The Praetorian Guard

by David Padfield

The Philippian letter is one of the "prison epistles" of Paul. Sixteen times in just four chapters Paul uses the word "joy" or "rejoice" to speak of our relationship to the Lord and His people. This is interesting, for Paul was in a Roman jail cell at the time he wrote. The Christians at Philippi were well aware of Paul's circumstances, for Paul said, "you have done well that you shared in my distress" (Phil. 4:14).

Paul tells these beloved brethren his imprisonment was actually increasing the progress of the gospel! There were sermons preached while he was in chains (Phil. 1:13). Even while under house arrest he constantly made reference to the cause of Jesus Christ (Acts 28:30-31).

Paul's captors would have known he was not being held for normal reasons—he was not guilty of any real crime. So his situation naturally sparked interest and discussion. In this way, the message of the gospel was being made known to "the whole palace guard" (Phil. 1:13). The word "palace" in this passage is praitorion, which refers to the Praetorian Guard. Paul refers to these guards because he knew that his readers were well familiar with them. The city of Philippi was a Roman colony, and without doubt many of his readers would have had family members who were veterans. In no other epistle does Paul mention this elite guard.

"Philippi, then, was a Roman colony. As such it was a Rome in miniature, a reproduction on a small scale of the imperial city. Its inhabitants were predominantly Romans, though the natives lived alongside of them and gradually coalesced with them. The Roman citizens naturally took great pride in being Romans. Moreover, they enjoyed all the rights of Roman citizens everywhere, such as freedom from scourging, from arrest except in extreme cases, and the right to appeal to the emperor. Their names remained upon the rolls of the Roman tribes. Their language was Latin. They loved to dress according to Roman style. The coins of Philippi bore Latin inscriptions. Each veteran received from the emperor a grant of land. Upon the entire community, moreover, the Jus Italicum was conferred, so that the inhabitants of this city enjoyed not only economic privileges, such as exemption from tribute and the right to acquire, hold, and transfer property, but also political advantages, such as freedom from interference by the provincial governor, and the right and responsibility to regulate their own civic affairs." (Hendricksen, New Testament Commentary, Exposition of Philippians, pp. 6-7).

Praetorian Guards In Rome

The Praetorian Guard was the Imperial Guard of Rome. This guard was an elite corps of soldiers, established to guard the Emperor of the Roman Empire.

"The body was instituted by Augustus and was called by him praetoriae cohortes, praetorian cohorts, in imitation of the select troop which attended the person of the praetor or Roman general. Augustus originally stationed only three thousand of them, three cohorts, at Rome, and dispersed the remainder in the adjacent Italian towns. Under Tiberius they were all assembled at Rome in a fortified camp. They were distinguished by double pay and special privileges. Their term of service was originally twelve years, afterward increased to sixteen. On completing his term, each soldier received a little over eight hundred dollars. They all seem to have had the same rank as centurions in the regular legions. They became the most powerful body in the state; the emperors were obliged to court their favor, and each emperor on his accession was expected to bestow on them a liberal donative. After the death of Pertinax (A.D. 193) they put up the empire at public sale, and knocked it down to Didius Julianus. They were disbanded the same year on the accession of Severus, and were banished; but were restored by that emperor on a new plan, and increased to four times their original number. They were finally suppressed by Constantine." (Marvin Vincent, Word Studies In The New Testament, Vol. III, p. 420).

In time the Praetorian Guard became very nearly the Emperor's private bodyguard, and in the end they became very much a problem. They were concentrated in Rome, and there came a time when the Praetorian Guard became nothing less than king-makers. Inevitably it was their nominee who was made Emperor every time, since they could impose their will by force, if need be, upon the populace. Edward Gibbon claimed that the Praetorian Guard "was the first symptom and cause of the decline of the Roman empire."

Paul In Chains

Upon entering the city of Rome, "Julius, a centurion of the Augustan Regiment" (Acts 27:1) handed Paul over to the Prefect of the Praetorian Guard (the commanding officer). The official duty of the Prefect was to keep in custody all accused persons who were to be tried before the Emperor. "Now when we came to Rome, the centurion delivered the prisoners to the captain of the guard; but Paul was permitted to dwell by himself with the soldier who guarded him." (Acts 28:16).

It is interesting that Luke uses the phrase, "the captain of the guard," since there were usually two Prefects (captains) in the Praetorian Guard. However, between the years 51 and 62 A.D. there was just one Prefect; his name was Afrianus Burrus. It is believed by most scholars that Paul arrived in Rome around 60 A.D. It is also interesting to note that by the end of the second century the work of the Praetorian Prefect was highly elevated. "The command of these favored and formidable troops soon became the first office of the empire. As the government degenerated into military despotism, the Praetorian Prefect, who in his origin had been a simple captain of the guards, was placed not only at the head of the army, but of the finances, and even of the law." (Edward Gibbon, The History Of The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire, Vol. I, p. 159).

Paul had been delivered to the Praetorian Guard to await trial before the Emperor. Paul is twice referred to as having been "bound in chains," where the Greek word halusis is used (Acts 28:20; Eph. 6:20). The halusis was a short length of chain by which the wrist of a prisoner was bound to the wrist of a soldier who was guarding him, so that escape was impossible.

Though allowed some freedom, Paul was still under constant guard. In the course of two years one by one Praetorian Guards would be on duty with Paul. But these guards were also under the constant influence of Paul and the gospel! They could not help overhearing what Paul taught others. They could hear Paul as he spoke to others. They would hear him pray and sing praises to God. They would note his courage, gentleness, loyalty to Christ and deep inner conviction. They would have noticed that Paul was no ordinary prisoner, brought to Rome to entertain the crowds in the Circus Maximus. He was an uncondemned Roman, one who had appealed to Caesar. It is almost certain Paul would have tried to teach his "captive audience" i.e., those soldiers chained to him.

Paul's imprisonment had opened the way for preaching the gospel to the finest regiment in the Roman army! All the Praetorian Guard knew why Paul was in prison—and many of them were touched by the gospel. No wonder Paul declared that his imprisonment had actually been for the furtherance of the gospel! The news spread from guard to guard, to the families of the guards, and then to Caesar's household! This very sight had to give great comfort and fresh courage to the brethren at Philippi. Paul ended the Philippian letter by saying, "All the saints greet you, but especially those who are of Caesar's household" (Phil. 4:22).

"Paul sends special greetings from the Christian brothers who are of Caesar's household. It is important to understand this phrase rightly. It does not mean those who are of Caesar's kith and kin. Caesar's household was the regular phrase for what we would call the Imperial Civil Service; it had members all over the world. The palace officials, the secretaries, the people who had charge of the imperial revenues, those who were responsible for the day-to-day administration of the empire, all these were Caesar's household." (William Barclay, The Letters To The Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians, p. 87).


Being in protective custody gave him free rein to preach the gospel to guards and his visitors! While in Rome he was saved from many of the hardships, persecutions, and affiictions that had often attended his preaching in the cities of Greece, Macedonia, and Asia Minor. From his rented quarters he wrote five New Testament epistles (Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians, Philemon, and probably Hebrews).

Luke, the beloved physician, ends the book of Acts with these words: "Then Paul dwelt two whole years in his own rented house, and received all who came to him, preaching the kingdom of God and teaching the things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ with all confidence, no one forbidding him." (Acts 28:30-31).

"We wonder why Luke never told us what happened to Paul, whether he was executed or released. The reason is that this was not Luke's purpose. At the beginning Luke gave us his scheme of Acts when he told how Jesus commanded His followers to bear witness for Him in Jerusalem and all over Judaea and Samaria and away to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). Now the tale is finished; the story that began in Jerusalem rather more than thirty years ago has finished in Rome. It is nothing less than a miracle of God. The Church which at the beginning of Acts could be numbered in scores cannot now be numbered in tens of thousands. The story of the crucified man of Nazareth has swept across the world in its conquering course until now without interference it is being preached in Rome, the capital of the world. The gospel has reached the center of the world and is being freely proclaimed—and Luke's task is at an end." (William Barclay, The Acts Of The Apostles, p. 193).

What can we learn from the treatment of Paul? There is nothing in the gospel that we should ever be ashamed. The gospel has not lost its power to save and change the hearts of men and women.