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A Roman or civil diocese (Latin: dioecesis, from the Greek: διοίκησις, "administration") was one of the administrative divisions of the later Roman Empire, starting with the Tetrarchy. It formed the intermediate level of government, grouping several provinces and being in turn subordinated to a praetorian prefecture.

History

The earliest use of 'diocese' as an administrative unit was in the Greek-speaking East. Three districts— Cibyra, Apamea and Synnada— were added to the province of Cilicia in the time of Cicero, who mentions the fact in his familiar letters (EB 1911). The word 'diocese', which at that time was equivalent to a tax-collecting district, came to be applied to the territory itself.

The reorganization of the Empire known as Tetrarchy began under Emperor Diocletian in the 290s. He divided the vast Empire into four quarters, originally each under a co-emperor ('Tetrarch'). However, this structure was soon abolished and the territories reorganized under their former chiefs of staff, styled praetorian prefects. These had authority over twelve dioceses, the next lower administrative level (also new). The largest, Oriens, included sixteen provinces, and the smallest, Britannia, comprised only four provinces.

Each diocese of the Empire was governed by a vicarius. Between the 4th and 6th centuries, as the older administrative structure began to crumble, the role of the bishops in the western lands of the Empire enabled those lands and their peoples to maintain a semblance of civilisation as the authority of Rome vanished. The senatorial aristocracy, especially in the provinces, continued in many places to serve as sources of local authority to complement the authority assumed by the Church. In Late Antiquity, political power often came to be vested in the spiritual offices of the bishops in each region. This transfer of authority from secular officials to ecclesiastical leaders was natural in that, because of the close integration of the secular and ecclesiastical leadership in the Empire, the areas of ecclesiastical administration always coincided with those of the Roman civil administration.

It is, therefore, unsurprising that, as the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches began to define their administrative structures, they relied on the older Roman terminology and methods to describe administrative units and hierarchy, which often caused the division between ecclesiastical and secular authority to disappear. In the Eastern Empire, this became fundamental doctrine: see Caesaropapism.

A millennium later this process would be somewhat repeated when the Ottoman Empire conquered the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, Empire and the eastern bishops assumed political roles as the Roman civil structure was stripped away. In modern times, many an ancient diocese, though later divided among several dioceses, has preserved the boundaries of a long-vanished Roman administrative division.

See also

  • Diocese, the ecclesiastical territory originally corresponding to a civil diocese

This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.

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