The Praetorian Guard:
The Praetorians were the imperial guard of the Roman Empire. Created by Augustus to act as a special, elite force for his protection, they became a lasting influence upon Rome and its emperors.
The term Praetorian came from the tent of the legate of a legion in the field—the praetorium. It was the 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. In time, this cohort came to be known as the cohors praetoria, and various notable figures possessed one, including Julius Caesar, Marc Antony, and Octavian (Augustus). As Caesar discovered with the X Legion, a powerful unit more dangerous than its fellow legions was desirable in the field. When Augustus became the first ruler of the empire in 27 BCE, he decided such a formation was useful not only in war but also in politics. Thus, from the ranks of legions throughout the provinces, Augustus recruited the Praetorian 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 of 500 to 1,000 men, and only three were kept on duty at any given time in the capital. 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 BCE, Q. Ostorius Scapula and Salvius Aper, although organization and command were improved.
Augustus’s death in 14 CE 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 CESejanus convinced Tiberius to have the Castra Praetoria (the Camp of the Praetorians) built just outside of Rome. 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 owncohors praetoria against partisans of Sejanus. Though the Praetorian Guard proved faithful to the aging Tiberius, their potential political power had been made clear.
On campaign, the Praetorians were the equal of any formation in the Roman army. Seldom used in the early reigns, they were quite active by 69 CE. They fought well at the first battle of Bedriacum for Otho. UnderDomitian 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 third century CE, the Praetorians assisted the emperors in various crises.
From the death of Sejanus, who was sacrificed for the donativum (imperial gift) promised by Tiberius, the Guards began playing an increasingly ambitious and bloody game. At will, or for the right amount of money, they assassinated emperors, bullied their own prefects or turned on the people of Rome. In 41, Gaius Caligulawas killed by conspirators from the senatorial class and from the Guard. And the Praetorians placed Claudiuson the throne, daring the Senate to oppose their decision.
It is important, however, not to overestimate the place of the Praetorians in the imperial government. They could slaughter emperors but played no role in administration, as did the personnel of the palace, Senate and bureaucracy. Further, it was often the case that, after outrageous acts of violence, revenge by the new ruler was forthcoming. For example, in 193 CE Didius Julianus purchased the empire from the Guard for a vast sum. Later that year Septimius Severus marched into Rome, disbanded the Praetorians and founded a new formation from his Pannonian legions. Even Vespasian in 69, who had relied upon the disgruntled cohorts dismissed by Vitellius, reduced their ranks in number when ascending the throne. Unruly mobs in Rome fought often with the Praetorians in Maximinus‘s reign (ca. 235–236) in vicious street battles.
Diocletian, in 284, reduced the status of the Praetorians; they were no longer to be a part of palace life, as Diocletian lived in Nicomedia. A new corps of guards, the Jovians and Herculians, replaced the Praetorians as the personal protectors of the emperors, a practice that remained intact with the tetrarchy. By the time Diocletian retired in 305, the Castra Praetoria seems to have housed only a minor garrison of Rome.
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. When Constantine the Great, launching an invasion of Italy in 312, forced a final collision at the Milvian Bridge, the Praetorian cohorts made up most of Maxentius’s army. Later, in Rome, the victorious Constantine abolished the Guard. The soldiers were sent out to various corners of the empire, and the Castra Praetoria was pulled down. For over 300 years they had served, and the extirpation of the Praetorians was a grand gesture, inaugurating a new age of imperial history.
The following list indicates the relationships between various emperors and their Guard.
ORGANIZATION AND CONDITIONS OF SERVICE
Although there were obvious similarities, the Praetorian Guard was unlike any of the other legions in the Roman army. Its cohorts were larger, the pay and benefits better, and its military abilities were reliable. As conceived by Augustus, the Praetorian cohorts totaled around 9,000 men, recruited from the legions in the regular army or drawn from the most deserving youths in Etruria, Umbria, and Latium. In time, the pool of recruits expanded to Macedonia, the Spanish provinces and Illyricum. Vitellius formed a new Guard out of the German legions, while Septimius Severus did the same with the Pannonian legions. He also chose replacements for the units’ ranks from across the Roman Empire, undermining once more the primacy of Italy.
Around the time of Augustus (ca. 5 CE) each cohort of the Praetorians numbered 1,000 men, increasing to 1,500 at the time of Severus—a highwater mark. As with the normal legions, the body of troops actually ready for service was much smaller. The ranks of the Praetorians were, in ascending order:
Miles regular soldier
Immunes After five years, these soldiers were allowed to serve in the Equite singulares (cavalry branch) or asSpeculatores (special agents).
Principales legionary administrators
Evocati after 16 years of service, retirement was possible but most soldiers chose to stay in this honorary unit.
Tribunes officers, also from the legions and usually of the Equestrian class, who commanded a cohort. Centurions could (rarely) be promoted to the tribuneship.
Procurators a rank of the Equestrians
Prefects available to Vigiles and urban cohorts; the highest rank of the Praetorian Guard.
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. It followed the same lines as those elsewhere. Equipment and armor were also the same, with one notable exception—specially decorated breastplates, excellent for parades and state functions. Thus, each Guardsman probably possessed two suits of armor, one for Roman duty and one for the field.
For what was expected of them, the Praetorians were given substantially higher pay. They were paid by a system known as sesquiplex stipendum, or by pay-and-a-half. Thus, while the legionaries might receive 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. 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 honorary evocati, while others reenlisted in the hopes of gaining promotion and possible high positions in the Roman state.
From: Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire, Revised Edition.