Provinces were overseas territories controlled by Rome. Early in Roman history, the word province meant the sphere or type of activity of a magistrate*, whether in Rome or abroad. Later it became identified with the geographical region over which a magistrate held executive power. Beginning in the later Roman Republic*, the term referred to a territory outside Italy that owed tribute* to Rome. During the peak of the Roman Empire, during the late A.D. 100s, almost all the lands that bordered the Mediterranean Sea were Roman provinces.
The Romans began acquiring provinces after the first Punic War against Carthage ended in 241 B.C. By 227 B.C. the Romans gave Sicily and the islands of Sardinia and Corsica provincial status so they would not fall again under Carthaginian control. The acquisition of provinces began to accelerate in 146 B.C., when Africa and Macedonia were annexed*. During the last decades of the Roman Republic, the Roman general Pompey annexed Syria, and Julius Caesar conquered all of Gaul. Many other provinces were acquired during the Roman Empire, starting with Egypt in 30 B.C. Judaea became a province in A.D. 6, and the emperor Claudius added Britain to the empire between A.D. 43 and A.D. 47.
At first, Rome ruled its provinces through elected magistrates. As the number of provinces increased, this system proved impractical. During the late republic, the Roman Senate, at the expiration of the magistrates’ terms of office, would continue them as governors of the provinces with the title of proconsuls—those acting in the place of the regular consuls. The first governor of a province was usually the man who had conquered the territory. He was given complete military, judicial, and administrative authority over his province. Upon taking power, the governor issued an edict* in which he announced the laws he would enforce during his rule. Within his province, a governor was an absolute ruler. Because there were no checks on their power, some governors were inclined to be corrupt.
In 27 B.C. the emperor Augustus reorganized the provinces into two classes. The more settled and wealthier provinces were administered by the Roman Senate acting through proconsuls, who were appointed each year. Imperial* provinces, which were usually the lands on the frontiers of the empire where Roman legions* were headquartered, were administered directly by the emperor. This system remained in place until the emperor Diocletian restructured the Roman Empire during the early A.D. 300s.
* magistrate government official in ancient Greece and Rome
* Roman Republic Rome during the period from 509 B.C. to 31 B.C., when popular assemblies annually elected their governmental officials
* tribute payment made to a dominant power or local government
* annex to add a territory to an existing state
* edict proclamation or order that has the force of law
* imperial pertaining to an emperor or empire
Provinces were administered for the benefit of Rome. The provinces supplied Rome with valuable commodities, such as corn, wheat, olive oil, and wine. After 167 B.C., Rome stopped taxing its citizens, which placed the entire tax burden on the provinces. They were required to pay tribute to Rome and to support the soldiers who were stationed in their towns and cities, which at times caused friction between Rome and the peoples of the provinces. But provinces also benefited by their attachment to Rome. The Romans built temples, aqueducts, roads, harbors, and other public works projects that improved the lives of the people living in these outlying areas. There were also many colonies of Roman veterans who after discharge from the army settled in the provinces in which they had been stationed, thus helping along the process of Romanization. The name of the German city of Cologne (Köln) comes from the Latin word castra, meaning “camp,” and the city of Merida in Spain comes from the Latin word emerita, meaning “discharged.”
Roman provinces were governed in a variety of ways. In some provinces, local aristocratic* families, given the authority by the governor, administered the provincial government. Local town councils supervised the collection of taxes, public works projects, and the local police. In return for their work on behalf of the governor, these local rulers were granted Roman citizenship. Some provincial cities were given special status. In Sicily, cities that joined Rome were declared free and granted independence. Certain tribes within the provinces were self-governing.
* legion main unit of the Roman army, consisting of about 6,000 soldiers
* aristocratic referring to people of the highest social class
Many talented people came from the provinces, including notable orators* and writers, as well as military and political leaders. The emperors Trajan and Hadrian both came from the Roman province of Spain. (See also Citizenship; Rome, History of; Taxation.)
* orator public speaker of great skill