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PRAETORIAN prĭ tôr’ ĭ ən. An adjective formed from praetor, itself from praeire (“to go before”). Praetor was originally the name for Rome’s highest magistrate, later called consul. The adjective was used in certain special contexts. The cohors praetoria, for example, was the general’s special bodyguard. Out of this grew the Praetorian Guard of the Empire. Originally this force of “household troops” consisted of nine cohorts constituted by Augustus, at the time of his alleged reconstitution of the Republic in 27 b.c. At first, to avoid the appearance of despotism, this corps élite was stationed outside the city and in scattered billets and barracks. Seianus, Tiberius’ minister, concentrated the force in a.d. 23, when he was appointed sole prefect. From this time dated the political importance of the praetorians and the sinister role that they assumed in the setting up and pulling down of emperors. The praetorians were a pampered unit, paid three times the ordinary legionary pay, and granted service and retirement conditions beyond the common army practice. The term Praetorian Guard does not appear in the text of the NT, but the word tr. “palace” in KJV (Phil 1:13), in all probability refers to the force, for political prisoners under house arrest would be in the control of the prefect, and guarded personally by soldiers of the corps. This is certainly the case if the epistle to the Philippians was written from Rome, and the evidence seems to be overwhelmingly in favor of that supposition.

The events of a.d. 69, the grim “year of the four emperors,” when “the Beast” was wounded, and “healed of his deadly wound so that all the world wondered,” demonstrates the influence and power of the Praetorian Guard. Vitellius, in his short-lived ascendancy at this time, cashiered the troops who had supported his equally brief rival and built six new cohorts out of Ger. legionaries. Vespasian, the imperial survivor of that year of multilateral war, reverted to Augustus’ number, and this remained unchanged for two centuries. Each cohort was 500 strong, apart from auxiliary troops, and after the Vitellian experiment, the recruiting ground seems to have been metropolitan Italy, until Septimius Severus turned to Illyrian troops for his praetorians.


L. Homo, Roman Political Institutions (1929); M. Durry, Les Cohortes Praetoriennes (1938).