Primus inter pares

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See First Among Equals for the novel by Jeffrey Archer.

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 originates. 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, such as the Dean of the College of Cardinals of the Catholic Church, or the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church. 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).

A number of books have been titled First among equals.

National governments

United Kingdom

Template:Main 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 chairman or "head" of a Cabinet rather than holding an office that is de jure superior to that of ministers. It is very 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, which now includes many broad, exclusive, executive powers over which cabinet members now have little influence.

In 1984, author Jeffrey Archer wrote "First Among Equals," a popular novel about the careers and private lives of several men vying to become British Prime Minister. It was later adapted into a ten-part miniseries, produced by Granada Television.


Template:Main In Switzerland the seven-member Federal Council constitutes the government. Each year, the Federal Assembly elects a President of the Confederation. By convention, the positions of President and Vice President rotate annually, each Councillor thus becoming Vice President and then President every seven years while in office.

The President is not the Swiss head of state, but he or she is the highest-ranking Swiss official. He or she presides over Council meetings and carries out certain representative functions that, in other countries, are the business of the Head of State. In urgent situations where a Council decision cannot be made in time, her or she is empowered to act on behalf of the whole Council. Apart from that, though, he or she is a primus inter pares, having no power above and beyond the other six Councillors.



The Prime Minister of the Netherlands is the chairman of the council of ministers and active executive authority of the Dutch government. Although formally no special powers are assigned, the Prime Minister functions as the "face" of the cabinet of the Netherlands. Usually, the prime minister is also minister of General Affairs. Until 1945, the position of head of the council of ministers officially switched between the ministers, although practices differed throughout history. In 1945, the position was formally instituted. The Prime Minister is the leader of the majority party or coalition in the lower house of parliament (Tweede Kamer), and is a member of the Council of Ministers.

Mayors of German city states

Mayors of German city states have traditionally acted as Primus inter pares. In Hamburg, Lübeck and Bremen, which had been Free Imperial Cities from the times of the Holy Roman Empire, the government was called Senate and the mayor was one senator amongst many, often referred to as President of the Senate rather than Mayor. This ended in Lübeck with the incorporation into Prussia in 1937, while in a constitutional reform in 1996 the mayor of Hamburg was given broad powers to shape the politics of the senate, thus ending his status as primus inter pares. However, in the city state of Berlin, which was created after WWII, the mayor has had a similar role.


In many other pseudo-parliamentary bodies, such as clubs, boards, and committees, the officer who holds the position of chairman is often regarded as a "first among equals." That is, while most rules of order will grant the chair special powers within the context of a meeting, the position of chair is usually temporary, rotating, and powerless in other contexts, making the occupant merely a temporary leader required to instill order. This is the case for mayors under a council-manager government, as the "mayor" has the same vote as all other council members and cannot override them, although their opinion may have more sway among other members.


The phrase "first among equals" is also used by some to describe the role of the Patriarch of Constantinople, who, as the Ecumenical Patriarch, is considered the first among all the Patriarchs of the Eastern Orthodox Churches. According to those views, the title does not mean that the holder has special authority over the other bishops; rather, it is an acknowledgement of his 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 leader 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. This claim was one of the main causes of the East-West Schism in the Christian church, finalized in 1054. However, the Dean of the College of Cardinals in the Roman Catholic Church is generally considered to be the first among equals in the College.

In the Anglican Communion, the Archbishop of Canterbury is often considered to be "first among equals". The Moderator of the General Assembly in a Presbyterian church is similarly designated. The senior bishop of the seven diocesean bishops of the Scottish Episcopal Church bears the truncated title Primus from primus inter pares.

In the Church of Sweden, the Archbishop of Uppsala is considered primus inter pares.

Chief Justice of the United States

The phrase "first among equals" has also been used to describe the Chief Justice of the United States. 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. This situation is often true in most Supreme Courts around the inter paresnl:Primus inter paressv:Primus inter pares