The famed Praetorian Guards (or cohortes praetoriae) constitute a unique parcel of ancient Roman military history. In many ways, alluding to the proverbial scope of ‘too much power leads to corruption’, the Praetorians started out as a prestigious bodyguard unit loyal to the Roman general and leader. But over time, with the ever-changing landscape of Roman realpolitik, the Praetorian Guard morphed into an influential political power of its own that played various roles, ranging from secret police, frontline soldiers, court conspirators to downright king-slayers (and king-makers). Pertaining to the latter, there were possibly around twelve Roman Emperors who were assassinated or killed by the machinations of the guard.
However, at the same time, we must understand that a handful of these seemingly egregious actions were justified by the political mood of Rome itself. And also, while such political ploys overshadow the historical legacy of the Praetorian Guard, there is no doubt that the Praetorians were the elite of the Roman army (at least for some part of their existence) who played their crucial military roles in quite a few battles and campaigns. Taking all these factors into account, YouTuber Invicta has presented his short animated documentary on the Praetorian Guards, with the footage taken from Creative Assembly’s grand-strategy game Rome II.
While the video does a brilliant job of presenting a detailed overview of the Roman Praetorian Guards, here are some points we have decided to mention that would provide more insights into the military and political scope of these ancient Roman guard units. The following passages are excerpts taken from one of our previous articles – 14 Things You Should Know About The Roman Praetorian Guard.
1) The ‘Other’ Praetorians –
During the epoch nearing the end of his reign, Augustus created the Urban Cohorts (Cohortes Urbanae) probably from three existing cohorts of the Praetorian Guard. The move was widely seen as a counter-balance to the rising power of the Praetorian Guard in Rome itself, especially since these new cohorts were commanded by the Urban Prefect (Praefectus Urbi) – a senatorial rank that was above the rank of the Praetorian Prefect. However, while the Urban Cohorts were trained as a paramilitary force, their main duty was mostly limited to the streets of Rome. Simply put, they acted as variants of the heavy-duty police force, much akin to the specialized riot-polices of our modern times, who were tasked with controlling crowds and combating riots within the city – jobs that were often critical to maintaining order and political decorum in Rome.
In any case, after the death of Augustus, the Praetorian Guard actually took the field in numerous military encounters aimed at the mutinies in Germany. And while initially, they aided Augustus’ successor Tiberius and his sons, the former emperor’s fears were well founded, with the guard members (under the command of sole prefect Lucius Aelius Sejanus) playing their role in poisoning Drusus, the heir apparent to the throne after Tiberius. Sejanus even persuaded Tiberius to construct the Praetorian Camp (Castra Praetoria), in a bid to unify some of the scattered cohorts of the unit. And as Tiberius obliged, the Praetorian Guard adopted the emblem of Scorpio – Tiberius’ birth-sign, thus symbolizing their second founding as a military as well as a (latent) political force in Rome.
2) The Fortress –
More like a fortress than a camp, the Castra Praetoria (or Praetorian Camp) was constructed in 23 AD by Lucius Aelius Sejanus. Erected just outside the perimeters of Rome, the fort boasted solid masonry walls made of concrete with red-brick facing. It encompassed an area of over 17 hectares (1,440 ft × 1,250 ft) – thus being equivalent to more than 31 American football fields. And while based on just the area the fort could house around 4,000 troops, archaeologists have revealed the remnants of two-floored barrack structures and extra rooms arrayed around the inside of the walls. These combined spatial elements could have actually accounted for double or triple that number.
The 11.5-ft high solid walls of Castra Praetoria built under the patronage of Tiberius showcased their towers, ramparts and strategically placed gates. And by 3rd century AD, Emperor Caracalla increased the height of the walls (circa 238 AD), and they were further improved and reinforced with the addition of battlements by the engineering project of the Aurelian Walls (circa 271 AD) encompassing much of Rome. And finally, it was Emperor Maxentius who added a flurry of parapets to the massive fort walls (circa 310 AD), but the endeavor came to naught with Constantine being ultimately successful in taking Rome.
3) The ‘Impractical’ Toga –
Contrary to our popular notions about the Praetorian Guards, it is highly probable that the Praetorians were armored in a similar fashion to their less-favored legionary brethren. For example, the renowned Trajan’s column depicts both the Praetorians and the regular legionaries in the so-called Lorica Segmentata, while distinguishing the auxiliaries in Lorica Hamata (or chainmail). Other Roman reliefs, including the Trajanic and Cancellaria, also showcase the Praetorians being dressed in the standard Roman soldier panoply. Now, on the other hand, the Louvre relief does depict two figures wearing the stylized muscled cuirass. But both of them are hypothesized to be the portrayals of high-ranking officers, with one of them possibly representing the Praetorian Prefect himself.
Interestingly enough, beyond campaigning, when it came to actual guarding duties, many of the Praetorians did wear their distinctive clothing, especially the civilian toga. And while the formal toga may seem like a counter-intuitive military dress to be worn when protecting high-value targets like imperial palaces, the idea behind donning a civilian clothing emerged from its inconspicuous nature. To that end, by the decree of Augustus, the Praetorians couldn’t offend and alienate the ordinary inhabitants of Rome with their intricate armor. Hence they endorsed the use of formal toga, which didn’t make them stand out from the throng, and at the same time symbolized their Roman citizenship. It should also be noted that the Praetorian Guard occasionally flaunted their special standards with attached imperial portraits (imagines).
4) The Quandary of the Attic Helmet –
The popular image of an ancient Roman military officer is often accompanied by presentations of the stylized Attic helmet. Unfortunately, both archaeological pieces of evidence (or lack thereof) and private relief works tend to dismiss the practicality of such Attic helmets. This certainly alludes to the hypothesis that the Attic helmet depiction was mostly used as an artistic nod to Greek heritage in Roman circles (when it came to commemorative columns). In that regard, both ordinary Roman legionaries and the Praetorians probably wore simpler helmets (like the Montefortino-style) in actual battle scenarios, at least during the early part of the Roman Empire. This, in turn, relegates the possible use of Attic helmets in ceremonial parades.
And like we mentioned in the earlier entry, the same ambit mirrored the shields and tunics worn by the Praetorian Guard. Simply put, there was no dedicated shield design or clothing apparel made specifically for the serving Praetorians. Like their regular legionary brethren, the guards made use of both the renowned scutum and the oval shield, with the latter possibly being more ‘fashionable’ for the Praetorians during the late period of the Roman Empire.
5) Beyond Praetorian Guards –
Given the vast and varied scope of the ancient Roman military forces, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Emperors fostered the creation of elite units other than just the Praetorian Guards. One of the primary examples from the beginning of the Roman Empire (and even the end of Roman Republic) would pertain to the Germani Corporis Custodes. As the name suggests, these men were drawn from Germania, especially from the Batavian and Ubii tribes residing in Lower Rhine. Other similar troops were possibly also recruited from Gaul. Now as for their organization, instead of being inducted into the main Roman army, the Germani Corporis Custodes acted as a private paramilitary force of-sorts, who were directly loyal to the Emperor and his close generals (without much political affiliation) – thus mirroring the Varangian Guards of the later Eastern Roman Empire. And while they did have their own military command structure with appropriate officers, induction into the elite unit automatically didn’t guarantee Roman citizenship.
And while they did have their own military command structure with appropriate officers, induction into the elite unit automatically didn’t guarantee Roman citizenship. Quite incredibly, they were employed as infantry during their guarding duties (alongside the Praetorians), but they mostly took the role of heavy cavalrymen in battle scenarios. And it has been suggested that the Roman preference for German guards was possibly influenced by their imposing stature and gnarly beards that could have frightened potential assassins.
Early 2nd century AD also brought forth another elite unit in the form of the Equites Singulares Augusti (Imperial Horse Guard), possibly founded by Emperor Trajan (from his German troops) – in a bid to intimidate the Praetorians themselves. These cavalrymen were specially selected from the auxiliary forces of the provinces, and their recruitment also replicated the singulares bodyguard units of provincial governors. As for their organization and equipment, the Equites Singulares Augustiwere divided into the conventional Roman cavalry units (ala) who were armored in a similar fashion like their regular counterparts.
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