A proconsul (pro consule) was an official of ancient Rome who acted on behalf of a consul. In the Roman Republic, military command, or imperium, could be exercised constitutionally only by a consul. There were two consuls at a time, each elected to a one year term. They could not normally succeed themselves. If a military campaign was in progress at the end of a consul's term, the consul in command might be appointed as proconsul by the Senate when his term expired. This custom allowed for continuity of command despite the high turnover of consuls. In the empire, proconsul was a title held by a civil governor and did not imply military command.
In modern times, various officials with notable delegated authority have been referred to as proconsuls. The terms "satrap" (from Persian) and "viceroy" (from Spanish) are both used in a similar way. Despite the gulf between ancient and modern proconsuls, writer Carnes Lord has proposed a single definition to cover both varieties: "delegated political-military leadership that rises in the best case to statesmanship."
Studies of leadership typically divide leaders into policymakers and subordinate administrators. The proconsul occupies a position between these two categories. Max Weber classified leadership as traditional, rational-legal (bureaucratic), and charismatic. A proconsul could be both a rule-following bureaucrat and charismatic personality. The rise of bureaucracy and rapid communication has reduced the scope for proconsular freelancing.
Quintus Publilius Philo was one of two consuls for the year 317 BC. When his term expired at the end of the year, his army was in the midst of besieging the city of Neapolis (modern Naples). Rather than risk a change of command at such a delicate moment, the Popular Assembly voted that he should "conduct the campaign in place of a consul" after his term expired. Philo thus became the first proconsul.
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.
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.
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. 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.
The Lex Sempronia 133 BC established that the senate was to determine the allocation of the provinces before the next consular elections. 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. Sulla made the governorships annual, and required the holder to leave the province within thirty days after the arrival of his successor. 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. 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.
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 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."
Following a period of military anarchy which historians call the crisis of the 3rd century, in 293-305 the emperor Diocletian decreased the size of the provinces 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. They were 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 vicars in protocol though administratively they were subordinates like all governors. They governed the provinces of:
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 19th century the British officer corps became the primary source of trained colonial administrators. 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).
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. 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 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).
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.