Praetorian Prefect

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A Praetorian prefect ( Latin praefectus praetorio or praetorii ) was in the principate (early and high imperial times) the commander of the elite praetorian troops serving as the guard of the Roman emperor . In late antiquity he was the highest civil administrative officer of the Roman Empire .

The Praefectus praetorio in principle

Since the year 2 BC The praetorian prefect was in command of the Roman guards ( praetorians ) who protected the emperor . Originally an office with little power, this changed under Tiberius . Several attempts were made to overthrow, and the Praetorians claimed the role of emperor-makers early on. Between Domitian and Commodus , the prefects took a back seat for about a hundred years; In later times, however, the office combined more and more powers (administration, army, finances), in particular around 200 AD the Praetorian prefects Papinian , Ulpian and Iulius Paulus were important Roman jurists who acted as "ministers of justice" and were essential contributed to the further development of Roman law . Normally the Praetorian prefecture was a knightly office in the principate , only exceptionally and very rarely was it held by senators. It was very unusual that Vespasian made his son and designated successor Titus in 71 AD the praefectus praetorio . If the emperor was weak or disinterested, the commander of the guard could become the unofficial real ruler of the empire; this case occurred frequently around the middle of the 1st century and then again from the late 2nd century onwards. In the 3rd century, when membership of the senatorial class ceased to be a necessary prerequisite for reaching for power from 217 onwards, some prefects - such as Macrinus and Philip Arabs in particular - even managed to rise to the empire. On the other hand, the prefects sometimes did not have control of the guard themselves and were sometimes even slain by them. Not infrequently, unpopular prefects were also dropped and killed as pawn sacrifices by the emperor .

The number of prefects fluctuated. Usually there were two, but later it could well happen that three or more people held this office, precisely because they had acquired so many (including civil) skills over the course of time . Conversely, it was not uncommon for there to be only one, often particularly powerful, Praetorian prefect. There were four prefects since 293, since each of the tetrarchs was assigned a praefectus praetorio .

The Praefectus praetorio in late antiquity

In late antiquity (4th to 7th centuries) the function of the office changed fundamentally. The Praefecti were disempowered in terms of their military influence in 312, during the reign of Constantine the Great . Too often they had interfered in politics with the help of the Guard. Therefore, Constantine released her from her military duties. The Praetorian Guard, which had loyally served Constantine's rival Maxentius , was disbanded, and the emperor instead assigned purely civilian tasks to the prefect, bearing in mind that the prefecture's employees were henceforth de iure as soldiers ( milites ) and even pro forma military Units such as the Legio I Adiutrix were assigned. The Praetorian prefecture thus became the central administrative body of the empire and eventually developed into the first administrative level below the emperor. (Some researchers such as Wolfgang Kuhoff and Hartmut Leppin advocate translating praefectus praetorio no longer as “Praetorian prefect”, but as “Praetorium prefect” , in order to illustrate the fundamental change in the office.) The post was no longer labeled equites , but occupied by senators, and according to Zosimos , Constantine set up four regional prefectures: Oriens , Illyricum , Italia et Africa and Gallia . Between Constantine's death in 337 and the year 395 there were usually three Praetorian prefectures with thousands of employees, each administered by a Praetorian prefect:

The administrative division of the empire into two parts in 395 had consequences for the prefects, as the prefecture of Illyricum, Italia et Africa had to be divided again, so that from then on there were again four prefects in the entire empire. The Praefectus praetorio Galliarum and the Praefectus praetorio Italiae et Africae (to which Pannonia was also subordinate) then belonged to the Western Roman Empire . The latter usually resided at the imperial court in Milan or Ravenna, the former in Trier until shortly after 400, then in Arles . The Praefectus praetorio per Orientem and the Praefectus praetorio Illyrici , whose seat was in Sirmium or Thessaloniki , belonged to the Eastern Roman Empire . In particular, the Praefectus praetorio per Orientem , since it ruled over the richest provinces of the empire, gained particularly great influence early on, especially since it mostly resided in Constantinople and was therefore often able to establish personal proximity to the respective Eastern Roman emperor. Every Praetorian prefect was a vir illustris .

In most cases, the prefects were able to make final decisions on legal issues (although in principle there was always the possibility of appealing to the emperor). Their most important task consisted in the collection and redistribution of the annona , the most important tax that the Roman state collected and which was usually paid in the form of natural goods and increasingly also in the form of money ( adaeratio ). This Capitatio-Iugatio , already introduced by Diocletian, represented the backbone of the late antique state budget. Furthermore, the prefectures also organized "Frondienst" ( munera sordida ).

Basically, each Praetorian prefecture was divided into two branches: the financial administration (the scriniarii ) and the legal department (the exceptores ), the latter losing influence in the 6th century. The office retained its important role until the end of the late antique phase of Eastern Europe in the 7th century. In the west, too, it survived in Italy until the Ostrogoths , and in Gaul - under completely different conditions - until the early 8th century. When the Vandal Empire was successfully conquered under Emperor Justinian in 534 , the area was immediately placed under a new Praetorian prefect; The same was done with Italy in 554, after the Gothic War . Around 540, the powerful Praefectus praetorio per Orientem John the Cappadocian carried out numerous far-reaching reforms in Eastern Europe. Only with the loss of the Syrian and African empire territories at the end of antiquity (since 632) and the reorganization of the remaining empire in themes did the office lose its central position and was in fact abolished soon after Emperor Herakleios ; the remaining western areas in Italy and North Africa had already been reorganized as exarchates under Emperor Maurikios . Around 690 the office, which had finally become a sinecure , disappeared for good .

List of Praetorian Prefects


  • Michel Absil: Les préfets du prétoire d'Auguste à Commode. 2 avant Jésus-Christ - 192 après Jésus-Christ . Boccard, Paris 1997, ISBN 2-7018-0111-7 .
  • Altay Coşkun : The Praefecti praesent (al) es and the regionalization of the Praetorianerpraefecturen in the fourth century . In: Millennium . Yearbook on Culture and History of the First Millennium AD Volume 1 , 2004, p. 279-328 .
  • Christopher Kelly: Ruling the Later Roman Empire (=  Revealing Antiquity . Band 15 ). Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA 2004, ISBN 0-674-01564-9 .
  • Adolf Lippold : Praefectus praetorio. In: The Little Pauly (KlP). Volume 4, Stuttgart 1972, column 1106.
  • Joachim Migl: The order of the offices. Praetorian prefecture and vicariate in the regional administration of the Roman Empire from Constantine to the Valentinian dynasty (=  European university publications . Series 3, volume 623 ). Lang, Frankfurt am Main et al. 1994, ISBN 3-631-47881-X (also dissertation, University of Freiburg 1993).