Praetorium was the Latin term to signify the commander’s (Praetor) office (or tent) in a Roman base (or encampment). Accordingly, the guards of the commander were called cohors praetoriae – The pretorian guards. In Rome itself the “Praetorian guard” was the lifeguard of the Emperor.
Over time the term “Praetorium” was also used in Roman civilian context, and in the Byzantine period it became the common tern for the Governor’s seat (i.e. The Byzantine Praetorium of Caesarea).
Praetorium and the trial of Jesus
The New Testament records the place of the trial of Jesus as taking place in Jerusalem, at the Praetorion (John 18:28; Mark 15:16; Mat 27:27). Most English translation translated this term to “Palace”. At that time there was a grand palace set next to today’s Jaffa gate. According to First Century CE historian Flavius Josephus, Herod built a spacious palace on the western hill. Byzantine period sources document Christian pilgrims visiting this site and identifying it as the site of the trial of Jesus. Furthermore, in 2001 remains of this palace were even discovered, buried beneath an Old prison.
Yet today non of the Christian pilgrims identify the trial of Jesus to take place here. It is identified elsewhere, near the Temple Mount, at a site that today functions as a – Muslim school.
About 2,000 years a giant fort was built at this site, by King Herod. He named it Antonia, after co-emperor Mark Antony.
Traces of the Antonia were uncovered in the 19th century. But the claim that this is really the sire of Trial of Jesus began by the Crusaders, about 800 years ago.
Was the Antonia a Praetorium?
In general, the Crusaders changed or invented traditions throughout the Holy Land. Mary’s tomb, for instance, was identified by the Crusaders in the Kidron valley; Akko was identified with Philistine Ekron; and the Herodian water reservoirs south of Jerusalem were labeled by the Crusaders “Solomon’s pools”.
Nevertheless, there is some ration in the Crusaders’ proposal that the trial of Jesus took place in a fortress next to the Temple Mount and not in the former palace of Herod.
Firstly, it makes sense that during the Jewish festive holiday of Passover the Roman governor would want to be at the fort that monitors the Temple mount. Public Jewish assemblies could lead to riots after all. And while monitoring the Temple Mount, Pilate also dealt with the trials of that day. We know for sure that he had at least three cases that morning – 2 thieves, and one claiming to bring a new heavenly Kingdom.
Secondly, Luke reports that during the trial King Herod Antipas was also in Jerusalem. It is quite possible that he was using his father’s royal property.
And finally – we have archaeology. In the 19th century not only were the foundations of the Antonia fortress uncovered (Unfortunately they were later covered up). Moreover, to its west, a big plaza paved with stones was discovered. This find is in line with the Gospel of John, who states that at the end his trial, Jesus was presented to the public at the “Paved with stones [area]” (in Greek – Lithostrotos). Although most archaeologist believe this plaza was paved about a 100 years later, there may have been an earlier paved plaza in the same area in the time of Jesus.
Touring the Antonia / Praetorium
After exposing the foundations of Herod’s Antonia fortress, the Roman-Catholic church covered it again, and erected over it two small chapels. The first is devoted to the trial and condemnation of Jesus to death. The second is presenting where Jesus was sent from the place of trial to his place of execution. By local tradition the steps on which Jesus walked out of the judgment hall were found centuries later. They were pulled out, and carried to Rome, where they are venerated to this day, in the church of Scala Sancta.
Today, on daily basis, thousands of devout Christian pilgrims, and especially catholic groups, start a ceremonial march from theses chapels. They walk along the Via Dolorosa (Latin for “Way of suffering”), the path believed to be way Jesus walked from the place of his trial to the site of his execution – the Golgotha.
Some pilgrim groups will share carrying a big wooden Cross when walking on this path, singing and contemplating on the last journey of Jesus.