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Originally a patriarch was a man who exercised autocratic authority as a pater familias over an extended family. The system of such rule of families by senior males is called patriarchy. This is a Greek word, a composition of πατήρ (pater) meaning "father" and άρχων (archon) meaning "leader", "ruler", etc.

Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are referred to as the three patriarchs of the people of Israel and the period in which they lived is called the Patriarchal Age.

The word has mainly taken on specific ecclesiastical meanings. In particular, the highest-ranking bishops in Eastern Orthodoxy are called patriarchs. The office and ecclesiastical conscription (comprising one or more provinces, though outside his own (arch) diocese he is often without enforceable jurisdiction, unlike the Pope, the Bishop of Rome) of such a patriarch is called a patriarchate. Historically, a Patriarch may often be the logical choice to act as Ethnarch, representing the community that is identified with his religious confession within a state or empire of a different creed (as Christians within the Ottoman Empire).

Patriarchs of the Pentarchy

The following five patriarchs, later known as the Pentarchy, are the ancient, established patriarchates listed below:

Patriarchs of the Eastern Orthodox Churches

see: Eastern Orthodoxy

As part of the Pentarchy, the Pope's Patriarchate of Rome was the only one in the Western Roman empire. It was roughly coterminous with present territory of the Latin Rite. In the past popes have used the title Patriarch of the West. However, this title was removed from a reference publication issued by the Vatican in 2006.

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