In ancient Rome, an officer with authority to judge cases of equity, responsibility for producing public games, and, in the absence of a consul, extensive authority in the government. After a one-year term, a praetor typically went on to govern a province. Originally only a patrician magistrate could be a praetor, but from circa 337 BC, the position was also open to plebeians. The number of praetors increased to eight by the 1st century BC, two for civil matters and six for specific courts. It continued to vary under different government leaders and emperors; by the late empire, only the city praetor for public games remained.
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The prefix prae is a good indication that the title-holder was prior in some way in society. Livy mentions that the Latini were led and governed in warfare by two of them and the Samnites by one. A dictator was called the praetor maximus. The use of the adjectives (praetorius, praetoricius, praetorianus) in a large number of circumstances testify to a general sense. The leadership functions of any corporate body at Rome might be termed praetorial.
The praetoria potestas in Republican Rome was at first held by the consuls. These two officials, elected on a yearly basis, inherited the power of the king. Very likely, the king himself was the first praetor, but in what sense? The best explanation available is that of Cicero in De legibus, in which he proposes ideal laws based on Roman constitutional theory:
Livy explains that in the year 366 BC the praetura was created to relieve the consuls of their judicial duties. The praetor was, in English, the chief justice, and yet more than that. The consuls were his peers; he was elected by the same electorate and sworn in on the same day with the same oath. With them he retained the ius militiae. The constitution was amended in this way to satisfy the patricians. One position of consul had to be opened to the plebeians. Until 337 BC the praetor was chosen only from the patricians.
From then on praetors appear frequently in Roman history, first as generals and judges, then as provincial governors. Beginning in the late Republic, a former Praetor could serve as a Propraetor ("in place of the Praetor") and act as the governor of one of Rome's provinces. Propraetors were much in demand.
The elected Praetor was a Magistratus Curulis, exercised the Imperium, and consequently was one of the Magistratus Majores. He had the right to sit in the sella curulis and wear the toga praetexta. He was attended by six lictors. A praetor was a magistrate with imperium within his own sphere, subject only to the veto of the consuls (who outranked him).
The potestas and the imperium of the consuls and the praetors under the republic should not be exaggerated. They did not use independent judgement in resolving matters of state. Unlike today's executive branches, they were assigned high-level tasks directly by senatorial decree under the authority of the SPQR.
Livy describes the assignments given to either consuls or praetors in some detail. As magistrates they had standing duties to perform, especially of a religious nature. The senate defined what senior positions were to exist before the elections. Immediately after the elections, the new officials cast lots for the assignments, which were mainly provincial governorships. As there came to be considerably more praetors than there were consuls, the praetors took most of the provinces. A province given to consuls was termed consular. Proconsuls and propraetors joined in the lottery as well. The entire population of these elected officials were the department heads of the government.
Any consul or any praetor could at any time be pulled away from his duties of the moment to head a task force, and there were many, especially military. The Roman government worked hard and was always understaffed. Livy mentions that, among other tasks, these executive officers were told to lead troops to a threat, foreign or domestic, investigate possible subversion, raise troops, conduct special sacrifices, distribute windfall money, appoint commissioners and exterminate locusts. The one principle that limited what could be assigned to them was that it must not be minima, "little things. They were by definition doers of maxima. Thus, on a military assignment, the praetor was always the commanding general, never a lesser officer. Praetors could delegate at will.
The Senate required that some senior officer remain in Rome at all times. This duty now fell to the Praetor Urbanus. As is implied by the name, he was allowed to leave the city only for up to ten days at a time. He was therefore given appropriate duties at Rome. He superintended the Ludi Apollinares. He was also the chief magistrate for the administration of justice and the promulgation of Edicta, which formed a corpus of precedents. The development and improvement of Roman Law owes much to these precedents.
The expansion of Roman authority over other lands required the addition of praetors. Two were created in 227 BC, for the administration of Sicily and Sardinia, and two more when the two Spanish provinces were formed in 197 BC. Lucius Cornelius Sulla increased the number of Praetors to eight, which Julius Caesar raised successively to ten, then fourteen, and finally to sixteen.
The need for administrators remained just as acute. After several changes Augustus fixed the number at twelve. Under Tiberius there were sixteen. As imperial administrators their duties extended to matters the republic would have considered minima. Two praetors were appointed by Claudius for matters relating to Fideicommissa (trusts), when the business in that department of the law had become considerable, but Titus reduced the number to one; and Nerva added a Praetor for the decision of matters between the Fiscus (treasury) and individuals. Marcus Aurelius appointed a Praetor for matters relating to tutela (guardianship).
During the time of the Roman Republic the Urban Praetor issued an annual edict, usually on the advice of jurists (since the Praetor himself was not necessarily educated in the law), setting out the circumstances under which he would grant remedies. The legal provisions arising from the Praetor's Edict were known as ius honorarium; in theory the Praetor did not have power to alter the law, but in practice the Edict altered the rights and duties of individuals and was effectively a legislative document. In the reign of Hadrian, however, the terms of the Edict were made permanent and the Praetor's de facto legislative role was abolished.
These quaestiones looked into crimina publica, "crimes against the public", such as were worthy of the attention of a Praetor. The penalty on conviction was usually death, but sometimes other severe penalties were used. In the late Republic the public crimes were Repetundae, Ambitus, Majestas, and Peculatus, which, when there were six Praetors, were assigned to four out of the number. Sulla added to these Quaestiones those of Falsum, De Sicariis et Veneficis, and De Parricidis and for this purpose he added two or according to some accounts four praetors.
In Italy, until 1998, Praetor was a magistrate with particular duty (especially in civil branch).
Classical Latin Praetor became medieval Latin Pretor; Praetura, Pretura, etc.