retain titles that allude to the idea. On the United States Supreme Court, the chief justice is considered the court's senior member and has greater administrative authority than the eight associate justices, but all nine justices have an equal vote in the court's decisions. The political title prime minister originally meant that its bearer was the foremost minister of a ruling monarch, and so merely primus inter pares among government ministers or the cabinet rather than head of government, though in most modern cases this is no longer an accurate description of a prime minister's status or power. Meetings of the Federal Council of Switzerland are presided over by the president of the confederation, an office that is held for a term of one year and customarily rotates among the Federal Council's seven members. Despite his or her position as the president of the Swiss government's highest executive body, the president of the confederation is not the head of state; instead the Federal Council holds that title collectively.

Augustus, who called himself the primus inter pares.
Augustus, who called himself the primus inter pares.

The clerical hierarchies of many religious organizations have a position whose holder is considered primus inter pares. In the Eastern Orthodox church, which is composed of a number of autocephalous, or self-headed, Orthodox churches in full communion with each other, the patriarch of Constantinople is considered the foremost official of the Orthodox faith and bears the title of ecumenical, or universal, patriarch. However, he has direct authority only over the Orthodox church of Constantinople. The other autocephalous Orthodox churches govern themselves, and their bishops or patriarchs are not appointed by the ecumenical patriarch or under his authority. In the Catholic church, the dean of the College of Cardinals presides over the college and summons it to the papal conclave to elect a new pope when the previous pope dies or abdicates, but has no authority over the other cardinals.

The chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court is "primus inter pares."
The chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court is "primus inter pares."

In the ancient Roman Republic, the primus inter pares of the Senate was called the princeps senatus, first of the Senate. The title was bestowed every five years by the censors, Roman legal officials responsible for holding public morals upon a member of the Senate who held the respect of his peers and a reputation for integrity and public service. The princeps senatus originally had no powers or privileges aside from the right to speak first on topics brought before the Senate, but he enjoyed great prestige. Later, the title of princeps senatus, or simply princeps, was adopted by the first Roman emperor, Augustus, in order to maintain the legal fiction that he was merely the foremost citizen of a still-intact republic and not an autocrat.

Discussion Comments


Actually Augustus started as an equal in a Triumvirate which is only three people. Two people are much easier to subordinate than 10, 15, or 100. Today most modern institutions which employ the Primus Inter Pares have a large number of members. Today the college of cardinals has 120 voting members while the United States Supreme Court has 9. I'm not saying we shouldn't be careful of the potential for a single person to assume complete authority but in an age of internet communication and all the check and balances which regulate power in a 21st century institution, it would be much harder to gain complete control today than in the Augustan Age.


This system has never really worked in history, why do we keep trying it today?! The problem with being first among equals is that in a system where power is heavily checked, even one person who is above the rest now has the ability to take power for themselves. How do you think Augustus became Emperor of Rome? He started as an equal and then slowly became more and more powerful until no one could control him.

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    • Augustus, who called himself the primus inter pares.
      Augustus, who called himself the primus inter pares.
    • The chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court is "primus inter pares."
      By: trekandshoot
      The chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court is "primus inter pares."