Over the last two decades, several works have been published that have significantly advanced our understanding of the magistracies and offices comprising the Roman institutional structure, particularly during the Republic. Alongside articles and shorter works, monographs have appeared on the praetorship1, consulship2, quaestorship3, the apparitores4 and the dictatorship5, to name but a few examples. Judging by the title of the book under review here, one might have expected Alberto Cafaro’s extensive work to further contribute to the ongoing efforts to better understand and define the functioning of Roman institutions and administration. However, the book only partially fulfils these expectations and, in fact, as the author himself points out on several occasions, that was not the aim of the book. In the conclusion of his work, Cafaro points out that the praefectura fabrum serves as a means to explore the social and political dynamics that prevailed between the local elites (both Italic and provincial) and the Roman establishment during the Late Republic and the imperial age. In short, this work primarily focuses on the study of social and power relations and the role played by the praefecti in this context, rather than on examining the tasks and responsibilities entrusted to the praefectura fabrum under the authority of the Roman commanders. Despite the author’s early clarification of this focus (and notwithstanding the challenges posed by the sources), it would have been desirable that Cafaro had focused more on the specific functions of the office, especially concerning logistics and the military sphere (topics scarcely addressed throughout the book), thus the title of the book would reflect more closely its content.
The book is divided into four main sections: the first is a brief introduction to the subject, the sources (with particular emphasis on Flavius Vegetius’ concise commentary on the prefecture) and the main lines of study developed by scholars. Sections two and three focus on the study of the praefectura fabrum under the Republic and the Empire, respectively, while the last part of the book presents a meticulous catalogue of all the praefecti documented in the imperial period, serving as a particularly valuable prosopographical work. Following an introductory overview of the subject, in the second part Cafaro explores the social networks that operated in the Roman Republic, employing theoretical approaches typically applied to much more recent historical scenarios. However, applying these approaches to periods with limited data, such as the Republic, can be challenging. Much of Cafaro’s approach is rooted in the thesis on the Roman clientele developed by E. Badian, and recently discussed by M. Jehne, F. Pina Polo, and other scholars6, as well as on a purely oligarchic vision of the Roman Republic in which the populus played a negligible role (despite the lines of work that for years other specialists have been promoting). In this primarily aristocratic context, characterised by clientelistic relations, the author situates the prefecture as a means for the local elites, especially those of Italic origin, to interact with the Roman nobility.
According to Cafaro, the prefecture served as a significant springboard for the privileged sectors within Italic and, in certain cases, provincial communities. It also became a tool employed by the Roman nobility to assimilate these individuals into their sphere of influence, fostering a mutually beneficial relationship. As a result, the prefects became increasingly powerful and influential in Roman politics, eventually becoming, in Cafaro’s words, a “fattore significativo all’interno del dibattito politico” (p. 254), albeit always under the scrutiny of the nobiles they served. The prefecture of C. Cornelius Gallus during the time of Augustus exemplifies this trend, marking the transition from the practices that governed the prefecture within Republican politics to the new situation that arose with the establishment of the Principate.
The impact of this new political and social order on the prefecture is evident in the sources: in contrast to the previous period, references to the roles of prefects practically vanish in the writings of classical authors. Instead, we rely primarily on inscriptions, which, notably, indicate a shift in the dynamics between the prefects and their superiors, as well as in the circuits of power. The close ties that once bound them together seem to have dissolved (or at least they are ignored in the inscriptions), in favour of the networks that revolved around the princeps, who became the exclusive channel for social advancement opportunities among the local elites. However, as the author discusses in the third part, during imperial times, the prefecture did not lose its role as a means of advancement for these elites, and its functions do not seem to have undergone substantial changes, at least until the modifications Claudius introduced into the Roman institutional system.
During the Julio-Claudian period, there was a clear continuity in the appointment of prefects, who continued to be predominantly Italic, and came mainly from the military or the body of apparitores, with a yet smaller representation of libertines. This situation underwent a transformation during the Flavian era, as inscriptions began to record a significant number of prefects hailing from Narbonensian Gaul and Hispania. This shift was part of a broader process aimed at incorporating provincial elites into the power structures of the Empire, eventually culminating in Trajan’s accession to the throne, and which had possibly contributed to the rise of the Flavian dynasty. Interestingly, this phenomenon did not extend in any significant way to other parts of the empire, particularly the eastern provinces, until well into the second century, an aspect that could have been explored more comprehensively in the book. Nevertheless, as Cafaro emphasizes, holding the position of prefect did not guarantee access to the ordo equester or a senatorial career, achievements that only a few seemed to have attained. According to Cafaro’s study, it appears that occupying a prefecture in imperial times was not so much (or not only) seen as a means to a successful career in Rome, but was primarily a way to gain influence and prestige within one’s own community, as evident from the numerous commemorative inscriptions in local areas.
Finally, Cafaro examines the final century of the prefecture’s history, challenging the notion of decline attributed to it during the Antonine period. He argues that inscriptions reveal not only the continued vitality of the institution but also, as mentioned earlier, its expansion into nearly all the provinces. However, the growing integration of various players in Italic and provincial politics into the networks of Roman power, coupled with the granting of Roman citizenship by Caracalla in 212, rendered the prefecture less appealing to local elites, who had traditionally seen it as a path to advancement. Moreover, the apparent reduction of powers compared to other offices left the prefecture without a distinct role or place within the Roman institutional system. The considerable decrease in testimonies during the Severian period was not coincidental, rather it was a result of waning influence due to the political and social changes taking place in the Empire. It is not surprising, therefore, that the prefecture did not re-emerge after the upheavals following the death of Alexander Severus and the establishment of power structures quite distinct from the traditional levers of the res publica.
Aside from minor slips in the work (such as L. Cornelius Lentulus being praetor when he signed the treaty with Gades c. 206, and Caesar ruling as proconsul in Hispania Citerior rather than Hispania Ulterior), there is no denying that the book represents a highly interesting study of the interactions between local elites and central power during the Late Republic and the Severian period, and of the role played by the prefecture as a bridge between these two spheres. Nevertheless, the author’s approach tends to relegate the office of prefect to the background, to centre more on the workings of the power networks in the Roman world, which sometimes had no connection with the role of prefects. Consequently, the reader may perceive this as a valuable study of the networks surrounding the praefectura fabrum rather than a detailed examination of its specific functions in the administration of the Empire.
1 T. Corey Brennan, The Praetorship in the Roman Republic, Oxford 2000.
2 Francisco Pina Polo, The Consul at Rome. The Civil Functions of the Consuls in the Roman Republic, Cambridge 2011.
3 Francisco Pina Polo / Alejandro Díaz Fernández, The Quaestorship in the Roman Republic, Berlin 2019.
4 Jean-Michel David, Au service de l’honneur. Les appariteurs de magistrats romains, Paris 2019.
5 Mark B. Wilson, Dictator. The Evolution of the Roman Dictatorship, Ann Arbor 2021.
6 Martin Jehne / Francisco Pina Polo (eds.), Foreign Clientelae in the Roman Empire. A Reconsideration, Stuttgart 2015.