Praetorian Guard

The Praetorian Guard (Latin: Praetoriani) was a force of bodyguards used by Roman Emperors. They also served as secret police and participated in wars. The title was already used during the Roman Republic for the guards of Roman generals since the rise to prominence of the Scipio family around 275 BC. The Guard was dissolved by Emperor Constantine I in the 4th century. They were distinct from the Imperial Germanic bodyguard which provided close personal protection for the late Western Roman emperors.


The term praetorian derived from the residence of the commanding general or praetor of a Roman army in the fieldthe praetorium. They were an elite recruitment of Roman citizens and Latins. It was a habit of many Roman generals to choose from the ranks a private force of soldiers to act as guards of their tent or person, usually consisting of both infantry and cavalry. In time, this cohort came to be known as the cohors praetoria; 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 31 BC, he decided such a formation was useful not only on the battlefield but in politics also. Thus, from the ranks of legions throughout the provinces, Augustus recruited the Praetorian Guard.

Original form of the Guard

A Praetorian soldier from the 2nd century AD - retrieved in Pozzuoli (1800)

The group that was formed initially differed greatly from the later Guard, which came to be a vital force in the power politics of Rome. 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 consisting of 500 men. He then increased to 1,000 men each, but allowed three units to be 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 enhanced.

Through the machinations of their ambitious prefect, Lucius Aelius Sejanus, the Guard was brought from the Italian barracks into Rome itself. In 23 AD, Sejanus convinced Tiberius to have the Castra Praetoria (the fort of the Praetorians) built just outside Rome. One of the cohorts held the daily guard at the imperial palace switching roles in between patrols (most of the guard in the imperial palace had shifted roles from morning till evening). 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 AD 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.

Participation in wars

While campaigning, the Praetorians were the equal of any formation in the Roman army. On the death of Augustus in 14 AD, his successor, Tiberius, was faced with mutinies among both the Rhine and Pannonian legions. According to Tacitus, the Pannonian forces were dealt with by Tiberius' son Drusus, accompanied by two Praetorian cohorts, the Praetorian cavalry and some of the German bodyguard. The German mutiny was put down by Tiberius' nephew and adopted son Germanicus, his intended heir, who then led the legions and detachments of the Guard in an invasion of Germany over the next two years. The Guard saw much action in the Year of the Four Emperors in 69, fighting well for Otho at the first battle of Bedriacum. 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 during the Marcomannic Wars. Throughout the 3rd century, the Praetorians assisted the emperors in various campaigns.

Political role

Following the death of Sejanus, who was sacrificed for the donative (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, along with his wife and daughter. The Praetorians placed his uncle Claudius on the throne, daring the Senate to oppose their decision.

Proclaiming Claudius Emperor, by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, oil on canvas, 1867. According to one version of the story of Claudius' ascension to the role of Emperor, members of the Praetorian Guard found him hiding behind a curtain in the aftermath of the murder of Caligula in 41, and proclaimed him emperor.

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.[1]

While the Guard had the power to make or break 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 Guard 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, and easily defeated the Palmyrenes. This led to the orthodox view that Diocletian and his colleagues evolved the sacer comitatus (the field escort of the emperors). The sacer comitatus 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 Ioviani and Herculiani (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; Maxentius was defeated and died on the field. Later in Rome, the victorious Constantine definitively disbanded the remnants of the Praetorian Guard. The soldiers were sent out to various corners of the Empire, and the Castra Praetoria were dismantled. For over 300 years they had served the Emperors of Rome, and the destruction of their fortress was a grand gesture, inaugurating a new age of imperial history and ending that of the Praetorians.

Relationships between selected emperors and their Guard

Emperor Reign Relationship with the Guard
Augustus 16 January 27 BC – 19 August 14 AD Established the Praetorian Guard in 27 BC.[2]
Tiberius 18 September 14 – 16 March 37 Reduced the size of the guard and moved it from encampments outside of Rome to the Castra Praetoria.[3]
Caligula 18 March 37 – 24 January 41 Assassinated by the Guard.
Claudius 24 January 41 – 13 October 54 Declared Emperor by the Guard.
Nero 13 October 54 – 9 June 68 Eventually deserted by the Guard.[4]
Otho 15 January – 16 April 69 Overthrew Galba with the support of the Guard.
Vitellius 16 April – 22 December 69 Disbanded the existing Guard and appointed his own.
Vespasian 1 July 69 – 23 June 79 Reduced the size of the Guard after victory in 69.[5]
Titus 23 June 79 – 13 September 81 Served as Praetorian prefect prior to becoming Emperor.[6]
Domitian 14 September 81 – 18 September 96 Declared Emperor by the Guard following the death of Titus. Was later assassinated in a plot involving members of the Guard.
Pertinax 1 January – 28 March 193 Following the death of Commodus was declared Emperor by the Guard. Was subsequently killed by the Guard after refusing to pay them for their support.
Septimius Severus 14 April 193 – 4 February 211 Dismissed the entire Guard in 193 to replace it with men from his own Pannonian legions, e.g., the Legio XIV Gemina.
Maximinus Thrax 20 March 235 – 10 May 238 Following the assassination of Alexander Severus, the Guard acclaimed him emperor, and their choice was grudgingly confirmed by the Senate.[7]
Constantine the Great 25 July 306 AD – 22 May 337 Dissolved the Praetorian Guard for good after they had sided against him to fight alongside Maxentius' troops at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge.

Organization and conditions of service

Around the time of Augustus (c. 5) each cohort of the Praetorians numbered 1,000 men, increasing to 1,500 men at some time. 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.[8] Finally in 101 their number was increased once more to ten, resulting in a force of 10,000 troops, whose status was at least elite.

The Praetorians received substantially higher pay[9] 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 legionaries received 250 denarii, the guards received 375 per annum (year). Domitian and Septimius Severus increased the stipendum (payment) to 1,500 denarii per year, distributed in January, May and September.

Rank and file

The article Praetorian prefect lists the incumbents of the post of Praefectus praetorio and covers the essentially civilian second life of the office, since C.A. 300, as administrator of the territorial circumscriptions known as praetorian prefectures.

The Praetorian Guard's red festoon helmet is used in the official unit insignia of the U.S. Air Force Presidential Honor Guard.[10]

In 1998 US House Speaker Newt Gingrich, in relation to the secret service testifying to the independent prosecutor about Bill Clinton's involvement in the Lewinsky scandal, said: We do not have an emperor, We do not have a Praetorian Guard.[11]

The Praetorian Guard features in the 2000 film Gladiator and the TV-film Age of Treason (Columbia 1993).

The Praetorians are a regiment of the Imperial Guard in the tabletop game Warhammer 40,000. There are also Necron squads called 'Triarch Praetorians', which consist of elite warriors that are able to fly.

In the 2010 video game Fallout: New Vegas, one of the factions, Caesar's Legion, uses a praetorian guard that are hand-picked. They are invited to the guard when they have served long enough and killed enough of Caesar's enemies to become centurions. The selectees must pick out a current member whom they believe is the weakest and challenge him to an unarmed fight to the death. If the invitee wins, he takes over the loser's position.

In the 2005 video game Colosseum: Road to Freedom, one of the featured characters is Laetus, the Praetorian Prefect implicated in Commmodus' assassination.

The Praetorian Guard also features in the video game Ryse: Son of Rome, serving a fictionalized version of Nero.

The Guard's soldiers appear as infantry units in Civilization IV, Total War: Rome II, Rome:Total War and Travian.

Their title provides the name for the video game Praetorians.

In the video game series Mass Effect and its spin-off movie Mass Effect: Paragon Lost, the Praetorians are a powerful elite enemy unit serving the enemy faction "The Collectors".

In the 2012 video game Hitman: Absolution, the freelancing mercenaries tasked with protecting Benjamin Travis at the end of the game are part of a private protection detail known as "The Praetorians."

See also


  1. Bingham 1997, pp. 118122.
  2. Bunson (1994), 341
  3. Suetonius, The Lives of Twelve Caesars, Life of Tiberius 37
  4. Suetonius, Nero 47.12; Dio 63.26.2b.
  5. Bingham 1997, p. 122 and n. 13.
  6. Suetonius, The Lives of Twelve Caesars, Life of Titus 6
  7. Southern, pg. 64
  8. Bingham 1997, pp. 121122.
  9. "Roman Economy - Prices in Ancient Rome". Ancientcoins.bis. Retrieved 2007-06-13.
  10. "U.S. Air Force Honor Guard". U.S. Air Force Honor Guard.
  11. "Clinton Guards Begin Testimony in Starr Inquiry". New York Times.

References and further reading

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