The Praetorian Guard

The Praetorian Guard: A History of Rome’s Elite Special Forces by Sandra Bingham 2013

About the Author
Sandra Bingham is Teaching Fellow in Classics, University of Edinburgh. She resides in Edinburgh, Scotland.

About the Book
No other special force in history has a mystique equal to that of ancient Rome’s thoroughbred protection and counter-insurgency squadron–the renowned Praetorian Guard. Originally conceived as a personal army for the emperor, the Guard assumed a much greater role than simple bodyguard, taking over a wide range of powers in the city and operating for more than 300 years. Inseparable from the machinery of the Roman state, the Praetorians had the power to make or break individual emperors.

In The Praetorian Guard, Sandra Bingham offers a comprehensive and timely history of this elite military unit, from its foundation by Augustus in 27 BCE to its disbandment by Constantine in 312 CE. Exploring the multifaceted nature of the Guard, she discusses and describes its arms and insignia, size and recruitment tactics, and command structure and individual duties, as well as Guard members’ family and religious lives. Bingham provides readers with a unique view of how others in antiquity portrayed these special forces and includes detailed illustrations, maps, and plans to paint a clear picture of this politically mighty military institution.

Bingham’s book is important if not essential reading for students of Roman imperial history; future work on the Praetorian Guard will depend in large part on the impressive efforts on display here.
— Lee Fratantuono ― The Historian

Through meticulous research and innovative interpretations, Sandra Bingham masterfully navigates the Praetorian Guard’s meager data bringing this clandestine group to the historical light.
— Shane J. Wood, Ozark Christian College ― Stone-Campbell Journal

The Praetorian Guard is a much-needed and valuable history of the Praetorian Guard from its origins to its disbandment by the emperor Constantine the Great in AD 312. Clear and concise in style, supported by ancient and current secondary sources, Bingham’s study is balanced in its treatment of an often partisan subject.
— Sara Elise Phang, author of Roman Military Service: Ideologies of Discipline in the Late Republic and Early Principate

Summary of Introduction
An elite unit of soldiers, these men mainly were responsible for the safety of the Roman emperor and his family, and were well rewarded for their loyalty.¹ They received a higher rate of pay than the rest of the army, they had better working conditions and their close relationship with the emperor singled them out as the most privileged group in the military.

But when Augustus decided to institute an armed unit for his personal use, he brought together both aspects of the earlier republican guard, making his imperial praetorians function not only in a military but also in an administrative capacity.

Throughout the Julio-Claudian period, reliance on these soldiers for tasks other than guarding the emperor and his family began to take shape, though this expanding role usually does not attract much notice in the sources.³ Even during the reign of Augustus, there had been a realization that having so many soldiers close to the capital meant they could be used in any number of situations requiring large numbers of trained personnel.

The placement of the praetorians in Rome and their close relationship with the emperor thus brought about the use of the guard in what might be considered unexpected ways.

On the other hand, they were also part of the routine civic administration in the capital, assisting the vigiles in firefighting and acting as security at the games and theatre.⁵ They were also involved in a variety of other tasks, ranging from map-making to engineering works.⁶ The guard could be employed in these duties precisely because it was the emperor’s personal unit and could therefore be adapted to whatever need he had of his soldiers.⁷ Throughout their history, the soldiers proved to be pragmatic concerning this relationship, carrying out whatever demands were made of them and showing themselves unwilling to put their privileged position at risk.

By the end of the first century AD, though, other units such as the frumentarii had been introduced for tasks that the praetorians had hitherto carried out, and the guard itself was beginning to be used more frequently in the field as frontline troops.⁸ Cohorts took part in the campaigns in Dacia under Trajan and those on the Danube under Marcus Aurelius, for example.

This was the case even after the creation in the early second century of the equites singulares Augusti, a mounted unit that served as an additional bodyguard in battle.⁹ It was only at the start of the reign of Septimius Severus (AD 193–211) that the guard of the first two centuries ceased to exist: they were cashiered and replaced with men from the legions.

But the hope that the praetorians would remain faithful to the emperor was in vain: instead, the unit played a pivotal role in the so-called ‘crisis of the third century’, being involved in the removal and accession of several emperors.

The general problem with the literary sources in the imperial period has been well documented and only a brief overview need be made here.¹¹ Much of the information on the early history of the guard is derived from only three sources: Tacitus, Suetonius and Cassius Dio.

It is rare that a passage deals only with the praetorians.¹² Other sources such as Josephus, the younger Seneca and the elder Pliny provide occasional glimpses into the workings of the guard in the first century AD, but without comment on the significance of the praetorians in the events that they narrate.

Numismatic evidence for the guard is not plentiful: there are a few coins illustrating its close relationship with the emperor in its early history in particular, but in general, praetorians are not singled out.¹⁶ The archaeological remains of the praetorian camp, the Castra Praetoria, in many ways provides more questions than answers (see Chapter 3).

Since the publication of the monumental work by Marcel Durry in 1938, Les Cohortes Prétoriennes, followed closely by Alfredo Passerini’s Le Coorti Pretorie, there have been few comprehensive studies of the guard and none easily accessible in English.¹⁷ Recent works in German, Spanish and French are virtually inaccessible to an English-speaking audience.¹⁸ General books on the army mention the unit, but usually only as imperial bodyguards, with rarely any mention of duties beyond that key responsibility.¹⁹ A recent study on the praetorian prefects includes some incidental information on the guard in its discussion of the commanders.²⁰ Durry’s work is still cited as the definitive study of the praetorians, and in fact most modern scholarship on the praetorians is based on material from his work.

Some books focus more tightly on the guard, for example, Optimus: Praetorian Guard (2006) by P.M. Prescott or Praetorian by Simon Scarrow (2011).

For example: ‘In Real Life [sic], the Praetorian Guard was a special force originally intending to serve as a Roman general’s bodyguard in combat, but the term was later restricted to the elite personal guard of the Roman Emperors.

In some cases, the Guard literally sold the Impeial [sic] office to the highest bidder, then turned on their new master when he faield [sic] to deliver on his extravagant promises.’²⁴ Generalizations are also common: ‘Both Praetorian prefects and common soldiers of the Guard tended to be vicious, ambitious, and extremely arrogant, far more dangerous to the average citizen than any law-breaker.’²⁵ That there is such a widespread interest in the praetorians online is gratifying; what is problematic is how much of what is out there is simply wrong.

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