PRIMATE (from Low Lat. primas = one who held the first place, primas partes). During the 4th and 5th centuries A.D. the title was applied to both secular and ecclesiastical officials. The Theodosian Code mentions primates of towns, districts and fortified places (Primates urbium, vicorum, castellorum) . The Pragmatic Sanction of Justinian also mentions primates governing a district, primates regionis; and in this sense the title survived, under Turkish rule, in Greece until the 1pth century. An official called " primate of the palace " is mentioned in the laws of the Visigoths. Primas also seems to have been used loosely during the middle ages for " head " or " chief." Du Cange cites primas castri. The title, however, has been more generally used to denote a bishop with special privileges and powers. It was first employed almost synonymously with metropolitan to denote the chief bishop of a province having his see in the capital and certain rights of superintendence over the whole province. At the Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325) the metropolitan constitution was assumed as universal, and after this the terms " metropolitan," and " primate," to denote the chief bishop of a province, came into general use. The title of primate was used more generally in Africa, while elsewhere metropolitan was more generally employed. The primates in Africa differed from those elsewhere in that the title always belonged to the longest ordained bishop in a province, who had not necessarily his see in the capital, except in the case of the bishop of Carthage, who was head also of the other five African provinces. There were also three sorts of honorary primates: (i) primates aevo, the oldest bishop in a province next to the primate, on whom power devolved when the primate was disabled or disqualified; (2) titular metropolitans, the bishops of certain cities which had the name and title of civil metropoles bestowed on them by some emperor; (3) the bishops of some mother-churches which were honoured by ancient custom but were subject to the ordinary metropolitan, e.g. the bishop of Jerusalem, who was subject to his metropolitan at Caesarea.
At a later date " primate " became the official title of certain metropolitans who obtained from the pope a position of episcopal authority over several other metropolitans and who were, at the same time, appointed vicars of the Holy See. This was done in the case of the bishops of Aries and Thessalonica as early as the 5th century. Such primates were sometimes also called patriarchs, primates diocesearum (political, not episcopal dioceses), primates provinciae, summi primates, praesules omnium sacerdotum in partibus suis. In this sense the Western primate was considered the equivalent of the Eastern patriarch. The archbishop of Reims received the title of primas inter primates. By the False Decretals an attempt was made to establish such a primacy as a permanent institution, but the attempt was not successful and the dignity of primate became more or less honorary. The overlapping of the title is illustrated by the case of England, where the archbishop of York still bears the title of primate of England and the archbishop of Canterbury that of primate of all England. A less general use of the title is its application in medieval usage to the head of a cathedral school or college (primas scholarum) and to the dignitaries of a cathedral church. The abbot of Fulda received from the pope the title of primas inter abbales. In the Episcopal Church of Scotland the senior bishop is styled the primas.
Du Cangje, Glossarium; Hinschius, Kirchenrechl (Berlin, 1869); Moeller, History of the Christian Church, translated from the German by Andrew Rutherford, B.D. (London, 1902) ; Bingham, Origines ecdesiasticae (1840).
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)