The Praetorian Guard (Latin: PRÆTORIANI) was a special force of guards used by Roman Emperors. Before being appropriated for the use of the Emperors' personal guards, the title was used for the guards of Roman generals, at least since the rise to prominence of the Scipio family; around 275 BC. Constantine I dissolved the Guard in the fourth century.
The term "Praetorian" derived from the tent of the commanding general or praetor of a Roman army 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 guards 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 (Octavian). 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 on the battlefield but in politics also. Thus, from the ranks of the legions throughout the provinces, Augustus recruited the Praetorian Guard.
The group that was formed initially differed greatly from the later Guard, which would stoop to assassinate 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, originally of 500, then increased to 1,000 men each, and only three were kept on duty at any given time in the capital. A small number of detached cavalry units (turmae (sing. 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 appointment by Augustus in 2 BC of two Praetorian prefects, Quintus Ostorius Scapula and Publius Salvius Aper, although organization and command were improved.
Augustus's death on August 19, 14, marked the end of the Praetorian calm. Augustus would be the sole emperor who could command the Praetorians' complete loyalty. From his death, the Praetorians would serve whatever ends they believed were to their personal benefit. 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 imperial 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 partisans of Sejanus. Although 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.
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.
During 69, the Year of the Four Emperors, after the emperor Galba failed to provide a donative for the Praetorians, they transferred their allegiance to Otho and assassinated the emperor. Otho acquiesced in the Praetorians' demands and granted them the right to appoint their own prefects, ensuring their loyalty. After defeating Otho, Vitellius disbanded the guard and established a new one sixteen cohorts strong. Vespasian relied in the war against Vitellius upon the disgruntled cohorts the emperor had dismissed, and reduced the number of cohorts back to nine upon becoming emperor himself. As a further safeguard, he appointed his son, Titus as Praetorian Prefect.
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, when the Guard auctioned it off after killing Pertinax. Later that year Septimius Severus marched into Rome, disbanded the Praetorians and started a new formation from his own Pannonian Legions. Unruly mobs in Rome fought often with the Praetorians 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 Palmyrenes 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 a selection process and command structure modeled after the old Praetorian cohorts, but was not of uniform composition and was much larger than a Praetorian cohort.
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 (100 km) from Byzantium in Asia Minor. Two new corps, the Jovians and Herculians (named after the gods Jove, or Jupiter, 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 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 that of the Praetorians.
|Emperor||Year||Relationship with the Guard|
|Augustus||27 BC - AD 14||Created the Praetorian Guard, commanded their complete loyalty|
|Tiberius||14 - 37||Allowed Sejanus to gain power as the Guard prefect particularly through allowing him sole (as opposed to joint) control and by allowing him to concentrate the guard in a single camp. Tiberius then had him executed and replaced him with Macro|
|Gaius Caligula||37 - 41||Accession smoothed by popularity with Macro, the Praetorian Prefect he later executed. Murdered by the Guard|
|Claudius||41 - 54||Proclaimed emperor by the Guard and defended by them when in difficulty e.g. Messalina and Gaius Silius' attempted coup. Began the process of formalised accession donatives on a large scale and his coinage reflects the fact with coin captioned imper.recep i.e. "position of emperor received from" with a picture of the Praetorian camp on.|
|Nero||54 - 68||Deserted by the Guard|
|Galba||68 - 69||Murdered by the Guard whose accession donative, promised on his behalf by Tigellinus and Otho, he refused to pay.|
|Otho||69||Elevated by the Guard who fought ferociously for him at Cremona before he committed suicide|
|Vitellius||69||Deposed by the Guard then executed|
|Vespasian||69 - 79||Reduced the size of the Guard after victory in 69|
|Titus||79 - 81||Served as Praetorian prefect, then as emperor|
|Domitian||81 - 96||His election was supported by the Guard who remained loyal to him, especially as he increased the army's pay. Killed by his influential palace freedmen.|
|Nerva||96 - 98||Humiliated by his Guard and forced(?) to adopt Marcus Ulpius Traianus, a military strong man, as colleague and successor|
|Trajan||98 - 117||Executed the Guard officers who led the rebellion against Nerva.|
|Hadrian||117 - 138||Founded the Frumentarii|
|Antoninus Pius||138 - 161|
|Marcus Aurelius||161 - 180||Made use of the Guard in his war against the Germanian Tribes.|
|Lucius Verus||161 - 169|
|Commodus||180 - 192||Bribed the guard and had their loyalty|
|Pertinax||193||Assassinated by the Guard|
|Didius Julianus||193||Purchased the Empire from the Guard but was later deserted by them|
|Septimius Severus||193 - 211||Disbanded the Guard and created a new one from the Danubian Legions|
|Caracalla||211 - 217||Murdered in a plot by his Prefect, Macrinus|
|Macrinus||217 - 218|
|Elagabalus||218 - 222||Murdered in the Castra Praetoria by the Guard|
|Alexander Severus||222 - 235||Elevated by the Guard|
|Maximinus Thrax||235 - 238|
|Balbinus||238||Murdered by the Guard|
|Pupienus||238||Murdered by the Guard|
|Gordian III||238 - 244||Proclaimed emperor by the Guard but killed by his Prefect, Philip the Arab|
|Philip the Arab||244 - 249|
|Decius||249 - 251|
|Publius Licinius Valerianus||253-260|
|Aurelian||270-275||Murdered by the Guard|
|Marcus Claudius Tacitus||275-276|
|Probus||276 - 282||Murdered by Praetorian troops after a revolt|
|Diocletian||284 - 305||Effectively broke the power of the Praetorians|
|Maximian||286 - 305, 307 - 308|
|Flavius Valerius Severus||306-307|
|Maxentius||306-312||Last emperor to command the guard|
|Constantine I||306-337||Disbanded the Guard and destroyed the Castra Praetoria|
Around the time of Augustus (c. 5) each cohort of the Praetorians numbered 1,000 men, increasing to a high-water mark of 1,500 men. 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 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 legionnaires received 225 denarii, the guards received 375 per annum. Domitian and Septimius Severus increased the stipendum (payment) to 1,500 denarii per year, distributed 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 diploma 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.
From its beginnings, the guard usually included a small cavalry detachment, equites singulares augusti, to escort the emperors to important state functions and on military campaigns. It was comprised chiefly of selected, highly trusted provincials, who wore their native dress and carried their own weapons. Trajan expanded this force, opening it up to citizens and made it a permanent part of the Praetorian establishment. Its size was that of an ala quingenaria or about 512 horsemen in 16 turmae (troops). It was commanded by a Tribune, and so was, in effect a 10th Praetorian cohort. Later, Severus would double its size to an ala milliaria, giving it the same strength as the other nine cohorts.
|Ranks of the Praetorian Guard, in ascending order|
|Immunes||After five years these soldiers were allowed to serve in the Equites singulares (cavalry branch) or as Speculatores (special agents)|
|Evocati||After 16 years of service, retirement was possible but most soldiers chose to stay in this honorary unit.|
|Centuriones||Soldiers transferred to the Praetorian Guard after service in the legions, the Vigiles or the Urban Cohort|
|Tribuni||These officers also from the legions and usually of the Equestrian class, commanded a cohort. Centurions could rarely be promoted to the Tribuneship|
|Procuratores||A rank of the Equestrians|
|Praefectus||Available to the Vigiles and urban cohorts; the highest rank in the Praetorian Guard, head 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, as administrator of a quarter of the empire), and its Germanic continuation