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Roman Praefecturae (Prefectures)

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Roman Prefectures in Umbria

We have documentary evidence that two centres in modern Umbria were constituted at some point as Roman prefectures:

  1. Festus (see below), in his epitome of the ‘De verborum significatione’ (an encyclopaedic lexicon by Marcus Verrius Flaccus from the time of the Emperor Augustus), included Sabine Nursia (now Norcia, in modern Umbria) among a list of prefectures; and

  2. a passage by Cicero, in a speech delivered in ca. 80 BC, recorded Fulginia (now Foligno) as a  prefecture. 

It is also possible that three other Umbrian centres were once so constituted:

  1. Interamna Nahars (Terni);

  2. Plestia (near modern Colfiorito); and

  3. Tadinum (Gualdo Tadino).

Before discussing these individual centres, it is necessary to consider what this designation actually meant.

Roman Prefectures

The key text for our understanding (such as it is) of the Roman praefecturae (prefectures) comes from Festus (the text mentioned above):

  1. “It was common to designate as praefecturae the towns in which justice was administered and markets held; they also possessed a kind of public administration (res publica), but they did not have their own magistrates.  According to the law, prefects were sent yearly to these (towns) in order to administer justice. Two different kinds of praefecturae existed:

  2. One kind, to which four prefects were usually sent from the body of twenty-six magistrates who had been elected by the vote of the [Roman] people, (to towns) such as Capua, Cumae, Casilinum, Volturnum, Liternum, Puteoli, Acerrae, Suessula, Atella, Calatia.

  3. The other kind, to which those (prefects) went whom the praetor urbanus had sent yearly accordingly to the law, (towns) such as Fundi, Formiae, Caere, Venafrum, Allifae, Privernum, Anagnia, Frusino, Reate, Saturnia, Nursia, Arpinum, and many others” ( ‘De verborum significationeione’, 262 Lindsay).

Thus, we learn that prefectures were places that received Roman prefects, who were concerned with the administration of justice.  These prefects fell into one of two categories:

  1. those sent to Campania (Festus’ first category) were elected annually at Rome in the context of the vigintisexvirate (a college of 26 minor magistrates); and

  2. those sent to places outside Campania (Festus’ second category) were delegates of the Urban Praetor.

There is some overlap between Festus‘ lists of prefectures and his lists (in the same work) of municipia:

  1. Municipium:

  2. This term is used to define [groups] of people who take part, along with Roman citizens, in procedures for electing magistrates after they arrive in Rome, although they are not Roman citizens and they have neither the right of voting nor of being appointed to magistracies.  [They include] the inhabitants of Fundi, Formiae, Cumae, Acerrae, Lanuvium and Tusculum.  All these were granted Roman citizenship after some years.

  3. This term has another meaning, that indicates those [men] whose city [came as a whole into the Roman state], such as the inhabitants of Aricia, Caere and Anagnia

  4. There is a third use of the term, which designates those [men] who have been accepted in the Roman citizenship, so that their cities and colonies are municipia; this is the case of the inhabitants of Tibur, Praeneste, Pisa, Urbinum, Nola, Bononia, Placentia, Nepi, Sutrium and Luca” (‘De verborum significatione’, 155 Lindsay).  The italics in the first bullet are mine.  The alternative  translation in square brackets in the second bullet is by Adrian Sherwin-White, referenced below, at p. 56, note 2.)

From the third bullet, we learn that the title municipium was generally given to places whose citizens (municeps) were also Roman citizens (whether with or without voting rights). 

According to Edward Bispham (referenced below, at p. 96), originally and strictly speaking:

  1. “... ‘praefectura’ seems to [have been a territorial] term that primarily [applied to the physical area under the] jurisdiction of an individual [known as a prefect].  [In cases where] jurisdiction ... was exercised in a central place within the specified area,  ... this centre came to be referred to as a praefectura [a term that probably entered official parlance only after the Social War].”

He noted (at p. 97) that, unlike municipia:

  1. Praefecturae are not, in themselves, settlement categories ... Consequently, they can either substitute for municipal structures or coexist with them.”

This is clear from Festus, lists, which, as far as we can tell, described the status of each exemplar in the Augustan period.  Thus, at this time, six of Festus’ prefectures  (Fundi, Formiae, Cumae, Acerrae, Caere and Anagnia) were constituted as municipia and also  received prefects.  Thus Festus’ assertion that prefectures did not have their own magistrates is manifestly incorrect.  Edward Bispham (referenced below, at p. 99) observed that it:

  1. “... looks suspiciously like [a description of the situation at Capua after 211 BC - see below], redeployed as a general description of  the prefecture system.”

Since prefects were, in most cases, delegates of the Urban Praetor, we can reasonably assume that they administered Roman law as it related to Roman citizens.  Edward Bispham (referenced below, at p. 12) noted  that:

  1. “It is not clear whether [prefects that had their seats  in municipia or colonies did so] because they dispensed justice in those communities, [but they certainly did so] to Roman ... citizens  settled ... in outlying areas.”

The extent to which their duties extended beyond the legal sphere, particularly in centres that had been deprived of their magistracies, is unclear.

In order to see how these generalisations applied in practice, it is interesting to look at how the practice of constituting prefectures seems to have evolved over time.

Read more:

E. Bispham, “From Asculum to Actium: The Municipalisation of Italy from the Social War to Augustus”, (2008) Oxford

A. N. Sherwin-White, “The Roman Citizenship (Second Edition)”, (1973) Oxford

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