For centuries it was the largest administrative unit of the foreign possessions of ancient Rome. With the administrative reform initiated by Diocletian, it became a third level administrative subdivision of the Roman Empire, or rather a subdivision of the imperial dioceses (in turn subdivisions of the imperial prefectures).
The English word province comes from the Latin word provincia. In early Republican times, the term was used as a common designation for any task or set of responsibilities assigned by the Roman Senate to an individual who held imperium (right of command), which was often a military command within a specified theatre of operations. In time, the term became the main designation for a territorial jurisdiction in newly acquired regions of the Roman Republic.
The Latin term provincia had an equivalent in eastern, Greek-speaking parts of the Greco-Roman world. In the Greek language, province was called eparchy (Greek: ἐπαρχίᾱ, eparchia). That term was used both colloquially and officially, in Roman legal acts that were issued in the Greek language. In the same time, provincial governor was called eparch (Greek: ἔπαρχος, eparchos).
A province was the basic and, until the Tetrarchy (from AD 293), the largest territorial and administrative unit of the empire's territorial possessions outside Roman Italy.
Provinces were generally governed by politicians of senatorial rank, usually former consuls or former praetors. A later exception was the province of Egypt, which was incorporated by Augustus after the death of Cleopatra and was ruled by a governor of only equestrian rank, perhaps as a discouragement to senatorial ambition. That exception was unique but not contrary to Roman law, as Egypt was considered Augustus's personal property, following the tradition of the kings of the earlier Hellenistic period.
Under the Roman Republic, the magistrates were elected to office for a period of one year, and those serving outside the city of Rome, such as consuls acting as generals on a military campaign, were assigned a particular provincia, the scope of authority within which they exercised their command.
The territory of a people who were defeated in war might be brought under various forms of treaty, in some cases entailing complete subjection (deditio). The formal annexation of a territory created a province, in the modern sense of an administrative unit that is geographically defined. Republican-period provinces were administered in one-year terms by the consuls and praetors who had held office the previous year and were invested with imperium.
Rome started expanding beyond Italy during the First Punic War. The first permanent provinces to be annexed were Sicily in 241 BC and Sardinia and Corsica in 237 BC. Militarized expansionism kept increasing the number of these administrative provinces until there were no longer enough qualified individuals to fill the posts.
The terms of provincial governors often had to be extended for multiple years (prorogatio), and on occasion, the Senate awarded imperium even to private citizens (privati), most notably Pompey the Great. Prorogation undermined the republican constitutional principle of annually-elected magistracies and the amassing of disproportionate wealth and military power by a few men through their provincial commands was a major factor in the transition from a republic to an imperial autocracy.
67 BC – Crete and Cyrenaica; Cyrenaica was bequeathed to Rome in 78 BC. However, it was not organised as a province. It was incorporated into the province of Creta et Cyrenae when Crete was annexed in 67 BC.
63 BC – Cilicia; Cilicia was created as a province in the sense of area of military command in 102 BC in a campaign against piracy. The Romans controlled only a small area. In 74 BC Lycia and Pamphylia (to the east) were added to the small Roman possessions in Cilicia. Cilicia came fully under Roman control at the end of the Third Mithridatic War (73–63 BC), reorganised by Pompey in 63 BC.
46 BC – Africa Nova (Eastern Numidia – Algeria), Julius Caesar annexed Eastern Numidia and the new province called Africa Nova (new Africa) to distinguish it from the older province of Africa, created in 146 BC, which became known as Africa Vetus (old Africa). Western Numidia was annexed and added to the province of Africa Nova in 40 BC. The territory remained the direct part of the Roman Empire except for a brief period when Augustus restored Juba II (son of Juba I) as a client king (30–25 BC).
Under Augustus, Roman provinces were classified as either public or imperial, depending on whether power was exercised by the Senate or the emperor. Generally, the older provinces that had existed under the Republic were public. Public provinces were, as they had been under the Republic, governed by a proconsul, who was chosen by lot among the ranks of senators who were ex-consuls or ex-praetors, depending on the province that was assigned.
The major imperial provinces were under a legatus Augusti pro praetore, also a senator of consular or praetorian rank. Egypt and some smaller provinces in which no legions were based were ruled by a procurator (praefectus in Egypt), whom the emperor selected from non-senators of equestrian rank.
During the Principate, the number and size of provinces also changed, through conquest or the division of existing provinces. The larger or most heavily garrisoned provinces (for example Syria and Moesia) were subdivided into smaller provinces to prevent one governor from holding too much power.
List of provinces created during the Principate
30 BC – Aegyptus, taken over by Augustus after his defeat of Mark Antony and Cleopatra VII in 30 BC. It was the first imperial province in that it was Augustus' own domain as the Egyptians recognised him as their new pharaoh. Its proper initial name was Alexandrea et Aegyptus. It was governed by Augustus' praefectus, Alexandreae et Aegypti.
27 BC – Achaia (southern and central Greece), Augustus separated it from Macedonia (senatorial propraetorial province)
27 BC – Hispania Tarraconensis; former Hispania Citerior (northern, central and eastern Spain), created with the reorganisation of the provinces in Hispania by Augustus (imperial proconsular province).
27 BC – Lusitania (Portugal and Extremadura in Spain), created with the reorganisation of the provinces in Hispania by Augustus (imperial proconsular province)
27 BC – Illyricum, Augustus conquered Illyria and southern Pannonia in 35–33 BC. Created as a senatorial province in 27 BC. Northern Pannonia was conquered during the Pannonian War (14–10 BC). Subdivided into Dalmatia (a new name for Illyria) and Pannonia, which were officially called Upper and Lower Illyricum respectively in 9 BC, towards the end of the Batonian War. Initially a senatorial province, it became an imperial propraetorial province in 11 BC, during the Pannonian War. It was dissolved and the new provinces of Dalmatia and Pannonia were created during the reign of Vespasian (69–79). In 107 Pannonia was divided into Pannonia Superior and Pannonia Inferior – imperial provinces (proconsular and propraetorial respectively).
27 BC or 16–13 BC – Aquitania (south-western France) province created in the territories in Gaul conquered by Julius Caesar; there is uncertainty as to whether it was created with Augustus’ first visit and the first census on Gaul or during Augustus' visit in 16–13 (imperial proconsular province)
27 BC or 16–13 BC – Gallia Lugdunensis (central and part of northern France) province created in the territories in Gaul conquered by Julius Caesar; there is uncertainty as to whether it was created with Augustus’ first visit and the first census on Gaul or during Augustus’ visit in 16–13 (imperial proconsular province)
25 BC – Galatia (central Anatolia, Turkey), formerly a client kingdom, it was annexed by Augustus when Amyntas, its last king, died (imperial propraetorial province)
25 BC – Africa Proconsularis. The client kingdom of Numidia under king Juba II (30 - 25 BC), previously between 46 - 30 BC the province Africa Nova, was abolished, and merged with the province Africa Vetus, creating the province Africa Proconsularis (except territory of Western Numidia).
22 BC – Gallia Belgica (Netherlands south of the Rhine river, Belgium, Luxembourg, part of northern France and Germany west of the Rhine; there is uncertainty as to whether it was created with Augustus’ first visit and the first census on Gaul or during Augustus' visit in 16–13 (imperial proconsular province)
14 BC – Hispania Baetica; former Hispania Ulterior (southern Spain); created with the reorganisation of the provinces in Hispania by Augustus (senatorial propraetorial province). The name derives from Betis, the Latin name for the Guadalquivir River.
AD 6? – Moesia (on the east and south bank of the River Danube part of modern Serbia, the north part of North Macedonia, northern Bulgaria), Conquered in 28 BC, originally it was a military district under the province of Macedonia. The first mention of a provincial governor was for 6 AD, at the beginning of the Batonian War. In 85 Moesia was divided into Moesia Superior and Moesia Inferior (imperial proconsular provinces).
AD 17 – Cappadocia (central Anatolia – Turkey); imperial propraetorial (later proconsular) province, created after the death of its last client king Archelaus.
AD 42 – Mauretania Tingitana (northern Morocco); after the death of Ptolemy, the last king of Mauretania, in 40 AD, his kingdom was annexed. It was begun by Caligula and was completed by Claudius with the defeat of the rebels. In 42 AD, Claudius divided it into two provinces (imperial procuratorial province).
AD 42 – Mauretania Caesariensis, (western and central Algeria), after the death of Ptolemy, the last king of Mauretania, in 40 AD, his kingdom was annexed. It was begun by Caligula and was completed by Claudius with the defeat of the rebels. In 42 AD Claudius divided it into two provinces( imperial procuratorial province).
AD 41/53 – Noricum (central Austria, north-eastern Slovenia and part of Bavaria), it was incorporated into the empire in 16 BC. It was called a province, but it remained a client kingdom under the control of an imperial procurator. It was turned into a proper province during the reign of Claudius (41–54) (imperial propraetorial province).
AD 46 – Thracia (Thrace, north-eastern Greece, south-eastern Bulgaria and European Turkey), it was annexed by Claudius (imperial procuratorial province).
AD 47? – Alpes Atrectianae et Poeninae (between Italy and Switzerland), Augustus subdued its inhabitants, the Salassi, in 15 BC. It was incorporated into Raetia. The date of the creation of the province is uncertain. It is usually set at the date of Claudius' foundation of Forum Claudii Vallensium (Martigny), which became its capital (imperial procuratorial province).
AD 63? – Alpes Maritimae (on the French Alps), created as a protectorate by Augustus, it probably became a province under Nero when Alpes Cottiae became a province (imperial procuratorial province)
AD 63 – Alpes Cottiae (between France and Italy), in 14 BC it became a nominal prefecture which was run by the ruling dynasty of the Cotii. It was named after the king, Marcus Julius Cottius. It became a province in 63 (imperial procuratorial province).
AD 83/84 – Germania Superior (southern Germany) The push into southern Germany up to the Agri Decumates by Domitian created the necessity to create this province, which had been a military district in Gallia Belgica when it was restricted to the west bank of the River Rhine (imperial proconsular province).
AD 83/84 – Germania Inferior (Netherlands south of the River Rhine, part of Belgium, and part of Germany west of the Rhine) originally a military district under Gallia Belgica, created when Germania Superior was created (imperial proconsular province).
AD 103/114 - Epirus Nova (in western Greece and southern Albania), Epirus was originally under the province of Macedonia. It was placed under Achaia in 27 BC except for its northernmost part, which remained part of Macedonia. It became a separate province under Trajan, sometime between 103 and 114 AD, and was renamed Epirus Nova (New Epirus) (imperial procuratorial province).
AD 114 – Armenia, annexed by Trajan, who deposed its client king. In 118 Hadrian restored this client kingdom
AD 116 – Mesopotamia (Iraq) seized from the Parthians and annexed by Trajan, who invaded the Parthian Empire in late 115. Given back to the Parthians by Hadrian in 118. In 198 Septimius Severus conquered a small area in the north and named it Mesopotamia. It was attacked twice by the Persians (imperial praefectorial province).
AD 116 – Assyria, Trajan suppressed a revolt by Assyrians in Mesopotamia and created the province. Hadrian relinquished it in 118.
AD 194 – Syria Coele and Syria Phoenice, Septimius Severus divided Syria into these two units in the north and the south respectively. Imperial provinces (proconsular and propraetorial respectively).
AD 214 – Osrhoene, this kingdom (in northern Mesopotamia, in parts of today's Iraq, Syria and Turkey) was annexed.
AD 271 – Dacia Aureliana (most of Bulgaria and Serbia) created by Aurelian in the territory of the former Moesia Superior after his evacuation of Dacia Trajana beyond the River Danube.
Many of the above provinces were under Roman military control or under the rule of Roman clients for a long time before being officially constituted as civil provinces. Only the date of the official formation of the province is marked above, not the date of conquest.
Emperor Diocletian introduced a radical reform known as the tetrarchy (284–305), with a western and an eastern senior emperor styled Augustus, each seconded by a junior emperor (and designated successor) styled caesar. Each of these four defended and administered a quarter of the empire. In the 290s, Diocletian divided the empire anew into almost a hundred provinces, including Roman Italy. Their governors were hierarchically ranked, from the proconsuls of Africa Proconsularis and Asia through those governed by consulares and correctores to the praesides. The provinces in turn were grouped into (originally twelve) dioceses, headed usually by a vicarius, who oversaw their affairs. Only the proconsuls and the urban prefect of Rome (and later Constantinople) were exempt from this, and were directly subordinated to the tetrarchs.
Although the Caesars were soon eliminated from the picture, the four administrative resorts were restored in 318 by Emperor Constantine I, in the form of praetorian prefectures, whose holders generally rotated frequently, as in the usual magistracies but without a colleague. Constantine also created a new capital, named after him as Constantinople, which was sometimes called 'New Rome' because it became the permanent seat of the government. In Italy itself, Rome had not been the imperial residence for some time and 286 Diocletian formally moved the seat of government to Mediolanum (modern Milan), while taking up residence himself in Nicomedia. During the 4th century, the administrative structure was modified several times, including repeated experiments with Eastern-Western co-emperors.
Detailed information on the arrangements during this period is contained in the Notitia Dignitatum (Record of Offices), a document dating from the early 5th century. Most data is drawn from this authentic imperial source, as the names of the areas governed and titles of the governors are given there. There are however debates about the source of some data recorded in the Notitia, and it seems clear that some of its own sources are earlier than others. Some scholars compare this with the list of military territories under the duces, in charge of border garrisons on so-called limites, and the higher ranking Comites rei militaris, with more mobile forces, and the later, even higher magistri militum.
Justinian I made the next great changes in 534–536 by abolishing, in some provinces, the strict separation of civil and military authority that Diocletian had established.This process was continued on a larger scale with the creation of extraordinary Exarchates in the 580s and culminated with the adoption of the military theme system in the 640s, which replaced the older administrative arrangements entirely. Some scholars use the reorganization of the empire into themata in this period as one of the demarcations between the Dominate and the Byzantine (or the Later Roman) period.