Praefectus urbi

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The praefectus urbi was the city ​​prefect of Rome . The office can be observed from the mythical Roman royal times to the late Middle Ages. Since the 4th century AD there was also a praefectus urbi with comparable competencies in Constantinople .

Early times and the Roman Republic

Among the prefects in the Roman Empire , the Praefectus urbi had a particularly prominent position, even if it was not very prominent until the beginning of the imperial era. According to later tradition, he had the task in the absence or prevention of the heads of government, such as the king or - in the early republic - when both consuls (or before the praetor maximus ) were active as military leaders and were far from the city Take over management of the capital and its immediate surroundings. In such cases, the short-term appointed praefectus urbi directly represented the heads of the Roman state in the city; his term of office lasted a maximum of one year.

In the first half of the 4th century BC In the course of internal structural changes, the regular position of a praetor urbanus was created, which had the specific task of relieving the consuls of essential tasks within the city and being constantly available for this, so that the occasional appointment of a praefectus urbi is no longer necessary was. The office had become obsolete and will no longer appear until the end of the republic. Due to the poor source situation - no contemporary testimony mentions a praefectus urbi - some researchers consider it quite possible that the existence of a city prefecture in this early phase is only an anachronistic back projection from a later period.


Emperor Augustus considered it appropriate to reorganize the increasingly demanding administration of a large city, and in doing so (perhaps) resorted to the old office of praefectus urbi - or he reinvented it. The office was entrusted with new tasks and re-equipped, the praefectus urbi was appointed by the emperor from the ranks of the senatorial class (basically from the highest rank of the former consuls ) and with the various administrative tasks of a "mayor" of the imperial capital and its surrounding area entrusted from 100 miles . There were other officials ( praefectus vigilum , curator aquarum and others) for special tasks (e.g. construction, water and food supply, fire brigade, traffic routes and bridges, market affairs, etc. ).

In particular, the praefectus urbi was responsible for criminal jurisdiction in its district, while outside of it in Italy it was exercised by the praefectus praetorio . Although the praefectus urbi was a member of the Senate and also temporarily chaired it, it was not involved in tasks of a political nature; military affairs were not part of his sphere of activity at all, apart from command of the Roman police and guard units ( cohortes urbanae ) ; therefore he always appeared in the toga until the 6th century , although it was becoming more and more common for other state officials to wear military clothing. This purely civilian activity, as vital as it was for the residents of the city, understandably left little traces in the historical tradition, but justified the high rank that the praefectus urbi occupied in the hierarchy of imperial officials. When, therefore, Emperor Macrinus made Marcus Oclatinius Adventus city ​​prefect in 217 , who had not had a senatorial career, aristocrats like the historian Cassius Dio saw this as a great scandal, since Adventus was not worthy of the city prefecture.

Late antiquity

The enormous prestige of the office is particularly evident in late antiquity (after Diocletian and Constantine I ), when the imperial administration was restructured according to fixed rules and a meticulous ranking system with titles, badges and privileges was created. In this system, the praefectus urbi ranked in the highest class of the viri illustres (illustrissimi) , in second place behind the praefectus praetorio , and was basically taken from the members of the senatorial class (viri clarissimi) - mostly from the city itself. To represent the praefectus urbi and also to control it, a vicarius urbis was appointed in late antiquity , who belonged to the second class of the viri spectabiles . The city prefect presided over the senate, as did the senatorial judicial committee (iudicium quiquevirale) . In 525 such a court sentenced the philosopher and senator Boethius to death for high treason.

This close connection with the senatorial circles of Rome, which in the later 4th and early 5th centuries represented the core of the conservative resistance against the Christianization of the empire, made the praefectus urbi the spokesman for paganism and ancient Roman tradition in disputes with Christian emperors (see also Vettius Agorius Praetextatus ). A testimony to this ultimately hopeless defensive struggle is the received petition (relatio) of the city prefect Quintus Aurelius Symmachus to Emperor Valentinian II from the year 384, with which he tried to have the altar of the goddess of victory Victoria set up again in the meeting room of the Senate, which Augustus for Celebration of the victory at Actium as a symbol of divine protection for the Roman people, but which had been removed as unchristian by Emperor Gratian as early as 375 (see dispute over the Victoria Altar ). The application failed due to the intervention of the imperial adviser, Bishop Ambrose of Milan . The office of city prefect survived the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476, as almost all elements of the Roman administration were preserved under the new rule structures. The Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian I , who rearranged the administration of Italy in 554 and abolished most of the Western Roman senatorial offices, left the office of city prefect untouched.

A city prefecture was also created for Constantinople in the 4th century with the praefectus urbis Constantinopolitanae , but given the almost constant presence of the emperor in the city, this office never had a comparable importance - nevertheless, the city prefect ( ancient Greek ἔπαρχος eparchos ) of Constantinople was one the highest civil dignitary of the empire, was formally on a par with that of the city of Rome and was also a vir illustris .

The city prefecture in the Middle Ages

Even Pope Gregory the Great (590-604) was probably before his elevation to the Roman bishop's chair was about 570 city prefect, in later times repeatedly encounter names of prefects whose primary task it remained in Rome and a substantial part of central Italy, the high and to exercise criminal justice. It is difficult to determine who appointed and installed the prefects; it may have been the Pope as city bishop or other local authorities who managed to assert themselves, and the participation of the people of Rome, the Exarch of Ravenna or the Eastern Roman-Byzantine emperor is also conceivable.

In the high Middle Ages the office came increasingly into the sphere of influence of the dominant political opponents (German) emperor and pope and their parties, but lost more and more actual validity in the government of the city; the prefect became a now imperial, now (and then finally) papal functionary in the area of ​​jurisdiction. In the 13th century, city prefecture became a permanent and hereditary title in the house of the Lords of Vico, who owned large estates in the vicinity of Rome, but neither lived nor administered the city itself. With the end of this house in 1435, the traditional office of the Roman city prefect also disappeared, even if the empty title was still given here and there by the Pope as an honor.

See also


  • André Chastagnol : La préfecture urbaine à Rome sous le Bas-Empire . Presses Univ. de France, Paris 1960.
  • André Chastagnol: Les fastes de la préfecture de Rome au Bas-Empire (= Études prosopographiques. 2). Nouv. Ed. Latines, Paris 1962.
  • Adolf Lippold : Praefectus urbi. In: The Little Pauly (KlP). Volume 4, Stuttgart 1972, column 1107.
  • Jürgen Petersohn : Emperor, Pope and Praefectura urbis between Alexander III. and Innocent III. Problems of the occupation and chronology of the Roman prefecture in the last quarter of the 12th century . In: Sources and research from Italian archives and libraries 60, 1980, pp. 157–188.
  • Sebastian Ruciński: Praefectus urbi. Le Gardien de l'ordre public à Rome sous le Haut-Empire Romain (= Xenia Posnaniensia , Vol. 9). Wydawnictwo Naukow CONTACT, Poznań 2009, ISBN 978-83-602-5131-7 .
  • Giovanni Vitucci: Ricerche sulla praefectura urbi in età imperiale (sec. I-III) . L'Erma di Bretschneider, Rome 1956.
  • Katharina Wojciech: The city prefecture in principle (= Antiquitas. 1, 57). Rudolf Habelt Verlag, Bonn 2010, ISBN 978-3-7749-3690-4 .

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