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This article is about a political office in ancient Rome. For the fossil primate genus, see Proconsul (primate).
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A proconsul (‘’pro console’’ in Latin) was a Roman consul whose imperium (the power to command an army) was extended, or a former consul who was given consular imperium. The original purpose of this was to create extra military commanders to support or conduct military operations. With the acquisition of territories beyond Italy which were annexed as Roman provinces, the proconsuls became one of two types of provincial governors. The other was the propraetor. The proconsuls were one of three types of promagistrates, the other being the propraetor and the proquaestor.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries proconsuls were military men who were appointed one of the types of colonial governors in the British Empire with administrative-military roles. Today the Pro Consul is an official in the consular section of a British embassy. His role is to provide consular assistance to British nationals in cases of hospitalisations, mental health, deaths, victims of crime, financial assistance, welfare, and manage detainee and prisoner casework. They also build and maintain relationships at appropriate levels with local authorities, such as police, prison, court, social services and hospitals, as well as help prepare for crisis handling and implement the embassies crisis management plan.[1]

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.

Ancient Rome[edit]

A proconsul was a consul whose imperium (the power to command an army) was extended either at the end of his one-year term of office or later. The consuls were the two annually elected heads of the Roman Republic and its army. Therefore, their office was both civilian and military. To command an army, the sanctioning of imperium was required. In the early years of the Roman Republic, when Roman territory was small, Rome had two legions and each was commanded by one of the two consuls. It seems that in this early period, in which Rome was continuously attacked by neighbouring peoples, at times the Romans needed additional military commanders and that the proconsuls were men who were given imperium to have additional commanders for forces which supported the armies of the consuls, reserve forces, or additional legions. In this period proconsular imperium was given by incumbent consuls and, once, by the senate to men who had previously been consuls. With the Samnite Wars the number of legions was increased and the practice of extending the imperium of a consul at the end of his term of office to have extra military commanders started. With imperial expansion beyond Italy and the annexation of territories as Roman provinces, the proconsuls became one of the three types of Roman provincial governors. The other was the praetor and the propraetor.

Dionysius of Halicarnassus wrote that in 487 BC the Romans split their army into three divisions, that the two consuls commanded two of them and that the third was led by Spurius Larcius, who had been appointed prefect of the city by the consuls. Spurius Larcius had the task of defending the territory closer to Rome. Hence, in on this occasion the urban prefect was chosen as an additional commander. Dionysius also wrote that in 480 BC a Roman army fought the Etruscans with one the two consuls on the right wing, the other consul at the centre and Quintus Fabius (a brother of the consul), who had been a consul twice before, was on the left wing. Quintus Fabius was 'a legate and proconsul'. He died in that battle. It seems that the two consular armies fought together and that Quintus Fabius was needed to command one of the two wings. The proconsulship became the way of obtaining the extra military commander. Dionysius also mentioned another 'legate and proconsul' in another battle in that year. In 478 BC the Romans fielded three armies against three enemies. One consul confronted the Etruscans in the north, taking with him Caesius Fabius, who was 'invested with the proconsular power', presumably to support the consul, possibly with additional forces. The third army was led by Servius Furius, whom Dionysius described as a proconsul. He and the other consul headed south and fought the Volsci and Aequi respectively. Here an additional army was added to one of the two consular armies, specifically to the one which fought in the south, so that two armies could be deployed against two enemies individually. In 464 BC, when the army of one of the two consuls was not a match for the combined forces of two enemies the senate decreed that Titus Quintius, who had been consul for three times previously, and who was invested with proconsular power, should march to assistance of this consul as soon as possible and that the other consul should assemble another force. Titus Quintius got together 5,000 volunteers (therefore this was not a regular force as the soldiers of the Roman army in those days were conscripts).[2] Livy also recorded this event and wrote that the senate thought it advisable that the other consuls should remain in Rome to enlist an army and Titus Quintius should be sent as proconsul with a relief force to be completed by Rome's allies. Thus, this must have been a reservist force. Livy noted that this "form of a decree has ever been deemed to be one of extreme exigency." [3]

Dionysius of Halicarnassus' expression 'legate and proconsul' implies that with the proconsuls he mentioned proconsular imperium was directly delegated by the incumbent consul and that the proconsul acted as a sort of deputy of the consul in the military action. It was a temporary measure adopted to deal with an immediate military emergency. In the case of the investment of proconsular imperium by the senate of 462 BC it pertained to the dispatch of a reservist force to back up a consular army in difficulty, rather than an outright power to command a legion. The earliest occasion in which a third man was in actually in command of a legion, involved an urban prefect, rather than a proconsul. It likely that the proconsulship came into being to give imperium to a former consul because such men had previous experience of commanding an army. The historian Niebuhr thought that that the use of the term ‘’pro console’’ in these cases was an anachronism.[4] However, this is just an assumption.

In theory the proconsulate was a delegated authority in which the proconsul acted on behalf of the consuls (pro consule). Later, in practice, proconsular imperium became the extension of a consul’s imperium beyond the one-year term of his office (prorogatio). This extension was a dispensation from the limit of the existing term of office which applied only outside the city walls of Rome. It did not have effect within the city walls. Therefore, it was an exertion of the military command of the consul, but not of his public office. It was an exclusively military measure.

As the scale of Rome's military engagements and the number of her legions was increased there was a need to increase the number of military commanders. The office of the praetor was introduced in 366 BC. The praetors were the chief justices of the city. They were also given imperium so that they could also command an army. A proconsul was appointed in 326 BC when the consul Quintus Publilius Philo led a legion to besiege the city of Naples at the beginning of the Second Samnite War (326–304 BC). The siege lasted two years. At the end of the first year Quintus Publilius was meant to return to Rome and hand over the command of his legion to one of the two newly elected consuls. However, his imperium was extended in a proconsular capacity so that he could continue the siege. During the Second Samnite War, Rome increased the number of her legions. The propraetors were instituted. These were praetors whose imperium was extended and were given the task to command a reserve army. Propraetors had the power to command one army, whereas proconsuls had the power to command two armies. In 307 BC Quintus Fabius Maximus Rullianus, who was consul the previous year, was elected as proconsul to conduct the campaign in Samnium. During the Third Samnite War (298-290 BC) the consuls of the previous year (Quintus Fabius Maximus Rullianus and Publius Decius Mus, who were the best Roman commanders at the time) were given a six-month extension of their command as proconsuls to carry on the war in Samnium. In 291 BC Quintus Fabius Maximus Gurges had his imperium extended and as proconsul to carry out mopping up operations towards the end of the war. He defeated the Pentri, the largest Samnite tribe.[5][6]

The concept of delegated authority was twice used to confer proconsular imperium on someone who had never held consular power before. During the Second Punic War (218-201 BC) Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus volunteered to lead the second Roman expedition against the Carthaginians in Hispania. He was too young to have been a consul. Therefore, proconsular imperium was bestowed on him by a vote of the people. This was an extraordinary measure, but it set a precedent. When Scipio left Hispania after his victory in 205 BC, Lucius Cornelius Lentulus and Lucius Manlius Acidinus were sent there with proconsular power "without magistracy" ("sine magistratus", without holding public office). Manlius Acidinus had not been a consul before. Therefore, he was sent to Hispania without having held the usual consular public office, but he was given proconsular power so that he could command an army there. This was a constitutional oddity. It gave the Roman territory in Hispania a somewhat unofficial status.[7] This situation continued until 198 BC when it was decided to create two new provinces: Hispania Citerior and Hispania Ulterior (they were instituted in 197 BC).

As Rome acquired territories beyond Italy which she annexed as provinces there was a need to send governors there. In 227 BC, after the annexation of the first two Roman provinces, (Sicilia in 241 BC and Corsica et Sardinia in 238 BC), two praetors were added to the two praetors who acted as chief justices in the city of Rome and were assigned the administration of these two provinces. Two more praetors were added when the provinces of Hispania Citerior and Hispania Ulterior were created in 197 BC. They were sent to these two new provinces. After this no new praetors were added even though the number of provinces increased. The Romans begun to extend the imperium of the consuls and the praetors in Rome at the end of their annual term. The provinces were assigned by lot to the proconsuls and propraetors. The proconsuls were given the provinces which required a larger number of troops.[8]

The Lex Sempronia of 133 BC established that the senate was to determine the allocation of the provinces before the next consular elections.[9] In 81 BC Lucius Cornelius Sulla added to new praetors so that two proconsuls and six propraetors could be created to govern the ten provinces Rome had acquired by then. The praetors who had previously governed the first four provinces were reassigned to judicial affairs in Rome as the judicial load in the city had increased. As a rule, the proconsuls were assigned the provinces which required a larger number of troops.[10] Sulla made the governorships annual, and required the holder to leave the province within thirty days after the arrival of his successor.[11] In 52 BC Pompey introduced a law which provided that the promagitracies were to be assigned five years after the term of office of the consuls and praetors. Julius Caesar repealed it.[12] Pompey's provision was re-enacted by Augustus who also decreed that a proconsular province should be held by the proconsul for two years and a propraetorian province should be held by a propraetor for one year.[13]

With the creation of rule by emperors by Augustus in 27 BC the provinces were divided between imperial provinces which were under the jurisdiction of the emperor and senatorial provinces which were under the jurisdiction of the senate. The imperial provinces were mostly the border provinces, where most of the legions were stationed. Thus, although Augustus left the senate in charge of some of the provinces, he retained the control of the Roman army. In the imperial provinces the emperors appointed governors who were the deputies of the emperors and held the title of legatus Augusti pro praetor. Thus, they held propraetorial imperium. In the senatorial provinces the governors were either proconsuls of propraetors.

Cassius Dio wrote: "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."[14]

Following a period of military anarchy which historians call the crisis of the third century, in 293-305 the emperor Diocletian decreased the size of the Providences and doubled their number to curb the power of the provincial governors. He also separated civilian and military duties, assigning the latter to duces (singular dux). He also grouped the provinces into twelve dioceses. This was an intermediate administrative level. theywas headed by the vicars who, in turn were subordinate to four Praetorian prefectures headed by praetorian prefects. Yet, the Notitia Dignitatum, a unique early 5th-century imperial chancery document, still mentions three proconsuls (propraetors had completely disappeared), apparently above even the vicarsin protocol though administratively they were subordinates like all governors. The governed the provinces of: Asia (which was then a small part of the former Asia province, comprising the central part of the western Anatolian coast), Achaea (the Peloponnese and most of Central Greece) and Africa [Proconsularis], also known as Zeugitana, the northern part of modern Tunisia.

Modern analogy[edit]

The term proconsul came into use in the British Empire when the British government started sending military men to the colonies of the empire with military-administrative roles. they became an important part of the colonial system after the Napoleonic Wars. British governments adopted the practice of sending military officers to the colonies of the British Empire as proconsuls. This provided jobs for military officers at times of demobilisation and reduction of the size of the army and was regarded as a reward for distinguished service to the state. It satisfied the desire for service in the colonies of military officers. It also helped to reduce military expenditure by posting offices overseas, which also helped to maintain security in the colonies. It provided the government with officials with previous administrative and military experience who were capable of making important decisions and would do so in the interests of the Colonial Office. For the field officers this was a means of maintaining their status and an income. Company officers sought military promotion and improved social status through service a peacetime army. In the first quarter of the nineteenth century the British officer corps became the primary source of trained colonial administrators.[15] after the Scramble for Africa and with the two World Wars, where there was conflict in areas of the empire or nearby (the Middle East on both wars and Burma and Malaysia in the second one). After the Second World War the proconsuls were involved in the process of decolonization. Examples included Alfred Milner (South Africa), Lord Curzon (India), Lord Lugard in Africa and Lord Kitchener (Egypt & the Sudan).[16]

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).

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 (similar to the expression power behind the throne).

The term is also used in relation to American commanders and ambassadors who played a key role in American policy in countries occupied by America, such as the Philippines, Cuba, Germany, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. General Douglas MacArthur who held great influence in the Philippines in the 1930s was referred to as the Proconsul of Japan after World War II. More recently, the Wall Street Journal described the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq as a "modern proconsul". Robert Wolfe wrote a book called Americans as Proconsuls: United States Military Government in Germany and Japan.[17] In a book which focuses on proconsulship in American history, Carnes Lord lists as American proconsuls (who are described as commanders as figures who often seem to overshadow their civilian masters in Washington): William Howard Taft in the in the Philippines (1900-1903), Leonard Woodward in Cuba, Lucius D. Clay (American military governor of occupied Germany), Douglas Mac Arthur in Korea (Korean War, 1950–53), Edward Lansdale (intelligence operative in the Philippines and Vietnam), Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. (ambassador in Vietnam, 1963-1964.), Creighton Abrams (commanded in the Vietnam War from 1968–72), Ellsworth Butler ambassador in Vietnam, 1967–1973, William Colby (with Ellsworth Bunker and Creighton Abrams, he begun an approach focused on pacification), Wesley Clark (general and Director, Strategic Plans and Policy in Bosnia and Herzegovina 1994-99), Lewis Paul Bremer leader of the occupational authority of Iraq following the 2003 invasion) David Petraeus (commander in and Iraq 2004-08 and Afghanistan 2010-11).[18]

The term has also been used as a disparagement towards individuals, especially ambassadors and, 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.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ [1]
  2. ^ Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, 9.11.2, 12.5, 16.3.-4, 63.2
  3. ^ Livy, The History of Rome, 3.4.9-11
  4. ^ Niebuhr, History of Rome, ii. p. 123
  5. ^ Livy the History or Rome, 8.22-23, 9.42, 410.16.1-2
  6. ^ Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman antiquities, 17/18.4.5
  7. ^ Richardson, J. S, Hispaniae, Spain and the development of Roman Imperialism, 218-82 BC, pp. 64-71
  8. ^ Livy, The History of Rome, 41.8
  9. ^ Cicero, de provinciis consularibus oratio, 2, 7; pro Balbo 27, 61
  10. ^ Livy, The History of Rome, 41.8
  11. ^ Cicero, Letters to Friends, 3.6
  12. ^ Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, Julius Caesar, 28
  13. ^ Cassius Dio, Roman History, 53.14
  14. ^ Cassius Dio "The Roman History, 53.13
  15. ^ [2]
  16. ^ Alan Knight, "Britain and Latin America" in Andrew Porter (ed) The Oxford History of the British Empire - The Nineteenth Century (1999).
  17. ^ Robert Wolfe, Americans as Proconsuls: United States Military Government in Germany and Japan, 1944-1952, Southern Illinois University Press, 1984; ISBN 978-0809311156
  18. ^ Carnes Lord, Delegated Political-Military Leadership from Rome to America Today, 2012, Cambridge University Press; ISBN 9780521254694