Meet the Praetorians

May 01, 2017

Meet the Praetorians

Paul Barnett

A sea voyage from Jerusalem to Rome took many months and was only possible for about half the year.  One would have thought that the political activities in the Eternal City would have little if any effect in the Holy City.

There were at least two incidents involving the Praetorians in Rome that had indirect but significant consequences in Jerusalem, and there was another that affected Paul.

The Praetorians were initially the personal bodyguard of Roman generals on the battlefields.  Their tents were near the generals’.  As crack troops they often played a decisive role in the battles.  Under Augustus (31 BC-AD 14), however, the Praetorians were made the bodyguard corps for the Caesar and his family and—very importantly—they were the only soldiers allowed within the city.  Successive Caesars secured the Praetorians’ loyalty by paying them more than other soldiers.  There were also other perquisites.

Their presence in Rome at the side of the Caesar effectively removed the political power of the Senate and secured a continuity of imperial leaders.

The first matter of interest relates to Sejanus, the Praetorian Prefect appointed by Tiberius.  An anti-Semite with imperial ambitions, Sejanus appointed Pontius Pilate as Prefect of Judea.  Tiberius had moved to Capri in semi-retirement.  A reign of terror occurred in Rome under Sejanus and repeated acts of anti-Semitism in Judea under Sejanus’ appointee, Pontius Pilate.  Tiberius regained control in 31 after the execution of Sejanus.  In 33, the temple hierarchy accused Pilate of being no ‘friend of Caesar’ because he was slow in executing one who they said was a self-proclaimed ‘king of the Jews’.  Pilate eventually executed Jesus for treason.  

A second point of interest was the role the Praetorians played in the appointment of Claudius in 41.  They had removed Caligula and then proclaimed Claudius as his successor.  Claudius was an improbable choice (he stammered) but proved to be a competent leader.  Herod Agrippa, grandson of Herod the King (d. 4 BC), had been educated in Rome and was known to members of the Julio-Claudian family (Tiberius had appointed him king of Gaulanitis in 34 and Caligula had appointed him king of Galilee in 39). Agrippa was instrumental in Claudius’ appointment and was rewarded by being made king of Judea.

Soon after his arrival in Jerusalem, Agrippa arrested James Zebedee (whom he killed) and Simon Peter (whom he intended to kill).  Agrippa himself died in 44, having been struck down for foolishly parading as a Greek god.

The third item related to Paul’s release from house arrest in Rome in about 62.  Although Nero was the Caesar, the city was effectively controlled by Burrus, the Praetorian Prefect, and his friend Seneca, the speechwriter and advisor to Nero.  The men were friends and collaborators. Why was Paul released?  Seneca’s brother Gallio had been Proconsul of Achaia and had found Paul not guilty of breaching Roman law back in 52.  Back in Rome, Gallio had doubtless informed his brother of Paul’s innocence.  Soon after Paul’s release both Burrus and Seneca were removed from office.

The machinations of the Praetorians in faraway Rome significantly affected Jesus and the apostles in Palestine, reminding us that the kingdom of God is caught up in the kingdom of man.[1]    



[1] See further Guy de la Bédoyère, Praetorian: The Rise and Fall of Rome's Imperial Bodyguard (Yale University Press, 2017).

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