PREFECT (praefectus Aegypti, eparchos Aigyptou)

After Diocletian’s reforms, Egypt was divided into three provinces (c. A.D. 297), and the supreme command over the enlarged army forces in the country was concentrated in the hands of a single dux, “general” (in 308/309 at the latest). Consequently, the position of the prefect as a viceroy (Tacitus Annales, 2.59.1) was reduced to that of a civil governor of a of Egypt—the province Aegyptus— whereas the Thebaid and Libya were both governed by a praeses (superintendent).

Since Aegyptus included Alexandria, and thus the responsibility to forward the annual grain tribute to Rome (and later to Constantinople), the prefect may have retained certain prerogatives over the praesides, but the evidence is not unambiguous (cf. Lallemand, 1964, pp. 49-51; Hubner, 1952, ). The prefect was directly responsible to the praefectus praetorio and to the emperor, who controlled his activities directly or through officials attached to the prefectural bureau (officium, taxis).

The office of the prefect disappeared from January 314/December 315 until after the defeat of Licinius in September 324. In this decade, Aegyptus was divided into two provinces, each governed by a praeses: Aegyptus Herculia, Middle Egypt and a large portion of the Eastern Delta; and Aegyptus Iovia, the Western Delta with Alexandria. When the provinces were reunited, the prefect apparently attained a higher rank. From 326 on, he is addressed as eparch (no longer as hegemon), even by private persons. About 335 his rank order was raised from perfectissimus (most excellent; Greek, diasemotatos) to clarissimus (most glorious; Greek, lamprotatos).

With the creation of the diocese of Egypt about 381, the prefect definitely assumed the epithet spectabilis (admirable; Greek, peribleptos) and the title (praefectus) augustalis, as an expression of his superiority over the praesides. He virtually replaced the vicarius as intermediary between the praesides and the central authority.

The area under direct control of the prefect was further reduced when Middle Egypt was detached from Augustamnica, which was created in 341 and probably covered the former Herculia, to become the separate province Arcadia in 386.

Justinian’s reforms, laid down in Edict XIII (538/539 or, less probably, 533/534), emphasized compartmentalization within the diocese of Egypt, consolidating the authority in each division. The governors of the provinces were invested with military power. Accordingly, the prefect strengthened his position in Aegyptus, where he combined his office with that of dux and henceforth ruled as dux augustalis, but he lost his vicarial status (the supervision over the praesides) in favor of the praefectus praetorio. This step toward decentralization presumably facilitated the conquest of Egypt by the Arabs between 639 and 641, after which the prefect became the Arab governor of a of the caliphate.

Qualifications, Appointment, and Term of Office

The prefect was appointed by the emperor from among persons of equestrian, later of senatorial, rank. Most of the prefects came from the eastern part of the empire. Several of them were familiar with the peculiarities of Egypt through origin (e.g., Laxarion [542]) or prior service (e.g., Flavius Eutolmius Tatianus [former praeses of the Thebaid, prefect in 367-370 and 375-376]). These antecedents, especially the prefect’s relations with local notables, promoted corruption. From the fifth century on, magnates and clerical leaders exerted an increasing influence on the civil government of Egypt, installing their candidates as prefects.

From the sources available for the fourth century (especially the festal letters of Patriarch ATHANASIUS I, mentioning the prefects from 328 to 373), it seems that the prefect usually held the office for one year. Yet the term of office could arbitrarily be shortened or prolonged by the emperor. Second terms almost never occurred. The two second terms of office attested so far (Flavius Philagrius [335-337 and] 338-339; Flavius Eutolmius Tatianus [see above]) are probably special cases involving ecclesiastical politics.

Powers of the Prefect

Before the creation of the dux as supreme military commander for the whole country (responsible to a magister militum [commander of the soldiers]), each governor seems to have commanded the troops in his own province. The reunification of civil and military powers on a provincial level was occasionally used as a means to cope with foreign pressure; for instance, about 440 the dux of the Thebaid was given supervision of the civil administration—at least in the Upper Thebaid, affected by raids of Blemmyes and Nobadae—and was definitely reestablished by Justinian in Edict XIII. The prefect was thus deprived of military powers from about 308/309 until 538/539 (or 553/554).

Except for those duties directly connected with the financial administration of the country, the civil authority of the prefect was limited to his own province, Aegyptus. This appears from the fact that most of the edicts issued by the prefect were of a financial nature.

The prefect and the members of the financial department (scrinium) were responsible for the taxes to be raised annually in Egypt according to the assessment of the central government. This involved the distribution of the total amount of taxes prescribed in the emperor’s delegatio over the provinces (that is, as far as Aegyptus is concerned, over the various communities); the supervision of the financial activities of the praesides and the tax collectors; and especially the organization of the annona civica, the collection of grain taxes for the support of Alexandria and the concentration at the port of the aisia embole, the “happy” (grain) shipment for Constantinople. Edict XIII charged the prefect and his staff with the autonomous administration of the annona militaris.

The prefect’s responsibility for the publication and enforcement of imperial edicts and for the of the public order, which involved criminal justice and occasional inspection trips, also had a financial goal. The same was true of his supervision of public works, especially of those improving the irrigation of arable land, and his control of the municipal administration, mainly concerned with the appointment of liturgists.

Another branch of the officium, comprising the scrinium of the commentariensis (for criminal justice) and that of the ab actis (for civil affairs), assisted the prefect in his judicial functions. Relatively few petitions submitted to the prefect seem to have resulted in a hearing before his court, where he was assisted by legal advisers (assessores). Most civil and administrative cases were disposed of with a notation appended to the petition (subscriptio; Greek, hypographe). This reply settled the matter on the basis of judicial precedents or referred it to local officials (e.g., the strategos or the defensor civitatis), to a lower court (e.g., the iudices pedanei [petty judges]), or to a representative of the prefect (e.g., the iudicus). The agencies that did not have (or had not obtained by delegation of the prefect) the competence to pass judgments returned the case to the prefectural court with the results of their investigation.

Though the prefect retained full powers to administer civil and criminal justice, his judicial activities were gradually affected by the development of rival courts. His court (conventus) was abolished when Diocletian conferred upon the praesides in their own provinces. Until the creation of the diocese of Egypt, the of the praesides and that of the prefect were equivalent and mutually independent. After 381, the tribunal of the prefect (elevated to iudex extraordinarius) mainly functioned as a court of appeal against judgments made by the praesides (iudices ordinarii). The prefect’s was further limited by the court of the dux, which arrogated the right to conduct civil proceedings, as well as by the ecclesiastical tribunals, formally recognized in 325 and gradually extending their competences.

Theoretically the prefect’s right of decree (ius edicendi) involved the right to issue edicts, the validity of which extended beyond the boundaries of his province, a privilege recalling his former viceregal position. In actual practice, this seems to have been an accessory task of his financial administration of Egypt (e.g., the prefect’s edicts about the apportionment of the taxes according to the order sent to him by the praefectus praetorio). The majority of the “prefectural” edicts consisted of imperial decrees, which the prefect had to publish and enforce, such as edicts dealing with religious affairs.

The prefect played an active role in the ecclesiastical politics of the emperors. Clodius Culcianus (301-307) and Sossianus Hierocles (307) persecuted the Christians; Flavius Philagrius enforced the deposition of Bishop Athanasius (339); Ecdicius Olympus supported the pagan policy of Julian (362-363); Flavius Eutolmius Tatianus executed the antiorthodox measures ordered by Valens (375-376); Evagrius enforced Theodosius’ edict prohibiting pagan cults (391); Florus supported the installation of the Monophysite patriarch Proterius (452).

In spite of the literary sources alleging that Cyrus was prefect and patriarch at the same time (631-640), the assumption that both offices could be combined remains doubtful.


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