Praetorian Guard

From Academic Kids

The Praetorian Guard (sometimes Prtorian Guard) (in Latin: praetoriani) comprised a special force of bodyguards used by Roman emperors. Before them it was used by warlords, back at least to the Scipio family — around 275 BC.



The term "Praetorian" came from the tent of the legatus of a legion in the field—the praetorium. It was a habit of many Roman generals to choose from the ranks a private force of soldiers to act as bodyguards of the tent or the person. They consisted of both infantry and cavalry. In time, this cohort came to be known as the cohors praetoria, and various notable figures possessed one, including Julius Caesar, Mark Antony and Augustus Caesar (Octavianus). As Caesar discovered with the Legio X Equestris, a powerful unit more dangerous than its fellow legions was desirable in the field. When Augustus became the first ruler of the Roman Empire in 27 BC, he decided such a formation was useful not only in war but in politics. Thus, from the ranks of the legions throughout the provinces, Augustus recruited the Praetorian Guard.

Early Guard

The group that was formed initially differed greatly from the later Guard, which would murder emperors. While Augustus understood the need to have a protector in the maelstrom of Rome, he was careful to uphold the Republican veneer of his regime. Thus he allowed only nine cohorts to be formed, each 500 to 1,000 men, and only three were kept on duty at any given time in the capital. A small number of detached cavalry units (turma) of 30 men each were also organized. While they patrolled inconspicuously, in the palace and major buildings, the others were stationed in the towns surrounding Rome; no threats were possible from these individual cohorts. This system was not radically changed with the arrival of two Praetorian prefects in 2 BC, Q Ostorius Scapula and Salvius Aper, although organization and command were improved.

Augustus' death on August 19, AD 14, marked the end of Praetorian calm. Through the machinations of their ambitious prefect, Lucius Aelius Sejanus, the Guard was brought from the Italian barracks into Rome itself. In 23, Sejanus convinced Tiberius to have the Castra Praetoria (the camp of the Praetorians) built just outside of Rome. One of these cohorts held the daily guard at the royal palace. Henceforth the entire Guard was at the disposal of the emperors, but the rulers were now equally at the mercy of the Praetorians. The reality of this was seen in 31 when Tiberius was forced to rely upon his own cohors praetoria against partitions of Sejanus. Though the Praetorian Guard proved faithful to the aging Tiberius, their potential political power had been made clear.

While campaigning, the Praetorians were the equal of any formation in the Roman Army. Seldom used in the early reigns, they were quite active by 69. They fought well at the first battle of Bedriacum for Otho. Under Domitian and Trajan, the guard took part in wars from Dacia to Mesopotamia, while with Marcus Aurelius, years were spent on the Danubian frontier. Throughout the 3rd century, the Praetorians assisted the emperors in various campaigns.

Political meddling

Following the death of Sejanus, who was sacrificed for the Donativum (imperial gift) promised by Tiberius, the Guards began to play an increasingly ambitious and bloody game in the Empire. With the right amount of money, or at will, they assassinated emperors, bullied their own prefects, or turned on the people of Rome. In 41 Caligula was killed by conspirators from the senatorial class and from the Guard. The Praetorians placed Claudius on the throne, daring the senate to oppose their decision.

While the Guard had the power to kill off emperors, it had no role in government administration, unlike the personnel of the palace, the Senate, and the bureaucracy. Often after an outrageous act of violence, revenge by the new ruler was forthcoming. In 193 Didius Julianus purchased the Empire from the Guard for a vast sum, after the Guard auctioned it off. Later that year Septimius Severus marched into Rome, disbanded the Praetorians and started a new formation from his own Pannonian Legions. Even Vespasian in 69, who relied upon the disgruntled cohorts dismissed by Vitellius, reduced their rank in number when ascending the throne. Unruly mobs in Rome fought often with the Praetorian in Maximinus Thrax's reign in vicious street battles.

In 271 Aurelian sailed east to destroy the power of Palmyra, Syria with a force of legionary detachments, Praetorian cohorts, and other cavalry units. The Palmyrans were easily defeated. This led to the orthodox view that Diocletian and his colleagues evolved the sacer comitatus (the field escort of the emperors) which included field units that utilized selection process, command structure, and modeled after the old Praetorian cohorts, but was not of uniform composition and was much larger than a Praetorian cohort.

Guard's Twilight Years

In 284 Diocletian reduced the status of the Praetorians; they were no longer to be part of palace life, as Diocletian lived in Nicomedia, some 60 miles from Byzantium in Asia Minor. Two new corps, the Jovians and Herculians (named after the gods Iove=Iuppiter and Hercules, associated with the senior and junior emperor), replaced the Praetorians as the personal protectors of the emperors, a practice that remained intact with the tetrarchy. By the time Diocletian retired on May 1, 305, their barracks (Castra Praetoria) seems to have housed only a minor garrison of Rome.

The final act of the Praetorians in imperial history started in 306, when Maxentius, son of the retired emperor Maximian, was passed over as a successor: the troops took matters into their own hands and elevated him to the position of emperor in Italy on October 28. Caesar Flavius Valerius Severus, following the orders of Galerius, attempted to disband the Guard but only managed to lead the rest of them in revolting and joining Maxentius. When Constantine the Great, launching an invasion of Italy in 312, forced a final confrontation at the Milvian Bridge, the Praetorian cohorts made up most of Maxentius' army. Later in Rome, the victorious Constantine definitively disbanded the Praetorian Guard. The soldiers were sent out to various corners of the Empire, and the Castra Praetoria was demolished. For over 300 years they had served, and the destruction of their fortress was a grand gesture, inaugurating a new age of imperial history and ending the Praetorians.

Relationships between emperors and their Guard

Relationships between various emperors and their Guard
Caesar Augustus27 BC - AD 14created the Praetorian Guard
Tiberius14 - 37allowed Sejanus to gain power as the Guard's prefect
Caligula37 - 41murdered by the Guard
Claudius41 - 54.proclaimed emperor by the Guard
Nero54 - 68deserted by the Guard
Galba68 - 69murdered by the Guard
Otho69elevated by the Guard
Vitellius69deposed by the Guard then killed
Vespasian69 - 79.reduced the size of the Guard after victory in 69
Titus79 - 81served as Praetorian prefect, then as emperor
Domitian81 - 96election supported by the Guard, later murdered by his prefects
Nerva96 - 98humiliated by his Guard and died during a siege against him
Trajan98 - 117
Hadrian117 - 138founded the Frumentarii
Antoninus Pius138 - 161
Marcus Aurelius161 - 180
Lucius Verus161 - 169
Commodus180 - 192murdered by his prefect in a plot
Pertinax193assassinated by the Guard
Didius Julianus193purchased the Empire from the Guard
Septimius Severus193 - 211disbanded the Guard and created a new one from the Pannonian Legions
Caracalla211 - 217murdered in a plot by his Prefect Macrinus
Macrinus217 - 218first prefect since Titus to become emperor
Elagabalus218 - 222murdered in the Castra Praetoria by the Guard
Alexander Severus222 - 235elevated by the Guard
Maximinus Thrax235 - 238
Gordian I238
Gordian II238
Balbinus238murdered by the Guard
Pupienus238murdered by the Guard
Gordian III238 - 244Proclaimed emperor by the Guard but killed by his prefect, Philip the Arab
Philip the Arab244 - 249another prefect to become Emperor
Decius249 - 251
Herennius Etruscus251
Trebonianus Gallus251-253
Publius Licinius Valerianus253-260
Claudius II268-270
Aurelian270-275murdered by the Guard
Marcus Claudius Tacitus275-276
Florianus276a prefect who became emperor
Probus276 - 282killed by Praetorian troops after a revolt
Carus282-283probably poisoned by Prefect Aper
Numerian283-284poisoned by Aper
Diocletian284 - 305effectively broke the power of the Praetorians
Maximian286 - 305, 307 - 308
Constantius Chlorus305-306
Flavius Valerius Severus306-307
Maxentius306-312last emperor to command the guard
Constantine the Great306-337disbanded the Guard and destroyed the Castra Praetoria

Organization and conditions of service

Although the Praetorians have similarities, they are unlike any of the regular Legions of the Roman Empire. Their 9 (1 less then a legion) cohorts were larger, the pay and benefits were better, and its military abilities were reliable. They also received gifts of money called Donativum from the emperors. As conceived by Augustus, the Praetorian cohorts totaled around 9,000 men, recruited from the legions of the regular army or drawn from the most deserving youths in Etruria, Umbria, and Latium (three provinces in central Italy). Over time the pool of recruits expanded to Macedonia, Hispania Baetica, Hispania Tarraconensis, Lusitania and Illyricum. Vitellius formed a new Guard out of the Germanic legions, while Septimus Severus did the same with the Pannonian legions. He also chose replacements for the units' ranks from throughout the Roman Empire.

Around the time of Augustus (c. AD 5) each cohort of the Praetorians numbered 1,000 men, increasing to 1,500 a high-water mark. As with the normal legions, the body of troops actually ready for service was much smaller. Tacitus reports that the number of cohorts was increased to twelve from nine in 47. In 69 it was briefly increased to sixteen cohorts by Vitellius, but Vespasian quickly reduced it again to nine. Finally in 101 their number was increased to once more to ten, resulting in a force of 5,000 troops, whose status was at least elite.

The training of guardsmen was more intense than in the legions because of the amount of free time available, when a cohort was not posted or traveling with the emperor. The Guard followed the same lines as those elsewhere. Equipment and armour were also the same with one notable exception — specially decorated breastplates, excellent for parades and state functions. Insignia of the "Moon and Stars" and the "Scorpion" were particularly associated with the Praetorians. Thus, each guardsman possessed two suits of armor, one for Roman duty and one for the field.

  • The Praetorians received substantially higher pay than other Roman soldiers in any of the legions, on a system known as sesquiplex stipendum, or by pay-and-a-half. So if the legionaires received 225 denarii, the guards received 375. Domitian and Severus increased the stipendum (payment) to 1,500 denarii, distributed three times a year in January, May and September.

On special occasions they received special donativum from the emperor.

Upon retiring, a soldier of the Praetorians was granted 20,000 sesterces (5,000 denarii), a gift of land, and a Diplomata reading 'to the warrior who bravely and faithfully completed his service." Many chose to enter the Evocati, while others reenlisted in the hopes of gaining further promotion and other possible high positions in the Roman state.

Rank and file

Ranks of the Praetorian Guard, in ascending order
MilitesRegular soldiers
ImmunesAfter five years these soldiers were allowed to serve in the Equites singulares (cavalry branch) or as Speculatores (special agents)
PrincipalesLegionary administrators
EvocatiAfter 16 years of service, retirement was possible but most soldiers chose to stay in this honorary unit.
CenturionesSoldiers transferred to the Praetorian Guard after service in the legions, the Vigiles or the Urban cohort
TribuniThese officers also from the legions and usually of the Equestrian class, commanded a cohort. Centurions could rarely be promoted to the Tribuneship
ProcuratoresA rank of the Equestrians
PraefectusAvailable to the Vigiles and urban cohorts; the highest rank in the Praetorian Guard, head of the Praetorian Guard
  • Prefect(s) in command of the Praetorian Guard

See the article Praetorian prefect, which also lists the incumbents of the post of Praefectus praetorio and covers the essentially civilian second life of the office, since ca 300 AD, as administrator of a quarter of the empire),

Modern analogous uses of the term

  • In common language, the phrase "praetorian guard(s)" designates an exclusive, unconditionally loyal group personally attached to powerful people, especially dictators such as Adolf Hitler's SS troops or Romania's communist leader Ceaucescu's Securitate (secret police).
  • However, the term is also used in unarmed, even private contexts: for example, a corporate officer or politician (such as Richard M. Nixon or George W. Bush) may have a small group of associates or followers whom a journalist may describe as a "praetorian guard". Such use is often pejorative, meant to indicate that the followers are fanatics or extremists and/or that the leader is tyrannical or paranoid.

John Stockwell, a former member of the CIA, used the title The Praetorian Guard for his book about the negative aspects of U.S. foreign policy.

External link

de:Prtorianer pl:Pretorianie pt:Guarda pretoriana fi:Pretoriaanikaarti sv:Praetoriangardet


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