The Council of Nicæa, as church historians well know, was convened to address the errors of Arianism. Early in the 4th century, Alexander of Alexandria, sent a letter to Constantinople warning of the spreading error (Alexander of Alexandria, To Alexander, Bishop of the City of Constantinople, paragraph 1 (320 A.D.)). Within four years the dispute had captured the attention of the emperor, who sent his emissary, Bishop Hosius of Cordoba, to Alexandria to lend his prestige to the resolution of the matter (Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History, Book I, Chapter 7). Finally, in 325 A.D., a general council was convened in Nicæa to address the matter and put it to rest. Because of its significance to the doctrinal health of the church, the Arian heresy typically receives first billing whenever the Council of Nicæa is described. But there was another significant matter, another dispute, that threatened the administrative health of the church. The way that dispute was addressed at Nicæa puzzled Patristic writers and church historians for the next twelve hundred years and led to one of the most pervasive myths in the history of ecclesiology. That dispute was the matter of Metropolitan jurisdiction and the boundaries within which a Metropolitan bishop was authorized to act. The myth that resulted from Nicæa’s solution was the false belief that the Council had acknowledged the primacy of the Bishop of Rome.
The canon in question is the 6th which reads as follows:
“The ancient customs (εθη ) of Egypt, Libya and Pentapolis shall be maintained, according to which the bishop of Alexandria has authority over all these places since a similar custom (συνηθες) exists with reference to the bishop of Rome. Similarly in Antioch and the other provinces the prerogatives of the churches are to be preserved…” (Council of Nicæa, Canon 6 (325 A.D.))
We hasten to point out that the original canon used two different words for what we now render in English as “custom.” The former term, εθη, refers to something that is authoritative for its antiquity, whereas the latter term, συνηθες, refers to something that is currently practiced, and has lately become ordinary. The appeal to the Roman custom, συνηθες, therefore was not an appeal to antiquity, but to a recent development in Rome. There was a recent practice “with reference to the Bishop of Rome” that informed Nicæa’s solution regarding Alexandria’s ancient Metropolitan authority. But what was that recent practice? What was that “similar custom”?
Roman Catholics insist that the “similar custom” was the “ancient” understanding of Roman Primacy. A typical Roman Catholic interpretation of the 6th of Nicæa reads as follows:
“Let the Bishop of Alexandria continue to govern Egypt, Libya, and Pentapolis, since assigning this jurisdiction is an ancient custom established by the Bishop of Rome and reiterated now by this Nicene Council.” (Nicæa Canon 6 according to lay apologetics ministry, Unam Sanctam Catholicam, Papal Primacy in the First Councils)
When understood this way, “all of the sudden, this Canon has some ‘teeth,'” they say. “The appeal of the Council is to an ancient custom, which surely must have originated on some solid basis …, and this basis is none other than the delegation of the Bishop of Rome” (Unam Sanctam Catholicam, Papal Primacy in the First Councils). Thus, in the mind of the Roman Catholic, the canon is plainly a matter of the antiquity of Roman Primacy.
Of course, in the absence of any historical context—civil or ecclesiastical—such a reading may be plausible, although the two different Greek terms for “custom” in the original do not lend themselves to that interpretation. In any case, we do not have the luxury or the prerogative of simply extracting Nicæa from its historical context. Such extractions provide a notoriously unreliable basis for understanding history, and that is certainly the case here. An examination of the civil and ecclesiastical context of Canon 6 actually yields the very opposite of Roman Catholic claims. What was being “reiterated now by this Nicene Council,” was the fact that the jurisdiction of the bishop of Rome was quite limited indeed.
The Ecclesiastical Context
Leading up to the Council of Nicæa, one Meletius of Lycopolis had presumed to ordain bishops outside of his jurisdiction, causing no small scandal within the church. What he had done was contrary to the norms that had been established and honored in the Church for centuries. Upon receiving the news of his intrusion, bishops Hesychius, Pachomius, Theodorus, and Phileas wrote to Meletius of Lycopolis (c. 307 A.D.) to inquire after his unlawful behavior, and importantly, “to prove your practice wrong”:
“Some reports having reached us concerning thee, which, on the testimony of certain individuals who came to us, spake of certain things foreign to divine order and ecclesiastical rule which are being attempted, yea, rather which are being done by thee … . [W]hat agitation and sadness have been caused to us all in common and to each of us individually by (the report of) the ordination carried through by thee in parishes having no manner of connection with thee, we are unable sufficiently to express. We have not delayed, however, by a short statement to prove your practice wrong.” (Epistle of Hesychius, Pachomius, Theodorus, and Phileas, to Meletius).
As the four continued to explain, “it is not lawful for any bishop to celebrate ordinations in other parishes than his own.” What was worse, all of this had taken place while bishop Peter I of Alexandria occupied the Metropolitan seat. Meletius’ actions could hardly be understood in any other way than malicious ambition. “[L]ooking with an evil eye on the episcopal authority of the blessed Peter,” Meletius had threatened and undermined the authority of the Metropolitan, and these four bishops could not stand by and watch it happen.
The significance of this issue to the church may be understood from the Synodical Letter to Alexandria immediately after the council of Nicæa. The matter of Arius had been resolved, of course, but so too had the matter of “the presumption of Meletius” who had ordained bishops in the Metropolitan’s province:
“But since, when the grace of God had freed Egypt from this evil and blasphemous opinion, and from the persons who had dared to create a schism and a separation in a people which up to now had lived in peace, there remained the question of the presumption of Meletius and the men whom he had ordained, we shall explain to you, beloved brethren, the synod’s decisions on this subject too.” (Synodical Letter of the Council of Nicæa, To the Egyptians)
Thus, Nicæa had been convened to address two controversies of relevance to Egypt, one of which was the matter of Metropolitan jurisdiction. Canon 6 of Nicæa is explicit when addressing this matter. After defining the jurisdictional boundaries of the Metropolitan bishops of Alexandria and Antioch, the council continued, emphasizing that extra-provincial episcopal ordinations would not be recognized: “In general the following principle is evident: if anyone is made bishop without the consent of the metropolitan, this great synod determines that such a one shall not be a bishop” (Council of Nicæa, Canon 6).
The importance of this jurisdictional issue is plainly evident not only from the context of Canon 6, but from the canons of the subsequent councils. The Council of Sardica (343 A.D.) restated the policy, namely that the bishop of one diocese may not “ordain to any order the minister of another from another diocese without the consent of his own bishop” (Council of Sardica, Canon 15).
The Council of Constantinople (381 A.D.) restated the policy that “Diocesan bishops are not to intrude in churches beyond their own boundaries nor are they to confuse the churches: but in accordance with the canons, the bishop of Alexandria is to administer affairs in Egypt only.” (Council of Constantinople, Canon 2)
The Council of Ephesus (431 A.D.) restated the policy again, insisting that the bishop of one diocese was not to take possession of another man’s territory: “The same principle will be observed for other dioceses and provinces everywhere. None of the reverent bishops is to take possession of another province which has not been under his authority from the first or under that of his predecessors” (Council of Ephesus).
The matter of Metropolitan jurisdiction arose again at the Council of Chalcedon (451 A.D.). Canonically prohibited from aspiring to another man’s Metropolitan seat, some bishops were appealing to the civil authorities to create a new civil province, and with it, a new Metropolitan seat. But this practice was creating the problem of two separate civil provinces—and therefore two Metropolitan seats—within a single ecclesiastical province:
“It has come to our notice that, contrary to the ecclesiastical regulations, some have made approaches to the civil authorities and have divided one province into two by official mandate, with the result that there are two metropolitans in the same province.” (Council of Chalcedon, Canon 12)
Thus, from the Meletian schism in 307 A.D. to the Council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D., the matter of Metropolitan jurisdiction was at the forefront of conciliar polity, and Nicæa was always considered to be the authoritative standard. Nicæa had taken up the matter of Meletius’ presumptuous intrusion into a Metropolitan’s jurisdiction, and every council after Nicæa referred back to the way Nicæa had handled it. The issue of Metropolitan jurisdiction from Nicæa onward was nothing other than this: how shall we manage ecclesiastical boundaries when there are two or more Metropolitan bishops located within a single geographical unit?
What makes the matter problematic—and to some degree puzzling from an historiographical perspective—is that the very concept of a civil geographical unit itself was changing at the time of Meletius’ incursion. The Meletian schism occurred shortly after Emperor Diocletian had reorganized the Empire into civil dioceses, but before the church had formally begun to define ecclesiastical boundaries in diocesan terms. Eventually, the civil diocese would enter the conciliar vocabulary of the church. But not at Nicæa. Nevertheless, the council was keenly aware of Diocletian’s recent reorganization, as well as the new geographical unit—the diocese—that he had created. The history of Metropolitan jurisdiction and the meaning of Canon 6 of Nicæa, therefore, cannot be understood without considering the history of how the church adapted to the new term.
The Civil Context
Before the church adapted to Diocletian’s civil reforms, a bishop’s jurisdiction was described in provincial rather than diocesan terms. Thus the jurisdiction of the Metropolitan of Alexandria was defined at Nicæa by the civil provinces of Egypt, Libya and the Pentapolis. We might well ask why Nicæa did not simply accept the diocesan division of the empire and align the jurisdiction of the Metropolitans accordingly. Would that not have been a more practical solution? After all, it had been 32 years since Diocletian’s reorganization. Would it not have been simpler to accept the diocesan division of the empire and let each Metropolitan bishop preside over his own diocese? The answer to the question is as simple as it is obvious.
When Diocletian reorganized the empire, he created the Diocese of the East (the Diocese of Oriens), which spanned all the territory from Libya to Syria, as can be seen in the map at the head of this article. The Diocese of Oriens included within it the Metropolitan Sees of Alexandria, Jerusalem and Antioch. If the bishops assembled at Nicæa had aligned ecclesiastical boundaries to make them coterminous with the civil dioceses, they would have merely perpetuated the very problem they were trying to solve: the problem of multiple Metropolitans within a single geographical unit. Thus, the jurisdiction of the Metropolitans of Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem had to be defined in provincial rather than diocesan terms, and that is exactly what Nicæa did:
“The ancient customs of Egypt, Libya and Pentapolis shall be maintained, according to which the bishop of Alexandria has authority over all these places … Similarly in Antioch and the other provinces the prerogatives of the churches are to be preserved. … the bishop of Ælia [Jerusalem] is to be honoured, let him be granted everything consequent upon this honour, saving the dignity proper to the metropolitan.” (Council of Nicæa, Canons 6 & 7).
Notably absent from Nicæa is any mention of the civil diocese as an ecclesiastical unit. It simply was not an option.
Over the course of the fourth century, however, a partial solution presented itself, and when it did, the jurisdiction of Alexandria suddenly began to be described in diocesan rather than provincial terms. Sometime between the councils of Nicæa in 325 A.D. and Constantinople in 381 A.D., the Diocese of Oriens was split into two civil dioceses—the Diocese of the East, which encompassed Syria and Palestine, and the Diocese of Egypt, which encompassed the provinces previously assigned to Alexandria. It is at the council of Constantinople that we first begin to see the Diocese of Oriens distinguished from the Diocese of Egypt, both in the canons and in the Synodical Letter.
In canon 2, the provincial language of Nicæa was abandoned, and the jurisdiction of the Metropolitan of Alexandria was defined in terms of the Diocese of Egypt, which by then was a self-standing diocese in its own right. Likewise, the jurisdiction of the bishop of Antioch was defined in terms of the Diocese of the East:
“Diocesan bishops are not to intrude in churches beyond their own boundaries nor are they to confuse the churches: but in accordance with the canons, the bishop of Alexandria is to administer affairs in [the Diocese of] Egypt only; the bishops of [the Diocese of] the East are to manage the East alone (whilst safeguarding the privileges granted to the church of the Antiochenes in the Nicene canons).” (Council of Constantinople, Canon 2)
This was progress. Alexandria was now the Metropolitan See of the Diocese of Egypt, and the provincial terms of its jurisdiction could be discarded; and Antioch was the Metropolitan See of the Diocese of Oriens which now excluded the territory previously assigned to Alexandria. Of course, there still remained one minor problem in the Diocese of the East, as the clause suggests: “whilst safeguarding the privileges granted to the church of the Antiochenes.” The problem was that there yet remained two metropolitan bishops in a single civil diocese: in Antioch and in Jerusalem. Because that situation remained, the council needed to make it clear that the Metropolitan of the Diocese, the bishop of Antioch, retained the chief Metropolitan privileges. Thus, when the council announced the recent episcopal ordinations, the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Antioch was described in diocesan terms, but the jurisdiction of the bishop of Jerusalem was described in provincial terms:
“Over the most ancient and truly apostolic church at Antioch in Syria, where first the precious name of ‘Christians’ came into use, the provincial bishops and those of the diocese of the East came together and canonically ordained the most venerable and God-beloved Flavian as bishop with the consent of the whole church, as though it would give the man due honour with a single voice. … We wish to inform you that the most venerable and God-beloved Cyril is bishop of the church in Jerusalem … was canonically ordained some time ago by those of the province…” (Council of Constantinople, Synodical Letter)
This was the new status quo. Alexandria now presided over the whole Diocese of Egypt, Antioch presided over the whole Diocese of Oriens, while Jerusalem retained provincial jurisdiction within its own province. Over the course of the seventy years between Constantinople and Chalcedon, the canons of Nicæa were thus modified to reflect the change in the civil organization of the empire. At Chalcedon (451 A.D.) the Church formally and canonically accepted that change.
As we noted in Anatomy of a Deception, the Latins and the Greeks at Chalcedon disagreed on the recent editorial modification to the 6th canon of Nicæa regarding Roman primacy, but there was one editorial modification that both sides agreed on: the jurisdiction of the Metropolitan of Alexandria was no longer to be defined by the provinces of “Egypt, Libya and the Pentapolis,” but by the civil Diocese of Egypt. The Latin version now read:
“Egypt is therefore also to enjoy the right that the bishop of Alexandria has authority over everything, since this is the custom for the Roman bishop also.” (Richard Price & Michael Gaddis, The Acts of the Council of Chalcedon, vol 3, in Gillian Clark, Mark Humphries & Mary Whitby, Translated Texts for Historians, vol 45 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2005) 85)
The Greek version now read:
“Let the ancient customs in Egypt prevail, namely that the bishop of Alexandria has authority over everything, since this is customary for the bishop of Rome also.” (Price & Gaddis, vol 3, 86)
Whatever else they may have disagreed about, both parties plainly understood that there was no further value in carrying forward Nicæa’s provincial description of Alexandrian jurisdiction. The diocesan description would now suffice. That editorial modification was of no small significance, especially since the collective conviction of the assembled bishops was that the canons of Nicæa could not, and must not, be changed. Only a civil reorganization in Egypt could account for it.
Price & Gaddis, in their commentary on the acts of the council, overlooked the civil reorganization that precipitated the change in the canon, and reacted with surprise at the “omission of Libya and Pentapolis” in both versions—in the Greek and in the Latin. This, they assumed, was an error that was “perhaps to be attributed to copyists” (Price & Gaddis, vol 3, 86n). But there had been no error. The church had finally adapted to Diocletian’s reorganization into civil dioceses, and had also adapted to the late fourth century modifications that made Egypt a separate diocese from Oriens.
In any case, the formation of the Diocese of Egypt had solved the problem of defining jurisdiction of the Metropolitan of Alexandria. Regarding the jurisdiction of Jerusalem, however, it was still part of the Diocese of the East, and of course could participate in Diocesan affairs. Nevertheless, “the privileges granted to the church of the Antiochenes in the Nicene canons” were to be preserved (Council of Constantinople, Canon 2), which meant that Jerusalem’s metropolitan prerogatives remained provincially constrained.
In other words, Antioch was still the chief Metropolis of what was left of Oriens, and Jerusalem was still located within the diocese. And if two Metropolitans of necessity had to reside in a single civil diocese, their authority would still need to be defined provincially, but only one could be the Metropolitan of the Diocese. In the Diocese of Oriens, that one Metropolitan had always been the bishop of Antioch.
And, not insignificantly, in the Diocese of Italy, that one Metropolitan had always been the bishop of Milan.
The Roman Precedent
What then was the meaning of Nicæa’s clause about “a similar custom” regarding the Bishop of Rome? The answer to that question lies in the language of Nicæa. The issue at hand was that of Metropolitan jurisdiction, and the specific challenge before the council was to define the limits of Metropolitan prerogatives when two or more resided within a single civil diocese.
Remarkably, the Bishop of Rome had provided an exact counterpart to the situation in Alexandria. In the Diocese of Italy, Milan was the Metropolitan city, and yet the Bishop of Rome operated in that diocese by carving out a defined geographic boundary, within which he could exercise provincial metropolitan authority. When the council of Nicæa encountered a similar situation in Oriens, the Roman solution was the obvious choice, and the language of Nicæa reflected that: Antioch was the chief Metropolis of the Diocese of Oriens, and yet the bishop of Alexandria would operate in that diocese by carving out a defined geographic boundary within which he could exercise provincial metropolitan authority, “for a similar custom exists with reference to the bishop of Rome.”
It had worked for Rome. There was no reason it could not work for Alexandria. And for Jerusalem, as well. Nicæa’s appeal to the Roman precedent, that practice lately adopted since the creation of the dioceses, had not been an appeal to Roman Primacy at all, but instead had referred in diminutive terms to Rome’s limited, provincial metropolitan prerogatives within the Diocese of Italy. In the same way, the council would confer on Alexandria similarly limited prerogatives within Oriens. Nicæa’s language was not based on a common understanding of Roman Primacy, but on the universal understanding that the Bishop of Rome was not even the chief Metropolitan of the Diocese of Italy.
At least, not yet.
Rome’s Transition to the Metropolis of Italy
The history of Rome’s transition to Metropolis of the Diocese of Italy begins with the crisis of the third century (235 – 284 A.D.). During the crisis, internal strife had divided the Roman Empire into three competing states and left it on the verge of economic collapse. When Diocletian was proclaimed Emperor in 284 A.D., his first order of business was to decentralize power by means of the Tetrarchy. Removing the administration of the empire from Rome to the cities of the Tetrarchs, prevented anyone from challenging the empire simply by invading Rome. Instead, such a challenge would require the invasion of four separate capital cities, which was well nigh impossible. With the power removed from Rome, the Tetrarchs ruled from their four capitals of Nicomedia (modern Izmit, Turkey), Sirmium (modern Sremska Mitrovica, Serbia), Mediolanum (modern Milan, Italy) and Augusta Treverorum (modern Trier, Germany). Diocletian then established each Tetrarch over three of the twelve dioceses:
Nicomedia was over the Dioceses of Oriens (the East), Pontus and Asia.
Sirmium was over the Dioceses of Thrace, Moesia and Pannonia.
Augusta Treverorum was over the Dioceses of Britain, Gaul and Vienne.
Mediolanum (Milan) was over the Dioceses of Italy, Spain and Africa
In the process of this decentralization, Rome was reduced in power, prestige and prominence, having received neither the seat of a Tetrarch, nor the authority over one of the twelve dioceses. That made Milan, not Rome, the chief Metropolis of the Diocese of Italy. To this fact Athanasius was still plainly testifying as late as 358 A.D. in his History of the Arians. When describing the various bishops who had suffered under the persecution, Athanasius included bishop “Dionysius of Milan, which is the Metropolis of Italy” (Athanasius, History of the Arians, Part IV, chapter 33). Elsewhere, Athanasius identified the various bishops who were banished under the persecution, and he included in the list Liberius, bishop of Rome, Eusebius, bishop of Vercelli, Italy, and Dionysius, the Metropolitan of Italy:
“Even very lately, while the Churches were at peace, and the people worshipping in their congregations, Liberius, Bishop of Rome, Paulinus , Metropolitan of Gaul, Dionysius , Metropolitan of Italy, Lucifer, Metropolitan of the Sardinian islands, and Eusebius of Italy, all of them good Bishops and preachers of the truth, were seized and banished , on no pretence whatever, except that they would not unite themselves to the Arian heresy, nor subscribe to the false accusations and calumnies which they had invented against me.” (Athanasius of Alexandria, Apologia de Fuga, chapter 4)
Thus, up to the latter part of the fourth century, it was Milan, not Rome, that was still considered the chief metropolis of the Diocese of Italy. Eventually, the Metropolitan of Rome would supersede the Metropolitan of Milan and usurp from him the authority over the Diocese. But it had not always been this way.
Cyprian of Carthage provides an excellent perspective on Rome as a lesser metropolitan leading up to Diocletian’s reorganization. In Epistle 39 (251 A.D.), Cyprian was writing to his flock about a joint council with Rome on the matter of “the Lapsed” (see Treatise 3, “On the Lapsed”). In that letter to the church in Africa about that council with Rome, Cyprian referred to the Roman delegation as “the city clergy”:
“And although it was once arranged as well by us as by the confessors and the city clergy [clericis urbicis], and moreover by all the bishops appointed either in our province or beyond the sea, that no novelty should be introduced in respect of the case of the lapsed unless we all assembled into one place…” (Cyprian of Carthage, Epistle 39, paragraph 3).
That reference to “the city clergy” arises again in Letter 44, this time as Cyprian compares the vast expanse of his episcopate to the rather small domain of “the city,” Rome, in which a recent schism had occurred. There had been a division in Rome regarding the election of bishop Novatian, who in turn had sent messengers to Cyprian’s African province with letters announcing his ordination. Cyprian did not want his flock to be “disturbed by the wickedness of an unlawful ordination” in Rome (Cyprian, Letter 40), but to be sure, he had sent emissaries to obtain “a greater authority for the proof of your [Cornelius’] ordination” (Cyprian of Carthage, Letter 44, paragraph 3). But something had gone wrong in the communications. To Cornelius’ indignation some of Cyprian’s bishops were no longer addressing their letters to Cornelius as bishop, but were instead addressing their communications to the clergy of Rome. No offense was intended, Cyprian assured him. It is just that information about “a schism made in the city” does not travel as rapidly in Africa, “since our province is wide-spread”:
“For we, who furnish every person who sails hence with a plan that they may sail without any offence, know that we have exhorted them to acknowledge and hold the root and matrix of the Catholic Church. But since our province is wide-spread, and has Numidia and Mauritania attached to it; lest a schism made in the city should confuse the minds of the absent with uncertain opinions, we decided… that letters should be sent you by all who were placed anywhere in the province” (Cyprian of Carthage, Epistle 44, paragraph 3)
This diminutive reference to Rome would not have been so significant had Cyprian not already identified the Roman delegation as “the city clergy.” This time, he seems to remind Cornelius that the letters of Novatian regarding the schism in his city of Rome are infecting the bishops of Africa with “uncertain opinions,” which were doubly difficult to correct because Cyprian’s province was so “wide-spread.”
Cyprian’s situation in Africa was hardly unique. It was not as if Carthage alone was “wide-spread” and all the other Metropolitans had smaller more manageable jurisdictions. They all had large provinces to manage. But Cyprian does not seem to think Cornelius and “the city clergy” are as sympathetic as they would be if they, too, had a large province to manage. Thus, they needed to be reminded occasionally that other Metropolitans’ jurisdictions were not so small—at least, not so small as the Bishop of Rome’s. This, of course, was prior to Diocletian’s division of the empire, but even after the division, the data indicates that the the status quo remained unchanged. In the eyes of Diocletian, Rome as a city remained a lesser, but independent metropolis within the greater Diocese of Italy, and that Diocese was governed from Milan.
As we discussed in Anatomy of a Deception, Constantine was concerned about the ability of certain powerful individuals—potentiores—to impose undue influence on his otherwise independent judiciary. He composed two communications to the leaders there, one to the Vicar of Italy in Milan, and another to the Prefect of the City of Rome. In both cases, he instructed the officials on how they personally should resolve matters involving potentiores. In both cases, Constantine instructed that potentiores within their respective territories were to be handled directly by them. Note that Constantine plainly addresses the Vicar of Italy and the Prefect of Rome as if they had two distinctly different jurisdictions, even though they were both located within the bounds of the Diocese of Italy:
Constantine Augustus to Silvius, Vicar of Italy (325 A.D.): “That Your Gravity, already intent on other business, not be burdened by heaps of rescripts of this sort, We have decreed to impose on Your Gravity only those cases in which a powerful person can oppress a weak or inferior judge.” (Theodosian Code, 1.15.1; Pharr, Clyde, The Theodosian Code and Novels, and the Sirmondian Constitutions (Princeton University Press, 1952) 25)
Constantine Augustus to Maximus Valerius, Prefect of the City of Rome (328 A.D.): “If any very powerful and arrogant person should arise, and the governors of the provinces are not able to punish him or to examine the case or to pronounce sentence, they must refer his name to Us, or at least to the knowledge of Your Gravity.” (Theodosian Code, 1.16.4; Pharr, 28)
Though located within the same civil diocese, the Vicar of Italy in Milan and the Prefect of the City of Rome, had defined geographic jurisdictions assigned to them within the diocese. Noteworthy, we think, is the fact that these letters were contemporary to Nicæa.
This same rubric appears to have been in effect leading up to the Council of Sardica in 343 A.D.. For some reason, bishop Julius of Rome refers to “these parts” in the city of Rome, as if they were a distinctly different entity from greater Italy:
“[T]he sentiments I expressed were not those of myself alone, but of all the Bishops throughout Italy and in these parts.” (Athanasius, Apologia Contra Arianos, Part I, chapter 2, Letter of Julius to the Eusebians at Antioch, paragraph 26)
Another writer, by way of example, uses similar terms again to distinguish between “the city of Rome” and “the parts of Italy”, noting that “Athanasius returned from the city of Rome and the parts of Italy” (Athanasius of Alexandria, Historia Acephala, chapter 2). It was normative to consider them as two separate entities.
In view of the historical differentiation between the City and the Diocese, we can understand why in the Canons of Sardica (343 A.D.), bishop Hosius would distinguish between the general rule of appealing to the Metropolitan “in any province,” and the special case of appealing to the Bishop of Rome if the appellant happened to lodge his appeal in that city. Rome was the Italian exception in this regard, in that its bishop exercised the prerogatives of a Metropolitan within a city in a diocese that was otherwise ruled from the metropolis of Milan:
“This also, I think, follows, that, if in any province whatever, bishops send petitions to one of their brothers and fellow bishops, he that is in the largest city, that is, the metropolis, should himself send his deacon and the petitions,… But those who come to Rome ought, as I said before, to deliver to our beloved brother and fellow bishop, Julius…” (Council of Sardica, Canon 9)
This was an acknowledgment of Rome’s unique position within the Diocese of Italy, and Hosius had simply codified Rome’s Metropolitan jurisdiction within its defined geographic boundaries. Outside the city of Rome, but within the bounds of Italy, an appeal could be lodged directly with the Metropolitan in Milan. But inside Rome’s jurisdiction, the appeal would have to be lodged with the Bishop of the city, rather than with the metropolitan of the Diocese.
That this was the common understanding was evidenced only a few years hence by Athanasius would explicitly distinguish between the Bishop of Rome, who presided in Rome, and the Metropolitan of Italy, who presided from Milan, as we noted above. In fact he did so repeatedly. In his Apology Against the Arians, Athanasius identifies the victims of banishment, and separates the Bishop of Rome from the Bishops of Italy in his list:
“But when they not only endeavoured to convince by argument, but also endured banishment, and one of them is Liberius, Bishop of Rome, …, and since there is also the great Hosius, together with the Bishops of Italy, and of Gaul, and others from Spain, and from Egypt, and Libya, and all those from Pentapolis … ” (Athanasius, Apologia Contra Arianos, Part II, chapter 6, paragraph 89).
In another work, Athanasius refers to Eustorgius, Bishop of Milan as “Eustorgius of Italy” in the same sentence that he describes Julius and Liberius as Bishops of Rome:
“Had these expositions of theirs proceeded from the orthodox, from such as the great Confessor Hosius… or Julius and Liberius of Rome, … or Eustorgius of Italy, …—there would then have been nothing to suspect in their statements, for the character of men is sincere and incapable of fraud.” (Athanasius of Alexandria, Ad Episcopus Aegypti et Libyae, paragraph 8)
And again, describing Bishops by region, Athanasius lists the Bishop of Rome as distinguished from the Bishops of Italy, Spain, Gaul, and Sardinia, noting that Dionysius of Milan and Eusebius of Vercelli were the Italian bishops:
“But when I had already entered upon my journey, and had passed through the desert , a report suddenly reached me , which at first I thought to be incredible, but which afterwards proved to be true. It was rumoured everywhere that Liberius, Bishop of Rome, the great Hosius of Spain, Paulinus of Gaul, Dionysius and Eusebius of Italy, Lucifer of Sardinia, and certain other Bishops and Presbyters and Deacons, had been banished because they refused to subscribe to my condemnation.” (Athanasius of Alexandria, Apologia ad Constantium, 27)
Clearly, in the mind of Athanasius, Milan was “the metropolis of Italy,” while the city of Rome enjoyed a limited jurisdiction within that diocese. It is Milan that is identified as the Metropolis of Italy, and its Bishop as the Metropolitan of Italy. The bishop of Rome is always identified with the city, and is never the Metropolitan of Italy.
Eventually, of course, Rome would usurp Milan as the Metropolis of the diocese. This can be seen clearly in Pope Leo’s fraudulent insistence that the Canons of Nicæa require disputes to be resolved by the apostolic See of Rome, which meant to him that a synod must be convened in Italy. As we noted in Anatomy of a Deception, Pope Leo fraudulently appealed to the Canons of Sardica (343 A.D.) as if they were from Nicæa (325 A.D.), claiming that Nicæa had recognized Rome’s “right of cognizance” in all disputes. Based on that erroneous appeal to Nicæa, Leo insisted that disputes were to be “transferred to our jurisdiction” (Pope Leo I, Letter 14, paragraph 8), and resolved by “the Apostolic See” (Pope Leo I, Letter 6, paragraph 5), which required “a general synod to be held in Italy” (Pope Leo I, Letter 44, paragraph 3). To Leo in 449 A.D., the Metropolis of Rome was co-identified with the Diocese of Italy, as if Rome had been Metropolis of the Diocese all along. But such language would have been unthinkable a hundred years earlier, when the City of Rome and the Diocese of Italy were two distinctly separate administrative entities, separately administered.
In fact, the transition had begun much sooner than Leo. At the Council of Carthage in 418 A.D., the African bishops awaited further information to determine if what was “directed to us from the Apostolic See” is really that which is “kept according to that order by you in Italy” (Canon 134, The Code of Canons of the African Church). The Roman delegate attending this council was not a member of “the city clergy,” as he had been in Cyprian’s day, but now was bishop “Faustinus of the Potentine Church, of the Italian province Picenum,” on the northern coast of Italy (An Ancient Introduction, The Code of Canons of the African Church). Italy, it appeared, was now being managed from Rome. Pope Damasus I had done his work well way back in 382 A.D., when he proclaimed at the Council of Rome that “the holy Roman church is given first place by the rest of the churches” (Council of Rome, III.1). But Rome had not always been given first place.
To the contrary, as late as 358 A.D., Milan enjoyed the distinction as the chief metropolis of Italy, and as late as 358 A.D., Rome was still considered to be a smaller geographic unit within the larger diocese, just as she had been since the first days of Diocletian’s reorganization, and just as she had been during the Council of Nicæa. That was the “similar custom” invoked in Canon 6, the practice lately adopted by Rome since Diocletian’s reorganization of the Empire.
Because of her limited authority within a broader diocese that was governed from Milan, Rome had presented to the bishops of Nicæa the exact solution they needed to solve the problem of Alexandrian jurisdiction within a broader diocese that was governed from Antioch. Although Antioch was the chief seat of the Diocese of Oriens, Alexandria would be treated as a Metropolitan See within it, exercising its ancient authority within the provincial confines of Egypt, Libya and the Pentapolis, “since a similar custom exists with reference to the bishop of Rome.”
As we noted above, when they analyze the historical data outside of the context of civil and ecclesiastical history, Rome’s apologists say that Canon 6 of Nicæa suddenly has teeth. But we know better. When Canon 6 is analyzed in its civil and ecclesiastical context, all the teeth of Roman Primacy are removed, and modern Rome is left making its fraudulent claims of primacy on the authority of her dentures alone.
Next week we will show how Rome’s misconception of Canon 6 of Nicæa has been perpetuated since the latter part of the 4th century. Misunderstanding the civil and ecclesiastical context of the canon has led to the application of a gross anachronism in order to maintain Rome’s fraudulent claims to primacy.