There’s something particularly sinister about the betrayal that occurs when guards turn on their master. At the risk of sounding glib, it’s clear that the question of “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes” fascinates us just as much as it did Juvenal’s generation. It’s not surprising then that the Praetorian Guard (and indeed the term ‘Praetorian’ itself, which has entered our modern political lexicon) has become a popular culture icon, the perfect ‘baddies’ in historical fiction and the inspiration for any number of science fiction and fantasy knock-offs. I doubt there will ever be ever be a time when we’ve heard enough about the Praetorian Guard and accordingly this welcome volume will no doubt find a large audience.
First, it’s important to recognise that Praetorian: The Rise and Fall of Rome’s Imperial Bodyguard is not a work written solely with researchers in mind. This is not the long awaited replacement for Marcel Durry’s Les cohortes prétoriennes, or for that matter Alfredo Passerini’s Le Coorti Pretorie, which remain the standard monographs on the topic despite being written over 75 years ago.1 Instead de la Bédoyère, who has forged a career bringing history to life for a wide audience through regular television appearances and penning a series of readable popular histories (particularly on life in Roman Britain), has produced a thoughtful work designed to appeal to readers with only a casual interest in Roman political and military history but well-researched enough to entice those with a background in the field.
De la Bédoyère takes a chronological approach to his subject that not only details the development of the Praetorian Guard but which carefully places the institution within the broader context of Roman political history. A short introduction (p 1-12) uses the infamous ‘auction of empire’ to explain just how the Praetorian Guard has captured the popular imagination before moving on to note that ‘Praetorian Guard’ is itself a modern concept, and indeed a loaded one, given the range of duties the cohortes praetoriae undertook during their long tenure at the heart of imperial political life. De la Bédoyère is also careful to presage the problems we face with uncertain evidence for some of the most basic facts about the guard and its activities. It is a theme he returns to throughout his work.
Chapter 1 traces the antecedents of the imperial Praetorians in the Republican period, beginning with the cohors praetoria of Scipio Africanus and ending in the tumultuous civil conflict that saw the likes of Caesar, Pompey, Augustus and Mark Antony employ ad hoc bodyguard formations. Chapter Two looks at the birth of a permanent Praetorian Guard under Augustus, which in many ways reflected his regime. Although he had created a privileged (and in some respects ‘elite’) body of troops that in many ways symbolized his unique powers, he was careful to protect his own position by placing them under equestrian control and even more importantly not to flaunt the military basis of his power by consolidating his entire guard at Rome (p 39ff). For Augustus the veneer of constitutionality he cultivated extended to his Praetorians. Chapters Three to Five form the heart of the book. Here de la Bédoyère traces the development of the Praetorian Guard under the Julio-Claudian dynasty and their role in the confused civil wars of AD 69. It was during this period that the Guard gained a reputation as imperial powerbrokers. Under Tiberius they were concentrated in the castra praetoria within the city of Rome and the infamous Lucius Aelius Sejanus demonstrated just how powerful the guard and its prefect(s) could be in the face of a pliant or weak emperor.2 Whether or not Suetonius’ overblown account of Claudius being pulled from behind a curtain is correct (de la Bédoyère, p 107-109, is rightly sceptical), his rise saw the Praetorians play an activist role in imperial accession for the first time. With Nero the Praetorians proved they could be just as effective in helping to dispatch an emperor by withdrawing their support. De la Bédoyère notes that the Praetorian’s ability to survive the fall Julio-Claudian dynasty was significant and proved that they exercised power independent of the regime. This was most probably due to their unique geographic proximity to the seat of imperial power. Particularly interesting here is the decision of both Vitellius and Vespasian to keep the institution but replace the Praetorian troops loyal to their predecessors (p 160 ff).
In Chapters 7 and 8, de la Bédoyère shows the Praetorians settling in as a permanent force on the political landscape, and the generally successful efforts of the Flavian and Antonine emperors to mute their self-interest and independence from the ruling regime. With Chapter 9 de la Bédoyère charts the return to an ‘activist guard’, using the ‘auction of empire’ to stress his theme that the guard were at their most dangerous in power vacuums and under weak leadership. He does, however, remind unwary readers that our main sources for the episode – Herodian and Dio—present a “stereotyped derelict and incompetent guard” to suit their political narrative regarding the state of the empire under Commodus and Didius Julianus (p 219). Despite the unparalleled nature of this event Septimius Severus quickly tamed the Guard and like Vitellius and Vespasian kept the institution, but stocked it with loyal troops from his Danubian legions. Unfortunately this shrewd move was all for naught in the face of the intra-Severan conflict between his sons which led to the first equestrian emperor – the Praetorian Prefect Macrinus.
The final chapter deals with the relatively obscure role of the Praetorian Guard during the third century crisis and their final destruction at the hands of Constantine, who unlike his predecessors, decided to abolish the institution rather than remould it after the Praetorians chose the wrong side in his conflict with Maxentius. De la Bédoyère ends his work with a short epilogue and as series of useful Appendices outlining key historical dates, schematics of pay rates and the guard’s evolving structure, known Praetorian prefects, and for readers new to Roman history, a glossary of Latin military terminology (p 283-289).
The greatest strength of this book is de la Bédoyère’s uncanny ability to maintain a lucid and fast-paced writing style without sacrificing historical rigour. He is careful to utilise the available epigraphic and numismatic material where necessary to supplement our uneven literary record. In particular he uses the former to good effect in exploring career paths for individual guardsmen as well as the many different ways they were employed by the emperor, including roles as diverse as plumbarius and mensor agrarius.
As for the literary sources, de la Bédoyère is admirably cautious. Not only is he ready to address omissions, biases and outright falsehoods as they relate to the ‘marquee controversies’ in the history of the Praetorian Guard (such as the ambitions of Sejanus, the accession of Claudius and the ‘auction of empire’) he also takes the time to tackle more mundane questions. For example, de la Bédoyère takes on the thorny issue of the size and structure of the Praetorian Guard under Augustus (p 28-32), in particular the contradictions that occur between the evidence found in Dio and Tacitus.
There are a few occasions, however, where de la Bédoyère could have gone beyond accepting the evidence on face value. From my own area of interest, the third century crisis, I note his claim without explanation that the Praetorian Guard joined Legio II Parthica in their revolt against Maximinus Thrax, when in fact our source for this episode, Herodian, only uses the generic doryphoroi to describe these troops. Likewise, de la Bédoyère simply assumes that Zosimus is referring to the Praetorian Guard when he lists a unit called “the emperor’s men” as part the expeditionary force led by Aurelian on his Palmyrean campaign.3
Obviously, a volume of this nature cannot cover every issue related to the Praetorian Guard and de la Bédoyère specifically notes that some issues, such as the arms and armour of the Guard, fall outside the scope of his endeavours (p 4-5). Given this, the only omission I would point to is the limited discussion of the competing political roles of the Praetorian Guard and the Germani Corpores Custodes/Equites Singulares Augusti. This is particularly noticeable in his treatment of Caligula’s reign and assassination (p 97-107), as that emperor had used his Germani Corpores Custodes as a deliberate counterweight to the Praetorians. Likewise, more detailed discussion of the tensions between the three arms of the Severan bodyguard establishment would have been welcome.4
Nonetheless, it is clear that de la Bédoyère has made an extremely valuable contribution to the study of the Praetorian Guard. While this volume will be of most interest to undergraduates and casual readers, it also offers much to those intimately familiar with this crucial, yet in many ways baffling, institution.
1. Durry, M. (1938) Les cohortes prétoriennes. (Bibliothèque des écoles françaises d' Athènes et de Rome, fasc. 146.) Paris: E. de Boccard. Passerini, L. (1939) Le Coorti Pretorie, Rome. There have been remarkably few English language monographs on the Praetorian Guard. Rankov, B. (1994) The Praetorian Guard, Osprey, focuses mainly on the organization and weaponry of the guard. More recently Bingham, S. (2013) The Praetorian Guard: A History of Rome’s Special Elite Forces, Baylor University Press, offers a short and succinct overview of the Guard’s history, organisation and the range of duties they undertook.
2. De la Bédoyère does note, however, that a close reading of Tacitus suggests the entire guard may have already been scattered throughout Rome before AD 2.
3. Maximinus Thrax: Herodian 8.5.9. Aurelian: Zosimus 1.52.4 – uses the generic term “oi basilikoi”.
4. The three arms of what can be termed the ‘Severan bodyguard establishment’ were the Praetorian Guard, the Equites Singulares Augusti and Legio II Parthica. For more information see Cowan, R.H. (2002) Aspects of the Severan field army: the Praetorian Guard, Legio II Parthica and legionary vexillations, A.D. 193-238 (Unpublished Thesis).