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A proconsul was a governor of a province in the Roman Republic appointed for one year by the senate. In modern usage, the title has been used (sometimes disparagingly) for a person from one country ruling another country or bluntly interfering in another country's internal affairs.
In the Roman Republic a promagistrate (like a propraetor) designated someone who served with the authority and capacity of a magistrate without holding the office. This category of official was created to address the challenge of administration in the republic's increasing overseas territories. The greatest of these placeholder offices was a proconsul, who acted in place of a consul, itself the highest office in the republic. After serving as consul, citizens could be named proconsul and spend a year as governor of a province. Certain provinces were reserved for proconsuls; who received which one by senatorial appointment was determined by random choosing or negotiation between the two consuls.
Under the Empire, the Emperor derived a good part of his powers (alongside the military imperium and the tribunician power and presidency of the senate in Rome) from a constitutionally 'exceptional' (but permanent) mandate as the holder of proconsular authority over all, hence, so-called Imperial provinces, generally with one or more legions garrisoned (often each under a specific legate); however, he would appoint legates and other promagistrates to govern each such province in his name. The former consuls (constitutionally still eponymic chief magistrates of the res publica, but politically powerless) would still receive a term as proconsul of one of the other, so-called Senatorial provinces.
The Notitia Dignitatum, a unique early 5th-century imperial chancery document, still mentions three proconsuls (propraetors had completely disappeared), apparently above even the vicars of the dioceses in protocol though administratively they are subordinates like all governors; the diocesan vicars in turn were under the four praetorian prefects:
- in the Eastern Empire Asia (a small part of the former Asia province, comprising the central part of the western Anatolian coast) and Achaea (the Peloponnese and most of Central Greece).
- in the Western Empire only Africa [Proconsularis], also known as Zeugitana, the northern part of modern Tunisia.
The many other, often new or split, provinces are under governors of various other -younger, usually less prestigious- styles: comes, praefectus augustalis (unique to Egypt, the emperor's "pharaonic crown domain"), consularis, praeses [provinciae], corrector provinciae; these are not to be confused with the also territorially organised (but overlapping) and strictly military governors: comes militaris, dux and later magister militum.
Cassius Dio claims that Augustus reformed the governing of provinces, including proconsuls, in 27 BC. "Next [Augustus] decreed that the senatorial provinces should be governed by magistrates chosen annually by lot, except in a case where a senator was entitled to special privileges because of the number of his children or because of his marriage. These governors were to be sent out by a vote of the Senate taken in public session; they were not to carry a sword in their belt, not to wear military uniform; the title of proconsul was conferred not only upon the two ex-consuls, but extended to other governors who had served only as praetors, or at any rate held the rank of ex-praetors; both classes of governors were to be attended by as many lictors as was the custom in Rome; officials were to put on the insignia of their office immediately leaving the city limits, and to wear them continually until they returned. The other governors, those who were to serve in the imperial provinces, were to be appointed by the emperor and to be called his envoys, and pro-praetors, even if they were from the ranks of the ex-consuls. Thus of the two titles that had flourished for so long under the republic, Octavian gave that of praetor to the men of his choice on the grounds that from very early times it had been associated with warfare, and named them pro-praetors. The title of consul he gave to senatorial nominees, on the grounds that their duties were more peaceful, and called them proconsuls. He kept the full titles of consul and praetor for magistrates holding office in Italy, and referred to all the governors outside Italy as ruling in their stead."
In modern speech, the term is sometimes anachronistically used of men who held great political power over large colonial territories at the time of the British Empire's greatest extent. Examples included Alfred Milner (South Africa), Lord Curzon (India), Lord Lugard in Africa and Lord Kitchener (Egypt & the Sudan). Some of these were or went on to be important political figures at home in Britain.
It also occurred that, during the British Empire, sometimes proconsuls manifested peripheral activism versus the metropolitan restraint from London. For example, British representatives at Rio and Buenos Aires during the Uruguayan civil wars of the 1820s and 1840s often went beyond their official instructions, the latter facilitated by slow and unsure transatlantic communications.
A leader appointed by a foreign power during military occupation is sometimes also described as a proconsul. One example was Gotara Ogawa during the Japanese occupation of Burma (1942 - 1945), another, US general Douglas MacArthur who held great influence in the Philippines in the 1930s and was referred to as the Proconsul of Japan after World War II. More recently, the Wall Street Journal described the Coalition Provisional Authority as a "modern proconsul".
The term has also been used as a disparagement towards individuals, especially ambassadors, who have attempted to influence the governments of foreign countries. In one instance, former Canadian cabinet minister Lloyd Axworthy called former United States ambassador to Canada Paul Cellucci "the U.S. ambassador-turned-proconsul" in an opinion piece in the April 29, 2003 Globe and Mail newspaper. Axworthy's comments were in response to Cellucci's frequent warnings to the Canadian government on domestic policy matters (such as the decriminalization of marijuana) which were often perceived by Canadians as threats.
- Notitia dignitatum
- Pauly-Wissowa (in German)
- Ambassadors and envoys from Russia to Poland (1763–1794)
- proconsul" A Dictionary of the Bible. by W. R. F. Browning. Oxford University Press
- Cassius Dio "The Roman History Book 53 Chapter 13 Penguin (1987) translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert
- Alan Knight, "Britain and Latin America" in Andrew Porter (ed) The Oxford History of the British Empire - The Nineteenth Century (1999).