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 Western Christianity after the Fall of Rome

The forced abdication of the western Roman emperor Romulus Augustus in 476 led to the fragmentation of the Roman administrative system (1.4.6). What had hitherto been a regu- lated and centralized system of government began to break down, with power passing to local rulers. The church, however, retained its episcopal system, which had been signifi- cantly influenced by Roman imperial practices.

Whereas a bishop appears originally to have been the leader of a local congregation, the church increasingly adopted a “monoepiscopal” model, by which a single bishop had authority over Christian priests and congregations in a specified area. Bishops now exer- cised spiritual authority over specific geographical areas (“dioceses,” derived from the Greek word dioikēsis, referring to an “area of administration” or “province”), in much the way as a Roman governor ruled provinces. The recognition of Christianity as the state religion of the empire inevitably led to bishops possessing both political (often referred to as “temporal”) and spiritual authority, leading to the church developing organizational structures which paralleled those of the state. But the collapse of western imperial struc- tures in the late fifth century was not paralleled by a failure on the part of their ecclesiastical counterparts.

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By the middle of the fourth century, the metropolitan bishops of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, and Antioch had come to be recognized as possessing a dignity and authority which allowed them to take primacy over other bishops. This authority was formalized by a number of councils, most notably the Council of Chalcedon. The metropolitan bishop of Rome was the only western Christian leader to be given precedence in this way.

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