The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






First among equals

First among equals is a phrase which indicates that a person is the most senior of a group of people sharing the same rank or office. The concept is also known by its Latin equivalent, primus inter pares, from which it orginates. Examples include the Prime Minister of many Commonwealth nations, the President of the European Commission, the Chief Justice of the United States, and some religious figures. The term was also used by Roman Emperors (see Princeps) as a means of reducing the appearance of dictatorship (which was particularly important during the early Roman Empire to appease those who may have longed for a return to the old Roman Republic).

Prime Ministers

The phrase "Prime Minister" literally means "primary minister" or "first minister." As such, the Prime Ministers of many countries are traditionally considered to be "first among equals" - they are the most senior of a group of ministers, rather than holding an office that is superior to that of ministers. It is debatable whether this description of the Prime Minister's role is accurate, however.

The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom has frequently been referred to as "first among equals." In the UK, the executive is the Cabinet, and during Hanoverian times a minister had the role of informing the monarch about proposed legislation in the House of Commons and other matters. In modern times, however, although the phrase is still used, it understates the powers of the Prime Minister.

In 1984, author Jeffrey Archer wrote "First Among Equals," a well-regarded novel about the careers and private lives of several men vying to become British Prime Minister.


The phrase "first among equals" is also used by some to describe the roles of the Pope or the Patriarch of Constantinople. According to those views, the titles do not mean that the holder has special authority over the other bishops; rather, it is an acknowledgement of their historic significance.

This is not the view of the Roman Catholic Church, which considers the Pope to be Vicar of Christ, successor of Saint Peter, and clearly superior to the rest of the bishops, successors of the Apostles. Because of this, the Roman Catholic Church sees the Pope as holding an office senior to that of other bishops, rather than merely being the most senior bishop.

In the Anglican Communion, the Archbishop of Canterbury is often considered to be "first among equals".

Chief Justice of the United States

The phrase "first among equals" has also used been to describe the Chief Justice of the United States (sometimes incorrectly referred to as "Chief Justice of the Supreme Court"). The Chief Justice has considerable administrative powers, and can assign the writing of decisions in cases in which he is in the majority, but has no direct control over the decisions of his colleagues on the United States Supreme Court.

Last updated: 02-07-2005 12:47:31
Last updated: 05-03-2005 17:50:55