Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.09.66 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.09.66

Sandra Bingham, The Praetorian Guard: A History of Rome's Elite Special Forces.   Waco, TX:  Baylor University Press, 2013.  Pp. xi, 240; 16 p. of plates.  ISBN 9781602586499.  $29.95.  


Reviewed by Conor Whately, University of Winnipeg (c.whately@uwinnipeg.ca)

[The Table of contents is listed at the end of the review.]

This book is a history of the praetorian guard during the principate; it is divided into five chapters including the introduction and the conclusion. Bingham’s thesis is that the guard should be seen as more than simply the emperor’s bodyguard: it should also be seen as a symbol of the emperor’s power, and the military basis of his rule. There is a detailed appendix, and endnotes rather than footnotes, presumably part of an attempt to increase its appeal to a general audience. On that note, it is the subtitle of this book, including not just “A History of Rome”, but “Elite Special Forces”, that is most likely to make it attractive to a general audience. For this conjures up images of SAS soldiers, or soldiers of the JTF2, decked in black with night vision goggles, guns cocked, ready to storm a building and free some hostages. In fact, Bingham herself says in the very first note of the book that “‘Elite’ here is defined not in the sense of a specialized force (as, say, the SAS) so much as an indication of status” (p. 125, n. 1). Although this might disappoint those general readers (and, however slightly, this academic one), a little fortitude will reward, for the book is well written, engaging, and persuasive, even if Bingham’s caution can be both satisfying and frustrating.

In the introduction, Bingham sets out the difficulties posed by our literary sources (pp. 4-5). With regard to the second (and early third) century AD, for example, Dio is fragmentary; the Historia Augusta is often unreliable; and Herodian, like many historians before and after, is usually uninterested in the specifics we modern historians like. To make matters worse, the numismatic evidence is limited in quantity, the material evidence is far from conclusive (cf. pp. 69-75), and the epigraphic evidence has less detail about careers and day-to-day activities than we might like (p. 5). For all the problems with the ancient sources there are almost as many problems with the modern accounts, or so Bingham. She sets out, then, to make sense of this complicated evidence and right the wrongs of past and present modern treatments, particularly in English.1

Chapter two provides the historical overview of the guard, from the republic to Diocletian, and there are a number of highlights. Bingham argues that the guard was always “intended for the emperor’s personal use” (p. 15). She suggests that their later activities, from fire fighting to policing, may have originated under Augustus (p. 18), though it was during the period from Tiberius to Nero that the guard became the force that we find in most general treatments (p. 21). One of the most famous events of the Julio-Claudian era is the assassination of Caligula and the accession of Claudius. The most entertaining version has it that a member of the guard, post assassination, found Claudius cowering in the palace, saluted him as emperor, and subsequently dragged him along to the camp for acclamation (p. 26). Bingham discounts this and another version (the praetorians met and chose Claudius). Instead, she argues that both the prefect, Clemens, and Claudius himself had a part, with the later appearance of Claudius on coins with imagery of the guard and the 100 sesterces gift per man on the anniversary of his accession as proof of the emperor’s role (p. 27). When Trajan came to power in AD 98 the usual assumption is that he had the prefect Aelianus and his men killed (pp. 39-40). As Bingham notes, however, Cassius Dio, at least in the epitome we have, does not specify murder (68.5.4): “He sent for Aelianus and the Praetorians..and…put them out of the way.”2 Rather, Aelianus was probably simply dismissed from his post and sent away. This reaction should be connected to the positive relationship, “one of mutual respect” (p. 40) as Bingham calls it, between Trajan and the guard. Finally, one of the most famous historical episodes took place between the assassination of Commodus and the accession of Septimius Severus: the auctioning of the empire to Didius Julianus. She concludes that the story in that guise is a myth, and rather it was the relationship between Sulpicianus and Pertinax that was the deciding factor in Julianus’ acclamation and not the amount of money on offer (pp. 44-45).

In the next chapter Bingham turns to the guard’s organization. She discusses the number of praetorians, both with respect to the number of cohorts and the number per cohort. As regards the total per cohort, debate has raged between a quingenary (500) effective and a milliary (1,000) one; she settles on 1,000 (p. 55). The details of service and its commanders are covered. She also touches on their career path, noting that most of our epigraphic evidence is second century, which makes it difficult to discern the nature of first century career paths (p. 65). Pay and donatives, the location of their camp (Castra Praetoria in Rome), and their equipment and uniform all receive due attention. One of the problematic points is trying to determine what they wore and when. The images on Trajan’s Column are not particularly helpful: is a particular soldier a legionary, an auxiliary, or praetorian (p. 77)? She argues that we can really only identify them as praetorians on the column when their lion-skin headdress-wearing standard bearers accompanied them. Bingham also discounts suggestions that the praetorians wore togas in Rome. As she notes, the comments of Tacitus (Ann. 16.271) usually adduced to make such claims are anything but indicative of their wearing of togas in this context (p. 78).

The penultimate chapter deals with the praetorian guard’s duties. The topics include their service as imperial bodyguards, their role in the securing of the state, their policing of events, and their occasional fighting of fires. The protection of the emperor and the securing of the state seem to be one and the same. Nevertheless, in her discussion of the latter Bingham delves into, among other things, the actions of the speculatores (p. 89-92). She also explores the emperors’ use of the guard to intimidate potential threats to his person and the state, such as Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso in AD 20; quite often, men like Piso were coerced into suicide (p. 92-95). In other instances, outright executions were in order, at least from the perspective of the emperors themselves: for example, Nero had Rubellius Plautus executed for alerting the emperor to the changes looming as a result of the appearance of a comet (p. 96). With regard to the last section, the fighting of fires, the discussion is wide-ranging, moving as it does from an overview of the vigiles to Sejanus and his removal. We are, then, to assume that these fires are both literal and figurative.

The conclusion provides an excellent summary of the main themes and topics discussed in the book. In a pinch, it could be read with considerable profit for the harried reader looking for a concise overview.

One of the author’s great strengths is the caution with which she usually approaches the evidence. She often shies away from fanciful theories, even though the apparent abundance of praetorian conspiracies – Didius Julianus and the auctioning of the empire for example – would seem to warrant some wild and exciting historical reconstructions. For instance, at the end of her discussion of the Castra Praetoria Bingham notes the tendency of some to associate the size of the camp with the total number of soldiers per cohort. The incomplete state of excavations – the northern areas are little known – complicates our picture considerably, and she reminds us, as a result, that the material record is anything but decisive in this matter (p. 75). There are exceptions: in her discussion of praetorian participation in the wars of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius Bingham claims that by the end of the second century the guard had become accustomed to fighting in the field. The evidence adduced (p. 41; p. 152, n. 216) for this claim, however, is a couple of inscriptions (ILS 8846, ILS 9002).

On the other hand, despite the problematic nature of our evidence in many cases, further discussion would have enriched this important book. A noteworthy example is the aforementioned combat role of the praetorians. On pages 41-42 Bingham describes their participation in Trajan’s Dacian wars.3 She says that there are scenes on the column of Trajan where we can spot their involvement in battle. Here she has in mind those places where they are depicted with their standards following the emperor to war. Bingham does not, however, take the discussion further, even though a question springs to mind: is their presence really evidence of Trajan’s personal role in the conflict, or is it indicative of his need for additional crack troops? The other conflicts noted in her discussion are the Parthian and Marcomannic of Marcus Aurelius, and he (and Lucius Verus) like Trajan fought at the front, so possibly suggesting that the guard’s presence in these wars had more to do with the safety of the emperor rather than their combat utility. Yet, one of the principal thrusts of the book is summed up in the following statement: “The use of the praetorians as a specialized military force was an extension of its role to ensure the safety of the emperor and, in connection with that duty, to provide assistance when required for the security of the state. The assignments were varied, but the guard often was sent only when previous attempts to find other solutions to a serious problem had failed” (p. 119). If this is the case with respect to the Dacians, it has important implications not only for our understanding of the severity of the conflict, 4 but also the bias of the sources towards Domitian: the Dacians were such fearsome opponents that Trajan had to bring along the praetorians to ensure success. Domitian, then, should not be chastised for his apparent struggles in the 80s. In the end, that her discussion has brought to mind these issues is another of the book’s strengths.

All in all, Bingham has written what will be the standard book in English on the subject in a style that should endear it to a wider audience. Although at times the author is overly cautious, her caution is usually necessitated by the nature of the evidence, and it quite often pays dividends. Finally, the book poses some questions that will be of interest for those whose own research focuses on areas outside of traditional Roman military history.5

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations 

Preface 

1. Introduction

2. History

3. Organization 

4. Duties 

5. Conclusion 

Notes 

Bibliography 

Index

Notes:


1.   We lack recent, full-length treatments in English. Cf. R. Cowan, 2002, Aspects of the Severan Field Army: The Praetorian Guard, Legio II Parthica, and Legionary Vexillations AD 193-238, University of Glasgow, unpublished PhD dissertation; S. Ottley, 2009, The Role Played by the Praetorian Guard in the Events of AD 69 as Described by Tacitus in his Historiae, University of Western Australia, unpublished PhD dissertation; M. Jallet-Huant, 2009, La Garde Prétorienne dans la Rome Antique, Paris.
2.   trans. Cary (LCL).
3.   Despite the problems with the quantity and quality of evidence for Trajan’s Dacian wars, more could have been said. Note, for example, A.S. Stefan, 2005, Les guerres daciques de Domitien et de Trajan: Architecture militaire, topographie, images et histoire, Rome, which is missing from the bibliography.
4.   cf. E.L. Wheeler, 2010, “Rome’s Dacian Wars: Domitian, Trajan, and Strategy on the Danube, Part 1”, JMH 74, 1185-1227; idem, 2011, “Rome’s Dacian Wars: Domitian, Trajan, and Strategy on the Danube, Part II”, JMH 75, 191-219.
5.   I only noticed two mistakes: on page 24 it should read “in January”, not “in the January”; on page 88 a “to” is missing between the words “unwilling tolerate”. Additionally, there are a number of instances (three on pp. 16-17) where Bingham simply refers the reader ahead to a chapter rather than specific pages (so, “see Chapter X”). Precise page numbers would have helped.

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