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p953 Praefectus Urbi

Unsigned article on pp953‑954 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

PRAEFECTUS URBI, praefect or warden of the city, was originally called Custos Urbis (Lydus, De Magistr. I.34, 38). The name Praefectus Urbi does not seem to have been used till after the time of the Decemvirs. The dignity of Custos Urbis, being combined with that of Princeps Senatus, was conferred by the king, as he had to appoint one of the decem primi as princeps senatus (Liv. I.59, 60; Dionys. II.12). The functions of the custos urbi, however, were not exercised except in the absence of the king from Rome; and then he acted as the representative of the king; but whether he also had the right to convoke the assembly of the populus, is doubtful, but on any emergency he might take such measures as he thought proper; for he had the imperium in the city (Tacit. Annal. VI.11; Liv. I.59, III.24). Romulus is said to have conferred this dignity upon Denter Romulius, Tullus Hostilius upon Numa Martius, and Tarquinius Superbus upon Sp. Lucretius. During the kingly period the office of warden of the city was probably for life. Under the republic the office and its name of custos urbis remained unaltered; but in 487 B.C. it was elevated into a magistracy, to be bestowed by election (Lydus, De Magistr. I.38). The custos urbis was, in all probability, elected by the curiae, instead of whom Dionysius (VIII.64) mentions the senate. Persons of consular rank were alone eligible; and down to the time of the Decemvirate every praefect that is mentioned occurs previously as consul. The only exception is P. Lucretius in Livy (III.24), whose name, however, is probably wrong (Niebuhr, II. p120, note 255). In the early period of the republic the warden exercised within the city all the powers of the consuls, if they were absent: he convoked the senate (Liv. III.9; Gell. XIV.7 §4), held the comitia (Liv. III.24), and, in times of war, even levied civic legions, which were commanded by him.

When the office of praetor urbanus was instituted, the wardenship of the city was swallowed up in it (Lydus, De Mens. 19, De Magistr. II.6); but as the Romans were at all times averse to dropping altogether any of their old institutions, a praefectus urbi, though a mere shadow of the former office, was henceforth appointed every year, only for the time that the consuls were absent from Rome for the purpose of celebrating the Feriae Latinae. This praefectus had neither the power of convoking the senate nor the right of speaking in it; as in most cases he was a person below the senatorial age, and was not appointed by the people, but by the consuls (Gell. XIV.8). When Varro, in the passage of Gellius here referred to, claims for the praefectus urbi the right of convoking the senate, he is probably speaking of the power of the praefect such as it was previously to the institution of the office of praetor urbanus. Of how little importance the office of praefect of the city had gradually become, may be inferred from the facts, that it was always given to young men of illustrious families (Tac. Ann. IV.36), and that Julius Caesar even appointed to it several youths of equestrian rank under age (Dion Cass. XLIX.42, XLII. 29, 48). During the empire such praefects of the city continued to be appointed so long as the Feriae Latinae were celebrated, and were even invested with some kind of jurisdiction (Tac. Ann. VI.11; Suet. Nero 7, Suet. Claud. 4; Dion Cass. LIV.17; J. Capitol. Antonin. Phil. 4). On some occasions, however, no praefectus urbi was appointed at all; and then his duties were performed by the praetor urbanus (Dion Cass. XLI.14, XLIX.16; cf. Becker, Handb. der Röm. Alterth. vol. II pt. II p146).

An office very different from this, though bearing the same name, was instituted by Augustus on the suggestion of Maecenas (Dion Cass. LII.21; Tacit. l.c.; Suet. Aug. 37). This new praefectus urbi was a regular and permanent magistrate, whom Augustus invested with all the powers necessary to maintain peace and order in the city. He had the superintendence of butchers, bankers, guardians, theatres, &c.; and to enable him to exercise his power, he had distributed throughout the city a number of milites stationarii, whom we may compare to a modern police. He also had jurisdiction in cases between slaves and their masters, between patrons and their freed men, and over sons who had violated the pietas towards their parents (Dig. 1 tit. 12 s1 § 5‑14; 37 tit. 15 s1 § 2). His jurisdiction, however, became gradually extended; and as the powers of the ancient republican praefectus urbi had been swallowed up by the office of the praetor urbanus, so now the power of the praetor urbanus was gradually absorbed by that of the praefectus urbi; and at last there was no appeal from his sentence, except to the person of the princeps himself, while anybody might appeal from a sentence of any other city magistrate, and, at a later period, even from that of a governor of a province, to the tribunal of the praefectus urbi (Vopisc. Florian. 56; Suet. Aug. 33; Dion Cass. LII.21, 33; Dig.4 tit. 4 s38). His jurisdiction in criminal matters was at first connected with the quaestiones (Tacit. Annal. XIV.41, with the note of Lipsius); but from the third century he exercised it alone, and not only in the city of Rome, but at a distance of one hundred miles from it, and he might sentence a person to deportatio in insulam (Dig. 1 tit. 12 s1 § 3 and 4). During the first period of the empire and under good emperors, the office was generally held for a number of years, and in many cases for life (Dion Cass. LII.21, 24, LXXVIII.14; J. Capitol. Antonin. Pius, 8; Lamprid. Commod. 14; Vopisc. Carin. 16); but from the time of Valerian a new praefect of the city occurs almost every year.

At the time when Constantinople was made the second capital of the empire, this city also received its praefectus urbi. The praefects at this time were the direct representatives of the emperors, and all the other officers of the administration of the city, all corporations, and all public institutions, were under their control (Cod. 1 tit. 28, s4; Symmach. Epist. X.37, 43; Cassiod. Variar. VI.4). They also exercised a superintendence over the importation and the prices of provisions, though these subjects were under the more immediate regulation of other officers (Cod. 1 tit. 28 s1; p954Orelli, Inscript. n3116). The praefects of the city had every month to make a report to the emperor of the transactions of the senate (Symmach. Epist. X.44), where they gave their vote before the consulares. They were the medium through which the emperors received the petitions and presents from their capital (Symmach. Epist. X.26, 29, 35; Cod. 12 tit. 49). At the election of a pope the praefect of Rome had the care of all the external regulations (Symmach. Epist. X.71‑83).


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