Prefect (from the Latin praefectus, perfect participle of praeficere: "make in front", i.e., put in charge) is a magisterial title of varying definition.

A prefect's office, department, or area of control is called a prefecture, but in various post-Roman cases there is a prefect without a prefecture or vice versa. The words "prefect" and "prefecture" are also used, more or less conventionally, to render analogous words in other languages, especially Romance languages.


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Praefectus, often with a further qualification, was the formal title of many, fairly low to high-ranking, military or civil officials in the Roman Empire, whose authority was not embodied in their person (as it was with elected Magistrates) but conferred by delegation from a higher authority. They did have some authority in their prefecture such as controlling prisons and in civil administration.

Praetorian prefects

The Praetorian prefect (Praefectus praetorio) began as the military commander of a general's guard[disambiguation needed ] company in the field, then grew in importance as the Praetorian Guard became a potential kingmaker during the Empire. From the Emperor Diocletian's tetrarchy (c. 300) they became the administrators of the four Praetorian prefectures, the government level above the (newly created) dioceses and (multiplied) provinces.

As Egypt was a special imperial domain, a rich and strategic granary, where the Emperor enjoyed an almost pharaonic position unlike any other province or diocese, its head was styled uniquely Praefectus Augustalis, indicating that he governed in the personal name of the august emperor.

Police and civil prefects

  • Praefectus urbi, or praefectus urbanus: city prefect, in charge of the administration of Rome.
  • Praefectus vigilum: commander of the Vigiles.
  • Praefectus aerarii: nobles appointed guardians of the state treasury.

Military prefects

  • Praefectus alae: commander of a cavalry battalion.
  • Praefectus castrorum: camp commandant.[1]
  • Praefectus cohortis: commander of a cohort (constituent unit of a legion, or analogous unit).
  • Praefectus classis: fleet commander.[1]
  • Praefectus equitatus: cavalry commander.
  • Praefectus equitum: cavalry commander.
  • Praefectus fabrum: officer in charge of fabri, i.e. well-trained engineers and artisans.[1]
  • Praefectus legionis: equestrian legionary commander.[1]
  • Praefectus legionis agens vice legati: equestrian acting legionary commander.
  • Praefectus orae maritimae: official in charge with the control and defense of an important sector of sea coast.[1]
  • Praefectus socium (sociorum): Roman officer appointed to a command function in an ala sociorum (unit recruited among the socii, Italic peoples of a privileged status within the empire).

For some auxiliary troops, specific titles could even refer to their peoples:

  • Praefectus Laetorum (Germanic, notably in Gaul)
  • Praefectus Sarmatarum gentilium (from the steppes, notably in Italy)

Religious prefects

  • Praefectus urbi: a prefect of the republican era who guarded the city during the annual sacrifice of the Latin: feriae latina on Mount Alban in which the Consuls participated. His former title was "custos urbi" ("guardian of the city").

Feudal times

Especially in Middle Latin, præfectus was used to refer to various officers—administrative, military, judicial, etc.—usually alongside a more precise term in the vernacular (such as Burggraf).


Saint Margaret attracts the attention of the Roman prefect, by Jean Fouquet from an illuminated manuscript

The term is used by the Catholic Church, which based much of its canon law terminology on Roman law, in several different ways.

  • The Roman Curia has the nine Prefects of all the Congregations as well as the two of the Papal Household and of the Economic Affairs of the Holy See.
  • The title also attaches to the heads of some Pontifical Council (central departments of the Curia), who are principally titled president, but in addition there is sometimes an additional ex officio position as a prefect. For example the president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue is also the prefect of the Commission for Religious Relations with Muslims.
  • Traditionally these Curial officials are Cardinals, hence often called "Cardinal-Prefect" or "Cardinal-President". There was a custom that those who were not cardinals when they were appointed were titled "Pro-Prefect" or "Pro-President". Then these officials would be appointed prefect or president after their elevation to the Sacred College. However, since 1998, this custom has fallen into disuse.
  • A Prefect Apostolic is a cleric (sometimes a Titular Bishop, but normally a priest) in charge of an apostolic prefecture, a type of Roman Catholic territorial jurisdiction fulfilling the functions of a diocese, usually in a missionary area or in a country that is anti-religious, such as the People's Republic of China, but that is not yet given the status of regular diocese. It is usually destined to become one in time.


  • In the context of schools, a prefect is a pupil who has been given limited authority over other pupils in the school, similar to the authority given to a hall monitor or safety patrol member.
  • In many British and Commonwealth schools (especially but not exclusively Independent schools), prefects, usually students in fifth or seventh years (depending on how many years the school in question has), have considerable power and effectively run the school outside the classroom. They were once even allowed to administer corporal punishment (emulating domestic discipline) in some schools (now abolished in the UK and several other countries) under a system of self control, or sometimes used as (generally willing) 'executioner' by the staff. They usually answer to a senior prefect known as the Head of School (though in Canada, Head of School is more often seen as a gender-neutral term for headmaster or headmistress) or Head Prefect (colloquially, Head Boy or Head Girl or Senior Prefect) - many larger schools will have a hierarchy structure with a team of prefects, a team of senior prefects, and a Head Boy and Girl. The Head Prefect may also be the School Captain if that is an appointed position in the school in question. However, due to Health and Safety laws the staff have tended to become stricter about what responsibilities prefects may hold, for fear of being held responsible in case of litigation. This system is also practiced in Hong Kong, a former British colony.
  • In India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Singapore and Malaysia, prefects are student leaders in primary and secondary schools, often along the lines of other Commonwealth schools, but with superior powers. The prefect systems in these countries have changed little from when they were under the British, as the present governments have seen them as effective.
  • In the United States, private residential college preparatory schools; see also "proctor".
  • In Sweden, a prefect (prefekt) is the head of a university department.
  • In Jesuit schools this title was given formerly to members of the faculty, a prefect of discipline in charge of student attendance, general order and such, and a prefect of studies in charge of academic issues.

Many college preparatory boarding schools utilize the position of Prefect as a high student leadership position.

Modern sub-national administration

  • In France (and some former French or Belgian colonies, such as Rwanda), a prefect (préfet) is the State's representative in a département. His agency is called the préfecture, and his circumscription is also called a prefecture in some former French republics. Sub-prefects (sous-préfets, sous-préfecture) operate in the arrondissements under his control. In Paris, the prefect of police is the head of the city's police.
  • In Italy, a prefect (prefetto) is the State's representative in a province. His office is called Prefettura - Ufficio Territoriale del Governo . They have political responsibility and coordinate the local quaestor (Questore), who has technical responsibility, to enforce laws when public safety is threatened. The office existed yet in the italian states before the Italian unification (1861), with variuos names (e.g., in the Kingodom of Two Sicilies the name was "intendente"); the born of the office, in italian system, dates from the times on Napoleonic occupation on Italy (1802), so it celebrates 200 years of life in 2002; the current name dates from 1861, under the government of Bettino Ricasoli, when a law extended the Kingdom of Sardinia administrative system to whole Italy. In the early years the job entailed a more vigorous and continuous application of central state authority in imposing regulations in the fields of education, public works, sanitary provision and the nomination of mayors and provincial deputies. Today it plays a regulatory role between the municipalities and other local governments.
  • In some Spanish-speaking states in Latin America, following a French-type model introduced in Spain itself, prefects were installed as governors; remarkably, in some republics (like Peru) two levels were constructed from the French model: a prefecture and a department, the one being only part of the other.
  • In Greece a prefect (nomarhis, νομάρχης) used to be the elected head of one of the 54 prefectures (nomarhies, νομαρχίες), which were second-level administrative divisions, between the first-level Peripheries (periferies, περιφέρειες) and the third-level Municipalities (demoi, δήμοι), until their abolition with the Kallikratis reform in 2010. The Prefectural elections (popular ballot) would be held every four years along with the Municipal elections. The last Prefectural elections in Greece were held in October 2006.
  • In Romania, a prefect (prefect) is the appointed governmental representative in a county (judeţ) and in the Municipality of Bucharest, in an agency called prefectură. The prefect's role is to represent the national government at local level, acting as a liaison and facilitating the implementation of National Development Plans and governing programmes at local level.
  • In Quebec, a prefect (préfet) is the head of a regional county municipality.
  • In Brazil, a prefect (prefeito) is the elected head of the executive branch in a municipality. Larger cities, such as São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Curitiba, etc., also have sub-prefects, appointed to their offices by the elected prefect.
  • In Georgia, a prefect (პრეფექტი) was the head of the executive branch in a municipality, appointed by the President of Georgia from 1990 to 1992.


The Prefect of Police (Préfet de police) is the officer in charge of co-ordinating police forces in the various administrative circumscriptions of Paris. The local police in Japan are divided among prefectures too.

See also

  • Pauly-Wissowa
  • Praefectus palatii
  • Préfet


  1. ^ a b c d e Berger, Adolf (2002). Encyclopedic Dictionary of Roman Law. The Lawbook Exchange. p. 643. ISBN 1584771429. 

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • prefect — PREFÉCT, prefecţi, s.m. 1. (În Roma antică) Demnitar care conducea o prefectură (1). 2. (În vechea organizaţie administrativă a ţării) Şef al administraţiei şi poliţiei într un judeţ, care reprezenta aici puterea centrală. ♢ Prefect de poliţie… …   Dicționar Român

  • Prefect — Pre fect, n. [L. praefectus, fr. praefectus, p. p. of praeficere to set over; prae before + facere to make: cf. F. pr[ e]fet.] 1. A Roman officer who controlled or superintended a particular command, charge, department, etc.; as, the prefect of… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • prefect — (n.) mid 14c., from O.Fr. prefect (12c.), from L. praefectus public overseer, director, properly pp. of praeficere to put in front, to set over, put in authority, from prae in front, before (see PRE (Cf. pre )) + root of facere (pp. factus) to… …   Etymology dictionary

  • prefect — Prefect, Praefectus …   Thresor de la langue françoyse

  • prefect — ► NOUN 1) chiefly Brit. a senior pupil authorized to enforce discipline in a school. 2) a chief officer, magistrate, or regional governor in certain countries. DERIVATIVES prefectoral adjective prefectorial adjective. ORIGIN Latin praefectus,… …   English terms dictionary

  • prefect — [prē′fekt΄] n. [ME prefecte < OFr < L praefectus, pp. of praeficere, to set over: see PRE & FY] 1. in ancient Rome, any of various high ranking officials or chief magistrates in charge of governmental or military departments 2. in modern… …   English World dictionary

  • prefect — /pree fekt/, n. 1. a person appointed to any of various positions of command, authority, or superintendence, as a chief magistrate in ancient Rome or the chief administrative official of a department of France or Italy. 2. Rom. Cath. Ch. a. the… …   Universalium

  • prefect — [[t]pri͟ːfekt[/t]] prefects 1) N COUNT In some schools, especially in Britain, a prefect is an older pupil who does special duties and helps the teachers to control the younger pupils. 2) N COUNT In some countries, a prefect is the head of the… …   English dictionary

  • Prefect —    The title of the governor of Egypt during the Roman Period. The official was directly appointed by the Roman emperor from the equestrian order, namely the nonsenatorial official class. As Egypt supplied most of Rome’s grain, it was essential… …   Ancient Egypt

  • prefect — UK [ˈpriːfekt] / US [ˈprɪˌfekt] noun [countable] Word forms prefect : singular prefect plural prefects 1) in some schools in the UK, an older student who controls the activities of younger students and helps them to obey the rules 2) a public… …   English dictionary

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