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The Latin term praetorium—or prætorium or pretorium—originally signified a general's tent within a Roman castrum, castellum, or encampment. It derived from the name of one of the chief Roman magistrates, the praetor. Praetor (Latin, "leader") was originally the title of the highest-ranking civil servant in the Roman Republic, but later became a position directly below the rank of consul.
The general's war council would meet within this tent, thus acquiring an administrative and juridical meaning that was carried over into the Byzantine Empire, where the praitōrion was the residence of a city's governor. The term was also used for the emperor's headquarters and other large residential buildings or palaces. The name would also be used to identify the praetorian camp and praetorian troops stationed in Rome. A general's bodyguard was known as the cohors praetoriae, out of which developed the Praetorian Guard, the emperor's bodyguard.
Due to the number of uses for the word praetorium, describing can be difficult. A praetorium could be a large building, a permanent tent structure, or in some cases even be mobile.
Since the praetorium originated as the officer's quarters it could be a tent, but was often a large structure. The important design aspect of the praetorium is not symmetry, but rather proportion of one element to another. The Praetorium was constructed around two open courts, which correspond to the atrium and peristyle of the Roman house. Most praetoriums had areas surrounding them delegated for exercise and drills conducted by the troops. The area ahead of the camp would be occupied by the tents housing the commander's soldiers. They were made with brick, covered in plaster, with many arches and columns.
Model of the praetorium in Roman Cologne
Outer view of the supposed praetorium at Musmiye, Syria, demolished in 1890
Within the praetorium Roman officers would be able to conduct official business within special designed and designated areas. A Praetorium would normally display information regarding the sportulae (schedule of fees and taxes) of its region carved directly into the walls of its main public areas. This would often be located near the office of the financial procurator.
In the New Testament, praetorium refers to the palace of Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect of Judea, which is believed to have been in one of the residential palaces built by Herod the Great for himself in Jerusalem, which at that time was also the residence of his son, king Herod II. According to the New Testament, this is where Jesus Christ was tried and condemned to death. Praetorium is variously translated as "common hall", "governor's house", "judgment hall", "Pilate's house", or "palace". (see Gospel of John 18:28, Mark 15:16) As well, Paul was held in Herod's Praetorium.
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