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Encyclopedia > Praetorian guards

The Praetorian Guard (sometimes Prætorian 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 legate 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, Marcus Antonius and Augustus Caesar (Octavianus). As Caesar discovered with the Legio X Gemina, 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, 14 A.D., 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 A.D. Sejanus convinced Tiberius to have the Castra Praetoria (the camp of the Pratorians) 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 A.D. 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 A.D. 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 A.D., 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 A.D. 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 A.D. 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 A.D., 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 A.D. 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 lead 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 A.D. 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. A new corps, 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 on May 1, 305 A.D., the Castra Praetoria seems to have housed only a minor garrison of Rome.

The final act of the Praetorians in imperial history started in 306 A.D., 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 Augustus 27 BC - 14 A.D. created the Praetorian Guard
Tiberius 14 - 37 A.D. allowed Sejanus to gain power as the Guard's prefect
Caligula 37 - 41 A.D murdered by the Guard
Claudius 41 - 54 A.D. proclaimed emperor by the Guard
Nero 54 - 68 A.D. deserted by the Guard
Galba 68 - 69 A.D murdered by the Guard
Otho 69 A.D elevated by the Guard
Vitellius 69 A.D. deposed by the Guard then killed
Vespasian 69 - 79 A.D. reduced the size of the Guard after victory in 69 A.D.
Titus 79 - 81
Domitian 81 - 96 election supported by the Guard
Nerva 96 - 98 besieged by the Guard
Trajan 98 - 117
Hadrian 117 - 138
Antoninus Pius 138 - 161
Marcus Aurelius 161 - 180
Lucius Verus 161 - 169
Commodus 180 - 192
Pertinax 193
Didius Julianus 193
Septimius Severus 193 - 211 disbanded the Guard
Caracalla 211 - 217
Macrinus 217 - 218
Elagabalus 218 - 222
Alexander Severus 222 - 235 elevated by the Guard
Maximinus Thrax 235 - 238
Gordian I 238
Gordian II 238
Balbinus 238
Pupienus 238
Gordian III 238 - 244
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
Marcus Claudius Tacitus 275-276
Florianus 276
Probus 276 - 282
Carus 282-283
Carinus 283-285
Numerian 283-284
Diocletian 284 - 305
Maximian 286 - 305, 307 - 308
Galerius 305-311
Constantius Chlorus 305-306
Flavius Valerius Severus 306-307
Maxentius 306-312
Constantine the Great 306-337
Licinius 307-324
Maximinus 308-314

Organization and Conditions of Service

Although the Praetorians have similarities, they are unlike any of the other Legions of the Roman Empire. Its 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 German 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 A.D.) 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 A.D. In 69 it was briefly increased to sixteen cohorts by Vitellius, but Vespasian quickly reduced it again to nine. Finally in 101 A.D. 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 amounts of pay than other Roman soldiers in any of the legions. They were paid 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.

Prefect of the Praetorian Guard

The special position of the Praetorians made them become a power in their own right in the Roman state, and their prefect, praefectus praetorio, soon became one of the more powerful men in this society. The emperors tried to flatter and control the praetorians, but they staged many coup d'états and contributed to a rapid rate of turnover in the imperial succession. The praetorians thus came to destabilize the Roman state, contrary to their purpose.


Ranks of the Praetorian Guard, in ascending order
Miles regular soldier
Immunes After five years these soldiers were allowed to serve in the Equite 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.
Centurions soldiers transferred to the Praetorian Guard after service in the legions, the Vigiles or the Urban cohort
Tribunes These officers also from the legions and usually of the Equestrian class, commanded a cohort. Centurions could rarely be promoted to the Tribuneship
Procurators A rank of the Equestrians
Prefects available to the Vigiles and urban cohorts; the highest rank in the Praetorian Guard, head of the Praetorian Guard


Prefects of the Praetorian Guard 2 B.C. - 312 A.D.
Emperor Served
Publius Aper
Quintus Ostoriius Scapula
Valerius Ligur
Lucius Strabo
Augustus, Tiberius
Lucius Aelius Sejanus
Quintus Sutorius Macro
Tiberius, Caligula
M. Arrencinus Clemens
Rufrius Pollio
Cantonius Justus
Rufius Crispinus
Lusius Geta
Sextus Afranius Burrus
Claudius, Nero
Faenius Rufus
Gaius Ophonius Tigellinus
Nymphidius Sabinus
Cornelius Laco
Plotius Firmus
Licinius Proculus
Publius Sabinus
Junius Priscus
Tiberius Julius Alexander
Arrius Varus
Arrecinus Clemens
Cornelius Fuscus
Casperius Aelianus
Norbanus Domitian
Petronius Secundus Domitian
Casperius Aelianus Nerva
Suburanus Trajan
Claudius Livianus Trajan
S. Sulpicius Similis Trajan
C. Septicius Clarus Hadrian
Marcius Turbo Hadrian
Gaius Maximus
Hadrian, Antoninus Pius
Tattius Maximus
Antoninus Pius
Fabius Cornelius
Antoninus Pius
Furius Victorinus
Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius
Macrinus Vindex
Marcus Aurelius
Bassaeus Rufus
Marcus Aurelius
Tarutenius Paternus
Marcus Aurelius, Commodus
Tigidius Perennis
Lucius Julianus
Aemilius Laetus
Commodus, Pertinax, Didius Julianus
Flavius Genialis
Didius Julianus
Tullius Crispinus
Didius Julianus
Veterius Macrinus
Septimius Severus
G. Fulvius Plautianus
Septimius Severus
Septimius Severus, Caracalla
Marcus Opellius Macrinus
Ulpius Julianus
Julianus Nestor
Valerius Comazon Eutychchianus
Severus Alexander
Iulius Paulus
Severus Alexander
P. Aelius Vitalianus
Philip the Arab
Gordian III
Gaius Julius Priscus
Aurelius Heraclianus
Carus, Carinus, Numerian
Numerian, Diocletian
Constantinus Chlorus
Rufius Volusianus
Publius Cornelius Anullinus

Modern usage of the term

In common language, the phrase "praetorian guards" designates an exclusive group attached to powerful people, such as Adolf Hitler's SS troops. However, the term is used in non-military contexts: for example, a corporate officer or politician (such as Richard M. Nixon) 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 the followers are fanatics or extremists or the person is tyrannical or paranoid.

External link

  • The Praetorian prefecture under the Julio-Claudians – path to power or dead-end job? (http://www.jerryfielden.com/essays/praetorians.htm)

  Results from FactBites:
Britain.tv Wikipedia - Praetorian Guard (2464 words)
The members of the Praetorian Guard were among the most skilled and celebrated warriors in ancient history.
The Praetorian Guard were the only body of armed soldiers permitted south of the Rubicon, a river which marked the northern boundary of Italy.
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.
Praetorian Guard (358 words)
The Praetorian Guard (sometimes Prætorian Guard) (in Latin: praetoriani) was a special force of bodyguards used by Roman emperors.
Tiberius moved all the praetorian cohorts (by then 10) into armed barracks outside Rome, one of these holding the daily guard at the royal palace.
In common language, "praetorian guards" is a name for an exclusive group of attached to powerful people, such as Adolf Hitler's SS troops.
  More results at FactBites »



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