The Praetorian Guard Receives a Witness
The year is 59 C.E. In the custody of travel-weary soldiers, a number of prisoners enter Rome through the Porta Capena gate. On Palatine Hill is the palace of Emperor Nero, guarded by Praetorian soldiers with swords concealed under their formal togas.* The centurion Julius marches his prisoners past the Roman Forum and up Viminal Hill. They pass a garden with many altars to Roman gods and also go by a parade ground where military maneuvers take place.
Among the prisoners is the apostle Paul. Months earlier when he was on a storm-tossed ship, an angel of God told Paul: “You must stand before Caesar.” (Acts 27:24) Is Paul about to have that experience? As he turns to look out at the capital of the Roman Empire, no doubt the words that the Lord Jesus spoke to him at the Tower of Antonia in Jerusalem come to his mind. “Be of good courage!” Jesus said. “For as you have been giving a thorough witness on the things about me in Jerusalem, so you must also bear witness in Rome.”—Acts 23:10, 11.
Perhaps Paul pauses to look at the Castra Praetoria—a large fortress with high red-brick walls topped with battlements and towers. The fortress houses members of the Praetorian Guard, who serve as the emperor’s bodyguards, and also the city’s police force. With 12 cohorts* of Praetorians and several urban cohorts stationed there, the fortress could house several thousand soldiers, including cavalry. The Castra Praetoria is a reminder of the source of imperial power. Since the Praetorian Guard is responsible for prisoners from the provinces, Julius leads his group through one of the four main gates. After a perilous journey of several months, he has finally brought his prisoners to their intended destination.—Acts 27:1-3, 43, 44.
THE APOSTLE PREACHES “WITHOUT HINDRANCE”
During the voyage, Paul received divine visions announcing that the entire crew would survive a shipwreck. The bite of a venomous snake caused him no harm. He healed sick people on the island of Malta, where the local people began saying that he was a god. News of these events may have circulated among the superstitious Praetorian Guard.
Paul has already seen brothers from Rome who ‘came to meet him at the Marketplace of Appius and Three Taverns.’ (Acts 28:15) As a prisoner, though, how could he fulfill his desire to declare the good news in Rome? (Rom. 1:14, 15) Some think that the prisoners would be delivered to the captain of the guard. If that is so, Paul was likely taken to the Praetorian Prefect Afranius Burrus, perhaps second in power only to the emperor.* In any case, rather than being guarded by centurions, Paul’s guard is now a single Praetorian soldier of the rank and file. Paul is permitted to arrange for his own accommodations and is allowed to receive visitors and preach to them “without hindrance.”—Acts 28:16, 30, 31.
PAUL WITNESSES TO THE SMALL AND THE GREAT
In the course of his judicial duties, Burrus perhaps interviews the apostle Paul, either at the palace or at the Praetorian camp, before presenting the case to Nero. Paul does not miss this unique opportunity to “witness to both small and great.” (Acts 26:19-23) Whatever may have been Burrus’ evaluation, Paul is spared the prison in the Praetorian camp.*
Paul’s rented accommodations are large enough for him to receive “the principal men of the Jews” and to witness to them as well as to ‘greater numbers of others who came to him in his lodging place.’ He also has a captive audience in the Praetorian soldiers who hear him “bearing thorough witness” to Jews concerning both the Kingdom and Jesus, “from morning till evening.”—Acts 28:17, 23.
The Praetorian cohort on duty at the palace is changed daily at the eighth hour. Paul’s guard also changes regularly. During the two years of the apostle’s captivity, soldiers hear him dictate letters to the Ephesian, Philippian, Colossian, and Hebrew Christians and see him write his own letter to a Christian named Philemon. While imprisoned, Paul gives personal attention to a runaway slave, Onesimus, ‘to whom he became a father while in prison bonds,’ and sends him back to his master. (Philem. 10) Paul no doubt also takes a personal interest in his guardians. (1 Cor. 9:22) We can just imagine him questioning a soldier on the purpose of various pieces of armor and then using the information in a fine illustration.—Eph. 6:13-17.
“SPEAK THE WORD OF GOD FEARLESSLY”
Paul’s imprisonment contributes to “the advancement of the good news” among all the Praetorian Guard and others. (Phil. 1:12, 13) The occupants of the Castra Praetoria have connections throughout the Roman Empire, as well as to the emperor and his vast household. That household consists of family members, servants, and slaves, some of whom become Christians. (Phil. 4:22) Through Paul’s bold witnessing, the brothers in Rome find the courage “to speak the word of God fearlessly.”—Phil. 1:14.
Paul’s witnessing in Rome is also a source of encouragement to us as we ‘preach the word in favorable season and troublesome season.’ (2 Tim. 4:2) Some of us are housebound, in nursing homes or hospitals, or even imprisoned for our faith. Whatever our circumstances, we may find an audience in those who come to us, perhaps to make house calls or to provide us with various services. When we courageously witness on every occasion, we see firsthand that ‘the word of God cannot be bound.’—2 Tim. 2:8, 9.
See the box entitled “The Praetorian Guard in Nero’s Day.”
A Roman cohort was a group of up to 1,000 soldiers.
See the box entitled “Sextus Afranius Burrus.”
Herod Agrippa was imprisoned here by Tiberius Caesar in 36/37 C.E. for expressing his wish that Caligula might soon become emperor. Upon his accession, Caligula rewarded Herod with a kingship.—Acts 12:1.
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A relief of Praetorian soldiers thought to be from the Arch of Claudius, built in 51 C.E.
© RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, NY
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The Praetorian Guard in Nero’s Day
The Praetorians were under oath to protect the emperor and his family. When on campaign, they carried their own standards bearing icons of the emperor as well as shields, often emblazoned with scorpions, the star sign of Tiberius Caesar. Commanded by tribunes and centurions, they also maintained order at the games and in the theaters and reinforced the firefighting service. Soldiers served for 16 years, instead of the 25 served in the legions, and received triple pay, abundant bonuses, and a generous retirement pay. Praetorians were also used to torture and execute prisoners. Following his second imprisonment, Paul may have been martyred at the hands of soldiers like those he endeavored to save.—2 Tim. 4:16, 17.
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This coin issued in the first century depicts the Praetorian camp
Courtesy Classical Numismatic Group, Inc./cngcoins.com
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Walls of the Castra Praetoria as they appear today
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During Paul’s captivity, soldiers heard him dictate letters
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Whatever our circumstances, we may find an audience in those who provide us with various services
[Box on page 16]
Sextus Afranius Burrus
Burrus was probably born in Vaison-la-Romaine, now in southern France, where an inscription bearing his name was found in 1884 C.E. In 51 C.E., he was elevated to the position of sole Prefect of the Praetorian Guard by Agrippina the Younger, wife and niece of Claudius Caesar. Agrippina groomed her young son, Nero, for the role of emperor under the direction of two tutors. One was Burrus, a distinguished soldier who provided military training. The other was the philosopher Seneca, who developed Nero’s intellect. At the opportune time, Agrippina had her husband poisoned. Before news of Claudius’ death broke, Burrus escorted Nero to the Castra Praetoria and had him proclaimed emperor by the Praetorian Guard, leaving the Senate no option but to accept the choice. When Nero had his mother murdered in 59 C.E., Burrus provided a cover-up. Roman historians Suetonius and Cassius Dio claim that Burrus was poisoned by Nero in 62 C.E.
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An inscription bearing the name of Sextus Afranius Burrus
Musée Calvet Avignon