From Academic Kids

The word prefect (from the Latin praefectus, participium perfectum of prae-ferre, to bring in front, i.e. put in charge) and the equivalent words in various (especially Romance) languages, can refer -mutually- to any of a number of types of officials.

  • In general it is noteworthy that despite of the obvious etymological link, in quite some (post-Roman) cases there is a prefect without a prefecture (the logical term for a prefect's office, circonscription etcetera), or vice versa.


Praefectus, often with a specification, was the formal title of many, fairly low to high-ranking military or civil official in the Roman Empire, whose authority was not legitimated in their person (as apposed to elected Magistrates) but conferred by delegation from a higher authority.

civilian praefecti

military prefect turning civilian minister/super-governor

  • The Praetorian prefect (See that article for details; in Latin Praefectus praetorio) started out as the military commander of a general's guards company in the field, then grew in importance as the pretorian guard under his command became a potential kingmaker since the principate, but since emperor Diocetian's tetrarchy (circa 300AD) changed nature to administrator of a pretorian prefecture, the government level above the (newly created) dioceses and (multiplied) Roman provinces

Paramilitary praefecti : senior officers

  • Praefectus urbanus : city prefect.
  • Praefectus vigilum : commander of the (vigiles ).

Military praefecti : senior officers

  • Praefectus alae : commander of a cavalry regiment.
  • Praefectus castrorum : camp commandant.
  • Praefectus cohortis : commander of a cohors (constitutive bataillion of a legion, or analogous unit).
  • Praefectus classis : fleet commander.
  • Praefectus equitatus : cavalry commander.
  • Praefectus equitum : cavalry commander.
  • Praefectus fabrum : officer in charge of artisans.
  • Praefectus legionis : equestrian legionary commander.
  • Praefectus legionis agens vice legati : equestrian acting legionary commander.
  • Praefectus sociorum : Roman officer appointed to a command function in an ala sociorum (unit recruited among the socii, Italic peoples of a priviliged status within the empire).


As canon law is in many respects inspired by Roman law, it is logical that this term was also adopted by the Roman Catholic church, be it in specific senses, notably : (See the specialized website on Catholic Hierarchy (|))

  • The Roman curia itself still has two prefectures : one for the (Pontifical=) Papal Household, and one for the Economic Affairs of the Holy See (but apparantly headed by a President)
  • The title now also attaches to the heads of some Roman Congretations, i.e. central departments of the Roman Curia, who are traditionally Cardinals, and if not are titled Pro-Prefect
  • A Prefect apostolic is a cleric (usually a Titular Bishop) in charge of a Prefecture Apostolic, like the Vicariate Apostolic a type of Roman Ccatholic territorial circonscription fulfilling diocesan functions in a territory (usually missionary, and/or in a country that is decidedly anti-religious -sometimes even persecuting-, anti-papist, 'Cesaropapist' and/or does not maintain normal relations with the Holy See, as the PR of China) not given the status of regular diocese, usually destined to become one in time, as is already the case in many (often young) dioceses in former colonies.

Feudal times

Especially in (official, written 'middle') Latin (Praefectus), the word was often used to render -frequently alongside other terms, either equally verasatile such as praepositus, or more precise, and even mere latinizations- various officers, administrative, military, judicial etc, usually alongside a more precise term in the vernacular, e.g. Burggraf


  • in the context of schools, a prefect is a pupil who has been given limited, trustee-type authority over other pupils in the school, such as a hall monitor or safety patrol.
  • In British public schools and (sometimes otherwise named) Commonwealth equivalents, prefects, usually sixth formers, have considerable power and effectively run the school outside the classroom. They were even allowed to administer corporal punishment (now abolished in the UK and several other countries), under a system of self control, or sometimes used as (generally willing) 'executioner' by the staff. They usually answer to a senior prefect known as the Head of School (colloquially, Head Boy or Head Girl).

Especially for interns, there often is a specific system of House prefect(s), originally mimicing paternal discipline in the domestic sphere, in every living unit, under the guidance of a staf member (house master).

Modern sub-national administration

  • in France (and present and someformer French or ex-Belgian colonies l.s., such as Rwanda), a prefect (préfet) is the State's representative in a région (thus called préfet de région) or département. His agency is called the préfecture, but his circonscription a department in the French model, a prefecture in some ex-french republics. Sub-prefects (sous-préfets, sous-préfecture) operate in the arrondissements under his responsibility.
  • in Italy a prefect (prefetto) is the State's representative in a province (provincia). His agency is called the prefettura.
  • in some Spanish-speaking states in Latin America, following a french-type model introduced in Spain itself (under Napoleonic occupation ? a branch of the Bourbon dynasty), prefects were instated as governors; remarkably, in some republics (like Peru) two levels were constructed from the rench model : a prefecture and a department, the one being only part of the other


  • The Prefect of Police (in french préfet de police) is peculiar office in the French capital, Paris, in charge of coordinating police forces in the various administrative circonscriptions

Analogous uses

The term prefect is furthermore used, strictly speaking incorrectly, but more or less conventionally, to render in English (and the equivalents, in other western languages) various officials deemed equivalent to some western type of prefect (especially in the sense resembling governor) in various other cultures, although there is no etymological link and/or legal tradition.

This practice is generally complemented by the equally arbitrary use of Prefecture (see that article for examples) for the office, circonscription (especially equivalent to a province) etcetera, even when in the authentic language there is no etymological parallelism.

See also



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