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The Roman provinces (Latin: provincia, pl. provinciae) were the administrative regions of Ancient Rome outside Roman Italy that were controlled by the Romans under the Roman Republic and later the Roman Empire. Each province was ruled by a Roman appointed as governor.
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).
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.
During the republic and early empire, 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.
The English word province comes from the Latin word provincia. 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), with a governor called an eparch (Greek: ἔπαρχος, eparchos).
The Latin provincia, during the middle republic, referred not to a territory, but to a task assigned to a Roman magistrate. That task might require using the military command powers of imperium but otherwise could even be a task assigned to a junior magistrates without imperium: for example, the treasury was the provincia of a quaestor and the civil jurisdiction of the urban praetor was the urbana provincia. In the middle and late republican authors like Plautus, Terence, and Cicero, the word referred something akin to a modern ministerial portfolio: "when... the senate assigned provinciae to the various magistrates... what they were doing was more like allocating a portfolio than putting people in charge of geographic areas".
The first commanders dispatched with provinciae were for the purpose of waging war and to command an army. However, merely that a provincia was assigned did not mean the Romans made that territory theirs. For example, Publius Sulpicius Galba Maximus in 211 BC received Macedonia as his provincia but the republic did not annex the kingdom, even as Macedonia was continuously assigned until 205 BC with the end of the First Macedonian war. Even though the Second and Third Macedonian wars saw the Macedonian province revived, the senate settled affairs in the region by abolishing Macedonia and replacing it with four client republics. Macedonia only came under direct Roman administration in the aftermath of the Fourth Macedonian war in 148 BC. Similarly, assignment of various provinciae in Hispania was not accompanied by the creation of any regular administration of the area; indeed, even though two praetors were assigned to Hispania regularly from 196 BC, no systematic settlement of the region occurred for nearly thirty years and what administration occurred was ad hoc and emerged from military necessities.
In the middle republic, the administration of a territory – whether taxation or jurisdictrion – had basically no relationship with whether that place was assigned as a provincia by the senate. Rome would even intervene on territorial disputes which were part of no provincia at all and were not administered by Rome. The territorial province, called a "permanent" provincia in the scholarship, emerged only gradually.
The acquisition of territories, however, through the middle republic created the recurrent task of defending and administering some place. The first "permanent" provincia was that of Sicily, created after the First Punic War. In the immediate aftermath, a quaestor was sent to Sicily to look out for Roman interests but eventually, praetors were dispatched as well. The sources differ as to when sending a praetor became normal: Appian reports 241 BC; Solinus indicates 227 BC instead. Regardless, the change likely reflected Roman unease about Carthaginian power: quaestors could not command armies or fleets; praetors could and initially seem to have held largely garrison duties. This first province started a permanent shift in Roman thinking about provincia. Instead of being a task of military expansion, it became a recurrent defensive assignment to oversee conquered territories. These defensive assignments, with few opportunities to gain glory, were less desirable and therefore became regularly assigned to the praetors.
Only around 180 BC did provinces take on a more geographically-defined position when a border was established to separate the two commanders assigned to Hispania on the river Baetis. Later provinces, once campaigns were complete, were all largely defined geographically. Once this division of permanent and temporary provinciae emerged, magistrates assigned to permanent provinces also came under pressures to achieve as much as possible during their terms. Whenever a military crisis occurred near some province, it was normally reassigned to one of the consuls; praetors were left with the garrison duties. In the permanent provinces, the Roman commanders were initially not intended as administrators. However, the presence of the commander with forces sufficient to coerce compliance made him an obvious place to seek final judgement. A governor's legal jurisdiction thus grew from the demands of the provincial inhabitants for authoritative settlement of disputes.
In the absence of opportunities for conquest and with little oversight for their activities, many praetorian governors settled on extorting the provincials. This profiteering threatened Roman control by unnecessarily angering the province's subject populations and was regardless dishonourable. It eventually drew a reaction from the senate, which reacted with laws to rein in the governors. After initial experimentation with ad hoc panels of inquest, various laws were passed, such as the lex Calpurnia de repetundis in 149 BC, which established a permanent court to try corruption cases; troubles with corruption and laws reacting to it continued through the republican era. By the end of the republic, a multitude of laws had been passed on how a governor would complete his task, requiring presence in the province, regulating how he could requisition goods from provincial communities, limiting the number of years he could serve in the province, etc.
Prior to 123 BC, the senate assigned consular provinces as it wished, usually in its first meeting of the consular year. The specific provinces to be assigned were normally determined by lot or by mutual agreement among the commanders; only extraordinarily did the senate assign a command extra sortem (outside of sortition). But in 123 or 122 BC, the tribune Gaius Sempronius Gracchus passed the lex Sempronia de provinciis consularibus, which required the senate to select the consular provinces before the consular elections and made this announcement immune from tribunician veto. The law had the effect of, over time, abolishing the temporary provinciae, as it was not always realistic for the senate to anticipate the theatres of war some six months in advance. Instead, the senate chose to assign consuls to permanent provinces near expected trouble spots. From 200 to 124 BC, only 22 per cent of recorded consular provinciae were permanent provinces; between 122 and 53 BC, this rose to 60 per cent.
While many of the provinces had been assigned to sitting praetors in the earlier part of the second century, with new praetorships created to fill empty provincial commands, by the start of the first century it had become uncommon for praetors to hold provincial commands during their formal annual term. Instead they generally took command as promagistrate after the end of their term. The use of prorogation was due to an insufficient number of praetors, which was for two reasons: more provinces needed commands and the increased number of permanent jury courts (quaestiones perpetuae), each of which had a praetor as president, exacerbated this issue. Praetors during the second century were normally prorogued pro praetore, but starting with the Spanish provinces and expanding by 167 BC, praetors were more commonly prorogued with the augmented rank pro consule; by the end of the republic, all governors acted pro consule.
Also important was the assertion of popular authority over the assignment of provincial commands. This started with Gaius Marius, who had an allied tribune introduce a law transferring to him the already-taken province of Numidia (then held by Quintus Caecilius Metellus), allowing Marius to assume command of the Jugurthine War. This innovation destabilised the system of assigning provincial commands, exacerbated internal political tensions, and later allowed ambitious politicians to assemble for themselves enormous commands which the senate would never have approved: the Pompeian lex Gabinia of 67 BC granted Pompey all land within 50 miles of the Mediterranean; Caesar's Gallic command that encompassed three normal provinces.
The increasing practices of prorogation and statutorily-defined "super commands" driven by popularis political tactics undermined the republican constitutional principle of annually-elected magistracies. This allowed the powerful men to amass disproportionate wealth and military power through their provincial commands, which was one of the major factors in the transition from a republic to an imperial autocracy.
The senate attempted to push back against these commands in many instances: it preferred to break up any large war into multiple territorially separated commands; for similar reasons, it opposed the lex Gabinia which gave Pompey an overlapping command over large portions of the Mediterranean. The senate, which had long acted as a check on aristocratic ambitions, was unable to stop these immense commands, which culminated eventually with the reduction of the number of meaningfully-independent governors during the triumviral period to three men and, with the end of the republic, to one man.
During his sixth and seventh consulships (28 and 27 BC), Augustus began a process which saw the republic return to "normality": he shared the fasces that year with his consular colleague month-by-month and announced the abolition of the triumvirate by the end of the year in accordance with promises to do so at the close of the civil wars. At the start of 27 BC, Augustus formally had a provincial command over all of Rome's provinces. That year, in his "first settlement", he ostentatiously returned his control of them and their attached armies to the senate, likely by declaring that the task assigned to him either by the lex Titia creating the Triumvirate or that the war on Cleopatra and Antony was complete. In return, at a carefully-managed meeting of the senate, he was given commands over Spain, Gaul, Syria, Cilicia, Cyprus, and Egypt to hold for ten years; these provinces contained 22 of the 28 extant Roman legions (over 80 per cent) and contained all prospective military theatres.
The provinces that were assigned to Augustus became known as imperial provinces and the remaining provinces, largely demilitarised and confined to the older republican conquests, became known as public or senatorial provinces, as their commanders were still assigned by the senate on an annual basis consistent with tradition. Because no one man could command in practically all the border-regions of the empire at once, Augustus appointed subordinate legates for each of the provinces with the title legatus Augusti pro praetore. These lieutenant legati probably held imperium but, due to their lack of an independent command, were unable to triumph and could be replaced by their superior (Augustus) at any time. These arrangements were likely based on the precedent of Pompey's proconsulship over the Spanish provinces after 55 BC entirely through legates, while he stayed in the vicinity of Rome. In contrast, the public provinces continued to be governed by proconsuls with formally independent commands. In only three of the public provinces were there any armies: Africa, Illyricum, and Macedonia; after Augustus' Balkan wars, only Africa retained a legion.
To make this monopolisation of military commands palatable, Augustus separated prestige from military importance and inverted it. The title pro praetore had gone out of use by the end of the republic and was regardless in inferior status to a proconsul. More radically, Egypt (which was sufficiently powerful that a commander there could start a rebellion against the emperor) was commanded by a equestrian prefect, "a very low title indeed" as prefects were normally low-ranking officers and equestrians were not normally part of the elite. In Augustus' "second settlement" of 23 BC, he gave up his continual holding of the consulship in exchange for a general proconsulship – with a special dispensation from the law that nullified imperium within the city of Rome – over the imperial provinces. He also gave himself, through the senate, a general grant of imperium maius, which gave him priority over the ordinary governors of the public provinces, allowing him to interfere in their affairs.
Within the public and imperial provinces there also existed distinctions of rank. In the public provinces, the provinces of Africa and Asia were given only to ex-consuls; ex-praetors received the others. The imperial provinces eventually produced a three-tier system with prefects and procurators, legates pro praetore who were ex-praetors, and legates pro praetore who were ex-consuls. The public provinces' governors normally served only one year; the imperial provinces' governors on the other hand normally served several years before rotating out. The extent to which the emperor exercised control over all the provinces increased during the imperial period: Tiberius, for example, once reprimanded legates in the imperial provinces for failing to forward financial reports to the senate; by the reign of Claudius, however, the senatorial provinces' proconsuls were regularly issued with orders directly from the emperor.
The emperor Diocletian introduced a radical reform known as the tetrarchy (AD 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.
Cisalpine Gaul (in northern Italy) was occupied by Rome in the 220s BC and became considered geographically and de facto part of Roman Italy, but remained politically and de jure separated. It was legally merged into the administrative unit of Roman Italy in 42 BC by the triumvir Augustus as a ratification of Caesar's unpublished acts (Acta Caesaris).
See also: List of Late Roman provinces
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