Roman imperial use
Praeses began to be used as a generic description for provincial governors—often through paraphrases, such as qui praeest ("he who presides")—already since the early Principate, but came in general use under the Antonines. The jurist Aemilius Macer, who wrote at the time of Caracalla (reigned 198–217), insists that the term was applied only to the governors who were also senators—thereby excluding the equestrian procuratores—but, while this may reflect earlier usage, it was certainly no longer the case by the time he wrote. In the usage of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, the term appears originally to have been used as an honorific, affixed to the formal gubernatorial titles (legatus Augusti etc.), and even, occasionally, for legion commanders or fiscal procuratores. By the mid-3rd century, however, praeses had become an official term, including for equestrian officials. The form vice praesidis had also come into common use for equestrian procuratores entrusted with the governance of provinces in the absence of, or in lieu of, the regular (senatorial) governor. This marks a decisive step in the assumption of full provincial governorships by equestrians, with the first equestrian praesides provinciae appearing in the 270s.
This evolution was formalized in the reforms of Diocletian (r. 284–305) and Constantine the Great (r. 306–337), when the term praeses came to designate a specific class of provincial governors, the lowest after the consulares and the correctores. In the East, however, they ranked between the two other classes, possibly because the few correctores there were instituted after the praesides. The term praeses remained in general use for provincial governors, and was still used in legal parlance to designate all classes of provincial governors collectively. In common usage, the praesides were often also designated by more generic titles such as iudex ("judge"), rector or moderator, and sometimes archaically as praetor. In Greek, the term was rendered as ἡγεμὼν (hegemon).
Most of the provinces created by Diocletian by splitting the larger older ones were entrusted to such praesides, and they form the most numerous group of governors in the late-4th century Notitia Dignitatum:
- four in Illyricum: Dalmatia, Pannonia Prima, Noricum Mediterraneum, Noricum Ripense
- seven in Italy: Alpes Cottiae, Rhaetia Prima and Secunda, Samnium, Valeria, Sardinia, Corsica.
- two in Africa: Mauretania Sitifensis, Tripolitana
- four in Hispania: Tarraconensis, Carthaginensis, Mauretania Tingitana, Insulae Baleares
- eleven in Galliae: Alpes Maritimae, Alpes Poenninae et Graiae, Maxima Sequanorum, Aquitanica Prima and Secunda, Novempopulana, Narbonensis Prima and Secunda, Lugdunensis Secunda, Tertia and Senonica
- three in Britannia: Britannia Prima and Secunda, Flavia Caesariensis.
- five in Egypt: Libya Superior and Inferior, Thebais, Ægyptus, Arcadia.
- eight in Oriens: Palaestina Salutaris and Secunda, Phoenice Libanensis, Euphratensis, Syria Salutaris, Osrhoene, Mesopotamia, Cilicia Secunda
- seven in Asiana: Pisidia, Lycaonia, Phrygia Pacatiana and Phrygia Salutaris, Lycia, Caria, Insulae.
- eight in Pontica: Honorias, Cappadocia Prima and Secunda, Helenopontus, Pontus Polemoniacus, Armenia Prima and Armenia Secunda, Galatia Salutaris.
- four in Thracia: Haemimontus, Rhodope, Moesia Secunda, Scythia
- four in Dacia: Dacia Ripensis, Moesia Prima, Praevalitana, Dardania
- four in Macedonia: Thessalia, Epirus Vetus and Epirus Nova, Macedonia Salutaris.
In the East, the staff (officium) of the praeses (attested for Thebais) comprised the same as that of a consularis, i.e. a princeps officii, cornicularius, commentariensis, adiutor, numerarius, ab actis, a libellis, subadiuva; finally unspecified exceptores and cohortalini (menial staff). In the West (attested for Dalmatia), the officium was again the same as with the consulares and correctores, comprising the princeps officii, cornicularius, two tabularii, commentariensis, adiutor, ab actis, subadiuva, and the usual exceptores and cohortalini.
Old German academic use
In German academia a doctoral advisor is called the Doktorvater. However in the 18th century and before, the doctoral system was quite different. Instead of a Doktorvater, as such, the candidate had a praeses to act as mentor and who would also head the oral viva voce exam. In the 18th century the praeses often chose the subject and compiled the theses and the candidate had only to defend. Sometimes there were several candidates at the same time defending the same thesis, in order to save time.
The chair of a student society in the Netherlands or Belgium may be called a praeses; in Dutch the official spelling has changed to "preses" but most student societies still observe the Latin spelling. Various minor offices may be designated be a compound title, e.g. dooppraeses in charge of initiation and associated hazing.
In Norway, the office of archbishop has been abolished. Instead, the Church of Norway has a Bishop’s Conference which is presided over by a praeses which is elected for four years. Also the church bodies Evangelical Church in the Rhineland and Evangelical Church of Westphalia, which do not know the title and function of bishop, are chaired by a praeses (German: Präses, plural: Präsides). In other German church bodies the title usually refers to the president of the synod.
- Radke, Gerhard (1956). "Praeses". Realencyclopädie der Classischen Altertumswissenschaft. Supplementband VIII, Achaios-Valerius. pp. 598–614.
- Notitia Dignitatum, in partibus Occidentis, I
- Notitia Dignitatum, in partibus Orientis, I
- Notitia Dignitatum, in partibus Orientis, XLIV
- Notitia Dignitatum, in partibus Occidentis, XLV