The term pope was originally used for all of the many bishops of the western leg of the Roman church. Although the Vatican's official list of popes now begins in the first century AD, in reality it was about 400 years later that the term was used exclusively for the bishop of Rome i.e. from only about 500 AD did that particular bishop begin to assume authority over the entire Church of Rome. The "primacy of the bishop of Rome" doctrine was hotly contested among Catholics for centuries.

The office of the bishop of Rome was itself often challenged. In the history of the Roman Church, the term antipope is used for a man who usurped or contended for the position of bishop of Rome, and who succeeded, to some degree, for some length of time. There were periods in the history of the Roman papacy that two, and sometimes three, men claimed to be the pope at the same time, each with a substantial religious and political following.

Antipopes came to power under diverse circumstances. Some examples:

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