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What is a praetor's chair?

Updated: 4/28/2022
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Today probably the most common reference to a "praetor's chair" is that found in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar (Act I, Scene III), when Cassius, one of the conspirators, if not the main conspirator, plotting Caesar's assassination, instructs Cinna, a co-conspirator, to "take this paper, And look you lay it in the praetor's chair, Where Brutus may but find it."

At the time of the Roman Republic and into the time of the Roman Empire, the administration of justice was the responsibility of a curule magistracy with imperium (the power vested by the state in the magistrate to do what he considers to be in the best interests of the state). Known as a praetorship, this was an extremely high office ranking only just below the office of consul in the cursus honorum; the sequential order of public offices.

The appointment was said to be a curule one because, as well as wearing the purple-bordered toga - the toga praetexta -signifying his rank and status, when hearing substantive cases, the praetor would sit on the sella curulis, a special seat, and a further symbol of the praetor's elevated rank and status. Traditionally made of or veneered with ivory, with curved legs forming a wide X, no back, and low arms,the praetor's chair would stand upon a tribunal (from the Latin, tribūnal, tribūnālis), a raised platform expressly erected for that purpose; to further emphasise the praetor's importance.

To explain the Shakespearean reference: In 44BCE, the year of Julius Caesar's assassination, Mark Anthony had been elected one of the two consuls of Rome. This was the highest legal administrative office in the Roman government, second only to Caesar himself. Cassius clearly believed that leaving a communication on the Praetor's chair minimised any risk of compromising the assassination plot or revealing the identities of those complicit in the plot.

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