Praetorian prefect

Praetorian prefect

Praetorian prefect (Latin "Praefectus praetorio") was the constant title of a high office in the Roman state that changed fundamentally in nature.

The praetorian prefect was commander of the Praetorian Guard until Constantine abolished the guard in 314. Praetorian prefects continued to be appointed until the reign of Heraclius, but the office developed into head of the civil and judicial administration of the empire.

The term "praefectus praetorio" was often abbreviated in inscriptions as 'PR PR'. [Lesley and Roy Adkins. "Handbook to life in Ancient Rome." Oxford University Press, 1993. ISBN 0-19-512332-8. page 241]


Commander of the Praetorian Guard

Under the empire the praetorians or imperial guards were commanded by one, two, or even three praefects (praefecti praetorio), who were chosen by the emperor from among the equites and held office at his pleasure. From the time of Alexander Severus the post was open to senators also, and if an equestrian was appointed he was at the same time raised to the senate. Down to the time of Constantine, who deprived the office of its military character, the prefecture of the guards was regularly held by tried soldiers, often by men who had fought their way up from the ranks. In course of time the command seems to have been enlarged so as to include all the troops in Italy except the corps commanded by the city praefect ("cohortes urbanae").

The special position of the Praetorians made them become a power in their own right in the Roman state, and their prefect, "praefectus praetorio", soon became one of the more powerful men in this society. The emperors tried to flatter and control the praetorians, but they staged many coups d'etat and contributed to a rapid rate of turnover in the imperial succession. The praetorians thus came to destabilize the Roman state, contrary to their purpose. The Praetorian prefect became a major administrative figure in the later empire, when the post combined in one individual the duties of an imperial chief of staff with direct command over the guard also. Diocletian greatly reduced the power of these prefects as part of his sweeping reform of the empire's administrative and military structures.

Transformation to administrator

In addition to his military functions, the praetorian prefect came to acquire jurisdiction over criminal affairs, which he exercised not as the delegate but as the representative of the emperor. It was decreed by Constantine 331 that from the sentence of the praetorian praefect there should be no appeal. A similar jurisdiction in civil cases was acquired by him not later than the time of Septimius Severus. Hence a knowledge of law became a qualification for the post, which under Marcus Aurelius and Commodus, but especially from the time of Severus, was held by the first jurists of the age, (e.g. Papinian, Ulpian, Paullus) and John the Cappadocian, while the military qualification fell more and more into the background.

The tetrarchy reform of Diocletian (c. 296) multiplied the office, as there was now one pretorian prefect as chief of staff (military and administrative)—rather than commander of the guard—for each of the two Augusti and two Caesares. Each one of the pretorian perfects oversaw one of the four quarters created by Diocletian, which would become praetorian prefectures under Constantine. Their masters were soon reduced to two imperial courts, at Rome (later Ravenna) and Constantinople, but the four prefectures remained as the highest level of administrative division, in charge of several so-called dioceses (groups of Roman provinces), each of which was headed by a Vicarius. Under Constantine the Great, the institution of the magister militum deprived the praetorian prefecture altogether of its military character but left it the highest civil office of the empire.

Germanic era

The office was among the many maintained after the Western Roman empire had succombed to the Germanic invasion in Italy, notably at the royal court of the Ostrogothic king Theoderic the Great.

List of known prefects of the Praetorian Guard

The following is a list of all known prefects of the Praetorian Guard, from the establishment of the post in 2 BC by Augustus until the abolishment of the Guard in 314. The list is presumed to be incomplete due to lack of sources documenting the exact number of persons who held the post, what their names were and what the length of their tenure was. Likewise, the Praetorians were sometimes commanded by a single prefect, as was the case with for example Sejanus or Burrus, but more often, the emperor appointed two commanders, who shared joint leadership. Overlapping terms on the list indicate dual command.

Julio-Claudian dynasty

Nervan-Antonian dynasty

= Dominate =



*cite journal | last = Syme | first = Ronald | authorlink = Ronald Syme | title = Guard Prefects of Trajan and Hadrian | journal = The Journal of Roman Studies | volume = 70 | year = 1980 | pages = p64–80 | url = | doi = 10.2307/299556
*cite book |last=Bingham |first=Sandra J. |title=The praetorian guard in the political and social life of Julio-Claudian Rome |origyear=1997 |url= |format=PDF |accessdate=2007-05-23 |year=1999 |publisher=National Library of Canada |location=Ottawa |isbn=0-612-27106-4
*cite book |last=Howe |first=Laurence Lee |title=The Pretorian Prefect from Commodus to Diocletian (AD 180-305)|year= 1942|publisher= University of Chicago Press Press|location=Chicago, Illinois

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