Praetorian Guard

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.

Original form of the 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.

Political role

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.

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 (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.

Legacy of the Guard

Although its name has become synonymous with intrigue, conspiracy, disloyalty and assassination, it could be argued that for the first two centuries of its existence the Praetorian Guard was, on the whole, a positive force in the Roman state. During this time it mostly removed (or allowed the removal of) cruel, weak, and unpopular emperors while generally supporting just, strong, and popular ones. By protecting these monarchs, thus extending their reigns, and also by keeping the disorders of the mobs of Rome and the intrigues of the Senate in line, the Guard helped give the empire a much needed stability that contributed to the period known as the Pax Romana. Only after the reign of Marcus Aurelius, when this period is generally considered to have ended, did the guard began to deteriorate into the ruthless, mercenary and meddling force for which it has become infamous. However, during the Severan dynasty and afterwards during the Crisis of the Third Century, the legions, the Senate, and the emperorship along with the rest of Roman government were falling into decadence and decline as well.

Relationships between emperors and their Guard

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
Gordian I 238
Gordian II 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
Herennius Etruscus 251
Hostilian 251
Trebonianus Gallus 251-253
Aemilianus 253
Publius Licinius Valerianus 253-260
Gallienus 260-268
Claudius II 268-270
Quintillus 270
Aurelian 270-275 Murdered by the Guard
Marcus Claudius Tacitus 275-276
Florianus 276
Probus 276 - 282 Murdered by Praetorian troops after a revolt
Carus 282-283
Carinus 283-285
Numerian 283-284
Diocletian 284 - 305 Effectively broke the power of the Praetorians
Maximian 286 - 305, 307 - 308
Galerius 305-311
Constantius Chlorus 305-306
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

Organization and conditions of service

Although the Praetorians have similarities, they are unlike any of the regular Legions of the Roman Empire. Their nine cohorts (one less than a legion) 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. 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.

Imperial Horseguard

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.

Rank and file

Ranks of the Praetorian Guard, in ascending order
Milites Regular soldiers
Immunes After five years these soldiers were allowed to serve in the Equites singulares (cavalry branch) or as Speculatores (special agents)
Principales Legionary administrators
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

  • 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, as administrator of a quarter of the empire), and its Germanic continuation

Reception history

In Modern English, the phrase "praetorian guard(s)" designates an exclusive, unconditionally loyal group personally attached to powerful people, especially dictators such as Napoleon I's Imperial Guard, Adolf Hitler's SS troops or Romania's former communist leader Ceauşescu's Securitate. Jeremy Scahill refers to Blackwater USA as the Praetorian Guard of the George W. Bush administration. However, the term is also used in unarmed, even private contexts: for example, a corporate officer or politician 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. Praetorianism is used to mean the advocacy or practice of military dictatorship. 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.

The Praetorian Guard features in the 2000 film Gladiator and the TV-film Age of Treason (Columbia 1993). The Guard's soldiers appear as infantry units in Civilization IV, Rome: Total War and Travian.



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