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Bill Thayer

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 p952  Praefectus Praetorio

Unsigned article on pp952‑953 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

PRAEFECTUS PRAETO′RIO, was the commander of the troops who guarded the emperor's person. [Praetoriani.] This office was instituted by Augustus, and was at first only military, and had comparatively small power attached to it (Dion Cass. LII.24, LV.10; Suet. Aug. 49); but under Tiberius, who made Sejanus commander of the praetorian troops, it became of much greater importance, till at length the power of these praefects became second only to that of the emperors (Tac. Ann. IV.1, 2; Aurel. Vict. de Caes. 9). The relation of the praefectus praetorio to the emperor is compared to that of the magister equitum to the dictator under the republic (Dig. 1 tit. 11). From the reign of Severus to that of Diocletian, the praefects, like the vizirs of the East, had the superintendence of all departments of the state, the palace, the army, the finances, and the law: they also had a court in which they decided cases (Dig. 12 tit. 1 s.40). The office of praefect of the praetorium was not confined to military officers; it was filled by Ulpian and Papinian, and other distinguished jurists.

Originally there were two praefects; afterwards sometimes one and sometimes two; from the time of Commodus sometimes three (Lamprid. Commod. 6), and even four. They were as a regular rule chosen only from the equites (Dion Cass. LII.24; Suet. Tit. 6; Lamprid. Commod. 4); but from the time of Alexander Severus the dignity of senator was always joined with their office (Lamprid. Alex. Sev. 21).

Under Constantine the praefects were deprived of all military command, and changed into governors of provinces. He appointed four such praefects: the one, who commonly attended on the imperial court, had the command of Thrace, the whole of the East, and Egypt; the second had the command of Illyricum, Macedonia, and Greece, and usually resided first at Sirmium, afterwards at Thessalonica; the third of Italy and Africa; the fourth, who resided at Trèves, of Gaul, Spain, and  p953 Britain (Zosimus, II.33). These praefects were the proper representatives of the emperor, and their powers extended over all departments of the state: the army alone was not subject to their jurisdiction. (Walter, Gesch. des Röm. Rechts, §§269, 341; Gibbon, Decline and Fall, c17).

For a much simpler summary, see this good page at Livius.Org.

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Page updated: 17 Mar 18