Paul and the Praetorian Guard
February 2, 2023

In Philippians 1:12-13, Paul informs his beloved brothers in Philippi that his Roman imprisonment — which one would naturally think hindered his ministry and the preaching of the Gospel — actually resulted in the surprising and wonderful progress of the Gospel. Of course, from our perspective 2000 years later and in possession of the epistles he wrote while in prison, that is relatively easy to see. But the Philippians did not have the advantage of our hindsight. They may be forgiven for perhaps worrying that the Gospel cause to which they were zealously dedicated might have suffered significantly from Paul’s house arrest in Rome.

Therefore, Paul wrote to reassure them, reporting what we might call the “good news” about “The Good News:”

Now I want you to know, brethren, that my circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel, so that my imprisonment in the cause of Christ has become well known throughout the whole praetorian guard and to everyone else (Philippians 1:12-13, NASB).

The fact that Paul speaks of the “πραιτωρίῳ” argues strongly that Paul wrote the epistle of Philippians while being in house arrest in Rome1 — which Luke records in Acts 28:30-31: “And he stayed two full years in his own rented quarters and was welcoming all who came to him, preaching the kingdom of God and teaching concerning the Lord Jesus Christ with all openness, unhindered.”

Paul was, according to Luke (and the Holy Spirit!) chained to a Roman soldier (only one in contrast with Peter’s two! Acts 28:16; 12:6). Josephus tells us that this would have been a four-hour guard, meaning 6 men per day.

Naturally, we have very little historical information about “πραιτωρίῳ” — the Praetorian Guard — historians ancient and modern pay little attention to mere soldiers.2 Who were the Praetorian Guard?3 They were the elite of the Roman army, paid twice what other soldiers were paid because they were the personal guards of the emperor himself and the soldiers who preserved the imperial city from any kind of harm. The Guard were apparently men from 15-32 years of age. They were not allowed to marry as long as they served in the Guard.

Concerning Paul’s personal guards, we know next to nothing. We do not know, for example, if Paul’s guards would have been the same six men everyday. Though that is possible, considering what Bingham shows us of the daily work of the Praetorian Guard, it seems to me unlikely. They had to guard the emperor himself, as well as senators and other important people, had to stand guard at public events, watch over seriously dangerous prisoners, keep peace in the city of Rome, occasionally spy on important people, and even work as fire-men. In other words, guarding the apostle Paul would probably not have been such a high priority issue that he would have a special detachment of men assigned to him. I suspect it might have been more like: whoever is available send him.

But, of course, that is pure speculation. We do not — at least not yet! — have records to illuminate this for us. If we should take Josephus’ account on the detail above seriously — I see no reason not to — it would mean that in a single year there would have been about 2190 four-hour meetings between the apostle Paul and a Roman soldier from the elite Praetorian Guard (6 per day for 365 days)! How many men might that have been? If every soldier met Paul only once, it would be over 2000 soldiers in a year, about 4000 during his house arrest. That seems to me unlikely. Nevertheless, if we suppose that there were many men, though not all, on repeat duty, that still might mean that over a four-year period many hundreds or even more than a 1000 different men spent four hours with the great apostle.

What might that mean for member of the Guard? We should consider that serving the emperor himself, on a close-up daily basis, involved certain complications that might not occur to us. Note this from Guy de la Bédoyère quoting from Gibbon about the Guard.

“Such formidable servants are always necessary, but often fatal to the throne of despotism. By thus introducing the Praetorian guards, as it were, into the palace and the senate, the emperors taught them to perceive their own strength, and the weakness of the civil government; to view the vices of their masters with familiar contempt, and to lay aside that reverential awe, which distance only, and mystery, can preserve towards an imaginary power. In the luxurious idleness of an opulent city, their pride was nourished by the sense of their irresistible weight; nor was it possible to conceal from them, that the person of the sovereign, the authority of the senate, the public treasure, and the seat of Empire, were all in their hands. To divert the Praetorian bands from these dangerous reflections, the firmest and best established princes were obliged to mix blandishments with commands, rewards with punishments, to flatter their pride, indulge their pleasures, connive at their irregularities, and to purchase their precarious faith by a liberal donative; which, since the elevation of Claudius, was exacted as a legal claim, on the accession of every new emperor.”4

When Paul was under house arrest, chained to a member of the Guard for 24 hours a day (AD 60-62), the emperor was Nero. Since he had been emperor from AD 54, the Praetorian Guard would have known Nero well and from daily close contact be acquainted with his “luxurious idleness” and utterly contemptible vices.5

Now, let us speculate together, just a little.

At the end of the day, what does a young Roman soldier from the elite guard do? He might visit a brothel or be caught up in other sorts of immoral entertainment that the great city offered. But, after all, he must return to the barracks. And young men at the barracks would talk with others as they ate and drank, would they not?6

Imagine working closely under a grossly foul man like Nero, a man who demanded, among other things, that guards attend his attempts at theatre and applaud his singing.7 Everyone anywhere near him — the Praetorian Guard seeing him daily — knew him to be gluttonous, proud, and foolish in the extreme — by our standards, not necessarily by Roman standards, though the social and political elite probably would have looked down on Nero’s lifestyle, as Tacitus did later. To return then, what a particular guard did not personally see, would be heard from the rumors and complaints of the other men at the barracks, for these young men lived together.

So, I think we should imagine the soldiers chained to Paul, and consider what they experienced of the utter contrast between Paul and the Roman elite — not to mention again the emperor himself. Imagine how they were impressed with this man, so far greater than Nero in every way!

Think about what that means for Paul’s statement in Philippians that the whole Praetorian Guard knew that Paul was in chains for Christ!

Ask yourself, how many true geniuses have you met in your life — men or women so extraordinary that the experience was overwhelming? How often have you been overcome by the astonishing spirit of the person talking with you? Perhaps not often. Or, maybe never.

But for the men chained to the apostle Paul, it was clear. Nero claimed to be an artist and musical genius, but the apostle Paul truly was a genius whose spirit shined like a star in the pagan darkness. Most certainly, it was not Paul’s raw intelligence — astounding as it must have been — that would have most impressed the young elite soldiers. In fact, Paul’s sincere humility and love, inspired by the Holy Spirit, would have been most outstanding to those who met him.

Paul’s devotion to his Master, his love for Christ and his red hot passion for the truth of Christ, would have overawed young men who had taken an oath to give their lives for the cruel beast Nero — their “master.” They were probably attracted to the Pretorian Guard by the extra pay — double or more than that of a regular soldier — and extra benefits. But in Paul they saw a man’s man, more devoted than they to a Master who did not fit their notions of greatness. Paul’s Master suffered on a Roman cross — bad enough — and even called His most faithful servants to walk the same path — fearlessly faithful to death as soldiers for the true Lord. Paul served out of the deepest love and honor for a Lord who was more than worthy, while they served a swinish master, a contemptible brute.

Imagine the talk back at the barracks. Though perhaps some of the guard hated Paul and the time they had to spend with him, others must have been filled with wonder, excitement, and awe at meeting and spending four hours chained to a man like Paul! Paul sang Psalms with his friends8, prayed for the churches that wrote to him and to whom he wrote, and taught those who visited with him, offering wisdom and advice to Epaphras and others who came for consultation — not to mention the fact that Paul, Mark, and Luke talked incessantly about Jesus’ life and teaching!

I suspect that every man who visited Paul would have talked to at least ten men — more depending on how many friends he had. Every man who visited Paul would have confronted the absolute dissimilarity between Paul and Nero — not to mention what would have been most impressive, the fundamental antithesis between Paul’s Lord and theirs! For, spending time with Paul — though it would have impressed the young men with Paul himself — would mean, more than anything else, being amazed at Paul’s Lord!

Who were “all the rest” that Paul spoke of in verse 13? At the least, they would be slaves that would meet and work with the Praetorian Guard on a daily basis. But both the Guard and the slaves that worked with and for them would have access to many in Caesar’s household, some of whom became disciples of Jesus (Philippians 4:22). Paul’s blameless and innocent testimony shined as a light in Nero’s crooked and twisted palace, and no doubt that light reached far and wide throughout the dark city.

Ralph Smith is pastor of Mitaka Evangelical Church.

  1. See the discussion in Peter T. O’Brien, The Epistle to the Philippians in The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991). ↩︎
  2. For the best we can know, see: Sandra Bingham, The Praetorian Guard: A History of Rome’s Elite Special Forces (London: I.B.Tauris & Co Ltd, 2013) and Guy de la Bédoyère, Praetorian: The Rise and Fall of Rome’s Imperial Bodyguard (New Haven: Yale University, 2017). The Praetorian Guard evolved over time and its functions changed, but we are concerned here especially with Nero’s era. ↩︎
  3. “The term ‘Praetorian Guard’ is a modern one. The Romans knew the imperial bodyguard collectively as the cohortes praetoriae, ‘the praetorian cohorts’, and their fort as the Castra Praetoria, or Praetoriana, ‘the praetorian barracks’, or the Castra Praetorianorum, ‘barracks of the praetorians’, rather than conferring on either the Guard or its headquarters a singular title. This makes no difference to the fact that the Guard’s evolution into the highest-paid, most esteemed and most influential part of the Roman military machine has always made it a source of some fascination. Praetorians regarded themselves as a cut above the rest of the Roman military machine, as indeed they were.” Guy de la Bédoyère, Praetorian: The Rise and Fall of Rome’s Imperial Bodyguard (New Haven: Yale University, 2017), p. 5. ↩︎
  4. Ibid,. pp. 2-3. ↩︎
  5. “Now as to the many things in which Nero acted like a madman, out of the extravagant degree of the felicity and riches which he enjoyed, and by that means used his good fortune to the injury of others; and after what manner he slew his brother, and wife, and mother, from whom his barbarity spread itself to others that were most nearly related to him; and how, at last, he was so distracted that he became an actor in the scenes, and upon the theatre, I omit to say any more about them, because there are writers enough upon those subjects every where; but I shall turn myself to those actions of his time in which the Jews were concerned.” from a contemporary of Nero: Josephus, The Jewish War, Book II, Chapter 13, Paragraph 1. ↩︎
  6. The Castra Praetoria did not offer much in the way of space for the Praetorian Guard to relax and spend time together. They probably did most of their eating and drinking in the city before returning to the barracks. ↩︎
  7. From the Cambridge Companion to Nero, ed. by Shadi Bartsch, Kirk Freudenburg, and Cedric Littlewood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017): “It is therefore striking that Tacitus places his account of Nero’s first displays as a charioteer and a singer immediately after the death of Agrippina (Tac. Ann. 14.14–16), emphasizes that permission to ride his chariot was given in the hope of holding back public performance as a singer, and finally describes Burrus obliged outwardly to applaud Nero’s singing while inwardly he deplores what he sees. . . .

    The distress Nero’s performances provoked in the likes of Burrus and Seneca was clearly shared by others. Tacitus refers to the shock of those visiting Rome from the country towns of Italy and the distant provinces (Tac. Ann. 16.5.1). The high-minded Stoic Thrasea Paetus declined to join in the orchestrated cheerleading of the Augustiani (Dio 61.20.3–4), had no interest in hearing Nero play his lyre, and refused to sacrifice to the divine voice (Tac. Ann. 16.28.5; Dio 62.26.3–4). . . Confronted by Nero with the evidence for his participation in the conspiracy, Flavus replied that he had done so out of loathing for the ruler; while Nero deserved to be loved, nobody was more loyal to him; when, however, he slew his mother and his wife, and became a charioteer, an actor and an incendiarist, then Flavus began to hate him (Tac. Ann. 15.67.2; Dio 62.24.2). It says something about Nero’s artistic and athletic performances that they should be placed on a level with the crimes of murder and of arson.” pp. 29-30. ↩︎
  8. Remember that for at least part of Paul’s two years in Rome, Luke, Mark, and many others were with him according to Colossians 4:7-15. Perhaps they were not with him near the end, since in Philippians, when Paul contemplates the possibility of imminent death (Philippians 1:21-26), he makes no mention of Luke and Mark, though Timothy is still with him. ↩︎
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