3 Praetorian prefecture

Praetorian prefecture

The praetorian prefectures (Latin: "praefectura praetorio", in Greek variously named ἔπαρχότητα των πραιτωρίων or ὑπαρχία των πραιτωρίων) were the largest administrative divisions of the late Roman Empire, above the mid-level dioceses and the low-level provinces. They originated in the age of the Tetrarchy, yet outlived that period, reaching their more or less final form in the last third of the 4th century.


With the multiplication of holders of the imperial office ("Augusti" and "Caesares") during the Tetrarchy, each ruler was assigned a separate area of responsibility. Each of them were accompanied by their own praetorian prefects, who functioned as their chiefs of staff, combining both military and administrative powers. Under Constantine I, the office was transformed into a purely administrative one, albeit still the highest position in the imperial hierarchy, immediately below the emperor himself. ["Le Mond Byzantin", pp.177-179] A common misconception, based on Zosimus, is that Constantine established the praetorian prefectures as definite territorial administrations already in 318, or in 324, after his victory over Licinius. ["Le Mond Byzantin", p.190]

After Constantine's death in 337, his three sons partitioned the Empire between them. As each new "Augustus" had his own praetorian prefect, this division created the first of what would gradually become the permanent praetorian prefectures: the western prefecture of Gaul (dioceses of Gaul, Hispania and Britain), the central prefecture of Italy, Illyricum and Africa (dioceses of Italy, Africa, Pannonia, Dacia and Macedonia) and the prefecture of the East (dioceses of Thrace, Asia, Pontus, Oriens, and Egypt). With the creation of the separate prefecture of Illyricum (dioceses of Pannonia, Dacia and Macedonia) in 356-357, and despite the occasional abolition of the latter, the picture, as it appears in the early 5th century "Notitia dignitatum" ("list of offices"), was complete. The only major change was the removal of the diocese of Pannonia (renamed to "Diocese of Illyricum") from the prefecture of Illyricum and its incorporation into the prefecture of Italy in 379.

In the course of the 5th century, the Western Empire was overrun by the invasions of Germanic tribes. However, the prefecture of Italy was retained by the new Ostrogothic Kingdom, which was still "de jure" part of the Empire. Ostrogothic king Theodoric the Great even reestablished the prefecture of Gaul in the small portion of Gaul he conquered in the 510s. After the reconquest of Northern Africa by the Eastern Empire during the Vandalic War of 533-534, the new provinces were grouped by Justinian into a new praetorian prefecture of Africa, which would later be transformed into the Exarchate of Africa. The praetorian prefecture of Italy was also re-established after the end of the Gothic War, before too evolving into an exarchate. In the East, the prefectures would continue to function until the mid-7th century, when the loss of most eastern provinces to the Muslim conquest and of the Balkans to Slavic tribes, led to the creation of the Theme system.

Authority and powers of the prefect

Originally, the praetorian prefects were drawn from the equestrian class. Constantine's reforms entailed the reservation of this office for members of the senatorial class, and its prestige and authority were raised to the highest level, so that contemporary writers refer to it as the "supreme office". ["Le Mond Byzantin", p.177] The two senior prefects were those of the East and of Italy, residing in the courts of the two emperors and acting effectively as their first ministers, while the prefects of Illyricum and Gaul held a more junior position. [Bury, p. 27]

The prefects held wide-raging control over most aspects of the administrative machinery of their provinces, fulfilling the roles of supreme administrative and juridical official, already present from the time of Septimius Severus, and that of chief financial official, responsible for the state budget. Only the "magister officiorum" rivalled them in power.



* [http://www.intratext.com/IXT/LAT0212/_INDEX.HTM Notitia dignitatum]
* Morrison, Cécile (ed.):"Le Mond Byzantin I - L'Empire romain d'orient (330-641)" (Greek translation), Polis Editions, Athens 2007, ISBN 978-960-435-134-3

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