AskDefine | Define prefect

Dictionary Definition

prefect n : a chief officer or chief magistrate; "the prefect of Paris police"

User Contributed Dictionary


Alternative spellings


From praefectus


  • /ˈpriːfekt/


  1. An official of ancient Rome.
  2. The head of a department in France.
  3. A school pupil in a position of power over other pupils.
  4. A commander.


An official of ancient Rome
The head of a department in France
A school pupil in a position of power over other pupils
A commander

Extensive Definition

A prefect (from the Latin praefectus, perfect participle of praeficere: "make in front", i.e., put in charge) is an official of various different types.
A prefect's office, department, or area of control is called a prefecture, but in various post-Roman cases there is a prefect without a prefecture or vice versa. The words "prefect" and "prefecture" are also used, more or less conventionally, to render analogous words in other languages, especially Romance languages, which may be misleading or even incorrect.

Ancient Rome

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

Praetorian prefects

The Praetorian prefect (Praefectus praetorio) began as the military commander of a general's guard company in the field, then grew in importance as the Praetorian Guard became a potential kingmaker during the Empire. From the Emperor Diocletian's tetrarchy (c. 300) they became the administrators of the four Praetorian prefectures, the government level above the (newly created) dioceses and (multiplied) provinces.
As Egypt was a special crown domain, a rich and strategic granary, where the Emperor enjoyed an almost pharaonic position unlike any other province or diocese, its head was styled uniquely Praefectus Augustalis, indicating that he governed in the personal name of the august emperor.

Police and civil prefects

  • Praefectus urbi, or praefectus urbanus: city prefect, in charge of the administration of Rome.
  • Praefectus vigilum: commander of the Vigiles.
  • Praefectus aerarii: nobles appointed guardians of the state treasury.

Military prefects

  • Praefectus alae: commander of a cavalry battalion.
  • Praefectus castrorum: camp commandant.
  • Praefectus cohortis: commander of a cohort (constituent unit of a legion, or analogous unit).
  • Praefectus classis: fleet commander.
  • Praefectus equitatus: cavalry commander.
  • Praefectus equitum: cavalry commander.
  • Praefectus fabrum: officer in charge of fabri, i.e well-trained engineers and artisans.
  • Praefectus legionis: equestrian legionary commander.
  • Praefectus legionis agens vice legati: equestrian acting legionary commander.
  • Praefectus socium (sociorum): Roman officer appointed to a command function in an ala sociorum (unit recruited among the socii, Italic peoples of a privileged status within the empire).
For some auxiliary troops, specific titles could even refer to their peoples:

Religious prefects

  • Praefectus urbi: a prefect of the republican era who guarded the city during the annual sacrifice of the feriae latina on Moun Alban in which the Consuls participated. His former title was "custos urbi" ("guardian of the city").

Feudal times

Especially in Middle Latin, præfectus was used to refer to various officers—administrative, military, judicial, etc.—usually alongside a more precise term in the vernacular (such as Burggraf).


The term is used by the Roman Catholic Church, which based much of its canon law terminology on Roman law, in several different ways.
  • The Roman Curia still has two Prefects, of the Papal Household and the Economic Affairs of the Holy See.
  • The title now also attaches to the heads of some Congregations (central departments of the Curia), who are traditionally Cardinals, hence often called "Cardinal-prefect" (if not they are titled "Pro-Prefect").
  • A Prefect Apostolic is a cleric (sometimes a Titular Bishop, but normally a priest) in charge of an apostolic prefecture, a type of Roman Catholic territorial jurisdiction fulfilling the functions of a diocese, usually in a missionary area or in a country that is anti-religious, such as the People's Republic of China) but that is not yet given the status of regular diocese. It is usually destined to become one in time.


  • 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 many British and Commonwealth schools (especially but not exclusively public schools), prefects, usually students in fifth or seventh years (depending on how many years the school in question has), have considerable power and effectively run the school outside the classroom. They were once even allowed to administer corporal punishment (emulating domestic discipline) in some schools (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 (though in Canada, Head of School is more often seen as a gender-neutral term for headmaster or headmistress) or Head Prefect (colloquially, Head Boy or Head Girl or Senior Prefect) - many larger schools will have a hierarchy structure with a team or prefects, a team of senior prefects, and a Head Boy and Girl. The Head Prefect may also be the School Captain if that is an appointed position in the school in question. However, due to Health and Safety laws the staff have tended to become stricter about what responsibilities prefects may hold, for fear of being held responsible in case of litigation.
  • In India, Sri Lanka, Singapore and Malaysia, prefects are student leaders in primary and secondary schools, often along the lines of other Commonwealth schools, but with fewer powers.
  • In United States private residential college preparatory schools; see also "proctor".
  • In Sweden, a prefect (prefekt) is the head of a university department.
In the United States, formerly in many Catholic high schools this title was given to a member of the faculty ("prefect of discipline" in charge of student attendance, general order and such).

Modern sub-national administration

  • In France (and some former French or Belgian colonies, such as Rwanda), a prefect (préfet) is the State's representative in a département. His agency is called the préfecture, and his circumscription is also called a prefecture in some former French republics. Sub-prefects (sous-préfets, sous-préfecture) operate in the arrondissements under his control. In Paris, the prefect is the head of the cıty's polıce, and is often seen as the most powerful police head in the country. (Above the Minister of Interior. Prefects are named by the Prime minister.)
  • 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, prefects were installed as governors; remarkably, in some republics (like Peru) two levels were constructed from the French model: a prefecture and a department, the one being only part of the other.
  • In Greece a prefect (nomarhis, νομάρχης) is the elected head of one of the 54 prefectures (nomarhies, νομαρχίες), which are second-level administrative divisions, between the first-level Peripheries (periferies, περιφέρειες) and the third-level Municipalities (demoi, δήμοι). The Prefectural elections (popular ballot) are held every four years along with the Municipal elections. The last Prefectural elections in Greece were held in October 2006.
  • In Romania, a prefect is the appointed governmental representative in a county (judeţ), in an agency called prefectură. The prefect's role is to represent the national government at local level, acting as a liaison and facilitating the implementation of National Development Plans and governing programmes at local level.
  • In Quebec, a prefect (préfet) is the head of a regional county municipality.
  • In Brazil, a prefect (prefeito) is the elected head of the executive branch in a municipality. Larger cities, such as São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Curitiba, etc., also have sub-prefects, appointed to their offices by the elected prefect.
  • In Georgia, a prefect (პრეფექტი) was the head of the executive branch in a municipality, appointed by the President of Georgia from 1990 to 1992.


The Prefect of Police (Préfet de police) is the officer in charge of co-ordinating police forces in the various administrative circumscriptions of Paris.

External links

prefect in Bulgarian: Префект
prefect in Catalan: Prefecte
prefect in German: Präfekt (Frankreich)
prefect in Estonian: Prefekt (Vana-Rooma)
prefect in Modern Greek (1453-): Νομάρχης
prefect in Spanish: Prefecto
prefect in Esperanto: Prefekto
prefect in French: Préfet
prefect in Italian: Prefetto (storia romana)
prefect in Japanese: 長官 (古代ローマ)
prefect in Norwegian: Prefekt
prefect in Polish: Prefekt
prefect in Portuguese: Prefeito
prefect in Romanian: Prefect
prefect in Russian: Префект (Древний Рим)
prefect in Finnish: Prefekti

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

apprentice teacher, archon, auditor, autodidact, chancellor, chief executive, chief executive officer, dean, educatee, executive, executive director, executive officer, executive secretary, graduate assistant, inquirer, intern, learner, magistrate, management, managing director, monitor, officer, official, paraprofessional, practice teacher, praepostor, president, prexy, proctor, provost, pupil, pupil teacher, scholar, secretary, self-taught person, student, student assistant, studier, teaching assistant, teaching fellow, teaching intern, the administration, trainee, treasurer, vice-chancellor, vice-president, warden
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