Ancient Roman History: Prefect

Ancient Roman Civil or Military Official

Saint Margaret attracts the attention of the Roman prefect, by Jean Fouquet
Yann/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

A prefect was a type of military or civil official in Ancient Rome. Prefects ranged from low to very high-ranking military of civil officials of the Roman Empire. Since the days of the Roman Empire, the word prefect has spread to generally refer to a leader of an administrative area.

In Ancient Rome, the prefect was appointed and had no imperium, or authority themselves. Instead, they were advised by the delegation of higher authorities, which is where the power truly sat. However, prefects did have some authority and could be in charge of a prefecture. This included controlling prisons and other civil administrations. There was a prefect at the head of the praetorian guard. In addition, there were several other military and civil prefects, including the Praefectus vigilum in charge of the city's police-like vigiles, and Praefectus classis, in charge of the fleet. The Latin form of the word prefect is praefectus.


A prefecture is any sort of administrative jurisdiction or a controlled subdivision in countries that utilize prefects, and within some international church structures. In ancient Rome, a prefecture referred to a district governed by an appointed prefect.

At the end of the Fourth Century, the Roman Empire was divided into 4 units (Prefectures) for the purposes of the civil government.

I. Prefecture of the Gauls:

(Britain, Gaul, Spain, and northwestern corner of Africa)

Dioceses (Governors):

  • A. Britain
  • B. Gaul
  • C. Viennensis (Southern Gaul)
  • D. Spain

II. Prefecture of Italy:

(Africa, Italy, provinces between the Alps and the Danube, and the northwestern portion of the Illyrian peninsula)

Dioceses (Governors):

  • A. Africa
  • B. The Italies
    • Vicarius urbis Romae
    • Vicarius Italiae
  • C. Illyricum

III. Prefecture of Illyricum:

(Dacia, Macedonia, Greece)

Dioceses (Governors)

  • A. Dacia
  • B. Macedonia

IV. Prefecture of the East or Oriens:

(from Thrace in the north to Egypt in the south and the territory of Asia)

Dioceses (Governors):

  • A. Thrace
  • B. Asiana
  • C. Pontus
  • D. Oriens
  • E. Egypt

Place in the Early Roman Republic

The purpose of a prefect in the early Roman Republic is explained in the Encyclopedia Britannica:

“In the early republic, a prefect of the city (praefectus urbi) was appointed by the consuls to act in the consuls’ absence from Rome. The position lost much of its importance temporarily after the mid-4th century bc, when the consuls began to appoint praetors to act in the consuls’ absence. The  office of prefect was given new life by the emperor Augustus and continued in existence until late in the empire. Augustus appointed a prefect of the city, two praetorian prefects (praefectus praetorio), a prefect of the fire brigade, and a prefect of the grain supply. The prefect of the city was responsible for maintaining law and order within Rome and acquired full criminal jurisdiction in the region within 100 miles (160 km) of the city. Under the later empire he was in charge of Rome’s entire city government. Two praetorian prefects were appointed by Augustus in 2 bc to command the praetorian guard; the post was thereafter usually confined to a single person. The praetorian prefect , being responsible for the emperor’s safety, rapidly acquired great power. Many became virtual prime ministers to the emperor, Sejanus being the prime example of this. Two others, Macrinus and Philip the Arabian, seized the throne for themselves.”

Alternate Spellings: A common alternate spelling of the word prefect is ‘praefect.’

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Gill, N.S. "Ancient Roman History: Prefect." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Gill, N.S. (2020, August 26). Ancient Roman History: Prefect. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "Ancient Roman History: Prefect." ThoughtCo. (accessed September 28, 2021).