The Imperial Guard and Roman-era military/civil service roles

This post is an appendix to this one in which I discussed military roles for Christians in the Roman era.  Two side questions arose, and I decided to post separately this material about the “Praetorian Guard” in Philippians and some important historical information on military roles.

Imperial (Praetorian) Guard

The term “Praetorian Guard” in Philippians 1:13 has been suggested as proof of Christians serving in military roles at that time.  The term offers no such positive example, in my opinion. 

The text in question is this:  “it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard, and to everyone else, that my imprisonment is because I am in Christ.” (CSB)  The verbiage highlights one result of Paul’s incarceration:  the word had been spread.  The grammatical construction is a bit complex, but we may readily determine that the subject of the clause is “imprisonment.”  The aorist tense of the verb is typically understood as a basic past tense (“became”), so the typical rendering rendering as “has become known” could mislead one into finding some emphasis on the activity or on those on the receiving end of the process of evangelization.

The literary context in Philippians certainly speaks to the sharing of the gospel among people.  The emphasis of verses 12-20 is what Paul wants his Philippians friends to know—namely, that his suffering has a good purpose and has served to further the spread of the news.   The reference to the “praitorio” seems to be a secondary, even hyperbolic insertion.  While it might have been true that some Roman soldiers had become Christian, putting on Christ over their allegiance to Rome, that eventuality is by no means explicit in this text.  All we can determine by reading is that it was known “within the praitorio” that Paul’s imprisonment was for Christ’s cause.

The word πραιτωρίῳ | praitorio can refer to the palace, official residence, barracks, or body of persons connected with legal judgment.  The word is borrowed from Latin and is used seven times in the NT:  Phil 1:13 and Acts 23:25; plus five instances total in three gospels, all with the same referent.  Any linguistic differentiation between the gospel instances and the other two instances is because of the pairing with one of two prepositions.  Where the gospels have eis to praitorion, Philippians and Acts have en to praitorio.  In each case, the initial preposition (eis or en) determines the ending on the noun/object.  The difference is subtle, and I might relate it to the English difference between “in/into the hall” and “in/within the hall.”

Regardless of the prepositional phrase, the essential meaning of the noun appears to be a location, not a group of people—although by extension, the soldiers/government officials in the places could have been indicated.  (In other words, if I exclaim, “The whole store heard that!” we understand that I really mean the people found throughout the store, not the floors and pillars and shelves and racks.  A similar sense seems to be present here.)  Whether the Philippians instance refers directly to Roman officers or more generally to people in and around a palace or barracks, neither the word nor its context provides any basis for assuming that there were Christians in Rome who were serving in fighting roles.

Military/Civil Service Roles

Richard Davies, in his article “Relations between the Early Church and the Roman Military Establishment,”² paints a relatively complex picture of military roles—and their acceptance among Christians—in the second and third centuries CE.  Davies appeals in one case to Eusebius (whose historical writing displays an imperial, Constantinian color) in connecting (1) Christian prayer with (2) the subsequent success of a particular military campaign.  The article also notes a record of eight gravestones of Christian soldiers prior to Constantine but acknowledges that soldiers of the time “filled a much larger role than offensive and defensive fighting.”  Those “soldiers” might also have been “responsible for material improvements in the empire, such as bridges, aqueducts, and roads,” for example.

It appears from Davies’s research that cities that developed around “military” establishments might not have known any direct connection with war or fighting for many years at a time.  Depending on the geographical location and regional politics, there might have been peace and prosperity in many areas, with “military” men carrying out functions along the lines of current-day city managers and police.  All these roles appear to have carried with them a certain status, along with provision for retirement.  “During the reign of Constantine [and possibly prior to Constantine, as well -bc], the ordinary person apparently recognized no difference between a soldier and a civil servant,” Davies asserts.

The bottom line:  I glean from all this that some believers of the 2nd and 3rd centuries (i.e., prior to Constantine and Theodosius) served the Roman Empire in one official role or another, and some doubtless served as fighting men.  However, not every reference to a garrison, a centurion, or a “soldier” may be taken as indication or general approval of involvement in the military.


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