In the government of Rome, praetors ranked just below consuls* in administrative authority. Like the consuls, praetors held official power, called imperium, for a term of one year. A praetor performed all the functions of a consul, but his power was less, and he could be overruled by a consul in a dispute. The praetor’s main duties included administering the courts, presiding over the Roman Senate and assemblies, and commanding armies. Eventually, being a praetor became a prerequisite for becoming a consul.
The title of praetor was given to the two magistrates elected each year to serve as heads of government during the Roman Republic*. In 367 B.C., these two officials were renamed consuls, and the title of praetor was given to a third magistrate, who assisted in governing the state. Another praetor was added about 244 B.C., and four more praetors were added during the next 50 years to govern the territories conquered by the Romans. Although Rome continued to add new provinces* during the 100s B.C., the number of praetors remained at six. To ease the increasing burden of governing the provinces, the praetors’ terms of office were extended. The extension enabled them to attend to their duties in Rome during the first year in office, before leaving the city to govern the provinces. The Roman dictator Sulla later increased the number of praetors to eight and fixed the minimum age for the office at 39.
Praetors continued to command armies during the Roman civil wars, but this practice ended under Augustus, the first emperor. During the Roman Empire, the number of praetors changed again, ranging from 10 to 16. They retained their traditional roles of presiding over the Senate and the criminal courts as well as organizing and financing major public games. Although somewhat reduced in power from the days of the republic, the praetorship still retained much of its importance, since it was a stepping-stone to more powerful posts. (See also Armies, Roman; Consuls; Dictatorship, Roman; Government, Roman; Quaestor.)
* consul one of two chief governmental officials of Rome, chosen annually and serving for a year
* Roman Republic Rome during the period from 509 B.C. to 31 B.C., when popular assemblies annually elected their governmental officials
* province overseas area controlled by Rome