PRAETOR prē’ tĕr. A magistrate of ancient Rome. In the earliest Rom. republic the highest magistrate was called the praetor. Later the name consul designated the chief magistrate and the term praetor was used for secondary office. Beginning about the middle of the 4th cent. b.c., the praetors were associated with the administration of justices in Rome, a function which the office retained.

At the first, two praetors were elected annually, but with Rome’s acquisition of overseas provinces, beginning in the middle of the 3rd cent. b.c., the duties of praetors were so increased that ultimately eight were elected. As provincial administrators they were vested with military authority and thus gradually the differences in rank and power between praetors and consuls became negligible.

In keeping with the original purpose of the office, the praetors in the 2nd cent. b.c. acted chiefly in the administration of justice. By the 1st cent. they were restricted by law to the city of Rome during their year of office, and only then could be sent to an administrative post in a province. Developments in judicial procedure under the emperors rendered the office obsolete, and it was reduced to a merely honorary appointment.

The extraordinary flexibility and vitality of Rom. law was due largely to the praetors, who upon entering office issued a statement of the principles upon which their jurisdiction would be based. These “praetorian edicts” afforded precedents for successive regimes, and kept Rom. law abreast of current needs.


Oxford Classical Dictionary.